Our Middle-Class Storytellers

MR. L. RUST HILLS, who has been a fiction editor for Esquire and other national magazines and is an enthusiastic supporter of many talented and relatively unknown young fiction writers, doesn’t believe that fiction is in decline today, that the novel as a form is dying or dead. In order to show that American fiction is good, as good as it ever was, and especially good at explaining ourselves to ourselves, he and Mrs. Hills have put together a very large and interesting anthology, How We Live: Contemporary Life in Contemporary Fiction (Macmillan, $12.50), drawn from stories and novels by fifty contemporary American writers — famous, near-famous, perhaps soon-to-be-famous.

How We Live is an interesting anthology because the editors know the kind of fiction that “scores,” that instantly makes its impression, that can be understood and felt by the intelligent reader who likes fiction, reads it in magazines, and has probably taken a college course in which the text was Brooks and Warren, Understanding Fiction. Nowadays there are far more “students” of fiction than there are mere readers of fiction; no short story by Katherine Anne Porter ever gets published in a college anthology without many interpretations by professional critics explaining every other passage in it. If fiction is in “decline,” the business of explaining fiction certainly isn’t. Mr. and Mrs. Hills have a great many comments to make, most of them trite and many of them misleading. The editorial plan of the book is ridiculous. “How We Live: Contemporary Life in Contemporary Fiction” should be plain enough, but the book is thematically organized, as freshman readers say, and this into an unwitting parody of a sociological symposium. Part One is “The Way We Live Now,” and is subdivided into fiction illustrating the way we live “alone,” the way we live “in families,” the way we live “in communities,” the way we live “at work.” Part Two, “Differentiations and Confusions,” illustrates this unpromising theme: “In Religion: Jewish Conflicts in Cultural Assimilation”; “In Race: The Invisible Negro”; “In Class: Minute Distinctions in the Middle.” Part Three is called “The Eye of Fiction,” and under that heading we get “Vision: In Some Overviews” and “Method: In Some Stratagems.”

It is nice that Mr. and Mrs. Hills are such unwearying advocates of American fiction writers today, and there are many brilliant pages in this book that indeed show just how many clever and gifted writers of fiction we have. As a collection, this is surely a useful book to have, and it shows very well what the “new,” post-1945 generation is up to. If we leave out Vladimir Nabokov and Isaac Bashevis Singer (they are special in every way), it is interesting to note that the oldest nativeborn writer in the group is John Cheever, who was born in 1912. This means that among the fifty writers represented, we have not only such leading names as Saul Bellow, John Updike, Norman Mailer, Bernard Malamud, Ralph Ellison, Philip Roth, J. F. Powers, Flannery O’Connor, John Barth, Peter Taylor, but also such up-and-coming people as Ivan Gold, Stanley Elkin, Grace Paley, Donald Barthelme, Richard Yates, Harold Brodkey, R. V. Cassill, and such relatively obscure but talented writers as Philip L. Greene, Roy Bongartz, Leo Skir, Hughes Rudd.

But in their zeal to “defend” contemporary American fiction by showing just how much it bears on “How We Live,” Mr. and Mrs. Hills have not merely overloaded their book with a lot of sociologese usually made unnecessary by the very vivid realistic fiction they have selected; they have selected only those pieces of fiction that do illustrate our current American condition, that they can comment on. One consequence is that there is much too much of Mr. and Mrs. Hills in the anthology. A second and more serious one is that while the anthology does, on the whole, fairly represent the realistic, “concerned,” topical quality of our fiction today, the reader, especially with the editors constantly telling him what everything “means,” suddenly asks himself, If the best fiction we have today can inspire in the editors only banalities about our social condition that everybody knows anyway, who needs fiction in order to learn what is constantly reported by his magazines, newspapers, college textbooks, and television set?

The odd thing about this anthology is that the editors, so full of the value of contemporary fiction, have themselves denied it by making comments whose real import is that fiction is not unique, that its message is all too paraphrasable and summarizable and moralizable. Henry James called fiction “the greatest possible art form,” and D. H. Lawrence said that the novelist had more power than other men. There is a wonderful story in this collection by Ivan Gold, “The Nickel Misery of George Washington Carver Brown,” that takes place at an army training camp in Georgia. A clownish young Negro recruit, native of the district, becomes everybody’s scapegoat; at the end he falls to his death when he becomes paralyzed with fear during a training exercise. The story is extraordinarily full, dense with the emotions of many people involved with and yet detached from the Negro’s “nickel misery.” The most striking thing is the intellectual exhilaration which Gold gets into all this teeming life; the story is harsh but not sad, and the harshness has a vigor to it that brings alive the mass life of the camp. The editors, however, see in this story “the moral purpose of good fiction: we are each responsible for what we know, and there is always more to learn about the way we live.” They have a marvelous story here by Flannery O’Connor, “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” about a young Southern “liberal” who is ashamed of his mother’s racism, and then to his astonishment sees her fall and die at his feet after she is brusquely shoved by a Negro woman who resents the white woman’s patronizing offer to give her little boy a penny. To this story the editors append this vapid moralizing: “The author is telling us that the modern intelligent Southerner, educated and supported by a struggle in the past, must . . . overcome his disgust and impatience with the past . . . must somehow take action to prevent the collision of converging rising forces, so that the Negro . . . will not be enraged at every intimation of the past. . . .”

In point of fact this is not what the story is “about”; it is about irrationality and violence, the switch of moral roles in the midst of racial conflict. The son who has been so exasperated with his mother’s “attitudes” now looks down on the mother dead at his feet, and for once in his life has no “attitudes,” is face to face with the terrifying depths of death and guilt that can open up at our feet right on a street corner. Flannery O’Connor was not a liberal, and nice liberal comments are not to be drawn out of her mouth, for she never made any. She was a pitiless, ironic, fatalistic recorder of the fact that some original sin survives in every morsel of experience, that real experience usually has some violence in it, that this violence can only be described, it cannot be diagnosed or cured like an ailment. It is because the enduring injustice behind human life must be relived in art in order to be made bearable that readers of “Everything That Rises Must Converge” can enjoy its pitilessness, its irony, its severity. No matter “how we live,” error, cruelty, and death are ultimately what we live, and this is why Flannery O’Connor and Ivan Gold (among others in the book) can only be distorted by the usual American effort to say “constructive” things in the face of terrible deeds.

Still, it cannot be denied that Mr. and Mrs. Hills have, on the whole, chosen fairly from the great mass of current American fiction; their book does represent much, not all, of what is going on. I miss Carson McCullers, but no doubt her early (and best) work is not the best illustration of “how we live.” Her imagination was too pure, or was it too morbid for sociology? I miss something from William Styron, but no doubt Mr. and Mrs. Hills felt that they had enough examples of how we live in the South (Newport News, Virginia, subdivision). I miss the crisp and distinct voice of Joyce Carol Oates, but who needs another voice when we already have so many young lady novelists to tell us how we live? I miss something from Nabokov’s Pale Fire, which is one of the great (and mysterious) novels of our day. It is, in fact, so difficult and hard to extract from that the editors have predictably chosen to reprint the great section from Lolita in which Humbert Humbert ruefully and hilariously describes the mad journeying up and down America with his nymphet — the motels, the gift shops, the national parks. Nabokov’s is a marvelously witty social commentary, and so is Thomas Berger’s on Rinehart as a real-estate salesman; so is Hughes Rudd’s on the “night folk” in a town where the people on the other side of town, in the “split ramblers,” are enduring nights of quiet desperation; so is John Cheever’s on Aunt Justina, who dropped dead in the living room but couldn’t be moved or buried because of the zoning laws; so is Stanley Elkin’s on the salesman who after being fired cashes in everything he has and hysterically, madly, tries to be really “free” for once. The deepest piece of writing in the book is Peter Taylor’s “Heads of Houses”; there is a sense of individual character here that is wonderfully patient and subtle. But most of the other selections are indeed fables of our society, parables of our condition, and this goes for Bellow on Herzog’s jealousy; Norman Mailer’s satire, “The Man Who Studied Yoga,” about middle-class Jews timidly looking at blue movies; John Updike’s creamy, luxuriously styled study of a family reunion in “The Family Meadow.”Loneliness, alienation, jealousy, moral pains all! Who can doubt that most American fiction is devoted to the moral pains of middle-class America, that it is just as domestic and realistic and unsparing as it was forty years ago in the pages of Sinclair Lewis, ninety years ago in the pages of William Dean Howells?

IN EUROPEAN fiction since the war the central subject, the presiding fact, has been death and the terror of nonbeing. That is why European writers have invented so many new forms, from Beckett’s meditations by characters in extremis to Robbe-Grillet’s laborious efforts to show that the whole field of human consciousness has been radically disturbed in our time. Nothingness is a specter to many European minds, and new forms have been called in to describe the European journey through hell. In Sartre and Camus, in Günter Grass and Uwe Johnson, one sees how naturally new forms and styles spring out of the realization that accustomed social forms, classes, and beliefs have disappeared. But in American fiction just now even the creative originality which Southerners and city Jews once brought to their experience of social dissolution has been swallowed up into the pervading middle-classness of American living and thinking and feeling.

Our subject now is not the terror of nonbeing, the “nausea” that Sartre so hauntingly described on the eve of the Second World War; it is the suburbs; relations with children, “minorities,” mistresses, employers; illness; the search for “identity”; loneliness; and divorce. The catastrophe in American fiction is still the breakdown of a marriage. Death, as in John Cheever’s “The Death of Justina,”can be an embarrassment, but is never terrible. How many stories in How We Live are about marriage versus loneliness, loneliness in marriage, loneliness after marriage; about husbands and wives not “relating” to each other or anybody else; about consciously odd characters who have opted out of their “society”; about odd fantasies that some dead movie star is still alive; about the “disillusionment” that comes with age; about the orneriness of people who promised better. In short, these stories are about the things we all are, the things we all live and know, the things we are always reading about in our magazines and questioning in ourselves. A story by Samuel Beckett or Günter Grass is likely to surprise even the people they live with, for there are depths of fantasy, hallucination, and imaginative bitterness in all these European writers who have survived the old Europe. But when you turn to a new story by John Updike in the New Yorker you know in advance pretty much what he is likely to write about.

So if we all share so many experiences and identities, if even the ideas that will go into our fiction arc already being used and reused by so many people, if there is no longer any romance to fiction, an imaginative world of one’s own, if we of the great American consensus are all in this together, where is the storyteller’s specialness, his distinction as an artist, to come from? In this great pool of middleclass information where so many millions of us happily splash together, where writers and readers are so often bound by the same attitudes, what can the American storyteller do to realize his dream of reconstituting life into an art singular to himself, of finding what Scott Fitzgerald called “the stamp that goes into my books so that people can read it blind like Braille”?

The answer is that the writer from the middle class, writing entirely for the middle class, must become a performer, for his most pressing professional need is to capture the reader, to keep him interested, to captivate him by some fresh impression of the shared experience. The editors of How We Live fondly believe that the world we now inhabit has become so senseless that the contemporary novelist is compelled to invent a difficult new fiction, full of strange symbols and daring stylistic flights that they, the editors, need to explain to the innocent reader. But the age of “modernism” is now quite behind us. In actual fact the creative problem of the American novelist today is how to avoid banality. There are so many novelists working the same “area,” with the same ideas, and these writers are so conscious of the publishers and readers who usually have the same ideas, that hardly any writers can now lose themselves in a singular imaginative world, as Kafka did — a world that is as remote from ordinary experience as theoretical physics, and is to be understood through a system of symbols. There is a brisk expectable lucidity to even the most “eccentric” stories in How We Live, by Donald Barthelme and Terry Southern. These writers are mischievous and tricky, real devils — except that they are not, for they always have their eyes on us. Barthelme is a sharp critic of our culture, and Southern is a harmless parodist of it; but even Barthelme gets so cute, caught up in his act of resisting and eluding what is expected of him, that one stays the course for the wit of the performance rather than for the interest of the story. He is working on us all the time. There seem to be no private worlds left to the middleclass imagination. Everything can be understood, everything has to be shared, anything must be “sold” to the possibly indifferent reader. This is why our storytellers now depend so much on “style,” on a continuous wit of mind, on manner. Above all, they have to be charming.

WHAT I am describing is of course magazine fiction, especially magazine fiction in the New Yorker, and especially the fiction of such virtuosi of style, manner, and gesture as Salinger, Cheever, Updike. Anything these talented men try out is extraordinarily well written, composed and recomposed with that sophisticated beguilement of the reader that is so much the art behind their work. Where would we be in this fiction without all this conscious charm? The New Yorker has been the principal stage and model of so much American fiction in our time because in New Yorker fiction there is rarely any action. This is the plight of the middle-class imagination: always to feel oneself a spectator, a conscience, a memory only; to inhabit a world that is only the reflection of one’s conscience and memory; that is so full of yearning, guilt, angst, and literature, of “the death of God,” the “imagination of disaster,” vicarious reflections on Auschwitz, Hiroshima, Mississippi, South Africa, Harlem. The people in these stories initiate nothing and change nothing. “The trouble with him,” Nathanael West said of a character, “the trouble with all of us, is that we have no outer world, only an inner world, and that by necessity.” The “outer world” seems to be furiously asserting itself all around us, but in fiction it exists only if it is a force that calls force out of us, that exists to change us and to be changed. This does not significantly happen in our middle-class fiction; as in the French bourgeois world we have all laughed at in reading Stendhal and Flaubert, adultery is still the only precipitant of action. Sex is important in our fiction because this seems to be the only new frontier open to many middle-class marrieds (the terms are virtually synonymous). But in our age of copious and instant and simultaneously concerted information about everything relating to the human body, even all ideas of love suffer from implied banality. So what we mock is not the culture that has robbed us of the enthusiasm of love, but ourselves for thinking ourselves a little bit different.

In one of John Cheever’s most famous stories, “The Country Husband,” the husband is like all other suburban husbands. That is the situation Cheever always starts from — except that this one is in a plane that suddenly makes a crash landing in a pasture. The adventure is not of the slightest interest to his family when he gets home, so he falls in love with the baby-sitter. The story begins brilliantly in the plane — “They flew into a white cloud of such density that it reflected the exhaust fires.” This is the kind of detail that is not an unwitting fact of the age; in Madame Bovary ladies put their gloves into their wineglasses in order to show that they do not wish wine, and this Flaubert noted without ever thinking that a later generation would not automatically understand his reference. Cheever’s sentence is really a form of “style,” of establishing his mastery over his material. And in fact there is no mastery in Cheever’s story except his own. The husband has no great intimacy with his family, he does not get very far with the baby-sitter, and so he goes to an analyst who recommends woodworking as therapy. The story derisively ends on the brainwashed husband who will no longer fall in love. Yet who cares about this fellow? He is the interchangeable suburban nobody. It is Cheever one cares about, Cheever who moves us; he moves us literally by the force of his effort in every line, by the significance he gives to every inflection, and finally by the moral that the consciousness that comes with maturity is cruelly lucid, far from the dopey illusions of possibility we may entertain after surviving a crash landing.

Oh, the sadness of so much inactive thought! Oh, the ruefulness of seeing our lives so clearly! One needn’t be a writer for the New Yorker, carefully steering one’s little bark of art between those shores lined with gorgeous advertisements for furs, cars, perfumes, and whiskey, to feel this sadness. Hughes Rudd, who is not a New Yorker writer but a markedly independent fiction writer who happens to be making his living as a television correspondent abroad, has an aggressively well written piece in How We Live, “Nightwatch at Vernal Equinox,” which is really not a story at all but a passionate social description comparing the outsiders, homosexuals, drifters in a little night café with the housewives moodily lonely in their “split ramblers.” The story begins on the sound from a jukebox. '‘The hidden record spinning in the bloated, winking jukebox blasts the walls of the bus station café, walls and ceiling shiny with old white enamel and the congealed grease given off by a million hamburgers; the sound bursts along the counters and booms and rattles in the glass cases of dead pie slices, crusted cake segments and soggy, oily sweet rolls.” This is arousingly well-written. Mr. Rudd then moves on to say that listless waitresses are standing in this jukebox roar, that the counter top is formica, the ketchup and mustard bottles are polyethylene, the jukebox is a geological age of laminated, scrolled, and twisted plastics, the menus are slick in envelopes of heavy cellophane, and that the counter bears islands of stiffened pliofilm turrets, scratched and blurred, squatting guard over more pie slices and cake hunks. Much skill [in observation, much savvy and patient endurance have gone into this description of America’s horrid plastics. The weightless shallow pervading cheapness of all this plastic is a symbol of the civilization in which the burly man sitting at the counter is suddenly shown wearing lipstick, in which the husband in the split rambler keeps vermouth in atomizers and makes martinis with battery-operated mixing rods, in which the wife feels that life “was being lived elsewhere, but not here in her city.” But in point of fact nothing happens in this story except that Mr. Rudd is brilliantly writing it.

“It is because so much happens,” a man thinks to himself in Faulkner’s Light in August. “Too much happens.” Too much is always happening to us and around us, which is why literature serves to clear our minds. Probably never in human history have so many people had such sense of “too much” happening as we in America have right now. Why, then, has the exciting sense of possibility with which so many of us live had the distinct effect of morally depressing our fiction writers? Why, in this “half-finished civilization,” as Cheever calls it, “in this most prosperous, equitable and accomplished world, should everyone seem to be so disappointed?” It is because, in a world where things once difficult have become too easy, our moral attitudes have also become too easy. Literature has become too easy to make.