How 2022 became the year of the fragmented-identity novel

From The Los Angeles Times:

The tail end of 2022 has been marked by a worrying sense that the center really isn’t holding. Last month’s U.N. climate conference convened to determine to what degree we might comfortably continue to cook the planet. Election denialism, especially in my home state of Arizona, entrenched itself as a small but no longer negligible branch of political discourse. We could take our grievances to Twitter about such things — or could we? Elon Musk was in charge, not only letting loose the trolls but tweeting as troll-in-chief.

Throw in some overall social and cultural atomization, and it’s coming to feel like we’ve become rhetorically unstuck in time. Fiction is usually a lagging indicator of global crises — Iraq war novels didn’t arrive till years after the war began.But much of the prominent fiction of 2022 met the moment and captured this fragmentation, thick with code-switching, style-shifting and cacophonies of anxious narration. The omniscient, singular authorial voice in literary fiction has become ever more antiquated — still valuable, but more like an exotic, bespoke retreat than literature’s mainland. Call it Franzen Island.

Better befitting our times are a constellation of mosaics — maybe the Egan Archipelago. Jennifer Egan, who set a template for this brand of multi-voiced fiction with her 2009 novel, “A Visit From the Goon Squad,” revisited and updated that sensibility this year with a sequel, “The Candy House,” that despaired of what internet algorithms were doing to our identities. The novel sprays literary gambits like a fallen power line throwing sparks: Here a narrative in tweets, there in emails, here a satire of literary tropes, there a spoof of Hollywood. Egan was writing as if to defend fiction against what the internet was doing to it. A messy online reality — one that spelled “an existential threat to fiction,” she wrote — demanded a stew of styles.

Egan wasn’t alone. In his brilliant second novel, “Trust,” Hernan Diaz cut reality into pieces, telling the story of an early 20th century investor through fiction, memoir and diary to show how each form, on its own, is untrustworthy; every story is self-serving, but put enough of them together and you might get at the truth. The pressures being atomized — rapacious capitalism, entrenched sexism — were systemic, but this was no eon-spanning epic. The narratives were compressed, intimate and particular.

This approach manifested itself poignantly in Namwali Serpell’s second novel, “The Furrows: An Elegy.” A woman mourning her brother’s sudden death switches tones and perspectives to either grasp or escape her complicity in the incident. Her status as a character morphs, as if to suggest that inhabiting someone else’s identity might bring us closer to our own. And in Jonathan Escoffery’s novel-in-stories, “If I Survive You,” the lead character is a Florida-born man of Jamaican heritage whose identity is as fragmentary as the book itself: In the Midwest he’s Black, but in Miami and Jamaica subject to more specific assessments. A chorus of voices seems to consume and splinter him: “You’re brown, but not that kind, and not that kind, and not that kind.”

The style of 2022 — intimate chaos? — was no more specifically American than the chaos of the real world. NoViolet Bulawayo’s second novel, “Glory,” is “Animal Farm” for the age of social media, rooted in the animal residents of an authoritarian African nation staging a collective protest against its leaders. In Mithu Sanyal’s “Identitti,” social media contempt serves as a character in itself, debating the intentions of its protagonist, a Rachel Dolezal-like white academic who performs as a person of color. The novel satirizes the audacity of its heroine, but it also wants to suggest that who we are is increasingly constructed — both internally and externally. (“Oh, so it’s okay to transcend your gender, but a category as obviously made-up as race should be more fixed and inflexible than sex?” she says — a provocation, but Sanyal wrestles seriously with the question.)

Link to the rest at The Los Angeles Times

Perhaps PG is biased from having lived in Southern California for several years, but some commentators writing in The Los Angeles Times always seemed to be aware that no one treated them with the same respect as writers in the other Times, the one in New York.

New York Times writers seemed to receive almost automatic attention and consideration from not only the rest of the nation, but by quite a few well-educated residents of Southern California as well.

The LA Times never managed to gain any lasting credibility beyond a relatively small group of people living in West LA. The huge Latino population didn’t care what the Times had to say nor did the rapidly-growing Orange County populace or anybody in Riverside or San Bernardino.

In 2000, The Times along with the San Diego paper was purchased by a Chicago-based newspaper conglomerate formerly known as The Tribune Company. This organization had been persuaded by some branding geniuses to change its name to Tronc.

Yes, public reaction to Tronc in Chicago and everywhere else was uniformly derogatory.

But the problems in LA were not yet over. Tronc wanted a new look for the Times and fired a bunch of seasoned executives and hired a wonder boy to lead the Times to greater glory, “a visionary and innovative leader” with prior stops in Alta Vista and Yahoo.

It turned out that the new guy was a great salesman and visionary leader, who was also a frat guy who assessed the “hotness” and bodies of female subordinates. Of course he was sued for sexual harassment by various his female employees.

Tronc finally sold its California papers and a bunch of other stuff to a Silicon Valley billionaire who got rid of the stupid name.

1 thought on “How 2022 became the year of the fragmented-identity novel”

  1. Perhaps PG is biased from having lived in Southern California for several years, but some commentators writing in The Los Angeles Times always seemed to be aware that no one treated them with the same respect as writers in the other Times, the one in New York.

    <snark> Sadly, no. But are you really sure that the NYT is the Times they wanted to be? Perhaps The Times of London? Or the Washington Times? </snark>

    Of course, we don’t really need to go into the history of the “Dewey Defeats Truman!” paper, either. All of that major dailies have much more embarassing things in their pasts than having their ownership group renamed by a marketing dork.

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