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They Could Be Heroes

Today's biggest novelists are throwbacks to a simpler time.

Imagine a conversation stitched together across time. On one side of the table, it’s 1993 and David Foster Wallace is hunched, do-ragged, gesticulating: “I probably didn’t watch quite as much TV as my friends, but I still got my daily megadose, believe me. And I think it’s impossible to spend that many slack-jawed, spittle-chinned, formative hours in front of commercial art without internalizing the idea that one of the main goals of art is simply to entertain, give people sheer pleasure. Except to what end, this pleasure-giving?”

Across from him is Michael Chabon in 2005, natty, boyish, and smiling: “I read for entertainment, and I write to entertain. Period. Oh, I could decoct a brew of other, more impressive motivations and explanations.… But in the end—here’s my point—it would still all boil down to entertainment, and its suave henchman, pleasure.”

In both these proclamations, Chabon and Wallace were confronting the state of art in a period when commercial entertainment enjoyed unparalleled dominance over American culture. Through the 1990s, cable television exploded, with subscriptions hitting their peak at the millennium. Oprah Winfrey’s book club, launched in 1996, wielded the power to boost the sales of a book by a factor of 40. There was more television than ever, and television helped choose the stories Americans would read. In the economic prosperity and relative calm of the Nineties, pop culture felt like not just a pleasant accompaniment to reality, but like reality itself.

American literary fiction, however, had failed to respond to this sea change. So-called realist fiction still reigned, whether in Raymond Carver’s stylized minimalism or John Updike’s lyricized suburban boredom. Chabon and Wallace both sought an alternative, though their impulses led them in opposite directions. Wallace equated entertainment with binge-watching junk television. Its addictive nature fostered a form of mental imprisonment that literature needed to resist. To Chabon, TV represented the things that had helped him escape the boredom of his middle-class suburban childhood: Superman, Sherlock Holmes, spaghetti westerns, magic acts, and baseball games.

By the end of the decade, Chabon’s view had mostly won out. Consider the breakout titles of 1999 and 2000: a reality television–inspired memoir (Dave Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius), a Chandleresque noir story (Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn), a tongue-in-cheek riff on Philip K. Dick and Samuel R. Delany (Colson Whitehead’s The Intuitionist), a collection of Westworld-like short stories (George Saunders’s Pastoralia), and a novel that wanted to be a comic book (Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay). Galvanized by the enthusiasms of their youth, these five writers ushered in a literary aesthetic that was loose and unwieldy, gleefully looting popular genres and mixing the highbrow with the low. To be the proverbial writer on whom nothing is lost, one suddenly needed to be knowledgeable about horror movies, Robert A. Heinlein, and the differences between DC and Marvel comics.

These five writers also turned out to share an elusive trait: staying power. While other cultural touchstones of the era now feel irredeemably passé (Dave Matthews Band albums; DVDs of Fight Club and Titanic), these writers and their fiction have only gained in prestige. They continue to produce acclaimed new work: Eggers’s Heroes of the Frontier, Lethem’s A Gambler’s Anatomy, Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, Chabon’s Moonglow, and Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo all appeared in the past year, and were heralded as “timely and necessary,” “witty and sexy,” “wondrous,” and much more from the thesaurus of praise. Eggers and Whitehead were among the five writers President Obama invited to lunch before his second term expired. Lethem has just sold his personal papers, including random doodles, to the rare book library at Yale.

But while these authors continue to be celebrated, the world around them has changed dramatically. Today we are less troubled by the homogenizing effects of entertainment than by our deep partisan divisions in both politics and art. And the cultural shift that today’s literary writers struggle to parse is not the impact of TV sitcoms, but of social media and the internet. Even the notion of escape means something very different in the age of Trump than it meant during the Clinton years. In response, some of these writers have shifted their narratives into a safer, more myth-friendly past; others continue to deliver the hopeful feelings of a simpler time. You might call them the last escapists: If their books still resonate, it is not because they reflect the zeitgeist, but because they run so profoundly against it. And as long as their brand of exuberant nostalgia holds appeal, there’s a danger of being left with a literature that tells us only what we already know, however enchantingly.

The late-Nineties aesthetic didn’t seem, from the outset, built to outlast its moment. It laid its foundations, after all, on the fleeting and disposable. Michael Chabon came to genre hybrids with the zeal of a born-again, but the slogan he adopted—“All novels are sequels; influence is bliss”—didn’t make them sound very original. Descriptions of Lethem’s early books, meanwhile, bring to mind chemistry experiments. His 1994 debut, Gun, with Occasional Music, was a compound of Raymond Chandler and Philip K. Dick; 1998’s Girl in Landscape was a John Ford western reenacted in outer space. His quintessential piece of writing may be “The Ecstasy of Influence,” an essay made up entirely of citations.

Jonathan Lethem’s novels gleefully mash together a range of esoteric enthusiasms.

It was Lethem who demonstrated how writers could mash together esoteric genre enthusiasms to show readers parts of their world not portrayed in the literary fiction that came before. Fundamentally a pastiche artist, Lethem made himself impossible to categorize, the Quentin Tarantino of the book world. Tarantino famously worked at a video store, and his films, composed entirely of Hollywood clichés, are the cinematic equivalent of a passionate rental clerk riffing about his favorite films. The inspiration for Pulp Fiction, wrote Roger Ebert, “is old movies, not real life.” Lethem, a former bookseller and now a used-bookstore owner, put nostalgia to similar uses. These Gen-Xers, the critic John Leonard grumbled, believed that “anything that ever mattered to them must be profound.” Yet Lethem was able to reanimate hoary old genre conventions by way of surprising juxtapositions, a somewhat schizoid prose style, and a genuine zeal for the literature of his childhood.

Still, a repertoire that draws from old books rather than real life will have trouble staying fresh, and in its latest resurgence, there are indeed some signs of weariness and repetitiveness. Lethem’s new novel, A Gambler’s Anatomy, has fewer pyrotechnics than his early books but otherwise abides by the same grab-bag philosophy. The book is about the misadventures of a telepathic backgammon hustler who’s forced to wear a mask after a tumor is removed from his face; it mixes, matches, and sometimes goofs on elements from the James Bond franchise, George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman novels, The Big Lebowski, and, for a few gruesome chapters, TV medical dramas. Like all of Lethem’s books before it, it’s a culture junkie’s house of mirrors, busying the eye with endless reflections of other touchstone works, but having little else to show you.

This may be by design; Lethem clearly feels more comfortable where he started out, on the fringes of respectability. His 2003 novel, The Fortress of Solitude, is sometimes touted as one of the young century’s most important works of fiction, but for all its soulful fellow feeling for adolescent loners, the book is more pleasurable than profound, as crammed with trivial odds and ends as the junk-filled apartment of a compulsive hoarder. The most liberating aspect of Lethem’s fiction—his refusal to think very hard about why certain things are being thrown together and what the juxtapositions might mean—is also its most limiting. Lethem has said that his narrative impulse comes from “the dreaming brain attempting to make sense of the dream,” which suggests a surrealist effect. But while his books are odd, they’re never disorienting. His creative process works less by instinct and more by whim.

This is certainly the case with A Gambler’s Anatomy, which has all of Lethem’s trademarks. There is the brooding solitary hero, the antic array of side characters, the partially digested research on obscure topics (backgammon and facial meningiomas, in this case), the sporadic dips into social issues like gentrification, and the endless connoisseurial riffing on the books and movies and music behind it all. “Bruno had imagined a day when he’d outgrow distractibility,” Lethem writes of his backgammon hustler. “Instead, approaching 50, the window of interest had widened.” The line refers to Bruno’s habit of collecting women, but it speaks to the weakness of Lethem’s method of assemblage. The books themselves could be summed up by another of Bruno’s passing thoughts: “Nothing made enough sense to matter.”

Colson Whitehead’s tale of chattel slavery is wrapped in a plucky adventure yarn.

The eclectic approach pioneered by Lethem proved more powerful for a writer like Colson Whitehead, who had to defy stereotypical categories in order to gain creative freedom. Literary tradition has meant that Whitehead has often been expected to serve as his generation’s spokesperson for the African American experience. He has quipped that no matter what he publishes—even his debut, The Intuitionist, a noir parable about elevator inspectors—it’s going to be likened to Ralph Ellison. His solution has been to make his books so dependent on his own affinities that they’re impossible to classify. “Anything I find interesting goes in the hopper and becomes an influence or inspiration to some degree,” he told an interviewer. “At various times, that’s been comics, film, TV, music. And books—can’t forget books!” Like Chabon, he has professed that it was the beloved pop culture of his childhood that made him want to write: “X-Men and Spider-Man comics, then science fiction, horror, and fantasy novels.”

An eclectic style also allowed Whitehead to tell more complex stories than the settings and plots themselves could promise. His vision is fundamentally dark, and his novels pit lonely, existential heroes against powerful, absurdist systems. The worlds he builds are monochrome and depressing. Yet by casting these stories in the conventions of genre fiction, he leads the reader to expect more surprising possibilities from his narratives. The Underground Railroad—which imagines a literal underground train network for fugitive slaves—is an unsparing, documentarian account of chattel slavery. But the story is wrapped inside the kind of plucky, against-the-odds adventure yarn found in popular Young Adult novels. As the novel switches between genres, it becomes a kind of running argument between hope and disillusion, granting us a view of unsalvageable evils through the idealistic lens of a simpler age.

The balancing act, however brilliantly Whitehead achieves it, cuts right to the central dilemma of the nostalgist’s aesthetic: Can a novelist both recapture the innocent pleasures of storytelling and at the same time illuminate the complex realities of experience? In stable and prosperous times, truth and entertainment can overlap. But periods of crisis wedge them apart, and being faithful to one compromises the other.

Perhaps the most appealing aspect of the Nineties writers’ aesthetic was their sincerity, their openheartedness. Whereas today’s cult authors, like Ben Lerner or Sheila Heti, are inward-turned and intellectual, Dave Eggers believed that books and journals should create welcoming, affable communities. He adorned his autobiography, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, with footnotes and appendices and amiable little gags for his friends. The journal he founded, Timothy McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, was idealistic, affirmational, and adorably nonthreatening. Its exemplary authors were people like Stephen Elliott, Neal Pollack, and Arthur Bradford, who each enjoyed moments of minor stardom. Although the winsome, confessional mode they mined hasn’t held up, for a time they, like Eggers, generated an emotional connection with their readership that few current American writers have matched.

Pretty quickly, though, the limits of that sensibility—studied irony combined with a yearning for emotional validation—became clear. It couldn’t point to anything that was urgently or desperately wrong with the world. Eggers himself has subsequently bridled against the persona he worked so hard to establish. It’s almost as though he decided to leave the precocious youth shtick behind and refashion himself as a model of world-weary adulthood. What Is the What, published in 2006, was his first politically conscious book, confronting the plight of Sudanese refugees. He followed with Zeitoun in 2009, a nonfiction account of a Syrian-American man who acts heroically after Hurricane Katrina only to face discrimination and brutality from the authorities. Unmoored from his youthful affability, sanctimony crept in from the edges. In his autobiography, Eggers had celebrated the radical transparency of a generation determined to transform the world through earnestness and candor; but in his 2013 Silicon Valley cautionary tale, The Circle, he caricatured over-sharing millennials as brainless apparatchiks of digital totalitarianism.

His new novel, Heroes of the Frontier, is marked by the same cranky disillusionment. Here a beleaguered American everywoman takes her children on a voyage to Alaska, but finds her quest for transcendence thwarted by oppressive social and economic realities. The writing is plain, impersonal, and lightly patronizing—a reversal of the style Eggers did so much to foster. His newfound moralizing is a bit rich from someone who a dozen years ago was the country’s leading exponent of twee naïveté, but it has been extremely well received in most liberal quarters, where its mixture of political talking points and straightforward narrative drive satisfies a notion that good fiction should be relevant and topical. Eggers continues to demonstrate his knack for relating to his readership. That readership is simply older now, has more money, and reads The New York Times.

In the work of George Saunders, too, you can see the limits that an enthusiastic, quirky authorial persona places on novelistic insight. Behind its bizarre trappings, Saunders’s fiction is defined by a rather traditional sentimentality, connected to his Buddhist beliefs. “When you read a short story, you come out a little more aware and a little more in love with the world around you,” he has said. “What I want is to have the reader come out just 6 percent more awake to the world.” Many of Saunders’s stories—including “Sea Oak,” “The Falls,” and “The Tenth of December”—nudge you toward pity by centering on endangered children. His trick is to make the situations weird and funny enough that you don’t notice the manipulation.

But Saunders’s spell flickers when he starts to address real-world events. Political allegories like “The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil” and “The Red Bow,” both set in the George W. Bush era, are thin on humor and far too transparent in their messaging. (“The Red Bow” is an Orwellian allegory, in which a neighborhood dog is thought to have killed a child; it concludes with a mob being commanded to “kill every dog, every cat.… Kill every mouse, every bird. Kill every fish. Anyone objects, kill them too.”) For Saunders’s stories to work, they need to give free rein to the ludicrous and the fantastical.

So, where does a writer go when reality begins to overtake his absurdist visions?

The answer appears to be: the past. The main action of Chabon’s new novel, Moonglow, is set in the mid-century; Whitehead’s Underground Railroad goes back to the 1850s; and Saunders’s debut novel—following four short-story collections—is a supernatural historical tale about Abraham Lincoln. All three accomplish a similar feat: They imbue stories about America’s past with a feel-good vibe.

The interpretation of history that Chabon favors is the Great Man theory, in which momentous events are dictated by outsize heroes—prodigies, innovators, comic-book-like supermen. It’s difficult to plausibly imagine such characters in the present day. The closest Chabon comes is in Telegraph Avenue, in 2012, which features a cameo by Barack Obama. But even here he depicts the young and dynamic Illinois state senator, not the graying president, used to grappling with the compromises of governance. Set in 2004, Telegraph Avenue is Chabon’s ode to Berkeley’s vanishing heyday in the Nineties, before the city became corporatized, and its objects of cultural reverence turn back even further, to soul music and Blaxploitation flicks. The novel recalls only what’s vibrant and glamorous about the past.

Chabon finds the potential for heroism in World War II. It’s in this period that he set The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, as well as Moonglow. The new book’s main character is apparently modeled on Chabon’s grandfather, but he fits the bygone romantic mold of characters from the author’s previous fiction: a tough, hotheaded Jew whose foibles are as exaggerated as his ambitions and bravery. The grandfather—like a fairy tale figure, he’s given no name—is a hardscrabble pool shark and jailbird, a World War II intelligence officer who travels alone through Germany hunting hidden V-2 rockets, and a preternaturally brilliant aerospace engineer instrumental to designing NASA’s spaceships. His story is also America’s story: He helps defeat the Nazis and launch humanity into the space age.

The book, made of spellbinding, utterly seductive tall tales, is an unabashed valentine to the Greatest Generation. Its view of the past is mythological. That is to say, it puts more stock in picturesque stories than in textbook history. It’s also rich in allusions. The grandfather’s search for V-2 rockets echoes the operatic plot of Gravity’s Rainbow, which is loosely built around libidinous anti-hero Tyrone Slothrop’s quest to infiltrate Germany and find the rocket with the serial number 00000.

Indeed, Thomas Pynchon is name-checked at length in Moonglow—but then somewhat abruptly dismissed. You would think that Pynchon and his lunatic alternate histories would have served as a fountainhead for the novelists who emerged at the turn of the century. Yet his influence is surprisingly shallow. Lethem takes from Pynchon a predilection for zany proper names. Saunders shares his satirical impulse, but it’s offset by an underlying spirituality. The essential difference is that these writers lack Pynchon’s conspiratorial worldview. The Cold War, Vietnam, Watergate, and the recessions of the 1970s and 1980s fertilized the fiction of professional paranoiacs like Pynchon and Don DeDillo, and of the so-called “dirty realists” like Raymond Carver. These writers spoofed or subverted the country’s origin myths. Having come of age during the peace and prosperity of the 1990s, today’s novelists enlarge them.

Writers less preternaturally optimistic than Chabon are guilty of the same tendency. Saunders’s intensely weird Lincoln in the Bardo derives from the apocryphal story that during the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln made “midnight visitations” to the crypt of his deceased son, Willie, during which he would open the eleven-year-old boy’s coffin in order to keep him company. A reprise of the theme of children in peril, the novel imagines that Willie is trapped inside the cemetery in purgatorial agony, unable to release himself to the unknown of death while his father continues to visit him.

Saunders’s depiction of the Great Emancipator comes to us straight from the pages of hagiography, a Christlike man of sorrows whose dramatic mourning ritual embodies the grieving of the country at large. Saunders makes us question our place in the universe, but not the national myths we were taught in childhood. This has the opposite effect of nearly all political fiction, which is designed to provoke critical thinking and dissent. At a time when skepticism is the default setting for most readers, Saunders wants to give us a political leader we can fall in love with.

Even Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, the bleakest novel of this crop, is strangely affirming on the subject of America’s founding story. Whitehead’s heroine, Cora, makes a northbound flight toward freedom, bringing her through states whose different laws and conditions carry different symbolic resonance. In South Carolina she encounters a sinister eugenics scheme similar to the Tuskegee experiment; in North Carolina blacks have been banished by law and are executed on sight; the whole of Tennessee has been blighted by a plague of biblical proportions.

But because Cora continues to run toward the vague promise of freedom and equality, the narrative always faithfully returns to the betrayed democratic principles on which the country was founded. At an abolitionist settlement in Indiana she listens to an oration about the enduring relevance of the Declaration of Independence, and the analogy is clear: The fugitive slave’s resistance against the slaveholder mirrors the resolute, freedom-loving republic’s fight for independence from the British crown. Reading Whitehead’s book awakens a sensation that sounds virtually anachronistic. It makes you feel patriotic.

It’s no small thing to tell a familiar story well, and it’s no small thing to make the familiar entertaining and exciting again. Today’s crop of leading novelists looked to fiction for a miraculous escape from the boredom and disillusion of everyday existence, and their success in part reflects the fact that readers share their sentiment. Most of the escapists have stayed faithful to their pledge to provide enjoyment even as they’ve grown better, in middle age, at facing tragedy and loss. The best of the books achieve an emotional immediacy that makes up for the fact that they almost never take place in the present, and they rarely present a particularly demanding or critical view of the past.

I admit, though, that reading these works, I find myself missing ambivalence—a quality that rarely squares with entertainment. There must be precious few readers who don’t already feel well disposed to tales of World War II heroes, fugitive slaves, and Abraham Lincoln. Few of the books by these five writers are likely to unsettle anybody’s assumptions about anything.

The question that these writers—that all writers—have had to consider since last November, of course, is whether enchantment can still suffice. When, in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Michael Chabon imagined a Houdini-esque comic book character called the Escapist, he proposed that wondrous feats of imagination could be an act worthy of a hero. When the most pressing problems writers faced were conformity and cynicism, their higher calling was to awaken readers to the forgotten thrills of storytelling.

But the sense of imminent peril that has already begun to define the Trump era is different in kind and magnitude than the discontents of the Nineties. Literature that flees toward more welcoming, invented worlds runs the risk of rendering itself unserious at the moment when seriousness is most called for. There is a great deal of beauty and inspiration to be found in these recent novels of these writers, but they take for granted a vision of the past that no longer adequately accounts for the present. To better come to grips with our moment, however ugly or uncomfortable it may be, we need the opposite of escapist art: We need works that engage, fully and deeply, with the challenges of the here and now.