Photo via Petur HK (and his girlfriend’s camera).
Often, reality is too narrow. The hour has just passed noon, the building opposite my bedroom is reflecting the winter light (always that bit sharper) back into my girlfriend’s face as she’s doing yoga poses on the sofa and scrolling down Facebook on her phone, and if I allow myself to stretch the truth a little bit, last night I fell asleep to a video review of Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor (Sundae Month, 2016) by Erratic Signal. Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor is a game about, surprise, a janitor working on a spaceport, picking up the trash left behind by heroes and adventurers whose lives she wishes she led.
This janitor is a species of girlbeast, and early in the storyline she crawls into the sewers in search for adventure and emerges with naught but a curse to her name and a skull hovering over her shoulder. The skull’s role is primarily as a physical manifestation and, of course, a constant reminder of her curse. The curse itself ultimately represents just the natural state of her life. She isn’t cursed; this is just the life she was born into. More importantly, however, in the words of Chris Franklin of Errant Signal, “it’s a game very much about being a marginalized member of the working poor […] and that sense of being browbeaten, of alienation, of feeling like you’re doing something wrong despite working really, really hard is absolutely the point of the game” (‘Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor (Spoilers)’, December, 2016).
It is, as he says, “not the happiest of games” (ibid). In spite of this, nearly everything else in the game, the colour palette, the music, the surreal characters, the narrative style, is, on the surface, upbeat. And in a New York Magazine article from 2007 on author, director, actor, and performance artist Miranda July—whose works often express a similar upbeat despondency—Kimberly Cutter questions something she refers to as July’s “uncanny ability to mine universal truths from surreal details and illustrate what it’s like to be human and lonely (and a little bit weird) in a post-human era.” Post-human aside, this ‘uncanny ability to mine universal truths’ and the ways in which it is expressed in contemporary literature and game-narrative represents a new, distinct kind of idealism in modern society.
With the changes—at times drastic—that the literary landscape has undergone during the past decade, along with the advent of the Internet, rapid implementation of virtual reality, and a resurgence in the wider public’s interest in literary magazines and the shorter forms of art they vanguard (e.g. short fiction, slam poetry), fiction is being consumed in increasingly varied ways: in front of a laptop, on an e-book reader, via a joystick, illegally downloaded, in a back alley, in print of all shapes and sizes.
A few standouts include: the online and sometimes print magazine [PANK], doing their thing and all the while doing something else they call ‘Invasions’; One Story, sending out one print short story every three or so weeks; and not to forget, McSweeney’s, not content with limiting themselves to, say, print issues with two spines, or with a magnetic binding, or, even, an issue that looks like a square (actually square), sweaty human head.
The consequences of this are bountiful. One is a so-far unprecedented untaming of literature. “Art,” Dave Eggers says in his introduction to the monumental tome, The Best of McSweeney’s (2013), “is made by anarchists and sorted by bureaucrats.” This broadening of the literary world and the various venues now available means that these ‘anarchists’ have more options available to them and, as a result, experience a greater range of freedom in terms of their artistic endeavours. The New Yorker and The Paris Review, though eminent in their own right, no longer reign supreme in terms of determining what is and what isn’t culturally significant, and voices that would otherwise go unheard are more readily presented with a platform as well as a global (or glocal) community in which to share emotional, political, and intellectual thought. In the words of Trey Sager, editor-in-chief of Fence, on discussing their reading and selection process, “Unanimity is not something we typically experience. I’m not sure it’s worth striving for” (Fence, summer 2014).
Furthermore, for the ones willing, this untaming grants critics and scholars a clearer and more immediate peek into the forefront of literature, because the newest literature, the freshest thought, and any dawning literary tendencies and philosophical ideas—such as this new idealism—rear their heads first not in the novels on the The New York Times bestseller list or in the Man Booker prize nominees—the process of writing and publishing any book-length work moves too slowly for that—but in the pages of small and not-so-small magazines on the fringe of the literary landscape. Academics have known this for a while; however, looking at the literature, few seem to have done anything with this knowledge.
In his recent article, ‘Why There’s No “Millennial” Novel’, Tony Tulathimutte, writing for The New York Times, goes as far as to ask the question: “As the oldest of us millennials begin to flee screaming from our 20s, it seems we may have forgotten something—where’s our ‘voice of a generation’ novel?” (December, 2016). The question is, on the surface, an apt one, and he goes on to paraphrase Lev Grossman, who “blames our increasingly ‘multicultural, transcontinental hyphenated identities and our globalized, displaced, deracinated lives’ for why any consensus about a single voice now seems impossible” (ibid) before going further himself to argue “that the ‘voice of a generation’ novel never existed to begin with” (ibid).
Ultimately, Tulathimutte’s claim is: “The generational novel, like the Great American novel, is a comforting romantic myth, which wrongly assumes that commonality is more significant than individuality” (ibid). And while presented perhaps slightly bleaker than is truly the case, Tulathimutte and Grossman are not entirely wrong. However, they are searching in the wrong place. If there indeed is such a thing as a ‘voice of our generation’, it is not hiding in the novel genre. It is to be found on the fringe, in the small and not-so-small magazines, in the films outside of Hollywood, and in the relatively new art forms of our age, such as game-narratives and other virtual storytelling.
From Irony to Honesty and Back to Both
Some might argue that American and western literature has barely progressed at all during the past few decades, at best merely regressing into itself. The reality, however, is quite different, and traces of this have been evident for a while. In 1993 David Foster Wallace published ‘E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction’ (The Review of Contemporary Fiction), an essay in which he, among other things, prophesied the arrival of “literary ‘rebels’ […] who have the childish gall actually to […] treat of plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction.”
Though perhaps a quintessentially postmodern endeavour to begin with—these rebels, as Wallace puts it, “would be outdated, of course, before they even started. Dead on the page”—it signalled the wish for a break away from the irony-laden postmodern literature in favour of something along the lines of the now-called New Sincerity (or post-irony) that Wallace himself, arguably, furthered with his own work and which is perhaps currently heralded, in part, by writers such as Zadie Smith, Jonathan Franzen, and, indeed, Dave Eggers. And along similar lines, in her 1998 article, ‘Irony, Nostalgia, and the Postmodern’, Linda Hutcheon decries the supposed death of irony as claimed in an article in The Modern Review while attempting to deal with the ‘uneasy tension’, as she phrases it, between postmodern irony and nostalgia.
Therefore, it is important to note that the narratives in which this new kind of idealism is expressed do not immediately appear different from other narratives; the artists promulgating this new idealism, as opposed to those of the modernist, postmodernist, and New Sincerity literature that preceded them, do not seek to overthrow the prevailing mode of artistic understanding. Rather, their narratives are more a progeny of past and contemporary artistic propensities than a direct response to them.
In other words, this new idealism is not a divergence from past perspectives but an amalgamation of these and the ways in which the world has changed since they first entered the stage.
The Crux of New Idealism
On first glance, new idealist narratives appear to check all of the above boxes regarding Wallace’s wishes for a literature that concerns itself with ‘plain old untrendy human troubles’ as well as Hutcheon’s ponderings on this tension between postmodern irony and nostalgia.
An example of the former can be found in the opening of Amelia Gray’s ‘These Are the Fables’ (Hobart, 2012), which even goes as far as to outright emphasize the untrendiness of its setting in the opening sentence: “We were in the parking lot of a Dunkin’ Donuts in Beaumont, TX when I told Kyle that I was pregnant. I figured I’d rather be out under God as I announced the reason for all my illness and misery” (ibid). Meanwhile, an example of the latter is evident in Daniel A Hoyt’s story ‘Here I Am’ (Cincinnati Review, 2014), wherein the protagonist, John, starts out with having his head decapitated, seemingly at random, and ends it, still technically alive and very much conscious, a world removed from his body, literally, which is out there “somewhere in the world”, sending back signals: “Here I am walking down hard pavement […] Here I am entering buildings and climbing stairs and feeling around corners and frisking doors, searching for what I’ll never see, never understand” (ibid).
But ultimately, while Wallace and Hutcheon were clearly not wrong in their theories regarding American literature of the past decades, rather accurately discerning various literary essentials and their evolution, they are also no longer as right as they once were. Amelia Gray’s story, more than a mere treatment of plain old untrendy human troubles, is a metaphorical as well as literal escape from precisely these troubles. “I tipped my seat back and dug into sleep like sleep owed me an explanation. Kyle skimmed Houston on the tollway and headed for the coast hitting cities with names like what you’d find across the spines on your grandma’s bookshelf. Blessing. Point Comfort. Sugar Land. Victoria” (Hobart, 2012).
This, again, fits nicely with everything above, agreeing, it seems, with both Wallace and Hutcheon at once. However, in the end, the narrator engages in a kind of wishful thinking that at once breaks away from past literary traditions and simultaneously evolves into more than mere wishful thinking. In the final paragraph of the story, Kyle and the narrator are lying on the potentially e.coli-ridden floor of a motel where, ostensibly, Selena the Tejano star was murdered. Kyle looks like he’s “getting ready for a funeral” (ibid) and the narrator says, “When he pressed his cheek against my belly I could feel the machinations of his jaw grinding tooth on tooth. I said, These are the fables I will tell our child” (ibid). Here, Gray juxtaposes something tangibly and verifiably real, namely the grinding of the teeth (which represent the current, and possibly eternal, state of their lives), with something ephemeral and decidedly far from reality: the fantasy of turning their lives into a fable to pass down to their child. And this is where the new idealist narrative departs from other literature.
More than mere wishful thinking, the narrator, rather than being directly sincere or ironic, is engaging in an act commonly referred to as carrolling (most likely after Lewis Carroll and his most famous works). It is loosely defined as: the reckless abandon with which an individual engages in acts of imagination as a deliberate extension of reality. In doing so, the individual seeks to accomplish an inflation of reality wherein his or her dreams and aspirations do not necessarily become real nor subsume consensus (i.e. ‘the real’) reality but where they nonetheless become able to trick themselves into not noticing the difference between the two.
Hoyt’s ‘Here I Am’ deals with the same phenomenon, though rather than reveling in the comforts of such an inflated reality, as Kyle and the narrator of ‘These Are the Fables’ end the story doing, Hoyt’s story warns of the impending risks involved with separating yourself from reality. Etgar Keret, for instance, often favors the same approach. Maryse Meijer, an exciting new prospect, seems to have a gift to do both at once.
Above all, this phenomenon of carrolling stands out as the crux of new idealism. Like other literature, new idealist narrative is certainly nostalgic, definitely sincere, and at times, positively ironic. The principal difference, however, is that when it is ironic, it is so not for the purpose of ridiculing or exposing reality as fraudulent, which a great deal of postmodern literature arguably does, but as inadequate; in many ways it glorifies, or at least finds redemption in, many of the things that postmodern literature mocks. And when it is nostalgic, it is so not for the past, which is a trap some New Sincerity literature falls into, but for the present and the future that the present was supposed to have been. And perhaps most importantly, when it is sincere, it is so solely by way of fantasy and, as an extension of this, desire.
Bringing Back Neverland
In Reading for the Plot (1984), Peter Brooks admits that “‘desire’ is a concept too broad, too fundamental, almost too banal to be defined.” Nevertheless, the question of desire in relation to the human imagination is central to understanding new idealism.
When Foucault speaks of desire, he speaks along the lines of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill: he speaks of pleasure. His view is that human desire is a catalyst for personal change rather than conative drive, and as such it serves more as a malleable factor of human experience than a defining aspect of human nature, which perhaps also explains why it is devoid of any particular connection to the human imagination (The History of Sexuality, 1976).
In this regard, however, Foucault stands quite alone. In De Anima, Aristotle talks of desire as a vital part of the human soul precisely because, he believes, it is desire which drives it, and in turn, it is the soul which drives the subject. This leads him to realize the importance of the sense of touch, which he calls ‘the primary form of sense’. His reasoning is that sensation—contrary to, say, sight—is a trait shared by all animals. Furthermore, sensation is significant because of the things it presupposes. “[I]f sensation, necessarily also imagination and appetition; for, where there is sensation, there is also pleasure and pain, and, where these, necessarily also desire.”
However, one issue—which several modern theories attempt to wrestle, such as Galen Strawson’s and Carolyn Morillo’s perspectives on pleasure-based desire and Donald Davidson’s perspective on action-based desire, where, expanding on work by Elizabeth Anscombe (in particular her 1957 work, Intention), desire is a primeval urge coercing the subject into action—is that Aristotle runs headfirst into the fact that pleasure appears to be a consequence rather than a cause of desire. As Freud states in the opening discussion of ‘Beyond the Pleasure Principle’ (1920), it can be said “that there exists in the mind a strong tendency towards the pleasure principle.” Moreover, as Andrew Brook puts it, paraphrasing Timothy Schroeder and his Three Faces of Desire (2004), “We can desire without being motivated and vice-versa” (‘Desire, Reward, Feeling: Commentary on Three Faces of Desire’, 2006).
In Recreative Minds (2003), though, Gregory Currie and Ian Ravenscroft look at desire through the lens of the human imagination. The result is something they identify as ‘recreative imagining’, which may be summarized as the union of belief and imagination wherein desire, and thus, to hark back to Aristotle, the will to act, is born. They phrase it thusly: “To act I need a picture not only of how the world is, but also of how I want it to be: I need desires.”
In essence, recreative imagining is the first step in the act of carrolling. The second step, and as such the one unique to new idealism, entails not merely picturing the world as you wish it to be but going one step further and actively convincing yourself of this fantasy to such a degree that it enriches and becomes an inseparable part of your fantastically inflated view of reality. That is to say, rather than JM Barrie writing about Wendy escaping to Neverland, the task has now been reversed, and Barrie might instead write about Wendy bringing Neverland back with her to the real world and making the two worlds work in tandem rather than separate from each other.
Sometimes, this is expressed as a wish to return to childhood, such as in Jodi Angel’s ‘A good Deuce’ (Tin House, summer, 2011), the album Blurryface (2015) by Twenty One Pilots, and the game INSIDE by Playdead (2016); sometimes as a stagnation of childhood, as in Maryse Meijer’s ‘Love, Lucy’ (Heartbreaker: Stories, 2016) and Lindsay Hunter’s ‘Three Things You Should Know About Peggy Paula’ (Fifty-Two Stories; Reprinted in Don’t Kiss Me: Stories 2013); sometimes as a certain belief in and dream of an imaginatively altered future. Examples of this include aforementioned ‘These Are the Fables’ as well as Miranda July’s film, Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005), in particular a scene shot on the sidewalk with the two main characters, where one says, “Yeah, the ‘Ice Land’ sign is halfway” and the other ponders, “Ice Land is—it’s kind of like that point in a relationship, you know… where you suddenly realize it’s not gonna last forever. You know, you can see the end in sight.” And before they know it, they’re concocting a fantasy that spans the entirety of their lives.
Something Genuinely Human
I won’t lie: things around here haven’t changed much. The light is still in my face, and if I look over my shoulder, I might still see my girlfriend there, on the sofa, doing yoga poses and, maybe, frying eggs in the skillet. Nor do things change much for the protagonist in Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor. In the end, she is promised a proper, real-life adventure by the skull hovering over her shoulder. This adventure represents everything she has ever dreamt of, the future that she so hoped her present would be. After accepting, she and the player (you) walk to a spaceship and, in the words of Chris Franklin, “continue to walk until you’re floating high above the city, and the game fades to white as the credits roll.”
After the credits, however, it is all revealed to be just a dream. She, and you, wake up the next day, and it’s just the next day. This, surprise, is true for many of us, maybe even most of us, and it is the reality that much of postmodern and New Sincerity literature seeks to mock or express or both. New idealist literature, on the other hand, seeks to transcend it. Reality, more times than not, doesn’t cut it. And we live in a world, in an age, where it’s possible to do something about that.
A long time ago, Søren Kierkegaard claimed, “Whatever the one generation may learn from the other, that which is genuinely human no generation learns from the foregoing” (Fear and Trembling, 1843). Perhaps Tulathimutte would agree with this; perhaps he would not. At the very least, I think I know of a janitor who just might, and my argument is that, when Kimberly Cutter posed the question of Miranda July’s ‘uncanny ability to mine universal truths from surreal details’, the answer will be found in the new idealism.
And what do we all, the rest of us, stand to gain from this? Perhaps something genuinely human.