What is Radical Fiction?

by André Dao

It’s all too easy to devote all of our attention to deciphering the radical in radical fiction. But to do so is to gloss over the question of fiction – specifically, what purpose does fiction have? Speaking about the effect that fiction has on him, David Foster Wallace wrote that it made him feel “unalone – intellectually, emotionally, spiritually. I feel human and unalone and that I’m in a deep conversation with another consciousness.” (Miller) Fiction is, above and beyond anything else, an attempt at communication. It’s an unavoidable condition of human existence that we can never know precisely what another person is thinking or feeling. The fictive element of fiction is that it holds the promise of revealing to us the subjectivity of that unknowable Other.

Postmodernity was marked by the “rupture” of deconstruction, the point at which Western metaphysics dealt not only with structure, as in Marxist theory, but with “the structurality of structure” (Derrida). For fiction writers, it meant revealing and playing with the fictiveness of fiction’s claim to communication. Postmodern writing is marked by that self-awareness of itself as a work of fiction – indeed, we could say that we have reached a kind of high water mark in self-aware writing. The preface to Dave Egger’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius is a prime example – it highlights the extent to which this memoir has been fictionalized, including dialogue which “is obviously not true, as when people break out of their narrative time-space continuum to cloyingly talk about the book itself” (Eggers). But as the author himself acknowledges, “[t]here is no overwhelming need to read the preface…[i]t exists mostly for the author”. We seem then, to have reached a kind of impasse – while postmodernity’s self-awareness was arguably radical, the sort of meta-fictionality exemplified by Eggers is obstructing fiction’s true purpose – to communicate to a reader.

How then can we take a step back from the relentless trickery and self-aware winking of postmodernity without falling into the trap of nostalgia? For it is the concept of nostalgia that best captures the anti-radical tendency in society and in literature. Gertrude Stein said that the present never wants to be what the present is (Berry). Having grown up with the literary, political and aesthetic reference points of previous generations, it is inevitable that the present will seem all too loud and ugly – we simply have yet to create the vocabulary or cultural yardsticks by which to appreciate it. Which is why nostalgia has been used to sell everything from war to cleaning products. That sort of appeal to golden eras and ‘the good old days’ is a cornerstone of conservatism precisely because it offers a comforting and reassuring vocabulary – John Howard’s vision of the 1950s as a white picket fence and nuclear family feels like something safe and familiar to hold onto in the face of postmodern bogeymen like asylum seekers and terrorism.

What nostalgia reacts against then, and what it draws its attraction from, is the alienation of the present. Our present has been described as a society of information overload – and the postmodern brand of alienation has been diagnosed as an inability to cognitively map those complex networks of information (Jameson). The radical response to this alienation however, is not to try and make sense of it – that is the nostalgic response. I use nostalgia here in the theoretical sense – that is, the traditional Western metaphysical search for a fixed, originary centre which will give meaning to everything else around it. Of course, postmodern writing has already dispensed with this search for a centre – by constantly reminding us of its fictiveness, postmodern fiction revels in the confusion and unmappability of postmodernity, disavowing any kind of authorial intention which might give meaning to the chaos.

However, as mentioned above, postmodern writing ultimately fails its communicative function. Not because it’s ‘too hard’, and contemporary audiences are ‘too stupid’ to understand postmodern writing. It fails to communicate on the level that Foster Wallace outlined as the threshold for good fiction because as a technique, postmodern writing merely mimics postmodern information overload. In doing so, it replicates the alienation of the postmodern present, which is why readers, even the ones who ‘get it’, often come away from postmodern writing unmoved.

Michel Foucault’s theory of governmentality posits a relatively new method of oppression through the gathering of knowledge – by collecting endless data and statistics, governments are able discipline and control society (Otto). For governments, if something is knowable it is therefore controllable – the Northern Territory Intervention is a domestic example of the government’s ability to justify its invasive control of a social group through data collection. At worst, when postmodern writing such as American Psycho writing is unable to communicate something true and human it just becomes more data.

But what truth and humanity can we communicate as fiction writers without falling back on nostalgic essentialisms (which, it must be remembered, we’re not avoiding just to keep up with critical theory fashion but because those nostalgic essentialisms are always ultimately exclusive – and are vital in the creation of narratives of dominance and oppression)? It is worth quoting Foster Wallace here at length:

“the horrific struggle to establish a human self results in a self whose humanity is inseparable from that horrific struggle…Our endless and impossible journey toward home is in fact our home.” (Foster Wallace)

So it isn’t some Truth that we’re striving to communicate but the very struggle for truth which defines all of us. For Stein, art changes not in the pursuit of novelty but instead to capture something that has already happened. Put another way, radical fiction is writing that attempts to develop a new vocabulary to come to terms with the present. In our case, that means neither making sense of the postmodern present nor merely mimicking its complexity – instead, radical fiction now should be communicating the particular alienation of a century in which we are increasingly technologically connected to every other human being on the planet and yet we feel as alone and overwhelmed as ever.

Radical fiction now should, in a sense, embrace the unknowable as unknowable. But this is not the cold, cerebral experimentation of postmodern writing.  It’s an incredibly sad, scary and human approach to the postmodern present. Acknowledging the unknowable as unknowable is to concede the limits of language – there are some things which language is just unable to adequately convey – not least of which is what each of us is thinking and feeling at any given moment. But the paradox is that by pointing that out, we as fiction writers are able to communicate across the inherent limit of language because we each feel our aloneness and reading about it as a shared human condition alleviates that loneliness, even if just for a moment. Samuel Beckett said that he was always looking for the perfect word “so that the thing that [he was] trying in vain to say can be tried in vain to be said”. If fiction is fundamentally a form of communication, then radical fiction is fiction already marked by its failure – it is writing that sets out to fail.