n+1 has a very interesting essay on the internet (the ones not on the internet are, I assume, interesting, but subscribing to a magazine is probably beyond my financial means) called “The Rise of the Neuronovel.” It provoked some interesting thoughts for me, which is why the throat-clearing before the speech.
The essay discerns an important trend running through the “Anglo-American” novels recently: the neuronovel, a novel taking as its subject a mentally damaged or afflicted individual. The essay posits—aptly, I think—that the source of this novel is the “research novel,” the novel that seeks to communicate facts as well as fiction, and the interior novel as well.
What the essay doesn’t concern itself with is the broader trend within pop culture of the neuro-drama and the research narrative. To wit: Dan Brown (research), Mad Men (research), Dexter (neuro-drama), United States of Tara, Rachel Getting Married (neuro-drama). I’ve purposely included some examples from high, low, and middlebrow culture to show how pervasive these two related strands have been.
They’re becoming prevalent because of this: everything is becoming both more familiar and more foreign at once. Indeed, everything is becoming more foreign because everything is becoming more familiar. That’s a bit too abstract. It’s when you say, “Oh yeah, I’ve heard of that,” but have no familiarity beyond that.
(I'm just going to cover the research novel; the neuro-drama is interesting but I have nothing interesting to say.)
An example: college students are familiar with the Case of the Psychology Student. This malady afflicts a seemingly random subset of the population who takes psychology classes; suddenly, as a lightning strike, the student believes that the whole human population is psychologically afflicted (Oh my god, my roommate is a schizophrenic!) They get over it eventually when they gain perspective. (A related college disease, though more societally harmful, is the Case of the Economics Student.) In the Case of the Psychology Student, pop mental maladies become slightly more familiar, knowledge-wise, and you are predisposed to see it everywhere. The source of the problem was your vague knowledge beforehand, then, and the vague sense of knowledge during. Our culture has embraced more and more in its grasp, and so more and more things are only vaguely appreciated. We go through intellectual fads talking about our leaps in cultural knowledge. Earlier our pop discourse was ruled by genetics, where there was assumed to be a gene for everything.
The pleasure, then, of a well-executed research narrative is that it brings into focus things that were vague. Whether or not the focus is correctly placed (Dan Brown, primary offender) is another question. But the research narrative clarifies matters that seem to be of crucial importance (but were only barely known).
Perhaps my favorite writer, David Foster Wallace, wrote very much in that vein. Infinite Jest is packed full of hypothetical facts; it persuades by comprehensiveness. I’m a fan of the book, but it sometimes feels as if it’s too much, too full, too many details. And yet, I’m not sure what I’d cut, if I were an editor. Though it’s much different in tone and subject (though they share a similar sadness), Mad Men suffers from a similar problem: it is oftentimes too precise (though, as several people have noted, it suffers from several anachronisms). The story sometimes feels watched over too precisely, like the fabled helicopter parents.
It’s a movement I’ve felt conflicted about in my own writing. I lack those works ampleness and precision of detail. And when you and they agree on a profound detail, I feel a deep sharing. That’s probably the essence of good storytelling. So what is to be done? Some might say the solution is a brutal culling. But this is incorrect: it will exacerbate the problem that the story is overseen too much; if a story screams at you “SIGNIFICANT DETAIL,” I’m inclined to spite the story or mock it. No one mind can grasp the whole world, and the danger is that human weakness in overgeneralizing patterns will lead to bad hypotheses. So stories do not usually work from a false economy of details. Instead, I think the solution is to cultivate spontaneity in fictional writing, to allow some details to emerge and seem important without a good, precise explanation as to why they are that.