Where the Wolf Howls

Heartbreak Tango

by Manuel Puig, translated by Suzanne Jill Levine
Dutton, 224 pp., $6.95

Other Men’s Daughters

by Richard Stern
Dutton, 244 pp., $6.95

Ninety-Two in the Shade

by Thomas McGuane
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 197 pp., $6.95

The Obscene Bird of Night

by José Donoso, translated by Hardie St. Martin, translated by Leonard Mades
Knopf, 438 pp., $7.95

Modern styles are confessions of failure, point helplessly to a world which, in the end, eludes the writer. Kafka’s baffling directness, Joyce’s infinite ingenuity; Mann’s lifelong impersonation of a boring old codger; the raveled syntax of Proust and James, that interminable prose which always seems to find room for one more quibbling clause: all these styles are wonderfully eloquent and successful confessions, but what they confess is a failure to make language reach right up to the world. The idea of the mot juste has died on us, because no words are entirely right any more.

It is not so much that words have failed us as that reality has come to refuse the names we used to give it, has become too vast and too brutal and too unstable for our old nouns; and our own contemporaries, adrift in the wake of the great modern writers, can’t even make a style out of this dilemma, since the dilemma has already been explored, exhausted, laid low, rendered familiar. They are left with their language, which is all they have if they are writers, and a world which they can evoke or allude to but never secure with a steady, old-fashioned grasp.

All four of these new novels, two by South Americans and two by North Americans, confront this situation, take the insufficiency of words for granted; all four then go on to cheat this insufficiency in strikingly different ways.

The first option they offer is this. The writer can refuse to have a language of his own, he can carry out the disappearing act that Flaubert always promised but never performed, that Joyce kept performing only to reappear for applause as the magician in charge of the show. He can take, as Manuel Puig does, letters, lyrics of old tangos, police records, newspaper cuttings, diaries, radio serials, telephone calls, conversations, prayers, confessions, take the unadulterated language of the world itself, that is, and edit it into a text, into a portrait of shabby, desperate life in a small provincial town in Argentina in the Thirties and Forties. He can add, as Puig does, in direct imitation of Joyce, some remarkable interior monologues, some comically formal questions about his characters (“What in that moment was her greatest desire?” “What in that moment was her greatest fear?”), and some stilted, statistical accounts of human occasions (“New feelings experienced by Fanny the night of April 26, 1937….” “Route of Fanny’s tears: her cheeks, her neck, Pancho’s cheeks, Pancho’s handkerchief, Pancho’s shirt collar, the weeds, the tosca soil of the grass lot, the sleeves of Fanny’s dress, Fanny’s pillow”).

Puig is the author of all this, of course, the conductor of this concert of bald, broken details, but as a writer he makes no linguistic appearance. His world is without the ordered articulacy of what we normally recognize as literature, and since he is less angry than Flaubert and less flamboyant than Joyce, he …

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