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Alexandra Kingston-Reese, Contemporary Novelists and the Aesthetics of Twenty-First Century American Life

Ian Ellison

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1Alexandra Kingston-Reese, Contemporary Novelists and the Aesthetics of Twenty-First Century American Life

2University of Iowa Press, 2019. Pp. xv + 200. ISBN-13 978-1-60938-675-7

3Ian Ellison, ZEIT-Stiftung Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Deutsches Literaturarchiv, Marbach

4“What is the good of the arts if they’re interchangeable?” Margaret Schlegel asks in E. M. Forster’s 1910 novel Howards End, responding in exasperation to her sister Helen’s persistent attempts to translate music into the language of painting and painting into the language of music. For the writers examined in Alexandra Kingston-Reese’s perceptive study, such a question problematizes in particular the novel form’s potential to mediate and describe accurately the experience of encountering works of visual art. Precise and concise, this monograph examines how forms of aesthetic experience are addressed in a range of works by contemporary Anglophone novelists – who are crucially also active as critics–including Teju Cole, Ben Lerner and Zadie Smith, as well as Sheila Heti, Siri Hustvedt, Chris Kraus, and Rachel Kushner. While there is among the contemporary art novels of these writers no discernible uniformity, they collectively express for Kingston-Reese a concern with understanding and articulating how the relentlessly commodified and mediated nature of contemporary life has substantively altered the ways in which art is experienced in aesthetic terms and, moreover, how this is expressed in fictional prose.

5By refracting aesthetic experience through the conditions of twenty-first-century life, and by working through this in their fiction, contemporary novelists illuminate a sense of disquiet with forms of failure. On the one hand, contemporary art novels express a pervasive concern with aesthetic experience’s inability to offer consolation; on the other hand, they also highlight literature’s inadequacies in articulating the emotional dissonance caused by contemporary aesthetic experience itself. Most notably, Kingston-Reese is concerned with how these novels disturb and disrupt received understandings of how art may–or, indeed, should–be perceived. She argues persuasively that contemporary art novels seek reconciliation with negative feelings stemming from the conditions of contemporary living by critically realigning their understandings of artistic sensibility, literary form, and aesthetic appreciation. Riffing off the examples of Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s ‘Apeshit’ music video and the assassin Villanelle’s disdain for paintings by the Dutch masters in the Rijksmuseum in the second series of the hit BBC show Killing Eve, Kingston-Reese establishes in her introduction how feelings of boredom, disappointment, or frustration when encountering works of art constitute a form of contemporary sublime experience. If, as she argues, “contemporary novels mobilize aesthetic theory away from aesthetic norms to negative aesthetic categories better tied to contemporary living,” then this is done “without replicating the same theoretical structures that reduce the aesthetic back to these same categories” (8). In doing so, Kingston-Reese suggests, contemporary art novels recalibrate understandings of aesthetic experience, offering forms of consolation in spite of–or, perhaps better put, because of–the disruptions caused by personal anguish, climate breakdown, and global conflict that puncture their narratives.

6For instance, Smith’s On Beauty, itself a reworking of Forster’s Howards End that transposes his novel’s concerns with the failure of intimacy to the context of an East-coast liberal arts institution, explores disconnections between the real and the beautiful by “seeing through unfamiliar eyes” (45). Tensions between individual perception and community emerge through the immersive nature of Cole’s published works Open City (2011), Every Day is for the Thief (2014), Known and Strange Things (2016), and Blind Spot (2017). His literary mode, for example, is not “representational, nor does it rely upon literary description to denote the experience of music […]. Instead, this mode performs as an experiential idiom that can transform perception and, whether experienced alone or in company, ultimately aims to achieve something resembling collective experience” (84). Drawing on Hustvedt’s own experiences of grief, the synaesthetic moments in What I Loved (2003), where a viewer’s touching of a painting extends through the work itself to connect with the artist and with the subject, enable “a visceral kind of solace that refuses to neatly soothe grieving wounds, but nevertheless gives some grace to the void left by loss” (105). Heti and Kraus, admittedly of a slightly earlier generation writers akin to the theory novelists of the late twentieth twentieth-century, have produced in How Should a Person Be? (2010) and I Love Dick (1997) distinctly dialogic works. As Kingston-Reese helpfully distinguishes, “where for Kraus dialogue fails as unrequited, for Heti the back-and-forth of vacillation denotes an aesthetic idealism in the novel” (132). Unartfulness in both writers’ works provides an aesthetic catalyst for innovation. Lastly, in Kushner’s The Flamethrowers (2013) and in Lerner’s 10:04 (2014), the experience of passing time dilates aesthetically that such distinctions between art and life collapse: “[t]he slowness of accumulation and repetition works as a suspensive mode” (137) and the relationship between text and image becomes crucial to both the novel’s writer and its reader. As Kingston-Reese argues, “the slow reading of such contemporary intermedial novels functions as relational art” (166). Writers’ focus on the mediated experience of creating their novels thus offers readers the chance to refocus and reflect on the aesthetic experience of engaging with them.

7Reducing her book to a trite list of brief examples, however, does a disservice to the perspicacity of Kingston-Reese’s close readings and the limpidity of her prose. As Lerner wrote in a review, which Kingston-Reese also cites, of the third volume of Karl Ove Knausgård’s My Struggle (2014), “one would have to except pages and pages, not a sentence or a paragraph, to give an accurate sense of the effect.” Particularly illuminating in this monograph is Kingston-Reese’s sustained consideration of her writers’ critiques of their own work ex post facto along with their observations about the craft and practice of writing more broadly. The thorough examination of novels, interviews, and criticism by these contemporary novelists in Kingston-Reese’s excellent study reveals the manifold ways in which aesthetic experience in contemporary fiction is rendered ordinary, which simultaneously grounds it in everyday life and uncouples it from high culture. Occupying a space between authors and their texts, between art and literature, Contemporary Novelists and the Aesthetics of Twenty-First Century American Life straddles these purported mutual exclusivities, advocating and exemplifying a refreshing move from suspicious and critical detachment to affective and sympathetic engagement with the shifting complexities of contemporary novels and their authors.

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Bibliography

Lerner, Ben. “Every Cornflake.” Review of My Struggle, vol. 3, Boyhood Island, by Karl Ove Knusgaard, translated by Don Bartlett. London Review of Books, vol. 36, no. 10, 22 May 2014, www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v36/n10/ben-lerner/each-cornflake.

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Electronic reference

Ian Ellison, « Alexandra Kingston-Reese, Contemporary Novelists and the Aesthetics of Twenty-First Century American Life », European journal of American studies [Online], Reviews 2021-1, Online since 22 April 2021, connection on 11 May 2021. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/ejas/16862

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Ian Ellison

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