The Relativist

The Relativist

Akiva Gottlieb: The Relativist

By James Hynes
Reagan Arthur, 2010

THE LIBERAL mindset has a secret appeal: the pleasure of being all things to all people can rival the evident satisfactions of dogmatic certainty. In Richard Ford’s The Sportswriter, Frank Bascombe, one of the most seductively unreliable narrators in postwar American fiction, explains his inclination to “see around the sides” of his every emotion:

If I was mad or ecstatic, I always realized I could just as easily feel or act another way if I wanted to—somber or resentful, ironic or generous—even though I might’ve been convinced that the way I was acting probably represented the way I really felt even if I hadn’t seen the other ways open. This can be an appealing way to live your life, since you can convince yourself you’re really just a tolerant generalist and kind toward other views.

Narrating in his measured, uncomplicated first-person voice, Bascombe the sportswriter projects an image of himself as generous, independent, optimistic, and aware of his shortcomings. But his voice, and its ability to convince the speaker that he’s tolerant and kind, elides the less savory aspects of his behavior. He cheated on his ex-wife and clings to women only after they have definitively cut ties with him; he is regularly jealous and intrusive; he reflexively employs racist caricatures when describing African Americans and loses his empathy around homosexuals. Most importantly, for the purposes of his storytelling, he is an admitted proponent of forgetting—“forgetting dreams, grievances, old flaws in character—mine and others’.” Frank’s humanism is self-serving, and it reflects a larger disengagement.

The humanities are designed to propagate the principles of the tolerant generalist. (Why did the moral relativist cross the road? To see the other side of the story.) But cultural conservatives contend that the liberal arts nurture a cabal of conflict-averse weaklings—here they probably picture Dustin Hoffman’s cowardly academic in Straw Dogs—whose self-satisfied enlightenment will inevitably find itself mugged by various realities. Yet it might be worthwhile to consider how often the best novels—themselves acts of imaginative empathy—replicate this process.

Austin’s James Hynes, fifty-four years old, is not a Ford-level name in the world of letters, but he’s as attuned as any cultural anthropologist to the attractions and pitfalls of a specifically American brand of liberal relativism. His books depict the moment when good education and good breeding turn into a moral hindrance. Hynes’s earlier works reflected both an impressive facility with the Western canon and a slavish devotion to genre fiction, filtering accounts of frustrated, overeducated, and underpaid drones through the supernatural sensibility of Stephen King or H.P. Lovecraft. The level of psychic horror rises in correlation with the amount of books the protagonist has wasted his time reading. In his collection of novellas Publish and Perish: Three Tales of Tenure and Terror, a deconstructionist’s body is deconstructed and a plagiarizing historian is impaled by a knife-wielding statue of Texas folk pioneer Jim Bowie. The English professor turned government bureaucrat in Kings of Infinite Space vents his cubicle cabin fever by yelling: “I was almost a Fulbright!”

Hynes’s best-known novel, the 2000 campus satire The Lecturer’s Tale, takes a knowing and comic view of the turf war between literature and theory, before devolving into a macabre and overly literalized horror story. (Any student of metaphor knows that professional backstabbing need not involve actual knifeplay.) Memorable caricatures include the impenetrable French theorist who, upon hearing the word literature, “reach[es] for [his] revolver”; the postcolonialist whose “ideologically engaged nonparticipation” and “principled refusal to teach any classes, hold any office hours, publish any books, serve on any committees, or supervise any dissertations” yields the six-figure reward of an endowed chair; and most endearingly, our tenure-deprived protagonist, whose dissertation was able to prove with equal conviction that his subject was “a virgin and a libertine; a misogynist and an early feminist; hegemonic and transgressive; imperialist and postcolonial; patriarchal and matriarchal; straight, bisexual and queer.”

The Lecturer’s Tale made me laugh, but it must have felt outdated even ten years ago. One needn’t peruse the Chronicle of Higher Education to know that it’s the exigencies of capitalism, not the excesses of theory, that strike fear into the hearts of today’s literary academics. And anyway, the ivory tower—the very citadel of relativism—seems too obvious a target for Hynes’s ongoing project.

EVEN THOSE who have heard of Hynes might agree that Next, his newest and best novel, arrives in an incredibly unassuming package. The premise itself seems designed to elicit groans. As Hynes certainly knows, one trickle-down effect of the 1980s academic culture wars is that even the most generous contemporary readers reserve little sympathy for the midlife crisis of an oversexed, middle-class, white American male. But those who open the novel, perhaps piqued by the blurbs on the back cover—which mention, quite surprisingly, “a heart-stopping finale that is one of the best endings of any novel I have ever read” (Kate Christensen)—will find something challenging, maybe even quietly subversive.

Kevin Quinn, age fifty, is a perfect amalgam of earlier Hynes protagonists, in that he’s sort of a cubicle drone and an academic. He edits publications for the Asian studies center at the University of Michigan—the same campus where he attended college, and a few miles from where he was raised. His long-term ex, Beth, left him a few years ago to have another man’s child, and our predictably commitment-averse hero views his current, much younger girlfriend, Stella, as a temporary holdover. Stella, whom Kevin does not love—and to his baby-boomer dismay, doesn’t know the Rolling Stones from the Black Crowes—has recently begun to float the idea of starting a family. Sensing a possible escape hatch, Kevin applies for a job in Austin without mentioning a word to Stella. Next’s 300 pages circumscribe the approximately eight-hour period of Kevin’s trip to Austin for the job interview.

It’s another familiar genre exercise, but it’s one whose platitudes Hynes understands. Upon achieving tenure at the end of The Lecturer’s Tale, our professor protagonist is finally free to ditch multiculturalism and embark upon a study of “Asshole Lit…all those charismatic, self-indulgent, narcissistic monsters of male American fiction, whom the reader was supposed to love even when the characters behaved like jerks, because underneath all that adolescent charm, they were capable of redemption.” Kevin is far too well-rounded and a bit too Midwestern to be pegged as an asshole, but he’s certainly a commonplace figure. As Hynes puts it, Kevin “has a choice between two equally risible clichés: Count Your Blessings, or Follow Your Dreams. The fact that his dilemma is so predictable, so laughably banal, doesn’t make it any less pointed.” In fact, Kevin’s banality is thematically vital.

Kevin is an inconstant, faithless liberal cad, and when he invokes belief and passion, it’s mainly in the context of bedding women. (Hynes, a former television critic, seems well-versed in pop cultural detritus, so let’s assume his novel’s title aims to echo the trashiest of MTV dating shows, the one that encourages participants to discard, or “next,” potential sexual partners one after the other in favor of yet another choice.) In one of Kevin’s many mental peregrinations into the past, a rich girl who won’t let him into her pants asks if he’s read the revolutionary feminist Shulamith Firestone. “He had, and it depressed him for a month, not because he believed a word of it, but because every girl he had a crush on did.” The novel’s first section is titled “The Battle of Bertrand Russell,” less a promise of intellectual fireworks than a reference to a friend’s story about trying to wrestle a self-righteous communist co-ed into the sack. Kevin’s only real show of will in the novel is his bold and irrational decision to stalk his attractive twenty-something airplane seatmate (“his last chance, his escape route from Stella, the last younger woman he’ll ever need!”) on foot through the boulevards and byways of Austin, without her knowledge. Everything else is bound by ambivalence. Even his decision to fly to Austin for the interview without telling a soul is a hedged bet.

Next is a tale of two cities, Austin and Ann Arbor—each one a university-buoyed pocket of secular humanist self-regard, fueled by lattes and garden-variety liberal guilt, at odds with the state at large. Or so, in any case, goes the cliché. Whatever it is that threatens the world outside, it can’t happen here. These two cities, each described by Hynes with intimacy and lapidary intelligence, have no business being scared, almost as a political principle:

In the cozy, progressive cocoon of Ann Arbor, where he’s lived nearly all his life, you don’t openly speculate about terrorists in Dearborn, not in polite society you don’t, not even four days after a six-city European bombing spree. And if you do, it’s only to concede that it serves us right for looking the other way while our government handed out Stingers to radical Islamists in Peshawar like a corrupt Indian agent handing out Winchesters and firewater to angry Comanches in some glossy fifties Western. Read your Chomsky, friend, we’re only reaping the whirlwind…”

Everything is contingent, of course, until nothing is, and circumstances conspire against Kevin’s desire to see from all angles. The free-indirect narrative of Next unfolds against the fictional backdrop of a series of recent terrorist attacks in Europe. As his flight takes off, and again when it lands, Kevin is thinking missiles, air disasters, household chemicals mixed together in a cramped bathroom, rows of bodies. These fears have no obvious boundaries. When he’s in a taxicab, there’s talk radio (“Nuke Mecca, dude…Nuke it from the air!”), and everywhere else, Fox News plays on a loop (“666: IS THIS THE END?”). Traveling in unseasonably warm clothing without any luggage, headed towards Austin’s tallest skyscraper, stalking an unsuspecting beautiful woman on foot, Kevin himself seems worthy of suspicion.

A GOOD number of post-9/11 novels by Western authors have taken up the task of imagining the violent “other,” performing reportorial legwork and exercising mental agility to show how our apparent enemies are like and unlike us. Whatever its ineptitude, John Updike’s Terrorist now looks like a quintessential text, its very existence proof that our masters of the interior monologue considered themselves well-suited to stab at the comprehension of unfamiliar motives. Next does something subtler, and perhaps trickier: it invites the reader to imagine what it is about our open-minded, politically correct selves that could possibly raise the hackles of a fundamentalist. While the idea that a shadowy “they” hates “us” for our freedoms is the most tragically spurious canard underwriting the War on Terror, this novel adopts a purposefully myopic perspective. No manifestation of the “other” actually appears on the page. It’s an exercise in shadowboxing.

Do Kevin’s fantasies of infidelity make him an infidel? “Somewhere the International Socialists are laughing mirthlessly at his middle-aged longing—another instance, no doubt, of the cultural alienation of late monopoly capitalism. Or maybe some dark-eyed mullah is cursing Kevin’s corrupt Crusader lust, quoting chapter and verse from the Koran.” Kevin cannot get over the fact that the mastermind of last week’s Buchanan Street bombing in Scotland was a young white Scotsman (and Muslim convert) also named Kevin. He meekly wonders if Other Kevin could have turned his life around by getting laid more often. Ever the relativist, Kevin can anticipate the arguments that Other Kevin could mount in his own defense, and jealously eyes the terrorist’s clutch of certitude: “Yeah, young Kevin was one confused, inarticulate young bastard, but at least he believed in something, didn’t he? At least he was willing to die for something. What would I be willing to die for, wonders Kevin—the decent Kevin, not the murderous Kevin—anything?”

WHEN I think of stunning novelistic displays of subjectivity, I mentally flip the pages of Mrs. Dalloway, that delicate parade of the secrets we keep from one another. Clarissa Dalloway may be married to a conservative member of parliament, but she has the outlook of an early progenitor of Frank the sportswriter: “She felt very young; at the same time unspeakably aged. She sliced like a knife through everything; at the same time was outside looking on.” Mrs. Dalloway the novel is a work of relativism in its own right, pioneering the use of direct interior narration to follow over twenty characters through a day seemingly as quotidian as any other. But though Woolf sheds light on the infinite array of perspectives contained within a city block, how one person could just as easily have become another, her novel hauntingly illustrates how life is contingent on our decisions. Clarissa’s current existence—and that of her immediate acquaintances—pivots upon a single, fateful choice: she spurned the advances of the bold but insecure Peter Walsh in favor of the reliable Richard Dalloway. There are certain things we simply cannot have both ways.

Hynes quotes Virginia Woolf twice on the epigraphs page of Next. (She bests James Coburn, quoted only once.) The first is a snippet from her diary, noting her instinct to “turn any sudden noise, or dark object in the sky into an explosion, or a German aeroplane. And it always seems utterly impossible that one should be hurt.” The second quote repeats Clarissa Dalloway’s suspicion “that it was very, very dangerous to live even one day.”

Next is not the first novel to use Dalloway as a blueprint, and Hynes isn’t even the first ambitious middle-aged male author to adapt Woolf for the age of terror. Ian McEwan’s bestselling Saturday follows a London neurosurgeon over the course of one supposedly random day, as he weighs his bourgeois comforts against the imminent Iraq War. Like Next, Saturday adopts a more conservative structure, having made the deliberate decision to limit its narrative to a single viewpoint—the idea being, perhaps, that our various suspicions have left us unwilling, or simply unable, to properly penetrate the mind of another. (Because McEwan’s Henry Perowne is a neurologist, this idea is especially piquant.) By yoking the reader to Kevin’s exclusive company, Next gives the reader a sense of the many snap judgments that even tolerant liberals are forced to make on a daily basis. Just as there are no atheists in foxholes, there are no relativists at stoplights. When the light says go, you go.

If Hynes has written a more audacious, less schematic novel than McEwan, it’s because his protagonist is a mediocrity, not an expert, and because London is far less cloistered from the effects of terror than, say, Austin. Part of the challenge of Next is finding oneself pleasantly adrift on the current of Kevin’s slowly intensifying ruminations while suspecting that nothing particularly consequential is at stake. The novel begs for a climactic grand transfiguring event, and the back cover blurbs seem to promise one, but like Woolf we suspect “the utter impossibility that one should be hurt.” Isn’t Hynes’s stated idea that “life goes out of its way to single you out” just a trick of individual consciousness?

It gives nothing away to say that Hynes aims to bring the conditional into the present tense, to remind the character and reader that the distinction between the crucial and the ephemeral is not in our hands. Over the course of its leisurely but purposeful narrative, Next contrasts three different ways of dying: the immediate and painless; the long, slow, and painful; and the unexpected jolt that, mercifully, still leaves time for reflection. The novel reminds that we mortals will all eventually inherit the comfort of absolutes, while somehow still encouraging Woolf’s “taking hold of experience…turning it round, slowly, in the light.” Seeing around the sides of every idea is the only way, surely, to find the silver lining of being nexted.

Akiva Gottlieb lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He writes about books and film for The Nation and the Los Angeles Times.

Homepage image: (J-PG / 2008 / Wikimedia Commons)