Photo by Rendy Novantino on Unsplash
On Friday, I officially move to New York. For much of the last month, I’ve been looking at furniture and trying to imagine myself as a different kind of person, someone capable of owning adult objects. I’ve selected a new table, a new couch, new chairs, a new bed. Resigned to the fact that the East Coast is barren of overhead lighting, I’ve gotten into floor lamps and light cubes. There are these wonderful stoneware plates I’ve been eyeing, and some decent black flatware I’ve vacillated between paying too much money for and looking for a dupe set on Amazon. The apartment—or at least, the mental image I have of it— is cohering into something stylish and a little classic, aloof and comfortable. Don Draper but, you know, black and gay.
For the first time in my life, I have both control over my living space and access to capital with which to furnish it. At various other points, I’ve had one but not the other, or small degrees of both too inconsequential to make a real go at designing. So many of the spaces I’ve occupied have been arranged so that I could leave them quickly, that itinerant life of the college student and traveling scholar. But in New York, I imagine real furniture made of real wood, in an apartment I won’t leave at the end of a year maybe. A real place. My place. And as such, I want to have one of those apartments that says something when people enter it. I want the apartment to extend out ahead of me and land like a solid, forceful thing in the minds of others.
It’s all stagecraft, of course. The accumulation of signifiers that when arranged into a tableau portray just the kind of cultured life that is underpinned by the right amount and the right kind of social capital. We all know such places. We have seen them on Instagram—stark walls and sumptuous rugs, chaise lounges in rich jewel tones, cane-backed chairs, poufs, throws, wicker baskets to hold umbrellas. Also those primary-hued bits of accent furniture resembling children’s blocks or desk ornaments in muted earth tones. Objects you don’t really need, but when witnessed, they portray a life that is intentional. A life that is cosmopolitan, which is to say, a life that belongs to no particular space or time, a life that knows no particular geography. There are no more local lives. Not in the great digital demimonde which acts as a totalizer and popularizer both.
The effect of Instagram’s digital showroom is similar to a phenomenon described in a 2007 paper by the late critic Tod Hartman titled “The Ikeaization of France.” Hartman states:
As one proceeds through the store, one is confronted by a series of stagelike tableaux suggesting different productive activities carried out in the home: writing, gourmet cooking, serious reading, and artistic pursuits. These are not the impossibly tidy, unattainably beautiful montages of highbrow interior decorating magazines. Rather, they are eminently democratic—attainable, unpretentious, and inexpensive.
When I was browsing Abt Modern, Inside Weather, Dim, Article, Fable, cb2, Goodies LA, Akron Street, and their ilk, what attracted me were not the pieces themselves but the aura affixed to the pieces. The vintage bentwood teak chairs and the gorgeous butcher block tables or the hand-turned spoons or the stoneware from Portugal. The linen sheets, the beautiful flatware arranged just so. These were not merely housewares set out in a series of sterile rows, but carefully arranged pieces set out as if in use. As if they had been left there for just a moment while the owner handled a few last-minute things in the kitchen or the den.
The objects suggested a whole life, a whole narrative. And on Instagram, such narratives are presented in a curatorial whitespace that one associates most often with museums. And in that way, a careful tension emerges between performance and the real. It’s a tension I thought of when, over lunch, I discussed Flannery O’Connor’s idea of how symbols work in fiction. O’Connor describes a symbol as something that belongs to the material reality of a story even as it accumulates meaning as it participates in the story. And one of my new friends said that a pastor friend of his had said, “A symbol is a sign that participates in the reality that it signifies.” There it was. I wanted not just the beautiful furniture, but the life signified by the beautiful furniture. Somehow, the furniture seemed the very key that would make me suddenly interesting and capable of looking after myself and also good at dinner parties. The furniture would make me into someone who understood and could operate within the demimonde. And even if it didn’t, then if I had the right furniture, I could at least convince people that I belonged. This is nothing new. This is merely pecuniary emulation. Canons of taste. It’s basic. It’s Veblen.
But a curious thing happened as I browsed the digital catalogues and admired the mise-en-scène of it all. The stories and arguments made on design Instagram, where you aren’t sold spoons or cups or bowls, but whole ways of life. Every so often, I’d feel a little frisson of pleasure not dissimilar from how I feel when I read the icy, detached novel about contemporary life that has flourished in the last few years especially. The same little thrill that you get from Kate Zambreno or Jenny Offill or Sheila Heti, whose fictions are sheared of the typical trappings of fiction and which seem to exist in a curious, catalogue-adjacent liminal space. That’s the thing about a catalogue. It approaches the poetic in its sublimity. The way that catalogue copy works at the twin levels of signifier and descriptor. The literal and the vibe, so to speak. Catalogue fiction. Ikea realism.
In the late 90s and early 2000s, anglophone prose writing in America and the UK was dominated by a kind of high-camp baroque that James Wood called Hysterical Realism (which I simply cannot believe he got away with because of the obvious sexist undertones, I mean, yikes):
The big contemporary novel is a perpetual-motion machine that appears to have been embarrassed into velocity. It seems to want to abolish stillness, as if ashamed of silence— as it were, a criminal running endless charity marathons. Stories and sub-stories sprout on every page, as these novels continually flourish their glamorous congestion. Inseparable from this culture of permanent storytelling is the pursuit of vitality at all costs.
But what interests me most is what he says a little later in the essay:
It is hysterical realism. Storytelling has become a kind of grammar in these novels; it is how they structure and drive themselves on. The conventions of realism are not being abolished but, on the contrary, exhausted, and overworked.
The exhaustion is what speaks to me. What writers of the mid-2010s and now the 2020s inherited from the hysterical realists were a set of exhausted narrative tools with which to confront an ever-more challenging set of realities. What surfaces again and again in interviews with Cusk, Lerner, Knausgaard, and Heti is that there was a strong impulse to want to make something real. That the tools of fiction had been totally exhausted both by the baroque theatrics of the hysterical realists and also by 9/11 and irony, which had suffused everything so thoroughly that the whole ironic apparatus ceased to function. I guess I just mean, it was hard for a writer to be ironic in a serious way because irony had been so vigorously co-opted by the mainstream media and popular culture. Irony had no sincere straight man to play against, and so the chief tool with which to confront the horrors of 9/11 absurdity had deserted us when we needed it most. It doesn’t surprise me then that what emerged as a breed of exhausted, cool, distant fiction. The Sebaldians ascended precisely because they needed no irony to fuel their work. When irony had become too performative and too worked, what we got instead were a bunch of people turning to the only thing they could count on as sincere: the self.
I wasn’t really reading or writing then, so that’s just a loose hypothesis. But anyway, I think that realism got worked over real good by the hysterical realists and what we got were the Cusks, the Lerners, the Knausgaards. And a million other variations. It seemed that the 2000s overwhelmed and overran us with information and instead of ascending to some higher order of integrated being, instead of getting novels with hyperlinks and graphics, instead of the novel going quantum, it reverted to something smaller, quieter. It cooled and turned in on itself, and what we were the novels of the self. Novels that seemed hostile to the very concept that there existed outside of the bright rim of consciousness, a world in which the narrator might take part. Novels of anti-information, anti-incorporation. They resist, at times, even quotation marks. I asked a friend about this once. I asked them, “Why don’t you use quotes. Is it a Tik Tok thing?” And they said, “No, it just feels phony to me. Putting things in quotes.”
I guess my pet theory is that when you set something down in quotes, you are making an argument about the veracity of that statement. And the novelists of the self are trafficking in the idea that memory and narrative and fiction and the self are all turbulent currents that flow into and around and against each other, and that one can never be sure that something is true or was said. But also, to put something in quotes is to integrate an external text into one’s life. It creates a text within a text, and the novelist of the self, I think, is always anti-incorporation. There can be no integration of information into the self. What information does find its way into the self is portioned and held at arms length. See Kate Zambreno’s great and very vibey Drifts. Or Leaving the Atocha Station, or even The Topeka School. Such novels are a hash of textures because the novel of the self simply does not integrate. It exists in vibrating tension always. A carefully erected structure. Fragments, etc. You get it.
In a 2018 interview with The New Yorker, Rachel Cusk described her own particular aversion, in the Outline novels at least, to the old systems of the novel:
It’s one of the things that I realized had changed since the old templates, the Victorian template of novel writing, where character is a big thing. How much does character actually operate in a person’s life? I think it probably operates to create what we might fairly see as a dysfunction—not sticking to what you’re meant to be doing. So I think character is sort of a little low, and there’s a homogeneity afoot that I think everyone would accept in terms of our environment and how we live and how we communicate, and those things seem to be eroding the old idea of character.
Some part of me always wants to pinpoint Cusk as ground zero for what I’ve started calling character vapor. That is, these kind of wispy, vaporous consciousnesses which drift through the blindingly bright vacant interiors of contemporary fiction. Characters shorn of the traditional gravities of narrative fiction. That’s a silly idea, of course. Cusk is only borrowing from Woolf, from Sebald, from Beckett, from Genet, from Bernhard, from the epistolary tradition. Though despite its very traditional roots, Heidi Julavits describes it as a formal radicalism in a 2017 profile of Cusk:
The novel does not bother with interiors (or even exteriors) save via the briefest brushstrokes. Outline feels composed of voices in an empty room, without any “realist” set designing. But the bourgeois artifacts that so define conventional realist novels, and which Cusk, in a radical act of deaccessioning, gutted from Outline’s interior — those artifacts start to creep back into Transit. Every smelly rug is a means to a crushing revelation about humans, true, but I won’t deny that I was slightly crestfallen by the return of things.Outline suggested a future for the novel in which we might no longer need characters and, by extension, all of their crap.
I don’t know that I see it as a formal radicalism except in the context of what came immediately before, which were novels packed so full that realism itself seemed to have collapsed under the strain. Julavits might be describing the exhausted, enervated realism of Katie Kitamura’s excellent novels A Separation and Intimacies as well as works by Christine Smallwood, Bryan Washington, Ayşegül Savaş, Clare Sestanovich, Sigrid Nunez, Raven Leilani, and Jhumpa Lahiri.
One reads such novels and marvels at the lack of objects and bodies. What one gets instead are a series of vividly, but curtly described inert tableaux of contemporary life. A character sits at a desk doing some mundane, specific task. Then the character is in a kitchen doing some other mundane, specific task. And then they are at home doing yet another mundane specific task. They turn their heads this way and that and catch others engaged in mundane, specific tasks that alert the reader to the mores of the moment, the time, all delivered with a kind of withering deadpan. The ethic is, I think, one of reproduction. There is this slowly congealing idea that it is morally and aesthetically sufficient to merely recreate the alienating torpor of having one’s life organized ruthlessly and brutally by capitalism. The adjunct novel, the novel of millennial precarity, the novel of racial animus, all of which are simply off-shots of naturalism, hew to this idea that the most harrowing thing one can do is simply recreate the effect of the brutal force shaping one’s life. There need not be a suggestion of alternative lives or alternative routes. One need only fire up the ol observational apparatus and nail a couple astute comments about what people say and do in offices and in bars and cafes and on the street, and there you have it, job done.
To be clear, I love nothing more than a severe novel about someone going through the motions. I love a novel of consciousness precisely because in its circular, repetitive eddies, I glimpse some of my own circular, repetitive eddies. Feeling very seen right now, bestie, etc. The primary thrust of the contemporary novel is away from the bourgeois trappings of narrative and inward, toward the consciousness, toward what it means to move through the world, vapor and all. Such novels posit that the real moral dilemma of contemporary life is the single individual soul’s mighty struggle against the tyranny of the capitalist machinery that wants to co-opt and destroy. We are all WALL-E, scurrying around, trying to escape and find our individual way home. What powers such a novel is not plot or even character. What powers such a novel is interior weather. Pith. Wry observation. An accurate recreation of psychological effects under the duress capital. Or, else, the weak-hearted capitulations to bourgeois things like family, like comfort, like expensive sweaters. Then, the keen-eyed dagger of judgment, the send up of people who are still doing conspicuous consumption—in this economy? Not a good look!
What Julavits describes also fits neatly into what Hartman calls the core of the Ikea aesthetic: “Although Ikea sells objects, the nexus of Ikea’s decorative power, the ultimate tableau, is one of minimalism, of nothingness.” Later, he goes on to describe the moral force of this ethos as a way of “circumventing that seemingly inescapable linkage between social position and material possessions and the tyranny of choice” in essence because “In the hierarchy of taste, minimalism always wins out because it cannot be “disproved.””
I think about this in the context of writers like Rachel Cusk and Sally Rooney, who are said to have “gut-rennovated” the novel and “stripped the novel for parts” respectively. I think also of books like Kate Zambreno’s Drifts or Miranda Popkey’s Topics of Conversation. This idea that by removing what one considers bourgeois set-design from the novel, one is moving the novel toward some more superior moral evolution. That by taking away description of furniture or by not leaning heavily into the conventions of character arc or the evolution of a person, they are making an argument about the true nature of life under capitalist systems, which is to say, that life in such a context is alienating and repetitive, that none of the specificity truly matters because it all just bourgeois noise.
Hartman cites the scholar Loos on this crucial point:
Ornamentation for Loos was the hallmark of a decaying, senseless society, and minimalism celebrated as the style of a new, triumphantly definitive modernity: “The evolution of culture is synonymous with the removal of ornament from utilitarian objects”
That is, we modernize by way of subtraction and sublimation. We “gut-renovate” and “strip for parts.” This is of course not the first time that minimalism was used as a pretext to reinvigorate narrative prose fiction. It’s a tradition that, in the anglophone world at least, goes back at least to the sensitive but macho minimalism of Hemingway. We’ve seen it flare up with Carver, Denis Johnson, Joy Williams, and Mary Robison. There, was too, that brief time when the K-Mart Realists had the dominant sway of things in American literature particularly. Fiction that was chipped and scuffed up and lacking ornament, fiction that was tapped into something stripped-down and real. Earnest. The MTV Unplugged version of contemporary life. Something outside of all the artifice and the glamor and the glow of things. Fiction that could address the world as it truly was. Or at least, what the authors thought of as the real world.
But this recent strain feels different. The minimalism of the globalist intellectual class is less working stiffs of the blue collar variety and more the bourgeois-boheme, first popularized by David Brooks in his book Bobos in Paradise, summarized by Hartman as:
Bourgeois-bohème is also an appellation given to a new class of young consumers who possess superior spending power and have the pretensions of seeking some artistic, politically progressive, socially responsible, or otherwise “profound” meaning in life that transcends mere capitalist consumerism.
The Bobos create a fiction that is ascetic and distilled, pure consciousness and only those few artifacts necessary to conjure the staid, stiff backdrop of contemporary life and its problems. Such novels are fearsome indeed, and curiously hostile. Hartman says:
If from an aesthetic point of view, this type of room constitutes sophisticated (absence of) design, from a practical perspective, and an existential one, it is fundamentally unbearable. What does one actually do in such a room? How does one entertain oneself?
The short answer is that you don’t. That this the thing about a tableau. There is no actual life going on there. It is purely a symbol. It works by redaction. It is carefully arranged to give the impression of full dimension. But the minute you step into it, you render it impossible. There are no real people living in the Ikea Novel. There is no life there. When one finishes such a novel, all the bright, transient phenomena fade. It’s what Joyce Carol Oates calls the wan little husks of autofiction. Wan because they contain no more life than one finds in an Ikea catalog. The imaginative capacity in such a novel is the same as browsing Instagram and looking at furniture. It is pleasurable. Beautiful. One feels the hum of possibility. One briefly lives in a more beautiful, carefully arranged reality, and then you swipe and the image is gone and there is nothing there.
And maybe there is something beautiful in the ephemera of the Ikea Novel. Its transience somehow truthful about life under capitalism. But, I don’t know, it seems me that when you take away character and you take away the stakes of living in the world, what you have is just chatter. It’s just foam. MDF.
I find it hard to reconcile my love of many of these books with my growing frustration with the contemporary novel. I’m not done thinking it through. But it feels somehow that there is something morally evasive about all this. That there is something missing.
Still, I guess I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that things are also changing. I said sort of glibly the other week on Twitter but now I’m kind of sure about this but it seemed like everyone went away during the pandemic and now they’re all back writing Cloud Atlas. Am I nuts? It does seem that there are many novels coming out in the next couple of years that are sprawling, multi-POV, multi-setting operatic fantasias. Anthony Doerr and E,mly St. John Mandel come first to mind. But also Matt Bell. Of course this sort of novel has long been en vogue among our genre family, but it also seems like the Cloud Atlas-esque epic is making a comeback, and so maybe the wan husks are on their way out and we’re going to see the return of the Victorian shop of curiosities.
Or maybe—and this is more likely the case—we’re all doing everything all the time and the only thing that changes is what five or ten culture writers in New York choose to call the moment.