18 April 2008

Talking Animals

The latest issue of BOMB magazine includes a conversation between Jonathan Lethem and Lydia Millet -- it's unfortunately not online, but it's so good that it's really worth the price of the magazine to read it. One of the best interviews I've read in a while. Here's a sample:
Jonathan Lethem: I was recently reading an essay by Mary McCarthy, a quite brilliant, free-ranging one that she first gave as a lecture in Europe, called "The Fact in Fiction." At the outset she defines the novel in quite exclusive terms, terms that of course made me very nervous: "...if you find birds and beasts talking in a book you are reading you can be sure it is not a novel." Well, as the author of at least one and arguably two or three novels with talking animals in them, I felt disgruntled. McCarthy is one of those critics whose brilliance dedicates itself often to saying what artists shouldn't do -- like the equally celebrated and brilliant James Wood, with whom I disagree constantly. For me, the novel is by its nature impure, omnivorous, inconsistent, and paradoxical -- it is most itself when it is doing impossible things, straddling modes, gobbling contradiction. But anyway, when I lived with McCarthy's declaration for a while, I found myself replying, "But in the very best novels the animals want to talk, or the humans wish the animals could talk, or both." [...]

Lydia Millet: [...]The animals that want to talk, the people that want them to...exactly. But to the critics -- it's so easy, and so exhilarating, to denounce things. Isn't it? But prohibitions like that -- "It's not a novel if it has talking animals in it," "It's not a novel if it has philosophy in it" -- besides being snobbish and condescending, serve more to elevate the critic than to advance or innovate the form. In fact, I think it's a sign of an art form losing power in culture when its arbiters try to define it by its limitations, what it can't or isn't allowed to do. Shoring up the borders of the form, in other words, to isolate it and make it puny. Novels should do anything and everything they can pull off. The pulling off is the hard part, of course, but my feeling is if you don't walk a line where you're struggling to make things work, struggling with the ideas and shape and tone, you're not doing art. Art is the struggle to get beyond yourself. And if you want to use talking animals to do that, and you can make them beautiful, nothing is verboten. [...] Once you exclude you're calcifying. You're well into middle age and headed for death.