For the most part, “realism” in current discussions of fiction has become conflated with conventional narrative practice: “storytelling” employing the orthodox “elements” of fiction as developed in that latter 19th and early 20th centuries. While in American literary history at least, the rise of realism in this period did bring a change in the kinds of subjects addressed (more “ordinary” characters), in setting (less familiar sorts of places, made to seem “real” in the kind of description involved), and in the stories told (fewer stories about haunted mansions or demoniac white whales), as well as in the manner of telling (less grandiloquent, but also less stylistically dynamic), in both the new realism and the old romanticism writers ultimately perceived their task to be relating a story recognizable as such according to accepted dramatic form—elucidated perhaps most memorably by Gustave Freytag in his famous “pyramid.”
Almost all of the classic realist novels, however much they feature less fanciful or flamboyant stories, nevertheless take on this traditional narrative form. If many realistic narratives don’t seem conspicuously “dramatic” in their narrative effects, the even more radical mode of realism, American naturalism, frequently does manipulate plot structure so intensively that novels such as Dreiser’s Sister Carrie or Norris’s McTeague accelerate into outright melodrama. Even the fiction of Henry James, who endeavors to move the external drama of narrative realism into the internal drama of what ultimately came to be regarded as “psychological realism,” still tells stories that can be plotted along Freytag’s pyramid (including stories such as “The Beast in the Jungle,” which on the surface conveys the impression that “nothing happens”).
It is also true that a credible, coherent definition of realism in fiction—the attempt to produce work that is “like life”—could really be upheld in practice only if the role of plot is at the least minimized. Since “life” does not unfold along a neatly sequential dramatic arc, a properly realistic narrative would deemphasize if not eliminate the niceties of exposition and denouement, would acknowledge conflict—without necessarily making it the center of interest—but would not imply that such conflict usually is resolved (indeed, would more truthfully reveal that resolution is rare, at least as part of a discrete, self-enclosed experience). The realistic conclusion to most stories—loosely construed as some sort of serial progression—would be neither “happy” nor manifestly unhappy but indeterminate, merely a suitable stopping-point.
Few writers have consistently attempted this sort of radical realism, although the stories of Chekhov and Hemingway might be provisional models of what it looks like. Some might adduce Bukowski or Kerouac as examples of such unvarnished realism, but Bukowski often seems more interested in realism as the vehicle for an apologia of sorts for his protagonists’ romanticized marginality, while Kerouac, although he does abandon formulaic storytelling for picaresque narrative, also romanticizes his restless characters and their quest for enlightenment, which is ultimately more central to his fiction’s purpose than the faithful depiction of mid-twentieth century social and cultural realities. The minimalist realism of writers such as Raymond Carver and Mary Robison was frequently called plotless (a description that especially seems appropriate to Robison’s short stories), but while most of these writers did indeed reduce the role of plot in favor of atmosphere and setting, they did not so much abandon “story” as reconfigure it, so that “conflict” often remains unstated, emerging instead in a moment of revelation or heightened perception (including the reader’s perception) that works to unify the story’s elements without laboring to produce an overt, dramatic tension.
A writer whose work goes farther in removing plot as an obstacle to realism is the American writer Sam Pink. Pink has been described variously as “surreal,” “bizarro,” “experimental,” and “minimalist,” among other attempts to characterize his short novels and stories. That reviewers might respond differently in assessing a writer’s work is of course inevitable, but in Pink’s case such disparate labels is surprising, since all of the fiction he has published so far seems readily identifiable as realism, albeit a particularly plotless, episodic kind. Pink’s fiction, at first glance, at least, seems closely associated with the “slacker” realism of Tao Lin and Noah Cicero, although the realism of Pink’s fiction is more outwardly directed, not simply a chronicle of disaffection.
Pink’s novels—most of them more accurately described as novellas—surely are in part chronicles of disaffection, but the male protagonists of these books are alienated more from any consistent belief in their own self-worth than from the social expectations and arrangements they confront, about which they generally remain impassive if not indifferent. Indeed, to the extent they acknowledge the social conditions in which they subsist, they do so not to decry their oppressive effects but to observe and often admire those others around them who are enduring the same conditions. In Witch Piss, for example, the protagonist’s own marginal circumstances recede into the background as he interacts with street people through most of the novel, becoming in effect a witness to their way of adapting to their situation. What in the novels preceding Witch Piss could seem like recitations of personal degradation becomes in this novel something more like objective reporting, almost a kind of documentary realism.
The Garbage Times, one of the twinned novellas (along with White Ibis) forming Pink’s most recent book, could also be described in these terms, although here the underachieving protagonist is more actively an agent in the social milieu he also delineates in his first-person narrative. But what The Garbage Times helps to make clear is that Pink’s fiction from the beginning was not an exercise in post-adolescent confessional but a more or less objective rendering of the profound stasis into which their characters’ lives seem fixed. So thorough seems their profound indifference to the cultural imperatives spurring ambition and aspiration, and so remote from any discernible compensating internal motivation, that we are offered in these works an almost disinterested anatomy of the protagonists’ radically passive mental state, as if the characters are dutifully reporting on their own emotional detachment.
But these novels are not just convincing depictions of their characters’ psychological makeup but are also palpably “realistic” in other, more customary ways as well. The Garbage Times begins with its narrator hauling dumpsters into the alley behind the seedy bar where he works, an episode (and a rather extended one) that establishes “garbage” as a motif that helps to unify a novel that, like most of Pink’s novels, doesn’t much rely on plot as a structural device. That narrator notes the salient details:
Something dropped on my head.
I touched my head.
Thick, dark-green gel on my head—like pureed spinach. . .
The dumpsters were full of broken glass and liquid collected from chutes coming from upstairs.
With that classic vinegar smell that cleared my face.
Before arriving at the bar, the narrator is on the train, where “There was puke on one of the seats and window behind it—like someone not only puked, but his/her head filled with puke, then exploded.” One of the narrator’s frequent jobs inside the bar is to clean up overflowing toilets, and this task is described with the same sort of unflinching specificity. Clearly one of the narrator’s goals in this novella is to expose the reader to the sensory particulars of the dingy environment in which he moves. Such attention to setting is manifested in Pink’s other novels as well, so that, if “story” is not going to be featured in these works, the characters and their surroundings will get especially pronounced emphasis: although “what happens” in The Garbage Times and Pink’s other novels is certainly of concern in the reader’s engagement with them, what they most immediately require is an initial fascination with the extremity of the protagonist’s peculiarly impassive attitude toward what seems to be a borderline existence.
Pink’s fiction does not convey the impression of crafted simplicity revealed in the chiseled prose and offhand dialogue of Hemingway and Chekhov, but this is arguably the most conspicuous sign of its own craftsmanship, as the apparent contingency and drift experienced by his protagonists is surely not a reflection of the writer’s indifference to structure but a purposeful effect that is carried out with remarkable consistency in all of the novels, in each extended only to the point beyond which the strategy might begin to pall, so that the episodes still seem to cohere as a “slice of life,” not just a random collection of scenes. If the novels couldn’t really be called “picaresque,” despite the loose sequentiality of the scenes, it is because the protagonists never seem to be on a journey to anywhere, although perhaps the goal involved is that whereby the reader is led to acknowledge that most lives are not journeys at all; muddle and inconclusion are more common, when outright failure does not prevail.
Certainly in all of the books leading up to The Garbage Times/White Ibis there are no epiphanic moments, no portentous symbols that would otherwise bestow a false transcendence on their resolutely temporal and material concerns. Readers might be tempted to think of the titular protagonist of Pink’s first novel, Person, as a kind of emblematic Everyman figure, but in fact “Person” designates this character specifically, his sense of himself as a kind of nonentity. Even his desire to occupy space is attenuated:
I don’t have a bed.
I sleep on a sleeping bag, on the floor in my room.
My room is small.
I wish it were even smaller though.
Right now I can take like, two steps one way across, and three steps the other way.
That seems like too much.
It always seems like too much.
It would be awesome to just walk up to someone on the street and grab him or her by both shoulders then scream, “It’s always too much!”
It feels embarrassing when I require too much of the world.
Person might be classified as a “loser,” but he is a loser in his own distinctive way: he seemingly has little desire to change his status (even to the extent of following up on a possible job as a grocery bagger), but is also clearly enough dissatisfied with his life, using his chronicle of a winter in Chicago as the occasion for interrogating his apparent inability to reject his loser status.
The sense of spontaneity arising from Person’s narrative comes partly from this insistent self-questioning, but it is reinforced by the prevailing style and mode of narration, which continues to characterize the subsequent novels as well. Although the narrator’s account does not entirely proceed in one-sentence paragraphs as in the passage above (it comes close to doing so in The Garbage Times/White Ibis, however), it consists of a very fragmented and staccato prose, often conveying the impression the narrator is reeling off a succession of thoughts as they come to him—which he is, although that does not mean these thoughts themselves are disconnected and scattershot. Rontel begins:
After my girlfriend left for work this morning, I lay in her bed for an our looking at the wall.
Fuck, this is really good—I thought.
It was good, if you didn’t think about doing it as you were doing it.
Sometimes I put my hands up to cover my face.
That made it even better.
If the action (or inaction) here invokes what seems a static, desultory situation, the narrator’s comments are not merely random remarks. However much the passage establishes the narrator/protagonist’s extreme passivity, it also very succinctly summons a telling image and rather intricately reveals the narrator’s psychological predisposition: Clearly stillness and stasis is a state to which he aspires (even to kind of blissful erasure of consciousness where “thinking” is an obstacle). Yet such bliss also seems perilously close not just to a temporary self-renunciation but self-obliteration as well.
Neither are the narrator’s subsequent activities (once out of bed) simply a string of haphazard events and miscellaneous observations. Although often enough he is occupied by this sort of introspective self-scrutiny (not always flattering in what it reveals), just as often his attention is directed outward. Indeed, despite the interludes of acute self-awareness, he seems most interested in the external environment in which he moves. In both Person and Rontel, as well as Witch Piss and The Garbage Times, the setting is the city of Chicago, which is cumulatively depicted quite vividly, impressing itself as a place that both overwhelms its inhabitants and provides a sustaining attraction (especially for the novels’ protagonists). The No Hellos Diet is also ostensibly set in Chicago, although its immediate setting is the department store in which the protagonist works, which itself comes fully to life in its narrator’s rendering of his experience there. In one scene describing the narrator on his way to work, he evokes at length a walk through the Loop and other parts of downtown Chicago. While the scene refrains from figurative descriptions and other flourishes of “fine writing”—the narrator preferring instead simply to name and to list—nevertheless it seems motivated by the traditional goal of realism to firmly situate the reader in a specific setting that is presented with the kind of detail that persuades us to accept the verbal representation as a plausible likeness of reality.
This project is carried forward in The Garbage Times, which, like The No Hellos Diet, focuses most closely on the protagonist’s workplace, but this also, as in Witch Piss, offers the narrator the opportunity to broaden the focus to include a more general survey of a seamier side of Chicago. Although this novella, like Pink’s previous books, has its moments of astringent humor (frequently at the narrator’s own expense), The Garbage Times may be Pink’s bleakest work; the garbage conceit seems emblematically to represent the narrator’s acknowledgement that the world he inhabits is overwhelmed by filth and waste, although we also find this character at least willing to try and clean up the filth. If there are no subtle intimations that such a world might be redeemed (the novella’s final passage has the narrator clearly implying it shouldn’t be), Pink’s narrator endures.
White Ibis, however, does seem to signal a change—whether it will be lasting or just a passing variation remains to be seen, of course—in both tone and approach from this writer’s predominant practice in the fiction culminating in The Garbage Times. Most obviously, this novel is set not in Chicago but in Florida, although the autobiographical features attached to the protagonist (which become even more explicit in this work) make his story clearly enough continuous with the narrator-protagonist of the previous novels. Whether the radical shift in environment from the Chicago novels to this one is deliberately mirrored in the narrator’s somewhat more relaxed persona, or his more congenial circumstances—he has moved to Florida with his girlfriend—has simply made him more content, less estranged from his own life, in White Ibis the dominant mood seems lighter; the protagonist, if not exactly ambitious, does reveal a sense of purpose (specifically related to art and writing) not really in evidence in the preceding novels.
The novella as well, while not radically departing from the formal and stylistic assumptions familiar from the previous books, is noticeably different in its strategies and devices. For one, it could more plausibly be called a narrative, as the narrator does more or less relate a story, one that might be characterized as the story of his adaptation to his changed circumstances. It also includes episodes more straightforwardly humorous than anything to be found before in Pink’s fiction, such as the protagonist’s climactic encounter with a Girl Scout troop, and its conclusion could even be called upbeat. Further, the novel’s title refers to the recurring appearance of this tropical bird throughout the novel, lingering at the end of the narrator’s driveway. Although the novel features much animal imagery in general, the white ibis clearly comes to represent the narrator’s burgeoning appreciation of nature in his new environment, as well as an incipient realization that in its stubborn persistence and wary reserve the ibis is similar to the narrator himself. Pink has not so brazenly indulged in symbolism before, as if the kind of starkly honest realism to be found in the first books requires avoiding all patently “literary” devices, a restraint no longer observed here in what is Pink’s most recent work.
It would not really be accurate, however, to regard even the grittiest of the earlier books as somehow something other than “literary.” However loosely structured they may seem to be—or even without structure at all—this is a deliberate effect the author creates; indeed, it is an effect Pink realizes with remarkable consistency and skill across all of the novels. To adopt a transparent and unaffected prose style is not to refuse style but to cultivate a particular kind of style, in Pink’s case not so much “plain” as deceptively artless, devised to seem as direct and “natural” as possible, unembellished by ostentation stylistic flourishes or gratuitous complexities. But Pink replaces these more conventional signs of verbal artifice with fragmentation and partial repetitions, ultimately producing a prose style with its own distinctive cadence, in contrast to the accustomed rhythms of most literary prose. And to successfully maintain a reader’s interest in a work of fiction that resolutely—even defiantly—refuses to center that interest in plot requires an otherwise deft and considered handling of form, not simply its disregard. While a reader sampling just one of Pink’s novels might understandably conclude that the author seeks to avoid the conspicuously “literary,” no one reading all his published fiction could plausibly maintain that this work is anything other than thoroughly composed.
Any conception of realism that would have it as the absence of all artificial devices—except for “story,” which is seen as identical with fiction itself—is simply not credible. Story itself is as much a contrivance as any other formal stratagem—it may in fact distort reality even more directly than many other ostensibly unconventional structural devices. Many of the alternatives to traditional narrative offered since the emergence of modernism (stream-of-consciousness, fragmentation and collage, unreliable narration, etc.) were introduced precisely to penetrate surface realism, to get at a perspective on reality not accessible to external description and linear narrative. If literary realism as traditionally understood is the attempt to create an illusion of “real life” in a work of fiction, to do that entirely through the ordering of language inherently requires not an eye for documentary detail but an aptitude for art.
The majority of current “literary fiction” would have to be categorized as realism, although most seems to regard it as a kind of default setting, as if invoking “real” life is simply an unexamined assumption about the goal of fiction. Few writers are as rigorous in their allegiance to realism in an unembroidered form as Sam Pink, but ever since the appearance of minimalist neorealism in the 1980s (exemplified by such writers as Raymond Carver and Ann Beattie), verisimilitude as an important literary value is no longer met with the skepticism that motivated many experimental writers during the previous two decades. (Perhaps its most noteworthy exponent now is the critic James Wood, whose notion of “hysterical realism” is meant to denigrate the postmodern legacy for neglecting ordinary realism). To be sure, there are current American writers who defy or disregard the realist imperative, most notably in a strain of fabulism influenced especially by George Saunders and Aimee Bender, although much of this fiction, as much as it embraces a kind of surrealism, nonetheless employs traditional narrative machinery almost as earnestly as Freytag could wish.
More so than the “quirky” diversions of these writers, Sam Pink’s realism could plausibly be considered “experimental” in its conceptual asperity and stringency of form. Neither realism nor anti-realism is itself inherently experimental, although in historical context either could certainly seem more or less audacious given established norms, so that Pink’s work can seem refreshingly adventurous even if it is best described within a mode that occupies a perennial—if contested—space in familiar literary history. If a writer’s motives, however conservative or conventional some might reflexively think them to be, prompts innovative strategies, there is no reason to dismiss what seems the “wrong” motivation. When “realism” is defined so vaguely that its alternative is simply some form of overt fantasy (as it too frequently seems to be in popular literary discourse), then the term is actually concealing a multitude of practices that shouldn’t be reduced to its most naïve formulation.
Still, it is not unfair to ask whether an approach that emphasizes what is absent—plot, dramatic tension, conventional prose—might have a better claim on originality if it also encompassed the presence of new or unfamiliar aesthetic strategies. Radical realists such as Nicholson Baker and Stephen Dixon deemphasize conventional narrative structure, but also manage to add a singular element that alters our perception of the ostensible formal or stylistic boundaries of fiction—boundaries that these writers reshape in ways that enlarge our appreciation of the elasticity of literary form and style, the extent of their still available resources. Dixon fashions a distinctive prose style (although influenced by Thomas Bernhard) whose chains of loosely linked sentences mirror the loosely linked scenes and episodes that in some ways resemble Pink’s non-narratives. Baker is able to seize on situations—a man on his lunch break, a man feeding his baby daughter—that would to seem to have no dramatic potential at all and instead to magnify the moments in which we are nominally inactive and usually least reflective into episodes of heightened awareness that are often surprisingly compelling.
It might be said that writers such as Dixon and Baker provide realism with an aesthetic supplement of sorts, a surplus of “literary” interest beyond the act of representation itself, although surely neither of these writers could exactly be called aesthetes. (Dixon’s work in particular avoids obviously lyrical language.) The alienated realism of Sam Pink, Noah Cicero, and Tao Lin, on the other hand, is implicitly an attempt to avoid the literary, or at least give the impression that “real life,” unmediated by literary affectation, is what the writer is after. Sam Pink’s fiction does an especially effective job of upholding this illusion, but precisely because it so clearly manifests a unifying artistic intelligence, it is inescapably literary. White Ibis suggests he may be moving toward more conventional literary strategies, but while this might be regarded as “experimental” in a trivial sense—a writer who previously avoided all the familiar moves now tries them out—such a turn could hardly count as an advance over this writer’s previous achievements in a more unadorned but innovative realism. That work shows that realism is not inherently a regressive literary mode reinforcing conventional narrative form but can readily enough lead an adventurous writer to renew and reshape literary form.