The more New York becomes a problem to itself the less good old self-sufficient exuberance can be expected from novels that restrict themselves to the city. Which is no less true of its art. The more seemingly naive a work by Johns or Rauschenberg the longer and subtler a commentary it appears to need; and when commentary fails, a mere narrative of how the work was, and could only have been, done in New York (Lippold’s sculpture in the lobby of Lincoln Center or Tingueley’s self-immolation machine at the Modern Art) takes on all the metaphysical aura of Gesamtkritik.
Some years after his precocious success at the Living Theater with The Connection, a play whose gloomy, goodnatured O’Neillish substance was frosted over with Pirandellian gimmickry, Jack Gelber has written a novel that uses the conventions of pop art much as the play used absurdist theater, but with more skill, to make an orthodox old-fashioned naturalist more palatable to the sophisticated. What might pop art in fiction be? First, of course, a strenuous allegiance to plain descriptive realism; secondly, an apparently random but archtypical choice of events and objects, systematically foreshortened, brought to the front of the “canvas”; thirdly, a deadpan “boyish” humor in which exasperation is balanced as evenly as possible by full-bodied substance; fourthly, a “serial” technique in which objects and episodes comment on each other by being part of the same unglamorous world, at about the same level of non-sophistication, instead of a reliance on inner symbolic relations to different social and psychological levels of life; fifthly, the isolation of “philosophizing” into discrete blocks apart from the “work.” It matters little whether the artist’s friends or the artist himself supplies the commentary; the soliloquies of Gelber’s hero or Rauschenberg’s tireless gallery talks at his own shows.
Pop art, worthy as it certainly is, seems to me as an American a special feature of the New York Problematik, conceivable only under the exasperated conditions of a painter’s life in contemporary Manhattan. But I’ve read at least one wildly enthusiastic review of Rauschenberg in the British press, so am unwilling to predict how Gelber’s thoroughly New York novel may export. It will tell you nothing new about Bohemia, no titillating revelations, no fanciful erotica. The Cro-Magnon vocabulary is predictably flourished, but subdued, diluted by a good deal of ordinary English. Nothing illustrates better the reforming puritanism of the city’s latest phase than the accuracy of Gelber’s hero, Manny Fells, a twenty-six year old Jew from Springfield, Illinois, as a mirror of the general homogenization of uptown and downtown attitudes towards commerce, sex, art, freedom and decency. In this respect he reaches a transcontinental hand to the late Raymond Chandler, creator of Philip Marlowe, private eye, redeemer on his own battered, absorbent person of the intricate corruptions of a vanished, highliving Los Angeles.
Humphrey Bogart played Marlowe in The Big Sleep; like Bogart, whose Fifth Avenue-Exeter-Yale provenance stuck out all over him, Manny Fells is no true underground man but one…
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