Flirting With Disintegration

Loose Ends

by Barbara Raskin
Bantam, 313 pp., $1.25 (paper)

Fear of Flying

by Erica Jong
Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 340 pp., $6.95

Enormous Changes at the Last Minute

by Grace Paley
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 198 pp., $6.95

The titles alone of these books offer a sort of cultural history, conjure up a landscape of psychiatrists and crackups, of shaky personal universes threatened, ruined, rescued, and abandoned every other day. Nickel Mountain is different perhaps, suggests either fiscal allegory or a homely, rural geography, but then even that looks like a commentary on the rest or a rebound from them. Only in America (as the phrase used to go) have the nerves been promoted to such starring roles, or at least given such widespread and appreciative coverage. It is as if Virginia Woolf and Nathalie Sarraute had bred a whole crew of frantic followers, each one edgier than the last, as if panic had become the only authentic subject left for fiction.

It is an oddly manageable panic, of course. Those titles are all neatly self-conscious, hint at professional distances from disaster, at a trim sense of humor watching over all the disarray. And this is how the characters in the books behave. They watch themselves as their authors watch them, they fake fears in order to feel real fears—which they then can’t get rid of except at vast personal cost. They flirt with their own disintegration, partly on the off chance that salvation may lie among the scattered pieces, but mainly out of a careering desperation, a sense of lives slithering trivially on at random, quite out of control. In that perspective, the idea of a genuine disaster seems almost reassuring. Again, Nickel Mountain is the exception, but it proves the anxious rule. John Gardner seems actively to be looking for a quieter, steadier, older world to explore, a fictional kingdom beyond the pale of educated, middle-class, white American, frequently Jewish, lovingly cultivated distress.

The best place to start on a closer description of the territory is probably Barbara Raskin’s Loose Ends, a fast and funny novel set in Washington. Its theme is the excited isolation of Coco Burman, thirty-two years old, married twelve years, mother of four children, and eager to write at long last her best-selling book, which will bring her instant fame and a spot on the Dick Cavett Show.

All Coco wanted was to make the minor literary leagues, to recycle some of her own leftover life (like converting slightly green Saran-wrapped roast beef into hash) and show how a sensitive American woman, reared in and ruined by the inverted values of the 1950’s, could never find happiness.

Now is her chance, it seems, because her husband Gavin has confessed to having slept with someone else, and his infidelity, unlike her own, counts. She hovers on the verge of a breakdown, takes up her analysis again, gets someone to look after the children full time, and holes up on the back porch with her Smith-Corona and a box of Bond. But then Gavin leaves her altogether; her best girl friend is in South America; her shrink goes off to Europe; and an old flame, having shown up just in …

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