Andre Dubus III is the kind of writer every MFA student in the 1990s aspired to be. A well-received collection of stories, followed by a couple of successful novels, one made into a successful movie. A Guggenheim fellowship, a few awards, an Oprah pick. Enough success that you could write a memoir of your dysfunctional youth and still manage to get it published, though, statistically speaking, no one would read it and it wouldn’t make the publisher a tenth the profit of their bottom-most thriller. Granted, most MFA students wouldn’t have wanted to take the path Dubus had to take to get to that point, and fewer yet would want to do so in the shadow of a well-regarded-author parent. Still, it’s the kind of career that 20th-century high-culture factories sold to legions of young writers as something to desire. The question I’ve had lately is how well that particular mode of writing, of thinking about storytelling, is surviving here in the second decade of the new millennium.
A few years ago, Bruce Sterling wrote a short story (“The Kiosk,” which you can listen to here), which was the result of his attempt to write “a kind of science fiction that could only be written in the 21st century.” For Sterling, I believe this means finding the human reaction to increasingly penetrating technology, strained political and social contexts, and the unintended consequences of living with both. His view of “21st century fiction” is speculative in nature, always just a step or two forward of right now, which is a common way to examine the present.
Then there’s the Reality hunger mode espoused by David Shields, which suggests that a viable means (for Shields, the only viable means) of making narrative art in our increasingly fragmented culture is to embrace the old postmodernist stance of “all texts are the same text,” abandon the strictures of genre, and freely mingle fiction, non-fiction, “original” composition and samples from our influences/selves into stories. Nothing about this kind of wholesale appropriation is particularly new in art—”write what you know” has been the self-borrowing gateway drug of MFA programs for years—its just that Shields wants us to not be so timid about our remixed, recycled and hypertextual artifacts.
I’m also seeing another mode of 21st century fiction, which is the “Millennial” approach to story as practiced by writers like Tao Lin (and the Muumuu House authors), Marie Calloway or Adelle Waldman. These are the grandkids of 1980s minimalism, the victims of generations (including mine) of poor coping skills who mumble through affectless self-criticism. Their stories are not necessarily pretty, but they are relentlessly earnest and natively mediated.
Given this brief (and horribly incomplete, and heavily weighted towards privileged classes) survey of current modes of storytelling, what features would I expect to see in twenty-first century fiction?
- A recognition and highly accurate representation of the ubiquitous presence of networked technology. Mobile phones, the Internet, screens everywhere: these can’t be gimmicks any more. They are as natural to contemporary life as the horse and the Bible were a hundred years ago.
- An innate ability to work within a heavily mediated and branded public space. The story cannot be afraid of pop culture since it is inextricably a product of pop culture.
- At least for American settings, the recognition of work—or the lack thereof—being the primary structure around which an adult hangs their self-image.
- A recognition and validation of marginalized populations, economic and cultural gaps.
The stories in Dirty Love—each tangentially connected to the others (which brings up a question: has the author really constructed a world for these characters, or is the conceit just clever service for close readers?)—attempt to depict the 21st-century world that we live in while still confronting the same minutely-detailed facets of the human condition we’d come to expect from contemporary American fiction in the 20th century. For me, at least, there are too many false notes in the stories for them to really succeed, except as an artifact of a previous generation of storytelling.
“Listen Carefully as Our Options Have Changed”
I’ll start with some 20th century references. If Donald Barthleme taught us anything, he at least taught us to distrust the relationship between a figure and its caption, or a story and its title. And Michael Chabon, with his breakthrough story “Angel S,” showed us (ok, showed me back in the day) that you could attach meaning to any arbitrary fragment of the narrative by using it as the story’s title. But why that phrase for this story? It never appears in the story. In fact no one ever spends time trapped in a phone menu system, one of the mundane Hells of contemporary life. While Mark and Laura Welch’s options have indeed changed, attaching that phrase to the story is just too clever, almost twee.
Meanwhile, this story, told in maybe too many layers of flashback covering the disintegration of a marriage from a cuckolded husband’s point of view, perhaps explains itself best when the husband thinks “there is the feeling he is a man not of these times.” Mark Welch is thrown—as happens to so many of us—into a job that he never really trained for and has to learn in a hurry. All around him, people act in unfathomable ways: his wife runs around with someone else, his younger boss sees the world in transactional terms, his one-night stand operates in bitter nihilism. Mark decides to apply the precepts of his profession to the navigation of his new circumstances.
Maybe it is my experience with less-than-rigorous project managers, but I have never known one to apply PM techniques to personal issues. To projects like remodeling a kitchen, yes, but not to cope with personal tragedy. This aspect of the story felt like a concession to contemporary posture bolted onto a story that could have been set at any time in the last thirty years.
“Marla” and “The Bartender”
Like music albums before the advent of the downloadable single, story collections usually begin and end with the hits and put the lesser tracks in between.
While there are references to Craigslist and video games, cross-training and search engines sprinkled throughout “Marla,” the its successes as a 21st-century story come from the psychology of the characters. Marla, a lonely virgin (and possible mild Aspberger’s case) finds herself paired up with Dennis, a typical American man-child who never substantially evolved past the habits of his youth. Trapped in the loneliness of contemporary romance, Marla feels “that her life was really no better than it had been before when she was alone, an earlier unhappiness that now seemed preferable to this one.”
In these stories, a person’s vocation acts as the metaphorical structure of their non-work life. Marla’s work is repetitive, lonely, offering only surface glimpses into the lives of others, and her life outside the bank is similar, where husbands and wives keep up the appearance of happiness or find shallow joy until they no longer can. Its all very lonely, but for too many people, accurate.
“The Bartender” provides a counterpiece to “Marla”—the shallow, mistaken relationship seen from the perspective of the arrested adolescent man. Again we find people taking solace in their careers: Althea the upholsterer, quiet and always making things comfortable for other people; Robert the bartender, imagining himself a poet and a “good man,” when he’s really an alcoholic and philanderer, a spoiled asshole who feels sorry for himself.
“The Bartender” features more poetry in the description of work than in the sex scenes, and in some cases gets a bit fraught with importance, with objective correlatives like “[Robert’s] car backing over the broken shells, perhaps breaking more himself” and Robert’s over-used “eyes of black hope” phrase from one of his poems showing up a lot. It all feels a bit too “Best American Fiction”—too pat, too constructed, far too meaningful for reality.
Throughout all of the stories in the Dirty Love, Dubus uses the “something” construct to indicate a detail unheard or misheard or perhaps deemed too specific for good taste. “His manager raised his glass, said something in Gaelic.” “Something about a bow and arrow and the other boy’s spleen.” That kind of indistinct language is useful when used sparingly, but starts to fall apart when “that West Coast blonde singling how all she wants to do is have some fun” is used in place of simply saying “Sheryl Crow.” When literary authors avoid real-world, pop-culture references they seem to be putting themselves and their art above the “mundane” world in a dishonest way. (Inferring that the character wouldn’t know who Sheryl Crow was due to her age doesn’t quite work, since she does know who Eddie Vedder is, and both artists are about a generation older than the character; either she’s into—and this pains me to say it—”retro” music or she’s not; anything more subtle is too complicated a portrayal in such a short story.) If you can mention Exxon in context, why can’t you mention Kurt Cobain by name?
Dubus does this kind of thing a lot in “Dirty Love,” which is a shame, since it is otherwise the most wholly successful 21st-century story in the book, with all of its hunching over phone and laptop screens, long-distance online relationships, alternative education plans, low-wage drudgery, PTSD-suffering veterans and shattered families. However, among all of these streaks of contemporary realism, you get not-quite-correct brand names, indicators of real-world phenomena that feel counterfeit. Science fiction writers have been warned for a while now that if something in the story approximates the function of a horse, call it a horse. Calling that thing a “glonk” is strictly amateur hour. Brand awareness/apathy is intrinsic to 21st-century life, and so Devon’s repetitious use of “iEverything” for her phone, or “Dr. Dres” for headphones quickly wears thin. Worse yet, consistently referring to Facebook (every time but once) as “Fuckbook” puts the story in contact with an actual porn site, which we will assume Dubus’ young daughter, who the acknowledgements tell us advised him on this “cyberspace” (a 20th-century term if there ever was one) stuff, was unaware of. It is possible that all of these misalignments are regional (“Rolo” cups instead of Solo?) or generational (I could not find one person who wears that brand of hardware and calls them their “Dr. Dres”—always just “headphones”). I doubt Dubus is into the kind of metafictional wankery that would introduce irritants into a story the way ubiquitous advertising irritates us all, so the whole pattern just serves as an unnecessary distraction from the larger story, which reiterates Dubus’ point regarding how people disappoint each other and themselves through their choices.
Dirty Love succeeds as a piece of early 21st century fiction when it shows the ghosts of the previous century—such as Uncle Francis still ringing from war atrocities—echoing in the present. “Once again he’d been a passive participant in something ugly” could be a description of every person in our intermediated, hypercapitalized, over-medicated world. Stories set in this world need not to flinch, to be hyper-real, and Dubus is the kind of writer who should be able to deliver that kind of emotional verisimilitude without an editorial eye either actively dulling the story’s edge or passively failing to sharpen it where needed. The stories here are hampered by discomfort with that mode of storytelling, and so we are left with a book written for decades past rather than for today.