I’ve been able to read for some twenty odd years now. I had some basic skills already when I started school, but we started school at 6 in South Africa (and since I did not go to school for the year of 1989, and finished at the age of 17, I have had slightly less schooling than some of my contemporaries.) Since a very early age, my reading habits had centred around what dubs “genre fiction”. A title that had never occured to me before.
Genre fiction isn’t about the general milieu of life, but about some specific activity or process. Science, Fantasy, Crime, Spies… these are the various genres rendered distinct from life as I experience it by the appellation “genre”. Of course, I dipped my toes into the classics. I read a selection of Dickens, some Conrad, Austen, and a smattering of their ilk. All of which is now consigned to the category of “pre 20th Century” by the greybeards in the VUW English department (Conrad’s right on the border, but I mostly read his early work). Their stipulation is that you must do at least two papers from that gigantic “period”, but the real limitation in my reading is quite the opposite once you exclude “genre” fiction.
So, recognizing this bias in myself, I have deliberately chosen to do several modern literature papers; my iconoclasm leading to membership in the conventional mass of students.
I have found it to be difficult going on the whole. The only book I buzz-sawed through was Zadie Smith’s The Autograph Man. I, in fact, bounced off Perlman’s Seven Types of Ambiguity and Jagose’s Slow Water; I got my A in that contemporary fiction paper having read the absolute minimum number of texts to avoid the stipulation of “no duplicate material.” From my point of view, the major quantifiable benefit of that paper was meeting . (Though I did eventually come to enjoy Richard Ford’s Independance Day, and found Atkinson & Bail’s novels intellectually intriguing. Atkinson in particular seemed to me like a readable and approachable Anne Carter.)
Anyway, I’m reading Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, and it’s bringing together a lot of the different bits that have been prominent and excellent in other books. The narrative voice is gentle, and has the same kind of meandering and absent-minded seeming clarity that Bail tried to deliver in Eucalyptus. It is having a lucid and sympathetic look at tribal African life which picks up on a lot of the weirdness displayed in Heart of Darkness, but humanizes it. It has too, a kind of post-modern retrospective motif that reminds me a lot of the structure of Behind the scenes at the Museum. And it shares with all of these novels, and with the modern novel as I’ve experienced it generally, a terrible sense of foreboding. I am afraid to read each new chapter, expecting the concilliatory narrator at any moment to present me with a horror I can’t quite quantify or obviate.
In this, I think it shares much with a large and powerful strand running through genre fiction. Across the oeuvre of H.G. Wells, he teaches us to expect the worst to be paraded in its terrifying glory before us. Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyl and Mr Hyde works largely because of the deepenning sense of impending doom which begins to envelop Jekyl. Perhaps though, the difference is that in genre fiction there is the constant display of the marvellous bauble of science or whatever to distract you from the key human moral decrepitude. Christie’s Poirot uncovers a monster masquerading as a human, but you needn’t focus on it when you can enjoy the sparkling chain of logic which exposes that dual identity. Genre fiction too specializes in the redemption of the fallen, while the rest of our literary enterprise seems content to leave the fallen where they lie.
I am curious what Achebe will end up doing, but for the first time in a long while I wish there were someone older, wiser, stronger, to whom I could turn and be re-assured: it’s just a story.
(690 words, 34 minutes)