“I haven’t had time to read up on Cortés,” says Bonny, one of the characters in Walter Abish’s new novel, Eclipse Fever. “Was he the good or the bad guy?” “Goodness, I suppose that depends entirely on your historical perspective,” says her Mexican companion. “My father maintains that history and fiction are interchangeable,” Bonny says. This idea informs much of Abish’s work. History, because it is narrated, is subjective and interpretative like fiction, and fiction cannot escape the didactic implications of history.
In each of Abish’s three novels, a foreigner, often the narrator or hero, interacts with an alien culture (Africa, Germany, Mexico) that has been affected by American development, acquisitiveness, indifference to history and tradition, and, as in Kafka, by social institutions—museums, foundations, unseen commercial empires that act on the dreamily passive or power less characters. These in turn attempt “to view and place [their] personal affairs in a literary context, as if this would endow them with a clear and richer meaning.”
The first paragraph of Abish’s first novel, Alphabetical Africa (1974), announced his interest in archaeology, foreignness, the erotic, and literary experiment, matters he continues to explore.
Ages ago, Alex, Allen and Alva arrived at Antibes, and Alva allowing all, allowing anyone, against Alex’s admonition, against Allen’s angry assertion:….Anyhow author apprehends Alva anatomically, affirmatively and also accurately.
The next chapter introduced words that begin with B, the third chapter C, and so on through Z and back again, a formal tour de force of which John Updike said, ” ‘a masterpiece of its kind’ does not seem too strong an accolade for a book apt to be the only one of its kind” (though one might think of related attempts by other free spirits like Georges Perec and Harry Mathews). In any case, Updike’s prediction proved correct where Abish is concerned; Alphabetical Africa seems to have ended his need for that particular kind of formal constraint.
Abish’s next novel, How German Is It, which won the prestigious PEN/Faulkner prize in 1981, was considerably less mannered. An expansion of an earlier story, “The English Garden,” it concerned the arrival of Ulrich Hargenau, an American of German descent, in a small German town, ostensibly to find the facts about the execution of his father in a plot against Hitler, and to answer for himself the question How German am I? To Ulrich in Würtenburg, things seem both new and somehow like the prewar Germany. The radio plays “old marches,…military bands, anything that will keep the past, the glorious German past from being effaced forever.” Is it Germany that we are seeing? Or is Germany (where Abish had at the time of writing never been) a place to stand, from which to look at ourselves? Are we all infected by the social defects called here German?
The novel is narrated with witty, deadpan solemnity, no quotation marks, and tiny chapters or long paragraphs with lots of white space between them—white space somehow designating formal ambitions beyond the more naturalistic mode of most American novels. All the parts fit neatly into a jigsaw puzzle pattern directed by a playful intelligence, and at the end comes a kind of punch line, as in a very long joke: Ulrich, under hypnosis, cannot escape his German roots, he “knew, he was convinced, he was positive that he was not a good hypnotic subject as he opened his eyes, with his right hand raised in a stiff salute.”
Eclipse Fever is mostly set in Mexico City in an undifferentiated magic-realistic Mexican countryside of ruined villas, gas stations, jungles, pyramids, cinderblock motels, and old cars.
Does it really matter [where]? It certainly wasn’t the Mexico the tourists had come to visit—that’s for sure. The fiestas, the processions, the fireworks, the Spanish Baroque churches and cemeteries, the passion plays, not to mention the Aztec and Mayan ruins, the picturesque inlets and harbors on the new tourist coast, with its broadly smiling Mexican faces and its inviting American-Express-and-Visa-recommended fish restaurants and four-star hotels—these were elsewhere.
Two parallel, lightly intersecting plots concern two main characters who never meet. In the first story, the hero is a Mexican literary critic, Alejandro. Many Abish characters are given like Allen, Alva, or Alejandro, like archetype or author or Abish, a name that begins with A, and all have the same wondering passivity, like Kafka’s eponymous K. Alejandro is married to Mercedes, a translator, who has gone off with Jurud, an American Jewish novelist of WASP manners.
In the contrapuntal story, the main character is an American teen-ager, Bonny Jurud, the novelist’s daughter. Bonny is the opposite of passive. In her story, she runs away to Mexico, hoping to meet up with Jurud and Mercedes during their travels there. As she strikes out on her own, only occasionally worrying that she could be “just another confused teenage runaway and not [her father’s] literary or was it historical conduit,” her aim is to record all impressions and forget nothing. During her picaresque wanderings, she also hopes to see an eclipse from Baja or the Yucatán—eclipse being a suitable metaphor for the erosion of the Mexican by the American culture, and the triumph of nonhistory (America) over history (Mexico).
The passive Alejandro is a reader who cannot remember his past and hopes to find explanations for his present situation in books of Mexican history and literature. “Because La Malinche, who slept with Cortés and bore him a child, betrayed every one of her countrymen, modern Mexico began with an act of treachery,” which perhaps explains why his wife, Mercedes, has gone off with Bonny’s father, Jurud, a betrayal that is almost traditional. The Mexican characters, like Alejandro, are doomed to capitulate to the encroaching, history-less, vigorous Americans. Alejandro tries to resist demands on him to review Jurud’s work or appear with him on television, but he doesn’t. Depressed and powerless, he drifts along in the comfortable, familiar world he has grown up in. He develops a psychosomatic rash.
Some characters move between the two stories. Emilio Monte, a Mexican boy who trades in illegal pre-Columbian artifacts, travels for a while with Bonny as she runs away to Mexico, hoping to meet up with Jurud and his new girlfriend during her father’s trip there. Alejandro’s friend Francisco, a kind of alter ego from whose point of view we may see things when Alejandro is absent, is mixed up with the rich Americans Rita and Preston. Rita is materialistic, unruffled, sexual, and sleek (there was a similar Rita in How German Is It). Preston is in charge of Eden Enterprise (recalling Dust Enterprises in How German Is It), a giant development corporation that plans to build an elevator in the Pyramid of the Sun for the benefit of the American senior citizens who will live in an adjacent new condo community. Rita and Preston collect important Mexican artifacts, and are willing to buy them under the table for vast sums.
American cultural imperialism succeeds against courteous Mexican ineptness. Alejandro agrees to review the American Jurud’s books, Lenny Bernstein comes to conduct in the new Mexican concert hall that so resembles one in Germany. The Mexicans read Vanity Fair and complain about the additives in white wine, like Americans. In every situation, enervated by their death-obsessed heritage, the Mexican characters embrace the alluring but corrupting northern influences. In each cultural confrontation, the Mexicans lose, an opposition which pervades each detail of the novel.
If the Mexicans worry and equivocate, the Americans are blithely unaffected by the consequences of their actions. When Bonny is lost, then injured in a fall, her father is not worried—he has “that innate optimism of the writers to our north.” When Preston is involved in a murder plot, it is Alejandro who is imprisoned and beaten by police, and Emilio who is charged. All this will strike us as too schematic, dictated by the overarching idea rather than some principle of psychological realism, unless we perceive the novel as organized like a fugue, a simple but pregnant melody in whose variations lie the pleasure and interest of the work. The charm is in Abish’s playful embroidery of his theme: if Alejandro reads a book, say, its title will be dictated not by what Abish has noticed people reading but by what will comment and ornament. (Alejandro reads Melville’s The Confidence Man, and Jurud’s new novel is called Intimacy.)
Where novels usually proceed by showing the interaction of events with the development of the hero’s character, here incidents of random peril erupt like sinister mushrooms independent of the characters, evoking the modern world. As Alejandro and a friend dine in the courtyard of a cafe, firemen scale the roof of a nearby burning building, water spurts at them, breaking glass menaces them into moving to another table. As Alejandro and Mercedes climb the Pyramid of the Sun, the rotors of a developer’s helicopter nearly blow them off, its sinister shadow prefiguring the overarching theme. Though there are vicisitudes in the traditional sense—an exciting climax in an empty house, guns, a murder, police—Will Bonny be found in time? Will Alejandro and Mercedes get back together?—these are merely concessions to readerly predilection for stories.
Alejandro and Francisco debate whether Mexican writers are free to use Mexican themes “without casting over the entire text an appallingly solemn air of gloom, putrescence, and mass extinction.” Novelists don’t usually show the penchant auteurs of cinema have for alluding to their predecessors and influences, but Proust and Kafka and Buñuel are the tutelary gods of the Abish universe, specifically invoked in references and epigraphs, in case you miss them:
As he kissed her cheek, her perfume, like some mysterious Proustian secretion, reminded him of the occasion, shortly before their rupture, when she stopped wearing her perfume, from one day to the next—was it to serve as an admonition or a signal?
A sentence Proustian in its use of memory and sensation is also Kafkaesque in its deployment of interrogatives. This is, in fact, a novel written in the interrogative mood, in both the grammatical and psychological senses. The characters feel their way along by asking questions: “And now? What is she doing? Still in the tub?” “Were the books read because Jurud…depicted the WASP imperfections with an almost Proustian delight?” Sometimes Abish uses double interrogatives, as “Was he trying to provoke the bookseller, when—feigning concern—he asked Did you catch him?” or “Was that why he had come? To spy, to elicit information? Did that entitle him to ask, Who’s your present lover?” Interrogatives give an effect of vivid and curious naturalism, making the point that to question reality is perhaps a more appropriate mode of relating to it than understanding or judging it. “How did things evolve? How did one thing lead to another?” “Was she witnessing a lover’s goodbye?” Thus the reader is positioned deep in the subjective uncertainties of the protagonists’ experience. No question is ever answered.
Actions are described but feelings are not revealed, except, perhaps, the emotions of embarrassment and irritation. Does Abish’s mastery of the moment of social discomfort, his slightly Janeian asperity, come from Proust or Austen? “I’ll come and watch, Rita threatened with the simulated eagerness of someone who had no such intention.” “Men only, remarked Preston boisterously, gazing at Francisco with all the fondness one reserves for one’s victims….” Few will mind that the psychology of the characters is not explored in the conventional way. Once the text is pared of psychology, a kind of aura of Meaning hangs over everything. Metaphysics loves a vacuum, as Robbe-Grillet said. Alejandro has the superficial attributes of a literary character—has parents, possessions, habits, a wife; but Abish doesn’t need to unearth his motivations or allow him to learn. No significance attaches to the considerable rather detached, unsweaty, amiable lovemaking, apart from Alejandro’s jealousy of his wife’s affair with Jurud, and his jealousy arises mostly from the social disgrace he imagines attaches to the cuckold.
One of the characters remarks that “a woman is a mystery that is easily penetrated,” an observation that sums up Abish’s women characters, who all seem to have a heightened, easy sexuality and an interest in jewelry. An exception is Bonny, who is sixteen at the beginning of the novel and is referred to as younger and younger as the novel proceeds, in response to her premature incursions into the adult world. At the end, injured in a fall (a metaphorical as well as a literal fall), she has regressed mentally to the age of seven, as if the author wishes to inflict a punishment for her attempt to be a rambling, sexually free adult (the lesson for the woman reader of so much literature); and her father seems content for her to be pre-sexual—as fathers are apt to be.
Authors (of both sexes) often punish female characters for sexual misbehavior, as when Tolstoy pushes Anna Karenina under the train. A more subtle form of punishment is to deny women characters narrative reliability. That is, readers are led to doubt the information a woman narrator gives them. For most of the story, Bonny is a reliable narrator since she is young enough to register events with a naive candor. With maturity her candor would be open to question because it would be subject to the convention by which female accounts are taken as compromised by the heroine’s sexual calculation, passion, or even madness. A sexual female like Rita is in Abish’s work a sign of foreignness in general, a “mystery that is easily penetrated,” that is, a perspective the male characters cannot fully empathize with or understand, a tantalizing but unreliable strangeness. And what is true between the sexes is true between cultures.
The nature of the Other is ultimately Abish’s (rather grand) subject, guessable only through signs and the artifacts of culture. Francisco making love to Rita thinks of “that often, on school toilet partitions, graphically replicated, iconically loaded opening…as the fitting signal of that singular otherness schoolboys are quick to respond to.” Entering Rita, he is simultaneously entering “that to him still elusive, paradisiacal American world in which she, a former cheerleader, had once been nurtured.” So too when Bonny is nearly raped, her perception is of the sign, the graphic representation of female sexuality rather than of her own subjective experience: “His exposed member, all rigid, was aimed at that singular part of her anatomy that was so often depicted crudely on walls in the most out-of-the-way places….” Earlier, having sex with a motel owner, Bonny fashionably deconstructs the experience: “D’ya realize, you’re making love to a text?” The novel itself is a representation of such ideas about otherness, and a foreign country like Mexico represents an optimum position from which to discuss them. “How I envy Fuentes growing up in a country that wasn’t his own,” remarks Rita. “The idea of foreignness….The thrill of being free of the constrictive familiar”—these are the point of the novel.
But Abish is a moralist masquerading as a formalist. If Eclipse Fever lacks the bite of How German Is It it is perhaps because the distant crimes of the Toltecs are less painful than our sharper memory of recent events in Germany, and our own lives are closer to German. And for all the elegance of the later novel, there is almost something faintly dated about the target of its satire. We are familiar with the premise of a predatory American culture victimizing other cultures and imposing our values but the suspicion seems inescapable that now the terms may be reversing; now it is Mexico with Chevrolet factories and a burgeoning GNP, and it is ourselves we see in Abish’s Mexicans, depressed and eclipsed. Or perhaps this has been Abish’s intention all along?