Dara Horn's The World to Come begins with these two paragraphs:
There used to be many families like the Ziskinds, families where each person always knew that his life was more than his alone. Families like that still exist, but because there are so few of them, they have become insular, isolated, their sentiment that the family is the center of the universe broadened to imply that nothing outside the family is worth anything. If you are from one of these families, you believe this, and you always will.
Lately it had begun to seem to Benjamin Ziskind that the entire world was dead, that he was a citizen of a necropolis. While his parents were living, Ben had thought about them only when it made sense to think about them, when he was talking to them, or talking about them, or planning something involving them. But now they were always here, reminding him of their presence at every moment. He saw them in the streets, always from behind, or turning a corner, his father sitting in the bright yellow taxi next to his, shifting in his seat as the cab screeched away in the opposite direction, his mother--dead six months now, thought it felt like one long night--hurrying along the sidewalk on a Sunday morning, turning into a store just when Ben had come close enough to see her face. It was a relief that Ben could close his office door.
No doubt this seems thoroughly unexceptional to most readers of fiction (which is actually one of the problems with Horn's novel), an expository passage that begins to acquaint us with the themes the book will explore and introduces us to the character whose present actions and experiences provide the hinge by which the rest of the novel moves. But that we have become accustomed to this kind of discourse, all but take it for granted, suggests it has hardened into a convention we simply accept as the strategy appropriate for a certain type of third-person narrative, which itself has become more or less a default setting for our sense of what narrative discourse should be like. I would submit that this strategy has outlived its usefulness and often inhibits the discovery of fresh, genre-expanding aesthetic approaches to fiction, even approaches to the representation of consciousness, which in a novel like The World to Come is carried out in such a perfunctory way that it becomes harder to appreciate some of the novel's other virtues.
Although the reader's attention is first of all directed by the Tolstoy-like opening to what presumably will be the novel's overarching theme, the encompassing context within which the story (as it turns out, multiple and intertwining stories) will proceed. To me, the real work being done by this paragraph is in the way it settles the reader into the novel's discursively shaped world, begins to evoke a particular kind of relationship between narrator and character. Are these generalizations about "family" being offered by a hovering, all-knowing narrator, or have they been filtered through the consciousness and specific experiences of Benjamin Ziskind? The second paragraph confirms that it is the latter, and we are thereafter comfortably placed as readers inside Benjamin's awareness (and, later, several other characters' awareness) and way of thinking about things.
I say "comfortably" because by now this mode of "psychological realism," by which the depicted world in a work of fiction comes to us not through omniscient description but through the perception of that fiction's characters ("Lately it had begun to seem to Benjamin Ziskind that the entire world was dead"), has become so thoroughly familiar that it acts as a kind of narrative machine, spinning out sundry versions of what Henry James called third-person "central consciousness" stories in what has admittedly become a very efficient manner. In order to provide a little variety in what is otherwise a rather uniform approach, one can include multiple or alternating centers of consciousness, as Horn does in The World to Come, but even here readers are ultimately encouraged to regard the storytelling as more or less transparent, if anchored in a particular character's version of reality, and the style as unintrusive, if sometimes decorated with a suitable figurative flourish. It is precisely the expectation that the reader will be satisfied with this mechanical, mass-produced variety of storytelling that makes me unable to read a book like The World to Come with much enthusiasm, even though I can acknowledge that Dara Horn does have some narrative imagination and that the novel weaves together its various strands--which include both invented characters and real historical figures, occurrences in the present interlaced with episodes from the past--with admirable skill.
In his Editor's Note to the latest issue of Agni, Sven Birkerts describes the mindset with which he approaches the submissions the magazine receives:
Basically—short version—a work of prose (or poetry) can no longer assume continuity, not as it could in former times. It cannot begin, or unfold, in a way that assumes a basic condition of business as usual. The world is no longer everything we thought was the case, and the writing needs to embody this—through sentence rhythm, tone, camera placement, or some other strategic move that signals that no tired assumptions remain in place. This writing must, in effect, create its own world and terms from the threshold, coming at us from a full creative effort of imagination and not by using the old world as a prop. Now, this last is a tricky assertion and it will be very hard to make clear, not to mention binding. I don’t mean for a moment that the world as we know it cannot be invoked, or used, or dissected. Of course it can. But it cannot be taken simply on faith, as unproblematic, treated as a natural signifier; nor can it be cashed in as if it were a treasury bond from the literature of a former era.
I agree entirely with Birkerts, and if I were an editor beginning to read The World to Come for potential publication, I would almost immediately conclude that it "assumes a basic condition of business as usual," that numerous "tired assumptions remain in place," that while the novel does attempt to "create its own world," this attempt comes not from the "threshold," but from a place where fiction is regarded as a set of fixed assumptions and techniques from which is chosen the one that will most efficaciously carry the narrative burden to be placed on it. In this case, Horn doesn't so much lean on the "literature of a former era" (she actually takes this as part of her subject, and her examination of Jewish artistic/literary traditions is one of the more compelling aspects of the novel) as on this set of presently-established conventions, themselves a product of "modern" storytelling practices but, as I have been contending, now urgently in need of reexamination. In invoking the "world to come," Horn's novel is, of course, endeavoring to capture something essential about this world, about our longings and frustrations, but it is impossible to read such passages as the one quoted above without thinking that this is at odds with its very prosaic language and method of character creation, which do depend on customary "props."
As if the author herself recognizes that this method lacks dynamism, especially when confined to a single character over the course of an entire narrative, she presents us with multiple characters and their interconnecting stories and makes of the larger narrative of which these are a part a kind of mystery tale embedded in recent history. These are Dara Horn's efforts to embody a "full creative effort of imagination." The result is entertaining enough, at least when I am able to ignore the listless "sentence rhythms" created by Horn's adherence to the central consciousness-style of narrative exposition. (And all too many other novels require that I similarly put aside any expectation of stylistic vigor, narrative innovation, or formal invention, novels that aren't even going to manifest to me the intelligence and skill with which Dara Horn shuffles around the conventional elements she has chosen to use, or won't manifest anything more than such skill with the conventional.) But, ultimately, I don't want to put these things aside, and I'm increasingly uncertain why so many writers--especially among "emerging writers"--think its appropriate to ask me to do it. There are far too few original stories and arrestingly portrayed characters around to justify losing interest in new ways of telling them and uncommon means of summoning them up.