by Richard Stern
Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 209 pp., $5.95
The File on Stanley Patton Buchta
by Irvin Faust
Random House, 288 pp., $5.95
The Bamboo Bed
by William Eastlake
Simon & Schuster, 350 pp., $6.50
by Philippe Sollers, translated by A.M. Sheridan Smith
Red Dust, 96 pp., $4.25
In one of Richard Stern’s seven tales which, with two essays, make up 1968, there is a man called McCoshan, “a gentleman out of sympathy with the times,” who drops ideas, large generalizations, at breakfast-time, when he “uncovers for his wife the terrible configurations beneath the newspaper facts.” This is surely what Stern himself is trying to do, in what he calls “a diverse collection commenting on contemporary life.” So are the other two American novelists under review. They trade in social problems—those newspaper constructs which travel the media of the Western world, winning votes for conservative politicians, things like Student Unrest, Law and Order, the Color Problem, Pollution, Sexual Permissiveness, the Death of God.
The three authors take what may be considered a “liberal” line on such issues, but are not making much of a case. How could they? To make a case, it is necessary to produce evidence, a consistent narrative of plausible events with causal explanations. But these authors are too proud to adopt such a technique, however suitable it may be for the courtroom, for reporting, for history books or the anecdotes of conversation. We are expected to agree that the novel has got beyond that stage; that there can be no realism, since there is no agreement about the nature of reality; that what people call the real world is only a fiction, an attempt to put in order something essentially disorderly; that true fiction must admit to telling lies, pointless lies, and discuss those lies in an amiable manner. The “newspaper facts” discussed by McCoshan will not be ordered and explained, and are beyond parody. These books are games, made tedious by conscientious moralizing and mimed profundity.
One of McCoshan’s moralizing propositions is that
…the Birchers, Minute Men, Neo-Nazis, and the NRA are far more useful than the planners, utopians, and think-tankers. Why? Because they take care of civil roughage. They’re the national excretory system.
A story could be built from this overambitious epigram, but not by Stern: he would rather write about people discussing public affairs, making large statements in a musing, self-congratulatory manner. Polyglottal sciolists all, they show and tell nothing in particular. We may remember Isaac Babel saying:
We have no one who knows how to show anything any more. They just talk about it, very long-windedly.
According to Stern’s publishers, his ambition is much like that of his own McCoshan: he wants to “wrench current dilemmas into patterns that clarify” and to “evoke the misery and comedy of the crucial year of mid-century America.” He has not succeeded His publishers are nearer the mark when they flaunt a review of his earlier work: “Enough to frighten a rustic.” Stern’s English is Butch Academic, allusive and exclusive, mingling a studied demotic with a little learning, none too lightly worn, so that each sentence seems designed to impress rather than communicate. Newspaper tragedies are made subjects for epigram; of more real concern are newspaper reviews, articles …
Criticism October 8, 1970