“A Masterpiece from the Muck”

Rafael Chirbes, 2007

Rafael Chirbes, 2007

The last sentence of the New York Review of Books essay, “A Masterpiece from the Muck,” by Norman Rush, which reviews On the Edge by Rafael Chirbes, has haunted me. Here are some excerpts:

Poverty in the West is suddenly, inescapably, around. It’s turning up as a deep problem here and there, even in electoral politics, and, clearly, dealing with poverty by the practice of ignoring it is reaching the limits of its usefulness. People at all levels are forced to deal with poverty in one way or another:…

On the Edge consists essentially of an unending soliloquy, a special case of the standard modernist stream-of-consciousness form….

There is also a moral landscape through which Esteban must make his way. It fascinates and repels the reader. Esteban seems not to be agitated by the morally sordid characteristics of his pals and his family…. The cash nexus dominates to the very end. … The moral substrate of the narrative is rotten overall.

The seemingly universal Hobbesian philosophy prevalent among the characters recurs in Esteban’s world: …

…a book written with art and force need not depend on pleasing subjects. In fact, the tension underlying art and often unhappy narratives can provide a confoundingly elevating aesthetic experience….

I think it must be that the thematic conjunction of the topical and the damnably eternal is especially potent today. We don’t entirely comprehend 2008. Has there been a change in the way the neoliberal dispensation works? We are still measuring the consequences of that debacle, still trying to judge whether it’s over. Since 2008 the world has gone unsteady, and not only in the economic sense. Some academically respectable but apocalyptic readings of the crisis are in circulation. One is Wolfgang Streeck’s “How Will Capitalism End?” (New Left Review, May–June 2014). Streeck sees a destructive convergence of three fixed trends in late capitalism: a declining rate of economic growth, soaring overall indebtedness, and rising economic inequality in both income and wealth. His work interlocks with recent dark conclusions by Robert J. Gordon, Thomas Piketty, and Wendy Brown, among others.

With all its Valencian particularities, On the Edge resonates in a paradoxically bracing (because it’s clear-eyed), apposite way with today’s uncertainties and moods. On the Edge may work as powerfully as it does precisely because it is not a protest novel in the tradition of Zola’s Germinal, Sinclair’s The Jungle, Steinbeck’s In Dubious Battle, or Hugo’s Les Misérables. There’s not a shred of hope here, or any emerging social force to which to appeal, and that feels about right.

That conclusion has stuck with me because it rang a bell. Times are bleak indeed. Not because of Trump and his like elsewhere, but because I fear the resistance will be ineffective.

Then again, Buddhists recommend avoiding hope. Maybe they are right.

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