Mr. Updike, Meet Miss Austen

If you are a student of literature, I recommend reading back to back John Updike’s Rabbit Tetralogy and Jane Austen’s novels, as I have by chance, because the contrast between them yielded interesting insights.

Updike’s Rabbit series is the ripe product of the past century—spanning its entire second half. Much has been said of Updike’s style that renders it justice, albeit in too many words—which is why I am not quoting any of it here. For the uninitiated, suffice it to say that Updike is the unsurpassed master of effaced narration, whose ample resources he exploits fully and to whose strict limits he keeps to the end. The effect on his prose is that of gritty but marvelously eloquent realism. His style is like a counterfeit note indistinguishable from the genuine in that it fabricates a structure as complex and as palpable as that of reality.

It is by a curious twist that in the 20th century, all the while visual art severed its links to physical reality and became more and more abstract, the Western novel reached a degree of naturalism and explicitness unparalleled in the past. Reality began to be captured with increasing, almost manic, precision. Shapes, colors, smells, sounds, textures, moods, minute physical characteristics, even bodily functions—every blade of grass, as it were—would now get cherished in their own right and exposed to the reader.

This recent course taken by Western literature, so much at variance with that on which the rest of Western art has embarked, perhaps owes something to the dawn of cinema: indeed, the camerawork that meticulously shines light on every detail of a staged scene and the characters that inhabit it bears a parallel to the modern literary style, which elucidates accidental details and treats inconsequential actions. But this cannot be the origin of the trend, for even, say, The Age of Innocence, written before the influence of film, already features too much detail and too little plot.

The interest modern intellectual writers take in the middle class, their partiality for ordinary people caught in ordinary moments, and the existentialist currents in which most of them are steeped, they all prejudice against plot and toward excessive detail. Yet none of these sensibilities had taken root in the intellectual and literary circles of Europe and America before World War II.

Perhaps, then, the new style dates as far back as Henry James, who might be called its first prophet, because the effaced narration he so ardently championed cannot lead but to extreme naturalism. And all those other factors—film, culture, philosophy—played auxiliary roles. What does narration, when so thoroughly effaced, do to prose in the long run?

Well, it relieves the narrator of his main responsibility, that of being judicious and selective. The author fears that jumping a few steps in the story for the sake of the plot or exercising his discretion in what to include, what to condense, or what to omit would draw attention to himself as narrator, which is taboo. He thus suppresses his activity within his narration and merely serves as a neutral camera filming the cluttered inner world of his characters and the immense reality outside them, exactly as they would perceive it in real time if they were real people.

Every activity, no matter how trifling, deserves attention now, because to cut out anything from the story would be to assert oneself as narrator. That’s one important reason, besides the extinction of prudishness from modern society, why love-making scenes are now sport in literature and not even the most explicit detail is blinked at. If it happens, then it can and probably should be told. This extreme neutrality is also the enemy of plot, for purposeful action and the clash of opposing wills—the traditional heart and soul of literature—end up diluted among those many tangential actions, hesitations, and observations, to which, because they are commonplace in life, effaced narration feels it must do justice.

In the end, the enterprise of fabricating the most realistic life, world, and set of characters possible is so seductive, so rewarding, and so much in agreement with effaced narration that it becomes an end in itself. Verisimilitude of human existence is the new goal of literature. And the more exhibitionistic a literary style, the better equipped it is to achieve it. When the author conjures up, with uncanny exactitude, specific images in the mind’s eye of the reader—the particular hues mixed in a sunset, the smell of evergreen around a cabin, the texture of a lover’s skin—he is flexing his muscles. Reality gets distilled through the five senses, in surgically precise prose.

Updike does this superbly. He makes you live under Harry Armstrong’s skin. This vicarious experience is the essence of Rabbit. It’s what makes it work. Not surprisingly, it only lasts while you are reading it. When you are done, the aftertaste is mild and fades fast. You remember how good it was, how true to life, how skillful at making you see, hear, and feel, what you should. But in the end, none of what you saw or heard or felt made any lasting impression. The vicarious experience, though uncannily rendered, does not enrich our inner life. In the end, this Harry Angstrom, whom we’ve got to know so intimately, is not worth our acquaintance. Neither is anyone around him. Perfectly as they might be cast, these characters and their interactions signify but very little. And our imagination feels manhandled, used, with nothing to show for the trouble.

After Rabbit, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice or Persuasion will feel like a breath of fresh air. All her novels are written in third-person omniscient. Indeed, no narrator as effaced as the modern novelist could muster that most famous opening sentence in English literature: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” What first struck me in reading Austen after Updike was the sparseness of her descriptions, both of characters and of scenes. It’s the economy of conviction. Masterful at dialogue, Austen nonetheless collapses it into indirect speech when it doesn’t advance the plot or when it is not dramatic. She never indulges in descriptive detail for its own sake. Of Eliza Bennet, we only know that she is of middling height and has dark eyes. Of Mr. Darcy, that he is a tall gentleman, handsome, with a noble air. About the scenes where the plot unfolds we are given very little detail. Permberly is a magnificent estate—a large, stone-built house, furnished tastefully—situated opposite a valley, in the middle of the woods, by a running stream. That’s almost all we are told. But it sticks.

Austen narrates. She is interested in telling a story. Not in providing a voyeuristic peep into the inner life of her characters. Most interesting, I “see” her scenes and characters no less vividly than Updike’s. She sketches the outline and my imagination fills in the rest. In the upshot, the prose is light and nimble. And the reader finds in it room to breathe. His emotional resources are not wasted in attending to minute specifications as to the hair color of Charlotte Lucas or the crookedness of Mr. Collins’s teeth. Austen reminds us that the purpose of a novel is not being John Malkovich, or Rabbit Angstrom. It’s to tell a good story. When authors forget that, they get lost in the weeds. To quote from Elizabeth Bowen’s brilliant essay, “Notes on Writing a Novel”:

Plot is story. It is also “a story” in the nursery sense = lie. The novel lies, in saying that something happened that did not. It must, therefore, contain uncontradictable truth, to warrant the original lie.
The modern novel has little to redeem its lies but the skill with which it tells them. These lies are not told for the sake of establishing a higher poetic truth. Rather, they want to pass themselves for truth. I cannot but think of Mariah Carey’s over-singing—her voice, with its challenging and melodious twists and turns, as it calls attention to its own beauty while executing a mundane, unmoving song. And that’s why the modern novel is bankrupt, and why no book like The Three Musketeers will ever be written again. Or any epic, for that matter. Tolkien was the last of the storytellers. The language of narration has been lost. Sympathy for heroes and fascination by villains no longer stir the imagination of modern writers. Evoking existential angst is all they aspire at. I don’t know whether the narrative heritage can ever live again. But any efforts to revive it must be grounded in the reading of pre-20th-century Western literature not in childhood or adolescence, or at least not only then, but well into adulthood, so as to combat our acquired taste for beautiful garbage.

Future Politician in the Making

Jonah LevineI saw him for the first time sitting on a couch at the SLC cramming away on his laptop, as I was lining for RideSafe. I noticed the Business Stats book in his pile of junk, and I realized he was working on the assignment that was due that night for ECON 221, a distance education course I am also taking. As the line started moving when the RideSafe guy showed up, I got to get closer, and I figured this guy was really screwed; it was about 10 pm, he only had time until midnight to finish and submit, and he had barely gotten started.

I had finished my assignment over a week before, and was pretty proud of my work. I must have been in a weird mood because I felt like rubbing it in this stranger’s face. But really, I had been in that situation before myself, and all those times, how nice would it have been if some stranger had just shared her work with me and bailed my ass out, juuuust that one time. So long story short, I just offer this guy my finished assignment as a reference to help him speed up his work, but to my surprise he sorta declined, under some chivalrous pretense that he would rather earn his mark fully, well, kudos to him, put me right in my place, but he wrote down my email address just in case.

So indeed, by the time RideSafe had dropped me off at my place, I had received a pleading email about how he had underestimated the difficulty of the assignment and such, and he would really appreciate it if he could still take me up on my offer and take a good peek at my work. Shaking my head I just forward him my assignment as a PDF, and in a burst of gratitude he replied with an offer to take me out for coffee and donuts at Tims anytime.

Fast-forwarding to about a month later, I meet Jonah Levine in the SLC again. He sounds perky, yearning to satisfy my Tim Hortons cravings as promised, and gets me a hazelnut smoothie and an herb & garlic cream-cheese whole-wheat baguette. That’s great, some small talk, and then he makes the move! BAM!

Of course he’s with Team Yellow and wouldn’t mind my vote in the upcoming FEDS elections. So I listen to him explain his platform and what he and his team are all about, but as he is doing his magic, I swear some voodoo metamorphosis starts taking place right in front of my eyes and Jonah Levine turns into the cheapest politico monster I had seen up close in a long while.

I can clearly see him 30 years from now, expressionless, popping out his empty rhetoric like hard candy to a callous audience that is listening just because they don’t give enough shit either way.

Jonah Levine personifies my disgust with too much of my generation. I have seen people cheer for politicians who are so clearly corrupt, that it is embarrassing for anyone to be as blind and self-deceived as to be taken in with them. But I have always been apologetic to those who didn’t know any better, because I saw it as a thing of the past and the past only. If our parents didn’t know any better, it is the past generation, the old biases, the old fakeness, the baby-boomers’ arrogance and stale values that produced today’s leaders I am ashamed of. In my mind, our new generation has all the prerequisites to make a discrete leap forward; we have the experience of all those political and economic experiments gone bad in the 20th century, fresh interests and values, a new mission, a new voice and a newly found disdain for bullshit. And we should know better, god damn it!

Sadly, from what I can see it’s an unchanging cycle; the faces of tomorrow are just like those of yesterday, and people’s standards don’t seem to have risen. The same kind of people are going through the drill: compounding mediocrity in their resume unlocks the doors to a bright future in politics. I see you were in the Co-op Student of the Year Committee, Jonah, is it because you don’t stand a chance to be co-op student of the year yourself? Cool by association, eh? Indeed. Those are the same faces that will be spewing fakeness on TV in the next few decades, and it seems like people will keep eating it up.

It is hard to recover the full spectrum of disgust as I was listening to this 20 something-year-old trying to spoon-feed me nothing but the same stale old shit, as he was mentally masturbating to the notion of this socialist utopia upon Waterloo, of no student left behind in this cruel for-profit capitalist world where no one but the rich can afford education as tuition keeps growing at rates much higher than inflation, with the bulk of prospective students thus being deterred from even pursuing an education. Lame prelude to a plea for hardball lobbying at the federal level for more loans and lower interest rates, because obviously, there is a problem with the current system where not everyone can afford schooling.

My offended libertarian sensitivities aside, truly, what made the blood in my veins boil was the sight of his face, his comfortable monotonous voice: he really didn’t see an issue of accountability with all these prescriptive deliverables he was proposing. The single most serious problem was that he, nobody Jonah Levine, who doesn’t even have the discipline or brains to complete a first-year-level econ assignment on time, thinks he is qualified to decide what’s acceptable tuition, suitable subsidy level, and appropriate taxation for the Canadian taxpayer.

Just what the hell makes him think he is qualified to make all these prescriptive statements with the moral entitlement to go through the administrative channels in order to lobby for his vision to be imposed on everyone else?

Yes, no shit, there is a problem with our current system, where some Political Science majors, brain-dead leeches like Jonah Levine, can infiltrate and breeze through four years of university, courtesy of the Canadian taxpayers, and use an educational institution as a playground for their degenerate cliche-ridden campaigns to recruit the most feeble-minded amongst students, exploiting their pseudo-representation as a means to further their personal agendas, allegedly in the name of the public good in general, and of everyone of us in particular.

It makes me sick that the brightest minds of our generation, students of one of the most distinguished Canadian universities, have nothing better than this slug to represent them, to personify their values and approach to problems and solutions. Jonah Levine did win in these elections and is now VP for Education.

So what is happening to us? How many social workers want to work their profession into obsolescence? How many politicians would want to be problem-solvers in a world where it is so much easier to just create and inflate problems, then present quick-fix solutions that justify any budget and platform, dump the real consequences on the future administration, and get away with it? Oh how pretty it will all look in the extracurricular section of Jonah Levine’s resume. Dig a hole, digging-o-a-hole!

Alright, Jonah, let’s examine what you were just granted power by 6.75% of the student body to lobby for on behalf of all of us. Some day you might have come across this in your not-sufficiently subsidized university career, but let’s just not take any chances. You see Jonah, there are such dynamics that determine what economists call demand and supply, and if you mess around with them kinky shit tends to happen. Education is great, right, and like everything good it should be subsidized? Wait a minute… I thought good things didn’t need to be subsidized!

It’s the economy, stupid!

Supporters of increased aid to education note that the cost of attending college has been rising faster than the rate of inflation for the last two decades. Yet easy money at taxpayers’ expense fuels this escalation. Basic economic theory tells us that boosting the demand for a product or service, which is what government loans and grants effectively do, tends to raise its price.

Different types of schools respond differently to increases in subsidies, and price hikes can take several forms, including cuts in state funding and internal aid as well as increases in the official tuition. But the general effect is pretty clear: When someone else is paying part of the tab, consumers do not worry as much about the cost, so the cost tends to be higher. This phenomenon creates a vicious circle in which subsidies push up prices, leading to demands for increased subsidies, which push up prices again.

-check out this excellent brief article By Jacob Sullum for the full picture.

Should you succeed in increasing subsidies, Jonah, maybe you’d be the hero of the year but it seems like your quick fix would encapsulate the seeds of its own future ineffectiveness, and in a year or two, it would be up to your successor try to perpetuate the same bullshit under the same pretense, bitching at the feds to obtain a higher dose hoping to achieve the same high. Tolerance to your favorite drug is a painful thing, isn’t it?

And the rest of us will still be here, waiting, yearning for the next hero of the year, the next crusader to deliver us an incrementally higher dose of the same shit. What goes up must come down Jonah, but you and your breed of already corrupt student politicians are the first thing I want to see free falling.

We don’t need your web of premature bureaucracy at the university level to compound the strain from what we already have to bear at the local, provincial, and federal level. You create no value Jonah, absolutely no value. I see your little heart is bleeding over how expensive tuition is. Then how is a budget of $725,536 per term for FEDS justifiable? How does all that money help any students except for you, Mr.Polisci poster-boy on payroll? Why don’t you instead try to lobby internally to lower tuition by cutting corners on the funding of boondoggle projects that have nothing to do with education instead of reflexively turning to pinch the government’s bitter teat?

All these endowment fees, student service fees for services I have never used or known they existed, radio Waterloo, dental plan fees, FEDS, student societies… Wow, all incidental fees minus health insurance, which is the only thing we actually do need from all of that, mount up to about $400 per term; that’s almost 20% of tuition, Jonah, I know math is not your strongest subject but if you could even halve that, holy shit man!

Until the very last student claims the very last portion of the refundable fees, you and your administrative goons don’t have the least bit of a right to extort more funds from the taxpayers on our behalf because obviously most students don’t care enough about their tuition fees to take the necessary steps at the individual level to minimize their cost by claiming back what they can.

But you don’t even want to cut corners on the bullshit, do you? You need to drown us deeper in debt, easy tax-payer-subsidized debt, so your Yellow Team can have plenty of coin to toss around to all those student clubs—mostly groups of five people who don’t even bother organizing lame events but just write off the pizzas every other Friday night, to all those loony douche bags who write off their plane tickets to Saskatchewan or wherever, to “study native villages” or participate in “conferences” on our dime. Thanks Student Government for taking our money by force and spending it on crap none of us would consider paying for even under hallucinogens. Great gateway to real government I suppose.

Why is it that the herd has been institutionally primed to dominate over the individual at every level of organization? A group of five students can claim that over 22,000 others, mostly strangers they have little to do with, split the cost of buying the former group pizza, or of hosting an event those 22,000 don’t care for, just by virtue of being a group, a club, a student association. But five individual students wouldn’t even entertain the thought of doing just the same.

What is a group but the sum of its individuals? What is that metaphysically mind-bending margin between the sum and the whole that we are to subordinate our will to? It’s nothing but the Philosopher’s Stone which corrupt politicians use to dilute and twist the will and the power of the individual. Your government wants your indifference; FEDS wants a 16% turnout, so every candidate would need to worry about swaying in at most only 8.5% of the electorate to secure victory. Most of that 8.5% are friends (I am sure our Jonah is a super popular boy) and members of student clubs, all the vested interests lined up. And once the bums are in office, they can tax all of us “on our behalf”, not just the 8.5% who voted for them, to pay the tab of their electoral victory. Everybody wins!

Such, my friends, are the perks of democracy, filtered through selection-bias and diluted representation, in a majority-rule winner-takes-all system. It always works like a charm for the winners, and the losers don’t seem to realize they’re losers after the results have been reflected and refracted through all the administrative channels and regurgitated back to them. There’s little room for freedom, accountability, and good leadership in a system where clans rule over individuals and responsibility is processed, fairly and squarly redistributed, and often simply obfuscated. It’s a world of the Jonah Levines. Let them have it.