Straw Dogs

Virginie: Her Two Lives

by John Hawkes
Harper and Row, 215 pp., $13.95

Sabbatical: A Romance

by John Barth
Putnam’s, 366 pp., $14.95

When Lao-tse wrote that “the sage is ruthless and treats the people as straw dogs,” he provided an epigraph for the cruel frivolities of John Hawkes’s and John Barth’s latest fiction, in which the hapless characters are raped, carved up, burned with cigarettes, bestialized. Characteristically, Hawkes’s novel is a solemn, black-crepe affair, while Barth’s is antic and disheveled; but in both books the characters are pulled through the wringer and impatiently slapped on the line like so many lumps of wash.

Nothing so rude or airy as life itself breezes through these pages, for Hawkes and Barth are sovereign masters of metafiction, intent upon bending every detail to their authorial will and whim. In their appetite for empty chatter and sordid incident, the two are practically kin. “I can’t help but think of fictions as artifacts created out of always the nothingness and always pointing toward that source of zero, a sort of zero source,” Hawkes observes in a recent interview. “That is why for one reason among others I so admire John Barth, because the more elaborate the fiction gets, the more you create, the more you know exactly the nothingness it inhabits.” Elaborate nothings are what these novels are, curling heaps of phenomenological macaroni. Now and then a well-turned sentence emerges like a golden strand, only to be smothered with gobs of wordy excess. Lumpiness rules the void.

With Virginie: Her Two Lives, Hawkes is once again playing the keeper of the crypt, decorating the sarcophagi with amorous doodles. The novel, narrated by a tremulous waif named Virginie, shuttles like a time-machine from a castle of regimented decadence in rural France (the year—significantly—is 1740, the year of Sade’s birth) to a low-rent house of bawdiness in Paris (1945). Under both roofs Virginie flits about on her errands like a nest-tidying bird, bearing rapt witness to the debaucheries and sadistic rites of all these devoted sensualists. She’s the Eternal Child, enveloped in a milky glow of unsullied innocence. In the chateau, where Virginie conscientiously tends the hearth, the harem-master—Seigneur—is a noble, enigmatic swell in ivory-colored breeches whose speechifying (tediously) spells out the novel’s theme.

I must tell you, Virginie,” he said at last, the strength of his deep voice belying his sadness, “that the man who creates women is an artist clearly comparable to artists who create images or coerce solid matter into new and startling forms. Is it actually not more difficult to work with a woman’s living flesh than to squeeze paint from tubes or chop away at blocks of stone or chunks of wood? Oh, yes, the creator of women is burdened, challenged, inspired as no ordinary artist is: how can a lifeless work of art compare with a woman?…”

In the Parisian household, Bocage—Virginie’s brother—is also given to philosophizing about the avid needs of the flesh. Giving the girls an earful, he gasses:

What is this woman’s …

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