The Eighth Day
by Thornton Wilder
Harper & Row, 435 pp., $6.95
by Donald Barthelme
Atheneum, 180 pp., $4.50
“In the early summer of 1902 John Barrington Ashley of Coaltown, a small mining center in southern Illinois, was tried for the murder of Breckenridge Lansing, also of Coaltown.” Thus Mr. Wilder begins his new novel, speaking in the voice of Truth, or History, sometimes called the omniscient author. Johnson rebuked the young Bennet Langton for thinking a story a story, “till I shewed him that truth was essential to it.” Mr. Wilder is Johnsonian in this respect. Sometimes the narrative voice sounds like the Stage-Manager in Our Town, thirty years older, more anxious, disconsolate even when he sees the sun rising and setting in Grover’s Corners, N.H. But he keeps himself out of the action. If he wants to insert a little Darwinian optimism into the story, he hires another character to do it, the local Dr. Gillies. Omniscience is prepared to comment, but only to keep the tone in order, enforcing the proper style.
Truth chooses a method of narration long congenial to Mr. Wilder. The center, the hub, is an event, the murder of Breck Lansing. There are hundreds of spokes: characters, contingencies past, future, John Ashley’s wife and children, the lives they make, Breck’s family, ancestral memories. The circumference is the horizon. We are to attend to these matters as if they were true. Mr. Wilder is so devoted to the ordinary universe that he is content to be its witness. In his own behalf he claims so little that it does not count as a claim. He assumes that life is a carpet with a figure in it. The figure begins in the past, as far back as lore and memory can reach. We are the sum of many generations. As a chronicler, the novelist is thrilled by the grandeur of the carpet, after all, and by the dramatic power of its figure. Lest this power be slighted, he allows the Deacon, in The Eighth Day, to recite a heavy sermon upon its text, for the benefit of young Roger.
THIS IS TO SAY that The Eighth Day is one of those old-fashioned things called novels, stories with truth in them. The trouble with books of this kind is that they claim to tell All, and the claim is difficult to sustain. As Mr. Wilder’s book proceeds, his narrative voice becomes more obtrusive, insisting, as if this were our last chance to study the carpet. At the same time the reader has the impression that the Stage-Manager sees more in his drama than anyone else can see. Henry James said of The House of the Seven Gables that the story does not quite fill it out; we have an impression of “certain complicated purposes, on the author’s part, which seem to reach beyond it.” Mr. Wilder’s narrator is always reaching beyond his story, driving the reader to believe that what he sees, stretched out in front of him, is not merely carpet, a plain rug. So we revert …