Sense of the Present


by Renata Adler
Random House, 178 pp., $7.95


Do you know a brooding Bulstrode? Guilt, central to classical fiction, was the secret of dramatic natures who found themselves greedy for something and conscious of the injustice the greed sent forth, like a poisonous cloud, to someone else. This “type”—the greedy, demanding, guilty one—lives in a condition beyond irony, the attitude that complicates guilt and changes it to comedy and absurdity. The private and serious drama of guilt is not often a useful one for fiction today and its disappearance, following the disappearance from life, appears as a natural, almost unnoticed, relief, like some of the dramatic illnesses wiped out by drugs or vaccines. The figures who look out at us on the evening news—embezzlers, crooks, liars, murderers—are furiously inconvenienced by the trap that has snapped shut on the free expression of will; they face the menace of arithmetical lapses, the folly of insurance policies cashed with impractical haste, the weakness of accomplices. And how rapidly does the arrested gaze of the accused change to the suspicious glance of the accuser.

What sustains the ego in its unhappy meeting with consequence—the meeting that was, previously, the essence of fiction and drama? The “popular” response to error, discovery, discomfort, impatience, to exigency in which our own actions are involved, is paranoia. Bad luck, betrayal, enemies, the shifting sands of the self-interest of others, briberies—the troubled spirit is seldom alone with his deeds. He rages around in the crowd of these others who for the moment seem likely to go scot-free at his expense.


The literature of paranoia is naturally different from the literature of guilt. A wild state of litigious anxiety slides, as if on grease, into the spot held by the ethical. Free floating, drifting in absorption and displacement, the paranoid is not a character at all. Most of all he comes to resemble a person with a cerebral stroke and shows peculiar, one-sided losses, selective blocks and impairments, judicious and injudicious gaps.

Natalie Sarraute said in a lecture that she could not imagine writing a novel about a miser because there was no such thing as a miser. Human beings with their little bundle of traits and their possession of themselves, a synthesis—yes, they have vanished because they are not what they seemed to be, least of all to themselves, which is what counts.

The coquette, the spendthrift, the seducer, the sensitive were points of being, monarchies of self, ruled over by passions and conditions. How smoothly the traits led those who possessed them, led them trotting along to their lives, to the end of the road of cause and effect, to transgressions that did not fade but were there at the last stop.

When the young man in The Mayor of Casterbridge comes into town and decides in his misery to sell his wife and daughter we know what is ahead. He will succeed, he will be mayor and the wife and daughter will return, borne on the wheels of plot, the engine of…

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