'Voice' on Literature

Reviews of the last 50 years


November 28, 1956: Threepenny Novel
September 18, 1957: On the Road
September 3, 1958: Lolita
November 16, 1961: The Death and Life of Great American Cities
December 7, 1961: The Phantom Tollbooth
March 8, 1962: Franny and Zooey
May 10, 1962: Seduction of the Minotaur
May 24, 1962: Portrait of Hemingway
September 6, 1962: E.E. Cummings, 1894-1962
October 8, 1964: Herzog
December 14, 1967: The Confessions of Nat Turner
January 28, 1980: The Gasoline Wars
VLS, February 1986: Rednecks, Belles, and K Mart Gals: Southern Women Stake Their Claim
VLS, November 1988: The Lost Generator
VLS, August 1989: Technomancer
VLS, October 1991: Harlot's Ghost
VLS, June 1994: Regarding Jane: the Passion of the Other Bowles


November 28, 1956

Threepenny Novel
By Bertolt Brecht
Grove Press, $1.75

by Howard Fertig

I suppose there is no more perplexing sort of book than the brilliant bore. It is like the superb joke which has had its laugh, then been prolonged in desperate reiteration by the greedy humorist who can now only be repaid by the fixed smile and the hurried goodnight. Still, it was a good joke—that first time. Only afterward, by that delicate chemistry of aesthetics when too much of a good thing becomes too little, did it die.

So it is in a certain way with "Threepenny Novel," where a viewpoint, an outlook, a position, takes us a certain distance, then somehow wanders on ahead by itself while we have stopped along the way to count the pages still unread, trying to calculate when the joke will end—but, as noted, it already has. [return to top]


September 18, 1957 On the Road [links to full text version]
A novel by Jack Kerouac
Viking Press, $3.95

by Arthur Oesterreicher

As you have no doubt already gathered by now, the public emergence of Jack Kerouac from the hipsters' underground into American literature is upon us, and is going to be THE big thing for quite a while. (Another of his books is being published by Grove Press later this season. The author of "On the Road" was on "Nightbeat" last week (looking and sounding remarkably like the late James Dean, incidentally), people are already leafing curiously through it in bookstores, toting it around the Village, hugging it under their arm as they ride the subway to work. I understand that, despite the complete and incomprehensible lack of publisher's advertising so far, the first printing sold out a week after publication . . . read more. [return to top]


September 3, 1958 Lolita [links to full text version]
A novel by Vladimir Nabokov
Putnam, $5

By Jerry Tallmer

All writing begins somewhere on a scale streching from Farthest Inside to Farthest Outside. Vladimir Nabokov's widely heralded "Lolita" is the outsidest, most artificial book I've read in years. To its admirers, that may be its spendor. I want something else in novels . . . read more. [return to top]


November 16, 1961

The Death and Life of Great American Cities
By Jane Jacobs
Random House, $5.95

by I. D. Robbins

It is just possible that the dispute over the West Village redevelopment study may influence all attempts at city-planning everywhere. Behind the demonstrations in our own backyard there is theory and leadership. Providing this theory and leadership is Mrs. Jane Jacobs, a resident of Hudson Street, who has just written "The Death and Life of Great American Cities."

People know Jane Jacobs only as the Barbara Fritchie of the West Village will be surprised to find out how thoughtful and thought-provoking she can be.

For good or evil, this book will be both the cause and the weapon of countless battles over city plans and programs. Mrs. Jacobs will, I predict, be an important name in planning theory, not only because she leads a movement with fanatical followers, but because she has spelled out new theories about city-planning. She is no bucolic mystic. She believes in cities and has a clear idea of their dynamics.

Errors and Ideas
One must take great care not to disagree with Mrs. Jacobs' ideas simply because one disagrees with her methods. I think Mrs. Jacobs makes fundamental errors, but even so there are many valuable ideas in her book.

In general, and I hope I do not offend by oversimplification, Mrs. Jacobs takes issue with Ebenezer Howard, Clarence Stein, Catherine Bauer, and others who have sought to change the city into something more nearly approximating the suburbs. She makes the point, quite well, I think, that LeCorbusier's Towers in a Park idea was derived from Howard's Garden City scheme, modified to make high densities possible. She also takes issue with the City-Beautiful idea, which she says leads to the construction of islands that repel instead of oases that attract. Villagers will recognize the true Jane Jacobs when they note how roughly she treats those experts with whom she disagrees.

In place of the present popular planning concepts, Mrs. Jacobs offers the idea that a city is sound if it works. She says, in effect: "Here is a community—diverse, mixed-up, even ugly to some, but people are happy here." This, she says, is a sound urban pattern. Let us not interfere with it. Let us in fact try to duplicate it elsewhere. [return to top]


December 7, 1961

The Phantom Tollbooth
By Norton Juster, illustrated by Jules Feiffer
Epstein & Carroll, $3.95

by Jane Jacobs

The message of "The Phantom Tollbooth" is that the world is full of marvels, and the book proves its message in the most direct way possible: by being a marvel itself.

Norton Juster, working the ancient tradition of allegorical adventure, has stayed perfectly true that that [sic]tradition's moral and didactic purposes. But he has done so without the usual belaboring of the obvious. His tale of a boy's adventure in The Doldrums, the Kingdom of Wisdom, and the Mountains of Ignorance dances with wit, invention, and the unexpected—including such characters as Officer Shrift, a short man in more ways than one; Faintly Macabre, who is a Which; the Sense Taker; and .58 of a child from an average family, whose solace is that nobody in the family but him can drive .3 of an automobile. About the time that one has decided the pun is a most admirable, illuminating, and economical form for imparting meaning, Mr. Juster slyly introduces the Wordsnatcher, a very dirty bird who demonstrates how suffocating puns can be. [return to top]


March 8, 1962

Franny and Zooey
By J. D. Salinger
Little, Brown, $4.

by Eliot Fremont-Smith

J. D. Salinger is unique among contemporary authors. Relative to his tiny output (one novel and two volumes of 11 short stories in 10 years), the attention he has received easily eclipses that given any other writer. College students across the land wean themselves on "The Catcher in the Rye" (as preparation for "The Naked Lunch," one cynic suggested), and by latest estimate some 300 colleges have been badgered into adopting it as assigned reading. In sales, "Catcher" is rounding the 2-million mark; "Franny and Zooey" has led the best-seller lists since its publication last September, and shows no signs of stepping down.

"Franny and Zooey"—for those who have been vacationing at Cape Canaveral—consists of two loosely related stories, published in the New Yorker in 1955 and 1957, concerning the moral crisis of Franny Glass. They are part of a continuing series about the Glass family which also includes "A Perfect Day for Bananafish" (1948), "Raise High the Roofbeams, Carpenters" (1955), and "Seymour: An Introduction" (1959).

Indomitable Talker
The senior Glasses are a Jewish-Irish ex-vaudeville couple who maintain a bustling middle-class apartment in the 70's. Les, the father, has more or less retired from the scene; Bessie, an indomitable talker, worrier, and chicken-broth-hawker, wanders around in her kimono doing her not ineffectual best to find out what is happening to her gifted, neurotic offspring.

These number seven. The eldest, favorite, and continuing spiritual mentor for the whole family was, or is, Seymour, who committed suicide on his honeymoon in 1948 ("Bananafish"). Next is Buddy, a "writer-in-residence" at an upper New York State girls' school, and of whom more anon. Then come Boo-Boo (married and a mother) and the twins, Walt and Walker (the former killed in a freak accident while on occupation duty in Japan, the latter a Roman Catholic Priest).

Zooey, the next-to-youngest, "surpassingly handsome, even spectacularly so," is a successful television actor and the only one of the seven who still lives at home. Franny, the youngest, is in college and seems also destined for an acting career. This, by the way, comes naturally, not merely from parental vaudeville background, but also from the startling circumstance that all seven children starred, at one time or another, on a quiz-kid radio program saccarinely called "It's a Wise Child."

In the first story, Franny arrives for a football week-end at her boy friend's college (Yale, Princeton, or Dartmouth, depending on which sleuth you read). Over an ostentatiously French luncheon, the boy boasts, absurdly and pedantically, of a paper he has written on Flaubert ("I mean, to put it crudely," he says, " the thing you could say he lacks is testicularity. Know what I mean?") Franny's dismay at this—and her exhaustion from trying to phase in "the Jesus Prayer" with her heartbeat, as prescribed in a book she carries with her called "The Way of the Pilgrim" —results in her physical collapse in the ladies' room.

More Ambitious
The second story, "Zooey," is far more ambitious (and was also, in 1957, the longest story the New Yorker had ever published). It is Mr. Salinger's conceit that the story is written by Buddy Glass, who calls it "a sort of home movie." Here we find Franny insomniac on a couch in the Glass apartment (which is in the process of being painted), refusing Bessie's broth, and obviously well into a nervous breakdown. Meanwhile, in the bathroom, Zooey is reclining in a hot tub and re-reading an ancient letter from Buddy (which author Buddy quotes in its entirety). Bessie enters, Zooey draws the shower curtain, and there ensues a long and marvelous conversation, the gist of which is that Bessie is very worried about Franny and wants somebody to dosomething, and that Zooey is suffering from a more generalized angst, which is of course the privilege of youth. We also learn the contents of Bessie's kimono (among other things, a hammer) and of the medicine cabinet, and—not so incidentally—how attractive (and attracted) mother and son are.

Thence to the living room where, after much talk about phonies, St. Francis, and Jesus—and a full description of the Glass decor—Zooey, lying on the floor, tells Franny, still recumbent on the couch, in effect, to get up. Failing to arouse Franny to more than tears, Zooey repairs himself to Seymour and Buddy's old room, where a telephone is necromantically kept in Seymour's name. He reads from an anthology of philosophical sayings Seymour and Buddy had copied out for the edification of their younger brothers and sisters (a generous sampling, including Epictetus, Kafka, Mu-Mon-Kwan, and Ring Lardner, is supplied). Then, all sweaty, but armed with a cigar and a handkerchief on his head, Zooey picks up Seymour's receiver, dials the Glass family number, and asks for Franny.

When Franny comes to the phone, Zooey pretends he is Buddy. Franny eventually sees through the hoax, but she feels something important is about to happen. Zooey then tells her, in effect, that she isn't the only one who has problems and to get with it—which proves to be the most instantly successful therapy on record. All her tension suddenly lifted, Franny goes to sleep.

It is a measure of the power of these stories that we do not go to sleep. Indeed, one is left startlingly awake; even the lists of things in pockets and medicine cabinets have not lulled. Salinger's remarkable ear for dialogue and his even more remarkable ability to transmit a sense of presence have often been noted: the stories seem, urgently, to be happening right now, and almost inside of us. Critics have also pointed out (and none more gracefully than John Updike) some of the deficiencies of "Franny and Zooey" —the self-effacing and embarassing coyness, the name-dropping, the adoration of certain characters and abhorrence of others, even the crust it supposedly took to publish such a slender volume. One, Harvey Swados, has suggested that Salinger's fame derives from his willful physical isolation; Swados calls him "the Greta Garbo of American letters." But pro or con, few have found the Glass saga less than fascinating.

One of the fascinations of "Franny and Zooey" —and I submit that it is also at the core of the book's artistic failure—is the inseparableness of the author from his work, the deliberate confusion of who is who, and who is real. It is not only Salinger's conceit that Buddy Glass directed the "home movie," "Zooey," but that Salinger, himself, is a myth. Sitting in his concrete bunker in Cornish, New Hampshire, Salinger writes on the jacket of "Franny and Zooey" that he lives in Westport with his dog—a joke that insiders like the Glasses can snicker over. Thus the jacket copy becomes part of the saga—and the worth of the saga becomes partly determined by one's apparaisal of the joke.

Clues Withheld
There is nothing in Salinger that isn't circular. In "Seymour: An Introduction," Buddy Glass, its "author,' disowns not only "A Perfect Day for Bananafish" (which was officially by "J. D. Salinger") "as having been written on an old defective typewriter," but "Teddy" as well—a story once presumed outside the Glass canon. In some future story Buddy Glass may well disown the jacket copy of "Franny and Zooey" —or J. D. Salinger may well disown Buddy Glass and claim the whole thing is really by Holden Caufield or, perhaps, D. T. Suzuki. In a crucial sense, then, the Salinger-Glass epic is a detective story in which the necessary clues are deliberately withheld. They are not withheld, one feels, out of aesthetic necessity, but out of iresponsibility. It is as if the author wished to anticipate every judgment (as the Glasses, acknowledging all their possible faults, do); as last resort he can always say: "Salinger? Salinger who?" "There is a real-enough danger," Salinger writes on the jacket of "Franny and Zooey," "I suppose, that sooner or later I'll bog down, perhaps disappear entirely . . . ."

It is perhaps inevitable, then, that when we enter the world of the Glasses, we enter a fantastical world of self-absorption—at once incestuous and sweetly narcissistic, sentimental, cloying, above all, childish. It is the world of the self-indulgent who think they are exceptionally bright when they are only bright, and that their embarassment at being so only proves it—a world in which mannerism is mistaken for charm and problems of morale are rarified into problems of morality.

Everything with Indirection
It is a world, also, where nobody deals with anyone directly: when Franny is upset at her boy friend, she excuses herself from the table; Zooey's therapeutic message of love comes to Franny through a telphone [sic] (and while he is not only pretending to eb Buddy, but also calling her"Buddy,"); the painters, trampling through the apartment, remain as wraithlike as Seymour, the suicide and family saint.

Franny's problem is how to grow up. She is a nice girl, and one wishes her success. But as her problem is similar, in an artistic sense at least, to her creator's, I do not feel, like Dr. Salinger, very hopeful. [return to top]


May 10, 1962

Seduction of the Minotaur
A novel by Anais Nin
Alan Swallow, paperback, $1.65

By Adam Margoshes

This is the age in which the "minorities" who constitute the overwhelming majority of the earth's population are destined to come into their own, and, as usual, the first breakthrough is in the arts. The most numerous and most important "minority," of course, is that of women. For a long time there have been good woman writers, the Brontes and Jane Austen and George Eliot, but today women are writing AS WOMEN for the first time, in an idiom that expresses—and discovers—the feminine sensibility from within; something brand new, startling, and altogether wonderful to see. The two I immediately think of in this genre are Marguerite Duras and Anais Nin. In her latest book Miss Nin intensifies and purifies her style into an instrument of almost supernatural sensitivity; she has made herself into an antenna that receives messages on the most important but most inaudible wave lengths, until now undetected by the human ear, though continuously sent out by the human heart.

Deft Strokes
This book is "about" an American woman who takes a job as a jazz pianist in a Mexican town, away from her husband, because she has felt a widening rift between them. There is a constant and beautiful evocation of the Mexican landscape and the tropical spirit by the use of the most original and always accurate imagery. Characters of surprising solidity are built in a few deft strokes. And the entire mysterious, significant phenomenon of expatriation is explored in a profound yet never heavy way. But the real subject of the book is the soul of the heroine and, through her, the soul of woman today: a supremely important and difficult subject about which the author is remarkably revealing, quietly revolutionary.

I believe that one of the things happening today that affects our lives most and means most for the future is what is happening within women AFTER their emancipation. The noise has been about emancipation, but freedom is meaningless in itself; it is what is done with it that counts; and today it is women, American women I believe, who are doing the most with it—but mostly in silence. Anais Nin breaks that silence. [return to top]


May 24, 1962

The Bearish, Bullish Giant Knew the $10 Words

Portrait of Hemingway
by Lillian Ross
Simon & Schuster, $2.50

by Tom Stoppard

Late in 1949, Ernest Hemingway paused for a few days in New York en route from Havana to Italy. He was "not exactly overjoyed" to be in New York, a "phony town," but he was noticeably happy about finishing the manuscript of a new novel called "Across the River and Into the Trees," which was going to be a "better book than 'Farewell.' "

Lillian Ross, a New Yorker staff writer who had known Hemingway on and off for two years, rode out to meet him at the airport, rode with him and his wife to the Sherry-Netherlands where caviar, champagne, and The Kraut (Marlene Dietrich) were summond to help celebrate the new book; rode next day with him to Abercrombie and Fitch to buy a coat; rode the day after with him and his wife and his son Patrick to the Metropolitan Museum "to see the good Breughel, the one, no two, fine Goyas, and Mr. El Greco's El Toledo"; rode back to the hotel where Charles Scribner was waiting with a contract for the book—and in all this time observed, listened, noted, and finally selected and wrote it the way it was.

The result was published as a Profile in the New Yorker on May 13, 1950, and everybody said what a clever hatchet job Miss Ross had done on Mr. Hemingway, and Miss Ross was very surprised. [return to top]


September 6, 1962

E.E. Cummings, 1894-1962

Edward Estlin Cummings, the poet and painter who became famous for a beautiful celebration of life, died early Monday morning at the old New Hampshire farmouse that since childhood had been his summer home.

He was only 67 and had suffered a sudden stroke, but he had written about death in a love poem to his wife, Marion, more than four years ago:

never could anyone
who simply lives to die
dream that your valentine
makes me happier than i
but always everything
which only dies to grow
can guess and as for spring
she'll be the first to know

Cummings loved the New England country, but Greenwich Village was for a long time his proper home. He came here from Cambridge, Massachusetts, by way of Paris over thirty years ago, and most of his poems were written in a small brick house on Patchin Place.

Cummings was never a "Villager," though: he hated the thought of any sort of public image. During his last years especially, he rarely left the house on Patchin Place, and when he did it was to take a long, solitary walk or meet a poetry-reading engagement. This spring, to his horror, he made headlines in a hassle with the City authorities over an order to install additional plumbing on his second floor. As soon as it was over, he fled out of sight again for the last time.

Cummings' work began at college when his father, with the fathers of seven other classmates—among them S. Foster Damon and John Dos Passos—stood their sons to the publication of an anthology called "Eight Harvard Poets." Cummings said later that it was Damon who in fact introduced him to poetry when, by the accident of an alphabetical seating plan, the two met in Freshman English.

Cummings wrote steadily after that, and when he died he left twelve volumes of poetry, two "non-novels," six "non-lectures," three plays, plus an anthology of essays and unfinished prose works. And he painted, too, leaving behind the thousands of fresh, impressionistic paintings of which he was so proud.

Too many people will remember the poet as that mad, lowercase cummings and forget that, when all the intricacies of his style are said and done, Cummings remains, essentially, a poet of faith, writing as he once said, to give joy and wonder back to an atrophying world. His remarkable run-on style was always at the service of faith.

He was a man who had touched the sky and bounced back in wonder into all the sensuality and immediacy of the here and now. He interrupted his words with each other and cut his syntax across itself, but he did this not out of any pretense to intellectuality, which he suspected, but in an effort to capture the spontaneity of any living moment and to make that moment illimitable by being deeply, suddenly felt. He dropped his words down pages and manipulated his typography so that he might beat out, through this, the unique rhythm of experience that he wanted to share. He changed his verbs into nouns to give them substance and nouns into verbs to give them life. He lived, as he wrote, in a world of "yes"—

yes is a world
& in this world of
yes live
(skillfully curled)
all worlds

—and when he threw out the capital letters from his own name, he did this to make it a "yes" whenever he put them back again.... [return to top]


October 8, 1964

Heart's Love

Herzog
A novel by Saul Bellow
Viking Press, $5.75

by Bell Gale Chevigny

The name, Moses Herzog, has some punning purpose then: MOSES HERZog hands down the tablets of the law, but they are laws of the heart. The book is full of intellectual material, but the deepest truth it displays is the romantic one of the heart's reasons and the limitations of the mind. The scanty plot structure of the novel (the structure of the first two thirds is the structure of neurotic rehashing of past wrongs) bears this out.

There are two major moments in the plot which are intended to explain his recovery dramatically. The first occurs after his chance, time-killing visit to a courtroom, a brilliant scene in which he witnesses the hearing of a woman who murdered her child. His heart wrung, and unable "to obtain something for the murdered child," some savnig understanding, Herzog goes to Chicago to kill Madeleine and Gersbach. Note: "The decision was not reached; it simply arrived." The second is the moment in which he decides not to kill them. Another striking scene. Standing on a box, he peers through a window at Gersbach, phony, overdone as always, and yet tender as he bathes Herzog's daughter, and their reality exposes his violent plan as ludicrous. And here becomes Herzog's happiness: "It was worth the trip."

This quick tour in and out of Herzog's heart of darkness provides bellow with an opportunity to reject other literary vogues, other ways of treating suffering. Though Moses suffers in style, Bellow wants us to know that he (and Moses) won't resort to forms of suffering stylish in literature. From suffering it does not follow that all is permitted, for instance. "The question of death," Moses wriets, "offers us the interesting alternatives of disintegrating ourselves by our own wills in proof of our 'freedom,' or the acknowledging that we owe a human life to this waking spell of existence, regardless of the void. (After all, we have no positive knowledge of that void.)" Fiction wherein one shuns consolation, looking for "truth in grotesque combinations," is similarly dismissed.

But what has Bellow offered instead? A novel in which hero and author learn to shed their hurt and anger? For the novel itself sometimes seems a long purgative letter by Saul Bellow. The events are quasi-autobiographical, and there is indeed a large peasure of generosity extended to the hero. His errors are rarely understood except in terms of a lovable if over-zealous idealism. Yet perhaps this inadequacy is part of Bellow's point. Moses as a literary man has a high, perhaps excessive tolerance for people who carry themselves as if they were significant, that posture being his own style. He is the masochism peculiar to sensitive people eager to drink life to the lees. The book suggests that the boldest adventurer, if he admits what inner knowledge our times provide, might well be a man who risks getting himself stepped on. The trouble with this explanation is that Moses' inner knowledge is selective: he himself terminated a marriage, his first one. And though the reasons why Madeleine ruined his second marriage are elaborately brooded over, Bellow is content to ignore Moses' contribution to the collapse of his first. [return to top]


December 14, 1967

The Confessions of Nat Turner
A novel by William Styron
Random House, $6.95

By Martin Duberman

William Styron describes his latest novel as "a meditation on history." The phrase is provocative, suggesting a new form wherein history is converted into philosophy rather than, as in the case of most historical novels, romance. Yet the attempt to combine the novelist's imagination with the historian's devotion to "objective reality" (and to preserve both intact) may, on its face, be misguided. If one believes in the prime importance of subjectivity, of using materials from the past (or present) as grist for one's own mill, then some "re-arrangement" of those materials is inescapable. If one believes in the prime importance of objectivity, of staying within the strict limits of historical evidence, then invention must be curtailed. Styron's novel raises the question central to all efforts at historical fiction: can a writer simultaneously be true to the past and to himself? [return to top]


January 28, 1980

Short Circuits

Defining Rain

The Gasoline Wars
By Jean Thompson
University of Illinois Press. $10; $3.95 paper.

By Jay McInerney

Despite the crisis in contemporary fiction, the persistent feeling that the old Modernist forms are tired out and that the new has not yet slouched toward Manhattan's publishing houses, there are writers who continue to write, and to surprise us, with the conventions of realistic fiction. John Sayles and Albert Haley are two young writers of this stripe who have published short story collections within the past year. Jean Thompson is another.

No dowdy naturalist, Thompson is concerned with formal problems, but not paralyzed by them. The language of these stories achieves the grace of extreme economy and precision. Her typography is impeccably modern—like William Gass's, her pages are free of quotation marks. Fortunately, we hardly notice. [return to top]


VLS, February 1986

Rednecks, Belles, and K Mart Gals: Southern Women Stake Their Claim

By Thulani Davis

A couple of years ago I was out peddling book ideas and a wise young editor bluntly recommended I sit down and write a "southern novel." "It's going to be the next thing," he said, or something like that, meant to suggest down-home books could be the publishing equivalent of Sonny Crockett. Well, these days the new-release shelves are brimming with books by southern writers-southern women writers. But are they writing southern novels? Or did Faulkner capture the last unicorn.

Bobbie Ann Mason, Jayne Anne Phillips, Ellen Gilchrist, Lee Smith, Blanche McCrary Boyd, and Cecil Dawkins are creating something of a southern fiction boom. Their work is casing a stir among critics, and they've also won over sales reps who get books into stores. Although Rita Mae Brown and Anne Tyler were perhaps the forerunners of this boom, Brown was quickly tucked away in the ideological ranks of feminist/lesbian literature and Tyler was left to fend for herself with the boys. At a fiery conference on women in literature at San Francisco State last year, the rhetorical wrangling never got around to the prodigious output of contemporary women writers. With the exception of Rita Mae Brown, none of these southerners was even mentioned. But they're putting out too many books to be ignored.

Scattered from the hills of Arkansas to the Low Country of South Carolina and the mines of Appalachia, these women are not the least concerned with academic assessments. In contrast to the male writers who are so conscious of joining a long tradition of imperial rule over American literature, they are neither constrained by the canon nor led to expect untouchable status. They are still washing dishes after dinner, I suspect. Today's white southern woman writers are also unconcerned about regional literary tradition. They are not a school-unlike, for instance, the black women novelists, so prominent since the early '70s, whose novels constitute a kind of intimate yet wide-ranging conversation. And these white women do not commune with the past, as we have been taught all good southerners must. The new southern writers, without the old web of strict personal values and hell-bent heroism, often as not create characters who are casualties of a loss of place.

There was a time, 20 years ago, when you could look for a woman fiction writer in any American literature anthology and likely come up with a southerner—Eudora Welty, Katherine Anne Porter, Flannery O'Connor or Carson McCullers. The big Four were among a handful of women allowed into the American academic canon, but they were still segregated on the distaff side of something called Southern literature. Some scholars still view them as merely the daughters of Confederate diarists, those unknowns printed in handsomely bound editions with title like Lady Southern Writers of Today. But at their best, they rivaled Faulkner for their complex portraits of a dying world both quaint and harsh, romantic and brutalizing. Eudora Welty is still writing her carefully rendered remembrances if the Mississippi Delta country. But Welty probably the last of the good ole gals, because if a southern phenomenon in literature is there, the South really isn't. It would seem that Faulkner's forest has been cleared.

Welty has written that "remembering is done through the blood, it is a bequeathment, it takes account of what happens before a man is born as he were there taking part." In the work of earlier southerner, found objects all had a history, as Welty tells us in her most recent book, One Writer's Beginnings:

We used the Lamar Life stationary, which carried on its letterhead an oval portrait of Lucius Quintas Cincinnatus Lamar, for whom the Company had been named: a Mississippian who had been a member of Congress, Secretary of the Interior under Cleveland, and a U.S. Supreme Court Justice, a powerful orator who had pressed for the better reconciliation of North and South after the Civil War. Under his bearded portrait we all wrote letters to Mother

It is this culture-devoted to the naming of people and places, fascinated with the Greeks and Romans and antiquity itself, in the habit of retelling old, often African, homilies which defines the southern literature of yesterday. These books mythologize the ways in which people hold on to an increasingly despised old world and yet tolerate the disruptive, forgetful present: One trains the young and keeps all the letters.

Lewis P. Simpson, writing about this southern regard for the past, cautions that writers who vivified the eccentric folk of the region were not just making myths. "Mark Twain, Thomas Nelson Page, Joel Chandler Harris suggest how memory, searching the drama of the antebellum southern experience, molded itself into a construct of cultural will, or a metaphysics of survival."

Survival is the key word, I think, when it comes to contemporary southern writers: survival necessitated not by the Civil War's destruction of Camelot, or even the influx of industry and suburban subdivions after World War II, but by the pervasive homogenization of the culture, brought by federal marshals, K marts, rock 'n ' roll. Mason, Phillips, Smith, and Boyd all use shopping centers and television as emblems of the contemporary South, conjuring them as one might an ancient burial site hidden in the caves. These unmysterious bleeps on the landscape, like billboards, block the trees and historical markers. TV in particular has wiped out the immediate environment.

As TV came of age in the '50s, steadfastly refusing to acknowledge the antebellum years that made the South so "different," southerners began to forget the South's notoriousness. The coverage of the civil rights movement may have traumatized many blacks, especially kids like me who faced integration battles in the South. We saw men, women, and children brutalized—but those bloody images were soon gone too. The villains of the slavery era disappeared; the records of the slaveholders were burned; school books were rewritten. TV once again refused to acknowledge to existence of the region. Imagining anything of the real South became as difficult as finding as ad for contraceptives on TV. The characters in southern fiction, the barren fruit of such a place, lost what was in their own backyards and became folk who had little left that was unique except their legendary racism. The South's supposed past grandeur was a myth devised of vaunted ancient roots. That grandeur, which made their racism some strange necessity, was gone—there was no history. [return to top]


VLS, November 1988

The Lost Generator

Gertrude Stein Builds a Better Reader
By Albert Mobilio

We first know her as an icon: the sharply sculpted, masklike face hovering above the piled-upon folds of her body. Her head tilts slightly forward to catch an unnaturally harsh light. Her eyes are askew; one is indifferently wide, the other squints in judgment. Depicting an unsettled Buddha who seems both at rest and about to rise from her overstuffed chair, Picasso's portrait of Gertrude Stein is, perhaps, the most familiar emblem of the Modernist epoch. We can hardly look at this painting and not imagine, standing just outside the frame, Braque, Apollinaire, Matisse, Pound, Hemingway, assorted Futurists, Dadaists, and Cubists—all those who made the art that made this century. Stein appears enthroned, a high priestess presiding over her charmed circle at 27 Rue de Fleurus. Inevitably, the grand scene the portrait conjures—Paris in the teens and '20s, the Lost Generation—obscures its subject. While we view her as a pivotal, even essential, participant in the artistic turmoil of her times, it is always in relation to her legendary salon, her role as hostess. Yet it was Stein, among her guests, who truly executed the letter of the Modernist law the "make it new." She did this in some 40 books that leave no genre untouched. Whether as librettist, poet, novelist, or essayist, Stein consistently produced work so radical it remains so today. Sadly, this achievement too little informs what we see when we see Stein. Regarded more as icon than artist, more as aphorist than author, she is our century's most famous unread writer.

Stein lacks readers not merely because the writing is difficult but because it is, at times, literally unreadable; that is, she cannot be read the way we've been taught, the way we want to read. She sought to reinvent the relationship between reader and page. Arriving in New York to lecture in 1934, she made her intent plain to a group of inquiring newsmen. Surprised by the clarity of her responses, one asked, "Why don't you write the way you talk?" "Why don't you read the way I write?" she replied. Doing that means unlearning the fluid rapidity and instantaneous assimilation we automatically bring to bear. We are sent back to our earliest experiences with written words, when their size, shape, and sound were as consequential as the information they conveyed. By tearing at the seams between sentences, between words, Stein invites readers to join in an almost physical act; she forces the eye to retrace, the mind to rethink. Unraveling one of her commaless run-on sentences can resemble a tug-of-war in which Stein pulls you heedlessly forward while you dig in you heels with imagined commas, colons, and periods. Stein unnerves us; she contorts what we think is the natural flow. The violation of so many conventions upends the implicit contract between writer and reader. In place of that neatly struck bargain, Stein insists her readers read recklessly, with no hands on the wheel and a busy eye on the words ahead. [return to top]


VLS, August 1989

Technomancer

Philip K. Dick's Signal Achievements
By Erik Davis

When Philip K. Dick died after a stroke in 1982, he left behind almost 40 science fiction novels, over a hundred short stories, a few remarkable essays, and the "Exegesis," a crazed document that attempted to interpret the divine intelligence which he claimed invaded his mind in 1974. Though Dick remains partially buried in the mildewed heap of yesterday's pop trash (best known as "the guy who write the book they based Blade Runner on"), his dedicated following has grown since his death. Some of his best books are out of print in the States, but a steady trickle of unpublished (and mostly non-SF) work has been released in the last few years. Whether or not Dick hacked out the most brilliant American science fiction ever is debatable; that his work remains the most brilliantly fucked-up SF is beyond doubt.

Though he uses generic devices like androids, spaceships, Martians, and moon colonies, Dick's worlds are usually bummers just around the corner, near-futures characterized by rampant overpopulation, surveillance, urban decay, repressive state apparatuses, ubiquitous ads, and invasive technology. As far back as the '50s, Dick saw the dark, paranoid side of McLuhan's global village. The animism that primitive humankind projected onto Nature was for him reborn in our technological environment, where ominous spiritual forces merged with the instruments of late capitalism. Dick's machines are black jokes rather than believable imaginings: the portable computerized psychiatrist, Dr. Smile, in The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch; the empathy machine in "The Little Black Box," which fuses the users' consciousness with a televised savior; The Divine Invasion's holographic multicolored Bible.

Driven by what he called "divine discontent," Dick howled in his dystopic wilderness against the powers that be. His characters are ordinary schlemiels, bumbling Joes and Janes struggling with small moral dilemmas, poverty, politics, and psychic breakdowns in worlds where entropy reigns and communication breakdowns are inevitable. Unlike Pynchon—whose obsessions resemble his in many ways—Dick maintained little ironic distance from his characters, and his empathy for them and their hopeless struggles is palpable as well as odd. [return to top]


VLS, October 1991

Harlot's Ghost
By Norman Mailer
Random House, $30

by Blanche McCrary Boyd

The Writer did not come to Provincetown to think about Norman Mailer, The Writer came to Provincetown to slick her hair back with gel, peroxide a streak, wear an ear cuff, leave her shirts half buttoned, and get the best tan on the beach. She treats Provincetown like gay high school, driving around in her teenage muscle car with the T-tops off, her gelled hair static in the wind, old rock and roll blasting through six speakers. Her car is black '91 Firebird Formula, so low and lean she nearly lies down to drive it. Her Penismoblie, a friend calls it, and the Writer replies that not everything long powerful and hard is a penis; yet when she straps on this car she feels like a 17-year-old boy with a hard-on.

The Writer has come to Provincetown to think of masculinity and femininity as metaphor, as style, to enjoy drag queens, the bold stares of women, and to think about Norman Mailer, named by the same "great novelist in the Lord!" who, according to the Prisoner of Sex, named Bella Abzug. Norman Mailer is Normal Male but maler, as if male is something one does, or is an example of excess: maler than thou.

Mailer lives down the street from the Writer in Provincetown, and he is a fact, not a metaphor, as she discovers one night when her phone is inhabited by gremlins and she has gone to the pay phone on the corner to call her new love. Mailer is walking along Commercial Street with his wife, Norris Church, and one of his daughters and her husband. The Writer and Mailer greet each other. Introductions all around.

The truth is, the Writer like Norman Mailer. The few times they've been together he's been gracious to her, even generous, and she admires the way his hair is whitening, the clear blue of his eyes, their inward look. She is fond of his taste for excess and controversy, and she thinks he is a great flawed writer. She cherishes The Naked and the Dead and Armies of the Night, judges The Executioner's Song impeccably brilliant. But she does not want to think about Norman Mailer.

From her new love the Writer has learned to let a peach ripen, turn the fruit daily in its bowl, touch it delicately for softness under its velvety skin. She has learned to wait for the perfect moment, slicing the pink red yellow interior only after the fruit is bursting to peel itself. But her new love is out of town and not picking up her messages, and Mailer is wandering through gay high school, so when the Writer gets back to her apartment she slices the hardest peach and eats it, relishing the crunch, loud and unyielding as an apple.

She knows that he has a huge novel forthcoming, Harlot's Ghost, and she is tempted to review it, but to think about Mailer she must think about herself as a Woman Writer, or even-let us say it directly, since we are in Provincetown-a Lesbian Writer. Admitting that she likes Mailer makes her feel like a black person praising Gone With the Wind. In his books Mailer has cut the heads off women and thrown them out of windows; he has called his penis the Great Avenger and used "make love" and "violate" as synonyms; he has announced that all homosexuals wish they were straight.

Nevertheless, she admires the mock heroic quality of his style (though she herself has merged mock and heroic at a different juncture), and she envies and respects his crazed ambitiousness, the dizzying pinnacles of his ego. Recently she has been intrigued by his essay on American Psycho, especially the paragraph on minimalists, his complaint that with minimalists there are simply "not enough pages." She cannot conceive of the world of not-enough-pages, having been schooled by Katherine Anne Porter and Hemingway, who treated words like stones. Our Writer believes that less is more, that simplicity is daring, and likes her sentences compressed. She calls herself the Queen of Terseness and is given to saying things like, "I never read anything that couldn't be shorter."

But she thinks it would not be so difficult to write like Mailer, now that Mailer has shown us how to write like Mailer. In fact, she thinks it would be easy, the rising and falling, the loopy love of alliteration, the cadences, the commas, the qualifications, the sifting, the flights, and hey, she is liking writing like Mailer, standing in front of the unabridged dictionary flexing her pecs, watching the muscles ripple across her chest just above her breasts, admiring her washboard stomach, her biceps raised like little mountains of excess. Oh, it is fun, this literary calisthenic. And she is reminded of how she once spoke in tongues. [return to top]


VLS, June 1994

Regarding Jane: the Passion of the Other Bowles

By Stacey D'Erasmo

Jane Bowles has slipped out of print—to be more accurate, in-between print. Her rights are scattered among Ecco, Farrar Straus Giroux, and Paul Bowles. Penguin is preparing an edition of the two Bowleses, but if you walk into a bookstore right now and try to get a copy of Ecco's collected edition of Jane Bowles, My Sister's Hand in Mine, you will almost certainly not find it, because Ecco itself has less than 50 copies. Ecco and Farrar Straus cannot agree about who gets to publish how much of Bowles's collected works; Ecco may have a new edition of them in the spring of 1995, or they may not. Bowles is sliding away, as she always has, perhaps resurfacing as half of a couple.

It is oddly fitting. Despite a style so singular that I hardly know how to write about her, Jane Bowles always appears in my imagination shadowed by another. Sometimes it is the lean, mysterious shadow of Paul. But more often, it is larger, vaguer, more diffuse, and more dangerous. (Probably, they are the same.) In one sense, that shadow is literal. Bowles, petite and limping, figuratively half-mute during most of her writing life, literally half-mute during her last, tortured, aphasic months, hitched her brilliant wagon to a series of engulfing stars with whom she had complicated relations of domination and submission, adoration and rejection. Two Serious Ladies, Bowles's only novel, is dedicated to "Paul, Mother, and Helvetia"—her husband, her mother, and her domineering, wealthy older lover at the time. They are an imposing trio, oppressively sturdy.

Jane, as we know, was not. In pictures, she looks small and nervous and explosive, like Judy Garland. She is rarely alone; Truman Capote is always there, or Paul, or people in party costume. She rarely looks at all confident, although sometimes she looks quite happy. Unlike Paul, whose soul seemed to transplant to the desert easily, Jane found her exile fraught, crosshatched with doubt and anxiety, guilty. I always imagined him gliding over dunes; her, sunburned and limping behind. The persistence of the myth that Jane's last lover, Cherifa, poisoned her speaks both to the tremendous power with which she invested her caretakers (and they were all, in different ways, caretakers) and to the ambiguity of her exile. One can hardly read The Sheltering Sky and not think of Jane, ravaged by the same environment Paul found so salutary. One can hardly fail to be suspicious of him.

At the same time, the poisonousness of dependency was one of Bowles's favorite tropes. Her death was a play she might have written herself. The other, more interesting aspect of the shadow dogging her is a figurative one. The shadow has a sort of unselfconscious loquaciousness. It knows exactly who it is. Like the Caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland, it doesn't allow its own evident strangeness to get in the way of demanding that people explain what they are doing and who they think they are and where they are going. Sometimes, that shadow is a person; at others, a foreign landscape, like Guatemala or Panama; at still others, foreigners in general, whom Bowles tends to represent in the cartoonish way happy people look to miserable ones. I know exactly who I am, the shadow seems to say, who are you? The response is invariably a stutter, a sly comment, a joke. The shadow is always in some sense Identity; the distracted half-answer is its frustration.

In fact, Bowles's one complete play, In the Summer House, begins with a question: "Are you in the summer house?" The question is posed by Mrs. Gertrude Eastman Cuevas to her 18-year-old daughter, Molly. Gertrude's voice—banal, repetitive, self-absorbed, seductive—dominates much of the play. She goes on and on about the varieties of hair color and how they indicate character, her new romance with Mr. Solares, Molly's many inadequacies, her own childhood alienations and jealousies, and democracy. Molly, holed up in the summer house (a gazebo on the property of Gertrude's larger seaside estate), answers in small, noncommittal sentences. She is her mother's straight man. She adores and despises her. Molly insists on remaining in the summer house like a doll holding herself hostage in a dollhouse, furiously miniature. Eventually, in her quiet and stubborn way, Molly probably kills another teenage girl, a rival for her mother's attention.

In the production of In the Summer House staged by JoAnne Akalaitas at Lincoln Center last summer, Dianne Wiest's Gertrude was so mesmerizing, so strong, and the young actress who played Molly so lumplike (I can't even remember her name), that Gertrude's view of Molly didn't seem distorted—which, of course, it is. Molly and Gertrude are equally complex and implicated in each other's fates. Their perspectives cannot be disentangled. This production, I thought, was directed from Gertrude's point of view, although the play is written from Molly's, from inside the summer house. Or maybe it would be more correct to say that it's written from both points of view at the same time. A monstrous motherliness is echoed by an equally monstrous daughterliness, a daughterliness that kills, and the perspective of the play hovers somewhere in the middle, undecided. "The double heart," Bowles wrote in her journal while revising the play. "Not a drama, but both families....Is it writing I'm putting off, or was it always something else—a religious sacrifice? The only time I wrote well, when I passed through the inner door, I felt guilt."

All of Bowles's work—the play, the novel, a handful of stories, and whatever else has yet to be unearthed in her journals and letters—seems to take place in the chambers of the guilty double heart, not entirely in the summer house, but on the threshold. It is the stumbling passage through the inner door, the pictures projected on the wall of the summer house. Her expressionistic, idiosyncratic voice seems not the singular edifice of modernism nor the multiple, tattered voice of postmodernism, but a response, a call, a challenge to a voice that looms outside, talking and talking and talking. The voice outside always speaks haphazardly and at length. The voice inside, the voice of the daughter, answers back—slowly, hesitantly, in riddles. This internal, aphasic, bitter, murderous daughter's voice has a question for every question. It cannot sit down anywhere. Bowles's work is the work of Persephone, the work (to borrow a line from Eavan Boland) of the daughter in hell. That it is hot and strange there and that the people walking above look flat and strange should come as no surprise. [return to top]

Show Pages
 
My Voice Nation Help
0 comments
 
Loading...