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What Went Wrong?

Back in Montreal Jake made straight for the bar in Central Station, ordered a double whisky, and paid for it with American money.

Montreal is the Paris of North America,” the waiter said. “I trust you will enjoy your stay, sir.”

Jake stared at his change. “What’s this,” he asked, “Monopoly money?”

It’s Canadian.”

Jake laughed, pleased.

Canada’s no joke. We’re the world’s leading producer of uranium. Walter Pidgeon was born in this country.”

or:

In the afternoons they studied for their bar mitzvahs at the Young Israel synagogue and at night they locked the door to Arty’s room, dropped their trousers to their ankles, and studied themselves for bush growth. Pathetic miserable little hairs, wouldn’t they ever proliferate? Duddy Kravitz taught them how to encourage hair growth by shaving, a sometimes stinging process. “One slip of the razor, you schmock, and you’ll grow up a hairdresser. Like Gordie Shapiro.” Duddy also told them how Japanese girls were able to diddle themselves in hammocks. Of course Duddy was the bushiest, with the longest, most menacingly veined, thickest cock of all. He won so regularly when they masturbated against the clock, first to come picks up all the quarters, that before long they would not compete unless he accepted a sixty-second handicap.

Well, that is the most familiar tone now in fashion; you can quote it easily, like it or not like it equally easily, feel superior to it at whim or peril.

The question is not, Is it art? but, Can you make a novel out of it? To which the theoretical answer is a forceful yes while the answer in practice is usually a qualified no. Malamud’s self-pity shrinks to nothing beside the self-regard of Richler’s narrator. There is nothing he will not try to package with humor and anguish: the Fifties, Jews on Germans, assimilation, modern London, Toronto, the sexual and hygienic trials of the middle-aged rich, the sexual revenges of the down-trodden, the tendency of lives to approach tabloid journalism. Richler’s aim is almost encyclopedic, and he knows full well he has left himself wide open to the charge that he offers nothing new:

Years and years ago, he recalled, another Jake, ponderously searching for a better way than St. Urbain’s, had started out on his intellectual trek immensely heartened to discover, through the books that shaped him, that he wasn’t a freak. There were others who thought and felt as he did. Now the same liberated bunch dissatisfied, even bored him. The novels he devoured so hopefully, conned by overexcited reviews, were sometimes diverting, but told him nothing he had not already known. On the contrary, they only served to reaffirm, albeit on occasion with style, his own feelings. In a word, they were self-regarding….

To read of meanness in others, promiscuity well observed or greed understood, to discover his own inadequacies shared no longer licensed him, any more than all the deaths that had come before could begin to make his own endurable.

A nice point.

For any novelist, the way out of the box that Richler so cleverly constructs around himself here is not to go on trying to convince others that they are not freaks, which is the usual praise of his kind of book. It is to test his style and his anecdotes and his autobiography by means of a real story. Richler senses this, and he tries to keep his narrator from being only another instance of charming and arrested adolescence. At the beginning of the novel Jake Hersh, a wealthy television director in London, is going on trial for participation in some wild sexual shenanigans. As we go along we gradually learn what the shenanigans allegedly were; near the end we come pretty close to knowing Jake’s complicity in them. And that is all carefully connected with Jake’s boredom with the present, his fear of death, his search for his tawdry but heroic lost cousin, the first St. Urbain’s horseman, and with his co-defendant, a really funny and grubby pervert from the East End.

But “connected with” is all we can say here. Richler wrote, before this, three rather ordinary raconteur novels, and he saw he needed a story. But the one he comes up with, neat and “connecting” though it be, is a raconteur’s story, shaggy and timed, incapable of testing anything. And the test of that is the narrative voice. If the story were really a story, the voice would alter as it encounters the changes the plot forces it to recognize; consult Catch-22, that very good novel, on this point. As yet Richler sees the need for testing with his story more than he knows how to do it. He simply is too attracted by his own gaudy attractiveness, and the only limits he allows for are those he defines for himself, not those discovered in a fiction. The voice in Catch-22 changes each time it retells its story, which means we do not end up where we began; the voice in St. Urbain’s Horseman is by comparison static, completing itself, encountering nothing anew. I like Richler’s voice, but wish it would give itself sterner tasks to do.

Joyce Carol Oates’s strengths are Mordecai Richler’s weaknesses, and vice versa. She is humorless where he is witty, filled with a pressing tale where he is chatty, deeply concerned with her characters where he is content with the masturbatory feats of Duddy Kravitz. Wonderland is a great anguished slab of a book, filled with real grotesqueness rather than with the cardboard wildness that Richler calls the grotesque. The novel opens with a December day in the life of an adolescent boy in a very small town in western New York. Something is wrong: the father is morose, out of work, his gas station is for sale and that greatly embarrasses the boy and his older sister; the sister and the mother quarrel at the kitchen table before school; the boy himself is sick to his stomach during a Christmas assembly. Step-by-step Miss Oates puts her pieces together beautifully until the father appears in the store where the boy works, yanks him out, and drives him home, and slowly the boy begins to realize that the father has killed everyone else in the family, and means to kill him. He runs, is wounded, ends in a hospital, the only one in his family left alive.

It is the best thing in all four novels, profuse and precise in detail, yet driven by a strong sense that something is still to happen. When this kind of climax comes so early in a very long novel one is left wondering if anything like this can be sustained, and how. The answer the rest of the novel offers is never convincing; it lurches and drives, often with considerable intensity, but as a whole it is obscure. It should be that this is a novel about a boy and man whose family is destroyed in a mass murder, but Miss Oates cuts that off by having the boy flee so completely in body and mind that he, and the novel, cannot register his past, and a book that cannot register its past is a book whose form must end up being created arbitrarily.

But the novel’s second long sequence is almost as good as the first. The boy goes to Lockport as the adopted son of a huge, corrupt, immensely persuasive provincial doctor, a figure at least as grotesque as the boy’s father. The family lives at meal times, when the doctor asks his children to give recitations, and they, and he, respond to the pressure he thereby builds up by eating and eating, each successful performance celebrated and defeated by more food. They are all very fat, and hungry all the time. The doctor’s wife finally tries to escape and asks the boy’s help. They flee to Buffalo, and in a particularly wild scene they eat two full Chinese meals and endless snacks, thereby rendering themselves liable to be hunted down by the doctor. Which they are.

If it all sounds grand and mad, it is. Miss Oates builds scenes and sequences of scenes very well; she has a fine sense of the way one powerful and grotesque person can transform everyone into himself, and this makes for some splendid writing. But then, as we watch the boy go through college and then medical school, it slowly becomes clear that Miss Oates means for us to take her wild and mad collection of people and know it is America. When in doubt, call it social commentary, and we realize that for all their many differences she and Mordecai Richler have much in common.

The effect of her book is of course much different from Richler’s: with St. Urbain’s Horseman you learn early on that the plot is mostly a hoax and so you can relax with the commentary; with Wonderland you are led to believe from the great opening bursts that something fine is going to happen, then you become increasingly depressed as Miss Oates dwindles her story into a metaphor for Modern Times that Richler could spin better in ten pages than she can in three hundred. She ought to be better than he is because she respects rather than regards herself, but she ends up worse. The idea that the boy keeps on trying to flee his past as he becomes a man is for many pages only an excuse to ignore earlier parts of the work. Gradually the story turns into a fable of loneliness and success, the inhumanity of great doctors, etc.—we might as well be reading one of the later novels of John Dos Passos.

Miss Oates’s talent is for unfolding horrors and mysteries in big scenes, which means that as we read we must be quite passive, letting her strip away each layer of apparently placid domestic detail. When she has no mystery to offer, when the horrors become banalities, we can realize this only after the fact, after the promised big guns have not gone off, and it may well be that Miss Oates is as powerless as we are in this matter. She seems to have to write herself into her big scenes before she can really know how they’re going to go, if they’re going to be good and if the guns are going to go off.

This is particularly telling at the very end of Wonderland. The boy, by now a doctor approaching middle age, becomes obsessed by the flower child waywardness of his second daughter. She writes him loving and hating and tantalizing letters from all over the continent and he finally tracks her down in a grungy Toronto street. She is there with her man, and there is a constant threat that the doctor will kill them both—and so become like his own father?—but the scene lurches hither and yon, the shootings don’t happen—because he is not like his father? because the times they are a-changing? Who knows. Father and daughter end up on a boat, where he is reduced to wailing: “All of you…everyone…all my life, everyone…. Always you are going away from me and you don’t come back to explain.” The doctor and his author, it would seem, are equally baffled. As the final clarity of a huge and ambitious novel, it is pathetically inadequate.

The truth, I think, is that Joyce Carol Oates is as yet only a writer of short stories just as Mordecai Richler is only a raconteur of gossip and anecdote. They don’t see well enough how life goes to sustain a whole novel, and each has let his great talents and energies obscure this fact. Both tend to lapse into thinking that their interesting and strange angles on life are really its central truths, and then to let that lapsing serve as a vision of our common contemporary lot. Since there is nothing they can’t write about, they tend to drift, to write about everything. Richler gives us a long account of a softball game on Hampstead Heath played by wealthy and middleaged Jews in show business in London. We are told their life stories, how they do at bat, in the field, in the market, in bed with this wife or that mistress. It’s all supposed to matter, but it doesn’t.

Joyce Carol Oates goes on for pages about her doctor and a woman named Reva, whom he has seen somewhere but can’t place, with whom he becomes obsessed, apparently for years, though it’s quite clear to her and to us that she isn’t worth it. He even leaves home to track her down to a shack in northern Wisconsin; she seems willing to go away with him, but it turns out his love for her is merely suicidal, and he leaves.

In Richler’s case, the softball game is only another excuse for display; in Miss Oates’s, Reva is only an invitation to write some big scenes that resolutely won’t come off and so turn into metaphors for the doctor’s need to run from life. In each case—and both authors have many more—one suspects the writer realized that a dead end had been reached, but to have deleted the episodes would have been to ask more strictly than either was willing to do what really belonged.

Yes, oh dear yes, the novel tells a story, says E. M. Forster despondently in Aspects of the Novel. He assumed the modern novel should try to liberate itself from storytelling somehow, but it turned out that modern novelists at their best were only finding new stories to tell and new ways to tell them. It’s not that we can’t get rid of story in fiction, but that to try to do so is to evade the central truth that to say what happens next is to say what you mean. Of course good novels do superb things in addition to telling their tales, just as inferior novels will have inferior stories that are nonetheless in their way often more fully completed than those of better novels.

John Hawkes’s story is as fully rendered as any of the four novels here being considered. If you accept its terms all else follows, and it is only the terms that are intolerable. But with Malamud, Richler, and Oates the question of story is more interesting and indicative of why their current novels do not succeed as well as they should have. Malamud’s trouble, his fuzziness about how to get from his premise to its conclusion, seems more a miscalculation than anything else, of a kind that plagues even the best of writers. He seems mostly to have overestimated his material, or to have imagined he was more interested in it than he really was. But he is an experienced and wise enough writer to accept this. If The Tenants does not finally work, then tomorrow, as Lesser says, is another day.

With Mordecai Richler and Joyce Carol Oates, however, one feels that all is neither already lost, as with Hawkes, nor pretty generally known, as with Malamud. They have rich talents and badly need to use them more rigorously, to accept their strengths as being by now given and assured, to acknowledge their weaknesses as defects of their virtues and so as something that must be lived with, looked into, slowly overcome if possible. There is great potential waste as well as considerable potential achievement in both of them. They need now to put themselves in the position of Malamud’s Lesser, paralyzed and refusing to finish until he sees how his story should go right through to the end and how that ending says his sense of life. So long as his novel is about something as vague as “Love, I guess,” he shouldn’t finish, and so he can’t.

That is the current lesson of this particular master. One of his epigraphs is from a Bessie Smith song: “I got to make it, I got to find the end.” Richler and Miss Oates have, in one sense, made it already; they still have got to find the end that will make the beginning and everything in between clearer and truly revealing.

Letters

A Put-On? December 2, 1971

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