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The Story Isn’t Over

The Cider House Rules

by John Irving
Morrow, 560 pp., $18.95

The House of the Spirits

by Isabel Allende, translated by Magda Bogin
Knopf, 368 pp., $17.95

The Magic Kingdom

by Stanley Elkin
Dutton, 317 pp., $16.95

Sturdy, old-fashioned storytelling”—it carries a heavy burden indeed in that expression “old-fashioned.” The linear plot has a long history, not only in the life of the culture, but for each of us personally; being “told a story” connotes in each of our infantile histories the memory of placating, soporific experience, as self-indulgent and satisfying as thumb sucking. Over the centuries, this kind of pleasure, compounded agreeably of pretended apprehension and secure anticipation, was not thought incompatible with serious commentary on adult matters like money and morals, the tale and the teaching bound together by the denouement in some sort of terminal snugness. But in the early years of this century, it seemed likely that we would get away from such tired formulas and shamefaced conventions of storytelling—would do away, not only with the “lived happily ever after” conclusion but with the contrived obstacle course leading to it. Partly the old conventions seemed to be used up; partly the idea of earning moral and material kudos in return for demonstrated virtue appeared ridiculous in the modern world; partly the linear plot was uncongenial with a central development of modern concern, the expansion of self-consciousness.

Thus for the greater part of the present century, the reputable forms of fiction have diluted or actively avoided “mere” storytelling, in favor of some more active device of reader involvement. We have had puzzle novels, which the reader had to reassemble and interpret; visionary novels,in which the narrative, if any, was a mere screen to be seen through; mirror novels reflecting multiple consciousnesses; psychological novels, in which the action was all interior; and antipsychological novels, in which inner action had to be inferred from an impersonal description of external facts. The list could be extended, and exemplary names assigned to the various types; but it is enough that narrative has been in relative eclipse—which is why its return nowadays is heralded with the reassuring, yet ambiguous, adjective, “old-fashioned.” Still, though linear plot and tailored character are centuries old and have been once rejected, it is too glib to think their potential has been altogether exhausted; indeed, just the opposite could be happening. The sorts of novel that were supposed to render linear narrative obsolete seem to be undergoing some obsolescence of their own. One ought then to look afresh at what is being done with the old form—just in case.

John Irving’s The Cider House Rules is a fine example of the kind of novel that brought linear plots and their cutout characters into disrepute in the first place. It has an intricate plot in the old sense of an intrigue, as well as several subplots, all of which it pursues with relentless disregard for elementary probability and complete indifference to the mental or emotional life of its actors. Homer Wells is introduced to us as an orphan born in an obscure asylum in Maine, and put up for adoption several times, unsuccessfully, until he becomes the protégé of, and ultimately assistant to, Doctor Larch, resident at the asylum. Here, without formal medical training, he acquires the arts of gynecology, his attention divided about equally between childbirth and abortion procedures—the latter are illegal, to be sure, but under Doctor Larch’s expert skill and humane concerns presented as “doing the Lord’s work.” Homer Wells grows up in this milieu, and is shaped by it; the asylum is remote and isolated, Doctor Larch is the only figure of authority on the horizon; the foundling becomes the doctor’s junior colleague. But at a crucial point in his young manhood, he revolts against the idea of abortion, and decides to participate no longer in such activities. He does however assist at an operation on a wealthy young woman from out of town named Candace, and is afterward taken into the family of her fiancé, Wally. Here, in due course, he becomes initiated into the skills of apple growing and cider making; if not formally adopted, he is accepted into the family.

All this time Homer is watched over from afar by the vigilant and unscrupulous Doctor Larch, who kindly shields him from participation in World War II by writing into his record a purely fictitious heart condition. Wally is now recruited, sent abroad, lost over Burma, and apparently killed. This clears the way for Homer and Candace to consort, produce a child, and retire to the old orphan asylum for the infant to be born. Unexpectedly, Wally turns up, badly crippled but alive. After momentary hesitation, Candace marries him, palming off her child by Homer as an adopted infant. (The people in Maine are such simpletons that they swallow this story unquestioningly.) Candace is thus able to settle down to matrimony with Wally, tempered by ongoing adultery with Homer; and the arrangement continues for fifteen years, during which a small-town Maine community is so high- or simple-minded that not a breath of suspicion is voiced.

Meanwhile, the omniscient Doctor Larch has arranged for Homer to be supplied (unbeknownst to himself) with a false identity, complete with fake academic and medical diplomas, so that at the appropriate moment he can be slipped into place as successor to the older man. Thus when his domestic arrangements are recognized and revealed by a fellow graduate of the asylum (who penetrates in an instant disguises that nobody else had seen through for fifteen years), an easy retreat is open to Homer. Back to the asylum he goes, fortified with phony documents and disguised (or so we’re supposed to think) behind a beard, to assume or resume a medical practice. Apparently he is quite satisfied with his medical competence (though his experience is strikingly limited), and he has forgotten without effort his previous moral objections to abortion. The various loose ends he leaves behind—Wally deceived, Candace deserted, his son, now grown, in limbo—remain without serious attempt at explanation or reconcilement. Inconvenient minor characters are dispatched or disappear without explanation. To keep Homer happy, he is provided with a tractable nurse at the hospital. A dying fall on the pianola.

The Cider House Rules gets its title from a set of typed rules posted annually in the cider house of the apple farm for the guidance of the picking crew who come every fall. Though simple and sensible, the rules are not much observed, partly because the apple pickers are almost all illiterate, partly because the crew boss has his own rules, which he enforces with a well-used knife. The cider-house rules are thus dead letters; and by elevating them into his title, Irving surely wants to suggest that most rules can and should be treated as dead letters. That surely is the triumphant tale of Homer Wells, who gets the use of Candace without any of the responsibilities, gets eased into medical practice without the need of formal training for it, and solves his moral dilemmas over abortion without the necessity of thinking about them.

The weight of Irving’s plot combined with the thinness of his characters puts a heavy burden on the author’s prose, which combines Dickensian jocularity with Dickensian sentimentality. He is better at dealing with processes—scraping a uterus, crushing a load of apples, fixing machinery, fighting—than at conveying the feelings of people. Irving is quoted as saying he wanted to write a “Victorian” novel; it would be an exercise in the ridiculous to compare the moral weight of The Cider House Rules with that of, say, Trollope’s Orley Farm.

The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende comes to us from Chile in a translation by Magda Bogin. The author is a cousin of the late president of that unhappy country, and her book is a family history. The first three-quarters describe the doings of a large and tumultuous tribe, the last quarter recapitulates with deep and quite natural embitterment the recent history of her native land.

A central figure in the first part of the novel is the compulsive, macho Esteban Trueba. He is passionately in love with Rosa, the eldest and most beautiful of the Del Valle girls, and has gone off to the northern mines to make the fortune that will enable him to marry her. While he is away, Rosa is poisoned in a botched attempt to murder her politician father. Esteban returns, overwhelmed with grief, and goes off to bury his sorrows in solitude while rehabilitating a derelict family farm at Tres Marías. His violent, authoritarian methods succeed in restoring the farm to profitability; they also spill over into a series of rapes of the women of his peons—rapes that don’t prevent Esteban from considering himself a model landlord.

After nine years of unremitting labor and brutish rut, Esteban has built up his farm and finds it appropriate to take to himself a wife. His choice falls on Clara, younger sister of Rosa, and a thoroughly distinctive young lady. She has the gift of second sight; she can also cause tables and other household objects to move around the room without touching them; and since the death of her sister Rosa, nine years before, she has deliberately refused to speak a single word. Abruptly one day, without having heard anything from him, she announces that she is going to marry Esteban; and so, in short order, she does.

With this marriage at the center of the tale, we follow the Trueba family through two more generations of turbulent and various activity. The two sons, Jaime and Nicolás, manage to enrage their increasingly reactionary father in slightly different ways, Jaime by becoming a physician to the underprivileged, Nicolás by turning (under the influence of his mother’s occult notions) to an array of visionary creeds and flaky practices. But the real thorn in old Esteban’s flesh is his daughter, Blanca, who falls in love with, and becomes pregnant by, a radical peasant leader from Tres Marías itself. Hideous temper tantrums ensue, and acts of grotesquely autocratic parental tyranny; at length, under cover of a hastily arranged and utterly impossible marriage of convenience (to an aristocratic French homosexual), Blanca is delivered of a daughter, Alba.

Before long, Alba is ready to repeat her mother’s indiscretion with a student radical named Miguel; but at this point the focus of the story shifts to the national political scene. A leader known simply as The Candidate, but who is clearly Salvador Allende, is elected president, and events follow the pattern familiar to anyone who has observed, over the past dozen years or so, the news reports from Chile.

Two bitter twists for the Trueba family connect that domestic chronicle with the larger disaster of the nation. Old Esteban Trueba, though passionately anticommunist and active in planning the coup that overthrew The Candidate, finds himself neglected and despised by the new regime—as did, apparently, many reactionaries in Chile itself. (Once in power, fascist regimes have no use for mere parliamentarians, no matter how conservative.) And in a climactic turnabout, old Trueba’s adored granddaughter Alba is savagely tormented and brutally raped by a police officer who is no other than one of Trueba’s own bastard children, sadistic as an infant and bestial as an adult. Even if a bit mechanically, this turn of the story works out the notion of retribution, and ties the gruesome ending of the novel into at least symbolic relation with the first part.

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