In a recent Los Angeles Times article about Granta's "Best of Young American Novelists" issue, there is a great deal of talk about the "themes" that the included writers are said to be addressing. While immigration and its legacy seems to be the common theme of this particular "snapshot" anthology, we are also told that some of the issue's judges "were dismayed by the lack of attention to social class in the work of these young novelists across the ethnic and national spectrum." Laura Miller believes that neither of these subjects is really where it's at with current young fiction writers: "The real themes in American fiction these days, she said, are the seeking of 'authenticity' — which sometimes works itself out in stories about immigrant communities — and interpreting the highly mediated, pop-suffused culture."
Nowhere in this article about supposedly important new writing is there any discussion, not even the briefest mention, of the aesthetic features, formal and stylistic, that characterize the stories collected in "Best of Young American Novelists", features that presumably ought to count for something when determining what makes these paticular selections the "best" that might be found. What formal innovations, if any, are these writers pursuing? What insights into the possibilities of language in representing human experience, immigrant or otherwise, might be found in the stylistic explorations of their work? Such questions are not addressed; from the comments made by those involved in putting the anthology together, one has to conclude they were not considered relevant to the larger question of what fiction writers of this next generation are trying to "say."
The view of fiction implicit in this article's discussion of the newest and the latest is that it is a forum for "expression." Writers "express" themselves, and through them their ethnic or class heritage gets expressed. Taken as whole, the writers included in the Granta anthology express the concerns and preoccupations of their generational cohort. Why exactly such writers would choose the indirect and rhetorically impure mode of fiction--which unavoidably is going to disperse and obscure your "themes" unless you run them diligently roughshod--in order to give "expression" to such things is never made clear. Nor is it ever quite clear why anyone would care about such expressions in the first place. If "saying something" is important to you as a writer, perhaps nonfiction is a better choice. Better yet, if sociology or cultural anthropology is what you're really interested in, become an actual sociologist and ponder the effects of immigration or class or interpret mass culture to your heart's content. Perhaps some people might even be interested in what you thus have to say. But don't reduce fiction to a more entertaining branch of social science.
In fairness, it's probably the editors and the critics who contribute most to this metamorphosis of literature into sociology and politics. It gives them something to write about at a time when most of them don't know how to write about the aesthetics of literature, anyway. It's an easy way to convert literary criticism into "literary journalism." And it's this focus on the "journalism" of literature and the avoidance of the "merely literary" that largely explains the impatience and incredulity with which so many editors and critics confront works of fiction that do manifestly ask the reader to consider their formal and stylistic qualities above whatever "theme" they may be assigned, especially if such works can be regarded as "experimental."
Joshua Cohen's Cadenza for the Schneidermann Violin Concerto (Fugue State Press) will surely strike most readers as experimental, and, although the novel does in fact raise issues related to immigration and ethnicity, few would ultimately conclude that the author's primary purpose is "expression" in the sense I've discussed. It is resolutely an attempt to reconfigure the formal elements of fiction (although not to dispense with them.) Like any good experimental novel, it first of all provokes us to ask: Is this a novel at all? And, as good experimental novels do as well, it ultimately leads us to answer our own question: Why not?
Disinguished virtuosi, acclaimed virtuosos and virtuosas of this greatest orchestra in the world, members and memberesses of this fine ensemble, tuxedos and dressed of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, you behind me I've stooped to rehearse with for far too many seasons now and have yet to conquer, consider this your cue! to draw out the longbows: downbows for the 1st violins, upbows for the 2nds--the bowings are as necessary as they are Schniedermann's written into your parts, yes believe it or not, in his own hand, and such hands! (though I helped some, because among many other lacks in this country was a publisher) and, yes, let's have the final cadence, drawn out to the last and stiffest hair, to the frog and to the tip of the bow as they're called,
okay! gasp, and we don't want anyone asphyxiating on us, now do we?
Will the orchestra please stop? desist?
Gasp, it's okay! If you all just remain seated, and listen, I promise that no one will get hurt. Trust me, everything's going to turn out fine.
So declares renowned violinist Laster as he is about to begin his solo (the cadenza) in his friend Schneidermann's concerto. As we will discover, the elderly Schneidermann is missing (he excused himself from a matinee showing of Schindler's List and Laster hasn't seen him since), possibly dead, and Laster has apparently decided that a proper tribute to the composer requires him to speak instead of play. Which he does, for 380 pages.
You'll never find answers in music, only more questions, and so, yes, I have a speaking part, not quite notated, not quite mentioned in the program you've glanced through and idly referenced, riffled through the least piano of my pinanissimos and are manically flipping through to see if I have a history of mental instability, some schizoid personality disorder that would serve to explain this away.
My decision to address you with my voice instead of with my violin.
Schneidermann, as it turns out, is a Holocaust survivor and, in Laster's view, an unjustly neglected composer, the "iconoclast even the iconoclasts worshipped," while he, Laster, has lived a relatively privileged life as a soloist:
Good evening ladies and gentlemen, good evening kids of all ages, good evening my exwives and my wife and prospective wives, good evening some of my own children out there in the audience, good evening my lawyer, my agent, my accountant, good evening my recordlabel execs, good evening my podiatrist (who just last Thursday she told me that my onychauxis it had developed into onychogryphosis, had a professional trim my nails). . . .
Through Laster's mammoth spiel, we learn about both Schneidermann's and his own past, about how despite Schneidermann's experience in the Shoah he considered himself one of the last Old World Europeans, about Jewish history, about music. . .It's a fragmented piece of storytelling, to be sure, but eventually we learn those sorts of things we need to know about the characters--and really Laster and Schniedermann dominate the story--and their circumstances that we would get from a more straightforwardly related narrative. Laster is an unusual first-person narrator, but that's what he is, and we ultimately must judge him and his roundabout tale in the same way we would judge a more conventional first-person account.
In other words, the conventional elements of fiction are in play in this novel (substituting for the real playing of the concerto, as it were), but they are rhetorically shuffled in Laster's discontinuous streams of speech. The reader is asked to show a little patience, do a little honest work for his/her pleasure. The novel implicitly asks that we take the reading of a novel to be a unique experience, not just another rote variation on an a pre-established theme, just as Laster's "cadenza" is unlike any previously heard.
And there certainly are pleasures to be found in this novel, however much the easy ones are deferred. Many of the anecdotes Laster relates are compelling, some hillarious; over the long run, Laster's voice, and thus Laster himself, is vividly rendered, leading us through what becomes an hours-long exhortation, even if what we finally remember is probably less Schniedermann (who remains, perhaps unavoidably so, somewhat distanced and enigmatic) than Laster's own desperate attempt to make us remember him. More than anything else, however, there is the language, the Yiddish-inflected, frequently over-the-top speaking style exemplified in the passages I have already quoted. Cohen is skillful indeed in deploying this language, and if readers are able to accustom themselves to Laster's strung-out, stop/start way of summoning up those events that have culminated in this night at Carnegie Hall, they will surely find themselves enjoying the jokes, the deliberate or not-so-deliberate malapropisms, the puns, the occasional passages of real eloquence.
Some readers might balk at a novel that at first seems so determined to avoid "entertainment." (Laster, after all, himself seemingly interrupts the entertainment in order to berate his audience with his words, to get them to pay attention to his verbal cadenza and not just passively admire his musical one. At the same time, one could regard Laster as a kind of Catskill tummler, a stand-up comic who in discarding his role as Serious Artist discovers another talent for schtick.) But I have to say that ultimately I found Cadenza for the Schniedermann Violin Concerto to be abundantly entertaining, both as a "story" that is satisfying if deliberately circuitous and as an experiment in storytelling. I enjoy witnessing a writer, any artist, imaginatively transform the medium in which he is working, and I believe Cohen does an impressive job at sustaining his experiment--to make this rambling kind of storytelling itself part of the "point" of the story--over 300+ pages. (The jokes and the fascinating tidbits of information help.) Cohen has succeeded in taking one man's headlong attempt at "expression" and, through relentless artifice, almost a parody of the will to express, created an aesthetically complex (and engaging, precisely because it is complex) work of fiction.