In the month preceding the publication of Rafael Yglesias’s Hide Fox, and All After, his parents each published a novel too. It is such a charming feat—like nothing I can think of since Byron and the Shelleys agreed one autumn afternoon to write something set in their Swiss surroundings, out of which came “The Prisoner of Chillon” and Frankenstein—that it is hard not to think that at least one and maybe all three novels by the Yglesias family were written just to show it could be done. Rafael’s, written when he was fifteen, looks like such a work. It is short, amiably formless, one presumes autobiographical, about a few months in the life of a fourteen-year-old freshman at a pretentious private school in New York. But the wonder is not that it was written but that it is very good indeed, far from something one wants to congratulate because its author is young or because it may have been written because everyone else in the family was writing novels and Rafael decided to do one too.
What makes Hide Fox, and All After so admirable is the absolute trust Yglesias places in himself and in his material. On rare occasions an older writer has been more moving and perceptive about adolescence than Yglesias, but most who try fail because they need in some way to apologize or explain, to shape or to point ominously. Yglesias never comes close to doing any of these things. Near the beginning, for instance, is a series of conversations between the hero, Raul, and Alec, a boy four years older. The two take the occasion of their cutting school one day to discover they can become friends, and they do this by going at each other, ironically and earnestly, with all their knowledge of writers, actors, great men. Like this:
Alec became fatherly. “Ah, but who parts with his soul or being into fucking? Fucking, itself, is an art.”
“It’s an extension of art for you, I said that already. But I can’t fuck hypocritically. I have an infinite capacity for guilt.”
“But the way I make it into an acting part, why can’t you?”
“It would ruin all my imagery of loners, of insane blackness. It is the Hamletian rejection of Ophelia.”
“But Hamlet wasn’t mad.”
“He was mad in terms of the society. That makes him sane, of course. And that’s my madness—every time I see or hear about the embarrassments of adolescent sex, I am in real pain.”
“As long as a novel is about life in some time, some definite period, it must be about some class, because there’ve always been class struggles, and since it’s about some class, it’s social, and because it’s social, it’s political, and now you can relax and say it’s great art. Okay. But we’ve still got a little problem. What do you say about Beckett? There’s no definite time, or society, so essentially there isn’t a class. Okay, so what do you say about this? Dad has a simple solution—Beckett isn’t great.”
“But it doesn’t work. So you speak to someone else. Someone who believes great art must be political and believes that Beckett is great. So they’ll say, ‘Beckett isn’t located anywhere, just the way Kafka isn’t,’ but he’s still writing about middle-class neurosis.”
On it goes, for the whole first day of the novel, perhaps a quarter of the book.
One can imagine that when he wrote this opening Yglesias didn’t know it would end up being a quarter of his novel or the most fully rendered day in his book. But the result is just right. In itself the talk is far from remarkable, and one hardly wants to praise it on the simplistic grounds that serious kids talk that way. What matters is the trust. We are asked neither to be impressed by how much Raul has read nor to snicker at all the clichés about Shakespeare and Marx and Beckett. We are asked to care about selves struggling to be born, and we are instructed that it must be by means of this idle but solemn banter that Raul and Alec will discover each other, lurch toward and delight each other, so to test and develop the possibilities for friendship in a lonely world. Along the way Alec will be surprised because Raul has read a lot, and Raul will be envious of Alec’s sexual prowess, but these matter little compared to the miracle of friendship that Yglesias is celebrating.
The story, too, never betrays the trust by seeking climaxes or epiphanies. It follows the logic of the friendship, such as it is, and the logic that Raul thereby tries to make out of his life. The opening day of their friendship secure, Raul and Alec need the pretentious conversations much less and Yglesias needs less to render each day fully. The two of them dive deep, blotting out the world because when they are together the world has fewer ways to wound them, and their ironic attitude toward the world easily loses its air of rodomontade. They get stoned a lot, and take the leads in the school’s production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. They are good with grass, and marvelous in the play, making each other joyous because they are themselves when together, listless when apart. These are thus important and shaping events, but events nonetheless, and they pass. The friendship did not come about because of the school play, but it has a hard time surviving it nonetheless.
Raul rends its fabric when he tries to lose his virginity with a girl of Alec’s whom neither cares much about, and they drift apart, finally not willing to defy when parents intervene against them:
They talked of running away, neither for a moment seriously intending to. But the romance of it keyed them up, their vitality, hopes, and ideals suddenly free.
Yet this was fatal. Which one would break the acting, the scene, the love? Neither could do it separately, and a rare loss of sanity caused them not to end it together.
Alec finally said he would have to call his father. He was close to him, and he wouldn’t leave without first discussing it with him. Why didn’t Raul then say, “Let’s forget it”? He knew it was over, why did he allow it to drag on?
Again, he watched a mad suicide without stopping it. Though superficially no major rift seemed to be going on, Raul was breaking the rules of their game. He allowed this dwindling descent from the scene to reality. It was humiliation for both; a corruption of the rare contact they had. And he knew it.
And he can do nothing about it. He accepts and mourns Alec’s leaving his life because there is nothing else he can do, the descent and corruption are inevitable. In the end he forces the school to expel him, the fox hidden and some of the all after having happened. No Amory Blaine whining that he knows himself, but that is all; no Holden Caulfield made victim of an author’s need to make decisive actions and clarifications. The book is too simple and too good, Yglesias is too intuitive and too humble, for that kind of thing, and he does not once make a claim for his hero that we would not willingly make ourselves.
It may well be that Yglesias’s youth is what gives him his trust, his intuitive sense of scale and value, and that he will lose this as he becomes older and presumably more self-conscious as a writer. So vast hopes and predictions for his future are not in order. The achievement, though, is sufficiently there that one can use it to illuminate or judge the other novels in the present batch, all done by older and more experienced hands. It allows us to see, for instance, that George P. Elliott, a good and occasionally gifted man, has lost what intuitive fictional touch and trust he once had. Elliott is often an appealing critic, mostly because his finest qualities, his honesty and gentleness, can set him off to advantage against splashier and more professional academics. But of his fiction some of the early stories in Among the Dangs are the best; his novels always seem to struggle to be born, to be expressive in the flat style, to be interesting about characters not in themselves interesting—to struggle, but never to work. His latest, Muriel, it must be said right away, is a dull novel, and in it Elliott seems not only not to trust his characters, but not even to understand them very well.
Its epigraph reads: “The woman in this story loved her husband, whose love for her soured, and her children, who turned away from her.” Begin in a choir in a Kansas church, and with a girl who wants to marry a man because he has a beautiful voice that she thinks she can make famous, and you think you are reading Sinclair Lewis satire about ambitious American women. But no. It turns out that the man’s love for his wife was a pretty ordinary thing, capable neither of much sweetening nor much souring, unless it can be claimed that his insistent small nipping and his working for a vintner in the face of her ardent prohibitionism are signs that a great passion has failed.
In view of their incompatibilities, their relatively few ways of coming together, his lack of interest in his voice and her fearful coldness about sex, it is remarkable that they do middling well. Likewise, Muriel’s children do not turn away from her, and the harshest thing they can say of her is the loving announcement by her son when Muriel is old that her “system doesn’t work.” As, indeed, it does not. But given this the children are remarkably dutiful, handling her aging infirmities with a care and kindness that would be admirable in much more adoring children. Elliott either must think his characters are potentially rich and important, in which case their modest successes and failures would be a disappointment, or else he has not read his own book very carefully. Muriel is straightforward and ordinary, about straightforward and ordinary people, exactly the sort of book one would not expect an experienced writer to have written this far along in his career.
With one exception, the stories in Joanne Greenberg’s Rites of Passage cannot earn much higher praise than can Muriel. It is always hard to know about stories, because unless a story is very good there are few reasons why it should have been written at all except as experiment. Something happens, something gives a writer a spark, and he tries to capture it in a story. But even pretty good stories are only sparks, not fires. It may be that it is the fault of creative writing classes, where so much of our short fiction is written, where so many writers first learn to write, and where so many writers become teachers in order to earn their bread.
I have never taught in one of these classes, but I suspect that the one thing a teacher never wants to say to a student is that what he or she has produced is boring. It is a hard enough thing for any teacher to say, but harder when the student feels his whole ego or self is in question. So the teacher backs off and talks about the way something is handled, about technique or Dubliners or point of view, and so these are allowed to seem important to story writers far in excess of their actual value. People learn to write stories that are technically quite competent, but one reads them, one is forced to read them, actually, as in passing, knowing that all but a very few will be memorable only if the circumstances of the tale happen to overlap something in the circumstances of the reader’s life.
I say all this not knowing if in fact Joanne Greenberg has ever been near a creative writing class, either as student or teacher. Still, all but one of her stories in this collection are just stories, instances where the energy and trust have gone into seeing how the story can best be told and not into the characters and events themselves. The exception is the title story, about a boy who feels he has been denied the opportunity to become a man because he has been raised by maiden relatives and who leaps at a chance to prove himself by going to work on a farm. The farmer turns out to be old, broken down, paranoiac about other farmers he is sure are out to destroy him and take his land, especially about his neighbor, Koven, who he imagines to be spying on him, poisoning his stream, digging potholes in his road, etc.
Here Joanne Greenberg is trusting in a way that Rafael Yglesias is. He, presumably, is writing out of his experience and she is not, but the telltale signs are the same in both. She knows how important it is for her boy hero to gain a father, just as Yglesias knows how important it is for his hero to gain a friend. As a result, she never tries to explain or justify the boy’s eagerness to earn the trust of the old farmer or to entangle himself in the other’s follies. When the boy agrees to kill the neighbor farmer, it is only his way of becoming the old man’s son, and we are asked to see it only as that, to let the other or larger moral and emotional issues emanate from that, if at all.
It is, of course, only after he has committed the murder that the boy begins to realize how fearfully wrong the farmer’s fantasies are. He sees first that their farm has not benefited at all from Koven’s death, then that Koven could never have spied on them from his house because they live on higher land, then that the stream was polluted by the incompetence of the old farmer, and the pieces fall into a far different place from the one in which he had excitedly first put them:
Koven had no hired men, no vast wealth, no spies, no road-rut, no trained mice, no spyglass, no midnight fence-breakers, no topplers of stones, no poisoners of fish. They were two old men farming hate because it was all that could grow on their leached out land.
At the very end of the story Joanne Greenberg resorts to a cheap, short story writer’s touch, but the rest is fine, a subject worth trusting and writing such trust demands. The boy’s desire not to be a loser embraces the man’s insistence that they cannot win; characters and author are thus both possessed in a powerful way. “Rites of Passage” may not be a story for the ages, but I hope someone gives it a prize.
Lastly we have Alan Friedman’s Hermaphrodeity, much the longest and most ambitious novel in the group and the hardest to describe or assess well. Friedman wrote a good critical book some years ago, The Turn of the Novel, about what happened to change English fiction at the turn of the century. It is a familiar enough story, but he handles it very well, and that is one way of praising Hermaphrodeity, too. We have all been here before if we have read Catch-22 or V. or lots of other books of the last decade nowhere near as good, and yet Friedman’s way is his own. It is totally external, insistently fabulous, trying to gain genuine novelistic bearings while working with material usually thought of as belonging to puzzles and jokes.
It begins with a girl of eight asking her uncle for a rhyme for the word “fire,” and “spire” won’t do because “I’ve got something extra important to say to Mommy and Daddy.” She has to finish a poem that begins:
I want to tell you right away
About a big red fire,
That if you want the house to stay
You’ve got to
You’ve got to give her a rhyme for “fire,” and soon, because there is indeed a fire in the house, and the girl knows it because she set it herself.
Well, there you are, fairly warned. One of the best things about Hermaphrodeity is that you can read as long as you want to. If you find nothing pleasing about the opening episode, read no further, because you won’t care any more for the rest. If it does please, read on, and quit only when bored. The book gets thicker as it proceeds, but not better or different.
The girl is Millie Niemann, who is seduced, after a fashion, by her older brother when she is eleven, and who discovers at sixteen why it is only after a fashion—she contains a full set of both male and female organs. Her world being filled with male chauvinists, it is assumed after the discovery that she will want to become the boy she “should” be, and Millie consents to become Willie, but only if the operation that exposes her male organs not destroy the female ones. Willie then has a few very difficult years as a boy, learning to be tough and crude, finding out how unpleasant is the “cuntism” of young men, having a difficult time having an erection. But a girlfriend of Willie’s older brother seduces him marvelously, and not only does he have an erection, and an orgasm, but Willie impregnates Millie, the male organ folding back into the female.
That is the first hundred pages, and I found every one of them delightful. Friedman trusts here not only the wit of his original conception but his ability to imagine the life of someone who is or contains both sexes. Friedman has no interest in being novelistic in the old-fashioned sense about Millie and Willie—why imagine such a person if not to be fabulous?—and so he gives Millie no dramatized consciousness even though the story is told in the first person. Millie sees herself rhetorically, as an object, as something wonderful, to be written about, celebrated, rather than explored.
For instance, during Millie’s tenure as Willie she offers to dress up as a girl in order to go into the girl’s shower room and figure out its layout so the boys can cut peepholes in the walls. She goes, finds out the details, and returns to stun them by saying she hadn’t noticed any of the nude girls around because “I was too busy figuring, and the goddam place was full of steam.” The boys are too entranced with what Willie has discovered to be more than passingly incredulous:
But their desperate disbelief, their impassioned will to believe I’d observed more than floor plans and corridors and conduits forced me to believe finally. The female body…who in his right mind could have imagined…? Reluctantly, I was forced to admit it. Doubting, I no longer cared to deny it. Still doubting, I had to accept it—with question-mark belief, so to speak. The incredible source of all that motive power of male desire? How unpleasant. How paltry. How funny—a joke that might be laughed at a single time if the mood was right—but how fundamentally uninteresting and irritating. Did I have to bother my head learning to master the riddle of desire if that was all it came to? Dante, I later read, speaks of love first entering through the eyes. But that sex should enter through the eyes and from there pull the bodily strings and make that little naked unseen puppet rise and dance before its mistress seemed an unworthy image for poetry and a low image of life.
When one speaks of Rafael Yglesias trusting his material one means that he counts on the lives he imagines to matter to us. When one speaks of Alan Friedman trusting his material one means that his investment in the commodious car of his imagination leads him to such splendid rhetorical flourishes as these. Millie “herself” is a convenience only; one cannot really imagine her being uninterested or irritated as Friedman says she is here. But the convenience liberates Friedman into transforming our lives and concerns into such flourishes, and he does trust his ability to do that. If one is to make fabulous characters, one should trust them so to illuminate us.
That is the current way, to say which is not to ignore it as merely fashionable or to praise it as up-to-date. It is hard to say just what the possibilities are for fiction at any one moment in time. At present it looks as though the writers of the fabulous, the externally conceived characters, the rich rhetoric, the wild imagination are in the saddle. Their modernist forebears told them the self was all, which they accepted, but in the last ten or fifteen years many writers have tried to see the self not as something to be explored or agonized over, but as something wonderful, imaginative, capable. The gaps between novels and science fiction and the comics have been closing. If one wants novelists in the old sense one reads Bellow and Updike and Malamud and feels righteous and responsible and gloomy. If one wants something else, one reads Catch-22 or V., or even Barth and Vonnegut and worse, and one feels released, assertive, satiric, but not confined to Swiftian positions.
There is probably no need to adjudicate, especially here, and it should still be possible to praise and condemn particular books rather than types. What can be said is that the first part of Hermaphrodeity is not only grand but also very good, and that Friedman’s trust in his fabulously double-sexed Millie is as appealing as Rafael Yglesias’s trust in his forlornly and movingly single-sexed Raul. After the first part, Friedman runs into difficulties, though I don’t think they ruin his book and I do think I’m just not sure if there is a grand recovery at the end.
If one says that Millie, after becoming pregnant and Millie again, goes to Sardinia on an archaeology dig and has her baby, returns to discover and then market a great chicken sauce, has an affair in Venice, returns again to manufacture a sexy new and non-nicotine cigarette that corners the tobacco and marijuana markets, and goes back to Sardinia to dig and to discover the truth about life, then one sounds like jacket copy, or a parody of the genre by Perelman. But the description is accurate enough to show what goes wrong. Friedman stops trusting Millie’s hermaphroditism to give him enough material and he begins inventing, dealing, using his central figure to poke effortful satiric jibes in a way that comments but does not often illuminate. They are easily identified as such because one never feels oneself cajoled or impaled.
My guess is that Friedman committed himself to a long novel on the proposition that in this kind of work length is largeness and therefore strength. But Millie’s adventures among the capitalists, say, are very much like her adventures among the high-school hoods, and they are also much more simply satirical because she is now a woman among men, telling us what has often been said about men and capitalism, not an exploring and exploiting freak.
That is not, however, all there is. Having gotten Millie to motherhood, Friedman’s instincts told him she should seek her essence or nature in historical roots, and this would draw her to archaeology. It is an interesting idea even when it doesn’t work. Back before matriarchy or patriarchy, Millie discovers, icons were of pregnant women with penises, celebrating sexual power without regard to gender. The job for Millie is to dig back to such a period, and to discover the true missing link in evolution. When the early icons had been developed into objects that could effect the transition from making and worshiping sexual tools to making tools, the key to the relation of sex to technology is established historically and all myths of male superiority become understandable. If Freud could ask, in effect, who would not prefer a penis to a vagina, Friedman can ask who would not prefer having both.
As an idea it certainly looks promising, and, as I say, near the end Friedman writes as though convinced he has brought the whole affair together in a final vision. Unfortunately it is one I see only as a willed solution, but the fault may well be in me. The parts I am sure don’t work are those in which the idea allows Friedman to reiterate the obvious parallels between modern sex and modern technology. When Friedman stops transforming Millie’s sex, as he does after a hundred pages, and makes Millie a woman once and for all, he tends to give in to the old alliance between the fabulous idea and satire, but not in any way that makes the alliance seem anything but old. But, to repeat, I am not sure about the final episodes. Hermaphrodeity is a book that many will reject right off, and on predictable and understandable grounds. Others will read it through with unbroken delight; to do this is to accept the word for the deed, the idea for the imagined action. But still others may agree that it begins well, then falls off, and really does come back at the end. They are the ones to listen to.
What the experience of all four books can tell us is partial, of course, but we can at least glimpse two truths, one old, one strange. The first is the old truth that all the news has not yet been told, and that a novel like Hide Fox, and All After or a story like “Rites of Passage” succeeds rather as novels and stories have been succeeding for a long time. Yglesias’s characters belong very much to our moment of history, but his way of writing fiction is not the least bit new; Joanne Greenberg’s characters and method both are no more up-to-date than Tolstoy’s. Staunch and intelligent trust in one’s characters and action still counts for much, and shows us anew that fictional ideas or techniques are never in themselves very interesting and only become so in the service of a writer’s trusting absorption in the life he imagines. That is, if it may be so called, Lawrence’s truth. The novel is still the bright book of life.
The second truth is stranger, and so to indicate that we might call it Wyndham Lewis’s truth. I am not sure why, but I thought about Lewis over and over while reading Hermaphrodeity and thinking back over other recent fabulous novels. Of all the writers with any claim whatsoever to belonging in this century’s first rank, Lewis is the least liked and the least read. Only his admirers know him at all well. Yet if one had to find an earlier writer who released the novel from the apparently permanent prison of the self into which most experimental modern fiction threw us, if one had to find someone whose insistently external, harsh, fabulous vision was expressed in a truly inventive rhetoric, it is hard to know whom one might name except Lewis.
He undeniably trusted himself and his powers as a novelist, long after most of his friends had stopped cheering and his enemies denouncing. Writers like Heller and Pynchon, one notes, have trusted themselves enough to fall into almost total silence after their one big book, but Lewis went on writing books that are, at least on their own terms, major, and no one working within this special genre of the novel has done that since. So while the genre may seem best suited to one-book novelists, even that need not be the case.
Rafael Yglesias is still an adolescent, and his lovely novel may turn out to be as much the result of a young man having lived his life well as of any significant fictional talents. Alan Friedman, like Wyndham Lewis, has to be believed in to be read all the way through with pleasure. Still, they give us a somewhat different way to state another of Lawrence’s truths: trust the artist who trusts his tale.
May 4, 1972