by Richard Todd
What kind of a season has it been for novels? A season of silence for our certifiedly major writers. Gravity’s Rainbow has now been out long enough so that one’s guilt over those unread final two hundred pages begins to soften, takes its proportionate place next to similar feelings about Pamela and The Heart of Midlothian. This ought to be a good time to say something lofty about the state of American fiction. A long-standing critical principle: to judge the vitality of a cultural period, study its minor works, and minor works abound this spring. But I don’t know. Something–the diversity of the books, for one thing–argues against generalization. What follows are notes on some pleasurable, some interestingly irritating, some conceivably important novels that have recently appeared.
Free at last
The unnamed heroine of Lois Gould’s new novel. FINAL ANALYSIS (Random House, $5.95), is the sort of woman about whom a certain sort of man says: But why would you join a consciousness-raising group? She’s without a doubt the most interesting member of hers, since all the others have found monomoniacal crusades, such as promoting the sexual uses of ice cream scoops. Clearly a timely novel. It contemplates the lot of the liberated woman, in this case a happily divorced free-lance writer and sometime stalfer for Penchants magazine, who suffers a bit from the sexist society but more from what is called internalized oppression. Is a masochist. Hates cosmetics but can’t go out without them. Can’t be the sexual aggressor. Can’t stop telling her former psychiatrist she loves him, despite his rebuffs, despite the fact that the first time he sleeps with her she wants to ask for a refund of the $9450 she’s spent in fees. She talks these problems out in witty memos to the doctor (“Topic: Cunnilingus”) and in the end she’s learned a lesson about independence and self-esteem and the doctor has fallen in love with her. Amusing stuff, but pat and romantic: it glamorizes more than it satirizes the plight in question. Its ideal reader is a girl from a small mining town out West who’d love to suffer the way they do back East.
I remember buying a hard-cover copy of Bruce Jay Friedman’s first novel, Stern–an impulse purchase, made on the strength of the book’s first paragraph. Although its brittle style might seem in retrospect a bit facile, too easily imitable (Friedman went on to imitate it badly himself) something was there: a sense of the swallowed terror in an ordinary man’s ordinary life. Friedman’s new novel, ABOUT HARRY TOWNS (Knopf, $5.95), comes with the publisher’s promise that Friedman has returned to the “moving and serious” work with which he began his career. And so it seems, at times, in this account of the coming apart of a middle-aged screenwriter who is prosperous enough to support his estranged wife, a modest cocaine habit, an apartment that looks like an airport lounge, and affairs with abundant girls with “long straight fragrant hair.”
The narrative voice of this book sticks close to the consciousness of Harry Towns, who, though melancholy and self-judging, is not what you would call articulate, and the book depends on the irony of inadequate statement. On the occasion of Towns’s leaving his wife for the second time: “It was amazing how much taking all his slacks affected him. When he had taken only half his slacks, he was more or less comfortable, but now that he had them all, his stomach fell a little.” There are episodes in which this spare method works, particularly Towns’s pathetic effort to entertain his son while entertaining himself in Las Vegas; and his failure to do what he intends for his parents (“He was Captain Almost,”) who die within a few weeks of each other, or, as Towns puts it, “ back to back.” But in the end you’re asked to invest more in Towns’s agonies than he seems to do himself.
Cormac McCarthy’s CHILD OF GOD (Random House, $5.95) may be as remarkable for what it avoids as for what it achieves, but it’s remarkable all the same. The word necrophilia has real referents in the world; no reason why it couldn’t be a subject for fiction, and so it is in this tale of Lester Ballard, a hermit in the Tennessee hills who specializes in surprising lovers, murdering them, and making off with the female corpse. McCarthy’s accomplishment is not to account for this insanity–we learn almost nothing of Ballard’s past nor to enter for very long the demented mind. Instead he composes a scene, in which it is possible to place horror without being gratuitously grotesque or–a worse possibility–inadvertently comic. He writes a lean prose alive to the natural world, speech, and to the tenuous civilization that fails to contain Lester Ballard. And he continually suggests that the worst depravity is not inhuman, merely the far end of the continuum on which we live. A tour de force. But an arresting novel.
Sue Kaufman’s FALLING BODIES (Doubleday, $7.95) reminds you of how much a novelist’s work can have in common with a bricklayer’s: the awful distance between the stuff in the hands—bricks, mortar, dialogue, detail and the idea of the edifice. Miss Kaufman works hard to render upper-middle-class Manhattan life: lists and letters, private school scenes, mums at the playground, endless conversation in dialect from a Colombian maid. And she succeeds. By a third of the way through I’m there, but unsure why I’m there. Her gift is for comedy, with a special endowment for the description of pompous and somewhat deranged husbands (as in Diary of a Mad Housewife). The current one, Harold Sohier, is a successful failure in publishing–salary, title, but no literary clout–an aggressive lover, and a hysterical hypochondriac, keeper of a notebook on potential diseases, most of which can be contracted by eating at less than first-rate restaurants. But the novel wants to be something more: in the person of Emma Sohier there’s an effort to mix comedy with a chronicle of a genuinely “rough year” and heavy questions about her life. It comes to little, and as if she doubted the worth of the enterprise, the author pitches the book into farce at the end. Too bad; I was all set to care. This is a muddled book by a writer with a good eye but not much, it seems, in mind this time around.
Horse Badorties of William Kotzwinkle’s THE FAN MAN (Crown, $5.95; Avon, $2.45) moves from pad to pad (do we still use that word?– Horse Badorties does) on the Lower East Side, accumulating garbage–so much garbage that when he tries to make love to one of his “fifteenyear–old chicks” they can’t find a place to lie down. The garbage has a spiritual significance, works on the head of the janitor, for one thing. “He staggers, man. against the wall, thinking to himself, I‘ve seen it all now. He is instantly illuminated, man. It’s part of my work as avatar of social consciousness. Once you have tried to clean up a Horse Badorties pad, man, nothing ever troubles you again. You have had the Great Death, man.” What else about Horse Badorties? Has an interest in fans, all kinds, from the battery-operated model he sells to the giant machine in the basement of the Museum of Natural History. Is conductor of the Love Chorus, comprised of fifteen-year-old chicks. Deals in dope. Says “ man ” quite a bit. Extrapolating from a few pages. I’d guess the word “ man” appears maybe three thousand times? Some days Badorties only says the word “ dorky,” that being “dorky-day ” for Horse Badorties. What to make of this? Luckily, an enthusiastic exegesis has just arrived in the mail, William Kennedy in The New Republic. He says Badorties is a “saint of dreck and yecch, a holy man.” I’d gotten that, but had missed entirely the significance of the big fan in the museum, which sounds the “sacred note OM. ” It goes: “BRAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUMMMMMMMMMMMMMN N N N N N N.” And, Kennedy points out, “This is brahman as well as OM, or, as it is broken down, A-U-M, a trinity of syllables that embodies the creator, the preserver and the destroyer . . . the eternal, the temporal and the principle that mediates between them. . . He’s right, of course, and I feel like a fool for not having seen it. William Kotzwinkle has other celebrants, and is felt by many to be on a leading edge of American fiction. For my part, I think this book is so cute it could hug itself.
Uncertainty as a Principle
Geoffrey Wolff has written a perplexing novel in THE SIGHTSEER (Random House, $6.95), a meditation on the morality of the observer and the artist. Caleb Sharrow, roving film maker, lives off the proceeds of the tidy estate left by his father, whose death was the subject of Sharrow’s first successful documentary, Death Watch, The actual moment of dying had to be faked because the real thing was too comic: the old man sat bolt upright. Sharrow broods, muses, theorizes about the documentary approach to life. He is a devotee of the Uncertainty Principle, and explicates it at some length: it is impossible to know anything without altering what you know, but the movie man can use “Heisenberg’s principle to defeat uncertainty. He makes everything add up to an interesting sum.” Ah: art. This is Physics for Journalists, and fashionable stuff among those of us who are paid to watch our fellow men. The moral course of the book consists of Sharrow’s being taught the inadequacies of the principle. Part of the lesson comes from Sharrow’s twin brother, who (all too schematically) represents the humanitarian qualities Sharrow lacks, and part comes from an increasingly bizarre set of events.
Summary is unfair to the energy and intelligence and occasional humor at work in this book, which has some wonderfully inventive moments. But something goes awry. Wolff and his hero are trapped inside a first-person narration that can’t adequately accommodate moral education. He should have had Sharrow study, along with his Heisenberg, one of the lesser principles of twentieth-century thought: Yvor Winters’ Fallacy of Imitative Form, which this novel exemplifies. It’s a tale of narcissism narcissistically told.
Footnote. The dust jacket copy remarks that the novel’s hero demonstrates “a loving lack of pity.” On the back of the dust jacket James Baldwin is quoted on Wolff’s first novel, which he praises for its “loving lack of pity.” On page 49 of the novel itself there appears a review of Caleb Sharrow’s film, in which the imaginary reviewer praises his “ loving lack of pity.” Disregard all I said before. This novel is plainly about a loving lack of pity.
Puzzlement and Terror
Mercifully, John Hawkes’s writing has moved out of the clotted obscurity of his early novels toward a sort of clarity. Clarity of a sort: one doesn’t want to press the point too far. DEATH, SLEEP & THE TRAVELER (New Directions, $6.95) doesn’t have a graceless sentence in it, and it is full of luminous scenes, but I wouldn’t pretend to be wholly clear on its events, let alone their significance. Wouldn’t say for sure whether Allert, the Dutchman who is the book’s narrator, did or did not murder his lover Ariane when she was lost over the side of their cruise ship. (Allert says, “I am not guilty,” which is an ambiguous remark.) I am unsure whether Ariane presented herself to him with a goat’s skull covering her genitalia, or whether this was a fantasy. Is the island of imaginary goats itself imaginary? In reading this novel, you are well advised to heed the remark of Allert’s wife, Ursula, who asks, “How can you tell the difference between your life and your dreams?”
The forces of clarity and the forces of murk are the antagonists in the inner drama of Allert. He lusts after purity, sees with a painterly eye, drinks inordinate, symbolic amounts of cold, clean water. But his marriage to Ursula is a mire of ambiguous sensuality: “Uterine, ugly, odorous, earthen, vulval, convolvulaceous, saline, mutable, seductive–the words, the qualities kept issuing without cessation from the round and beautiful sound of her name. . . And he is obsessed with guilt and with mystery: “Sooner or later the young child discovers that he cannot account for himself. As soon as he becomes inexplicable he becomes unreal. Immediately everything else becomes unreal as one might expect. The rest is puzzlement. Or terror.”
A lovely quotation appends itself to John Hawkes’s public life now, from a review by Thomas McGuane of his last book in the New York Times Book Review. McGuane said that Hawkes is “feasibly, our best writer,” which means, I guess, we could make him our best writer if we tried. But no, I don’t think we can. At its best, Death, Sleep & The Traveler–stripped to a minimum of social detail, purposefully remote and ambiguous–is a gesture at essentiality, and its larger pomposities are lent an edge by sly wit. But a certain genuine pomposity remains, the arrogance of minimalism. Hawkes’s work seems to me too narrow, gamelike, self-protective to justify the formidable claims that are made for him.
Eleanor Bergstein’s first novel, ADVANCING PAUL NEWMAN (Viking, $7.95)–and what a swell title–might have been written to rebut those who argue that journalism has preempted for itself certain areas of experience that used to belong to fiction. This novel–though it ranges back and forth over about a decade in the lives of two young women– focuses on the McCarthy campaign, one of the most heavily “covered” events in recent memory. The book is rich in evocative social history, delivered in offhand sentences such as, “Ha never said ‘killed in Vietnam’–sounded like cheap sweaters with fuzz hanging off, lockets.”
Social history is used in a curious and beguiling way–though “used” isn’t the right word at all. Public experience is not background, but the medium of private life: although the novel doesn’t pretend to make a political statement, moment after moment in the emotional existence of its characters turns on the exact vibrations of a year, a month, a week in the history of the sixties, on skirt lengths and McCarthy’s “snowyhills” speech. You struggle toward a sense of the wholeness of the characters in this book; but that is what they are doing as well. What unites the two central figures, Ila and Kitsy, is mutual doubt of their own substance; they are in politics because that is where the authenticity is. Bright, emotionally acute, they have an eye for the absurdity of advancing Paul Newman’s trips to shopping center rallies, but to be there is to be momentarily ahead of manufactured reality.
The characters live brilliantly in stroboscopic flashes, but try to see them whole and they vanish before your eyes. Well, that’s “the point,” perhaps; but I wish the novel were able to transcend the problem it sets for itself, for I fear it too will evanesce sooner than it should. To read Advancing Paul Newman with perfect sympathy and understanding you ought to remember the look of the lipstick marks on the cover of Goodbye, Columbus, still feel frissons at the mention of the Janice Wylie murder—after all, didn’t you live just a couple of blocks away?—and be at least able to identify Sam and Curtis and Jessica in the McCarthy campaign. Read now, with the decade just slipping from one’s own imaginative grasp, it stirs continual feelings of recognition, of rightness. A reader twenty years hence may And it just as baffling as Finnegans Wake.
Reality is something of a taboo word in our culture, and “realistic” fiction is highly suspect. (At the start of these notes I promised not to subvert novels to a thesis, but a splinter of a generality works its way to the surface nonetheless.) We are highly conscious of multiple realities, mutable selves. Science, philosophy, pop culture, hallucinogens, Eastern religions, volatile politics, and the dominion of junk over the green world: all work in various ways to remind us that to speak of “reality” is to risk fatuity. So it’s important to say warily that 1 like the pluck of novelists who pass up epistemological riddling in favor of more traditional tasks. In my recent reading no one has done so with more adventuresome success than Eleanor Bergstein—has demonstrated, that is, that without sacrificing intelligence a novelist can still locate struggles for private reality in the place where they often occur, in the (let’s just use the phrase without undue embarrassment) real world.