Wednesday, August 29, 2007

The State of Things

Has the 21st century begun yet? I was wondering this - not the "numerical" years - but the sense of what it is,what it might become. There are some themes: global warming; environmentalism on the one hand; and on the other religious fundamentalism, globalisation, the inter-connectedness of all things; the "internet." But in the scheme of things these aren't the great rumblings of the nation states at the end of the 19th century - and the accompanying technological revolution - that only really made its mark after the first world war. Our concerns with the environment (belatedly) and global warming seem, to these eyes and ears, a culmination of sixties-seventies-eighties green movements - the difference being that now the Baby Boomers are top of the tree (Al Gore, Gordon Brown et al), they've lived with these things a long time, like women wearing trousers, gay men holding hands, and Yes Albums, they no longer shock the powers that be.

Wherefore art in all this? I suppose visual art has been a bit obsessed with decay for a couple of decades now - whilst the written word has remained solidly middle-class, middle-ground. There's an agelessness to our literary culture, which, though good on the one hand (writers who would once have been marginal, are now seen as national treatures), does mean that its concerns are sometimes a hotch-potch of those issues of the sixties-seventies-eighties, and the newer commodification of them. Ian McEwan's "Atonement" would be a good example of this. One of his better books, for two reasons: one, never that comfortable with the long haul of the novel, here, his Mini-novels are stitched together better than ever; and two, he seemed to reach back into a comfortable millieu - that of a military family, looking through the eyes of history (in other words, its unashamedly middle class.) There's now a film - inevitably, given that this is costume drama, albeit of a higher class - and unlike some of his previous involvements in the medium, this time, there's a real sense that it could be a blockbuster. In other words, McEwan is now, in every sense the establishment writer: writing about its themes and concerns, and also, benefitting from the cultural significance that gives him - in both intellectual cachet (his long story, "On Chesil Beach" has just been longlisted for our premier novel prize - I can't imagine any other writer getting a novella through that process) and commercially (this year's "The English Patient" seems to be the anticipation levels for "Atonement.") I liked the book, and mostly, I like the writer. Yet part of me goes back to that opening remark - has the 21st century begun yet? I'd say if our cultural high water mark is a film adaption of an historical novel from Ian McEwan, then the answer is "no."

Yet, one can feel a little sympathy for the concerns of late 20th century liberal England coming through, if only because of the scorched earth policy of Thatcherism - that the Baby Boomers didn't get the worst of it (thats left for those who left school in the midst of it, and those, a generation down the line who've never escaped it) probably allows them to feel belated victors, at least in the sense of our national priorities. A conservative nation has, far too belatedly, become a liberal nation, a delayed enlightenment you might think. It may stay that way - (America, that liberal nation has spent the last twenty years as a conservative nation, but seems to be turning back, which will help our own cause) - but, possibly, our liberals will just become more illiberal as they get older, and those who've grown up in the last twenty years consumerist years might be more hard-nosed and conservative then we'd think.

Though I think words like "liberal" and "conservative" - political distinctions, once only applied to a small voting elite, then spread out to include general opinion during some of the egalitarian advances of the 20th century, are less important now. What I see, in terms of "attitude" is determined far more by work, career, ambition, money, purchasing power, house prices, than other factors. We're 19th century mercantiles transplanted into a technocratic 21st century. Think "X Factor", think Ryanair and Primark.

One sign of an age that is unwilling to confront its demons - or one that is waiting for those demons to settle down into a more manageable form - is a retreat into the fantastic. I'm not just saying the light fodder of "Harry Potter" and "Lord of the Rings" - but in the number of writers now dabbling with science fiction. Recent novels by Sarah Hall, Kazuo Ishiguro, Margaret Attwood, Will Self, David Mitchell and Michael Cunningham have all been literary takes on the future. Faced with this, I've started taking more of an interest in the genuine fabulists. For if these writers sometimes aren't convincing in their futures (sometimes they make a very good job of it), the fabulists are only unstuck when it comes to character and language. I'm reading China Mieville's "Perdido Street Station", a massive novel set in an undisclosed world (future? parallel? distant? for the fabulist it doesn't matter - its an accepted place, that's all), which continues the dark humour and fecund imagination I've found in a couple of his short stories. Where it falls short, perhaps as always, is in the characterisation, ciphers from penny dreadfuls, cor blimey Cockneys reminiscent of a 50s sci-fi movie. Its miles stronger than "Specimen Days" or "The Book of Dave" on its imagined future creations, yet its the humans who suffer as a result - like they're not interesting enough.

Not that you can blame a fabulist for this - given the travails of our modern technocracy, the feeble storytelling of our reality TV - humans must seem the least interesting creature in our modern menagerie. In this, we find common ground between communist utopianists, death-cult fundamentalists, environmental mavens, information-heavy technocrats and solipsistic celebrities.

Given all this, I'm increasingly unsure I've got anything particularly useful to say. Sci-fi at least offers an escape from this vacuum.


Elizabeth Baines said...

This was interesting. It strikes me that the best 'fabulists' and sci-fi writers are intellectually realists, and it's our cultural obsession with lazy 'reality' which is in fact linked with an intellectual retreat from reality and into fantasy.

Adrian said...

Yes, you're right, I've not read Iain M. Banks "culture" novels but apparently he deliberately set up a socialist-based sci-fi world, because all the others were fascistic. Mieville does an interesting thing: there's a corrupt fascistic government, but also a freeform bohemian culture flowering. It feels like Weimar Germany meets William Gibson. Between the fabulism, you find plenty of reality checks peeking through. I'm enjoying it.