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What’s Your Inner Reality?

Snow White

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 to the old problem. Reading a novel, we believe it, or we do not. This depends, in turn, upon the quality of the imagination, the coherence of the invention. So it makes a difference, it tells against the book, if we cannot give at least notional belief to Mr. Wilder’s Maria Icaza in San Gregorio or his T. G. Speidel in Chicago. If Maria comes out as Wisdom Personified and nothing more, and T. G. as Cynical Journalist and nothing more, the reader’s faith is bound to waver. All is not, however, lost. In books of this kind the satisfactions of belief are considerable, when they come; as in the account of John Ashley’s escape, his riding westward to the Mississippi, his selling the horse to Mrs. Hodge. Or, later, the report of Lansing’s relation with his wife. Here the author’s purposes, however complicated, coincide with his mere story, or with what he makes of his story. There is no strain.

A big novel, then, impressive in its scale, The Eighth Day is touching in its regard for truth, that great lost cause. It is grand to know that there are still writers who believe that the world is a real garden with real toads in it. If the novel does not quite, as we rudely say, “come off,” the reason is that it lacks variety. Most of its inventions arrive with the air of having been anticipated, as if the reader were beginning to tire of waiting. The author is omniscient, but he knows everything in the same way, all his colors are the same color. Tolstoy recalls, in Childhood, how once he tried to paint the hunt, but he had only blue paint. Having painted a blue boy on a blue horse, and blue dogs, he wondered whether he could now paint a blue hare. So he asked Papa whether there were blue hares. “Yes, my dear, there are,” Papa answered, without raising his head from the book he was reading. The story of John Ashley and Breck Lansing is told from a great height, and at that distance perhaps everything looks blue, dark blue. There are many scenes in the book for which blue is the right color, the focus is right, everything is right. There are other scenes, especially when Ashley reaches Chile, which seem to call for any other color, left or right of blue, but not blue. This is to say that the book is a little short of dapple, its truth a little blunt.

THERE IS NO EVIDENCE that Mr. Barthelme worries much about these things. Snow White begins:

She is a tall dark beauty containing a great many beauty spots: one above the breast, one above the belly, one above the knee, one above the ankle, one above the buttock, one on the back of the neck.

She is, of course, nothing of the kind. In fact, she is nothing. Snow White is not, strictly speaking, about anything: that is, it does not posit anything in reality as worth a reader’s interest. Mr. Barthelme takes relationships such as those which engross Mr. Wilder and quietly wrings their necks. There is a story in his first collection, Come Back, Dr. Caligari, called “Will You Tell Me,” which I read as a demolition job performed on the whole mythology of relationship. If life is largely a matter of relationships (A to B, B to A, A to C, C to D, and so forth) and if you think this funny, then you turn these people into puppets and show how funny they are. Or if you are bored with modern talk of dialogue, you write a story about a man called Bloomsbury who buys a radio station so that he can address his estranged wife. A classic moment in this enterprise is the story “Margins,” where Edward, white, says to Carl, Negro, “Carl, what is your inner reality? Blurt it out, baby,” and baby answers, “It’s mine.” Snow White talks like a TV interviewer or a Creative Writer; any idiom will do, so long as it has the charm of annihilating its owner. “Where there is nothing,” that is where Mr. Barthelme lives. “Margins” is a neck-twisting version of the idea that there is a relation between one’s character and one’s handwriting. “Why don’t you just concentrate on improving your handwriting,” Edward says to Carl. “My character, you mean.” “No,” Edward says, “don’t bother improving your character. Just improve your handwriting. Make larger capitals. Make smaller loops in your ‘y’ and your ‘g’. Watch your word-spacing so as not to display disorientation. Watch your margins.” Where a modern god has joined two things together, watch Mr. Barthelme putting them asunder. His fictive method is to write about puppets, making them funnier by giving them names: Eric, Irene, Hilda, Charles, Hubert. Or he writes about puppets as if they were dogs; alternatively, as in “The Piano Player,” dogs as if they were puppets.

There is no question of an omniscient narrator. There is no point in knowing anything, except how to wring a neck. Instead of a single voice, Mr. Barthelme uses several voices, a demolition gang, putting them to work upon choruses publicly available. One of the funniest passages in Snow White parodies the earnest philosophical discussion:

There is not enough seriousness in what we do,” Kevin said. “Everyone wanders around having his own individual perceptions. These, like balls of different colors and shapes and sizes, roll around on the green billiard table of consciousness…” Kevin stopped and began again. “Where is the figure in the carpet? Or is it just…carpet?” he asked.

After a while the chapters of Snow White begin to sound like Woody Allen on TV, the same laugh, as Frost says, “if you like to call such a sound a laugh.” In both, fictive things are best understood as withdrawal symptoms, essays in retraction. Snow White withdraws from Grimm. Princely Paul withdraws from Snow White. Snow White withdraws from everything: “Oh I wish there were some words in the world that were not the words I always hear!” In the first story of Come Back, Dr. Caligari, Florence Green, 81, announces, “I want to go to some other country.” Finally, Snow White withdraws from itself, reviewing itself under the guise of another book about nothing by an author named Dampfboot. The corporate voice of the seven dwarfish men reports:

We like books that have a lot of dreck in them, matter which presents itself as not wholly relevant (or indeed, at all relevant) but which, carefully attended to, can supply a kind of “sense” of what is going on. This “sense” is not to be obtained by reading between the lines (for there is nothing there, in those white spaces) but by reading the lines themselves—looking at them and so arriving at a feeling not of satisfaction exactly, that is too much to expect, but of having read them, of having “completed” them.

As it happens, and allowing a certain latitude, this is a pretty accurate description not only of Snow White but of many other books in a similar vein. Robert Martin Adams has written a study of this vein called Strains of Discord, his idea is that we should recognize the existence of literary works which refuse to resolve their inherent conflicts—not failures but, from another point of view, perversities. Mr. Adams calls such works as Ghosts and Metamorphosis examples of “open form,” where nothing is resolved because to resolve the conflict would entail denying it. The comic manifestation of “open form” is irrelevance, cultivated with a degree of attention far beyond the occasion. Two hundred years ago many of the chapters in Mr. Barthelme’s Snow White would have figured as “hiatus in mss.” Now Mr. Barthelme writes them down and out, the point being that a mind thus engaged does not admit any alternative claims upon its attention.

Snow White is a hoax, therefore, an entirely respectable genre. It is a hoax, moreover, in keeping with the spirit of its age. To speak of it as parody is accurate enough, provided we go on to say that parody is peculiarly “of this time, of that place.” In modern literature parody is the readiest form of disengagement. Valéry says in “Analecta, Tel Quel II“: “The self flees all created things. It withdraws from negation to negation. One might give the name ‘Universe’ to everything in which the self refuses to recognize itself.” The assumption in Mr. Barthelme’s fiction is that the self which refuses to recognize itself in anything refuses, further, to incriminate itself in any official image. One chapter of Snow White consists of an essay on shower curtains. Two hundred years ago it would have been called a Digression on Curtains. Then or now, we read the essay as a device of “open form” to protect the self from the imprisonment of “closed form.” Parody is negation, a canceling device. What is canceled, in Snow White, is a regiment of myths based on sex, technology, education, communication theory, and so on. But to cancel a myth is not the same as writing zero, because the myth has left its mark. Indeed, the canceled myth has something of the force represented by fact in conventional fiction.

In Mr. Wilder’s kind of fiction, to specify, fact offers a certain resistance to the fiction, testing the fiction as it proceeds. In some genres this resistance is offered by convention. In Snow White the necessary resistance is provided partly by the old fairy tale and mainly by the “universe” of modern lore in which the self refuses to recognize itself. The fairy tale is as congenial to Mr. Barthelme’s purposes as The Juniper Tree is to T.S. Eliot’s purposes in “Ash Wednesday.” The modern lore is inescapable. Indeed, Snow White might profitably be read alongside Siegfried Giedion’s Mechanization Takes Command, or any similar apocalyptic manual.

It may be said that Mr. Barthelme’s talent has the merit of being modern, while Mr. Wilder’s talent has only whatever merit consists in being archaic. But if the terms were altered a little, Mr. Wilder’s position in the contest might not be too desperate: if the art of telling an interesting story were to be called “perennial,” for instance, rather than “archaic.” We have also to reckon the distinct probability that “the adversary culture” (in Lionel Trilling’s phrase) will contrive to tame Mr. Barthelme’s lion within a matter of months: the process by which a subversive fiction is possessed by its chosen audience, adversaries to a man, and then turned into a jokebook—we have only to wait and watch this in action. Mr. Wilder is unlikely to be a victim of this process. His book is not addressed to the adversaries at all. It is in no danger from that source. Nor is it in danger of being domesticated; it is already, in its own idiom, as domestic as it will ever be. So what remains? We tend to assume that the moral advantage is in favor of the adversary culture and its fictional products, but we are beginning to doubt.

The trouble is that it is too easy to criticize the official culture. Critique has already arrived at a complete severance of the inner and the outer worlds. Mr. Barthelme addresses those who have already given up the attempt to make sense of the quotidian world, dancing upon the corpse. Mr. Wilder addresses those who still believe that reality is double, “out there” and “in here,” and that there is a relation between the parts. It seems to me increasingly difficult to claim moral superiority for the adversary culture. Mr. Trilling is perfectly justified in asking whether this culture does not cultivate the old idols in new forms. Five or ten years ago it would have been easy to imply that Mr. Barthelme is on the side of the angels, and Mr. Wilder on the side of the Book-of-the-Month Club. Now it would be silly.

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