John Fowles and Bernard Malamud have written novels out of character—from the former, a literary jest, from the latter, a parable.
John Fowles has never been less than an interesting novelist. Often enough, considerably more than that. In Mantissa, his alter ego, novelist Miles Green, observes: “Serious modern fiction has only one subject: the difficulty of writing serious modern fiction.”
Well, no. After all, it is the loquacious, self-congratulatory film directors, writers, and performers who have taken happily to the talk shows and platforms, prattling on about the difficulties of their “craft.” Most serious novelists prefer to be judged by their finished work, not the effort they put into it. In my experience, novelists will readily chat about the hazards of the marketplace, but never about how they do it. Few dare to examine that machine too closely, or take it apart, lest they fail to put the pieces together again correctly.
Furthermore, Miles Green says, “If you want story, character, suspense, description, all that antiquated nonsense from pre-modernist times, then go to the cinema. Or read comics. You do not come to a serious modern writer. Like me.”
The first chapter of this novel, or complaint, seemed to me dazzling, charged with humor, menace, and eroticism. A man, ostensibly suffering from amnesia, awakens in a gull-gray, curiously quilted or padded hospital room. He is confronted by a lady who claims to be his wife, the mother of his three children, and an overbearing but sexy young lady doctor. The wife leaves, distraught, and the doctor is joined by an even more desirable West Indian nurse. Together they begin their bizarre treatment. “The memory nerve-center in the brain is closely associated with the one controlling gonadic activity.” The nurse begins to massage his penis and the doctor, her manner abrupt, wiggles out of her uniform and demands that Green fondle her breasts as well as explore other regions of her body. “I want you to concentrate on tactile sensation.” Soon, both women have leaped into bed, doing their clinical utmost to arouse the outraged Green, rebuking him for his erotic recalcitrance.
“…if you are secretly attempting to drive us to coenonymphic or pseudo-terguminal stimulation, I can tell you now—no chance. Is that clearly understood?”
“I don’t even know what they are, for God’s sake.”
“And the same applies to the Brazilian fork.”
But even in this tantalizing first chapter hints are clumsily dropped. The seductive doctor’s name, for instance, is A. Delphie.
“How long have I been here?” Green asks on page 14.
“Just a few pages,” Dr. Delphie replies.
The hospital room resembles nothing so much as a brain and, lo and behold, the story is taking place in Green’s mind, and at the end of Chapter 1 he has already begun to reread his own first page, possibly to revise. The cat’s out of the…
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