The Western Coast
Erections, Ejaculations, Exhibitions and General Tales of Ordinary Madness
I Come as a Thief
Here are five books of fiction that offer news from elsewhere. As in some Warner Brothers B-17 crew, all the groups are represented: we have a Jew (Israeli), a woman, an “ethnic” white, a patrician wasp, and a black, a diversity which should provide any reader with sufficient remoteness. But each writer is more than his or her background, more distant than any gross differentiation can indicate.
In My Michael Amos Oz considers the stubborn persistence of private desires and needs in the midst of a public condition that demands their limitation. The novel was published in Israel in 1968, shortly after the Six-Day War, and even from a distance one can see why it aroused such excitement and controversy. Oz tells the story of Hannah Gonen’s first decade of marriage, from 1950 to 1959, to Michael, a geologist, a steady, patient, good-natured but not witty or imaginative man, whose achievement of a professional career vaguely parallels the consolidation of the Israeli state. Unable to penetrate Michael’s decent kindness and reliability, Hannah (who majored in literature in college) grows increasingly alienated from him and his life in the “objective” world of knowledge, work, personal relations, and national concern. Unable to identify herself in that world, she devotes herself to memory as a way of possessing time and an identity for herself in it—“I have not forgotten” is the refrain of her narrative, since “to forget means to die.”
Devotion to memory, however, leads her into a private drama of fantasy and dream inside the glass dome she conceives of as separating her from Michael and his life. Hers are acquisitive fantasies of power and dominance, converting personal memory (the Arab twins she played with as a child), literary images (Moby Dick, Captain Nemo, and Michael Strogoff), and scraps of history (British destroyers from the War of Independence) into a pitifully melodramatic and self-centered inner life in which her will to exist can have room. At the end, depleted by nervous illness and a second pregnancy, she entertains her most overtly subversive fantasy of her Arab twins, matured into a composite lover-terrorist, infiltrating Israeli lines and dynamiting a water tower on her orders.
Oz’s dazzling control of imagistic patterning and texture makes Hannah’s reveries very beautiful as she struggles to preserve a sense of passion and adventure. But the practical conditions that impinge on that sense are solidly and fairly rendered too, and Oz sees that a struggle like hers risks not only madness but romantic triviality:
As for me, I move the sugar bowl towards one or other of the visitors and utter absentmindedly some such remark as:
“Where will all these fashionable ideas lead us?”
“One has to move with the times.”
“There are two sides to every question.”
I say these things so as not to sit silent all evening and seem rude. The sudden pain: Why have I been exiled here? Nautilus. Dragon. Isles of the Archipelago. Come, O come, Rahamim Rahamimov, my handsome Bokharian taxi driver. Give a loud blast on your horn. Miss Yvonne Azulai is all ready for the journey. Ready and waiting. Doesn’t even need to change. Absolutely ready to leave. Now.
But if an imaginative life founded mainly on words, names without any substantial experience behind them, is terribly vulnerable, the novel impresses on us the necessity of having some imaginative life, whatever the available materials.
Oz is too subtle a writer to make his book an indictment or an argument. Hannah’s pathos stems as much from being a woman as from being an Israeli, I should think, and it would take an extraordinary chauvinism to deny that Israel is at least no more congenial to having an adequate emotional life than other modern states. The particularities of My Michael refer beyond themselves, to the awful power of social and political obligation, however necessary and even just historically, to overwhelm private selfhood, and to the dreadful possibility that any exercise of the imagination may have destruction, both political and personal, as its end. Israel is a good place for a writer like Amos Oz, but it serves him as metaphor as well as scene. This splendidly conceived and composed novel should disturb not only his own countrymen.
The Western Coast is disturbing in another way. Paula Fox writes tersely, flatly, with painful ungraciousness, about confusion and misery in California during World War II. Along the way she risks every fictional cliché about Hollywood seaminess, the confusions of being an American communist, young girls trying to find themselves, the unpleasantness of poverty, and so on. Since she is both very intelligent and wholly without nervousness, her book, although not much fun to read, seems unexpectedly serious after you’re finished.
Annie Gianfala, a girl thought interestingly “ignorant” by almost everyone she meets, comes to Los Angeles from New York in 1939 to meet her arrogant suitor, an unemployed communist actor who has shipped out as a merchant seaman. Annie has an uninsistent curiosity about other people, a wish to know what they feel, but her own feelings are obscure even to her. Not knowing what she wants, she is drawn toward weakness even as she remains passive herself, hoping for others to take responsibility for her, yet unwilling to live as they want her to. Repelled by chaos, she resists system, hoping always to discover a hidden “world of grownups” yet recognizing that none of the worlds she comes upon measures up. She is, I suppose, both victim and monster.
Annie’s Los Angeles is thoroughly awful, a kind of enormous sewer, Fox suggests in one of her infrequent appeals to metaphor, through which pass the human excreta of a sick social body. Annie attracts drunks, desperate homosexuals, weaklings, suicides, phonies. Her marriage to the sailor is a disaster. She moves from one marginal job to another, sleeps around without much pleasure, learns to drink too much, and, just to clinch things, has to pass a tapeworm. The few decent men she meets are either married or black, unwilling or unable to make the kind of commitment she’s seeking. She has brief Lawrentian moments of release from mere personality in excursions with men to Yosemite and Big Bear Lake, and her final departure for Europe after the war may offer a faint new hope, but nothing in urban America holds up as an adequate object, political, philosophical, or sexual, for her need to be something, anything, more than she is.
What is most impressive here is Fox’s ability to remain almost frighteningly remote and noncommittal, without easy sympathy for her heroine. Annie’s story has much to do with the condition of women in a world where men are stupid, weak, or imprisoned by false self-conceptions; but the historical setting, and the author’s reticence, permit no voguish translation into the terms of contemporary feminism. Still, this detachment costs something. I’m not sure what is gained, positively, by the particular choice of time, apart from the rather easy mirroring of Annie’s personal confusions in the agonies of her communist friends over the Hitler-Stalin pact and the German attack on Russia. Nor do I quite understand Annie’s last words: ” ‘I was taken to California,’ she said. ‘After a while I escaped.’ ” While the things she may (or may not) have escaped seem larger and clearer in Los Angeles, I’m not sure that they are significantly peculiar to that place. (Her memories of New York are much the same.) Paula Fox wants fictional events to generate their own meaning, and this is right, but like the man in Thurber’s drawing I keep wondering what she wants to be inscrutable for.
Charles Bukowski never did escape from California. Certainly he is quite unimaginable anywhere else, and he is still out there on the West Coast, writing poems and stories about his five decades of drinking, screwing, horse-playing, and drifting around, proving defiantly that even at the edge of the abyss language persists. “A legend in his own time,” the cover of his new collection of stories calls him, and that seems fair.
Erections, Ejaculations, Exhibitions and General Tales of Ordinary Madness is a mixed lot. Bukowski’s main market, the underground press and the girlie mags, casts a long shadow here—as he says himself, “To get rid of a story you gotta have fucking, lots of it, if possible,” and the little formulas of commercial pornography (“one of the best fucks I ever had,” etc.) recur on cue. There are some heavy attempts at satiric fantasy, and a tendency to end stories with the kind of peek at the reader (“What would you do?”) usually reserved for high-school composition classes.
But Bukowski is more fun to read than that. He writes as an unregenerate lowbrow contemptuous of our claims to superior being. Politics is bullshit, since work is as brutalizing and unrewarding in a liberal order as in any totalitarian one; artists and intellectuals are mostly fakes, smugly enjoying the blessings of the society they carp at; the radical young are spiritless asses, insulated by drugs and their own endless cant from any authentic experience of mind or body; most women are whores, though honest whores are good and desirable; no life finally works, but the best one possible involves plenty of six-packs, enough money to go to the track, and a willing woman of any age and shape in a good old-fashioned garter belt and high heels.
He makes literature out of the unfashionable and unideological tastes and biases of an average Wallace voter. And that sense of life is worth hearing about when it takes the form not of socko sex-and-schmerz but of blunt, unembarrassed explanation of how it feels to be Bukowski, mad but only north-north-west, among pretentious and lifeless claims to originality and fervor. Here he is in an underground press editorial office:
I had been given the idea…that since it was the first anniversary of Open Pussy the wine and the pussy and the life and the love would be flowing.
But coming in very high and expecting to see fucking on the floor and love galore, I only saw all these little love-creatures busily at work. They reminded me very much, so humped and dismal, of the little old ladies working on piecework I used to deliver cloth to, working my way up through rope-hauled elevators full of rats and stink, one hundred years old, piecework ladies, proud and dead and neurotic as all hell, working to make a millionaire out of somebody.
He comes off best at anarchist satire in a plastic world—drinking and foul-mouthing himself into disgrace in cocktail lounges, on airliners, and at college poetry readings, showing up at a high-society Zen wedding as the only guest who’s put on a tie and brought a present (he resentfully gets drunk, tries to remove the Zen master’s marvelously translucent ears, and is felled by a karate chop), mistaking long-haired boys for girls, caught between secret pleasure and horror at the knowledge that his poems are known and admired by some of the cognoscenti. For all his dedication to the old role of the macho artist, the boozing, tough-talking writing phallus we knew and loved so well, Bukowski has a bit of the softy, the man of sentiment, the gull in him, happily for his art; he knows as well as we do that history has passed him by and that his loss is ours too, and in some of these sad and funny stories his status as a relic isn’t wholly without its sanctity.
Louis Auchincloss is a white American male writer whose fictional world is even more remote than Bukowski’s. I Come as a Thief tells of the destruction, which (see the title’s allusion to Revelation) is also the salvation, of Tony Lowder, New York lawyer, liberal Democrat on the verge of a promising political career, self-made superwasp even though he’s Irish-Jewish in background and went to the wrong schools. But he has found it hard to make do on $40,000 a year, as who doesn’t, and while he marks time as Special Assistant to the Regional Director of the SEC, temptation comes his way. A tumbling market brings margin calls on investments his shady partner, a closet queen from Williams College, has involved him in, and by way of the Mafia he is offered, and takes, a fat bribe to delay the investigation of a temporarily undercapitalized brokerage house.
After much ingenious complication, Tony is convicted, having been betrayed by virtually everyone in town. We learn that his unthinkable breach of probity is far from his first adventure into the world, as Moll Flanders would say—at fourteen he was a virtual one-boy crime wave among the toys and chattels of his friends and relations; he’s had the wife of an acquaintance for his mistress since before their respective marriages. But crime is only a necessary prelude to his larger fate—at a party at his dying mistress’s Long Island estate he has a religious experience, a vision of the nullity of himself and his life, and begins the job of repentance. Thus, while he suffers the consequences of human law (not to mention that his thoroughbred wife, who can overlook his little lapses, can’t stand his new holier-than-thou attitude, or that his son gets run over by a car), he learns to accept his life and the obligations to others crime has brought him. At the end he looks forward to his prospects after prison, selling office equipment on the road in Syracuse and Albany while he tries to save everybody.
I can believe that the lower-upper class is human, with problems and troubles that feel as painful as anyone else’s. But Auchincloss (however unfairly) has going against him our odd insistence in thinking that plain folk are more credible, in novels if not generally, than people like Tony Lowder and his crowd. Fiction seems the wrong medium for the privileged life, which belongs, if anywhere, in spreads in Country Life or the New York Times society page, or in the moments of awed intrusion that TV likes to purvey.
Writers like Jane Austen, Henry James, and Edith Wharton got away with it by rendering upper-class speech and manners in a style that combined a high degree of artifice with a healthy dose of affectionate malice. But artifice and malice are just what Auchincloss can’t manage:
“Believe me, love, I know what I’m doing. And I know what the risks are. I think I’m almost glad it’s too late for me to confess. There’s something so boy scout and cheap movie about striding up to an officer and saying: ‘Take me. I did it. With my little hatchet!’ It’s a cleaner, sounder business to be caught. Caught red-handed. Then there’s no nonsense about being a pompous ass. Everything is simplified. I did wrong. I got caught. I went to jail. Try to forgive me, if I prefer it this way.”
Perhaps people really do talk like this on the Upper East Side, but it can only sound like parody in a modern novel, just as Tony’s religious discovery, put in the idiom of high-Protestant blandness, can’t sound like much more than the perfection of the gentleman’s code. I wish someone would write the novel Auchincloss wants to, someone with an equally refined concern for ethical nuance and a somewhat better ear, but I doubt that it can be done in times like these.
And then there is Ishmael Reed, who has a fine ear, not only for speech but for the undertones within cultural cacophony. Mumbo Jumbo isn’t at all concerned with the traditional province of fiction, the registration of individual consciousness. Rather, as in his earlier books The Free-Lance Pall-Bearers and Yellow-Back Radio Broke Down, Reed opens fictional art to the forms and mythic possibilities of popular culture, pursuing not psychological description but a perspective on history.
He finds his apparatus in our most naïve and childish imaginings:
Someone once said that beneath or behind all political and cultural warfare lies a struggle between secret societies. Another author suggested that the Nursery Rhyme and the book of Science Fiction might be more revolutionary than any number of tracts, pamphlets, manifestoes of the political realm.
From this cue he develops a wild and funny fantasia upon historical themes, part critique of the “Harlem Renaissance” of the 1920s, part farcical thriller about international conspiracy, part satire on blacks who yearn for “serious” (i.e., white-inspired) culture instead of trusting their own traditions and qualities, part philosophical disquisition on the destructive intentions of Faustian man. The result is something like a successful crossing of Pynchon, Sax Rohmer, Madame Blavatsky, and the “Negritude” writers of French Africa.
Western civilization, it seems, is the deliberate creation of Atonism, the rationalist, monotheistic, militarist creed dedicated from the dawn of history (its symbol is the sun) to the suppression of animism, the natural magic figured in music, dance, and generative rhythms that reasserts itself periodically, as in the cult of Osiris, the Dionysian mysteries, and jazz. (Christ was an Atonist compromise, as Frazerian anthropology understood—“they made him do everything that Osiris does, sow like a farmer, be a fisherman among men but he is still a bokor, a sorcerer, an early Faust.”) The military arm of Atonism is the Wallflower Order, descended from the Teutonic Knights and in grim rivalry with their disgraced cousins the Knights Templar, dedicated to the proposition that “Lord, if I can’t dance, No one shall.” Official history, from Moses and Christ through the Emperor Constantine, the medieval papacy, Milton and Cromwell, down to Freud, Wilson and Coolidge, the Mellons, Hitler, and the whole gang, records and celebrates Atonist repression of the instinctive, the mystical, the rhythmic.
In Mumbo Jumbo this tyrannical order struggles against “Jes Grew,” the jazz craze creeping up the river from New Orleans like a plague threatening serious American civilization, white and black, with the flapperization of all its children. And there are parallel infiltrations, like the Mu’tafikah, a gang of black, red, and yellow art-nappers raiding museums to restore ethnic works to their places of origin, and the benign machinations of PaPa LaBas, high priest of Mumbo Jumbo Kathedral, the apostle of VooDoo who “carries Jes Grew in him like most other folk carry genes.” Off-stage, veiled by an official news blackout (!) in the American papers, the VooDoo Generals of Haiti resist and humiliate the United States Marines. In whatever form, the black art of Jes Grew, by its offer of psychic contact with “the gut heart and lungs of Africa’s interior,” threatens the precious distinction between high and low culture.
Reed’s satiric imagination, by putting white and black culture together for his own purposes, plays with a hope for something more than a negative and hostile relation between them. But if blacks are to redeem the white soul from its bondage to sterile reason, they must learn uncompromisingly to be themselves. While the Wallflowers’s chief agent, Hinckle Von Vampton (evidently a glance at Carl Van Vechten), is an ofay who ingratiates himself with the more respectable elements of the black intelligentsia, his cunning feeds on the reluctance of the Harlem Renaissance to accept “race” materials, the failure of serious and well-intentioned black artists and intellectuals to sufficiently value indigenous black culture unless it could be elevated to the status of “high” art like the white folks’. Among all the other things it is, Mumbo Jumbo is an astringent commentary on an important and painful episode in the history of black consciousness, whose consequences still are felt.
Reed’s is a quick and mocking mind, and I’m not finally sure how seriously he means his historical myth. But I’m content to read it as I read the “systematic” works of Blake and Yeats, not primarily as analysis but as an act of continuous and powerful invention, a demonstration that the imagination, black or white, when released from conventional forms and the idea of a monolithic history, can be wonderfully entertaining and instructive, moment by moment, about the sorry narrowness of our self-understanding and our expectations about art. Ishmael Reed’s elsewhere turns out to be right next door, but his news of it is very new indeed.