God’s Country

The Arrangement

by Elia Kazan
Stein and Day, 444 pp., $6.95

Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd:
Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.
—W.H. Auden

Memory, especially as one grows older, can do strange and disquieting things. Though we would like to live without regrets, and sometimes proudly insist that we have none, this is not really possible, if only because we are mortal. When more time stretches behind than stretches before one, some assessments, however reluctantly and incompletely, begin to be made. Between what one wished to become and what one has become there is a momentous gap, which will now never be closed. And this gap seems to operate as one’s final margin, one’s last opportunity, for creation. And between the self as it is and the self as one sees it, there is also a distance, even harder to gauge. Some of us are compelled, around the middle of our lives, to make a study of this baffling geography, less in the hope of conquering these distances than in the determination that the distances shall not become any greater. Chasms are necessary, but they can also, notoriously, be fatal. At this point, one is attempting nothing less than the recreation of oneself out of the rubble which has become one’s life: and this is the situation with which Elia Kazan presents us in his first novel, The Arrangement.

I am far from certain that anyone can deal with so bleak a situation either to his own, or anybody else’s satisfaction; and any such attempt is certain to leave one open to the charge of awkwardness. Kazan’s book has a certain raw gracelessness which I have not often encountered, and which I find difficult to describe. It is a terribly naked book—not blatantly so, but uncomfortably direct. He does not seem to have invented anything, though, obviously, he must have, and he seems not so much to have drawn his characters as to have yanked them, bleeding, dismembered, and still in a state of shock, from the scene of their hideous accident. No more than Job’s messengers give the impression that they were hoping to become radio announcers, does Kazan give the impression that he was trying to write a novel. He is talking. He is trying to tell us something, and not only for his sake—for, then, The Arrangement would be nothing more than an unexpected and arresting tour de force from an eminent man of the theater—but also for ours. The tone of the book is extremely striking, for it really does not seem to depend on anything that we think of as a literary tradition, but on something older than that: the tale being told by a member of the tribe to the tribe. It has the urgency of a confession and the stammering authority of a plea. “I still haven’t figured out my accident,” the narrator begins, and, in fact, he never does explain it. He doesn’t need to. Some accidents can only happen here.

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