Other Men’s Daughters
Ninety-Two in the Shade
The Obscene Bird of Night
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 conveys patiently and modestly a sense of just what such a world is like. It is like the world of bad fiction, since it is the world of bad fiction, gracelessly imitated by life itself. A consumptive hero tries painfully to behave like any other faithless, gambling, drinking, bragging Latin American man; silly, chattering heroines try to make movies and novelettes carry clear messages of their nameless, overflowing distress; an abandoned girl, like a figure in a melodrama she has never even heard of, murders her wandering lover.
Heartbreak Tango seems to me even better than Puig’s earlier Betrayed by Rita Hayworth because its characters’ movements are clearer, and because the general implication of the montage of cliché and cheap romance and gossip is firmer: it is that all comment on such lives is tactless, untrue, condescending. The lives must speak their own poor dialect, and the writer’s job is to reconstruct it. The danger, of course, is that the reconstruction will be either too ironic or too sentimental, and Betrayed by Rita Hayworth wobbled both ways every now and then. The balance of the new book is virtually perfect.
Where all comment is tactless, a personal style must be a cruel luxury, an affront to all those who live not so much without style as below it. Richard Stern’s practice suggests the opposite view: style is what saves buried lives from extinction, style is the mark of an exceptional and delicate attention. Reality in general may refuse names, but small pieces of the world can still be held in language if we choose carefully enough and if our touch is light enough, if we can catch our piece of world without crushing it beyond recognition. Stern has a style in a perfectly old-fashioned sense, and Other Men’s Daughters is an old-fashioned novel, an impressive plea for the private life as a continuing subject for serious fiction. “A statistical case could be made,” Stern’s hero thinks, “for the absolute uniqueness of every human feeling and event.”
This risk of having this kind of style is that it will deteriorate into a manner, and Stern’s does at times. He masters his fragile and banal subject—the love affair of a settled, married Harvard professor of medicine and a golden-haired young summer-school student—by means of a fierce, precise, compressing intelligence, and this can result in a brittle wit (“He was wearing a dark tweed suit, the only one in sight not in summer clothes. It was like a coffin coming through a circus”) or in ugly, mind-stopping epigrams (“Somewhere in the schedule sits life”) or in a sort of crowding in the sentences (“Even then much more of the world was in their heads than in talk with each other”). Far more often, though, indeed for most of the book, it yields fluent, sharp prose like this:
That double vision of the mind which knows but cannot feel or act its knowledge, which squats behind its own bones and measures everything from within those slats, which, at five o’clock, takes the long view of its own troubles like a surveying god, and at five-fifteen shrivels into a nut of egotism; human duplicity with its sparkling outer and inner crepuscular brains, cortical light dazzling over opaque old fear.
Or like this, a description of the girl’s father seeing his daughter with her Harvard lover in the south of France:
It overwhelmed Mr. Ryder. Too much, too quick. The garden noise, the flowers, the silken heat, the tiny lady in long dress and sandals hoisting water arcs over a tomato field, the fluent doctor, his daughter, even his own displacement (a condition as real as these other things), all of it worked against meaning. Mr. Ryder was used to thinking clearly, feeling strongly, deciding quickly. Now cloth seemed as much a part of flower as of the shirt it composed, the shirt had as much to do with the heat as with the body it clothed…. What was a daughter anyway? Something visible, glinting fibers, dark spheres, a triangle. This disorientation passed in a second, but was a deep, unique, strange second in Mr. Ryder’s life. Meaning, decisiveness, movement: useless, that was what visual disintegrity spelled for him, and as it passed, and as a giddy ease it brought passed too, Mr. Ryder fought back for what he knew: settlements, breakage, families, homes, plans, the order of the world….
Other Men’s Daughters is certainly literary, full of allusions; even academic, because Stern has slightly overdone his homework in medicine. But if we use those terms as serious pejoratives, indeed as anything other than means of pointing to certain characteristics of the work, we shall miss the urgency and the distinction of Stern’s treatment of his profound theme: the necessary end of particular seasons in our lives, the pain and confusion and exhilaration of leaving safe old places when they have become truly uninhabitable. The novel closes on a small evolutionary hope: we survive, we climb into our futures on the falling scaffolding of our past habits.
An absence of style, an assertion of style. Thomas McGuane’s Ninety-Two in the Shade represents something trickier: a jagged, broken flight from style. “Facetiousness,” the book’s hero thinks briefly, “can be a way of dancing at the edges of the beautiful; it can also be facetiousness.” This is a facetious novel, full of pompous rhetoric that the writer himself is sending up. “Skelton could not see these things without some irrational desire to be a liberty apostle and horseman of the light, a shy delivery boy of eternity’s loops.” The same Skelton falls into a “swoon that was as much as anything a part of his more than trifling instinct for some kind of topographical perspective upon his own life.” “Thomas Skelton felt that simple survival at one level and the prevention of psychotic lesions based upon empirical observation of the republic depended upon his being able to get out on the ocean.”
One of McGuane’s favorite tricks is to break eloquence with incongruity: “But there is a life that is not a life, in which the more adamant obstructions of the heart masquerade as loss, dreams, or carburetor trouble.” Another is the cute, jerky joke: “The shadows lay this way and that, the way…six grandmothers will fall when simultaneously struck by lightning.” Another is a sort of wan, casual whimsy: “He looked like a wasted rat of imprecise morals.” It is all too nervous and erratic and camped up to work very well in its own right but the general patchy effect serves McGuane’s intricate, interesting purposes well enough.
The language of the novel mimes gaudy American reality, is a copious parallel parody, a simulacrum in words of the tasteless shifting disorder of what McGuane calls Hotcakesland, “American con carne.” And the plot then denies all this, dissolves it into tidy elegance. A young man (Skelton) gets a boat and goes out to guide visiting tourist-fishermen among the reefs and bays off Key West, because guiding is the one thing in life he is good at and wants to do. Another man, who is in Florida because he shot a man in Kentucky one hot summer afternoon when it was about ninety-two in the shade, threatens to kill Skelton if he goes out guiding. Skelton has to go, the other has to kill him. They both die. A dance at the edges of the beautiful.
McGuane appears to enjoy the inevitability of these deaths, to take an aesthete’s delight in the relentless, symmetrical paths which carry these men to their final encounter, and certainly the book’s facetiousness reinforces this impression, as do exchanges like this:
“His life was real colorful. I have one thing against him though: he had no sense of humor. You should never kill somebody if it isn’t funny.”
“I don’t like that idea.”
“That’s because you don’t understand it.”