Twenty years ago, Charles Baxter named the unsettling traits of America’s then-adolescent “culture of deniability” and what its “dysfunctional narratives” meant for politics and fiction.
I recently read “Dysfunctional Narratives: or: ‘Mistakes Were Made,’” the first essay in Charles Baxter’s Burning Down the House. This collection on the craft of writing was published in 1997, which means the discussion about who, precisely, is to blame for the prevalence of what Baxter calls a culture of deniability in politics, life, and fiction (he thinks it’s finally Nixon), was written before Bill Clinton parsed the manifold definitions of the word is. Certainly, his warnings about the passive language behind statements like “mistakes were made” have not been heeded in what passes, now, for the exchange of moral and political ideas emanating from centers of institutionalized power. That said, there’s an absolute brilliance to Baxter’s synthesis of the mores native to what wasn’t, after all, the end of history.
Regarding fiction (the craft of writing stories, not the mastery of White House pressers), what displeases Baxter most is the dearth of characters owning up to their mistakes. In contemporary story-telling, he says, no one is responsible for their poor decisions. He sees clear parallels to afternoon talk shows: “Usually…there’s no remorse or shame. Some other factor caused it: bad genes, alcoholism, drugs, or — the cause of last resort — Satan. For intellectuals it may be the patriarchy: some devil or other…” Contemporary fiction is like this, Baxter says, dedicated to “uncovering and naming” the scars of childhood that explain our shitty actions, all narrative arcs bending in and finally inward.
Baxter prefers the scheme handed down from Aristotle, wherein a person, though tragically flawed, may also be essentially good, but is only a story’s hero if s/he comes to terms with having made mistakes. Mistakes in this vein are never things made manifest by abstract forces. “Mistakes were made” is not the hero’s mantra. “I made mistakes,” or, even better, “I fucked up” are the proper declarations and discoveries.
I’m in my late 30s, which means I came of age in the milieu vexing Baxter. Since this essay first appeared in print, we have two decades more experience with uncovering and naming the systemic pathologies that shape us: never-resolved racism, sexism, misogyny, and all other forms of privilege; the death of civic institutions; the unbound power of late capitalists and their late capitalism. Baxter allows for some of this, and is particularly effective when explicating the ways in which people in power have convinced us that the problems in our lives are due not to default inequality and every kind of alienation, but to the dynamics of our always-breaking families.
At the same time, as a child of the 80s and 90s, I am not entirely convinced that Baxter doesn’t underplay the far reach of what we might euphemistically call our family traditions. Certainly, the sickness in our civic body and the crises in our own emotional and mental states of being are perpetuated from the top. But they’re also, necessarily, perpetuated in the domus. Baxter is too quick, in my late Gen X experience, to dismiss the impact of what Flannery O’Connor wryly called the “comforts of home.” Consider: “Confronted with this mode, I feel like an Old Leftist. I want to say: The Bosses are happy when you feel helpless. They’re pleased when you think the source of your trouble is your family. They’re delighted when you give up the idea that you should band together for political action. They’d rather have you feel helpless. They even like addicts, as long as they’re most out of sight. After all, addiction is just the last stage of consumerism.”
We know better now. It’s clever, for example, using addiction to critique late capitalism. But it’s more apparent, these days, that addiction is self-medication in the mold of Huxley’s soma. The sicknesses we seek to blunt are certainly systemic, but the systems that produce them are not always commanded by Nixons, Bushes, Clintons. Often, yes. So often. But Goldman Sachs is not behind, for one thing, the sexual abuse of children in their homes by family members.
Our manias and wounds come from many places. To me, uncovering and naming our scars and their sources is pretty damn heroic. If that preoccupies the narrative action of so much fiction, well, so what? Like any other art, story-telling is forged in real cultures, times, and places. The West, in the 20th century, was the locus of unspeakable atrocity, broadcast, for the first time in human history, across the world in photographs, in never-ending loops of film, eventually in color, now in ever-higher definition. Of course we’re fucking crazy. Of course it is (and isn’t) all our fault.
Baxter does not resolve the tension between feeling like an Old Leftist and allowing for the possibility that some things really stem from generational transgressions. After the riff on helplessness, he says “And I suppose I am nostalgic — as a writer, of course — for stories with mindful villainy, villainy with clear motives that any adult would understand, bad behavior with a sense of scale that would give back to us our imaginative grip on the despicable and the admirable and our capacity to have some opinions about the two.”
Villains do exist. That they’re absent from the fiction Baxter’s thinking of might have something to do with their omnipresence in real life. Like other Baby Boomers, mass media was in its infancy when O’Connor began parading her grotesques. If contemporary story-telling lacks villains as clearly drawn as The Misfit, it may be because fiction has in some senses grown up. We consume the images of real-life evil every day. Fiction serves a different function now because it can and must.
Written over 100 years ago, Joseph Conrad’s Victory is full of made-up villains with the kinds of intentions and motivations Baxter longs for. Published in 1915, it is perhaps the last big work before the psychological (and geopolitical) repercussions of the World War I (then still in early stages) were talked about in fiction. In that way, it is perhaps the last great novel of the 19th century. I’m currently rereading The Sun Also Rises. There’s no great villain there in Baxter’s sense, or Aristotle’s. There are people who eat and drink and fish and fight and cheat and succeed and fail at sticking to subjective moral codes. The villain, really, is the Great War, the 20th century’s first true mental breakdown. The Sun Also Rises is the perhaps the first big work to say so.
O’Connor, for her brilliance, was in some senses a throwback. While Conrad dealt with “human satans,” and Hemingway with the great devil of the war, O’Connor mined the extent to which, to her, the actual devil reigned in human hearts and territories.
Reading after 9/11 and Iraq, after Donald Rumsfeld’s second act, after Barack Obama’s drone wars and in the midst of Donald Trump’s own brands of villainy and narrative dysfunction, at which we scratch our heads and posit reasons why, reasons why he’s like this, reasons why rich Republicans enable him, even as we catalogue the anxieties (of displacement, poverty, addiction) and out-right hatreds he exploits, “some devil or other” is, as ever, in the details. In systems, in families, in fiction, with or without grotesque or mundane villains, in wars large and small.
(Read the rest on Medium).