The Journey and the Pity
What is a novelist to do who not only loathes his society but also intends his novel to make you loathe that society too? Realism will not be adequate to his purpose, even if he is, like Flaubert, a giant of perversity able to sustain his loathing through years of loving attention to the minutiae of his characters’ lives. For finally realism contains an irreducible residue of conservatism: by his very devotion in portraying it, the realistic novelist is saying that society is worth something, if only his and our attention. A really radical rejection must turn to fantasy to prove itself. In a satire or allegory or even a science-fiction futuristic story, the author may be saying, among other things, that he loathes the suggested society so much he can look at it only through the distorting glass of fantasy. He will be free to disregard all those inconvenient attractions along the way which occur in even the worst actual society—fidelity to friends, for example, or doing a job well—and which must be included if a realistic portrait is to be credible. This, I think, goes a long way to account for the prevalence of the type of fiction to which the two novels here under consideration belong, the accusing fantasy. It takes no pathological excess of moral bile to loathe one of the great twentieth-century nations at its very roots.
The two stories have closely allied themes. The Journey and the Pity concerns the way an anonymous and irresistible central government meddles in the lives of a few people in a sort of pioneer outstation (neither the town nor the country has a name). The state’s refusal to take responsibility for its meddling is embodied in the nameless “representative” who is the agent of its will. The final purpose of the state is revealed in the official, unsigned letter with which the book ends. In this letter the narrator, who has just received a promotion, learns that he has been relieved of his duties. “Being of no further use, you are now alone. No guidance as to what you ought to do or what sources of sustenance are still open to you will ever be given.”
Seconds concerns a successful banker in his forties who voluntarily submits to the ministrations of a highly efficient, typical modern American corporation, about which he knows only that when it is through with processing him he will be reborn. He is provided with a legal death; he is given a new name, face, residence, and the occupation he had half-daydreamed of engaging in; he is given freedom from his old self, a new identity, a second chance. The overt purpose of the firm is to make its reborn clients happy, but its actual accomplishment is to ruin them. A few are satisfied with the happiness procured by the corporation, which turns out to be a sort of Palm Springs vacuity; but most fail either to become someone new or to settle for…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.