Art & Argument:
Issues and Ideas in American Fiction
1. Argue Better
by Amitava Kumar
This is the first of five pieces discussing the role of issues and ideas in American fiction and how it can become more socially engaged. These sections are adapted from remarks at the 2013 conference of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) in Boston, entitled “Troubling Ideas: The Renewal of Argumentative Fiction.”
On my way to Boston for the AWP Conference, I pulled off the highway at a rest stop in Connecticut and saw that I had a message on my phone. For the next half hour, I sat in the car and proofread on my iPhone an interview I had recently conducted with Teju Cole for Guernica. An hour or two later, I drove into Boston, just in time for the panel on which I was due to speak. Our industrious panel organizer had chosen the following title for our panel: “Troubling Ideas: The Renewal of Argumentative Fiction.” When my turn to speak came, the interview with Cole was fresh in my mind, and I decided to read the first paragraph aloud.
“A book suggests conversation,” the narrator Julius says early in Teju Cole’s acclaimed novel Open City. “One person is speaking to another.” Open City showcases a series of erudite, often probing, wide-ranging conversations between Julius and other characters, and between Julius and the reader. Of course, what the book also reveals, and this is part of its brilliance and surprise, is that conversation can also be used to avoid talking about something.
The same can be said for argumentative fiction, which after all is also a kind of conversation: it can be directly revealing but could also function as a ploy to avoid any deeper or disturbing truth. In the wake of the September 11 attacks, quite a number of novels staged a conversation about the events of that day or its aftermath. What had they revealed? I was struck by Judith Butler’s observation that “in the United States we begin the story by invoking a first-person narrative point of view, and telling what happened on September 11.” Butler wasn’t talking about novels; she was discussing how most of us spoke about the tragedy. Yet the truth is that the description, alas, applies also to fiction written by the likes of John Updike (Terrorist) and Martin Amis (The Second Plane). There is no Other in these novels. Islamic terrorists appear in the work of these Western writers—Muhammad Atta’s fictional form finds a ghostly realization in more than one book—but they remain unreal and wholly unconvincing. It seems to me that the success of a book like Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist lies in the fact that it puts a dialogue with the Other—the sense of an argument between contending forces—at the heart of its narrative.
There was a detour, during my AWP presentation, through an n+1 (Summer 2012) article by Nicholas Dames about novels written by what he calls the Theory Generation. Dames’s essay deals with the invocation of literary theory in recent fiction by Jeffrey Eugenides, Lorrie Moore, Ben Lerner, Sam Lipsyte, Jennifer Egan, and Teju Cole. The point of the piece is to comment on the tenor of the engagement: these writers were taught literary theory in college, it became a part of their DNA, and now, given the distance of years, they are also able to ironize it. (It is a complicated essay and I couldn’t hope to summarize it. If I can speculate, the principal purpose of the piece is to show us that it is, after all, theory that can explain not only the language that these novelists use but also whatever insight their fiction achieves.) In Boston, I quoted from a section that many readers and critics, including Dames, have noted in their reading of Cole’s novel.
In that section, Cole’s narrator, Julius, a psychiatrist living in New York, is on a visit to Brussels. Julius is of mixed parentage, with a Nigerian father and a German mother. In an Internet café in Brussels, Julius meets a young Moroccan named Farouq who works behind the counter. The conversation between Julius and Farouq is surprising—and pleasurable—to academics because the two men invoke names like Barthes and Deleuze, Chomsky and de Man. This easy traffic in ideas assures us that our concerns and debates, our familiar points of reference, our academic language, all belong to the world at large. That they have an existence in other lives being pursued outside the classroom. I’m talking here as an academic. As I remember telling our audience in Boston, you cannot fail to be struck by a character in a contemporary novel who declares: “I wanted to be the next Edward Said!”
In an admiring review of Open City in The New Yorker, James Wood noted: “This is one of the very few scenes I have encountered in contemporary fiction in which critical theory and literary theory is not satirized, or flourished to exhibit the author’s credentials, but is simply and naturally part of the whole context of a person.” Wood is right and I’d also recommend his review because it delivers insights in a high exultant key. His essay is not a review; it is a song. But I digress. Let’s ask, What is the force behind Farouq’s rage and rhetoric? Farouq tells Julius the bitter story, not entirely implausible, of the committee rejecting his thesis on grounds of plagiarism:
I was crushed. I left the school. Plagiarism? This had nothing to do with me. The only possibilities are either that they refused to believe my command of English and theory, or, and I think this is even more likely, that they were punishing me for world events in which I had played no role. My thesis committee had met on September 20, 2001, and to them, with everything happening in the headlines, here was this Moroccan writing about difference and revelation. This was the year I lost all my illusions about Europe.
What did critics think of Farouq’s claim? Here is James Wood: “And how very subtle of Teju Cole to suggest, at the same time—but with barely an authorial whisper—that perhaps Farouq leans too heavily on his theoretical texts, and that this was real cause of the plagiarism charge. (The 9/11 scapegoating seems unlikely, though Julius doesn’t say so.)”
I don’t agree with Wood on this point. I think that the events of September 11 played a role similar to the one Farouq describes. The triumph of Open City is that it introduces into the frame, not without its own ambiguities, the Other argument. This is the worldview of someone like Farouq, whom Julius calls “one of the thwarted ones.” This is what writers from elsewhere have been doing since 9/11, and Cole brings that perspective into a work of American fiction where such perspectives had been rare.
Even in the weeks immediately after the September attacks, it was those “elsewhere writers” who were talking about the Farouqs of the world, telling us that all our first-person accounts of what happened that Tuesday morning in September were denying any personhood—or memories, or hurt—to people all over the world. I will end by quoting Orhan Pamuk from the pages of New York Review of Books on November 15, 2001:
There are those in the US today who unconditionally support military attacks for the purpose of demonstrating America’s military strength and teaching terrorists “a lesson.” Some cheerfully discuss on television where American planes should bomb, as if playing a video game. Such commentators should realize that decisions to engage in war taken impulsively, and without due consideration, will intensify the hostility toward the West felt by millions of people in the Islamic countries and poverty-stricken regions of the world—people living in conditions that give rise to feelings of humiliation and inferiority.
It is neither Islam nor even poverty itself that directly engenders support for terrorists whose ferocity and ingenuity are unprecedented in human history; it is, rather, the crushing humiliation that has infected the third-world countries.
Ultimately it is this openness to others’ perspectives that marks the success of Open City as a work of engagement, of fiction as conversation.
Amitava Kumar is the author of A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm a Tiny Bomb: A Writer’s Report on the Global War on Terror (2010), which was judged Best Non-Fiction Book of the Year in the Asian American Literary Awards. He is the Helen D. Lockwood Professor of English at Vassar College.