Scarcely anyone now turns to novels, as so many once did, for direct information about the world. We are more likely to consult memoirs, biographies, histories, interviews, surveys—assuming we go to books at all, and are not already amply briefed by newspapers and radio and film and television, overwhelmed by news, talk shows, phone-ins, gossip columns, and those in-depth investigations which remind us how far down the surface goes. We don’t expect novels to tell us the way we live now, in Trollope’s phrase: only the way we don’t live, or would like to live, or think we live.
There is something wrong with this reasonable proposition, but it’s not immediately obvious what it is. Certainly novels no longer do their old documentary job, although even when they did, in the works of Balzac, Dickens, and Zola, say, they dealt as much in fantasy as they did in realism—as if fantasy was a way of drawing out the real rather than its escapist opposite. Stendhal’s mirror on the road and the Naturalists’ slice of life were gestures toward the neutral observation the nineteenth century thought it wanted and could have. But the gestures were full of other possibilities, and the nineteenth century wanted other things as well. The mirror could be tilted, the slice taken at an angle. These were not biases but choices, and the choices were part of what was being said. Even Trollope’s famous title has its quiet irony, the hint of an awareness that any representative “we” is likely to contain quite a few satirical “theys.” The way we live now is the way some of us live now, or are supposed to live: a fraction posing as a whole, a mythology rather than a portrait. Remembering this lurking irony, we do still turn to novels, perhaps, not for the unadorned record, but not just for evasions or for revisions of history either. Novels give us a chance to worry or gloat over various pictures of contemporary living, and to wonder whether living is what this is.
I’m not suggesting that Trollope is a major influence on contemporary American fiction, but it is odd to see his name and his title recur, along with precisely the irony and the reservations they evoke. Cathleen Schine writes of a character who sees the “natural world,” in this case “the life of a yellow, smiling land iguana,” as unfolding “in all its Trollopian detail”: natural selection as novelistic riches. One of Jay McInerney’s narrators refers to Susan Sontag’s borrowing of Trollope’s title (“Coover’s ‘The Babysitter,’ for example, that’s your top-dollar story idea. Ditto Sontag’s The Way We Live Now“), and another knowingly wraps the phrase into his prose:
They live in a community called Live Oakes Manor, two-to-four-bedroom homes behind an eight-foot brick wall, with four tennis courts, a small clubhouse and a duck pond. This is the way we live now—on culs-de-sac …