The Fate of the Epistolary Novel

When is the last time you received an honest letter? We’re not talking about a greeting card from the drugstore racks or the family photos everyone sends once a year with a Xeroxed chain letter describing how junior is in medical school and Sally is back from psychiatric rehab but doing just fine, thanks to the meds. Those are more annoyances than welcome distractions.

We’re talking the bare-your-soul, spill-your-guts letter where you leave it all on the page and then check the mail for weeks for a response. The Internet may have made it easier to remain in contact — and it’s allowing me to write this column and distribute it worldwide — but at the same time it’s taken away from the artistry of letter-writing and the sheer feeling of excitement of getting something handwritten in the mail. An email arrives on your computer with a whimper, often unbidden. Letters arrive with a sense of expectation and work all the senses: you can often smell traces of the writer; note their mental state by studying their handwriting and feel the pages crinkle in your hands. Twenty years later, I can still remember the anticipation of receiving long letters from a summer girlfriend who lived outside Cleveland.

It’s no surprise, then, that there is a dearth of epistolary novels written in recent years. Younger novelists have instead crafted narratives out of e-mails or blog entries — God help us if they write a novel based on tweets. It’s no surprise either, that late-life novelist Sam Savage’s epistolary novel The Cry of the Sloth (Coffee House Press, September) is set during the Nixon era. Savage’s protagonist Andrew Whittaker is precisely the kind of crank who lived for letter writing and the kind of creature we may never see again as Blackberries become fused to bodies. Estranged from his neighbors and far short of anticipated literary glory, he writes letter after letter exposing himself and his failings to friends and complete strangers. It’s a riveting read.

Whittaker is in a tough spot. He’s the editor of a literary journal that’s produced a few well-known writers but has fallen on hard times. His wife has left him but that doesn’t stop him from writing her, even if she sends back a photo of herself with another man. He writes letters to the tenants of his ramshackle apartment complex who dare to complain about broken fixtures. He writes letters to famous novelists soliciting their appearances at a literary festival that we know will never take place. He begins an ill-advised flirtatious relationship with an obviously underage girl who sends bad poetry.

Expanding a tad on the epistolary tradition, Savage’s novel also includes Whittaker’s grocery lists, snippets of his bad novel in progress and newspaper ads for his rental property. The book encompasses his heartfelt longings, his unachieved goals and the pedantic errata of his daily existence. Could such a character be etched through a collection of emails or blogs? It’s certainly possible, but something inside me feels our culture is so self-referential and ironic that such honest and even embarrassing exchanges would never place.

Andrew Whittaker isn’t a Dostoyevskian madman out of Notes From the Underground and he’s not a character you hate. Instead, he’s a frustrated middle-aged dreamer who sees his life crumbling and feels powerless. In many ways, he’s someone we can empathize with — someone whose tenuous hold on their dreams finds form in letters. He’s the odd neighbor in his bathrobe with a stack of bills and newspapers and a cold cup of coffee.

The novel ends with Whittaker in a tough spot, which is appropriate. The entire tradition of the epistolary novel is being upended. Every English major had to slog through Henry Fielding’s Shamela. My parents had two copies of the C.S. Lewis classic The Screwtape Letters on the shelf. Optimists would argue that the epistolary novel is just changing from letters and diaries and replicating modern communication. That explanation seems a bit lacking. When is the last time you were able to stick an email in a special box like an heirloom? Aren’t blogs like this just read, linked to and distributed and then forgotten when fresh content is available? Part of what made the epistolary novel so special — and why The Cry of the Sloth is such a treat — is because both celebrate the physical and sensual experience of writing and language, something that can never be replicated in a digital format.

Savage also wrote Firmin: Adventures of Metropolitan Lowlife. Is his second novel an elegy for the epistolary novel as we know it?