Fiction à la Mode

The Diary of a Rapist

by Evan S. Connell Jr.
Simon and Schuster, 252 pp., $4.95

The Crying of Lot 49

by Thomas Pynchon
Lippincott, 183 pp., $3.95

Omensetter's Luck

by William H. Gass
New American Library, 304 pp., $5.95

While fiction critics hold out manfully for “narrative art” and pretend they can sight it nowhere outside Saul Bellow, and while the paper-back public follows advertising and packaging in search of a nouveau frisson, two new genres of fiction are making their claims. Poe foresaw one of them: Some of the most imaginative new writing (Hortense Callisher’s Journal from Ellipsia is the most recent example) uses many of the conventions of science fiction. The other genre has its explorations like Tristram Shandy and Les Lettres Persanes. There have been so many spoof novels lately that one must be on guard against taking anything, from social realism to pornography, at face value. So long as we have any legs left, they are going to be pulled.

The three novels under review will not fit together neatly in either of the above categories. They call for individual treatment and come from writers who have already proved the “seriousness” even of their comedy. Still, the books display a few common features worth noting. Both The Crying of Lot 49 and The Diary of a Rapist are set in the semi-hallucinated, semiparodied landscape of northern California. Both have exasperating open endings. Pynchon and Gass have a nice knack of incorporating low-level poetry and jingles into their prose. All three works develop a flickering pace and a sense of the grotesque that point toward the two genres just mentioned. On a standard literary mappemonde, they lie at approximately equal distances from, say, Jane Austen. But that still does not set them very close together. I shall take them in order of what might be called seniority.

THE DIARY OF A RAPIST is Connell’s sixth book. It follows two uneven collections of short stories, two novels (including the 117 chapters of the fairly successful Mrs. Bridge, written dead-pan) and Notes from a Bottle Found on the Beach at Carmel. (Everyone carefully refrains from calling this heavy-handed work a “long poem,” even though the lines march down 250 pages arrayed as free verse. It might have fared better as naked prose.) After these five books in which Connell steadily widened his vision until it verged on the epic, he has chosen to reverse himself completely and limit his point of view to one obsessed mind as it reveals itself to us and to itself in a diary.

Earl Summerfield is twenty-six and married to a school teacher seven years older than he is. Four principal activities make up his existence. He sits all day in a state employment bureau as an interviewer; in the job he is dead to himself, invisible to his fellow victims, and exasperated by his anguish over a promotion that never comes. He reads the San Francisco Chronicle with a sensitized eye that picks out all stories on executions, crime, and violence (particularly with sexual overtones), and socially prominent beauties flaunting their charms. From the outset he finds his vicarious self in the ripest and rottenest items in print. At home, he…

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