From apocalyptic novels to `beige' notes. Here Monitor columnist Melvin Maddocks, book editor Thomas D'Evelyn, and Home Forum editor Maggie Lewis join feature editor Roderick Nordell for an informal discussion of today's literary arts -- from apocalyptic novels to the humor in the word ``beige.'' Their conversation in the series ``State of the arts'' appears on page 16.
Maddocks: There's an apocalyptic character to some fiction today. We go through the worst scenario you can imagine, almost the worst. And then you see what comes out. And [Bernard] Malamud did that in writing an end-time fantasy in his last novel, ``God's Grace,'' didn't he? D'Evelyn: That's probably a good way of talking about it. I think what we're getting is serious literary people who are trying to really push back our imaginations into something that is almost impossible to imagine. Yet that's what they've always tried to do in some way.Skip to next paragraph
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Whether or not we find that heartening or uplifting is another thing. But it's certainly artistically understandable in terms of the craft.
Nordell: What are a couple of examples of what you're talking about now?
Maddocks: Paul Theroux's ``O-Zone'' and Margaret Atwood's ``The Handmaiden's Tale.'' And almost all of the novels Doris Lessing has written of late. And these novels, in a sense, run on a very lean mixture. It's kind of a trick to see how little hope you can get in and still come up at the end without total despair.
D'Evelyn: That goes back to Horace's principle: It must please. That's the challenge. Keep the reader reading, but don't buy any false hopes.
Maddocks: That's right. They're determined to have no false hope. Because when you get to apocalypse, it's too late to pretend. So it's a very spare thing.
D'Evelyn: And it's also the Armageddon phase of apocalyptic thinking that is becoming an actual motivating force in our political culture. So when you're dealing with the apocalyptic theme, you're dealing with something that people actually think about in concrete terms now.
Maddocks: It's funny. The writers kind of reverse things and say, if there's no reason for living, then there's no reason for writing, and I want to write.
Nordell: These novels are dystopias, did you say?
D'Evelyn: We've had utopias, which present an ideal that is no place but still active in our consciousness. Now a dystopia is no place but active in our consciousness as a negative future.
Maddocks: And it's mixed with some science-fiction influences. I think it's based on some sense that you can't -- I think this was in Atwood, certainly -- that you can't make vivid the predicament we're in now unless you project it into the future.
D'Evelyn: Following it out to its conclusions.
Maddocks: Yes. Then you can see what the dangers are now. And in that sense, I guess, if you want to use the word moral, you could say it's presenting you with whatever choices are before you.
D'Evelyn: I think it's challenging us to be responsible for the directions that our imagination is taking. It's like being responsible for the logic of some of the things that you're implicitly believing. That's certainly how ``The Handmaiden's Tale'' works.
Nordell: I believe Orwell intended to give ``1984'' the title``1948'' when it was published. Because he saw it as a kind of exaggeration of existing elements. Are these books that you're talking about grim satires of the way things are now or warnings that we'd better not continue the way we are going?
Maddocks: I think they're saying these are the tendencies, and if they aren't identified then they will become just a gross caricature of what they are now.