Kunkel, Bolaño, Ngugi, and the State of Fiction

Frequent New York Times contributor and novelist Benjamin Kunkel has an article “Dystopia and the End of Politics” in the establishment journal Dissent that is the most recent in a lengthening line of State of Fiction (SoF) commentaries by various authors, picking up with James Wood’s book How Fiction Works (and related articles), tracing through a series of challenges to HFW, hopping to Zadie Smith’s “Two Paths for the Novel,” and then shifting to Kunkel’s piece with no basic new turns in the thinking of the status quo writers amid all declarations and pronouncements lavish, banal, seeking. Some parts of these essays hit the mark in noting the severe limits of various novels and their types, yet the status quo State of Fiction analysts can’t or won’t turn their heads far enough to note or to compensate for, let alone adequately address, ideological binds administered by the caging hands that feed, in academia and commerce.[1] 

In Dissent, the longtime cold war journal of Swiftian title, Kunkel writes like a character out of a Roberto Bolaño novel, rendering himself chaotically familiar and essentially inept. Chaotic because reasonable insight mixes with misprision leading to hapless assertions and vacuous conclusions.[2] As for content, Kunkel, focusing on all too prevalent sterile lit surrounds, looks to fly to fertile land, plunging instead into sand. Kunkel’s article stands as one of the many pinched walls and series of iron bars of the literature establishment, likewise the writings of Bolaño, at least as they function in the US, though Bolaño’s work is less familiar and less inept and contains a number of enduring qualities. (Kunkel’s writing can come across as less sophisticated or refined than that of the larger lit establishment, possibly willfully so, thus it may appear more evidently flawed to some, more bemusing to others, and so on. That the sentences in his Dissent article hang like debris clouds freeze-framed after a building collapse merely provides extra asthmatic effect. Kunkel may seem an easy or unnecessary object of criticism, but he remains an establishment outcropping, visible enough for critique.)

Bolaño’s work lands hit and miss. 2666 is more miss than hit, as is nearly all his work, but at least something hits in perhaps each of his books. The same cannot much be said of Kunkel’s work in general, in my view, where the persistent miss typically voids most any solid let alone tin-pan hits. (Obviously this refers to Kunkel’s work to this point; of course Bolaño had years on Kunkel, also very different early experiences and points of origin.) Though there’s a lot of chaff in Bolaño’s work, it contains some edible kernels while more importantly at least hinting at underlying fertile ground of significant mass, whereas in Kunkel’s work, once one finally digs past the fluff and sludge, one typically finds little more than meager crust. Bolaño is convenient, a safe fashionable author for the US literature establishment for an assortment of (some) reasons I’ve gone into elsewhere in regard to other authors, at Fiction Gutted, for example. Bolaño is so fashionable that it might at first be curious that Kunkel makes no reference in Dissent to such a current bright star in his general attempt to assess and move forward some part of the current state of fiction – curious until one reads Kunkel’s more-or-less workmanlike 2007 article on Bolaño in the London Review of Books where little crucial flash or sense of connect may be found either:

…to the extent that [Bolaño’s] fiction refuses to behave anything like fiction, is this a mark of its triumphant reality? Or (the depressive obverse to the mania of belief) is the world of Bolaño’s generation, and perhaps the world generally, too refractory to order and understanding to permit its transformation into literature, leaving inconclusive testimony the only honest form?

To these questions the answer would seem to be a ringing . . . simonel. In the first section of The Savage Detectives, García Madero wonders about the Mexican slang term: “If simón is slang for yes and nel means no, then what does simonel mean?”

Ambiguity. More or less. Kunkel then gives over the entire last paragraph of his LRB essay to Bolaño’s fiction, the last word being “Simonel.” For what it’s worth, this is Kunkel in part replacing his nonfiction with fiction, with Bolaño noted for replacing fiction with nonfiction (or its appearance). The latter may well turn out to be more valuable and renewable an approach in fiction[3] (if not much as employed by Bolaño) than Kunkel would think to accredit. He leaves Bolaño on a rather detached drifting note, though with regard for this “strange” and “significant” writer.

Near the end of the literary science fiction survey that is his Dissent article, Kunkel states, “In sum, when the contemporary novelist contemplates the future – including, it seems, the future of the novel – ” … “the result is political novels without politics, social novels without society, and romances free of love, amounting, in the end, to ‘literature’ that isn’t” due to the inability of contemporary authors to depict “character” and “love” and “political problems” – rather barren stories that may even perpetuate the problems, for Kunkel claims this literature is “accidental and symptomatic” and one in which “the likelihood of disaster is only abetted.” So this is “literature,” Kunkel notes valuably with some basis for reason “that isn’t.” Unlike Bolaño’s nonfuturistic fiction? Or too much like? Where to turn for the future of fiction, or even the present? It takes more than the “luck” that Kunkel hopes toward, for novelists to “reveal – and not only by accident – what” some ostensible “atmosphere of dread is doing to us” let alone other realities and possibilities.

When one thinks of Bolaño’s fiction, one might first light upon as its central elements, perhaps, youth and chaos, or art and chaos, or more basically, live energy and chaos – a sort of loose tracking and swirling impressionism. Due to the statements and implications of Benjamin Kunkel or Zadie Smith or James Wood and other such State of Fiction commenters either plaintive or grasping or mistaken, one might be led to think that literature has fallen into rudderless drift (there is wholesale drift, as in distraction, not rudderless), or that it gapes as if near paralysis at chasms or blank walls (virtually endless stupefying canyons indeed but depends on where you look), or that the confusion of the world this time around the pulsating block may just have overtaken the capacity of the novel to portray and transform (an old excuse no serious artist should accept)…just about all lines of question may be made to seem bleak and mistaken even in the new seeking. This may be what inevitably happens when liberatory lit tendencies in literature are too much buried, not least in a time of increasingly obvious and outrageous injustice and oppression. Even so, it remains possible to think to illuminating effect along sundry other critical lines also, so circumscribed are the challenges these State of Fiction works set for themselves. For example:

Mary McCarthy: “It could be said that the real plot of War and Peace is the struggle of the characters not to be immersed, engulfed, swallowed up by the landscape of fact and ‘history’ in which they, like all human beings, have been placed: freedom (the subjective) is in the fiction, and necessity is in the fact.” Seemingly overwhelming chaos is no new challenge.

Or Victor Hugo in Les Misérables: “Geometry deceives. Only the hurricane is accurate.” The precise and contained tremble before controlled explosions.

Or take a mix of approaches consciously progressive and popular: the accomplished fact of Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s massive global epic novel from Africa, Wizard of the Crow (2006), with plenty of thoroughly and well depicted “characters,” and great “love” and tremendous “political problems” too.[4] This novel rates among the all time greats, possibly standing apart from any other novel written yet this century, or even in a very long time.

Point being: these molehill-made-mountain problems are completely obliterated by existing alternatives. Of course not everyone should write like Ngugi. Everyone needs to figure out things in their own way, find what works for them, as must even Ngugi again for his next work, and one need not have read Ngugi’s Wizard to see how insufficient are the questions asked, the challenges raised in status quo SoF articles, but if one wishes for a contemporary novel that answers all those concerns and more, one is readily available. A novel like Ngugi’s great Wizard of the Crow delivers everything the status quo SoF authors claim to seek and fail to find. Moreover, Wizard of the Crow is a vital (normatively) progressive even revolutionary novel. So the next time one of these flailing and plaintive State of Fiction works dribbles, murks, or cheeks from the literature establishment, some power ought to be able to assign an old-fashioned book report to these neo-scholastics to turn their eyes from North America and Europe for at least a moment, lest the working discussion of fiction remain stuck in either the ignorant or the widely known, and the misleading or otherwise bereft. They could do worse than to write their first report on Wizard of the Crow, and then for their second report get an even more global take and an at least equally liberatory view of some existing and potential paths of literature by reading the collection of fiction at Liberation Lit journal. Wizard of the Crow is a novel that shows much greater existing realities and possibilities for fiction than are typically found, by far, including what may be some minimal necessities for vital fiction in this age of increasingly preposterous rot. The Lib Lit collection is not exactly irrelevant in this regard either. The fundamental problems, the pressing problems of status quo fiction are normative. Searching for answers by way of technique and form is hopeless, and in some cases manipulative.

Kunkel concludes: due to “the multiplication of new threats…[n]ow it can seem to us again that we and the people we love (or would wish to love) will have to live with an anxiety every bit as pervasive as the old [cold war] fear, though perhaps less acute. With luck some novelists will be able to reveal – and not only by accident – what this atmosphere of dread is doing to us.”

Woe is “us,” is it? We might first do well to look at what and how and why our fear – much of it purposefully fraudulently manufactured and maintained – has been used to smash Iraq and Iraqis, Afghanistan and Afghanis, Pakistan and Pakistanis, and far more. When we take on that task, we don’t see many such Anti Oil Conquest novels pouring out of the establishment. Quite the opposite – they are screeded against and screened off by the paymasters of the status quo SoF writers and the like. This great lack within fiction, which extends into normative realms far beyond overseas conquest, deep into our more intimate public space, has nothing to do with any inherent technical difficulty in depicting such epics and tales, and instead has everything to do with the blinkers, hoods, lines, and limits that so greatly circumscribe, distort, and ultimately render small the conclusions of Kunkel’s plaint, and those of other status quo State of Fiction would-be visionaries, searchers, and the like. Technical difficulties will arise and render themselves distinct from previous ones, but this can occur only in the process of attempting to meet the normative challenges first, of which status quo state of fiction writers have thus far proved themselves to have precious little to say, and even less of any worth. Thus fiction is gutted needlessly – and to put it even more plain – barbarically. Pity the classroom. Pity the magazines. The world.

We need to pick up with Ngugi and others, and we need to pick up from where Maxine Hong Kingston and others leave off in their criticism (“The Novel’s Next Step,” in Critical Fictions: The Politics of Imaginative Writing; 1991 – Philomena Mariani, Ed.) – Kingston:

I’m going to give you a head start on the book that somebody ought to be working on. The hands of the clock are minutes away from nuclear midnight. And I am slow, each book taking me longer to write… So let me set down what has to be done, and maybe hurry creation, which is about two steps ahead of destruction…. All the writer has to do is make Wittman [hero of her novel, Tripmaster Monkey] grow up, and Huck Finn and Holden Caulfield will grow up. We need a sequel to adolescence – an idea of the humane beings that we may become. And the world will have a sequel…. The dream of the great American novel is past. We need to write the Global novel….


[1] They’re owned. Just a well known fact about capitalist culture – somebody owns what goes on – especially when paying direct money for it – someones typically far removed  from the authors yet intimately invisibly connected, manifesting the prerogatives of capital: the various ideological bounds. It’s an old story everbreaking in clear sight, badly warping and mangling status quo attempts at State of Fiction discussion.

[2] Some immediately refuted by others online.

[3] More complex and more ideologically bound and assaulted public and private conditions may require more intensely fact-infused or ideologically overt and incisive fictions. (These problems deserve much more extensive exploration and interdisciplinary attention than they receive.)

[4] Of no small consequence for a larger discussion of these concerns are Ngugi’s extremely vital ideas in relation to fiction and the world, some pithily found, more-or-less in passing, at The Litblog Co-op, for example. [For whatever reason, this link is sometimes very slow to call up, so I’ve included its main contents below.]:

Ngugi wa Thiong’o In His Own Words

from The Litblog Co-op

I’m going to post soon a brief Q&A I did with Ngugi, but before I do, I want to give some context to his thoughts by sharing some excerpts from interviews collected in the excellent book Ngugi wa Thiong’o Speaks edited by Reinhard Sander & Bernth Lindfors.

Some things to know: Wizard of the Crow, like all of Ngugi’s novels since Devil on the Cross, was originally written and published in Gikuyu.  (He wrote Devil on the Cross on toilet paper while imprisoned in Kenya in 1978.)  Ngugi has done most, though not all, of the translations of his Gikuyu novels into English.  For an explanation of Ngugi’s name, see the last quote here.


I am very suspicious about writing about universal values.  If there are universal values, they are always contained in the framework of social realities.  And one important social reality in Africa is that ninety percent of the people cannot read or speak English.  The problem is this: I know whom I write about, but whom do I write for?


The African writer emerged as a reaction to what I might call the white presence in Africa or rather this simplistic European response to the African experience.  For a long time African writers were seen — or Africans as a whole — were seen as having no vital culture and having no history.  So the African writer’s first job was, I think, to see the African society in the perspective of history.


Fiction cannot be the agent of change.  The people are the agent of change.  All writers can do is really try to point out where things went wrong.  They can do no more than that.  But fiction should be firmly on the side of the oppressed.  Fiction should firmly embody the aspirations and hopes of the majority — of the peasants and workers.


…the real importance of my studying at Makerere [University] lay in this: that for the first time, I cam into contact with African and West Indian writers.  I remember three authors and books as being particularaly important to me: Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, George Lamming’s In the Castle of My Skin, and Peter Abrahams’s Tell Freedom.  At Alliance [High School] I had seen Tell Freedom held by one of the teachers, and I can remember literally trembling when I saw the title.  When I found the book in the library as Makerere, I was overjoyed.  I read it avidly and later I read virtually all the books by Peter Abrahams — that was the beginning of my interest in South African literature.  Achebe’s Things Fall Apart started me on West African writers; from then on I followed closely the growth of West African literature.  I used to go to the library and look up every item of fiction in West African journals and magazines, especially work by Cyprian Ekwensi (who, I came to learn, was also an admirer of Peter Abrahams).  As for George Lamming, his work introduced me to West Indian writers, and this was the beginning of my interest in the literature of the African people in the Third World.


So what happens when you write in an African language?  First, you create a positive attitude to that language.  The reader, when he feels that this language can carry a novel with philosophical weight or a novel which totally reflects his environment, will develop a positive attitude to that language, to the people who created that language, and to the culture and traditions carried by it.  And if he begins to have respect for his immediate language, by extension he will also have a respect for all the other languages that are related to his language and to the hsitory and culture related to that language.

…A further point I would like to add is this: For a long time African languages and cultures have not been communicating with one another, but have been communicating via English; in other words, I have a sense of Igboness in Achebe’s novels through his use of English.  The moment African writers start writing in African languages some of the novels will be translated into other African languages as well as English.  The moment you get an Igbo novel translated into Kikuyu or a Yoruba novel translated in Hausa you are getting these languages and cultures talking and communicating directly and mutually enriching one another.  So far from these languages being a divisive force, they become an integrative force, because they will be enhancing a respect for each other’s languages and cultures as well as showing the similarities between the various cultures and their concerns.


Art cannot be outside that which affects human beings.  Art, literature, is about life, about the quality of human lives, about human relationships.  Therefore whatever affects the quality of human life, whatsoever affects the changing pattern of human relationships is connected with a legitimate area of art.  As such, any art which divorces itself from those social forces that impinge on human lives can only be an art which is denying itself its real life-force.  So politics, economics — everything which has to do with the struggle of human beings — is a legitimate concern of art.


Literature is indeed a powerful weapon.  I believe that we in Africa or anywhere else for that matter have to use literature deliberately and consciously as a weapon of struggle in two ways: a) first, by trying as much as possible to correctly reflect the world of struggle in all its stark reality, and b) secondly, by weighting our sympathies on the side of those forces struggling against national and class oppression and exploitation, say, against the entire system of imperialism in the world today.  I believe that the more conscious a writer is about the social forces at work in his society and in the world, the more effective he or she is likely to be as a writer.  We writers must reject the bourgeois image of a writer as a mindless genius.

1999, explaining his statement “The goal of human society is the reign of art on earth”:

I associate my concept of art with creativity, movement, change, and renewal.  I’m thinking of a much more ethical society than what we have now.  This “reign of art” would subsume or transcend the coercive nature of the state: a more ethical, more human society that is constantly renewing itself; art embodies this.  I remember, historically speaking, a time when there was no state because I grew up in a society where literally there wasn’t a state, at least in its centralized form.  Art precedes the formation of the state.  The state embodies a static concept of conservation, holding back.  Of course, when the state is also controlled by a class, it is an instrument for much more holding back of society.  Creativity, art embodies the principle of what our hands do anyway: change.


I wrote Weep Not, Child; A River Between; and A Grain of Wheat and published the three novels under the name James Ngugi.  James is the name which I acquired when I was baptized into Christianity in primary school, but later I came to reject the name because I Saw it as part of the colonial naming system when Africans were taken as slaves to America and were given the names of the plantation owners.  Say, when a slave was bought by Smith, that slave was renamed Smith.  This meant that they were the property of Smith or Brown and the same thing was later transferred to the colony.  It meant that if an African was baptized, as evidence of his new self or the new identity he was given an English name.  Not just a biblical, but a biblical and English name.  It was a symbolical replacing of one identity with another.  So the person who was once Ngugi is now James Ngugi, the one who was once owned by his people is now owned by the English, the one who was owned by an African naming system is now owned by an English naming system.  So when I realized that, I began to reject the name James and to reconnect myself to my African name which was given at birth, and that’s Ngugi wa Thiong’o, meaning Ngugi, son of Thiong’o.

For some online interviews with Ngugi, see here, here, here, here, here, and here.

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