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 …