Daniel Davis Wood (his weblog is Infinite Patience) recently published a provocative article in Other Modernities in which he argues that American readers have shown impatience with "post-9/11 fiction" that attempts to come to terms with the event and its aftermath through conventional social/psychological realism and have expressed this impatience through increased interest in such works by British writers as Tom McCarthy's Remainder, Lays Iyers's Spurious, and Lee Rourke's The Canal.
In short, I think, we are witnessing the rebirth of a literary tradition originally born from a crisis that precedes 9/11 but that has nevertheless resulted in the literary internalization of crisis in general, thereby attracting the attention of American readers with a hunger for a more credible response to crisis than the response on offer in the polite realism of the American literary mainstream.
The tradition to which Wood believes these novels belong is that of the nouveau roman, which, in Wood's account "rejects verisimilitude in favor of formal innovation, which engages rather than evades its own inadequacies as a means of representing actuality, and which thus holds a fascination with its own poetics over and above any concern with ‘the real world.’" This is a perfectly cogent description of the goals of the nouveau roman as enunciated in particular by Alain Robbe-Grillet, although I'm not so sure Robbe-Grillet was as committed to the notion of fiction's "inadequacies as a means of representing actuality" as Wood suggests. In the essay "From Realism to Reality," Robbe-Grillet wrote that "the discovery of reality will continue only if we abandon outworn forms." Further, "unless we suppose that the world is henceforth entirely discovered (and, in that case, the wisest thing would be to stop writing altogether), we can only attempt to go farther." Robbe-Grillet believed that the narrative forms associated with realism were exhausted, but that new and experimental forms might take us even closer to reality.
Wood's contention that McCarthy, Iyers, and Rourke be judged as nouveau nouveaux romanciers is also well-taken. Certainly their work has more in common with continental modernism as extended through the nouveau roman than with British social realism, and both McCarthy and Iyers have explicitly and often expressed their allegiance to continental modernism as exemplified by such writers as Blanchot and Bernhard. But ulitmately Wood seems to leave too little room for the work of these writers to stand firmly enough on its "fascination with its own poetics." A novel like Remainder or Spurious still "implicitly addresses 9/11 via its literary form" rather than taking the changed conditions post 9/11 directly as subject, but whether a work of fiction is said to "respond" directly to such conditions or to do so indirectly by implicitly acknowledging its inability to respond directly seems to me to make little difference. "Realism" and its supposed alternative in formal experiment are cast as performing a pas-de-deux to the same musical accompaniment, with the familiar motif that it is the novelist's job precisely to "respond" to extant cultural circumstances. In each case, fiction is reduced to an ancillary form of journalism, its task to register important cultural shifts.
Why can't writers embrace "formal innovation" as an end in itself, without in effect justifying it by framing it as a "response" to cultural changes? Why can't readers embrace Remainder, Spurious, or The Canal as indeed part of a "widespread dissatisfaction with the dominance of post-9/11 fiction by literary realism" without also demanding there still be a recognizable category of "post-9/11 fiction"? Is all fiction inevitably to be assigned to this category simply because it appeared after September 11, 2001? Hasn't the folly of fixating on this event as somehow representing a monumental displacement of "actuality," an unprecedented event in the history of human irrationality and barbarism, been made manifestly clear in the insane militarism and hysterical intolerance that have ensued in its wake? It has certainly done its share of damage to serious writing and honest criticism. In its attempt to dispel the "crisis of confidence" 9/11 produced in some discussions of American fiction, Wood's essay is surely honest criticism, but I don't think it sufficiently lets go of "9/11" as the signal event in recent literary history.
Wood is right, however, to point out that it has taken these novels by British writers in an identifiably European tradition to reveal "dissatisfaction" among American readers and critics with mainstream American fiction. The conclusion to be reached from his analysis would be either that there are no American writers offering the same kind of alternative, or that at least such efforts have not been made visible enough. Although I do believe that too much of what is called "innovative" fiction in the United States has been traveling down the dead-end road of a torpid surrealism (which is most assuredly engaged in its own pas-de-deux with realism), I also think there are writers who deserve more attention for the way they do provide relief from the post 9/11 syndrome. I will take it as a challenge to identify and discuss some of those writers, both on this blog and in reviews I may publish elsewhere.