The novel is not a moral fable or a tale from the Bible, or an exploration of the individual’s role in society; it is not our job to like or dislike characters in fiction, or make judgments on their worth, or learn from them how to live. We can do that with real people and, if we like, figures from history. They are for moralists to feast on. A novel is a pattern and it is our job to relish and see clearly its textures and its tones, to notice how the textures were woven and the tones put into place…. A novel is a set of strategies, closer to something in mathematics or quantum physics than something ethics or sociology. It is a release of certain energies and a dramatization of how these energies might be controlled, given shape.
Toibin isn’t writing about contemporary postmodernists or post-postmodernists who emphasize pattern; he’s writing about Henry James and Jane Austen. More specifically, he’s writing about how those two authors tend to remove mothers from their plots. The passage comes from Toibin’s forthcoming essay collection, New Ways to Kill Your Mother: Writers and Their Families. (The essay is also available at the London Review of Books website, albeit behind a paywall.)
Peter Murphy’s Blog of Revelations has an interview with Brooklyn author Colm Toibin, who delivers an admirable amount of straight talk about teaching Pride and Prejudice (“a three hour fuckin’ seminar”), his struggles as an Irish immigrant working with American writing students (“my job is to de-Ben-Marcus-ise this entire room!”), his lack of understanding of the find/replace tool in word processing programs, and more. I haven’t yet read Brooklyn (Claire Messud‘s review in the New York Review of Books, elitist lede and all, actually turned me off the book a little). But after finishing Colum McCann‘s somewhat disappointing Let the Great World Spin, in which the Twin Towers loom heavily over the story, I’m glad to see that reading Brooklyn wouldn’t mean processing two Meaningful Evocations of 9/11 from Irish-born authors in the same year:
You made a point of writing a novel set in New York without any slyly prophetic Twin Towers references.
“No 9/11 shite. No scene where she comes to that spot where the Twin Towers were going to be built and sees something for a second. I was acutely conscious of not going near that, not even a hint of it. I was going to tiptoe backwards from it right across the Brooklyn Bridge with my eyes shut. I think it’s probably the first book set in the region since 9/11 that hasn’t said something about it.”
Why the conscious avoidance?
“In those years after 9/11, everyone felt their task was to somehow make sense of this, dramatise it or deal with it. And it subsequently became an assault on the idea of the novel; that the novel somehow had to respond to 9/11, whereas I’m not sure quite what Moby Dick had to respond to. In other words, it was as though it was the novel’s job to do what the newspapers were failing to do. When I was growing up, no one told me what the novel was for, so I sort of resented that idea.”