When Orhan Pamuk published The New Life in 1995 it became the fastest-selling book in Turkish history. (1995 was the same year that Pamuk was tried along with several other authors for his support of Kurdish political rights in Turkey.) The book reads like a cross of Franz Kafka with Paulo Coelho. The Coelho half (fate, destiny, love, a cyclical plot) explains the book’s mass appeal; the influence of Kafka points to Pamuk’s desire to become part of the post-modern canon (something he writes and lectures about frequently).
This is a book about books, and about the transformational power a single book can hold – especially on the youth:
I had heard of others who had read a book only to have their lives disintegrate. I’d read the account of someone who had read a book called Fundamental Principles of Philosophy; in total agreement with the book, which he read in one night, he joined the Revolutionary Proletarian Advance Guard the very next day, only to be nabbed three days later robbing a bank and end up doing time for the next ten years. I also knew about those who had stayed awake the whole night reading books such as Islam and the New Ethos or The Betrayal of Westernization, then immediately abandoned the tavern for the mosque, sat themselves on those ice-cold rugs doused with rosewater, and began preparing patiently for the next life which was not due for another fifty years. I had even met some who got carried away by books with titles like Love Sets You Free or Know Yourself, and although these people were the sort who were capable of believing in astrology, they too could say in all sincerity, “This book changed my life over-night!”
All lovers of great fiction have experienced this feeling, right? I’ve had it many times; that after reading some novel an element of life that previously was blurry or entirely unseen comes into crisp focus. But it tends to happen in such a way that the realization itself is impossible to aphorize. You simply have to read the book.
Which is why we do. In fact, I’m convinced that those minor glimpses of personal enlightenment – and the satisfaction they give – are a major part of why I continue to read, even if I tend to forget the books themselves a few years down the road. Those books – the kind that really change your life, the ones you recommend to everyone and then grow despondent when they merely shrug their shoulders after coming to the last page – can do both harm and good. They could bring you closer to your family, relieve you of stress, convince you to live a healthier life. But just as easily, such an influential book could make you paranoid, drive you away from you friends, convince you to kill the president of your country, or the world’s most famous rock star. (Two infamous assassins, Mark Chapman – John Lennon’s assassin – and John Hinckley Jr. – President Regan’s attempted assassin – were both found with copies of J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye.)
The New Life is mostly about the second kind of effect books can have, the kind that destroys lives and relationships. Still, Pamuk manages to insert all of his usual themes: East Vs. West, the nostalgia of local material goods, the paranoia of conservative Islam, the Turkish empire in its final and complete decline, the ever-present irrational variable that is love and lust:
When I press my lips on that semitransparent skin between your ear and your hair, when the electricity of your hair gives fright to the birds that suddenly swoop past my forehead and face, raising the scent of autumn in the air, and when your breast stiffens like a stubborn bird taking wing in my palm, look, I see in your eyes how full and right is the unattainable time that reawakens between us: now we are neither here nor there, not in the land you have been dreaming about, not on some bus or in a dim hotel room somewhere, not even in some sort of future that can only exist within the pages of a book.
Despite the occasional piercing paragraph like the one above, this book, for me, failed to deliver. It is too much shoe polish, not enough substance. It’s the girl with the heavy eye shadow who speaks in half-allusions and riddles to hide the fact that she really has nothing to say. I’m sure that if I re-read the book from start to finish I would discover that some of those riddles and oft-repeated abstractions actually point back to clues sprinkled throughout the book’s first half. But I don’t read novels for the thrill of a crossword puzzle. I seek beautiful ideas expressed beautifully by characters I come to care for, or even loathe. In The New Life there was none of this, and much of the writing (or at least its translation) was awkward and clumsy, something the narrator even apologizes for:
So, Reader, place your faith neither in a character like me, who is not all that sensitive, nor in my anguish and the violence of the story I have to tell; but believe that the world is a cruel place. Besides, this newfangled plaything called the novel, which is the greatest invention of Western culture, is none of our culture’s business. That the reader hears the clumsiness of my voice within these pages is not because I am speaking raucously from a plane which has been polluted by books and vulgarized by gross thoughts; it results rather from the fact that I still have not quite figured out how to inhabit this foreign toy.
Many of the novel’s abstractions intend – I believe – to encourage the reader to think about how we each interpret and appropriate the books we read, as I am doing now. Appropriation, a recent topic of conversation around these parts, is something that Pamuk seems to obsess about. Jillian, having attended one of Pamuk’s Norton Lectures, criticized the professor who introduced Pamuk for referring to “world literature” as an “emerging field,” of which Pamuk is an undeniable force. I think that Jillian is right to point out the parochialism of ignoring millennia of storytelling from all human groups since the evolution of language, or even before. (“Did language develop first and storytellers evolve from the use of it? Or did language evolve as a way to express the internal experiences of storytellers?” asks Becky Hahn.)
But it is worth pointing out that Pamuk himself, in an interview with Christopher Lydon, says that the modern novel is a European invention, and, further, the most universal medium of storytelling. (Many radio, TV, and even video game producers would surely beg to disagree.) Pamuk says that the challenge for novelists living outside of the West is to appropriate the form of the novel for themselves while still building upon the work of its European masters, and not just reacting to them. I think it remains to be seen: will literature ever truly transcend nationality? Is the novel so rooted in European culture that only a new form of storytelling can escape that continent’s longstanding literary hegemony? Or, for that matter, will the novel as a medium and format, continue to exist at all?
When I was thinking about this book review, about books that had a profound impact on my life, the first to come to mind – the first always to come to mind – was Milan Kundera’s Immortality. It was the perfect book at the perfect time, and it changed how I viewed the world and my place in it. Kundera – whose writing style changed considerably since he switched from his native Czech to French in the early nineties – is one of those responsible for articulating the argument that the novel is a strictly European invention. As he writes in The Art of the Novel, the birth of the medium came with the birth of irony; specifically, Cervantes’ The Ingenious Hidalgo Don Quixote of La Mancha. In his most recent book – The Curtain – which once again outlines the three centuries of the history of the novel, and of literary criticism – Kundera argues that the novel as a format for storytelling and reflection has come full circle. There are no more avenues to explore. The novel as a space to explore ideas and humanity has come to its inevitable end.
But what Kundera does not acknowledge is that the novel is also the invention of an invention: the printing press. (Iván Jaksic has a great essay about “Don Quijote’s Encounter with Technology.”) Many would argue that we have reached the end of the novel not because the format has been completely exhausted, but rather because radio, television, video game consoles, and the internet won out.
Now, there is hope among publishers and book authors alike that a new invention will save the novel: the e-book reader. As a member of the relatively rare species that loves both books and gadgets, I am empathetic to all sides of the debate about The End of the Book. In a recent interview in Newsweek, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos says he is “skeptical that the novel will be ‘re-invented.'”
If you start thinking about a medical textbook or something, then, yes, I think that’s ripe for reinvention. You can imagine animations of a beating heart. But I think the novel will thrive in its current form. That doesn’t mean that there won’t be new narrative inventions as well. There very well may be. In fact, there probably will be. But I don’t think they’ll displace the novel.
Of course, Daniel Lyons of Newsweek is hinting in his line of questioning that Apple’s forthcoming iPad tablet affords writers and content creators new possibilities that have never existed in long form writing before. Amazon’s Kindle does its best to recreate the act – the sensation – of reading a printed book in electronic form. The iPad, on the other hand, aims to inspire something more novel than the novel itself. The entire device and interface is designed to push content creators (we can no longer call them novelists) to think beyond mere sentences and paragraphs when setting landscapes, constructing plots, developing characters, and exploring ideas.
No one has dissected the differences between printed book, Kindle, and iPad more deliberately and eloquently than Craig Mod, a talented designer based in Tokyo.
As the publishing industry wobbles and Kindle sales jump, book romanticists cry themselves to sleep. But really, what are we shedding tears over? We’re losing the dregs of the publishing world: disposable books. The book printed without consideration of form or sustainability or longevity. The book produced to be consumed once and then tossed. The book you bin when you’re moving and you need to clean out the closet. These are the first books to go. And I say it again, good riddance.
Mod distinguishes between formless content – “content divorced from layout” – and definite content – where the meaning and quality of the of the text depend on its layout:
Mod uses a book by Edward Tufte to illustrate an example of defninite content.
The Amazon Kindle is an electronic device meant to display a form of storytelling that came about with the invention of the printing press. It is meant to take cheap, ugly paperbacks and give them a more elegant, convenient, and sustainable design. It looks to the past and attempts to give a modern solution to fit our increasingly fast-paced, mobile lives. The iPad looks to the future, to help co-evolve new forms of storytelling. We are talking about more than just text, audio, high resolution photographs, and video. The iPad is also location aware, can sense movement, light, and has a built-in microphone. The next generation of storytellers can take advantage of all of these inputs and outputs when creating their works, to strike even more intimate connections with their readers.
The burning question now facing all of us writers who are considering publishing a “novel” is whether we will write a story for the past or for the future.
A lot of excitement has surrounded the mock-ups of magazines like Wired and Sports Illustrated on the iPad:
It’s relatively easy to imagine the possibilities for magazines on the iPad (swimsuit edition, duh), but what are the possibilities for a Cormac McCarthy or Tom Robbins novel when it’s created specifically for a device like the iPad? For those of us who are planning on writing our own novels sometime in the next ten years, how does this next generation of devices change the game for how we write stories?
I think that Milan Kundera is right in his diagnosis: after 300 years of phenomenal success, the novel has come to an end. But his error is in defining the symptoms. The novel has not come to an end because we’ve exhausted its narrative and intellectual possibilities. Rather, we are embarking upon something more novel: a new era of unexplored potential. And ours is the first generation that will experiment with and help set its form.