The Truth About Them
by Jose Yglesias
World, 215 pp., $7.95
by Hubert Selby Jr.
Grove Press, 288 pp., $5.95
The Book of Flights
by J.M.G. Le Clézio, translated by Simon Watson Taylor
Atheneum, 319 pp., $6.95
Natives of My Person
by George Lamming
Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 345 pp., $7.95
Once, long ago, there were only novelists, content to make up stories they hoped might amuse, excite, or improve the character. Now, however, we also have “serious novelists,” writers who keep worrying themselves and their readers about art and ideas, determined to be significant even if it kills us. A serious novel doesn’t achieve seriousness, the real thing, simply by warning you not to relax and enjoy; and it risks something in its insistence on seeming more than the commercial product.
Here are four serious novels by intelligent and practiced writers, with some nineteen books to their collective credit. Each has his own sense of experience and his own scrupulosities about his art. But as it gets harder and harder to write a really bad novel—compare Love Story or even Airport with the really bad novels of fifty years ago—it also seems to get harder to write a really good one. I wish I liked the worst of these books less, and the best better. But the center holds all too well, since the center is the tactical sophistication all novelists, serious or otherwise, now carry in their pockets. Even out at the crazy edges, where imagination struggles to reconcile form with life, things now feel pretty stable; imaginative struggles have become the most conventional of fictional conventions.
But of course one must discriminate. Certainly Jose Yglesias isn’t a very edgy novelist. In The Truth About Them the obligatory skepticisms stir around in a narrator who is reconstructing a family history that began before he was there to record it. Occasionally he says that his knowledge is incomplete, his understanding tentative, and so on; it is thus that one maintains membership in a tricky craft. But mostly The Truth About Them, though told episodically and with a lot of temporal crisscross, means what the title says.
Yglesias’s seriousness is decently old-fashioned. The novel concerns the lives of a Cuban-American family in Florida and Depression New York, from the mid-nineteenth century to now. Pini, the narrator, is of its nearly assimilated third generation. Now middle-aged, a veteran of World War II, and a journalist turned novelist, he lives in New York with his Jewish wife and two up-to-date children, one of whom, a student radical blooded at Columbia, goes underground as the book ends. Pini’s grandmother, the long-dead matriarch whose remembrance hovers over the lives of her children and grandchildren, was an aristocratic girl from Matanzas who left Cuba to bear an illegitimate child whose father she was too proud to marry. She met and married an émigré cigar maker, and settled into a working-class life she mastered without ever quite accepting. Her reach for freedom, with its ambiguous results, is the thread Pini pursues through the family’s experience.
Yglesias’s perspective on America has considerable freshness. These are not the conventional poor people of social protest novels, though they knew poverty well enough in hard times and felt the confused and inept discriminations …