More on characters’ psychology in contemporary fiction

At House of Mirth, James Marcus begs to differ with Lee Siegel’s allegation that post-WWII fiction lacks psychological depth:

He’s certainly right to argue that Freud’s “universal paradigm for the human personality” has turned out to be something of a blunt (and parochial) instrument. Yet another part of his argument seems pretty wobbly–the suggestion that Freud’s mechanical notions of human behavior have killed off the “idiosyncratic, original inner and outer lives” of the characters we encounter in postwar fiction.

To buttress this argument, he first cites the nouveau roman. It would be charitable to call that a red herring: the nouveau roman is a gimmick, a cul-de-sac currently occupied by Alain Robbe-Grillet and about 19 readers. Siegel’s next bit of evidence–the postmodern novel, with its “self-annulling irony, deliberate cartoonishness, montage-like ‘cutting'”–is more persuasive. Still, he manages to bash postwar fiction for its puddle-deep characterization without mentioning a single author. And once you consider some actual examples, the thesis begins to fall apart. Does Siegel really believe that, say, Rabbit Angstrom has no psychological depth as a character? How about Nathan Zuckerman (if anything, we know too much about that guy) or Augie March? I mention Updike, Roth, and Bellow deliberately, because they’re not flukey exceptions to the rule: they’re mainstream postwar novelists, with large audiences and more decorations and medals than Tommy Franks. But there are plenty of other examples. Are Alice Munro, Charles Baxter, Jane Smiley, David Gates, Penelope Fitzgerald, Tobias Wolff, and V.S. Naipaul (a random sample, really) all so in thrall to Freud that they can’t create characters with a 3-D, Victorian amplitude? I just don’t see it. Blame the Golden Sigi for his zanier conceptions, sure–but not for the Death of Depth, which I maintain is alive and kicking.

While I don’t disagree that Siegel’s argument may be drawn in insupportably broad strokes — in my own post on the subject I mentioned Donna Tartt and Iris Murdoch as examples of post-WWII writers who’ve succeeded in evoking their characters’ internal lives on the page, and I could name many more — I believe he succeeds in pinpointing some literary trends that have threatened in recent years to supplant psychologically insightful fiction.

(Even so, I find plenty to admire in some of the traditions Siegel critiques — in the work of Barth and Barthelme, for instance, and that’s only getting to the “B’s.”)

As for the nouveau roman, I’d like to put in a good word for Marguerite Duras’ The Lover, surely the true standout of that tradition, not to mention one of the most influential novels of the last century. Alain Robbe-Grillet’s Jealousy admittedly wouldn’t appeal to everyone, but I count myself among his 19 fans.


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