If award nominations are all that is left of a book’s merits (critical journalism having gone the way of the typewriter), it has been a good year for Toronto’s House of Anansi Press. That said, of their current crop of fiction, two books that failed to make the shortlists are those that dare to ask questions as their titles – Sheila Heti’s How Should A Person Be? and Douglas Coupland’s Player One: What Is To Become Of Us. (Though the latter lacks a question mark, the reader cannot help but supply it.)
Have I read these books? I have tried, but the writing kept getting in the way. By that I mean the act of reading had me so hobbled by the inconsistently considered surface of the prose that I had to abandon their content and consider their questions through the form their writing takes.
Are these books badly written? I do not believe in “bad”, certainly not as a critical category. As a connoisseurial category, that goes without saying. But as a critical category, if “bad” can be conveyed on a perceptual level, as Houellebecq did with Platform (2001) and DBC Pierre with Vernon Little God (2003), then yes, it is operative. A material to work with, like a dry brush to a painter.
In Houellebecq’s book, “bad” writing is in itself a critique of a bourgeois French culture that prides itself on virtuosity in all endeavors. In his attempt to reveal the contradictions of (neo-)liberalism, Houellebecq has implicated language as an ideological lubricant. By placing gorgeous prose (not) on the level of the perfect holiday (not), Houellebecq achieves overtone. Pierre’s book manages a similar effect, where “bad” writing is analogous to the systemic failures that plague the United States, particularly her youth.
Is it disingenuous to make such an argument? I brought the question up at a dinner party composed largely of writers, musicians and visual artists. The writers would have none of it, their leader denouncing me for not accounting for the writer’s intentions (a Bostonian, he was unfamiliar with the term “unintended irony”, to say nothing of the writings of Roland Barthes). The musicians were split: in favour, the New Music composer, a proponent of tone clusters; against me, her son -- the emo folkie. Of the visual artists, there was neither agreement nor disagreement but a promise to think about it, which a few of them did, the prevailing belief being that the rhetoric of (written) language has exhausted itself and it is time to (re)explore its more opaque qualities. In a word: collage.
How should a person be? and What is to become of us[?] Are these worthwhile questions? To the first I would start with Socrates’s line about the unexamined life (that it is not worth living), and proceed from there. Not as a buzz-crusher, but as someone open to seeing things beyond the heart and head -- in short, a more lymphatic approach. To the second (assuming “Us” means human beings), there is already too much undiscovered future in the past for us to spend our present looking ahead.
For too long the future has belonged to religious fanatics and market speculators, and I would much rather dig through the rubble of what is unknown than strive for something described to me. Is it important that we know where we come from? Yes, but that is not the question I would add to Sheila and Doug’s. That would look more like this: What have we done to get where we are?