Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The Men and Women Without Qualities

So who will embody the New Man or New Woman of our age? Parameters are generally established after the fact. Thus, the Victorian era was encapsulated by the Queen because of the monarch’s strength and the morality and counter-morality that it spawned. The fifties were the Eisenhower years, characterized as of the era of silent conformism, in which Americans basked in era of post-war prosperity. This smugness created its own counter-reformation, evidenced in the ennui and rebellion documented in the work of Saul Bellow, John Updike and John Cheever. Here are the opening lines of Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March (1953): “I am an American, Chicago born—Chicago, that somber city—and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent.” Cheever’s famous story, “The Swimmer,” in which the protagonist’s escape takes the form of a journey through his neighbor’s swimming pools, creates myth out of the trivial details of suburban life. When and how will our present age be defined? Hints may come the work of yet another writer, David Foster Wallace, who died by his own hand in 2008, just as the economy was teetering on collapse. Tennis and AA were two of the themes of his magnum opus, Infinite Jest, while his unfinished final novel, The Pale King, is partially set in the world of the IRS bureaucracy. Don Delillo’s Falling Man, an obvious reference to an iconic photograph, dealt with the aftermath of 9/11. But perhaps we should look to another continent and age for clues. Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities and Alfred Doblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz capture civilizations on the verge of collapse. A suburbanite, a recovering alcoholic, a thinker, an IRS agent, a thief—which of these sensibilities will be emblematic of our times, which of these characters are we likely to encounter in art as well as in life?

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