Follow-up: Pop Culture, Nostalgia, and the Novel

In my last post, I mentioned in passing that I worry that both Fortress of Solitude and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay might seem dated eventually because of the way they use pop culture. I wanted to clarify that a bit.

It’s not that I don’t think novelists should engage with pop culture–when done well, pop culture can be a really useful tool for situating characters in society. And lots of truly great novels use pop culture to great effect. For example, in The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald references the 1919 World Series, the rise of Broadway, and jazz culture. All of these touches help create the world of the novel. What those references don’t do, however, is help carry the emotional weight of the story. Instead, they exist as part of the world the characters inhabit–they are part of the setting, and only part of the setting.

My concern for both Fortress and K&C, both of which I like a lot, is that the novels invoke not so much the “setting” of pop culture but readers’ nostalgia about the pop culture of their youth or adolescence. And then that nostalgia is asked to do some of the novels’ emotional work. For example, the ultimate uselessness of the magic ring in Fortress plays not only on the characters’ desire for a superpower that can “save” them, but for the reader’s nostalgia for that same desire. As the experience of actually reading comics continues to disappear (comic characters are bigger than ever, but fewer and fewer kids are reading comics themselves), the novel “changes”–in the sense that it can no longer rely on readers’ nostalgia to help underscore the “power” the ring holds in the characters’ imaginations. Perhaps the novel will hold up–I would like it to, to be honest–but I have a feeling it won’t. It may simply rely too much on its readers preexisting ideas and experiences. Basically, I suspect Lethem is working the room too much. And that when the room changes, the book will ring…if not false, then at least less true.

That’s the thing about books–over time, only the very strongest retain any kind of audience. A novel that relies too much on its readers preexisting ideas, prejudices, and nostalgia is setting itself up for a short lifetime. There’s no shame in that–sometimes a book is really great in its moment and then disappears. That doesn’t make it a failure–it makes it a product of its time. But I can’t help but admire books that push for more–that create an internal world so distinctive, so well-crafted, that it can exist even after its “moment” has passed away. Maybe I’m too pessimistic, and in the end Fortress and K&C will turn out be those kinds of books. But I suspect that they will end up closer to Armies of the Night–books that remain well-written, and interesting, but eventually come to seem like products of their particular moment.