Spike Jonze’s new film Adaptation is getting an awful lot of attention, including this breathless review by the NYT’s A.O. Scott. It goes beyond standard pomo self-referentiality to a world where author, subject, and fictional selves seem hopelessly jumbled.
This all sounds interesting, but it is hardly new territory. Few writers have explored this territory more expertly than my personal literary goddess, Joan Didion. She figures, to vertiginous effect, as a character in her 1984 novel Democracy. As I wrote in my 1995 senior essay,
Mary McCarthy reportedly spent many unsettled hours with Who’s Who trying in vain to discover whom Didion was really discussing. Responses like McCarthy’s were common. The American Spectator printed a scathing review, including this statement on Didion’s postmodern presence:
Democracy is, by the author’s admission, a failure. It got written when Didion detoured from the novel she intended to write about Inez’s family in Hawaii…. This is fair enough, but why an author who was in the past written with ethical brilliance about cutting one’s losses and burying one’s dead chooses to advertise her failure in this awful old-hat nouveau way is mysterious and sad. Didion even decorates the failure with her own supposed presence in her character’s lives…. There’s a sort of desperation to the device, and as this unholy marriage of author’s biography and the characters’ non-lives proceeds, the reader winces, and, finally, wearies.
A central narrative refrain of Democracy is “This is a hard book to write.” It is, however, an easy novel to read, as Didion’s gorgeous prose, brilliant eye for detail, and elegant plotting move the reader through a book that operates as both family drama and political thriller. She covers this ground again in 1997’s The Last Thing He Wanted, and appears as both narrator and friend of the protagonist. The effect is less shocking, because by the time of the novel’s late ’80s setting, this kind of boundary-crossing had become commonplace.
So a technique that was once groundbreaking in its mere conception can now dazzle only in scale and scope. Jonze’s easy postmodern mindbending (in Being John Malkovitch and now, apparently, in Adaptation) is satisfying not because it is new but because it is (among a certain audience) expected. French literary theorist Jean-Francois Lyotard (whose theories comport amazingly with Didion’s literary practice) put it this way:
If the painter and novelist do not want to be, in their turn, apologists for what exists (and minor ones at that), they must… question the rules of the art of painting and narration as learned and received from their predecessors…. An unprecedented split occurs in both painting and literature. Those who refuse to examine the rules of art will make careers in mass conformism, using “correct rules” to bring the endemic desire for reality into communication with objects and situations capable of satisfying it. Pornography is the use of photographs and film to this end. It becomes a general model for those pictoral and narrative arts that have not risen to the challenge of the mass media.
As for artists and writers who agree to question the rules of the plastic and narrative arts… they are destined to lack credibility in the eyes of devoted adherents of reality and identity, to find themselves without a guaranteed audience.
So in 1984, Didion was attacked for her active authorial presence in novel. By 2002, Jonze is lauded for making a movie about a screenwriter who can’t get himself out of his screenplay. I’m interested in seeing the movie, and I’m completely open to the prospect of enjoying it as much as I enjoyed Being John Malkovitch. But I won’t confuse his popularization for true pioneering, and I will wonder if his chief success is not as a pomo pornographer for the masses.