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The Wild Blue Yonder

Pubis Angelical

by Manuel Puig, translated by Elena Brunet
Random House/Vintage, 250 pp., $6.95 (paper)

Paper Doll

by Jim Shepard
Knopf, 228 pp., $15.95

In his twenty-ninth book of fiction, Louis Auchincloss has chosen to write about the most publicized (if not productive) pursuit of Reaganesque capitalism: the engrossing game of corporate takeovers. The novel’s subject, matching its title in trendiness, would seem to provide an ideal occasion for this prolific lawyer-novelist, who is sometimes regarded as the trustee, or administrator, of the moral and social inheritance of “Old” New York, to dramatize once more that favorite theme of his—the conflict between honorable practice, as defined by an inherited ethos, and sleazy opportunism, whether indulged in by a brash upstart or by “someone who should know better.”

The yuppie of the title is Robert Service, a thirty-two-year-old associate in the respected law firm of Hoyt, Welles & Andrew, who is on the point of being promoted to a partnership. His mentor and conscience within the firm is Branders Blakelock, a famous trial lawyer of the old school, a clubman and golfer whose interest in the boyishly good-looking young man may well, Service suspects, contain an unconscious element of homoeroticism. His moral conscience at home is his wife Alice, who has known him since they were children. At issue in the takeover in which Hoyt, Welles is currently engaged is a shredded memorandum, pieced together, which has been surreptitiously obtained from the wastebasket of the president of the “targeted” company—a personal memorandum so potentially damaging to the company president that it might be used to force a settlement or to launch a stockholder’s suit to unseat him. Should this piece of what is euphemistically termed “abandoned property” be put to such use? Service can hardly wait to do so, but Mr. Blakelock, who finds such tactics obscene, won’t hear of it.

At home, Alice Service also questions her husband’s advocacy of such dirty tricks. Here is Service’s defense:

The trouble with you and Blakelock is that neither of you has the remotest understanding of the moral climate in which we live today. It’s all a game, but a game with very strict rules. You have to stay meticulously within the law; the least misstep, if caught, involves an instant penalty. But there is no particular moral opprobrium in incurring a penalty, any more than there is being offside in football.

After their client loses, Service begins to wonder if he is with the right firm after all. Soon he is plotting to start a firm of his own, taking with him the most promising young lawyers from Hoyt, Welles & Andrew. This plot succeeds, Mr. Blakelock disowns him, and Alice asks for a separation.

Dismayed but undeterred, Service pursues his ruthless course, ridding himself of his most troublesome rival and “reorganizing” his social and sexual life. He takes up with a counterpart in greed, a well-connected young widow, Sylvia Sands, who provides him with an entree into what is “obviously the highest” society in New York. More elaborate temptations are in store for him in this exalted sphere. Meanwhile, Alice, like some disconsolate heroine in a late-Victorian morality play, waits in the wings. Diary of a Yuppie ends in a flurry of ambiguities, chief among them being Service’s “semiconversion” and Alice’s accommodation to what may or may not be “a new Bob Service.”

On its face, there is no reason why the fictional exploration of such material should not result in a solid, interesting novel worthy of the author of The Great World and Timothy Colt and The Rector of Justin. Unfortunately, Diary of a Yuppie carries still further the perfunctoriness of treatment that has marred so much of his recent work. The admirer of Henry James and champion of Edith Wharton seems to have become bored with the dilemmas that once inspired him. Having set up the device of a diary or journal, Auchincloss does little to make it credible—and indeed seems to forget all about it for most of the book. Nor does he make any effort to suggest the speech of the class of young professionals to which Service ostensibly belongs. One wonders if Auchincloss has ever talked with a real, live yuppie. He resorts to stagy dialogue of a sort—full of exclamation points and rhetorical questions—that might have been appropriate to a soap opera (had such existed) of 1895. Listen, for a moment, to Alice’s rebuke to a young lawyer who is her host at a cocktail party in Chappaqua:

I really cannot sit here and hear you say such horrible things about poor Mrs. Merton!… To me she has always been far too good for the lawyers with whom she has had to pass her life. She strikes me as someone high and noble, a kind of proud Roman princess in the late days of the Empire. She might have had to oblige her imperial father by giving her hand to a barbarian chief, an Alaric or Attila, whose bloody sword was needed to bolster his tottering throne. Oh, it’s very fine! And how is she rewarded? Just as one might expect from a vulgar and ruthless killer!

Service himself is a thoroughly unconvincing confection, a former English major at Columbia who lards his speech with references to “Mr. James” and claims Walter Pater is his favorite writer. While given to the rhetoric of passion, he comes across as singularly passionless. When Alice leaves him, he confides to his journal that “For a moment my heart was ripped apart. How could I have lost this splendid girl?… Was it too late to undo the whole ghastly mess?” His constantly reiterated moral position—right up to his “semiconversion”—is the old cynical refrain that we all have our secret meannesses, lusts, and greed but that only a few of us are honest enough to admit them, even to ourselves. The improbabilities of his characterization and the fatuousness of his confessions are such that we can never be sure whether Auchincloss intends Service as a moral monster, a pathetic bundle of self-delusions, a pretentious phony, or a misguided but redeemable young man.

Ambiguities of another sort abound—as readers (or viewers) of The Kiss of the Spider Woman would expect—in Pubis Angelical, the latest of Manuel Puig’s novels to be published in the United States. And in it readers will also find the infatuation with the lush movie-world of the Thirties and Forties that Puig has indulged in all of his novels, beginning with Betrayed by Rita Hayworth. The infatuation centers upon the great female stars of the era and the lavish or absurd vehicles in which they acted out the romantic fantasies of their hungry fans. There is, of course, an element of low camp in Puig’s exploitation of such fantasies: the appeal of the Hollywood queens as models for the would-be queens of either gender in the audience. In Spider Woman the character called Molina actually carries female impersonation so far as to die the death of a movie heroine. But Molina’s death has a further dimension—a political one—that reminds us of another constant in Puig’s fiction: the juxtaposition of the most extravagant dreams of glamour, passion, and sacrifice with the harsh, often homicidal realities of contemporary Latin America.

In Pubis Angelical Puig juxtaposes two distinct “celluloid” fantasies against the desperate plight of a young Argentinian exile, Ana, who is dying of cancer in a Mexican hospital. The first is based not so much upon an actual or imagined movie as upon the career—wildly hallucinated—of an Austrian actress not unlike Hedy Lamarr—the “most beautiful woman in the world.” We first see her as a bride awakening from a drugged sleep in the rococo bedroom of a palace on an island in an Austrian lake. She is the wife of a fabulously rich manufacturer of munitions, a man with a monocle and graying temples, who keeps her imprisoned—and under constant surveillance—on the island. The décor is luxuriant, the atmosphere charged with sado-eroticism:

Near one hand lay a mirror with a filigreed silver handle, her lips reflected back painted, as if they’d been touched up only moments before…. She decided to run her right hand along the rest of her body, stretched it out and pulled it back almost immediately. Her left hand, less sensitive, seemed to her better suited for such inspection. Very soon she found a patch of skin that burned, just above the collarbone. Three or four teethmarks in an arch…. Her stomach, by contrast, betrayed no signs of an assault, her lower abdomen yes, wet, inflamed, with a tear deep within.

She tried to remember, the only thing that came to mind was the coolness of those sips, a drink new to her…. She tried to walk, but in so doing roused the stinging between her inner thighs. The mink rug warmed the soles of her feet, the iron structure imprisoning the Venetian glass was profiled through the curtain of flowered lace.

Dreams shift into nightmares and into a waking “reality” that is no less extravagant. The time is 1936. There are English agents, spies, men disguised as servant-girls, and, over all, the shadow of Der Führer. There is no need to detail the intricacies of this farrago, which includes the actress’s flight to America on a luxury liner and her experience of another kind of imprisonment in Hollywood. There are constant allusions to scenes in old Valentino films, to Algiers (which starred Hedy Lamarr), to the fan magazines and publicity releases of the period. Through it all, the most beautiful actress in the world is melancholy. She has never found the man who can match what she has to offer.

Every few pages the saga of the actress gives way to the story of Ana, revealed through her diary or through her conversations with two visitors to the hospital. With Beatriz, a Mexican friend with feminist leanings, she discusses her fears about her illness-and, above all, her feelings about men. With Pozzi, a former lover who has come from Buenos Aires to see her on an urgent political mission, she talks about their past relationship, her family, and the frightening situation in Argentina. (The year is 1975.) Pozzi, who is a left-wing Peronist lawyer, wants Ana to summon a rich Argentinian admirer to her bedside in Mexico so that he can be kidnapped and then exchanged for one of Pozzi’s associates who has been imprisoned. As in the earlier novels, Puig presents page after page of dialogue uninterrupted by description or narration.

—What kind of man were you hoping for?

—Beatriz, you feminists are all alike, you’re impossible to talk to.

—…

—Isn’t it possible sometimes to fantasize a little…about a superior man?

—Superior to whom?

—Superior to the others. Superior to me.

—…

—I’m not that great….

—If you don’t think you’re that great, how can you go after someone who is that great? So he can throw it in your face?

—So he can throw what in my face?

—That you’re a person who’s inferior to him.

It becomes possible to read the entire lavish and incoherent story of the actress as the compensatory fantasy of poor, yearning Ana, a rather silly but good-hearted woman who secretly subscribes to the Hollywood vision of a beautiful woman’s destiny. As Ana’s pain worsens and her hopes of recovery become more desperate, she kills off the actress, so to speak, and substitutes for her a more heroic (but still submissive) fantasy surrogate—a figure out of science fiction called W218, whose story, in the frigid postatomic age, is interleaved with Ana’s for the remainder of the novel.

The juxtaposition of texts, each representing a distinct mode (and level) of fiction, has a radically disjunctive impact upon the reader, who, in addition to puzzling out what is happening, must adjust constantly to the abrupt shifts in emotional pressure. The sections dealing with the actress are, I suppose, “good trash” of a campy variety—entertaining as such for brief passages but quick to pall—while Ana’s story demands a much more urgent response. One becomes involved in the pathos of her situation, moved by her alternating states of hope and despair, and interested in the political upheaval in which she is something of a pawn. But Puig’s alienating techniques—the nonstop dialogue, etc.—work against a full commitment of our sympathies. As for the adventures of W218 in the polar age, I found them simply dull and drab—perhaps they are deliberately so.

The work as a whole fairly bristles with ingenuity and energy: the thematic parallels between the three texts seem almost inexhaustible, and one finishes the book with a sense of having grasped only a portion of them. Interesting, too, is the degree to which Puig has been able to identify—at times passionately—with the conscious and unconscious psychology of his heroine-victim, thereby raising and exploring (if not answering) the old Freudian question, What do women want? But with all its ingenuity, Pubis Angelical (the title refers to the smooth and sexless crotch of angels) remains an impressive artifact rather than a fully engrossing work of fictional art.

The most successful of the novels under review is the one by the youngest of the writers, Jim Shepard. Paper Doll is the inspired product of what could well be a teen-aged boy’s obsession: the need to know, in detail of archeological exactitude, just what it was like to be a member of a B-17 bomber crew stationed in England and flying over Germany in 1943. The resulting novel is fully, even tragically, adult in its account of the impact of extreme danger upon a group of inexperienced, callow, and often baffled young men. After a mild beginning, Paper Doll rises to an almost unbearable pitch of excitement and anguish.

We meet the members of Shepard’s little crew and learn to distinguish between them in a leisurely, almost desultory way as they are hanging around, idle and bored, waiting to have a group picture taken in front of their plane, which is called Paper Doll. Only four of the ten-man crew are brought by Shepard to the foreground of the reader’s attention, and of these only one, Bobby Bryant, the flight engineer, is given any real degree of interior life. He is a young man from Providence, Rhode Island, who has always wanted to fly but has a deep sense of his own ineptitude—a sense fostered by a contemptuous and dismissive father. His chief concern is not to excel or learn but to avoid humiliation. As the novel progresses, Bryant learns to perform adequately, though Shepard is careful never to transform him into a hero.

Lewis, the tail gunner, is the crew’s wit—and bully. Bryant is more afraid of him than of the Germans, and Lewis knows it. Having reenlisted after his first tour, he is the only veteran in a group that has been together for only a matter of weeks. We get to know him and the others by what they say and do and what they say about each other. Lewis is as funny as he is cruel. His principal victim is Bean, the radio operator, the least mature, most hapless, most awkward of the lot. The freshest, most cheerful, is the ball turret gunner, Gordon Snowberry, Jr., who is only seventeen; he fancies that he has a voice like Bing Crosby’s and is constantly crooning such Crosby hits as “An Apple for the Teacher.” Shepard is expert in capturing the kind of exchange that takes place among such men as they wait around between missions.

Lewis leaned dangerously far back in his chair. “I’m in love with Gene Tierney,” he said. “I’ve got it bad, and that ain’t good. We’ve got this afternoon to kill. Any ideas?”

Bryant shook his head, and Lewis pulled a small assemblage of leather straps out of his pocket, and unfolded it. It looked like a small and complex muzzle.

After a moment of silence Lewis said, “It’s a cat harness.”

Bryant went on looking to indicate that he needed more information.

I’m thinking about organizing a cat throw,” Lewis said. “You interested?”

Bobby Bryant shook his head. “I’m disgusted, is what I am,” he said. “Really and truly.”

It’s absolutely safe,” Lewis said. “This design is based on our parachute design. Distributes the stress”

Bryant finished his milk. “Who says our parachutes distribute the stress?”

You got me there,” Lewis admitted….

Well, don’t tell Bean, whatever you do,” Bryant said. Bean loved cats. It dawned on Bryant that that was the point.

Paper Doll is essentially a plotless novel in which a great deal happens. The inconsequential scenes alternate with those in which all hell, so to speak, breaks loose. We see the crew members brawling at a local pub, hooting and catcalling at briefing sessions, throwing a party for the village children, and, in one funny and touching scene, we accompany Bryant and Snowberry (both prudently equipped with condoms) on a brief leave spent with two English girls who easily “overmatch” them in sophistication and experience.

Meanwhile, the death toll is mounting. Planes collide with each other and explode on the ground. On a raid to Hamburg, nine planes return out of the twelve that set out. On a raid to Kassel, Bryant’s oxygen mask accumulates ice and he passes out, to wake up in the station sick quarters surrounded by frostbite cases. Acquaintances in the other crews die horribly. Morale drops.

It was no longer uncommon, after missions, to find Norden bombsights, so obsessively protected in training in the States as the secret weapon the Axis would give. Italy for, lying in the grass unattended near the hardstands like mysterious, useless gizmos cleared from the attic. Men were becoming geniuses at hoarding small slights…. Everyone had a different method of following what was perceived to be an emerging pattern of sinister design, based on irrefutable omens. Half of three squadrons developed diarrhea.

Spirits are lifted momentarily by a successful raid on Le Bourget during which Bryant, Snowberry, and the waist gunner between them shoot down a Messerschmitt whose pilot “was gazing over at Bryant like someone about to get it in an old Mack Sennett short.” But the most perilous mission of all is about to take place: the great daytime attack on the ball-bearing factories at Schweinfurt, the furthest penetration American planes had yet made into Germany, an operation involving an astonishing total of 131 Flying Fortresses.

This raid, with its appalling losses, occupies the final section of Paper Doll, and in his account of it Shepard has achieved a passionately imagined recreation of what a major air battle must have been like in the days before radar and rocketry, when Messerschmitts and Focke-Wulf fighters (“bandits”) flew straight out of the sun into the V-formations of bombers, when the fuel capacity of the Allied fighter-escorts was insufficient for them to accompany the bombers more than a third of the way. Shepard does justice to the exaltation as well as the horror of such a flight, to the moment during takeoff, for example, when

the gray began to thin and strand and suddenly they were out and into a brilliant blue, the sun flooding across his canopy and the ship’s upper surfaces, and all around him was the awesome boys’ war spectacle of the entire group’s B-17’s rising from the cloud blanket, like a horizon of magically appearing good guys, all sweeping into the clear and cold sunlight.

His handling of the technical details of the raid, with the great battle and then the devastating return over the still dangerous enemy territory strewn with the wreckage of the outward flight, strikes me as masterly. The language itself seems almost to explode under the fierce pressure of events:

The air around them started to fill with small detonations and flashes and tracer lines began to lariat by, and a B-17 above and to the right turned almost immediately and plunged away out of sight, as if suddenly aerodynamic principles had failed it. The interphone was impossible with chatter…. A Messerschmitt spiraled by wing over fuselage, tumbling out of control. He saw a B-17 upside down and when he looked again it was gone. Something of a shining aquamarine sailed past, striking the turret and leaving a clouded white nick in the Plexiglass, like a distant cumulus. He fired snarling into his mask, slewing his guns around with the rage of a pestered animal, and shouting unintelligible things. There were hits all around him on Paper Doll’s fuselage, hits like dropping bricks down the cellar stairs, or pouring loads of stones into metal garbage cans.

For all the pyrotechnics of such writing, Shepard never draws attention away from the fear, the suffering, the rage, and the desperate resourcefulness of the little crew within the all-too-fragile shell of Paper Doll.

One could complain that the beginning is so slow that it may lose readers too impatient to get their bearings. While plausibly characterized, Bryant is insufficiently developed to serve as a real center of consciousness or a primary focus for the reader’s sympathies (though it may be argued that the author, whose major concern is the group’s experience, has purposely declined to lend much weight to a single character). A few anachronisms creep into an almost perfect evocation of the speech and the attitudes of the early 1940s. But the faults are minor compared to what has been achieved. Steering as it does a modest course between the epic sweep of The Naked and the Dead on the one hand and the farcical comédie noire of Catch-22 on the other, Paper Doll is simultaneously the most moving and the least sentimental novel of the Second World War that I have yet read.

Letters

Don’t Mind If I Do February 12, 1987

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