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Crying for Attention

Ordinary People

by Judith Guest
Viking, 263 pp., $7.95

The 400 Eels of Sigmund Freud

by A.G. Mojtabai
Simon and Schuster, 258 pp., $7.95

The Comatose Kids

by Seymour Simckes
Fiction Collective, 114 pp., $8.95

The Geek

by Craig Nova
Harper & Row, 201 pp., $8.95

Fiction is full of exiles from ordinary life: stranded, marginal, baffled, sulking, deluded, or violent creatures. Indeed, some sort of snag or hitch or resistance, some lapse from expectations, is probably necessary to get any story started. If Odysseus had stayed at home, there would have been no Odyssey. This is obvious enough, but it does mean that fiction, and perhaps even narrative, can have very little hold on ordinary life, since ordinary life, like Ithaca, is what has to be abandoned at the outset. Judith Guest’s Ordinary People, for example, is a rather bland and far from ironic novel, yet its title hints at a complicated irony. On the one hand, the book suggests, there are no ordinary people; people are all extraordinary in their way, both finer and feebler than we think. And on the other hand, ordinary people are what we may become, if we can conquer our fear of being extraordinary. In a novel, that fear has to be acted out. In Ordinary People, it is the novel, the trace of a season of exile.

The source of the fear is an attempted suicide and an earlier accidental death. There is an actual suicide in The 400 Eels of Sigmund Freud, there is insanity and multiple death in The Comatose Kids, and there is a descent into hideous humiliation in The Geek. I don’t take all this violence and deviation as a sign of our troubled times, or even as a sign of troubled writing minds. But I do take it as a cry for attention, a message from these writers as writers. There is a story here, the message says, watch us leave ordinary life behind. The message may reflect the youth or relative inexperience of the writers, an assumed or feared deafness in American publishers, creating the need for narrative shouts, or a more generally embattled quality in contemporary fiction, fighting off the claims of biography and transcendental meditation. Perhaps it reflects all three in different proportions in different cases. What interests me is the noise the message makes, the worry about normality that it implies.

This worry, as I have said, is the overt subject of Ordinary People. Conrad Jarrett, almost eighteen, has tried to kill himself, and has been in the hospital: The novel recounts his readjustment to school, friends, girls, father, mother, himself. He sheds a lot of his anxiety, weathers the suicide of a girl who was released from the hospital along with him, and comes to terms with his brother’s death by drowning, which led him to the attempt on his own life. How could he, the second, less perfect brother, go on living when the paragon had given up, lost his will to live, and let go of the boat they were both hanging on to in the stormy lake? Above all, he comes to accept his mother’s apparent failure to forgive him for slashing his wrists, and his own failure to forgive her for not loving him more. It is true that she has now left his father, because he seemed to be cracking up under the strain of his concern for his son, but Conrad has learned “that it is love, imperfect and unordered, that keeps them apart, even as it holds them somehow together.”

It’s an implausible conclusion, one of those secret happy ends that Hollywood weepies used to do so well: everyone dies, but they do it in the arms of the people they love, all error forgiven. Here the family is broken up, but everyone is on the way to emotional health, because they have understood their weaknesses. But then the whole novel is subtly implausible in this sense, not because one doesn’t believe in the characters or in Conrad’s recovery, but because problems just pop up, get neatly formulated, and vanish, as if they were performing a psychoanalytic morality play. “I think I just figured something out,” Conrad says to his psychiatrist, and he has. It’s a milestone on the road to reason.

The psychiatrist, a wisecracking cross between Groucho Marx and Philip Marlowe, is perhaps Judith Guest’s major contribution to current mythology. “See, kiddo,” he says, “this problem is very specific. It is not necessary to pull the whole world in on top of you, it is only necessary to finish with Tuesday night.” And: “Geez, if I could get through to you, kiddo, that depression is not sobbing and crying and giving vent, it is plain and simple reduction of feeling. Reduction, see? Of all feeling.” As he cuts Conrad’s visits down to one a week, he murmurs, “And I just ordered a couch, how’m I gonna pay for it?” And on another occasion: “Well, okay. I’d better tell you. I’m not big on control. I prefer things fluid. In motion. But it’s your money.”

But I mean to suggest the limitations of the novel, not to knock it over. In spite of those quotations, which sound a good deal less bogus in context anyway, Conrad’s psychiatrist, like most of the characters in the book, is very charming and very intelligent. Judith Guest has a good eye for social detail and a good ear for turns of phrase, and the breeziness of her manner (“He takes a quick look in the mirror. The news isn’t good.” “How about it? Illusion versus reality? All all those in favor”) goes with her brisk good sense. “The things which hurt don’t always instruct. Sometimes they merely hurt.” She measures health by a capacity for jokes, which means both a faith in shared meanings (people understand you when you say the opposite of what you think) and a sort of independence within a community (your wit pulls you out of the rut of routine).

It is a shallow notion, but not a dishonorable or an unsympathetic one, and Ordinary People is not a book to be condescended to. The blurb insists that it simply arrived at Viking in the mail, and that it is the first unsolicited novel to be accepted by them since 1949. But this says more about publishing practices than it does about the book, and it creates an entirely misleading picture of raw talent growing in the sticks, and then hitting the big city with its untamed narrative. Ordinary People is the opposite of that: a snappy, proficient novel that reads a little too smoothly for its subject; skates on thin ice without managing to give us any real sense of how very thin the ice is.

A. G. Mojtabai, in The 400 Eels of Sigmund Freud, wants to show us both the skating and the ice. She is after “emblematic, not literal, truth,” she says, and if she doesn’t quite deliver as much of an emblem as she seems to want to, she does nevertheless offer a kind of truth that Judith Guest was simply not looking for. Her book records an educational adventure, “a summer of the mind,” as its patron calls it, which scientifically inclined schoolchildren spend in a big old house, dissecting mice, performing transplants of animal organs, and putting together experiments of their own. The idea is to catch these children early, and urge the march of science into a trot, and the eerie model is the young Sigmund Freud dissecting four hundred eels to check his facts for a paper in histology.

In the course of the summer, one boy, not much liked by the other children and hated by Aunt Ethel, the woman in charge of the domestic side of the program, finds himself pestered, unsupported, and finally dismissed, and decides to “go direct,” as he says. He jumps from the roof of the house and kills himself. His faults were a failure to get others to care enough about him, a scorn for housework (“Like—I mean, this is only a house. Wood and stone”) and an insistence on playing his violin when he is not supposed to. He is Jewish, “the quintessential Jew,” one of the other children writes, pursuing a tangled thought:

I don’t mean his religion, since I doubt he has any…. And I certainly don’t mean anything racial. The Jews have their Jews…. Wherever he goes, whatever he does, Isaiah stands apart…. Going his own determined way and seeming to need our good opinion so little, he simply invites our envy and scorn. Yet he provokes, God knows he provokes. He will not accommodate. He has his reasons, enough reasons. He will not bend. And he cherishes every blow.

We need him. In some crazy way, we depend on him to do the outrageous thing.

This is a dubious picture of the Jew, but a lucid picture of the scapegoat. Yet Isaiah is not really a scapegoat, he is something more subtle and more common: a victim of his own loneliness and of the indifference of others, who are too busy or too unhappy to bother with him. True, Aunt Ethel does persecute him, displacing her own misery and frustration on to Isaiah’s waiting back, but the attempt to make Aunt Ethel’s miniature bullying signify larger and more famous forms of persecution is one of the least successful things in the book, the price A. G. Mojtabai pays for her discretion and modesty. On the other hand, the failure of Anna, the only other adult woman in the house apart from the cook, to command enough patience to show the sympathy she really feels for Isaiah, and the failure of Naomi, Isaiah’s Brooklyn compatriot, to spare enough time from her projects to think about him, and the failure of the students generally to do anything other than keep him at a distance, are wonderfully rendered.

The book is written with a meticulous clarity, as in this memory of an old lady who has had a stroke:

The old woman used television as her night-light and kept it going down the hours, a pale shadowshow, a third carbon of life, but the best she could manage, the closest she could come. She would wake and sleep fitfully; sleep would snatch her unawares, but only for moments at a time. She would wake and find people still moving, laughing, talking, weeping. And so she would wake assured, knowing that life moved about her continuously and that nothing would die in her room, not that night.

Indeed, the writing is good enough to create a final dissatisfaction with the novel which seems to promise more than it gives. Looking for emblematic truth by means of concrete occasion, A. G. Mojtabai ends up with a beautifully caught occasion which is slightly too concrete to carry any distance beyond itself, too full of mice and science and what looks like autobiographical reminiscence. It is not enough to make an emblem, it makes only a delicate story rather thinly clothed in implications.

If Guest and Mojtabai show us, respectively, a reconstruction and a collapse of normality, Simckes and Nova invite us to more drastic excursions. Simckes exchanges ordinary life for the fast, flattened world of the comic strip, and Nova effects a double shift of vision by locating his novel on a hostile Greek island and having its hero drunk for a good deal of the time. Yet even here the abandoned reality casts a shadow, and we can add a rider to the earlier obvious thought: if fiction has very little hold on ordinary life, it has nothing else to refer to in the end. Its stories can be seen as stories only if they are seen as departures.

Still, The Comatose Kids departs pretty far, and refers to ordinary life mainly through its willful reorganization of it. Dr. Tschisch, ninety-three years old and still a child in appearance, victim of “rare, cruel mumps” at the age of nine, has kidnapped two patients from two different hospitals, a boy and a girl, and is about to mate them, to match their madness and infirmity to produce a single sane new entity: a couple. This done, he can die himself, his immortality achieved. The match does take place, but the boy dies, and the girl then kills Tschisch and herself.

Tschisch’s seedy and decrepit room is a botched Eden, and God himself tells Tschisch how he feels about his own version:

I miscast the universe with my two lovers. Adam and Eve. All the time calling me over to point out the obvious. A dog, a cat, a tree, a snake. Whatever they had to say was no news to me. Sick and tired of them around, I kicked them out. That’s the real story. They bored me to tears!

But of course Tschisch also resembles the demiurge, the divine assistant entrusted with creation in Gnostic myth, and like the demiurge, he bungles his task, leaving us with the world we know, a ruin, a mistake. Simckes quotes Kafka in an epigraph—“We are nihilistic fragments, all of us, suicidal notions forming in God’s mind”—and his girl, one of the no longer comatose kids, thinks, “Life obviously was a system to keep suicidals alive as long as possible.”

If it is a system at all. In Simckes’s view life seems too foolish an accident to be seen as anything other than a frantic black joke, and Tschisch, the crazy child-sage, is its perfect representative, describing his father’s medical manner in jumpy shorthand (“My father never spoke to his own patients. Only after they became corpses did he confer with them, address them, soothe, pity”) and depicting his own psychological past as a historical burlesque (“After a couple months Freud thought he cured me. My reward? Carrying important personal correspondence for his inner circles. Rank to Jung, Jung to Adler, Adler to Tausk, Tausk to Freud! Forever on my bike. Special delivery!”). It is as if the psychiatrist from Ordinary People had taken over the world, not in the name of the sanity behind his racy talk, but in the name of the madness such talk is supposed to keep at bay.

The writing of The Comatose Kids ranges from Tschisch’s knowing, camped-up jargon, as illustrated above, to a careful, sardonic lyricism (“In any case, while the small room slept its mixture of ease and nightmare, the horizon outdoors mechanically cut another sun and the cold new day rose like a patient uninformed of his cancer”), passing through what I hope is parody (“As soon as the sun sank three times the Doktor would fall into death’s ultimate arms”) and what I am sure is bad, overloaded writing (“So, as her mind whirled downward, her flesh stiffened like frozen soup”). There are too many purely rhetorical figures (“How can I forget your mind? It was a net that never let my fish of passion set one egg inside!”) and in spite of the allusions to God and Genesis (and Faust and Frankenstein), I get the impression that the book is really freewheeling most of the time, the work of a talented writer just as anxious to juggle words as he is to construct meanings. More anxious, perhaps. But then, for me, the juggling promises more than the philosophical shadows hanging over the text, since they keep threatening to collapse into something merely flippant or sentimental—Rimbaud’s La vie est la farce à mener par tous without Rimbaud’s rage. And words, as Dr. Tschisch knows, are the way we often catch and get caught: “Life’s rule is if two approach one another, each claims to create the other…. That’s how all ownership spreads, by word of mouth.” The joke in the last phrase has a fine, sinister ring.

The Geek is the most accomplished, and also the most “literary,” of these novels, the only one that seriously goes in for fine writing of the grand old school:

The bed was an old one and it creaked: the sound was both shabby and rich, evidence of transient loneliness, joy, and misery, of the lopsided sleep of traveling salesmen, the curled embrace of newlyweds, the blindbacked rest of the indifferent….

Boot was confused by her presence, so awed by the mystery of flesh that he felt the constricted and appalling tug of God….

The novel belongs to a distinct but elusive Anglo-American genre, which includes a lot of Hemingway, Lowry’s Under the Volcano, and a good deal of John Hawkes: that form of fiction which pits a solitary Anglo-Saxon against an ancient, alien, and violent culture.

Boot lives on the island of Samos, and one day finds the corpse of a girl at the sea’s edge. He takes it to town on a borrowed jackass, quarrels with the natives, and the jackass bolts, carting off the corpse. The animal wrecks a shop and flees the town, ending up in the island’s rocky countryside, heavily mined during the war. The men of the town are now chasing the ass, throwing stones at it. The ass steps on a mine and is blown up. Boot picks up the corpse, more or less intact, and takes it to the town church.

Shamed by their excitement and helplessness, by their complicity with a foreigner, by the foreigner’s knowing what to do while they just shuffled and panicked, the townsmen contribute to a fund to buy a new jackass, and here Boot makes his mistake. He collects too much money, thinking the price will be high. If he keeps the money he will have been bought off, and the islanders make sure he can’t get rid of it. He is given a jackass, and when he tries to spend the fund on bringing a carnival to the island, finds himself entangled in a complicated plan for the growing of opium. Finally, weary of the battle with a culture so much older than he is, worn out by the endless negotiations designed to preserve some sort of honor and sense of the self, deserted by the American woman who had picked him up in the course of his adventure, he joins the carnival as a geek, biting off the head of a live chicken and finding a charmed peace in this complete abasement:

His gaze was distant and steady, since he was now safe, in league with everything he had despised, having found immunity by relinquishing all that had made struggle necessary: honor, character, word, anger.

There is something too cryptic about a lot of the novel’s transactions, a suggestion of dialogue out of Henry James shifted to a dusty taverna, and, as I say, the writing keeps reaching for effects that are more than a little lurid. But the blending of emblematic and literal truth, to borrow Mojtabai’s terms again, is remarkable. The specificity of the island landscape, the clear characters and past history of the individual islanders, the careful tracing of Boot’s reactions to separate events, all help to pitch The Geek somewhere between reality and nightmare, as if it were a dream that had found its own geography in the material world, or a familiar piece of geography that had toppled into a dream. Boot, the double exile, drunk and alien, fills out his fiction as the characters in the other three novels don’t, and his Greek island will stand for many places where men of honor, beaten down by craftier antagonists and their own fatigue, have given up the ghost and subsided into humiliation.

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