At least, that's the way they used to be.
But for the past few years, approximately one of every two stories is awful, absurdist post-modern fare that eschews even the merest pretense of character, plot and storytelling. It's enough to make me want to set fire to the pages, and then stamp out the embers with my bare feet.
In the March 30 issue, Craig Raine's Julia and Bryon begins: "When Julia was 29, her hair was already bar-coded."
In the March 2 issue, David Foster Wallace's Wiggle Room begins: "Lane Dean, Jr., with his green rubber pinkie finger, sat at his Tingle table in his chalk's row in the rotes group's wiggle room and did two more returns, then another one, then flexed his buttocks and held to a count of ten and imagined a warm pretty beach with mellow surf, as instructed in orientation the previous month."
The tone is light, ironic, amused and oh, so detached. What really gets me is the feeling that my time and energy has been squandered for no purpose. The authors themselves don't seem to care about what they're writing, so why should I?
It's not that I object to experimental fiction. I am one of the comparatively few non-college professors who can claim to have read James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake from start to finish (several years ago, with a group of friends once a week, and out loud).
Probably 90 percent of the text shot right past me, but the other 10 percent is funny and sad and beautiful (including one exquisite ode to an envelope.) Throughout, I had the strong feeling that Joyce had something he desperately was trying to say, someting that mattered so much to him that he invented a new language to fit the particular demands of his message. The great irony, of course, is that the technique Joyce devised to communicate effectively removed the book from the grasp of all but a tiny fraction of readers.
But whatever that writing is, it is not bloodless. Joyce always seems passionately engaged. The idea behind Finnegan's Wake makes sense to me. If there is a point to Wiggle Room, it eludes me.
Having said all this, I just re-upped my subscription to The New Yorker, so weird fiction will arrive in my mailbox for at least the next two years. And, in that light, I'm willing to be educated.
Maybe some of you can see a merit to the stuff that escapes me. If you have observations on what non-narrative fiction has to offer, any insights that could help me not only understand these stories but -- gasp -- enjoy them, please, please, please share your thoughts.