In the latest N+1, Marco Roth takes a critical look at the rise of the “neuronovel”:
The last dozen years or so have seen the emergence of a new strain within the Anglo-American novel. What has been variously referred to as the novel of consciousness or the psychological or confessional novel–the novel, at any rate, about the workings of a mind–has transformed itself into the neurological novel, wherein the mind becomes the brain. ince 1997, readers have encountered, in rough chronological order, Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love (de Clérambault’s syndrome, complete with an appended case history by a fictional “presiding psychiatrist” and a useful bibliography), Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn (Tourette’s syndrome), Mark Haddon’s Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (autism), Richard Powers’s The Echomaker (facial agnosia, Capgras syndrome), McEwan again with Saturday (Huntington’s disease, as diagnosed by the neurosurgeon protagonist), Atmospheric Disturbances (Capgras syndrome again) by a medical school graduate, Rivka Galchen, and John Wray’s Lowboy (paranoid schizophrenia). And these are just a selection of recently published titles in “literary fiction.” There are also many recent genre novels, mostly thrillers, of amnesia, bipolar disorder, and multiple personality disorder. As young writers in Balzac walk around Paris pitching historical novels with titles like The Archer of Charles IX, in imitation of Walter Scott, today an aspiring novelist might seek his subject matter in a neglected corner or along some new frontier of neurology.
The essay is largely a lament for the decline of pre-neuroscientific novels, which weren’t so infatuated with this “new reductionism of mind to brain, eagerly taken up by the press–especially the New York Times in its science pages.” Here is Roth:
By comparison with most 19th-century novels, and even with most 20th-century modernist novels of the “stream of consciousness” school, the neuronovels have in them very little of society, of different classes, of individuals interacting, of development either alongside or against historical forces and expectations.
Instead, Roth argues that the new neuronovel subscribes to a cheap oversimplification of reality, in which “the proximate causes of mental function [are explained] in terms of neurochemistry, and ultimate causes in terms of evolution and heredity.” The end result, Roth suggests, is “that the new genre of the neuronovel, which looks on the face of it to expand the writ of literature, appears as another sign of the novel’s diminishing purview.”
It’s a perceptive and provocative essay, but I don’t buy it. For one thing, Roth fails to place the new “neuronovel” in its proper historical context. There is nothing new or trendy about novelists borrowing the language and theories of contemporary science, or even indulging in reductionism and determinism when it suits their aesthetic principles. Consider Emile Zola, the proud founder of naturalism who aspired to write “the scientific novel.” The novelist, Zola declared, must literally become a scientist, “employing the experimental method in their study of man.” Unfortunately, this led Zola to proclaim his blind faith in heredity and biological determinism. As he wrote in his preface to Therese Raquin, “I have chosen people completely dominated by their nerves and blood, without free will, drawn to each action by the inexorable laws of their physical nature.” Of course, Zola’s theories are now woefully obsolete. As Oscar Wilde declared, “Zola sits down to give us a picture of the Second Empire. Who cares for the Second Empire now? It is out of date. Life goes faster than Realism.”
The point is that the “reductionism” and “chemical determinism” that have supposedly been embraced by 21st century neuronovelists is both 1) not new and 2) far more subtle and nuanced than the reductionism and determinism celebrated by many 19th century realists. There’s a long and rich history of fiction interacting with the latest scientific facts, and I think it’s important to understand the neuronovel in this context. George Eliot famously described her novels as a “a set of experiments in life.” (She was particularly interested in contesting the ideas of “social physics,” the determinism of her day.) Virginia Woolf, before she wrote Mrs. Dalloway, said that in her new novel the “psychology should be done very realistically.” Gertrude Stein did research on automatic writing with William James, before doing research in a neuroanatomy lab at Johns Hopkins. Whitman worked in Civil War hospitals and corresponded for years with the neurologist who discovered phantom limb syndrome. (He also kept up with phrenology, the brain science of his day.) Or look at Coleridge. When the poet was asked why he attended so many lectures on chemistry, he gave a great answer: “To improve my stock of metaphors”. In other words, this dialogue between contemporary art and contemporary science isn’t some newfangled idea, or some 21st century publishing trend designed to sell books. Rather, it’s part of a distinguished attempt to grapple with the implications of scientific theory, to understand how our new facts fit with our experience.
The second problem I have with Roth’s essay is his misreading of many of the neuronovels he cites. Let’s begin with Saturday, Ian McEwan’s 2005 retelling of Mrs. Dalloway. The protoganist of the novel is a neurosurgeon, Henry Perowne. Roth reads Saturday as a brief in favor of “stark biological determinism”:
We’re always in Perowne’s scientific mind, a mind capable of reflecting on itself in up-to-date terms of neuroscience, though we also catch glimpses of his creator guiding us, as in the surgeon’s reflections on the superiority of neuroscience to ordinary language. When Perowne drives by an antiwar demonstration, a host of half thoughts arise, on war, death, terrorism, the justness of the cause. A voice tells us that all this occurs in “the pre-verbal language that linguists call mentalese. Hardly a language, more a matrix of shifting patterns, consolidating and compressing meaning in fractions of a second. . . . Even with a poet’s gift of compression, it could take hundreds of words and many minutes to describe.” Of course McEwan has almost done just that, even down to the color of Perowne’s thoughts–“a sickly yellow”–but only while conceding the insufficiency of his chosen medium, like a painter ruing the fact that he is not a photographer.
I’d argue that Saturday is stuffed full of ambiguity. Instead of simply embracing the one-dimensional world view of the neurosurgeon, McEwan strives to constantly complicate it. As I wrote in Proust Was A Neuroscientist:
McEwan simultaneously contests the materialist world his character inhabits. Though Henry disdains philosophy and is bored by fiction, he is constantly lost in metaphysical reveries. As he picks up fish for dinner, Henry wonders “what the chances are, of this particular fish, from that shoal, ending up in the pages, no, on this page of this copy of the Daily Mirror? Something just short of infinity to one. Similarly, the grains of sand on a beach, arranged just so. The random ordering of the world, the unimaginable odds against any particular condition.” And yet, despite the odds, our reality holds itself together: the fish is there, wrapped in newspaper in the plastic bag. Existence is a miracle.
It is also a precarious miracle. Woolf showed us this with Septimus, whose madness served to highlight the fragility of sanity. McEwan chooses Baxter, a man suffering from Huntington’s disease, to produce a parallel effect. Baxter’s disease, thinks the neurosurgeon, “is biological determinism in its purest form. The misfortune lies within a single gene, in an excessive repeat of a single sequence–CAG.” There is no escape from this minor misprint.
But McEwan doesn’t make the logical mistake of believing that such a deterministic relationship is true of life in general. Henry knows that the real gift of our matter is to let us be more than matter. While operating on an exposed brain, Henry ruminates on the mystery of consciousness. He knows that even if science “solves” the brain, “The wonder will remain. That mere wet stuff can make this bright inward cinema of thought, of sight and sound and touch bound into a vivid illusion of an instantaneous present, with a self, another brightly wrought illusion, hovering like a ghost at its center. Could it ever be explained, how matter becomes conscious?”
Saturday does not answer the question. Instead, the novel strives to remind us, again and again, that the question has no answer. We will never know how the mind turns the water of our cells into the wine of consciousness. Even Baxter, a man defined by his tragic genetic flaw, is ultimately altered by a poem. When Henry’s daughter begins reciting Mathew Arnold’s “Dover Beach,” a poem about the melancholy of materialism, Baxter is transfixed. The words “touched off a yearning he could barely begin to define.” The plot of Saturday hinges on this chance event, on a mind being moved by nothing more real than rhyming words. Poetry sways matter. Could anything be less likely?
McEwan ends Saturday the way he began it: in the dark, in the present tense, with Henry in bed. It has been a long day. As Henry is drifting off to sleep, his last thoughts are not about the brain, or surgery, or materialism. All of that seems far away. Instead, Henry’s thoughts return to the only reality we will ever know: our experience. The feeling of consciousness. The feeling of feeling. “There’s always this, is one of his remaining thoughts. And then: there’s only this.”
McEwan’s work is a potent demonstration that, even in this age of dizzying scientific detail, the artist remains a necessary voice. Through the medium of fiction, McEwan explores the limits of science while doing justice to its utility and eloquence. Though he never doubts our existence as a property of matter–this is why the surgeon can heal our wounds–McEwan captures the paradox of being a mind aware of itself. While we are a brain, we are the brain that contemplates its own beginnings.
Update: Be sure to check out Marco Roth’s extremely smart and insightful reply in the comments below.