21 Oct 2015

On the Bourgeois Novel and the Ark

Hail readers! You may have observed that I have written a great deal on politics (and political economy) as of late; these concerns are however secondary to the point of this blog, which lies with literary matters. It is also fortuitous that a matter in the Ark has come up which merits attention. In complex terms, it concerns the nature of the characters and the merits of intellectualism.

In simpler terms: the protagonists are not ordinary teenagers. They live in a world that is on the brink of collapse, and yet on the apogee of human development. Their language, mannerisms and intellect is at once both typically teenage and vastly beyond the purlieu of many adults. They are also typically bourgeois characters.

‘But Alex: shouldn’t teenagers be more like the ordinary, and less like the creations of an armchair philosopher?’ you ask.

And that would be the crux of the question, dear reader. But allow me to make a case for the armchair philosopher.

The Ordinary versus the Extraordinary

Ordinary characters appear to be in vogue, in some literary circles. There appears to be a belief that, the more ordinary the character, the better readers are able to relate to relate to them and the more they will empathise.

This is rubbish.

Empathising with a character is an act dependent upon a writer’s ability to instil emotion and portray characters vividly; believing that a more ordinary character will permit a closer connection is, to be frank, lazy writing. The whole point of a novel is not to be ordinary; not to be trapped in the same taedium vitae and mediocrity that befalls so many.

The power in a novel, the magic, lies with characters that are both extraordinary—and in whose shoes you may walk in. It is the writer that brings the reader into the characters’ mind; it is the writer that makes their struggles their own, and their emotions felt as truly as one’s own.

But nor is this to say that a character must be made into something that they are not; that they ought be exaggerated or subject to the vagaries of market calculations. A character is a character is a character, to paraphrase Gertrude Stein. Some characters are ordinary; others extraordinary. A good novel (usually) has both.

A Very Bourgeois Novel

The Ark, as I have said, also happens to be what is known as a ‘bourgeois novel’. It does not follow ordinary people. Conall, for example, is the son a of Minister; Casey’s uncle is an astrophysicist. Not only are they not-ordinary, but so too do they belong to a particular social class.

A great many an essay has been written on the matter of social class. Certainly, the 19th century Marxist account—of the workers (the proletariat), and the owners of capital (the bourgeoisie) as two distinct entities in contradiction—is one that struggles to fit today’s, or 22nd century Cork’s, ideas of class. The capitalists still exist: Casey’s mother is the owner of a major corporation.

The workers still exist. They are the people who work in supermarkets, as cleaners, or even lollipop ladies.

But many people seem to be somewhere in between. Casey’s uncle is a researcher; what of him? What of the teachers, or the programmers, or any of the other professional classes? Are they petit bourgeoisie? Evidently not—for Casey’s uncle is hired by a university, not being himself an owner of capital.

But Casey and Conall belong to what may be termed ‘the modern bourgeoisie’. These are the intellectuals, firstly and foremostly: teachers, researchers, engineers; those involved in professional and mentally complex work. They are also present in wealth, yes, but while wealth may be correlated—it is not the defining factor.

To employ a modern example: Nigel Farage is a very rich man. So is Donald Trump. But they do not make up the bourgeois, or—more accurately, I should say—the aristocratic class. Not only do the lack intelligence (both emotionally and technically, if not financially) but they also lack other features of the aristocrat: manners, charisma, eloquence—even such things as honour, or loyalty.

Perhaps I ought call the bourgeois novel the aristocrat’s novel. Yes: that would be more fitting, I believe.

Conall and Casey are aristocrats. They are not ordinary, not people you might bump into on the streets. And that’s okay. Good novels require extraordinary characters; and ordinary characters are not necessarily more relatable, or more valuable artistically.

Now, I must leave you. Chapter Six is a-written; the Ark has now over 100 pages; and I have a rather important plot point to address…

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