- Fiction Now: The French Novel in the Twenty-First Century
In opting for the title Fiction Now, Warren Motte registers the immense risk— and potential payoff—associated with his most recent endeavor. Of course, he may simply have intended to pay homage to Francis Ford Coppola or Amy Goodman; under the guise of a caveat lector, however, Motte solicits a more meaningful, if less obvious intertext: “[T]he ‘now’ in the title of my book,” he laments (or pretends to lament), “necessarily belies itself as soon as it is uttered. For that ‘now’ is the most protean of terms, at once both dynamic and static, mutating into something quite different even as we struggle to come to terms with it, yet continually demanding that we account for it once and for all” (14–15, my emphasis). Anyone familiar with the opening chapters of Phänomenolgie des Geistes will at this point recall Hegel’s brilliant castigation of sense-certainty—and, more specifically, his analysis of its temporal component: [End Page 949] das Jetzt. My guess is that Motte wishes us to do just that; for, grasping the allusion, we more readily understand the paradoxical duality of his own ‘now.’ As Hegel observes, that designation remains static, so much so that it may apply to any object whatsoever and never change; whereas its object may constantly mutate or even lapse into nothingness. The Now persists, not in spite of, but because of this underlying dynamism. That is to say, the negation of its object actually nourishes its self-identity (for, ultimately, it refers only to its own monotonous renewal: “Now, and Now, and Now, and Now . . .”). As a paradigm of literary scholarship, such a Now would prove lethal, depriving the work of cogency and corpus, degrading it to a series of mutually exclusive impressions (“Now Echenoz, Now Redonnet, Now Gailly, Now Salvayre . . .”). It would occlude its own ostensible object the better to index, repeatedly, one man’s idiosyncratic reading habits.
In intimating this risk, Motte suggests that he has found a way to avert it. Indeed, toward the end of his preface, he advances a model of presentation altogether different from the paradigm of the Now. He will avoid the scholarly variant of sense-certainty—namely, arbitrary impressionism—by couching his corpus within a critical metafiction: “Considering the multiplicity and the heterogeneity of these literary gestures, it strikes me that it might be useful to view contemporary French novels as characters in a far vaster fiction. An uninterrupted narrative that comes to us in installments, in serial form” (16). A dramatic tension will thus subsume the “installments” of his story. The character of this tension comes immediately to light against the backdrop of Motte’s polemic, for he seeks above all to debunk the myth that “the novel has exhausted its possibilities” (9), and to show instead the enduring vitality of this cultural form.
In order properly to endure, of course, the novel must situate itself authentically in the present; in other words, it must commune in equal measures with the ghosts of Literary Past and Literary Future: and that is the second meaning of Motte’s “Now.” A novel may fall into inauthenticity in one of two ways. 1.) On the one hand, it may amplify that self-conscious strain common to most modern literature, wherein—as Giorgio Agemben memorably puts it—“the critic’s operation is limited to an ID check” (The Man Without Content [Stanford: Stanford UP, 1994] 50). It may, in other words, systematically divest itself of content so as to reflect its own self-reflections. Such an exercise in aestheticism would merely stir the cinders of what came before, foregrounding the once-hidden formal procedures of an exhausted genre. It would, in short, embody that weary topos born of sterile minds and reader fatigue: post-fiction fiction. Endorsing the tyranny of the past, it would deny itself a future. 2.) On the other hand, a novelist may decide to pick up where Balzac left off—and ignore the...