AMERICAN ENERGIES: ESSAYS ON FICTION By Sven Birkerts, William Morrow, 413 pp., $25.
AFTER a reader turns the last page of Sven Birkerts's "American Energies," a question comes quickly to thought: Is there any effort left in the United States to be excellent? Not to win, not to have the most, or be the biggest, or the quickest, but to be excellent?
Birkerts's collection of essays on what he sees as the weakened condition of American novels is not directly about excellence.
It's the lack of depth and resonance in novels that worries him. As a reflection of an American culture spun into confection by technology, he argues, mostly lightweight novels are being written now. While my guess is that he would validate the pursuit of excellence as worthy even in novels, the desire for excellence is a characteristic, not a vision.
But inadvertently, Birkerts suggests that excellence and vision are intertwined. He wants novels to return to encompassing visions, to the kind of stories that "gather what we are" and become unforgettable.
He offers a partial lineup of novelists who "reached artistic maturity" just before technology and the sonic boom of media communications swept the globe - Saul Bellow, Eudora Welty, Robert Penn Warren, Peter Taylor, and John Updike. He compares them with a current list of novelists he calls "children of the media culture": Jay McInerney, Tama Janowitz, David Leavitt, Amy Hempel, Mary Robison, Deborah Eisenberg, Bret Easton Ellis, Ann Beattie, and Bobbie Ann Mason.
Is the latter group a purveyor of lightweight excellence?
Yes, if you apply Birkerts's criteria loosely and call them minimalists.
No, if you are a member of that generation, and accept the world of sudden pulses, quick images, and "circuit processes," as Birkerts calls it. Excellence is not any point at all; experiencing the NOW is the point.
You want real excellence and vision? Birkerts offers reviews of books, and comments about at least 40 American writers in the second part of the book. Here are some of the big themes and bedrock members of American fiction; three of the most important novelists are Don DeLillo, Thomas Pynchon, and Robert Stone.
Birkerts says, "The work of these three novelists is the thread of sanity that we will need if we are to escape from the labyrinth" of a society filled with "distraction, spectacle, and the bromides of public relations."