The Collected Stories
Pricksongs & Descants
The French Lieutenant’s Woman
Fiction can do almost everything with its not being fact, except ignore the matter. None of these four books can risk the supreme self-consciousness of claiming not to be self-conscious at all. At one extreme are Peter Taylor’s stories, faithful renderings of small-town infidelities, almost (but only almost) asking to be taken as photographs; and yet the best of the stories, “There,” is also the one which on its first page comes out with its fictional self-consciousness: “Nowadays particularly, there seems something unreal about people you have known on a sea voyage. To me, at least, it is nearly always as though I have met some character out of the past or out of a novel.”
At the other extreme are Robert Coover’s stories, almost (but only almost) asking to be taken as autonomous tours-de-force, tail-eating snakes the only concerns of which are with their own sinuous and insinuating fictitiousness; and yet the best of the stories are those where the surrealism takes its meaning from the unignorable real:
But where is the caretaker’s son? I don’t know. He was here, shrinking into the shadows, when Karen’s sister entered. Yet, though she catalogues the room’s disrepair, there is no mention of the caretaker’s son. This is awkward. Didn’t I invent him myself, along with the girls and the man in the turtleneck shirt? Didn’t I round his back and stunt his legs and cause the hair to hang between his buttocks? I don’t know. The girls, yes, and the tall man in the shirt—to be sure, he’s one of the first of my inventions. But the caretaker’s son? To tell the truth, I sometimes wonder if it was not he who invented me….
Midway between Taylor and Coover are the two novels. Joyce Carol Oates’s them stands nearer to Taylor, in that it reports the world rather than its own fantasies; and yet when one of the characters thinks of her money—“it was as real as a novel by Jane Austen”—we are being urged to self-consciousness; and Miss Oates felt obliged to offer an Author’s Note: “This is a work of history in fictional form…. My initial feeling about her life was ‘This must be fiction, this can’t all be real!’ My more permanent feeling was ‘This is the only kind of fiction that is real.’ ” Finally, there is John Fowles’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman, which is set in Lyme Regis in 1867, and which tells its story of high passion within the conventions of the nineteenth-century novel and yet with frequent interruptions and adjurations from its twentieth-century creator, who even puts in a couple of spectral—but so bearded as to be incontrovertibly there—appearances to eye the characters. Whether wisely or not, Mr. Fowles is of these writers the most articulate ponderer of fictional self-consciousness.
Peter Taylor offers slices of life. But sliced life often has the vapidity of sliced bread. Nutritious and unsensational. When Mr. Taylor evokes a family quarrel or a tragic loneliness or a dismayed nostalgia, he doesn’t make a meal of it. This is scrupulous of him, but leaves us without a meal. Moreover his allegiances are the kindly liberal ones which sliced bread might epitomize: nothing poisonous or pernicious, much that is handy, decent, prudent, hygienic, fortifying. But this is not the staff of life, or the Eucharistic marvel, or anything which you could positively cast on the waters. Liberal literature—as George Orwell and E. M. Forster and Lionel Trilling have well reminded us—has its proper cautions, and these properly elicit caution in turn. Two cheers comes to seem a decent score.
My uncle said that this town was where General Winfield Scott had made one of his halts on the notorious Trail of Tears, when he was rounding up the Cherokees to move them west, in 1838. The two men spoke of what a cruel thing that had been, but they agreed that one must not judge the persons responsible too harshly, that one must judge them by the light of their times and remember what the early settlers had suffered at the hands of the Indians.
Some authorial coolness is to be admired for its humane conviction that such a way of speaking won’t do, since it reduces moral and political urgencies to the hollow rhythms of table tennis (on the one hand, on the other hand); nevertheless the coolness is also to be admired for its implicit insistence that there are ways of speaking which much more totally won’t do, one of which would be the branding of all such conscientious corrugators as rat-finks. Political morality as table-tennis has its advantages over political morality as gladiator-combats.
As always with liberal literature, the anxieties of the liberal conscience steal the show, and thereby create yet another anxiety: should all this suffering and injustice form part of a show? The best of Mr. Taylor’s stories are those in which his guileless (but skilled) transparency meets people or situations which are opaque, not assimilable, not ones for the decencies. “Two Pilgrims” and “Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time” explore such meetings, and their success is directly a matter of reminding us, finely to their creator’s mild surprise, that moderation is at best a clearing whereas the world is immoderate. Naturally enough, any overt statements about the unliberalness of the world have the air of being in collusion with a masked optimism, so that when Mr. Taylor has one of his characters think, “Inadvertently, he had penetrated beyond all the good sense and reasonableness that made life seem worthwhile—or even tolerable,” we narrow our eyes. You need to be a great deal more robust than that if you are going to take the bull by the horns. Too often Mr. Taylor pleads.
She felt that she would be willing to say anything at all, no matter how cruel or absurd it was, if it would make them understand that everything that happened in life only demonstrated in some way the lonesomeness that people felt.
Indirection does more, as when it is left to us to make what should be made of something literal like this: “In fact, one of her most exasperating pronouncements was, ‘You are exactly right.’ ” Or of something literal like this: “Sparks could have smoldered in that roof of rotten shingles for a long time before bursting into flame.” But sometimes Mr. Taylor’s patient anxiety gives way and he becomes, as a liberal writer often does, a schoolmasterly scold. “Cookie” ends:
He hesitated a moment; he could still hear their voices indistinctly—their senseless voices. He began walking with light sure steps over the grass—their ugly, old voices. In the driveway, his car, bright and new and luxurious, was waiting for him.
Waiting, too, for Mr. Taylor. The bright car is too serviceable an indictment, especially from a writer whose strongest indictment is reserved for brisk indicters. The same goes for “The Elect,” which falls into a professional slickness indistinguishable from that of the successful politician whom the story deplores. “Who betrayed whom, who let whom down”: Mr. Taylor’s best stories are a training in vigilance, and the vigilance then damages the less than best.
“Once upon a time there was a beautiful young Princess in tight gold pants, so very tight in fact that no one could remove them from her.” As with the title, Pricksongs & Descants, the right response would seem to be a counter-tenor tee-hee. And then what? As the aloof little blurb has it, “It bears on one edge an indecipherable legend, a single cleft rune, not unlike the maiden’s own vanished birthmark, and I am inclined to believe that portentous inscrutability may in fact be the point of it all.” Who now could venture to suggest that portentous inscrutability may be the pointlessness of it all?
Like all violently coercive writers, Robert Coover thinks it prudent to disarm us. “Alexandrian impudence,” shrills a character, while the author lowers his eyes. “Applause and cheers greet his eloquence, accepting which he preens and smiles.” How self-important irony has been getting lately. But Pricksongs & Descants shows how much less good can come of some influences than of others. Either influences or the zeitgeist. John Barth looms behind the crude fatuities and linguistic boisterousness of Mr. Coover’s “Morris in Chains,” and Donald Barthelme is likely to be at once brightly attentive and slightly bored in the face of the whimsical-sinister tales which adapt Red Riding Hood and Hansel and Gretel. The Biblical billetdoux seem to me in glumly bad taste (Noah in “The Brother,” Joseph and Mary in “J’s Marriage”), though one is aware that bad taste is what such stories are supposed to be triumphantly scaling.
Fortunately there is the benign influence of Beckett. Pricksongs & Descants has affinities with More Pricks than Kicks. Sometimes the debt is a bad one, creating nothing but the pastiche of a tone of voice: “And yet, it is only the desolation of artifact, is it not,” where the precarious gentility of Beckett’s “is it not,” has degenerated into prissiness. Likewise with the grotesque walking in “The Leper’s Helix”; Beckett has done that once and for all. But Mr. Coover—who is manifestly very clever indeed, and very sensitive despite his decision that it is de rigueur to alternate between glowering and twinkling—has caught much more than mannerism from Beckett or from the zeitgeist. The ticking of the bomb is all but inaudible. “‘You asked for a doctor,’ said an old but gentle voice.” Or there is the perturbed scrutiny of an idiom (“It is one thing to…”), as when the self-conscious narrator of “The Magic Poker” broods over his brood:
It is one thing to discover the shag of hair between my buttocks, quite another to find myself tugging the tight gold pants off Karen’s sister. Or perhaps it is the same thing, yet troubling in either case.
“The Wayfarer,” “The Marker,” “The Babysitter,” “The Hat Act”: these are not vacant surrealisms, and even those who feel that the sick joke has been an unconscionable time dying may yet like Mr. Coover’s bedside manner. The glacial hauteur is designed to ward off any possibility of finding out whether or not the words are heartfelt, but there can be no doubt as to their being headfelt.
Heart is Miss Oates’s part. Though she speaks of irony, she is skeptical of it. Fortunately there is in them itself no counterpart to the uneasy self-depreciation which warps her Author’s Note, with its concluding curtsey about “the rather disdainful and timorous title them.” Disdainful and timorous Miss Oates is not, and knows she is not. She has a proper dislike of self-depreciation, and pities those who have been unnerved out of confidence. One of her earlier stories, “Arch-ways,”* speaks bitterly of how the young are “educated now into knowing their unworth”; this story has clear affinities with the end of them, and a sense of “unworth” is Miss Oates’s true and desolating concern. She would not adopt the old pompous ways of speaking of self-respect (“oft times nothing profits more / Than self esteem, grounded on just and right“), but she has a staunchly old-fashioned, and salutary, sense of the relations between self-respect and respectability. The degradations of city life are so intense, and so intensely created by her, that respectability can be seen as vital to self-preservation; one remembers Steven Marcus’s fine account in The Other Victorians of respectability and urban brutality, and of the amount that respectability made possible that was not just worthwhile but a matter of life and death.
Upon the Sweeping Flood and Other Stories, Vanguard, $4.95.↩
Upon the Sweeping Flood and Other Stories, Vanguard, $4.95.↩