back to

e-flux conversations

The Social Novel at the End of Society



In the current issue of The Baffler magazine, Lucy Ives examines the state of the social novel in US fiction at a time when American society seems to be growing less comprehensible, stable, and coherent. This situation, notes Ives, has stoked a “hunger in American society for the comforts of narrative,” with its clear explanations for human motivations and social events. The novels Ives discusses—The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner, Moving Kings by Joshua Cohen, and Lake Success by Gary Shteyngart—don’t exactly satisfy this hunger. They’re too smart for that. Instead, they put the fragmentation of narrative front and center, thematically and formally. As Ives writes in praise of these books: “Let’s have more social novels that explore the disruption and near-impossibility of our cherished narrative forms.” Here’s an excerpt from the article:

I mention these categorical slips—of reason for narrative, of narrative for widely read non-sequitur—because I think it has something to do with the rise of nonfiction as a category of profitable literary writing, a rise that began long before the 2016 election. There is, I would argue, a notable hunger in American society for the comforts of narrative. It’s a hunger for a species of meaning-making that is not specifically logical (though it may be that too) but which rather provides an account of how things, sometimes sentient, sometimes material, get organized across space and time and in relation to one another and sequentially, such that they become the way things are , after having been the way things were . Sure, narrative can be revelatory and informative, but it can also be reassuring, grounding. To attempt to understand and maintain one’s personal narrative is to be healthy, as the popular wisdom goes. Narrative can be incremental; it offers itself up to analysis. It promises to explain something about what human intention and agency are. It is attractively historical. The problem for the contemporary novelist—a problem less pressing for the author of a text on the history of codfish or the business practices of Uber—is that daily life, that classic subject and location of the novel, is, much like everyday consciousness, no longer narrative. I mean, it’s quite possible that human consciousness was never narrative (Thucydides for one seems to think so, particularly in his writings on pirates), but more and more people want narrative, a) because they want to know how we got here and, b) because they want to know what to do next. As the philosopher Galen Strawson has argued, a preference for diachronic, narrative description of human life predominates in contemporary culture, supported by “a vast chorus of assent . . . from the humanities—literary studies, psychology, anthropology, sociology, philosophy, political theory, religious studies, echoed back by psychotherapy, medicine, law, marketing, design.” As for Strawson, he’s happily “transient,” as he puts it, with a fundamentally shifting, episodic self. This position does not, I assume, automatically entail enthusiasm for social media, but there’s a sort of formal rhyme I can’t help pointing up.

In a way, I wish I lived in a time in which algorithms weren’t sowing chaos with respect to democracy and the public sphere, but given what I know of human history (another cherished narrative!), it’s likely there’d be some other largely invisible mechanism with a similar function. Meanwhile, as the idea that there is some counterintuitive explanation for the results of the 2016 election burns off and more and more narrativizing reports appear, it’s been interesting to observe fiction’s attempt to self-correct, to return to its former, if ambiguous, place of cultural relevance. It’s scrambling, but in a recognizable direction. This isn’t just a matter of markets, of course; it’s also personal, creative. Writers are citizens, too, and accordingly hold themselves accountable after the fashion of their times—sometimes presciently. Enter, therefore, what looks to be a resurgence of the social novel.

Image: Rachel Kushner, author of the novel The Mars Room (2018).