We all recognise genre fiction when we see it. Go to any bookshop and you’ll see vast swathes of them, overflowing out of their own little sections: crime fiction, science fiction, romance, et cetera. But what about the labyrinthine maze of ‘Fiction: A-Z’ – those novels which claim literary pretensions, even if they don’t claim to be masterpieces.
Creative or not, many of these novels will also follow a formula, in much the same way as a crime reader would expect to find out ‘whodunnit’ at the end, or a romance reader might expect a teary-eyed reunion on the closing pages. Of course, some literary novels deliberately subvert formula – Martin Amis’ London Fields, for example, can be read as a brilliant parody of the ‘whodunnit’ murder mystery – but many literary novels will still follow an essentially formulaic plot, in which conflicts are set up in the opening scenes only to be resolved throughout the course of the novel, creating conventional character arcs as the story progresses – a journey to be followed by the reader.
There are probably more formulae than you can think of: last year’s much hyped Londonstani, for example, stakes a claim of providing social commentary on London’s multicultural society, but is at heart a ‘growing up in the ghetto’ novel cross-pollinated with ideas taken from classic books about endemic violence in society such as A Clockwork Orange or J.G. Ballard’s High Rise. The use of a modern day urban patois adds to the book’s surface uniqueness, but the idea itself is a direct descendant of the Nadsat dialect in Clockwork Orange, replacing the Cyrillic dialect with text-message speak, peppered by the occasional ‘innit’ so Malkani can prove he’s down with the kids.
But there’s nothing wrong with using a tried and tested formula, as formulae serve as a method of categorizing the literary novel, as, from a critical standpoint, it gives us a frame of reference. Nonetheless, it seems as though there is a very specific and identifiable type of formulaic novel which slides in and out of vogue in accordance with the material economy of the time: during episodes of economic boom and conspicuous consumption, we tend to see a great deal of novqels in which characters with money pursue great excesses – drink, drugs, wild parties, sexual relationships and so on – in search of an epiphany. The consumption-driven 1980s were perhaps the apex of this type of novel.
However, novels purporting to comment on the excesses of the times have re-surfaced in practically every decade, as long as there were good times to be had. Such novels were, of course, notably absent from 1929-1945. But it’s no coincidence that McInerney’s seminal tale of ‘80s excess, Bright Lights, Big City, has just been reprinted, or that novels like Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty, another commentary on excess in the ‘greed is good’ 1980s should be in vogue during the latter half of this decade: a time when house prices are booming, spending on credit continues to rise, and the nation’s youth continue, inexplicably, to party like it’s 1988 as the hedonistic, drug-fuelled ‘New Rave’ movement reaches its thundering crescendo: indeed, one might be forgiven for thinking that 2007 is a perfect facsimile of the drug-fuelled excesses of two decades ago.
Less Than Zero might not be as autobiographical as McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City – a novel by a cocaine-snorting fact checker for the New Yorker, written about a cocaine-snorting fact checker at an anonymous New York magazine – but clearly, autobiography plays a significant role in both books. Though McInerney has struggled throughout his career to shrug off the persona he created in the 1980s, other authors have embraced the journalistic, documentary nature of their fiction. Thompson was more than happy to live up to the celebrity created by his ‘Raoul Duke’ persona and even if his later journalistic work was critically mauled, his unique melding of autobiography and fiction to create what Tom Wolfe praised as ‘Celine-like fantasies’ give the reader a better sense of being a part of the story as it unfolds.
Many such writers can be considered purveyors of documentary fiction, capturing an era or a movement in spirit, if not in actual events: in a 1924 letter to his publisher, Fitzgerald boasted that ‘I don’t know anyone who has used up so much personal experience as I have at 27.’ Similarly, recent Booker nominee Edward St Aubyn has stated that his Patrick Melrose Trilogy about a young, alienated party-hopping upper-class heroin addict is largely autobiographical. It could therefore be argued that most books which follow the ‘money + boredom + excess = epiphany’ formula are examples of writers working from an ‘insider’ perspective to create works of fiction which they regard as socially relevant, that is to say, that being written by those who have actually experience the times in which they are set, they feel able to pass some sort of comment on those times. The epiphany with which the formula ends is the central device through which this commentary is passed. As an explanatory device, the epiphany invites the reader to share the author’s insight vicariously through the story’s narrator.
We are told early on in The Patrick Melrose Trilogy that ennui is ‘…more than just French for our old friend boredom. It’s boredom plus money, or boredom plus arrogance. It’s I-find-everything-boring, therefore I’m fascinating. But it doesn’t seem to occur to people that you can’t have a world picture and then not be part of it,’ yet it is only towards the end of the trilogy, after all the central characters have been broken on the wheel of the stifling, claustrophobic world of the upper classes that epiphany arrives. After being broken by his drug addiction in the second book, Melrose finally comes to terms with his existence and learns to laugh at the people he is surrounded by, even becoming cautiously optimistic about his own future. The epiphany comes late, after Melrose has lost all of his money. It may even come in the final paragraph, as he walks away from an absurd party with ‘a strange feeling of elation.’
Yet as Martin Amis (the character, as well as the writer) says near the height of John Self’s excesses in Money, ‘the author is not above sadistic impulses,’ indicating that unpleasant or even violent acts penned by the author’s hand are part of the narrative technique of the moralist. Perhaps this is most evident in Ellis’ American Psycho, where Amis’ brand of moralistic sadism is taken to the extreme via the eponymous serial killer of the book. Criticized as amoral and nihilistic when it first appeared, Ellis defended his work as ‘profoundly moralistic,’ indicating that the feelings of disgust and revulsion created by the acts in the book are linked to a wider moral judgement about the monetary excesses and conspicuous consumption which characterized the America of the 1980s.
However, Ellis delights in playing the role of the trickster. At the end of American Psycho, we are invited by the narrator to conclude that ‘there is no catharsis,’ causing us to question whether this statement can be considered an epiphany when, in fact, nothing changes. Can the epiphany the reader reaches with the narrator be as nihilistic as ‘nothing will change? Ellis provides us with a clever subversion of a classical formula. Most authors are content to follow the pattern of tragedy set out by the Greeks in which anagnorisis – a moment of understanding – is followed by catharsis, whereas the endings of Ellis’ novels instead invite the reader to share in the narrators’ kenosis, a state of ‘profound spiritual emptiness’ which forms the the polar opposite of catharsis, where some sort of revelation is supposed to occur.
Ellis illustrates the casual nihilism of a postmodern age: his constant references to throwaway pop-culture and his aimless, motiveless leading characters reflect an era in which meaning, in the words of Jean Beaudrillard, ‘has been subsumed by appearances.’ The ‘unending desert’ of the narrator of American Psycho is Baudrillard’s oft-quoted ‘desert of the real’ – the abandonment of meaning. Or, as Patrick Bateman says in American Psycho, ‘surface, surface, surface. This was the world as I saw it: colossal and jagged.’
The iconoclasm of Ellis towards prevailing social norms is evident from his desire to subvert convention and shock the reader. Ellis is not only one of the greatest moralists of our time, but also one of our greatest satirists: his work is a direct criticism of the absurdity of struggling towards catharsis in an age where the world of meaning has been subsumed by the world of appearances, where culture has been replaced by sub-culture. If the reader is invited towards any sort of epiphany in Ellis’ novels, it is that there can indeed be ‘no catharsis.’
This is not to question the validity of other ‘cathartic’ novels as social commentary. Earlier novels such as Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas can be seen as mourning the decline of a society-wide meta-narrative, in Thompson’s case the fracturing and ultimate failure of the hippie ‘counter-culture.’ The Patrick Melrose Trilogy largely works as a cathartic novel even though it is set in the same era as Ellis’ works because it focuses on a segment of society, the British upper class, which is so set in the past that it fails to recognize its time has already been and gone. Indeed, St Aubyn positively invites us to laugh at the anachronistic absurdity of the people depicted within his novels.
Nonetheless, that a formula can be subverted successfully, as it is by Ellis and St Aubyn, offers definitive proof of its existence. The question therefore is perhaps not so much whether novels corresponding to the ‘money + boredom + excess = epiphany’ pattern are formulaic – this seems certain – but rather what form the formula will take on next. The next generation of writers whose duty it is to document our time of excess cannot be far away. However, the other preoccupations of society at present must undoubtedly factor into any twenty-first century revision of the formula.
If the ‘20s were preoccupied with hedonism, the ‘60s with the drug culture, and the ‘80s with the raw power of money, the central themes running through this decade have already been set by the nihilistic agenda of ‘generation X’ writers like Bret Easton Ellis. In a society which has become increasingly self-referential, which has plundered past trends, fashionably reviving a different decade with each passing season, what can be said of culture – to paraphrase Thompson – in this most foul year of our Lord, AD 2007? The decade termed the ‘noughties’ by the mainstream media is in fact characterized by a total absence of this salacious intrigue: this decade is rather characterized by what it is: the ‘00s, the zeroes, a zero generation to follow the generation Xers, a generation where the nihilism of books such as Less than Zero, once so subversive, have been accepted as a part of mainstream culture.
Are we living through a new ‘lost generation?’ After catharsis, after kenosis, after nihilism, perhaps we should wonder how the next generation of writers will adapt the ‘money + boredom + excess = epiphany’ formula so as to remain socially relevant? When even nihilism is casual, has such a formula finally become obsolete, or will the next generation of writers be forced to evolve into subverters of subversion, and become postmodern pranksters in their own right?