Around a hundred years ago a sort of novel abounded which with each passing decade became more and more endangered until, especially here in America, it went practically extinct. In these books grand questions were discussed in a most peculiar manner. Nothing was off-limits: politics, philosophy, science, even literary criticism. Sometimes a narrator would whip up a froth of thoughts so dense as to seem almost a custard, sliding with little effort on their part (but much on ours) through memories and impressions and mini-essays on various subjects and back again, all while contemplating the torture of their pet turtle or shifting around lazily in bed. Other times the thoughts were speeches, perhaps even rants, delivered by disembodied figures in lecture halls or on street corners or in fictional books-within-books. Most often, though, we’re treated to theatrical scenes of intellectuals talking politics at cocktail parties, philosophers debating in coffee shops, or revolutionaries issuing proclamations; here the great ideas of the day do combat, like in one of Plato’s dialogues—or, you know, a certain kind of comment thread.
As you can no doubt tell, this sort of book brushed up against modernism but hardly exhausts that category. Similar tropes appear in far less exalted places too, like propaganda tracts and early science fiction. A novel like this, which at times barely resembled a novel, went by many names. It was variously called a philosophical novel or speculative fiction. I prefer its older and more dignified name: the novel of ideas.1
Then as now, lots of critics hated this stuff. The characters are flat, they moan; the plot, nonexistent or glacially paced; the scenarios, contrived; the tone, professorial rather than literary; the language, either too journalistic or too purple. And what use has a novelist got for ideas, anyway? Better to have a mind so fine that no idea could violate it.2 The handful of critics who argued otherwise—most impressively, Mary McCarthy in Ideas and the Novel—are to a fault forgotten, their names absent from even the better magazines. Well, with certain exceptions.
But maybe the more salient question is: Why do ideas need novels? A novel is a very silly thing, after all. Classically, it’s a story in prose either about some schmuck’s life from birth to death, the episodes of a really fun road trip, or how somebody fell in love and got married (or died trying). In their present degenerated state as “fiction,” novels are something even less: the barely disguised memoirs of would-be microcelebrities, mildly sad stories about how hard it is to be a hipster or a professor, or self-exoticizing fables stuffed with italicized foreign words about abuelita’s immigration story. All are set in featureless non-places, sprinkled with well-crafted sentences ending in neat epiphanies, and tuned to a careerist key. None have got any big ideas about philosophy, etc.—and the ideas seem better off for it.
And yet, the mere existence of ideas novels suggests the possibility of a different view. In our lives we do such silly things, it’s true, as lust after our straight friends or our neighbors’ wives, embarrass ourselves at dinner parties, get up to mischief abroad, fail at our careers, resent our parents and children, fear death and then die. This is all of great human interest; it’s the very stuff of literature. But as we do these things we are also always thinking—and not just parallel to our various misadventures, but through them, do all our culture’s most serious ideas develop. The novelist of ideas knows that you cannot understand philosophy, art, politics or science unless you understand the sort of people who produce these things, the drives that motivate them, their complexes and disappointments, the strange turns their lives take; just as they know, at the same time, that even the lives of ordinary people are shaped and permeated by grand ideas, whether their own or those of others. The intense debates about whether God is real or socialism can work are no less a part of what it meant for us to be alive than the love affairs and the petty gossip and the quiet awakenings; and in the true novel of ideas, the one that is also great literature, as in life itself, each so illuminates the other that they cannot possibly be disentwined.
In this issue’s Literature section, we’ve collected two pieces that gesture at what a contemporary version of writing with ideas could look like—and what new directions it might be taken in.
The first is Rosemarie Ho’s “On Equanimity,” a story narrated as a tractatus of philosophical theses (think Wittgenstein) by a rather hapless grad student named Sarah as she rationalizes her impotent and delusional lust for a brooding colleague. On the one hand it’s a skillful comedy of manners and satire of the capitalist university, in which insider knowledge of petty academic politicking and campus social types is married to an impeccable instinct for gossip. On the other hand, Sarah dwells obsessively on questions such as her beloved Stoics’ theories of emotional regulation, and looming in the background of the whole plot is a labor struggle between the grad students and management. Neither aspect of the piece is a mask for the other; the ideas and the love plot are interdependent, woven together by an experimental narrative structure. Ho—not only a fiction writer but also a Hong Kong native who came of age participating in left-wing social movements in the city—brings an unusually concrete and international perspective to the subject matter, along with her effortless erudition and boisterous sense of humor.
The second is an extract from Peter C. Baker’s forthcoming novel Planes, a collective portrait of the Bush era and its wars. Like Lisa Halliday’s Asymmetry or Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, Baker’s is a global novel which achieves its effects through first juxtaposing and then slowly drawing together stories set on opposite sides of the world. Characters are unaware of the larger political and intellectual connections between them, which only we see, yet these irrevocably shape their lives. Our excerpt’s first section follows the daily life of Amira, an Italian Muslim convert in Rome whose husband Ayoub has been kidnapped and tortured without trial by the CIA. The second section follows Mel, a former college activist turned Democratic school-board member in the North Carolina suburbs whose approach to that decade’s noxious bipartisan consensus is perhaps overly enthusiastic: through the course of negotiating for subsidized school lunches, she launches into an Updikean affair with a Republican colleague. The occult connection between Amira and Mel is the horror of torture. (Before becoming a novelist Baker reported and wrote at length on torture by the CIA and the Chicago Police Department.) Together, they show how in those days the Forever Wars became just a part of the fabric of people’s day-to-day lives, and to think one could somehow resist them or their terrible logic—even when these affected you personally—seemed as foolish in practice as the notion that one could through direct action resist the laws of physics.
I picked these stories because they made me think of the tangle the characters made of their lives and ideas, of their history and their future. Where, in the end, would these people go? Sarah, off to a professorship—or the quit-lit circuit? Ayoub and Amira, back to their coffee shop? Mel, to the barricades? And what will become of Stoic philosophy, of trade unionism, of the spirit of bipartisan compromise, of the Forever Wars? All of which is also a way of asking: What will become of me, and you, and all of us?
Read “On Equanimity” here
Read “Search History,” excerpted from Planes, here
Art credit: José Almada Negreiros, Reading Orpheu 2, 1954.