The Right Coast

August 01, 2004
Great un-PC fiction
By Tom Smith

I read a fair amount of popular fiction, but it's hard not to notice that a great deal of it is crap. Rarely do you need to read a sentence twice in order to squeeze all the meaning out of it. Furthermore, a lot of the most accomplished fiction in terms of prose writing talent is just morally degenerate, not to put too fine a point on it. My very favorite morally degenerate writer is probably Thomas Pynchon, who, for sheer writing virtuosity, subtlty of effect, range of skill, is hard to beat. But to the extent you can figure out what he is trying to say, it's just more of the same that you got plenty of in college. It's "subversive," as if that's something to be proud of. You can read the Crying of Lot 49 first, then if you like it, try Gravity's Rainbow, a strange, rambling, but involving novel set at the end of WWII. For boomers who grew up immersed in the tropes of WWII, it has everything. I liked Cryptonomicon, of course, but Gravity's Rainbow ranks far above it in terms of literary merit, and is more profound in terms of its applications of probability theory, digitized reality, and for want of a less pompous phrase, its "critique of modernity." But don't expect the satisfactions of a linear plot.

But sometimes you want to read great modern literature by someone who is not a leftist, and that is harder to find. But two truly great writers I can recommend, who are both deeply not PC, are Joseph Conrad and Ford Maddox Ford. What makes them un-PC is hard to articulate in a way that does the writers justice, but you can at least say that both are deeply moral, which it's hard to be if you're a relativist or a nihilist. Conrad writes from a masculine code that judges men (his characters are mostly men) constantly in moral terms, in anything but simple minded ways -- but he does judge them.

Ford I always avoided until a few years ago. I avoided him because the wrong people liked him when I was in college. Pretty stupid reason. I've never read the Good Soldier, the novel that was always assigned in English classes at Cornell. The book I would recommend is Parade's End, which is sort of like a rewrite of Evelyn Waugh's Sword of Honour trilogy done by somebody with greater writing skills and a more complex view of the world around him, and moved from WWII to WWI. Ford was some sortof Catholic, and personally, I find the Catholicism beneath the surface in Ford more moving and effective that the in-your-face Catholic convert/mythical Catholic aristocracy of Waugh. Though I really like Waugh as well, and reread Brideshead every few years. But there is something of the Catholic novel for boys about the Brideshead. For my money, Ford just does a better job capturing the interior lives of people in awful conflicts, and the difficulties of living up to old-fashioned standards in impossible settings -- like war and love. Another thing is that I think Ford has a deeper understanding of evil than does Waugh, who certainly understood social cruelty and folly. But Ford goes beyond that.