Anyways, I have read Melvin Jules Bukiet's article and it seems to me that the stone cold kernel of its argument is this: we need more novels and short stories where people smoke cigarettes and kittens are accidentally killed.
OK, this might just be a corollary kernel of the essay's even more central and even more unbreakable kernel: Wonder Is Bad. Wonder Is Bad, and any author who employs wonder to any end that doesn't illuminate the true and real fact that human experience is Utterly Hopeless and Horrible is worse than Bad, they are Phony. A few times the essay wavers on this point, and tries to finesse it, but I find it hard to believe that anyone would walk away from the essay thinking that Melvin Jules Bukiet's point isn't larger and loftier and darker than merely that a certain sort of trendy book is misguided.
As Zizek tells us, kernels tend to be indivisible, and therefore I will try to do something entirely else with Melvin Jules Bukiet's stone cold kernel. I am going to heat it up. I am going to heat it up, roll it around in some oil, and then I am going to sit and wait and watch until (POP!) it pops out of the pan, and then I'm going to pick it up, walk into my yard and throw it to a bird who will lift it into the sky.
But back to the smoking and the accidentally murdered kittens. Melvin Jules Bukiet's essay proceeds by examining a vast number of works written by young hipsterish Brooklynites or Brooklynites-in-absentia (Jonathan Safran Foer, Myla Goldberg, Alice Sebold, &c) and comes to the conclusion that all of their novels fit a certain predictable structure: something terribly bad and sad happens at the beginning (9/11, a girl is raped and murdered, the Holocaust), but by the end the characters in the novel somehow learn to cope with that awful event via some form of the fantastic acting in reality, be it relayed via magical realism or unbelievable coincidence or whatever. The idea being that these young authors offer an escape from the horrors of reality rather than spending 400 pages facing up to that reality.
But what about the kittens? Woven through the mean-spirited critiques of these books by young authors is Melvin Jules Bukiet's genealogy of the Brooklyn Book of Wonder (he drops the Wonder Bread pun / metaphor / analogy as quickly as he picks it up), citing Michael Chabon and JD Salinger and Paul Auster and even Günter Grass. And Jonathan Lethem. Melvin Jules Bukiet seems to like Lethem, a little, and argues that the "BBoW authors have adopted Lethem as a surrogate father," and that "he ought to disinherit them." Why? Because they, his imitators, have somehow "carried [him] away" with wonder.
So OK, here's the kittens:
Moreover, Lethem doesn’t pull punches. On the second page of The Fortress of Solitude, a kitten is accidentally killed while the protagonist’s mother smokes cigarettes. Unless it’s Mr. Harvey in The Lovely Bones, no one smokes in BBoWs. They’d as soon smoke as fail to recycle. Also, a daring flight at the end crashes.I copied and pasted this quote so that I could really lean into it, so that I could smash it to pieces, so that I--Tamilda, the 10yr Old Genius--could pretend to be like Edward Norton in Fight Club and destroy something beautiful. Except that as I reread it I'm no longer angered--this passage is not like Jared Leto's face. It's more like Meat Loaf's, and that's sad. In fact, Melvin Jules Bukiet's whole essay reminds me not of Wonder Bread, but of Meat Loaf. Yes, the singer / actor / pitiful victim of testicular cancer, but also the food, the actual loaf of meat. It's heavy, it's eerily dark, and I almost never want to eat it. It's Wonder Bread gone horribly, crazily wrong.
So let's leave aside the fact that a kitten being accidentally killed while a mother smokes is a far weaker "punch" than the opening of The Lovely Bones that Melvin Jules Bukiet describes earlier in his essay--that is, the opening where a young girl somehow magically survives or transcends her rape and murder. Let's leave aside the fact that this part of his argument undermines itself and let's get to the indivisible kernel of my own argument.
My central hypothesis is this: Melvin Jules Bukiet is a nerd. A big one. And not one of those kind of cool half-ironic Wonder-Bread-t-shirt-wearing Brooklynite nerds, but like an old school Revenge of the Nerds-type nerd. I know, it shocked me too. I never would have guessed it based on his name. And yet look at this picture:
At the beginning of his essay Melvin Jules Bukiet is very interested in letting us know that he knows about all of the hip streets and neighborhoods and landmarks in Brooklyn. At first he just drops names (Prospect Park, Fort Greene) but quickly enough he just outright lists places in order to establish his credibility. You should notice, however, what is conspicuously absent from his essay: the nerd picture. It would ruin his whole ethos and clue us into the fact that with a name like Melvin he must be good friends with wedgies. I am imagining an entire dresser drawer filled with underwear elastic thrown to him by bullies. Heck, I bet even the half-ironic Wonder Bread t-shirt nerds gave this guy wedgies when he was young and--and I can't tell this for certain, it is just another hypothesis--I bet that they still do.
If Jonathan Safran Foer [cf. the never-used Freaks and Geeks photo below] is giving you wedgies and you are a college professor of course your world view is going to be bleak as heck. The kid in my class who got the wedgie at the beginning of the year didn't eat his lunch for a week, and that was his first wedgie. Imagine what a lifetime of wedgies would do to you! It would make you conclude your essays like this:
In fact, trauma’s never overcome. That’s what defines it. Your father is dead, or your mother, and so are most of the Jews of Europe, and the World Trade Center’s gone, and racism prevails, and sex murders occur. What is, is. The real is the true, and anything that suggests otherwise, no matter how artfully constructed, is a violation of human experience.Here's the problem with this logic: the real, the whole real, hasn't already happened. Yes, we are shaped by our personal and collective histories, sometimes irrevocably. But not always. The real is not something that is always already predetermined, that we can only watch from the sidelines, keeping a scorecard. That's not how it works, because we are part of the game, and because the game isn't over.
My friend Percy Shelley always tells me this when we're losing in t-ball, and the authors that Melvin Jules Bukiet cites at the beginning of the essay believe this too. What is the last word of Joyce's Ulysses? It is Yes. In the end Molly returns to a memory of when she and Bloom were young and half in love--not half in love with easeful Death like melancholy Keats, but half in love with love and hope and possibility and, yes, Wonder. If there's nothing to hope for, to wonder about, we should ask what is life worth living for and seriously consider the late Kurt Vonnegut's idea that human beings should just leave.
At a reading at Skylight Books in Los Feliz last night the fiction writer Steve Almond made the convincing case that in spite of the sadness, Vonnegut is actually an extremely hopeful writer--that he helps us through trauma via the "courage of his imagination" (Almond's words), and that this is why people like Jon Stewart have thanked Vonnegut for making high school livable. It seems to me that this is what fiction should do: it should open our eyes to the horrors and truths of Pandora's box, without losing sight of the hope, wonder, buried at the bottom of things.
Now, this does not mean that the books that Melvin Jules Bukiet reviews aren't employing Wonder irresponsibly. (I haven't read all of the novels of the last few years that Melvin Jules Bukiet refers to, and hadn't planned on doing so any time soon--there are other books like Denis Johnson's Tree of Smoke that are higher on my list. I'm not sure that people regard BBoW as anything more than wish-fulfillment-lit in the first place. In other words, it seems to me that solid American Literature won't be shaken by their, in Melvin Jules Bukiet's words, "ripples").
There is nothing more pressing than actively critiquing our fantasies, our "wonders"--I am far more than sympathetic to this cause. Without such intangible wonders eating up our time and molding our ideals we wouldn't, for example, be fighting a hopeless war in Iraq. This aspect of Melvin Jules Bukiet's argument is categorically true. Joyce, too, makes it crystal clear that things only get better after shattering the fantasy. In the Circe chapter of Ulysses Stephen Dedalus shatters the fantasy-producing gas lamp at the whorehouse with his ashplant, and it is only then that he and Bloom can commune. But the fantasy was necessary--"the true" and "the real" couldn't have come to light without the fantasy, without the gas lamp, and this is because that is how human beings experience the world. Through fiction.
It makes me wonder what Melvin Jules Bukiet's fiction must be like. Maybe I'll read it one day...
Here are my dogs. They're great.