A novel can be a lot of different kinds of philosophical tool. It can build meaning up, or tear it down. It can sew meaning together, or prise it apart. It can be a stage, that puts something in view, or a scaffold, that both hides something and helps it stand. The question novels are always concerned with is, what matters? That could just as easily be nothing, or one thing, or everything. Because we don’t have any default answer to this question, now, a novel must always begin here. If it is successful, it may be because it goes somewhere, or it may be because it shows us where we are.
In her Booker Prize-winning Possession, A.S. Byatt gave a tender, ruthless depiction of scholars and semioticians whose lives are defined by meaning in texts; but is that meaning found, or made? Byatt’s parallel stories seem to argue that falling in love is just as ambivalent: both a discovery and a creation. Is love, then, what matters (Possession is subtitled “a romance,” but who can say how ironically?), or are the texts – the world, the act of engaging – as important? Clare Morgan’s book bears more than a superficial resemblance to Byatt’s. Hers too asks, how central to life is love? Is there one thing in all the world that matters, or does everything… or nothing?
A Book for All and None finds scholarly protagonists Beatrice and Raymond delving into an unlikely, secret love affair between Freidrich Neitzsche and bohemian socialite Lou von Salomé. Like Roland and Maud in Possession, the intersection of their academic interests leads them predictably into each other. Like Byatt, Morgan late in the day establishes a blood link between scholar and subject. It was all along all in the family, as if genes rather than interest, affection, passion, are where meaning is located. What matters here seems to be love. Even Neitzsche, who has been handed down to us beyond all human passion, is here led to his final madness by the failure of an affair. But in this novel, unlike in Possession, there is no ironic embrace of romanticism, no triumph of love, no absolute or really any ending at all.
That is because A Book for All and None is a realist novel. Bravely, it tries to occupy a larger space than does Possession. Byatt nodded to the mechanisms of contemporary global capitalism in her sinister and ridiculous American academic Mortimer Cropper. But Morgan’s construction mogul Walter Cronk, contracted to build an Iraqi detention centre, serves to link us directly to the world we usually see only through rolling news channels. In fact, A Book for All and None fits into a specific, genealogically traceable realist tradition, one that James Wood once labelled ‘hysterical realism.’
Wood coined that term in a 2001 review of Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, which compared Smith’s book to a tranche of other turn-of-the-millennium novels including David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. Actually, he coined it less than two weeks before 9/11. When he wrote that “there’s something essentially paranoid in the belief that everything is connected to everything else,” it was an unintended prophecy. The twenty-first century hysterical realism of A Book for All and None (as well as, for example, Ian McEwan’s Saturday) is filtered through the lens of global terrorism.
As she veers from country churches, through Oxford, to Baghdad and Dubai, from Virginia Woolf’s lighthouse to a detention centre in the desert, Morgan seems to be trying to capture something ambivalent about this paranoia of connectedness. The brand of literary scholarship practiced by her protagonists is a project of forging connections between people, texts, and times. Is the uncontrollable drama of terrorism and insurgency a symptom of the same interconnectedness, out of control? If one moment Walter can fall in love with an Iraqi woman, and see her assassinated in the next, then how can we tell what is meaningful? Is it really possible to say that an affair between two dead people, or between two aging academic types, deserves as much of our attention as the collapse of a country, as bombs and murders and riots? Does everything matter, or matter equally? Or does nothing?
What troubles Morgan’s book, as it has other examples of hysterical realism, is that as Wood wrote “the characters in these novels are not really alive, not fully human.” Raymond, Beatrice, and Walter all seem like familiar acquaintances, whom we have no wish to make into close friends. We see too little of what drives the intellectual quest of the former (the passion and anxiety that animated Posession), or the acquisitive campaign of the latter. Walter is, simply, driven: that’s how he would describe himself, but without knowing why. During his breakdown he says, “Don’t you ever get to feeling, Rafi, that nothing’s real any more? Everything’s virtual. Everything’s a parody of itself.” In this novel the characters, and their connections, and their situations, are all virtual.
So are their reactions to the world. What is impressive and beautiful in a book like Infinite Jest is the time and depth it gives to observational thought. Hal and Don are real characters made real by their unique and complex subjectivity. There are no glimpses of this here, but only surfaces. Sometimes they speak in vile commonplaces: “If you ask me, the Axis of Evil cuts right through middle America.” Sometimes they are aware enough to see how commonplaces speak through them: “What price freedom? Walter Cronk thinks, and then almost at once wonders why he is thinking it” (an echo of Woolf’s Mrs Ramsay, who says to herself, “we are in the hands of the Lord. But instantly she was annoyed with herself for saying that…”). We end up wondering how anyone could fall in love with any of them.
Which is a problem when we try to find what matters in this novel, for what Morgan presents us with is a mixture of surfaces at different angles. Surely her own interest, her own desire to explore the terrifying paradoxes of war, politics, and ideology, has led her to pour all these themes into her book. This is the attitude of the new maximalist novel, the post-9/11 novel, and it is admirably ambitious. But her characters don’t seem to share that interest, or that ambition. They’re a myopic, self-centred, drifting set. Through their eyes, in this novel, we see nothing but vague shapes and meaningless connections. Is that, after all, where we are now?