The novel’s job has never been to be at the centre or the margins or, frankly, any specific place. The novel’s job is simply to be whatever it is, with as few worldly encumbrances restraining it as possible. The novelist’s role is to facilitate this. And this is not to say the novelist must hold no opinions or take no stands. It means that whatever position they are starting from, they must understand that – no matter how great their technical skill – they remain a conduit through which all they have managed to accumulate within themselves will mix and change before it can be poured. The novelist must never deceive themself with the idea that they are in charge: the novel is. And this is not always an easy role to accept when the demands of the industry and the readership and the ego are so great.
The novel demands to be written outside the bounds of the self. It disregards what we would like to say, and be, and appear to be. Tolstoy complained that with Anna Karenina, he sat down to write a condemnatory tale about a woman incapable of self-restraint but that she herself would not permit it. She demanded the more difficult, socially unacceptable and errantly human truth about herself be heard instead. Luckily Tolstoy’s talent proved equal to the challenge and knew he had to follow where she led.
Jakarta, a megacity of 30 million people, is sinking. In places along the coastline the ground has subsided by four metres over the last few decades, meaning that the concrete barricades are the only thing preventing whole communities from being engulfed by the sea.
Although many coastal cities, from New York to Shanghai, have been forced by the threat of climate change to build high walls to protect themselves, there are few places in the world as vulnerable as Jakarta, where a decades-old problem of land subsidence has intersected with sea level rise caused by global warming, creating an existential threat to the city.
By the third night, I became aware that I was thanking the staff in the hotel restaurant with the over-emphasis of someone exhibiting largesse to those less fortunate than herself, and that they were talking to me in the gentle tones of trained professionals managing a 43-year-old woman who hadn’t left the hotel for 24 hours and had clearly only packed one sweater.
A week after the poet Anne Boyer turned 41, she was diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer, necessitating aggressive chemotherapy and a double mastectomy. When the novelist Jenn Ashworth was in her 30s, she suffered an uncontrollable haemorrhage in the wake of a caesarean. The epidural had worn off and, unbeknown to her doctors, she was conscious during the surgery that followed, though unable to speak or move, an experience that triggered a long bout of post-traumatic psychosis, in which she believed that as a child she had killed a baby.
These are narrative events, calamitous episodes in ongoing lives, but they are also events that disrupt narrative, especially for people whose job it is to create it. Both of these extraordinary books are memoirs against memoir, personal accounts that refuse the personal, attempting instead to discover a language and formal structure for what Boyer beautifully calls “pain’s leaky democracies, the shared vistas of the terribly felt”.
We’re swimming in data, and we can’t help but use it. Likes on Facebook measure our social standing, financial indicators slice up company growth, standardized tests track student progress, and smartwatches count our every step. Measurement generally allows for prudent planning, but sometimes it focuses our attention on mere proxies for what we care about. We optimize short-term metrics — teaching to the test, worshiping the watch — at the expense of long-term goals, from corporate to corporal health.
That’s one of the takeaways from “The Optimist’s Telescope” by Bina Venkataraman, a former journalist and senior adviser for climate change innovation in the Obama White House. The book, wise but not wonkish, is an argument for foresight, by which Venkataraman means not the ability to look into the future but the willingness to do so. A number of social, psychological and structural forces deflect our gaze, and the book offers ways to retrain our sight toward the horizon, citing scientific experiments, historical events, business case studies and personal anecdotes.