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When Lit Blew Into Bits


Unfortunately, here at the other end of that same decade, readers are still waiting for DeWitt’s second novel. She co-authored one, called Your Name Here, but the book was so radically entangled in the aughts’ new modes of writing (large portions of it consist of actual e-mail exchanges between DeWitt and the Australian journalist Ilya Gridneff) that it has yet to make its way into print. (The journal n+1 published an excerpt in 2008; I got my copy of the entire novel in PDF form from DeWitt’s website.) This, in a nutshell, is the problem of the aughts. Will all of these newly indispensable textual forms ever lend themselves to actual books, or are they simply ends in themselves? (DeWitt has said that she temporarily had to move into an Internet-less apartment in order to get work done; according to her blog, she spent 2009 trying to finish five different books.)

Early in The Last Samurai, one of the book’s narrators declares, “I would like to strike a style to amaze.” This could be the official motto of the literary aughts. Books formed under the attentional pressure of the Internet tend to devote disproportionate energy to style; if you can’t assume that your readership is going to stick with you beyond a paragraph or two, it’s probably smart to load that paragraph with maximum pizzazz. The decade’s books were obsessed with creating and capturing voices—not the detached omniscient voice of a controlling author but limited, idiosyncratic, stylistically marked, self-consciously amazing voices: the ungrammatical, comma-less poetry of Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang; the hard-boiled Yiddish of Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union; the six very different voices, spanning a couple of centuries, that take turns narrating David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas.

The aughts was the decade in which, for good and for ill, the old reader-alienating strategies of postmodernism went populist. It was the decade of Dave Eggers, McSweeney’s (founded in 1998), and Jonathan Safran Foer. Writers seemed to strip-mine the most distinctive features from major work like Infinite Jest (endnotes, quasi-academic syntax, radical self-consciousness) and redeploy them on a minor scale. Eggers’s 2000 memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, kicked off the decade by exhibiting, in extreme form, the sensibility that would run through much of aughts lit: smart, self-conscious, playful, voice-obsessed, relentlessly engaging, formally busy but easy to digest, both ironic and earnest—an attitude perched halfway between the old-school habits of literary reading and the newfangled demands of the web.

Many of the decade’s best books also happened to be—and I want, if possible, to use this word non-pejoratively—slight. Slightness is not necessarily a flaw, the failure to be suitably big. It’s also a deliberate aesthetic, with its own set of demands (concentration, brevity, the perfect execution of limited forms) and its own venerable canon: P. G. Wodehouse, G. K. Chesterton, Charles Lamb, Oscar Wilde, E. B. White, Nicholson Baker, John Updike, and even Nabokov and Borges. It’s a question not just of length but of attitude, ambition, agenda. The totalizing urge, that instinct to say absolutely everything about millennial America or the Cold War or late-capitalist finance, that drove the giant novels of the late nineties—not only Infinite Jest but also DeLillo’s Underworld (1997), Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon (1997), Wolfe’s A Man in Full (1998)—began to feel less natural in the aughts. Instead we saw the cultivation of small forms. Many of our best writers are virtuosos of slightness: Lydia Davis, who occasionally writes entire stories composed of a single sentence; George Saunders, our most famous fiction writer who’s never published a full-length novel; Billy Collins, permanent laureate of the accessible and breezy. Even the big ambitious art novels of the aughts are remarkably reader-friendly. Cloud Atlas, with its nested stories stretching from the 1850s to a postapocalyptic future, is content to be experimental without ever becoming ponderous or unwieldy—a minor, perfect version of the sprawling postmodern meganovel tradition from which it so clearly descends.

If there is a signature novel of the aughts—one book that most artfully co-opted our newfangled webbiness, that allowed itself to feel simultaneously major and small, that anchored its post-postmodern gimmickry in solid fictional ground—it was Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007). It took Díaz, famously, eleven years to follow his first book, the short-story collection Drown, with Oscar Wao—the same amount of time it took Tom Wolfe to write his 750-page A Man in Full. Instead of pouring that time and energy into making Oscar Wao long and sprawling and sweeping and universal, Díaz made the book radically particular and condensed. It performs classic meganovel services— tracking a family through several generations, telling the history of an entire nation—in 350 pages. It’s rare to find a novel so short so often referred to as “epic.”

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