Dark Laughter

by Sherwood Anderson. New York: Boni and Liveright. 1925. 12mo. viii+311 pp. $2.50.
THIS is a cleverly constructed book. Its present action, simple in form, relatively unimportant, takes place in the town of Old Harbor, Indiana. The young wife of the owner of a factory falls in love with one of her husband’s workmen, is to have a child by him, and finally runs away with him. Backward, sidewise, from this story lead off other stories — the story of the workman, of the young wife, of the husband. In these stories appear other persons, persons who have no part in the principal story — the deserted wife of the lover, his friend, the friends of the wife. These incidental stories are attached to the main story by the mechanism of reminiscence: the lover at his work in the factory, his mind drifting back over his life; the young wife at the wheel of her car, her thoughts moving among her memories.
The book, that is to say, is an attempt to subject the technique of Ulysses to the conventional selective process; to write in and from the minds of the characters, but at the same time to control the wandering, the straying of their thoughts in the interest of the development of plot. From the purely constructional point of view the attempt succeeds. The story is beautifully put together, and its perspective and proportions are just. The difficulty is that Mr. Anderson has not mastered the technique of Ulysses. The book Ulysses has no separate life from the life of Bloom, of Stephen, of Molly, until one sees it at a distance. In Dark Laughter, on the other hand, all these rememberings and speculations of the characters take place in the mind of Mr. Anderson. It is Mr. Anderson thinking about their thoughts — it is Mr. Anderson thinking; it is Mr. Anderson writing. Bruce Dudley, the poet, does not think and feel, verbally at least, like a poet, but like Mr. Anderson writing of a poet — a very different matter.
For Air. Anderson’s writing is a special and peculiar thing. With it he has produced amazing effects. The wordless, nameless duel of the husband and the lover walking, one and then the other, up the hill, is a beautiful piece of work. But in total effect it fails. And it fails where it seems strongest. These repeated, unclosed participial sentences, these groups of signpost nouns, these consciously awkward gestures of incornpleted phrase, which begin by giving an impression of sincerity, of absolute integrity, of strength, end by creating an irritating suspicion of futility, of impotence. And the strong, clumsy, naïve soul struggling with the difficulties of utterance becomes a neurotic victim of overcivilization, incapable of saying what he has to say, incapable of the living verb.
It is a tribute to Mr. Anderson s skill as a composer of incident, and an evidence of the power of feeling back of his work, that he has been able to drag his story head and shoulders up through the inadequacy of his method and the feebleness of his style. In spite of himself, in spite of his generation’s self-conscious preoccupation with America, with being American, with seeming American, in spite, perhaps, of his own purposes and desires, Air. Anderson has succeeded in creating within the bounds of the contemporary journalistic novel a fixed, a balanced form, Whether one likes it or not, at least it stands there. And how few beside!