As longtime readers know, I’m an avid reader of MobyLives’ guest columns. And so, even though this week’s column doesn’t directly relate to the book industry, I’d like to mention its thesis, an extension of Jacques Barzun’s theory that “over the decades, following and at times foreseeing the advances of science and technology, the novel has gradually slowed down time and increasingly explored the interior realm of the human mind.” To that, guest columnist David Barringer adds this prediction: “The novel of the future will persist in slowing down time so that we may enter the mind and observe its workings.” The novel of the future, he writes, will be “a novel about a single decision.”
Unfortunately, the rest of the column doesn’t add much to the thesis. Barringer imagines the rules such a novel would, or should, abide by — “At all costs, the novelist must avoid turning the cavities and wells and structures of the mind into a recognizable city or office or mall, all of the mind’s organic ambiguity scaled to suit an animated feature rather than the airless polymorphic nightmare consciousness can often be” — and the accumulation of such rules turns speculation about the novel’s future into a writing assignment ideally assigned to the few and far between who find Oulipo’s random constraints appealing. (Or, maybe the column’s just a parody. Its mention of J.S. Foer is just gratutious enough to signal a non-serious intent…)
To my mind, Barzun/Barringer’s thesis provokes two questions that go unanswered: 1) how can we know that literature’s relatively new interiority is a trend (towards even deeper interiority) rather than an aberration (reflecting historical forces other than science’s developing understanding of cognition) and 2) to what degree does interiority not signal the evolution and future of the novel but the evolution and future of literature’s claim to “superiority” over genre fiction?