Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Future and Modern Fiction

Can "the present" exist in modern fiction? This is the question that seems to be looming over many current writers and novelists; how to realistically present our modern lives and not write things that seem dated by the time they're released.

In PEN's "A Kind Of Vast Fiction" series, Jonathan Lethem (Chronic City) and David Gates (Preston Falls) tackle this topic through (ahem) email conversations, explaining how their own writing has been affected by trying to keep pace with technology. Lethem inquires as to whether Gates includes images of his characters searching for things on Google or YouTube, and Gates explains, "I probably spend more time e-mailing and reading online than I do having non-virtual human contact—and I bet I’m not that unusual. If my characters were like that, would their lives be eventful enough to write about? On the other hand, if I write about people for whom the internet is—as far as the reader can see—peripheral or nonexistent, am I not essentially writing historical fiction?"

While this concern may seem a bit exaggerated, lest authors run the risk of all fiction becoming historical fiction, is their other alternative to create science fiction? This almost seems to be the route taken by Gary Shteyngart in producing Super Sad True Love Story. Rather than attempting to circumvent "the present" problem, Shteyngart diverts it, creating an adjacent present. Shteyngart's novel is set in a vaguely alternate reality, one where an iPhone is replaced by an "äppärät" (key difference: umlauts), and parts of the story are told through Facebook/LiveJournal-type interchanges, complete with shorthanded text.

Shteyngart is not intentionally writing a work of science fiction, but it's clear he feels hampered by relegation to the true present. And yet, what Shteyngart has to say -- about aging, about our relationships with our parents, about why we think we need love -- these are ideas that have the ability to transcend this alternate reality. When the novel gets too caught up in its own fictitious world, harping on FACing, GlobalTracing, and Media, it loses its true power, which is talking about humanity.

Shteyngart's most powerful passage translucently refers to science fiction, describing his main characters, Lenny and Eunice, visiting the apartment of Joshie, Lenny's boss. (This occurs about 3/5 of the way through the story, and at this point one can only imagine that Joshie likely looks like that creepy old ripped dude from those airline magazine ads.)

"Here were Joshie's beginnings. (...) The twelve-year-old's first cognition of mortality, for the true subject of science fiction is death, not life. It will all end. The totality of it. The self-love. Not wanting to die. Wanting to live, but not sure why. Looking up at the nighttime sky, at the black eternity of outer space, amazed. Hating the parents. Wanting their love. Already an anxious sense of time passing..."

It's these moments conveying the human anxiety about existence that make a real impact. It seems that how characters communicate shouldn't outweigh what they're saying. A device can just be a device -- a phone just a way to show a character getting a message. Alas, perhaps figuring out "the present" problem is missing the point.

1 comment:

Manuel Gonzales said...

Jennifer Egan's "A Visit from the Goon Squad" does a nice job of capturing not just the technology of the present and the near future but of also capturing the anxieties that grow out of this dependence on new technology. She taps into the anxieties we have now and blows them up for the chapter that focuses on the just after now in a way that seems prescient and unsettling. It adds a great effect to the whole book when she does this.

That being said, I don't generally care whether a writer focuses on characters using Google or Facebook or Twitter, relying on cell phones or text messages, interacts in online social networking more or less than they do real live people. Just like I don't care if characters use electric toothbrushes or whether dialogue is written exactly how it's spoken, and I think you're right in that it's how the anxiety and the human emotionality is captured more than anything else.