The Key to My Heart: A Comedy in Three Parts
It is hard to believe that these two works were written in the same decade of our century. The anachronistic one is V.S. Pritchett’s novella, which, as the dust jacket alleges, is characterized chiefly by “modesty” and “charm.” The very terms of praise seem to accuse Pritchett of having regressed to the age of say, Zuleika Dobson; and the title of the book sufficiently declares Pritchett’s indifference to the charge of sounding old-fashioned. Burt Blechman’s Stations, in contrast, sums up the quality of much recent American fiction—its satirical fantasy, its sexual brutality, its ambitious statements, its intricacy of symbolism, and above all its confessional urgency. The pertinent questions to be asked are thus quite different for the two authors: in Pritchett’s case, whether his pleasant and breezy tale has any serious claim to our interest, and in Blechman’s, whether his book stands out from the somewhat pretentious mode to which it superficially belongs.
I imagine that V. S. Pritchett, whose own criticism is admirably free of philosophical and psychological cant, must be relishing his reviewers’ struggle to “make something” of The Key to My Heart. In his preface to a collection of tales (The Sailor, Sense of Humour and Other Stories) he gave fair warning that his interest lies not in argument but “in the unconscious self-revelation of people, in the sight of them floundering amid their own words, and performing strange strokes as they swim about, with no visible shore, in their own lives.” One is reminded of Forster’s “muddle”; but whereas Forster cannot keep from occasionally hinting at some ultimate significance for muddle, Pritchett remains content with what he calls “the absurdities or the pathos of the private imbroglio.” The Key to My Heart is about the private imbroglio of a village baker who is not noticeably altered or enlightened by his experience, and there is no suggestion that his commonsensical and unreflective autobiography is to be regarded ironically.
We are left, then, with the story itself and with the mild eccentrics who figure in it. Bob Fraser, the baker, goes to a rich couple’s home to collect a long-standing bill, gets involved in their quarrels, is seduced by the wife, and finally, after a series of sprightly practical jokes and reprisals, sees the unmanageable pair reunited and removed forever from his life. If we were to risk ascribing a moral to this plot, it would be that disorder is normal. For we not only see that the bill-collector’s no-nonsense mentality is inadequate to keep Bob Fraser from getting entangled with his debtors; we also realize that this entanglement has no moral consequences worth mentioning. Quarrel and deceive as they will, Pritchett’s characters have an air of maganimity, even of complicity; they are truly comic figures in their lack of romantic egotism. The authors own final attitude toward them seems to be one of Shakespearian indulgence.
Pritchett thus demonstrates that it is still possible to write comic fiction which, like Fielding’s, exudes good will and tolerance. But can such fiction have more than a passing interest for us? I suspect that most readers of The Key to My Heart will find it amusing and forget it almost at once. If this is right, it may not be the fault of Pritchett’s story, which is deftly and economically told. The problem is rather that the conventional assumptions of such comedy—the assumption of a stable society, the deafness to history, the taming of sex and death—run counter to the obsessiveness and iconoclasm of the fiction we find compelling. And here we can call to witness the destructive irony of Burt Blechman’s Stations.
Blechman is a native New Yorker whose three novels all express a moral degradation either within or emanating from the city. He is, I must say at once, a dazzling writer. I know of no one who shares his array of gifts: a superbly penetrating wit, a perfect ear for dialogue, great energy of phrase, and a knack of plotting that produces comedy and horror simultaneously. His novels, all published within the past four years, have become successively more ambitious. How Much? is a relatively realistic, yet farcical, story of selfish indifference to suffering; its broad satire on American mores is kept subordinate to the study of a single family. In The War of Camp Omongo Blechman is still concerned with individual victims; now, instead of a neglected grandmother, it is a camper who must choose between organized sadism and flight, presumably into homosexuality. But this book also begins to toy with linked analogies between cruelty at home, cruelty in the boys’ camp, and the official cruelty of national policy. The novel ends with a mock-war that makes Lord of the Flies look like the parlor exercise it is. Blechman, we gather, is now seeking non-literal ways to represent the excesses of unleashed instinct in a loveless world. And in his third novel he shows how far he has been carried by the desire to reduce things to essentials. Stations begins with a blunt pronouncement: “If it’s science you want, go to the laboratory. For life, get thee to the lavatory.” This is meant literally; much of the action of the book occurs in men’s rooms of the New York subway system, and the life under observation consists chiefly of homosexual lust. At the same time, Blechman indulges in apocalyptic satire of the sexualized ideals of the nation. For thanks to the insanely narcissistic politics of a President who confuses phallic prowess with leadership, the ejaculated Bomb is about to fall on New York City. The world is coming to an end, and none too soon.
Apocalyptic novels are easy to write; to drop the thermonuclear deus ex machina on a satirized world is too obvious an act of authorial vengeance. Stations, however, seems to me to withstand such criticism better than other books of its kind. This is partly because Blechman writes so astonishingly well. The three parts of his novel—a nightmare vision of mankind as a race of termites being driven to extinction, a realistic glimpse into the life of a corrupt vice detective, and the main section tracing the flight of a homosexual from one subway station to another (he is pursued by the detective as he himself pursues contacts) have a poetic authority that one is not inclined to question. And this authority owes much to the insistent generality of Blechman’s interest, which is not focused on individuals or atomic politics but on the phenomenon of sexual instinct: its rapacity, its infection of every phase of life, its conversion of outward reality into its own image. This is particularly evident in the “stations” chapters, where Blechman conveys the normal and abnormal business of the lavatories through a system of obscenely blasphemous metaphors.
These religious metaphors, which make Blechman’s literal plot difficult to follow, perform an important psychological function. They not only measure the separation of the protagonist from the official pieties of the upper world, but also render his effort to think clearly about the roots of his homosexual compulsion—in other words, to smash the family idols. From various oblique flashbacks we can piece together some routine information about the hero—his background as a prostitute, his employment by a huge insurance firm (hence the fact that he is known to us only by a number), his ambition to be a poet, his record of arrests and payoffs; but more significantly, we begin to grasp his obsession with his parents and especially with the sexuality of his mother. This is textbook etiology, but there is nothing academic about Stations. Blechman’s allusive style and his incessant shifting of attention from the subway to the supreme father, the preening President, lead us to understand that the impending war is to be seen as aspect of the hero’s mind. Thus the descent of the Bomb, as the book ends, coincides with a vision of maternal incest toward which the hero’s thoughts have been struggling all along. Public and private obscenity collide as the homosexual imagination arrives at the center of its image of the world.
I doubt whether the steady heightening of symbolic technique and emotional savagery in Burt Blechman’s career will be welcomed by his earliest admirers. There was an unabashed humanity in How Much? that has dwindled to zero as Blechman has moved from domestic caricature to his frenzied representation of universal perversion. Yet Blechman is a visionary writer, and it is pointless to quarrel with a vision; Stations is as powerful as it is grotesque. One only wonders where a novelist can go next, once he has spelled out “incest” in radioactive clouds.