John Fowles and Bernard Malamud have written novels out of character—from the former, a literary jest, from the latter, a parable.
John Fowles has never been less than an interesting novelist. Often enough, considerably more than that. In Mantissa, his alter ego, novelist Miles Green, observes: “Serious modern fiction has only one subject: the difficulty of writing serious modern fiction.”
Well, no. After all, it is the loquacious, self-congratulatory film directors, writers, and performers who have taken happily to the talk shows and platforms, prattling on about the difficulties of their “craft.” Most serious novelists prefer to be judged by their finished work, not the effort they put into it. In my experience, novelists will readily chat about the hazards of the marketplace, but never about how they do it. Few dare to examine that machine too closely, or take it apart, lest they fail to put the pieces together again correctly.
Furthermore, Miles Green says, “If you want story, character, suspense, description, all that antiquated nonsense from pre-modernist times, then go to the cinema. Or read comics. You do not come to a serious modern writer. Like me.”
The first chapter of this novel, or complaint, seemed to me dazzling, charged with humor, menace, and eroticism. A man, ostensibly suffering from amnesia, awakens in a gull-gray, curiously quilted or padded hospital room. He is confronted by a lady who claims to be his wife, the mother of his three children, and an overbearing but sexy young lady doctor. The wife leaves, distraught, and the doctor is joined by an even more desirable West Indian nurse. Together they begin their bizarre treatment. “The memory nerve-center in the brain is closely associated with the one controlling gonadic activity.” The nurse begins to massage his penis and the doctor, her manner abrupt, wiggles out of her uniform and demands that Green fondle her breasts as well as explore other regions of her body. “I want you to concentrate on tactile sensation.” Soon, both women have leaped into bed, doing their clinical utmost to arouse the outraged Green, rebuking him for his erotic recalcitrance.
“…if you are secretly attempting to drive us to coenonymphic or pseudo-terguminal stimulation, I can tell you now—no chance. Is that clearly understood?”
“I don’t even know what they are, for God’s sake.”
“And the same applies to the Brazilian fork.”
But even in this tantalizing first chapter hints are clumsily dropped. The seductive doctor’s name, for instance, is A. Delphie.
“How long have I been here?” Green asks on page 14.
“Just a few pages,” Dr. Delphie replies.
The hospital room resembles nothing so much as a brain and, lo and behold, the story is taking place in Green’s mind, and at the end of Chapter 1 he has already begun to reread his own first page, possibly to revise. The cat’s out of the bag. Green, a possibly blocked novelist, is confronting Erato, his sullen, even perverse muse. Shedding her Dr. A. Delphie identity, she next appears to him, or is written by him, as a hermaphrodite in punk guise, festooned with outsize safety pins and swastika badges, black jeans and black leather jacket, her eyes alarmingly haloed with kohl. “All you ever wanted out of me,” she says, “was a quick lay.”
The all too contemporary Erato is also a semiliterate feminist.
“And we all know what a great bleedin’ judge you are. Specially when it comes to degradin’ women by turnin’ us into one-dimensional sex-objects.”
Then, restored to her pristine form, at the author’s whim, complete with tunic and lyre, she protests that of all the nine sisters she was the one unlucky enough to pull the short straw and be lumbered with fiction. “I have to work ten times as hard as all the rest of them put together. Of course the whole genre is in a mess.”
Now he tries to seduce her.
“I’ll tell you what a modern satyr is,” she says. “He’s someone who invents a woman on paper so that he can force her to say and do things no real woman in her right mind ever would.”
Green, defending his work, hopes that she doesn’t feel unreal. “Mere wax in my hands?”
“All I do is parrot whatever lines you give me,” she says. “I wouldn’t be caught dead in your dialogue. Of my own free will. If I had one.”
Fowles, of course, is not the first self-doubting modern novelist to allow his critics equal time for rebuttal. Evelyn Waugh and Philip Roth, among others, have done this before, but both were more mindful to entertain readers while exorcising their very own three-o’clock-in-the-morning inquisitors. In The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold, Waugh’s alter ego, fighting madness, is tormented by bodiless voices accusing him of anti-Semitism. Roth as Zuckerman, in The Ghost Writer, responds with some clarity to the same charge.
A cornered Miles Green lashes out at his muse, accusing her of being an old tart, “…a hot night out for every pen-pushing Tom, Dick and Harry, a pair of ever-open legs, for four thousand years.”
Erato protests she has absolutely no rights.
“You can kill me off in five lines, if you want to.”
Little jokes, not entirely successful, begin to intrude. Erato says, “I even spent a wet afternoon once with T.S. Eliot.”
“Where was that?”
“In London. It didn’t work.”
Erato is obliquely ticked off for having compromised that very inventive earlier novel by Fowles, The French Lieutenant’s Woman.
“Again and again you’ve made me cut out the best stuff. That text where I had twelve different endings—it was perfect as it was, no one had ever done that before. Then you get at it, and I’m left with just three. The whole point of the thing was missed. Wasted.”
Then what has been obvious from the early pages is driven home bluntly, just in case some readers have missed the point.
“I bet you haven’t even cottoned on to what these grey quilted walls really stand for.” He pauses in the buttoning and looks at her. She shakes her head. “I knew you hadn’t. Grey walls, grey cells. Grey matter?” He taps the side of his head. “Does the drachma begin to drop?”
“It’s all…taking place inside your brain?”
Finally, a few pages from the end, Fowles seemingly disowns his own self-conscious joke, pointing out in a footnote that the OED definition of Mantissa reads: “An addition of comparatively small importance, especially to a literary effort or discourse.”
One of the things that distinguished John Fowles’s work in the past was a civility of tone uncommon in serious but accessible fiction these days, an endearing assumption that he and his readers shared a rich classical heritage, and that it would be condescending, even bad form, to stoop to explain references. In Mantissa, the learning flies out of hand; it becomes insistent, showy. After the delights of the intriguing first chapter, Mantissa abruptly flattens into querulous dialogues, sometimes clever, more often forced. It begins to read like an assignment set by an insufferably fancy professor of creative writing. Possibly the problem is that “the difficulties of writing modern fiction” is the stuff of an essay, not of more fiction.
God’s Grace, or the Almighty’s final solution for this planet, is a bad fall for mankind in general and Bernard Malamud in particular. After a thermo-nuclear war between the Djanks and the Druzhkies, all the inhabitants of the earth have been destroyed, save one Calvin Cohn, a paleologist. Then God, breaking His word, envelops the contaminated earth in a second flood. Cohn, who was in a small deep-sea submersible observing the Pacific ocean floor at the time of the nuclear conflict, surfaces to survive on board the Rebekah Q, only to be reproached by the Lord. That he escaped destruction at all, he is told, was only through a minuscule error. “I will grant you time to compose yourself, make your peace. Therefore live quickly—a few deep breaths and go your way. Beyond that lies nothing for you. These are my words.”
Cohn, a rabbi’s son, pleads his case. “After Your first Holocaust You promised no further Floods.”
But God is adamant. He is not only vengeful, but also house-proud. Man has failed Him.
“They have destroyed my handiwork, the conditions of their survival: the sweet air I gave them to breathe; the fresh water I blessed them with, to drink and to bathe in; the fertile green earth. They tore apart my ozone, carbonized my oxygen, acidified my refreshing rain. Now they affront my cosmos.”
Even as the waters recede, Cohn discovers he is not God’s only oversight. A most unusual chimpanzee has also survived on board the Rebekah. He is Buz, a pet of the late Dr. Walther Bünder, a scientist who perished with the others on the ship. Eventually, the leaky tub drifts toward an island, possibly in the Indian Ocean. Cohn and the chimp, having salvaged many a useful artifact from their ark before its breakup on a reef, set up house together. They both endure radiation disease, recovering to discover yet another survivor, an inscrutable gorilla whom they name George. Cohn and Buz learn to communicate through gestures, and up to this point Malamud’s parable promises big metaphysical developments—possibly an illuminating, corruscating dialogue between God and man. After all, we may have failed to clean up after the industrial revolution, but His behavior, over the centuries, was not always according to the rules. But, alas, launched as another Noah—threatening to sue for the office of a latter-day Job—Cohn swiftly settles for playing hero of a cosmic Disney sitcom.
It turns out that the two copper wires fixed to Buz’s throat are not an irrelevance. Tickling the chimp, Cohn inadvertently connects the wires. There is a cough, a metallic gasp, and then the chimp says, “Fontostisch/// I con hear myzelv speag/// pong-pong.”
A miracle, Cohn concedes. “But what do you mean pong-pong?”
“Thot’s nod me/// Thot’s the sound the copper wires mage when they vibrate to the end of a sendence/// I hov on aritiziol lorynch/// pong-pong.”
The pong-pong is no sooner remedied, Cohn learning that “animals con talg,” than five more chimps are discovered on the island. Without benefit of voice boxes, but with Buz’s help, they are soon chattering in the English “longuoge” as well. The hairy, aggressive, loud-mouthed chimp is named Esau, and the young sexy one, Mary Modelyn. Or Mary Madelyn. Cohn invites the gang into his cave for a Passover seder.
Esau, it turns out, is not very nice. “I am the Alpha Ape,” he declares. “My purpose in my life right at this particular time is to slip it to Mary Madelyn as soon as she learns the facts of life. She doesn’t know what she is missing.”
But the lisping Mary is also a feminist. “It’s humiwiating to present mysewf every time a mawe approaches. I wish to be independent and free.” Later, in her fearfully cute manner, she adds, “My speciew purpose in wife is to wiv.”
Cohn, who clearly has the soul of a YMHA adult education organizer, starts a schooltree, wherein he instructs his increasingly skeptical charges in the redeeming values of civilization, such as they were. In the absence of ten commandments, he imposes Seven Admonitions on his tribe, including Thou Shalt Not Kill.
Things begin to look up on the island until wov complicates community wife.
“Am I wovwy as Juwiet?” Mary asks Cohn.
“You have your graces.”
“Wiw you ever wov me?”
Proper even in extremity, Cohn not only mounts but marries her, hoping to give evolution a shtoop. The child born to them, Rebekah, will herald a new race of chimp-humanoids, Cohn calculates.
Buz sulks. Esau, equally jealous, begins to make menacing noises. Baboons are discovered on the island, and in the new society that Cohn is striving to create the prejudices of the old surface. Esau proclaims that baboons don’t belong to their tribe, all they are is god-damn strangers. Buz concurs. “They are stupid yokels,” he says. And the two of them lead the pack as they kill and devour a baboon child.
Reproached by the grieving Cohn, Esau, unwilling to give mixed marriage a chance, responds: “…our Jewish instructor has sex whenever he might want it, with somebody who happens to be related closer to us; and the rest of us have nothing but our dongs to pull.”
The descent into barbarism accelerates, Malamud’s vision darkening even as his symbolism, torn from both New Testament and Old, grows increasingly muddled. Rebekah, the hope of the new world, is murdered and eaten, Esau devouring her yummy brains. The chimps lose their power of speech. Mary Madelyn, reverting to the ways of her kind, offers her bottom of all comers, allowing herself to be humped at will. In a parody of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac, Cohn is murdered. George, the gorilla, says a long Kaddish. On this bleak note, the parable ends.
I’m not sure what Malamud—Malamud, who in the past has written so lovingly about the way we live now—is really up to here. Has he gone to so much trouble merely to instruct us that, given a second chance, a new civilization would repeat the sins of the first, surely the stuff of a Young Adult novel? Is he trying to say that animals, no better than humans, will some day have their revenge? Or that if Interior Secretary James Watt has his way with the land, God, as well as the Sierra Club, will be heard from?
Certainly, the sad news is that the ultimate mixed marriage didn’t work. Mary Madelyn, in better days, was fond of saying, “What wov can do, that dares wov attempt.” But, in this case, wov wasn’t enough. Maybe dot’s the point, as Buz would say.