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The Specter Haunting the Contemporary Novel, Part I

According to Marco Roth of n+1, there is a specter haunting the contemporary novel. That specter is the neuronovel. "What has been variously referred to as the novel of consciousness," Roth argues in his 2009 article "The Rise of the Neuronovel," "or the psychological or confessional novel—the novel, at any rate, about the workings of a mind—has transformed itself into the neurological novel, wherein the mind becomes the brain."

 

The core of Roth's trouble with the neuronovel has as much to do with poststructuralism as it does with neuroscience proper. In the 1960s well through the 1980s, the humanities in America were swept by a mostly French-inflected influx of poststructuralist theory -- related to, but distinct from, literary deconstruction. Greatly oversimplified, poststructuralist thought sought to decenter interpretation from its mooring in the so-called structures of culture and language, demonstrating the instability of these structures as reliable sources of meaning and identity in criticism.

 

For Roth, the popular neuroscience of the neuronovel seeks to offer literary culture a structure once again, both a stable source for meaning and a scientifically grounded purchase on the imagination of a society seemingly less interested in the literary novel. Richard Powers' celebrated 2006 novel The Echo Maker, then -- in which Mark Schluter, having suffered brain damage from a catastrophic car accident, believes his sister Karin is an impostor -- is a family drama that makes its way to the contemporary reader via neurological terms like "Capgras syndrome" and characters like Gerald Weber, a pop neurologist.

 

Roth's problem with the neuronovel is that, in his view, fixing the brain as a structure in this way is a species of biological reductionism. Explaining character interactions, for instance, in terms of neurochemical transactions in the brain sounds pretty bad. When Elizabeth Bennet accepts Darcy, who really cares about their serotonin or oxytocin levels?

 

This is the way Roth's treatment of the neuronovel winds up. He writes:

 

It now seems we've gone beyond the loss of society and religion to the loss of the self, an object whose intricacies can only be described by future science. It's not, of course, that morality, society, and selfhood no longer exist, but they are now the property of specialists writing in the idioms of their disciplines. So the new genre of the neuronovel, which looks on the face of it to expand the writ of literature, appears as another sign of the novel's diminishing purview.

 

It becomes clearer: Roth's wish is for a reaction against the reductionism of the neuronovel in the way the literary academy reacted against poststructuralism. But unlike the literary theories of the late mid-century, assuming that the neuronovel seeks to "expand the writ of literature" misapprehends the function both of the books he singles out and of literature at large. That novelists feel compelled to turn to neuroscience as a subject for books indicates with equal measure that the novel remains a record of human experience and society -- and neuroscience, in recent decades, has developed a set of compelling accounts of what human experience might consist of.

 

As such, in The Echo Maker, Capgras syndrome and Gerald Weber are not neurological props dangled into the theater of Powers' plot. Rather, they're instruments of the story woven deeply into the narrative. One of the most striking strands in Powers' novel is Weber's transformation into stand-in for Powers himself. "The faith we extend to writers like Weber is, I think, the same kind of faith we put in our best fiction writers," the novelist Colson Whitehead wrote in the New York Times Book Review. Powers positions Weber (who is modeled on Wider than the Sky author Gerald Edelman) as a shade of the author to demonstrate how the agnosticism about the power of fiction -- deeply troubling to Roth -- is a mirror for the same doubt about received accounts of the human condition and the stability of meaning that has characterized the secular disenchantment of the twentieth century. In neuroscience's searching for some kind of truth about how we all work, the novel has found a companion.

 

 

To be continued in 2012...

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