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The Specter Haunting the Contemporary Novel, Part II

Several months ago, I wrote about one contemporary reaction to the thematization of neuroscience in the contemporary novel. As promised, I'd like to continue the discussion of this important trend in the contemporary novel, as well as this notable reaction to it.

The neuronovel is important, and of concern, not only because it reflect's neuroscience's impact on culture, but because it represents neuroscience in culture. This fact seems obvious when stated outright, but it provides the ground for an important modification to some of the deleterious assumptions one might make about the neuronovel.

Let's return to the opening gambit in the Marco Roth piece, "Rise of the Neuronovel," I was discussing in my previous post. He writes, in his second sentence: "What has been variously referred to as the novel of consciousness 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." Drawing a straight line from the psychological novel to the neuronovel seems to make sense, but the logic begins to unravel when we remind ourselves that, in a great deal of what we call the psychological novel, actual psychology isn't the subject of the novel or a primary feature of the plot. (This is bracketing the fact that the confessional novel is not the same thing as the psychological novel; but that's another discussion.)

In the neuronovel, that isn't the case. Neuroscience -- or, more specifically, neurological disorder -- provides both an animating contextual field and a plot-driving subject in the books Roth discusses and critiques. He lists some of these novels and pairs them with the relevant disorder. For instance: "Jonathan Lethem's Motherless Brooklyn (Tourette's syndrome," "Richard Powers's The Echo Maker (facial agnosia, Capgras syndrome," "Atmospheric Disturbances (Capgras syndrome again) by a medical school graduate, Rivka Galchen," and so on. Attaching neurological name tags to these novels is a reductive exercise -- imagine a similar list: Vanity Fair (Second Napoleonic War), Waverley (Jacobite Rebellion), War and Peace (Napoleonic Wars again) -- but it usefully points out the extent to which neuroscience has become an explicit subject of representation in these novels.

Roth doesn't mention this, but in the psychological novel, psychology generally isn't a subject in the same way. The Portrait of a Lady isn't about psychology in the way that The Echo Maker is about neurology. This leads Roth to ask these questions:

The question, then, is why novelists have ceded their ground to science. And from the writer’s perspective, if not from the reader’s, an allegorical interpretation of the neuronovel does seem possible. Is the interest in neurological anomaly not symptomatic of an anxiety about the role of novelists in this new medical-materialist world, which happens also to be a world of giant publishing conglomerates and falling reading rates? Are novelists now, in their own eyes and others’, only special cases, without specialized and credentialed knowledge, who may at best dispense accurate if secondhand medical (or historical or sociological) information in the form of an entertaining fictional narrative? And is the impulse to write not an inexplicable compulsion, a category of disorder outside the range of normal? Do writers need special institutions that recognize and treat their mental peculiarities, without granting these any special visionary status? (Such institutions are known as MFA programs.)

The quip about MFA programs at the end is amusing, but it's also important in understanding how the logic of the neuronovel has infected Roth's own writing. In his wry identification of MFA programs as institutions of writerly validation, he identifies a disorder and its symptom. While the use of this kind of language is, on the one hand, deliberate, on the other hand it undermines Roth's militating against these novel's valorization of "specialized and credentialed knowledge." For indeed, Roth's entire piece is constructed on the basis of another kind of specialized and credentialed knowledge: literary criticism. The office of the critic, for which Roth holds numerous credentials of his own, is one that opens outward to enhance public knowledge, but at the same time requires institutional, professional, and social affiliations and means to participate in. The novel has always represented these kinds of public social interests. At the end of the 00s, neuroscience was one of them. For the most part, it isn't any longer (elsewhere, Richard Beck has convincingly suggested that many contemporary novelists have become mired in nostalgia for and romanticization of childhood and children). While I think it's the job of the critic to point out how shallow a "medical-materialist world" -- as a world of the novel and the world of real life -- might be, it's also incumbent on the critic to have a literary imagination capacious enough to accommodate and engage with the rising and falling institutional and social affiliations of writers and their plots.


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