Where She Was
In a world of ideal literary forms, autobiography, however fictionalized in certain of its aspects, would exist as a genre distinct from the novel, however much the latter might be derived from the author’s personal experience. Often the distinction is clear enough: for a variety of reasons involving style, rhetoric, narrative organization, and the presentation of the protagonist, we are not likely to regard Stop-Time as a novel or Look Homeward, Angel as an autobiography. When a blurring of the two genres occurs, the result can be dismaying if issues of public significance are concerned (Lillian Hellman’s memoirs come to mind—just where does the purportedly factual account of an episode slide into self-aggrandizing fantasy?) or harmless enough, as in the case of Doctorow’s World’s Fair, a work of substantially autobiographical prose that is called a novel.
Just what in World’s Fair is indeed fictional? Presumably Doctorow wishes to provoke the question, for he has experimented with such blurring of genre before. In the recent novella called Lives of the Poets, certain publicly known facts of Doctorow’s own life are used as a scaffolding on which to hang invented encounters and relationships. More closely aligned to World’s Fair is the short story called “The Writer in the Family”—clearly the same family that figures in the new “novel.” In World’s Fair even the disguising of the names is largely dropped. The young boy is now called Edgar, which is Doctorow’s own first name, while the parents are named after the writer’s own parents, Rose and David. Why Doctorow, having made so close an approach to factuality, bestows the surname of Altschuler on the family is one of the book’s minor mysteries.
Except for five short interludes attributed to Edgar’s mother and to his older brother Donald, World’s Fair is narrated by Edgar himself, in the first person. He begins with his earliest memories—of wetting his bed, of being dried and changed by his mother, and of then being taken into the parental bed; and he concludes with a triumphal chapter in which he, at the age of nine, has won free tickets for himself and his family to the World’s Fair of 1939–1940 for writing an essay (on the theme of the Typical American Boy) in a contest sponsored by the promoters of the fair. His final act is to bury a time capsule of his own, in imitation of the famous time capsule sunk by Westinghouse to show the world of 6939 how we lived. Through all the intervening chapters, the reader is steeped in the dense medium of the child’s consciousness as he struggles to perceive and then achieve his proper place within his close-knit but contentious family.
Most of the contention arises from the radical differences in temperament between the mother, Rose, an intelligent, good-hearted but somewhat imperious woman, and the father, Dave, a man who loves surprises, a small-time gambler and philanderer, a man hopelessly unreliable as far as his wife is concerned. Edgar must reckon, too, with his older brother Donald, an enterprising boy who is at once Edgar’s mentor, protector, and critic, and with his frail, devout old grandmother, who speaks Yiddish and is subject to bouts of mental aberration. The quarreling between mother and father is continuous, but it does not prevent either of them from loving their two sons and taking pride in their achievements. Money becomes a problem. Fairly prosperous by Depression standards when the book opens, the family lives in the ground floor of a “private house” in a solidly Jewish and middle-class neighborhood in the central Bronx; but by the end, Dave, who sells sheet music, records, and musical instruments, has lost his store, and the family has had to move to a cramped apartment on the Grand Concourse, where the parents sleep on a pull-out bed in the living room.
World’s Fair progresses in an unhurried way through a series of episodes, major and minor, that contribute in different ways to the boy’s growing awareness of himself in the world. In the narration of these episodes (ranging in significance from Edgar’s fourth birthday party to a ruptured appendix that nearly kills him) Doctorow makes use of a double perspective—that of the re-created child who experiences an event and that of the reflective adult who remembers it. Here is a passage from the account of the birthday party that illustrates the delicacy with which he combines the two sensibilities:
At that moment the doorbell rang, and in anticipation of my first guest I wriggled out of my mother’s arms, slid my arched spine over her knees, and landed on the floor under the table, and crouched there. “Aren’t you going to answer the door?” my mother asked. But I had no intention of doing that; I only wanted to hide.
The day was momentous, but parties were mixed blessings…. In fact, a birthday party was a satire on children directed by their mothers, who hovered about, distributing Dixie Cups and glasses of milk while cooing in appreciation for the aesthetics of the event, the way each child was dressed for it and so on; and who set us upon one another in games of the most acute competition, so that we either cried in humiliation or punched each other to inflict pain.
And it was all done up in the impermanent materials of crepe paper, thin rubber and tin, everything painted in the gaudy colors of lies.
…I had a secret dread of not being able to blow out the candles before they burned down to the icing. That meant death. Candles burning down to the end, as in my grandmother’s tumblers of candles, which could not be tampered with once lit, memorialized someone’s death.
There is nothing remarkable about many of the events in World’s Fair: the grandmother’s death, a Sunday visit to the paternal grandparents, a Seder celebrated at rich Aunt Frances’s house, a near mugging at the hands of anti-Semitic toughs from the East Bronx, a Tom Sawyer-like romance with a child named Meg. The material is familiar from a dozen novels, from books on the Depression era, and from memoirs of growing up Jewish in New York. But to it Doctorow brings so much observed period detail that a reader who has lived through the Thirties will experience repeated tremors, if not shocks, of recognition. The trivia of those years is lavishly spread on nearly every page: the radio programs (the Chase and Sanborn Hour, Major Bowes’ Original Amateur Hour, Information Please) and the radio personalities (Gabriel Heatter, H.V. Kaltenborn, Walter Winchell), the popular songs (“Deep Purple,” “I Must See Annie Tonight”), the movies, the newsreels. It is pleasurable to be reminded of such things, to submit to the tug of a nostalgia in which I suppose even much younger readers can vicariously participate. As a period autobiography, World’s Fair is authoritatively documented and evocative.
Its claims to being a novel reside chiefly in the re-created dialogue with which the scenes are embellished and in the elaborate mounting of set pieces, such as Edgar’s first enraptured visit to the World’s Fair with Meg and her “disreputable” mother, who performs in an erotic underwater sideshow in the fair’s Amusement Zone. But the characters, while convincingly reproduced and analyzed, are not really memorable, and the book as a whole lacks the movement and suspense of good fiction. The on-going conflict between Rose and Dave, which might have been crucial in the development of a real novel, generates surprisingly little tension; it is expertly recalled but never fully dramatized. Much of the same is true of young Edgar’s fear of death and his growing awareness (and apprehension) of sex. The mislabeling of World’s Fair by no means spoils one’s enjoyment of many passages in the book, but it does result in a degree of aesthetic smudging and the raising of expectations that remain unfulfilled.
By contrast, Galápagos is pure invention, untainted by autobiography except for those cryptic traces which only an analyst familiar with the obsessive elements in the whole body of Vonnegut’s work might be expected to detect. Inventiveness has always been the strongest feature of a Vonnegut confection, the ability to “think up” a substance, a predicament, or even a cosmos to which the immediate dangers of the human situation can be linked. In his better novels, the inventions are imaginative and persuasive enough to withstand the bouts of silliness and self-deprecation to which his fiction is always prone. Galápagos is, I think, his most successfully conceived and sustained work since Slaughterhouse-Five.
I know of no way to summarize the action of a Vonnegut novel without making it sound almost too foolish for an adult reader to entertain. In Galápagos we must accept the fact that the narrator is a ghost who, from the perspective of a million years, is looking back at events which take place in 1986 and several decades thereafter. The ghost—a mildly sardonic and kindly figure—is that of Leon Trotsky Trout, the son of the embittered science fiction writer, Kilgore Trout, whom Vonnegut readers will recall in other contexts. Leon has attached himself to a cruise ship, the Bahía de Darwin, during the construction of which he—a construction worker—was accidentally decapitated. When the novel opens, the ship is in the harbor of Guayaquil, Ecuador, about to sail on a two-week “Nature Cruise of the Century” to the Galápagos Islands, home of the giant tortoise, the marine iguana, and the vampire finch. Skillfully promoted, the cruise has attracted such luminaries as Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Henry Kissinger, and Mick Jagger, but they and most of the others fail to show up because of a catastrophic event that has happened just before the scheduled sailing: all third-world countries have been plunged into chaos, starvation, and rioting by a worldwide financial crisis that has destroyed the credibility of paper money. Such is the “real” contemporary danger to which Vonnegut links his fantasy.
This catastrophe is accompanied (we later learn) by another, inspired, I would guess, by the insidious spread of AIDS:
Some new creature, invisible to the naked eye, was eating up all the eggs in human ovaries, starting at the annual Book Fair in Frankfurt, Germany. Women at the fair were experiencing a slight fever, which came and went in a day or two, and sometimes blurry vision. After that…they couldn’t have babies anymore. Nor would any way be discovered for stopping this disease. It would spread practically everywhere.
But the few remaining passengers on the Bahía de Darwin will never know of this development. Joined by six female children of the primitive Kanka-bono tribe (for reasons too intricate to explain), they set sail and eventually run aground on the island of Santa Rosalia, which within a few decades will become the sole habitat of the human species. All future humans will be descended from the ship’s captain, Adolf von Kleist, from a Japanese girl covered with a furry pelt (the result of a mutation caused by the Hiroshima bomb), and from the six Kanka-bono girls. Over a million years they will evolve into furry, fish-eating creatures not unlike seals. Here is Leon Trout’s account of the process, written in the kind of “young adult” prose of which Vonnegut is a master:
If some sort of supernatural beings, or flying-saucer people, those darlings of my father, brought humanity into harmony with itself and the rest of Nature, I did not catch them doing it. I am prepared to swear under oath that the Law of Natural Selection did the repair job without outside assistance of any kind.
It was the best fisherfolk who survived in the greatest numbers in the watery environment of the Galápagos Archipelago. Those with hands and feet most like flippers were the best swimmers. Prognathous jaws were better at catching and holding fish than hands could ever be. And any fisherperson, spending more and more time under-water, could surely catch more fish if he or she were more streamlined, more bulletlike—had a smaller skull.
So much for the problem of man’s oversized, restless, and frequently murderous brain, which, as Trout says, is the only real villain in his story. The problems of overpopulation and aging are taken care of nicely by the prevalence of sharks and killer whales.
Vonnegut’s characters are quickly and effectively sketched in with the bold outlines and instantly recognizable identities of comic-strip characters. Some are allowed a limited degree of complexity, and each has a thematic as well as a narrative function, which Vonnegut manipulates with whimsical ingenuity. While all of the men and women of 1986 are afflicted with oversized brains, some handle this defect better than others. Mary Hepburn, for instance—a sensible, middle-aged science teacher—finds a way to transfer the semen which the aging captain deposits twice a month into her sterile body to the highly fertile bodies of the nubile Kanka-bono girls, thus perpetuating the human species. Mary makes a joke of her strategem: “If only I had thought of doing this when I was still teaching at Ilium High School, I would be in a cozy New York State prison for women instead of on godforsaken Santa Rosalia now.”
Vonnegut’s whimsy is not to everyone’s taste, and he can indeed be heavy-handed on occasion. In Galápagos he moderates the use of cute tags and repetitions that have proved so often annoying in his earlier books. While his pessimistic observations on the pre-Galapagian human condition are of the sort that high-school juniors will find profound, they are presented in such unexpected contexts that many older readers may be charmed as well. I also thoroughly admired the deftness with which Vonnegut dovetails the very odd pieces from which this gently melancholy and endearing book is constructed.
To this heterogeneous pair let me add a first novel of remarkable, though uneven, accomplishment: Where She Was by a young North Carolinian, Anderson Ferrell. He writes about plain people in a rural, tobacco-growing area of the state with such knowledge and authority that one gets the impression not of recovered memories but of immediate observation. To these people, to the details of their daily lives and work, to the packed dirt of the yard with its tufts of wire grass, to the zinnias blazing at the side of the house, to the worn linoleum under the kitchen sink—to these he brings the gravest sort of attention. There is not the slightest element of condescension in Ferrell’s approach to his characters.
Dalton and Cleo Lewis are tenant farmers, a semiliterate, hard-working young couple who love each other and are basically content with their lives. They follow the unchanging rhythms of the farming year—planting, cropping, curing, and marketing tobacco; planting, tending, picking, and preserving vegetables. They have been able to afford a freezer; if this year’s tobacco crop sells well, they may be able to install an indoor bathroom to replace the musty privy with its silverfish, water bugs, and black widow spiders. They have two children: a girl named Virnie and a much younger baby boy.
It is now mid-July, and the first crop of tobacco leaves must be brought into the barns for firing. Dalton drives into town in his pickup truck to collect his quota of seasonal black workers:
Out in the street, the trucks began to fill up with help. From behind stores, workers for the tobacco gathered. Bony, toothless men with rolled-up, gummy-seated trousers stepped barefooted across the hot pavement. Like skinny black cranes, elbows lifted, they flapped into the backs of their bosses’ trucks. Slow-walking, nose-up women,…sacks filled with food, diapers, milk bottles, snuff cans,…and sassafras twigs for sore baby mouths, swaunched around street corners. Brown, many-pigtailed chubby things that were too sleepy to walk swung from the hips of the women…. The women sat on the tailgates and then swung legs up and into the trucks—ladylike, queen-like even, daring, modest.
Heavy-muscled, rank-smelling, young, huge men, pissed off, carrying last night’s wine haze, came in loud groups from across the tracks….
They could have smashed everything, but they did not.
While most will work in the fields, Cleo, her white friend Hazel, and a Negro woman sit side by side near the barn, looping the tobacco leaves onto sticks for stacking. Among other things they talk about a mysterious stranger who apparently exposed himself to a local girl, causing her to faint. Earlier we have heard Dalton and his fellow tobacco farmers talk about the same stranger, possibly a migrant worker from Mexico, and we have already seen a dark, ragged man, with odd eyes and straight black hair reaching to his waist, as he lurks in the woods near the farm. We see him, too, in Cleo’s vegetable garden, stealing and munching her produce while listening to the “laughter of God.” He seems demented. Cleo herself catches a glimpse of him carrying off a watermelon, and, for reasons obscure to her, she fails to tell Dalton.
The second movement, so to speak, of Where She Was concerns Cleo’s religious quest, which is undertaken to appease a vague, yearning awareness of something more to existence than the people and activities that fill her days. She attends a service at Newcombe’s Chapel Free Will Baptist Church, where she hears the preacher say “Hard work can save souls”; but when she offers to clean the church or to plant zinnias along its side, she is politely rebuffed and told that “not by works alone, but by grace are ye saved.” She tries other churches, among them the True Gospel Holiness Powerhouse Holy Ghost Church, to which her friend Hazel belongs. Inside the cinder-block church with its tar-paper roof, she looks around her—and the reader again is exposed to the peculiarly solid yet finely textured quality of Ferrell’s descriptions:
The old women had on cool old dresses that buttoned up the front with big sparkly buttons that looked like pieces of colored popcorn. The dresses were flowered but dull from being washed out by hand and hung up to dry in the sun. Cleo noticed rust stains on the shoulders of some of the dresses. The old women wore heavy black shoes with thick heels, so much a part of the women that the shoes and the feet seemed to be the same, and Cleo had a funny thought that this would be what her feet would look like when she got old. The old women sat together.
Cleo watches the preacher literally wrestle with members of his congregation, grabbing them and twisting them until the Lord releases them from sin and they fall sobbing to the floor. But when he lays hands on Cleo, she wrenches his hands from her face, wanting to kill him, and rushes out of the church.
The account of Cleo’s unsuccessful attempt to find an answer in the Old Time Religion is very powerful. Ferrell knows backwoods Protestantism in all of its varieties and the part that it plays in the lives of country people, white and black alike. He enables us to experience its attraction for people like Cleo, while at the same time making credible her resistance to it. Cleo herself is subtly and skillfully done—a limited but far from simple person.
But having set his heroine (one can call her that) in motion, Ferrell does not seem to know what to do with her, and in its final section the novel retreats behind a billowing veil of mystification. On a hot, airless night when the moon is full, Cleo, unable to sleep, leaves Dalton in bed and goes out onto the porch in her nightgown. Then, after a protracted period of reverie and portentous dreaming, she sees in her vegetable garden the figure of the dark man. Under the spell, perhaps, of D.H. Lawrence, Ferrell’s prose, which all along has had to fight against a tendency toward overwriting, becomes positively moonstruck:
Light fell on him once when he turned his head toward Cleo, and the moonlight slid like oil down his long straight, blue-black hair. One eye flashed a reflection of the moon as if all the water drops had been drawn back from the soil around him to shine once more, as brightly and as briefly as down burning.
Cleo could feel her blood move to every part of her. Though her heart did not race, she could hear every beat. She stepped down to the bottom step, and her house, with her husband and babies in it, was behind her like a white cloudy veil ripped loose from her hair by the wind.
What happens when she follows this demonic, Pan-like (but also Christ-like) creature into the woods is never fully revealed. There are a number of possibilities, none of them believable. The final pages are flooded with religious symbolism, and the story itself, which seemed to be moving so promisingly toward a resolution, is allowed to float away. Too bad. But Anderson Ferrell is such a gifted writer that one can confidently expect him, in his future novels, to respect his fable as much as he respects his theme.