2015 in Literature: After Nature, After Autofiction

“I don’t believe in nature,” a young Karl Ove says to a fellow teacher in Volume 4 of My Struggle, “It’s a cliché.”

“What do you write about then?” the teacher replies.

It’s a worthwhile, even imposing question. What do you write about when you no longer put stock in the idea — the narrative — that nature exists objectively and independently of our stories about it? It’s so overwhelming a question, in fact, that it will take Knausgaard many decades and no shortage of living to answer it — by struggling to compose his self over five volumes. When nature no longer exists beyond our construction of it, in other words, when it no longer has the weight and force of a thing that governs who and what we may become, the writer can find solace in doing that work himself. But the questions remains: what comes after the self?

2015 was a year in nonfiction and fiction — in narrative — when we expressed robustly our lack of faith in nature, when we accepted our role in shaping our own environments. It was likewise a year when we implored each other to understand that whatever comes next must be more than the mere self.

Last December, I wrote that the renewed vigor for fictions of the self was not only real, a living hypothesis, but also that it showed our exhaustion with the postmodern novel, that huge, quasi-Victorian construction wherein the self is drowned in cold, impersonal, entropic systems of noise and spectacle. My argument was simplistic: I wrote that a new crop of novels — Knausgaard’s My Struggle, Ben Lerner’s 10:04, Nell Zink’s künstlerroman The Wallcreeper — were reasserting the self as a living thing, one that the author had the right fashion and narrate, to save from drowning.

Part of this project, I wrote, was the idea, expressed most succinctly by Lerner, that fictions have “real effects,” that “our experience of the world changes depending on its arrangement into one narrative or another.” The novel — a sustained narrative of selves — could then become what Kenneth Burke called “equipment for living.” And, as a result, the difference between “real” and “false” fictions was no longer as important. Novels of self-narration now had the depth and weight of Middlemarch.

It now seems obvious to me that this is only half the story. It’s not merely that autofictional authors like Lerner and Knausgaard asserted their right to narrate their selves into existence, but also that existence, in the form of nature, is a human construction: a story we’ve been telling each other for centuries, a cliché, as the young Knausgaard puts it. And because we no longer believe in the story, it’s one that needs to change.

In the nonfiction of 2015, this idea is expressed forcefully across several important books on the subject of the Anthropocene. Although they differ radically in tone and prescription, the definition of the Anthropocene as an age of the Earth when human activity has demolished the idea of Nature obtains throughout. The clearest statement on this predicament comes from Jedediah Purdy’s After Nature: A Politics of the Anthropocene:

The Anthropocene finds its most radical expression in the acknowledgment that the familiar divide between people and their world is no longer useful or accurate. Because we shape everything, from the upper atmosphere to the deep seas, there is no more nature that stands apart from human beings…It makes no sense now to honor and preserve a nature that is defined by not being human, that is purest in wilderness, rain forests, and the ocean. Instead, in a world we can’t help shaping, the question is what we will shape.

Crucially, Purdy suggests — if I’m reading him correctly — that it isn’t enough for us to implore each other to change, we have to likewise change the very way we imagine ourselves in the world. In a phrase that has implications for fiction and nonfiction alike, he calls this new orientation environmental imagination, and, like Lerner, he makes it clear that our imagination has real effects. “It should be clear” Purdy writes, “that far from being frivolous make-believe, imagination is intensely practical.”

The idea, put forth by the title of Purdy’s book, is that we have to imagine a world after nature, a world where the very idea of nature is replaced by new narratives — new ways of being in the world — that we necessarily create. Over and again, this idea emerges in all the year’s books about the Anthropocene, from Roy Scranton’s Learning to Die in the Anthropocene to McKenzie Wark’s Molecular Red: Theory of the Anthropocene, from Dale Jamieson and Bonnie Nadzam’s Love in the Anthropocene to A. L. Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins.

In all of these works, the reimagination of a world without nature is put forth as an imperative, and in many of them — most notably in the work of Wark, Scranton, and Tsing — the end of nature is seen as a kind of wreck or ruin. At the conclusion of Wark’s book, he searches for a new slogan,

One which already possesses in imagination the means and the will to undo the workings of the Anthropocene. One with nothing for it but to build the new living world within the ruins of the old one. We all know this civilization can’t last. Let’s make another.

Part of this idea, the year’s most incisive works of criticism make clear, is that we must start being honest about what the work of imagination can reasonably accomplish. If we’ve managed to wreck the world, we can only build new narratives of possibility out of what is left of the old one; narrative art cannot just do whatever it pleases. In Hal Foster’s incisive Bad New Days, the year’s most accomplished work of art criticism, the author argues that art today “is no match for image industries and information agencies, both corporate and governmental, that monitor and regulate the sensible with enormous power.” In Even, one of the year’s most celebrated new art journals, the opening editorial describes the shortcomings of our narratives about art:

Either we ask art to do things it cannot do, making fantastical claims about subverting authority or rewiring society, despite decades of evidence that art has no such power. Or else we fail to notice all the things art actually can do, and reduce it to the selfie backdrop of the day.

Much the same could be said of the opening salvo of Salvage, a polemical new journal of art and politics on the Left. Or of Tsing’s questioning of “the possibility of life in capitalist ruins.”

As a result, the autofictional project, inasmuch as it explores only the self in a world without nature, has come to be seen as somewhat frivolous, insufficiently thematic, and even decadent — as maybe a first step toward narrating a new world, but one that is not concerned overmuch with the lives of others and limited possibilities. Perhaps the most powerful critique of the autofictional novel came from Walter Benn Michael’s The Beauty of a Social Problem, one of the year’s best works of literary criticism. In his book, Michaels goes so far as to redescribe memoiristic fiction, beginning with Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be, by way of Margaret Thatcher’s politics of irresponsibility:

Think Margaret Thatcher: “There’s no such thing as society, only individuals and their families.” No literary theorist could better describe the fundamental commitment of the memoir, although a generationally updated version would probably add friends to family.

For my money, though, the best fiction of 2015 was already ahead of Michaels and Foster (and me). Though it acknowledged autofiction’s hat-tipping toward the construction of the self and the end of nature, it moved beyond that project in important ways, usually by measuring the scope and scale of the wreck we’ve made of the world, and then by suggesting resourceful ways of moving forward. The best fiction of 2015, to put it in another way, was formally and thematically honest about what narrative can do.

In a year when the most important throwback book was Against Nature (note the title), J.K. Huysman’s hilarious novel about decadence in the age of literary naturalism, one of the best (and funniest) steps forward was the similarly titled Against the Country by Ben Metcalf, a novel that pushed with and against autofiction by becoming a hyper-eloquent rant about the basic trashiness of rural American life. Similarly, Elisa Albert’s After Birth repurposed autofictional tropes to attack the pieties of motherhood to tremendous effect. Both novels, I would argue, made autofiction thematic.

In perhaps the most celebrated autofictional novel of the year, Rachel Cusk showed that the self is not merely the assertion of the author, but a kind of elision, an Outline that is as much created by the narratives of others.

Joshua Cohen’s Book of Numbers, described by one critic as a merging of autofiction and hysterical realism, eviscerated the former by triple-layering his self in a cake of not one but three Joshua Cohens. He also attacked the foundation of memoiristic fiction by suggesting that our working memories are now deleted and resold to us by enormous tech companies.

Both Nell Zink’s Mislaid and Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, two of the year’s best satirical novels, waylay our obsessive quantification and measurement of identity by subjecting our self-narratives to absurd extremes.

In Alexandra Kleeman’s brilliant debut, You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine, the selves are abstracted into letters: A, B, and C. And the author makes it transparent that our own material consumption — what we buy and eat, for example — is as formative as any other input in late capitalism. Kleeman’s formal shallow depth, the way she places her novel somewhere between the nouveau roman and conventional realism, had the effect of making big, Victorian, TV-damaged gestures like Purity and City on Fire seem like extensions of capitalism rather than subversions of it. She retroactively made Jonathan Franzen an author of capitalist realism.

Finally, no author demonstrated the limits of our resources — both planetary and imaginative — more than Kim Stanley Robinson, whose enormous novel Aurora was one of the year’s best in any genre. In his novel, Robinson places multiple generations of humans on a ship bound for a new world, only to have them return to Earth when they discover this world cannot sustain them. The limited resources available to humans also puts restrictions on the novel’s narrative form. As was also the case with films like The Martian and Mad Max: Fury Road — both narratives about humans in resource-poor worlds — Robinson’s Aurora is a shaped like a boomerang.

Obviously this is just a quick-and-ready tour of fiction and nonfiction from 2015, one that leaves out other brilliant works, like Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, which examines love and gender by way of what its author calls “autotheory,” or Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, which not only redistributes our narratives of black bodies in a racist state but also stands ahead of Knausgaard’s own post-autofictional work of addressing his child with a letter.

None of the abovementioned works takes nature for granted, and none presupposes the free and limitless narration of the self. Instead they all point to new possibilities in a damaged world. Or, to quote Walter Benn Michaels, who put it best: “If what you want is a vision of the structures that produce both the policies we’ve got and the desire for alternatives to them, art is almost the only place you can find it.”

It turns out there is some hope to be had after the wreck.

This piece is part of Flavorwire’s series of essays on 2015 in culture. Click here to follow our end-of-year coverage.