Extreme worlds: a core characteristic of great literature

upintheair

 

 

 

 

 

Why is it that we remember certain novels and have forgotten everything  about others, even what the story was about?

There are of course plenty of banal reasons for this phenomenon. Readers sometimes have very specific, individual grounds to remember a novel; because the story has everything to do with an important detail of their own life;  because it was the first time they read a great, overwhelming novel; because they identified  with the hero or anti-hero; because for the first time they enjoyed a truly original use of their mother tongue.

Other reasons are even more banal.  I think it helps to remember books if you own them and have them at home and if you make a special shelf for what you yourself consider to be great books. Having lost several times my books, I have however noticed that what I believe are great works of literature remain in my mind even if I don’t own and see them anymore. If I had been trained like many Iraqis to remember dozens of poems or Quranic quotes, I might even recall part of some of their dialogues and smart observations of the novelists I love – what  I usually don’t.

Apart from differences in sheer memory capacity and memory training,  I think the most universal reason for remembering a novel  is that the story   transported the reader to an extreme world, a world completely different from his or her own. By “completely different” I don’t mean necessarily fantasy worlds as we find them in all impressive and cheap science fiction novels or in non-literary novels for women in which romantic virgins as well as cynical prostitutes finally get the guy they love and marry him. I also don’t mean extreme male worlds in which the hero, only surrounded by beautiful, willing women, is accomplishing one genious, heroic act after another, defeating the enemy and coming out of it all with owning Miss World. The worlds so different  from the reader’s can be very, very realistic.

Walter Kirn, by now an established  American journalist and novelist , in 2001 attracted wide attention with his novel  Up in the air. It is about a man who doesn’t have a home any longer, because as a company consultant he is living most days of his life on airplanes, hopping from one company that wants to layoff employees and workers to another. In the book (not in the weak, uninteresting movie based on the novel, with George Clooney) the consultant tries to collect one million “airmiles”. These are a kind of bonus points an airline gives to its clients. Airmiles give a customer a right to money discounts on all kinds of products, air travel, entrance fees of museums, etcetera. The consultant doesn’t spend his airmiles but tries to reach one million, because then he can retire from his ghastly job (telling people they are fired). The airline gives a special reward for such a loyal traveller. So he is obsessed with earning his airmiles, often taking another, longer  route to his destination, only to earn more airmiles. His relations with women depend on hotels that also give airmiles. In the novel he is constantly close to reaching the one million and thank god he has a spy who warns him when the airliner tries to cheat him out of his reward.

The novel is in my view  a brilliant analysis of the psychology of people inside a passenger airplane, especially frequent travellers, and a cruel picture of the mind of collectors, especially if something is collected that represents (in the end) big money. Perhaps people like the consultant trying to earn one million airmiles don’t exist in reality – but the collector character is nevertheless a familiar, even fundamental  figure in modern societies. What is working in a factory or running the factory other than collecting money to collect things and also future feelings?

To kill time in their boring, not so purposeful  lives, modern people collect all kind of things, if only to find an excuse to travel to collectors fairs, auctions, exhibitions and factories, to buy and sell, to have contacts all over their city or  the world with other collectors and meet fellow human beings. If this sounds innocent, we have to realize that some collectors’ worlds, especially those where trivial objects are collected (such as the figurines from Ferrero’s chocolate eggs for children),  have been taken over by commercial companies and their marketing departments, keeping stupid adults busy  spending their money in a closed world where there is no room for criticism or doubt. In a documentary on the Ferrero eggs I  saw adult couples driving hundreds of kilometers  to other countries to buy those Ferrero eggs and unpacking dozens of kilos of eggs at home, not really interested in the chocolate, but only in the figurines.

Two German sociologists, Markus Metz and Georg Seesslen,  have called such  chocolate-egg, one dimensional worlds “stupidity generators”, trying to prove that modern political elites and modern economic life both need a huge underclass of  unfree stupids, hooked on whatever.  Well, in the end novels are about why or how people give sense to their life or fail to do so. It is still not widely accepted that we live in a cruel universe devoid of sense, least of all in religious societies where all life on earth has sense and is just preparation for the next step after death. Owning certain collectors’ items seem to be a kind of bridge between the old world (with gods or God) and the new world (senseless universe without gods but with human rights).

The “different world” in a great novel often gives a sensation of claustrofobia. There is no escape from it for the characters and the reader cannot disagree (unless he does this while reading the first pages and decides he doesn’t like the story). There does exist some human choice, luck, some uncertainty in these narrowed worlds  – but in limited doses or often only after almost superhuman sacrifice and effort. Take for example the nightmarish novel 1984 by George Orwell (the world of totalitarian, cruel dictatorships), Abdelrahman Munif’s East of Meditteranean (on a prisoner who is released after betraying his friends but who cannot find peace of mind in the wide, outside world), Ismael Kadare’s thriller The Accident (the disappearance of love and crime – as we knew it – in a globalized world), or certain short stories by Yusuf Idriss where past, present and future of Egypt are evoked through very small events, for example, something ridiculously small being stolen inside a judge’s house. But the atmosphere is unforgettable.

As there are probably almost no new story plots to invent in literature, a love story that for over a hundred pages takes place in one single car might help a writer nowadays to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. The extremely restricted world of a good  contemporary novel is a kind of  loop, a path that starts and ends at the same point, after learning something not easily definable in between.

I am sure: although the average modern reader hates long descriptions of landscapes and foreign cities (in the 19th century such information could still go on for three pages), a highly specific location adds to the spell of a novel and helps to remember the book. Sometimes the place might be even considered the real protagonist or driving force of the novel.  Death in Venice is a well-known example written in 1911 by the famous Thomas Mann (Venice being an unhealthy, Italian decadent place at the time). Perhaps once an Iraqi novelist will write a novel set in Saddam’s Baghdad in a similar way as Alfred Döblin’s magnificent novel  Berlin Alexanderplatz.  The trial by Franz Kafka, set in a huge bureaucratic government office, provides another example. It might be up for discussion whether the naturalistic novel The Ladies’ Paradise  by Emile Zola is a novel about one of the first shopping malls in history,  or a typical 19th century  love story (rich man, poor girl, intimate class struggle) set in a location that was new in that century – or both.  The highly original Polish science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem tells in the novel Memoirs found in a bathtub  the story of a world where ordinary people are gassed by the government with chemicals to make them believe they live in a beautiful apartment on the seventh floor, and go there with an elevator, their basket full of delicious food. In reality they live in a terribly shabby place, they are running up the stairs, panting,  and they will eat every day disgusting food. Lem’s  government believes it is technically impossible to feed and house mankind and to provide the electricity for happy lives of the masses. The way Lem describes the ugly place where the people live and are cheated about in terms no newspaper story about poverty here or there can equal.

In Up in the air of Walter Kirn the different world and suffocating space are also the result of the particular choices and beliefs of the main character, decisions  that must give his life sense – as in all outstanding novels. There are no masterpieces of literature in which a person just “goes with the flow” and never decides anything about his or her life – although most masterpieces are about the flow in which a person is caught. Without the hero’s hunt for the one million airmiles, Kirn’s  story wouldn’t exist. The same applies to  greater novels such  as  Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoj (the aristocratic or bourgeois love marriage as an illusion Anna believes in).  In the provocative novel Platform, the French novelist Michel Houellebecq makes everyone believe in chronic sexual needs in wealthy countries which  can be provided for by poor countries devoted to sex tourism with willing victims. Other opinions don’t seem possible, although in the end there is a terrorist attack against a huge brothel and holiday resort. In Karin Fossum’s literary thriller The Caller, we enter two colliding  worlds of implacable logic: one world  inside the mind of ordinary citizens who believe they live in a safe, peaceful country (Norway) and that no one has any reason to target and harm them. The other world is inside the mind of a poor, young man abandoned by his father, living with his alcoholic mother on social benefits and pocket money from a kind grandfather, looking for cruel jokes to revenge against the happy citizens he sees around him.

I think these small, peculiar worlds, with their own, sometimes perverse logic, their own brand of stupidity, their lack of escape doors and their obsessed characters reflect definitely a modern phenomenon. There were times societies were not divided up into a kind of autonomous zones with their own logic, their own language, their own morals and ethics, their own “stars”, leaders  and prophets, like, nowadays:  politics, science, religion, the judiciary, the health care sector, the army, economic life, education, the entertainment industry, terrorism, tourism. These zones are subdivided into even smaller autonomous worlds that must interest the novelist as the person par excellence who is trying to figure out in which ways human beings without an overarching religious belief or a steadfast political ideology are coping with the problems that arise in these new small worlds.

I suspect: most novelists deeply believe that the average reader cannot critically think about his or her own microscopic small world but he or she can feel and understand what’s going on next door – be fascinated by it and remember, and perhaps learn – on condition it is an entirely strange planet. What a paradox!

And all this might also apply to movies…

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