Monday, November 03, 2008

America and other contemporary mysteries

I am a great believer in the contemporary novel, the contemporary setting - but I wonder what it actually means. Speaking about this the other night, I don't think the blow-by-blow accounts you get on blogs are really what I'm talking about - and god help the blogger who turns real-time rant into a novel. What's left there? It's why, despite his hope and protestations, Tom Wolfe's New Journalism never became the literature he'd envisaged. "In Cold Blood" aside - was there a classic that came out of it? Wolfe's own masterpiece, "Bonfire of the Vanities", as acute a tale of the 80s as you could wish for, was, like "Wall Street", a product of 1987, and, of course, a fiction. There's a piece in today's Times wondering how an Obama presidency will affect the arts. The arts, in my mind, it seems, is most affected by 3 things: money (some kind of patronage), opposition (something to rail against), and, the zeitgeist (which can just as easily be described demographically.)

A contemporary novel about 2008? I'm lost as to what the subject might be. America looks large, but in a way, as someone who only visited once, in 1995, I can't begin to contemplate. If the evangelical Christian America seemed mysterious, I'm not sure that an America of "change" will provide any less so to this outsider. The use of the word "socialism" by both McCain and Obama seems to come from an entirely different lexicon than my own. Yet, the America of "The Wire" or "Sopranos" is - if not recognisable, is certainly not mysterious. In some ways, the pseudo-religious aspects of "Battlestar Galactica" are the more mysterious.

Yet, what would an English novel cover? It's a strange year, isn't it? Sport, long an obsession, yet so often one that we're so bad at, sees us now, with Lewis Hamilton, Andy Murray and our Olympians in a "golden age" - but its interesting that its a golden age of individuals or at least of the individualistic. What Hamilton and Murray have avoided is the dead hand of the establishment, of institutitions. And even the cycling success of Team GB - though pubblicly funded - has come from isolation of the successful from the institutional. We are the land of innovators, explorers, individuals... and with a dollop of outside influence (Hamilton's Grenadan antecedents, Murray's Caledonian bullishness)... success becomes something that we shouldn't be afraid of. The contrast with the institutionalised bumbling of the ill-advised 20/20 disaster couldn't be the more so.

Perhaps we are moving beyond the age of "apology" - the Englishman (or rather, British citizen), as David Brent or Frank Spencer. Our new heroes are winners, ruthless, internationalised, and... not universally loved. So be it. Perhaps the new Bond is a sign of this. Yet, the boorishness of the age - (Mssrs. Ross and Brand, stand up) - has never seemed so out of step as a result. Which is real? Perhaps its the renewed respect for our soldiers returning from what still seem like endless conflicts...and a reminder that, like America, the military dead and injured, aren't necessarily the products of the British public school system, but the ordinary man and woman, accepting the odds, taking the chance.

A week - a month - a year in which all our contradictions have been thrown about (and continue to be thrown about: look at how many of the powers-that-be responsible for the banking disaster want us to return, as soon as possible, to some business as usual), I'm concerned less about "what place art" as the revolving morals of the age. Where the BBC becomes a victim of the Mail on Sunday; where we dislike our winning sportsmen and women for having a character that is so unlike our own. America, one hopes, will have a new start on Wednesday morning - even if in many ways Obama is a conservative candidate for a conservative country - for us, our egalitarianism is celebrated by Anthony Gormley's parade of ordinary Britains on the 4th plinth, yet our sense of what's next is entirely uncertain.

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