It may help to think of novels as commodities, produced and distributed much like Hushpuppies, hide-a-beds, and frozen peas. Technology is a function of population growth, and since a world full of people doesn’t usually feel like a world full of God, the novel from its beginnings has dwelt upon the secular life, men and women making do in a realm God hasn’t visited for quite a while. Here people are on their own, they have careers instead of vocations, stories don’t always predict their own endings, meaning is not found in events but gets attached to them more or less provisionally.
So here we are. Living in a world whose mysteries may be meaningless, secular man is necessarily man in trouble. Rather than learning truth, he can at best only solve problems, and his temporal rewards, like money and marriage, seem finally enigmatic or ambiguous, spiritually speaking. The novelist may heroically settle for social blessings, as Jane Austen and Fielding did, or like Dickens, James, and Tolstoy he may weigh the compromising costs of social accomplishment, how it shall not profit a man to gain the world. But genuine mystery always comes as something of an embarrassment, whether in gothic tales, devotional allegories, or the tremors of mystical portent in Conrad and Forster.
This by way of getting at three new novels that have nothing in common except a decent technical conventionality and a sense that secular man is somehow in trouble. The Terminal Man, a routine science-thriller by the author of The Andromeda Strain, tries to be worried about medical technology. A computer engineer named Benson, who thinks the machines are taking over and who has a way of smashing people about when he’s had a drink, is diagnosed as a stage-two (drug resistant) psychomotor epileptic. In spite of the misgivings of his “tall and exceptionally good looking” girl psychiatrist, Dr. Ross, he is given behavior-modification surgery by a research group that’s a little too eager to see what happens when you insert electrodes into the brain and hook them up to a chest-implanted minicomputer programmed to stimulate pleasure terminals whenever a seizure begins.
But they forget about autonomic learning—Benson likes having his pleasure terminals stimulated, as who wouldn’t, and so he involuntarily initiates ever more frequent seizures, like any lab rat, just to get his kicks. Since he also feels, not too unreasonably, that the doctors have turned him into a machine, he escapes from the hospital, kills or mutilates several citizens of Los Angeles, and finally is gunned down by tall, good-looking Dr. Ross (who almost got him earlier with a microwave oven) when he comes back to get even with the main computer, which has gone a little nuts itself.
The story is pure “Medical Center,” right down to the little psychological touches that go out the window when the chase begins—the neurosurgeon who’s myopic, balding, and lame (heal thyself, we mutter knowingly), the professional woman who occasionally remembers to resent her male associates, as well as her sporty boyfriend with his enviable Ferrari, because she can’t forgive herself for not being the boy Daddy wanted. But Crichton’s way of providing a little something for everyone without doing anything with it is an interesting caricature of something good fiction itself requires.
First we get a sober warning that the “shocking or frightening” subject of behavior modification must be faced simply because it’s real, like “pollution, depersonalization, and urban blight.” Our rage at thoughtless science grows when, during the hunt for Benson, we see Los Angeles as a place where people are indeed being turned into machines, just as poor psychotic Benson insists. Yet he really is dangerous, and we must hope they catch him in time. And science isn’t all bad, either—it’s fun to watch it do its weird things (the operation is lovingly described), and it offers a magic that just might release us from the horrors of a godless world:
“There are some famous people who have had it, like Dostoevski. At the NPS, we think that psychomotor epilepsy may be extremely common among those people who engage in repetitive violent acts—like certain policemen, gangsters, rioters, Hell’s Angels. Nobody ever thinks of these people as physically ill.”
In fairness, the remark is made in a somewhat ironic setting. The speaker, head of the research unit, is briefing a PR man (who says “Gosh”), and the cynical neurosurgeon listens with irritation, knowing that the real motive is the pleasure of doing something new to see how it works, as any good scientist would understand. But the lay reader can still be impressed—maybe we really could shape up those creeps (Dostoevski, the rioters, the cops, take your pick) by sticking some wires in their heads.
Certainly Crichton’s hope of bringing in all the precincts shows rather too clearly in his presentation of the Computer Problem. At one time he chills us with the news that in July, 1969 (“Watershed Week” to the trade), the “information-handling capacity” of all existing computers passed that of all existing human beings (it will be 50-1 against us in 1975), but later we perk up at hearing that it would take a huge skyscraper and the power consumption of Buffalo to house and run an electronic computer with the “capacity” of a single human brain. Clearly it is rhetorical need, not technical instruction, that determines how words shall be used here.
The Terminal Man, true to its genre, accepts the inertness of fact. Once something has happened, right there on the page, there’s nothing to do but have something else happen. The modified Benson, once he exists, becomes an item of police business, and when he’s disposed of, nothing remains to say except “You better leave this area,” the last spoken words in the book. In a way this is right. If Crichton had not pretended to be warning us against it, we could see and understand better the valueless technological outlook which the tough realism he attempts is meant to express. A more thoughtful and resourceful writer, one less concerned with turning out an attractive commodity, might have made something of this.
For Crichton, a novel records events whose meaning and consequences are unalterable. By contrast, Frederick Buechner sees life as consisting not of events but of stories; the world is a place where the desire to know is blessedly interfered with by the sense of alternative possibilities. There may be grace in a secular realm, but it is to be found, if at all, only in the least likely places, as for example in Leo Bebb, Southern evangelist, founder of the Church of Holy Love, Inc., and national president of Gospel Faith College, whose story is continued from Buechner’s earlier novel Lion Country.
Ex-con, diploma-mill proprietor, and occasional homophile, Bebb is every inch a charlatan, if amiably so. Yet to Antonio Parr, his son-in-law and the narrator of Open Heart, who as a Protestant prefers grace to works, Bebb sometimes, from odd angles, seems close to having genuine spiritual gifts. “I believe everything,” he says, and this total acceptance of things seen and unseen, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason, is the obverse of his arrogant fakery. Whether or not he really did raise his disciple Brownie from the dead or restore virility to the octogenarian Indian Herman Redpath, whether or not his alcoholic wife is right in thinking he’s “from outer space,” still he rebukes our secular rationality rather as Keats rebuked Dilke, who “will never come at a truth so long as he lives, because he is always trying at it.” For Buechner, watching Bebb is as astonishing and exhilarating as watching the Holy Spirit descend upon Billy Graham or Oral Roberts.
In Bebb there may be the shadowy lineaments of another Princeton novelist’s hero, one whose belief in unlimited possibility was equally innocent and unexamined. But if Bebb is a crypto-Gatsby, Antonio Parr is a more insistent and self-referring Nick Carraway, and a problem to the novel. While telling us about Bebb, Parr also records his difficult discovery that his own inscrutable young wife has been carrying on with his athletic sixteen-year-old nephew and namesake. Parr, a Wesleyan man, takes this pretty well, partly because he’s teaching King Lear to his high-school class at the time and so gets some tips on betrayal and forgiveness, but more importantly because he’s a master of wry, well-bred, yet compassionate irony that suits the author’s religious outlook very nicely. Here is Parr at the grave of his sister, mother of his cuckolder:
By the time I located the small marker with PARR on it, my first feeling was just relief that I’d finally made it. My parents shared a stone between them, but Miriam had one all to herself. Charlie had picked it out, I think, and it looked rather like him, a faded, canned-salmon-colored granite with the carving of her name still pale and unweathered. Miriam herself would probably have preferred something more on the order of the grieving angel who knelt nearby with a face that reminded me of Liberace. I noticed that though my parents were smooth and level, Miriam had sunk a little, and I decided to speak to the people at the gate about putting in some more sod. It looked forlorn that way, like a fallen soufflé.
Without a narrator like this, observant, skeptical, brightly literate, and self-puncturing, Bebb’s story would seem too insistently close to us; but Parr’s habitual flippancy with subjects conventional religion gets solemn about seems a bit too suggestive of your friendly neighborhood pastor, the young one with the longish hair and the rock records.
It’s the things of this world that the new Christianity emphasizes, but with this shield against blunt disbelief some suggestive small points can be made. You can always share a joke about ignorant enthusiasm with the skeptics:
The blind man asked us to pray for his sight to be restored. First we all prayed silently together. Then Bebb prayed out loud by himself. When it was all over, the blind man jumped up and said, “Praise the Lord! Hallelujah!” but he ended up knocking down several empty chairs and tripped over his white cane.
But mystery, denied entrance with the invited guests, may still slip around to the kitchen door. A central moment in Open Heart is Parr’s reading, in a pathetic memoir left by Bebb’s dead wife, of Bebb’s account of Herman Redpath’s difficult journey to the Happy Hunting Ground (which he enters with a joyous erection). Parr as usual is respectfully dubious, but Bebb, when he hears about it, brushes it off as a “yarn”—“I made it up as I went on, like a bedtime story.” But then:
I said, “I think she believed it, Bip. I think she thought it all happened just the way you said.”
Bebb opened his eyes and turned to me. For a second I thought his eyelid was going to do its trick, but there was only the faintest tremor. Then it recovered. He said, “Who says it didn’t?”
Who indeed? But readers of fiction, however regrettably, are finally more Dilke than Keats. Indeterminacy like this is a dangerous game for a novelist, if not for a Christian, and Buechner’s fondness for it risks seeming coy and evasive. Making the best of both worlds glosses over the seriousness of our troubles with this one, and if we’re all in God’s hands here and now, then the novelists have been wasting their time. Open Heart never quite says that we’re all in God’s hands, and it’s otherwise a likable book, inventive, funny, and observant about American life without excessive condescension to our vulgarity. But at its center there’s a blur a great novel couldn’t tolerate.
Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Enemies, A Love Story, also a religious novel in its way, adds to invention, wit, and observation the sympathetic imagination of a writer of genius and an understanding of the important but cruelly narrow possibilities of this world. Singer’s version of secular man, Herman Broder, is a Polish Jew who survived the Final Solution, which cost him his wife and children, by hiding for two years in a hayloft. After the war he married the gentile peasant who concealed him, and emigrated, settling in Brooklyn and undertaking a life founded on secrecy and lies.
Telling his simple wife that he’s a book salesman, Broder really works as a ghost writer for a celebrity rabbi, from whom he conceals his private circumstances. In the Bronx he keeps a demanding mistress, herself a survivor of the death camps, whom he visits on his frequent “business trips.” She knows about and resents his Brooklyn wife, but soon he has something to withhold from her too—his first wife, who in fact escaped the Nazis, appears in New York, and he finds her much more attractive now than during their troubled prewar life. He tries to keep her a secret from both the others, because he fears deportation as a bigamist but more because of his helpless need to keep something of himself hidden from everyone he has to deal with.
Singer elevates this farce situation into tragicomedy. Lying is Broder’s way of participating in the terrible history of the people he otherwise would like to dissociate himself from:
In Herman’s private philosophy, survival itself was based on guile. From microbe to man, life prevailed generation to generation by sneaking past the jealous powers of destruction. Just like the Tzivkever smugglers in World War I, who stuffed their boots and blouses with tobacco, secreted all manner of contraband about their bodies, and stole across borders, breaking laws and bribing officials—so did every bit of protoplasm, or conglomerate of protoplasm furtively traffic its way from epoch to epoch….
Animals had accepted the precariousness of existence and the necessity for flight and stealth; only man sought certainty and instead succeeded in accomplishing his own downfall. The Jew had always managed to smuggle his way in through crime and madness. He had stolen into Canaan and into Egypt. Abraham had pretended that Sarah was his sister. The whole two thousand years of exile…had been one great act of smuggling. The Bible, the Talmud, and the Commentaries instruct the Jew in one strategy: flee from evil, hide from danger, avoid showdowns, give the angry powers of the universe as wide a berth as possible.
Broder, who saved his body but lost his faith and left others to die, a fugitive now from his own Jewishness, is both unspeakably guilty and also an attractive, sympathetic dodger who invents dangers in case the existing ones should not be dire enough. Like an addicted gambler he thrills at the risks even as he despises himself for playing; like a novelist he luxuriates in the fabrication of needless complications, circumstantial lies that mimic life yet are, because endlessly manipulable, somehow better than truth, inert and stodgy stuff that it is. His “criminality” is both a self-dramatizing evasion of his guilt and a significant perception about life and history.
We are free to think Broder’s “philosophy” inadequate to his case, a blending of authentic suffering with a half-baked demiculture that can’t quite support his hope of being fully serious as a sufferer:
He sat with his face pressed against the window-pane and tried to memorize each tree, shrub, stone along the way, as if America were destined for the same destruction as Poland, and he must etch every detail on his memory. Would not the entire planet disintegrate sooner or later? Herman had read that the whole universe was expanding, and was actually in the process of exploding. A nocturnal melancholy descended from the heavens. The stars gleamed like memorial candles in some cosmic synagogue.
But if Singer maintains his poise in the presence of Broder’s resourceful and sometimes reductive agonies, he never lets him appear as a villain or a fool. Rather, I suppose, he’s a very special kind of picaro, and as a character who tries to invent his own life, fabricating through deceit a counter-reality for himself to occupy, he connects Singer’s art with a non-Jewish tradition of fiction (Defoe, Stendhal, and Dickens may represent it) whose familiarity is helpful to anyone who, like me, had supposed that ignorance about Judaism and its history disqualified one from reading Singer at all.
Of course it also helps such a reader, Gentile or Jew, that Enemies, A Love Story has an American setting. Singer’s late-1940s New York, which Broder traverses as he moves from woman to woman, is both very Jewish and very foreign to Broder’s apprehensive eyes. In it refugees and the assimilated encounter and misunderstand each other, debarred by their histories from ever quite affecting one another’s fates. Rabbi Lampert, Broder’s puzzled employer, offers these strange newcomers compassion and help, but he’s away in California, lecturing, when the crisis comes, and Broder and his beloved enemies are finally on their own.
And of course they’re on their own in a much larger sense. Living traumatized lives, in a present unalterably shaped and maimed by their past, they can make no decision, however small, without raising the terrible question: Was the holocaust really unjust, unnatural, proof of God’s indifference or malice toward even his chosen people, or was it (even more terribly) a deserved punishment?
In the Munich taverns, murderers who had played with the skulls of children sipped beer from tall steins and sang hymns in church. In Moscow they had liquidated all the Jewish writers. Yet Jewish Communists in New York, Paris, and Buenos Aires praised the murderers and reviled yesterday’s leaders. Truth? Not in this jungle, this saucer of earth perched over hot lava. God? Whose God? The Jews’? Pharaoh’s?
If God is unjust, then Broder’s devotion to falsehood is a dignified or even heroic act of defiance. But such an Enemy would have made sure that this affront to Him is also an offense against one’s fellow creatures, adding new pain to the pain He has already given them. One of Broder’s women asks him the awful question he in effect asks God: “Are you just frivolous, or is it that you enjoy suffering?” To this question, in either case, there seems to be no satisfactory answer, and after a complex last catastrophe, involving robbery, suicide, childbirth, and the difficulty of living without lightbulbs, Broder can only exercise once more his right to avoid showdowns. “I will leave everybody,” he says at the end, and he does. It is both his worst act of cowardice and betrayal and his greatest assertion of his will to live, but we are asked not to admire or despise it but only to believe in it, which is of course much harder.
A novelist can deal with trouble by washing his hands of it after enough pages have been filled, or he can try to show that it needn’t be as troublesome as we suppose it; Singer explores it, thinks about what it does to people, and thus he respects—without of course honoring—the conditions of the deplorable but not uninteresting world that is, at least for now, the only one we have.
July 20, 1972