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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 locks himself in his room away from his wife, pores over his scrapbook, meditates on the strange and incomprehensible things that seem to be happening to him, and masturbates his way out of his fantasies. Weekends, sleepless nights, and vacations, he prowls—harmless bus riding and walking at the start. It becomes something more ominous in intervals of blurred consciousness during which he molests women and enters houses to leave his sexual or excremental “calling card.” On July 4th an eloquent gap in the otherwise regularly kept diary tells us something has happened; we learn in due time that he has in fact raped Mara St. Johns, bathing beauty, socialite, Whore of Babylon, his Queen. He has had his eyes on her since a February appearance in the Chronicle. Apparently she does not go to the police in spite of his continuing harassment by telephone. At the end the way people stare at him makes Summerfield half aware of his own state of mind and, if I interpret the cryptic entries correctly, he acts on a deceptively casual remark that he should commit suicide.

THE STORY BUILDS with considerable suspense. The steady succession of entries conveys a sense of frightful change gradually eating away at a person beneath his outer shell. Yet Summerfield’s monstrousness remains human, for none of his delusions or obsessions lies beyond our grasp. As he sinks deeper into madness, he also lives closer to a vision of truth: Society is corrupt; violence threatens at any moment; everyone, friend, foe, and official, lies to us constantly and shamelessly; we must undertake a sacred mission to punish the foulness and sin of the world. This novel, seemingly focused because of its form on the disintegration of a man’s mind, is equally a social novel aimed back, like Notes from the Underground and Nausea, at the hideous society that spawned the condition. The lunatic has a message and tells it with a surprising and perverse force. I found effective, even moving, the prowling scenes where Summerfield in a half trance enters strange houses, stumbles around in the dark listening to the sleeping residents, finds satisfaction in this anonymous communion, and leaves after some form of fond desecration. There is no greater loneliness in a desert or a tower. We learn everything about him except what might be conventionally revealing—his past, his appearance, and what he does at the few crucial moments of his existence. Those very unexposed patches enhance the rest. Summerfield comes off as a kind of truncated tour de force who nevertheless remain fixed in one’s consciousness.

My quarrel is with the way Connell handles the diary form. Every date in one calendar year has its entry except for July 4 and the last six days of December. Summerfield states repeatedly that he writes out of a selfimposed discipline and that he has made previous attempts to keep a diary with less success. Above all, his life begins to mimic the compulsive printed format of the little book in which he forces himself to set down these “notes.” He is living through a piece of time divided neatly on the page into days and weeks and months, but Connell comes close to overlooking the immediate physical aspect of his device. Summerfield too often sounds not like a twenty-six year-old victim of metropolitan ennui, but like a displaced sensibility with some real claim to superiority. And I cannot understand how, having introduced it, Connell can fail to make use of the scrapbook Summerfield is keeping. Newspaper clippings could have provided a fine stylistic contrast to the diary and a kind of cross check on points of obscurity that now confuse the story. The utterly frustrating ending might have been raised to a fine irony had newspaper stories been introduced as a kind of chorus. It’s Connell’s novel, not mine. But he sensed this possibility himself. Here is the beginning of the entry for October 10. The Chronicle is True North, the only heaven and hell remaining.

Out for a stroll last night and took along the umbrella although the sky was clear. Just thought I might need it, and as usual I was right. Not sure quite what happened. I do remember some woman approaching, next I heard a few screams and there I was running lightly away. It was very much like a dream. Perhaps that’s all it was, there’s nothing in the Chronicle. Hmm, probably I fell asleep…

THREE YEARS AGO Thomas Pynchon brought forth the half-improvised and hugely successful coq-à-l’âne with the flip title, V. It immediately outclassed and outstripped (though not in sales I suppose) Catch 22, which it superficially resembles. Rowdy and unpredictable, the book gives the impression of having a pronounced grain and no shape. But an elaborate system of clues and sight marks suggests that there is much more than meets the eye on first reading. Now Pynchon has written a short, crisp afterthought with a long title to compensate: The Crying of Lot 49. Without the ocean of life that flooded the earlier book, lo! it is as if the tide had gone out. Yet low tide has its own attractions.

Oedipa Maas (wedded to disc-jockey Mucho Maas: from the start the very names throw everything askew) finds she has been named co-executor for the estate of an old boyfriend, a California real estate mogul with complex holdings and powers. In taking on the job, she travels around the state tangling with a set of increasingly colorful people. But above all she stumbles onto the Tristero System. It may be an elaborate posthumous hoax dreamed up by the boyfriend who loved pranks; it may be that there survives in our midst an organized system of communication among those who prefer not to entrust their messages to a government monopoly. Oedipa’s quest takes her through all the fringes of city and suburban living, yet the chase is also one of the mind. She inquires into such subjects as the history of postal service, the contemporary sexual underground, technicalities of philately, the text of a seventeenth-century English play, Maxwell’s Sorting Demon, the Thurn and Taxis family. Every hour is fraught with odd events, signals. “She was meant to remember,” we read in a paragraph that ends: “Then she wondered if the gemlike ‘clues’ were only some kind of compensation. To make up for her having lost the direct, epileptic Word, the cry that might abolish the night.”

In spite of the obvious protective clothing of comic names (Stanley Koteks, Dr. Hilarius, “her shrink”) and a subtly aped slickness of style, Pynchon is again whispering something in our ear about the meaning of coincidence, the possibility of recurrence in history, and the circularity of time. For me the most portentous “symbol” is Maxwell’s Sorting Demon, who can make water boil by a congeries of randomness as he pushes molecules about. And so we live, communicating rarely, coming occasionally to a boil when we can least explain it. The little drawing of a muted hunting horn Oedipa begins to find in ladies’ rooms and chalked on the sidewalk—can it be a sign of such a latent dimension of life? Or, as one feels when the lighting shifts ever so little, is it all a magnificent prank? What are we to make of this passage describing Oedipa’s attempt to communicate with the departed Driblette, a stage director who drowned himself. She is sitting on his grave with some new friends drinking Napa Valley muscatel.

She tried to reach out, to whatever coded tenacity of protein might improbably have held on six feet below, still resisting decay—any stubborn quiescence perhaps gathering itself for some last burst, some last scramble up through earth…

Parody? It may be. But those adverbs (improbably, perhaps) should never have got by, and the two “some’s” are equally out of place. I have half a hunch Pynchon wrote the novel, as has been done before, on a kind of dare. It lacks the texture of V. But let us husband our blessings, even our mixed blessings. The Crying of Lot 49 is one of those mystery novels that can’t be solved. At the end Oedipa is maneuvering into position to find out who represents the Tristero syndicate in her part of the world. The book breaks off at its most promising moment. Next week?

WILLIAM H. GASS, PHILOSOPHER by trade and writer by clear vocation, reaches us innocent of any previous book yet surrounded by signed jacket puffs and at least one grandiose polemical review in his favor. Omensetter’s Luck is a vast, vigorous, and deliberately dishevelled novel whose action falls into place only in retrospect or on second reading. The most commonplace remark to make about it is that, crammed as it is with dialogue and monologue and mixed voices, he has eliminated quotation marks from the text (except for the title of one hymn) as systematically as Apollinaire deleted all punctuation from his first collection of poetry. The result is that distinctions of character and act and attitude are at first submerged beneath the landscape of sheer style. James Joyce and Gertrude Stein practice similar obliterations of the frontier between the elements of the story, and the relation to Joyce particularly is clear also in Gass’s plastic use of language. But the comparison makes one aware of the degree to which Gass reaches beyond character and beyond event to something I can only call history. Time in his novel flows massively like the Ohio that surrounds it on every side. Without wars, kings, or voyages, Omensetter’s Luck takes shape as a species of historical novel.

The book opens with two short sections, the first of which takes place long after the principal action, leading back into it through an old man visiting an auction. The objects speak, the old man speaks, a child speaks. The second section sets everything in motion in forty intense pages. At the end of the last century a vigorous, direct, and “simple” man named Omensetter moves with his family to the town of Gilean. His manner and his unaccountable luck win him an immediate place in the community and challenge the hold of the Reverend Jethro Furber over its citizens. The preacher has retreated from his desires and his ambitions to this quiet river town. An underdrawn character, Henry Pimber, becomes Omensetter’s landlord, and feels both admiration and resentment toward the newcomer. Pimber disappears and is found much later strung high up in a tree.

By this time Furber has turned the town against Omensetter with hints of witchcraft and diabolic powers; for a moment it looks as if Omensetter will be lynched for Pimber’s death. The principal movement of the last section (it takes up three quarters of the book) revolves around “Jethro Furber’s change of heart.” Obsessed by his visions of the flesh and the power of his voice to dominate the members of his congregation, Furber nevertheless affirms at the last moment that he has slandered Omensetter. Omensetter and his family move on down the river to a better place, one hopes; Furber falls sick and is replaced; life grows back around the exposed parts.

OMENSETTER IS OMNIPRESENT yet rarely on stage. The descriptions of him as noble savage, new Adam, half animal may vary, but the man himself does not change. Lucy Pimber speaks of him thus when someone suggests he would take a shortcut to “save time.” Such ellipsis runs throughout the book.

Time. The animal. Smell him. There’s no time to him. There’s only himself. Like a cow who’s bowels are moving. Heavens—time. What do you want from him? You’ll never get it, whatever it is. He cares for no one, don’t you know that? Not even you Henry. Oh look what you’re doing—letting the wind in. Shut the door.

Omensetter falls short of coming to life because he does not finally surpass his symbolic meaning as the representative of another, more elemental, way of life. Giono in his early novels used more mystery and more poetry to create a set of similar beings. It is Furber’s prolonged verbal wrestlings with himself that take over the book; he manages to win back our sympathies against heavy odds. One of his principal contributions are the doggerel bits that flow from his fertile imagination.

Miss Samantha Tott
if she were straightened out
would be found to possess
beneath her dress
as long a crack
as the Erie track

Around these little nuggets courses the prose that forms the book. Furber, being a man of words, seems more in the middle of it than Omensetter who would rather wade in the river or walk in the woods.

But amazingly enough, this is a book with a moral, with a message announced very early. In the opening pages during the auction Israbestis Todd has come upon an attentive boy at loose ends among the relics. Will those former possessions ever fit together again or does one merely dispose of them? For a moment the boy is curious about the past on display.

And how would he learn his history now? Imagine growing up in a world where only generals and geniuses, empires and companies, had histories, not your own town or grandfather, house or Samantha—none of the things you’d loved. No, I didn’t finish about Bob Stout. Boy—your own leaves are keeping your eyes from the trunk.

This is a novel not about “new forms of consciousness,” as Richard Gilman has tried to convince us in the New Republic. Omensetter, name and all, embodies nothing so completely as the truth that any new consciousness is also an old one and has always existed in nature. Gass has written a fine novel that begins about half way through to become enmeshed in the fabric of its own style. Yet of the three books here considered it leaves the deepest mark, demonstrating once again that the novel is both a form of wisdom and a means of attaining it.

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