The State Farm Insurance Company runs an ad on television that depicts the morning walk of Bob Warnke, State Farm agent in Cozad, Nebraska. It is predictable fantasy about a small town where the old values still hold true, where insurance men are good neighbors and not crooks, and where the barber is not trimming anyone’s sideburns, moustache, or beard when he pauses to wave to his friend Bob. There is a town called Cozad in Nebraska, and undoubtedly the State Farm man there is named Bob Warnke. The ad, in that sense, is real. But it is nonetheless fantasy, hokum, and if Warnke and Cozad don’t know this, State Farm and its ad agency undoubtedly do.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux is advertising Alan Lelchuk’s American Mischief by predicting it will be “the most praised, damned, and argued about novel” of 1973. A Dean at Cardozo College, right outside Boston, keeps a harem and tries to talk like Moses Herzog about the pleasures and pains of being a contemporary man who goes about and visits women. A student at Cardozo admires the Dean for the “honesty” of having a harem, and hates him for his old-fashioned politics and morality. So, after warming up his campaign of guerrilla politics by raping a fourteen-year-old virgin, murdering Norman Mailer, and sacking the Fogg Museum, the student kidnaps the Dean and a group of other literate liberals and carts them off to a hideout in New Hampshire where the older folks are to be educated in the task of reshaping America.
Now there is no Cardozo College, but there is a Brandeis, a Norman Mailer, a Fogg Museum, and a New Hampshire. Presumably there is a dean somewhere who keeps a harem, and there certainly are guerrilla students who would like to kidnap old-line liberals. But still, American Mischief is not a novel. It is as real as the State Farm ad, and one hopes that quick identification of its phoniness will give us better things to argue about in 1973.
Here is the Dean at work:
I placed my penis into the upperstory parking space. Her no’s continued, but as we proceeded (I gentle but decisive), they became mixed with heavyish breathing, thick groans…. To my bewilderment, for I was as delirious as she from the sudden trespass, her buttocks began to quiver wildly and relentlessly in pursuit of my prick. Her ass was ruthlessly demanding now (my hand in front had slipped lower to her vagina lips), the first sign of instinctive aggression let loose during our entire affair. I responded by plunging more fiercely. Her moaning—following perhaps the contours of the physical acrobatics—turned round the corner and settled into grateful plaintive whimpering, Kate’s first real signs of orgasm. As I came into her, I saw her tear-filled face buried nose-first into the pillow, with the memorable image of her mouth sucking fantastically upon her thumb. Afterward, she dropped into a deep sleep, which proved to be characteristic of such sessions.
But no sleep for the poor Dean, who must be off to his class on the Victorian novel, and then on to Sophie—“It was like going to a Bangkok massage parlor that you’d read about, where the girl specialized in hair jack-offs. For both of us, it was lovely.” To Angela—“’Just one more time,’ you begged, after three times already.” To black Gwen, who nuzzles the Dean after he slaps her, and says, “I do so like being obedient to you.” He’s just doing what they all like, don’t you see.
This is the opening section, called “Family Talk.” The Dean’s voice is pleasant, kindly, detached, assuring us that his is either the fate or the fantasy of every living American male. In what follows, we seem to be asked to repudiate the dirty Dean; we are given a speech he gives to students conducting a countergraduation, June, 1972, at an art museum at Cardozo. It couldn’t be worse, a pompous hectoring of people the Dean calls “boys and girls,” all about the virtues we suspect are being celebrated in Cozad, Nebraska, and the choice the students must make between civilization and barbarism. No wonder the kids tear up the joint in response, slashing and pissing on the pictures. We are supposed to think: “So much for the Dean.” But we know better. Stupid the Dean assuredly is, but Lelchuk is hard pressed to get anyone to believe he wrote all that earlier pornography just to draw an “accurate picture” of decadent America. It begins to seem that, like lots of others, Lelchuk is going to try to have it both ways.
So in the next section a student leader, Lenny Pincus, describes his transformation from a thoughtful radical loner to a gorilla trying to get more in touch with raw current reality, and he does this by acting like the Dean, raping a fourteen-year-old girl and getting her to love it, helping another girl with her heroin fix so she can beg to have her ass spanked with a hair-brush. Oh those modern girls, what is a poor man to do? This is followed by the murder of Mailer, the ripoff at the Fogg, the kidnapping of the old liberals, the eviction of Lenny as leader by blacks and chicanos, and the arrest and jailing of Lenny by the FBI, working on a tip from the Dean. See? These events take up half the book, and we are supposed to revalue our earlier position and realize the Dean may have had something when he insisted that the trouble with the kids is that they didn’t know guerrillas turned into gorillas. Having done that, we are supposed to think back to the Dean and his filthy harem and feel caught deep in some moral ambivalence about modern America.
We all know that the point about pornography is that it is meant to happen to readers, not to characters, so we know, reading the first 150 pages, that we—those of us who are male—are supposed to admit our envy of the Dean’s antics or else be condemned as liars. But the rest of the book is like that, too; nothing happens to anyone inside, it’s all meant for us alone. If, guiltily but willingly, we repudiate the Dean and his harem, we do so realizing America has brought its leaders to this pass, and therefore side or sympathize with the guerrillas who want to change all that. But by the time a black girl shits on one of the Dean’s mistresses in the New Hampshire snow, we are meant to see what a bind the country is in, caught between the decadence of the Dean and the barbarism of the kids. But because none of the characters realizes any of this, the novel seems like pornography.
Lelchuk seems to be trying to confront us with a moral dilemma when in fact he is giving us only a crude political choice. The effect of the fictional method is not even to insist upon the choice but to let us have it both ways. Ostensibly we will feel that if we aren’t damned as liberals or revolutionaries we will be damned as libertines or prudes. In fact we are free to be excited by the black girl’s defecation and to be repulsed by her animality, to accept the pyrotechnic use of Mailer’s own language to imagine his murder, and to go along with Lenny when he says later that rhetorical murders are false and a sign of incomplete political thinking. The book seeks to have no life of its own, only to repulse or excite or frighten its readers.
American Mischief reads right along, dirty and brutal and effortless, but it takes four full working days to finish, and at the end I could only hope that by some miracle no one would ever feel obliged to argue with me, or with anyone about it.
To put Robertson Davies’s The Manticore alongside American Mischief is, once again, to feel confronted with a crude choice, and one that is as much political as literary. Once again, however, the crudity of the choice reveals its falseness. True, Lelchuk is American and current and bouncy and aggressive, and Davies is Canadian, old-fashioned, a craftsman, a good storyteller, qualities that guarantee his audience will be, on the average, thirty years older than Lelchuk’s.
Davies is a Jungian Ross Macdonald, a writer who wants to describe contemporary experiences in which people discover the meaning of their lives by discovering the ways those lives conform to ancient patterns. Ross Macdonald’s patterns are Freudian—in the hidden traumas of childhood a murderer or a murderee was made. The fearful treasures of the past are opened by a private detective, the setting is the hotbed of hidden things called California. In The Manticore Davies is avowedly Jungian; the central action of the novel is an analysis at the institute in Zurich. But this novel is the second in what looks to be a series, and the first, the deservedly popular Fifth Business, is as controlled by mythic patterns as The Manticore even though it uses none of the explicit Jungian jargon. Both are good books, better indeed than American Mischief, but the voices that will rise to praise them lavishly, implicitly or explicitly at the expense of books like Alan Lelchuk’s, will be in danger of badly overrating them. Robertson’s patterns may be better and more suggestive than Lelchuk’s, but they can only seem cleverer, not richer, upon rereading.
The Manticore can be read quite well as an independent novel, but a brief look at Fifth Business can show why readers with time to spare should read the first novel first. The narrator of Fifth Business is an elderly master at a Canadian prep school who is determined to show how his life has had its share of event and mystery. The novel opens with the narrator, Dunstan Ramsay, aged ten, dodging a snowball thrown by a friend, Boy Staunton. It thereby hits Mrs. Dempster, knocks her down, and brings on the premature birth of her son, Paul. The novel ends more than fifty years later in a theater in Toronto where Paul Dempster, now Magnus Eisengrim, is using a Brazen Head to predict the futures of members of the audience. Suddenly the voice of Boy Staunton’s son cries out: “Who killed Boy Staunton?”
Boy Staunton had grown hugely rich, and had died shortly before in his car, at the bottom of Toronto harbor, clutching the wheel tightly, a stone in his mouth. The cause of death is uncertain, but on the night he died Dunstan Ramsay had taken him to meet Paul Dempster, the magician. Previously Staunton had found on Ramsay’s desk the stone he had put in the snowball that had struck Mrs. Dempster and brought on Paul’s premature birth. When the Brazen Head is asked who killed Boy Staunton, it answers: “He was killed by the usual cabal: by himself, first of all; by the woman he knew; by the woman he did not know; by the man who granted his inmost wish; and by the inevitable fifth, who was keeper of his conscience and keeper of the stone.” At that point, Ramsay, who is watching in the balcony, has a heart attack, and the novel ends.
It is all very skillful and neat, because it is only at the end that Davies lines up his major characters and reveals the pattern that has caught their lives. Through most of the book Davies keeps this pattern unforced; Ramsay rambles a good deal as he tells the story, sounding portentous, to be sure, but enough like his usual Dr. Watson huffing and puffing so that the shapes of the destinies seem evolved and not imposed.
The narrator of The Manticore is David Staunton, who asked the Brazen Head the question, and who realizes shortly afterward that his brilliant, drunken career as a criminal lawyer has left his life paralyzed. So he flies to the Jungian Institute in Zurich, to Dr. Johanna von Haller, and to the analysis that is the main part of the book. Here the patterns are labeled by the doctor the moment they emerge, but both she and Davies are excellently secure and undogmatic in their introduction of the Jungian cast: the Shadow, the Friend, the Troll King, the Anima, the manticore that David dreams of and is himself. Their presence never keeps this from being mostly an account of David’s life as the son of a well-to-do and famous father and of a sad and increasingly ineffectual childhood-sweetheart mother.
The male voices surrounding David are strong: his teacher, Dunstan Ramsay; Father Knopwood, who knows there is more to be said about a bad picture of Jesus than that it is sentimental; the father of his first and only girl friend, a quiet cultured Jew who tells him to go away when he is getting too close to his daughter; a law tutor at Oxford, a blind and brilliant chess player of a man who has David put his emotional life in cold storage for years so that he may become a brilliant lawyer. Whenever any of these wizards tells David something against his father, David rejects them, but the persona and career he fashions as a result are designed to reject the father too, and to become great on terms totally different from his father’s.
As David tells all this, as he and Dr. von Haller sift it through the Jungian sieve, David really does become more able to face his life, to feel less crudely and geometrically about it. When the doctor says it is time either to quit, so David can go home and live his life, or to enter a deeper sort of analysis, we can see she is right just because David’s later accounts of himself are so much clearer than those he gives earlier of his childhood. He had grown accustomed to employing in any self-investigation a figure he calls Mr. Justice Staunton, what the other sort of analysts would call his superego, and during David’s analysis the figure gradually disappears. Dr. von Haller can convince David that this part of their work is completed when she can interpret a dream of his so he can see what has happened to him:
I was aware it was Father, though his face was turned away. He was very affectionate and simple in his manner, as I don’t think I ever knew him to be in his life…. He wore an ordinary business suit. Then suddenly he turned from me and flew up into the air, and the astonishing thing was that as he rose, his trousers came down, and I saw his naked backside.
David thinks of Moses and God, then that he has seen the shameful parts of his father. But Dr. von Haller has more to say:
I believe that you have, in a literal sense, seen the end of Mr. Justice Staunton. The old Troll King has lost his trappings. No court, no robes, a sense of kindliness and concern, a revelation of that part of his anatomy he keeps nearest to the honoured Bench, and which nobody has ever attempted to invest with awe or dignity, and then—gone! If he should come again, as he well may, at least you have advanced so far that you have seen him with his trousers down.
There is more at the end, a long episode with David, Ramsay, Eisengrim, and the woman who spoke through the Brazen Head. But that seems designed less to finish this book than to set things up for the next. The real end is back with David and his vision of the posterior of God-Father-Mr. Justice Staunton-Troll King.
In all this I have implied that Robertson Davies seems much more worth one’s while than Alan Lelchuk, which is perfectly true, but there is also much that is very limiting about Davies that the implied comparison cannot reveal. His style is useful, no more. Some of his minor characters are fine—Father Bazelon in Fifth Business and Father Knopwood in The Manticore are as splendidly and sympathetically drawn priests as I can remember, and the reappearance of David’s Friend as an effete young genealogist in search of Staunton ancestry is fine—but they are all portraits, and their major mode of address is the monologue. Indeed, Davies is never very good at dialogue; the conversations between David and his doctor, good and patient though they are, never express any pain or real confusion on David’s part, so that we hear of his anguish but never know it.
Davies’s limitation is one he shares with Lelchuk. Neither seems fully to see the dangers and obligations of being a schematic writer. A better writer than Lelchuk would have better understood that the kind of book he wants to write is very hard to do. Presumably a book about real anguish could be, and perhaps is being, written in which someone engaged in being political in contemporary America is forced to confront the apparent (and maybe in some ways real) choice between accepting decadence and corruption on the one hand and tearing it all down on the other. But Lelchuk has opted for making the ostensible pain and dilemma created by his patterns something that can be felt only by his reader, while he himself just runs amuck in sexual and political sadistic fantasy.
If Robertson Davies is altogether better, it is the result of knowing much more clearly both what he wants to do and how to do it, and this means primarily that he deserves praise as a craftsman. He is no more able than Lelchuk to get at the stuff of day-to-day existence that can’t be easily fit into schemes. His fine minor characters are all spokesmen, never asked to breathe real air, and if Davies often gives his major characters interesting hoops to jump through, if he is sometimes dazzling at suggesting the way any human life does follow Jungian patterns, that is the extent of what he can do for them and for us.
Some great novels, to be sure, make life cohere to schemata or dogmas or visions. On a scale of 1 to 10, American Mischief gets a generous 1 1/2, The Manticore a solid 4, Ulysses and The Brothers Karamazov surely earn a 7 or 8, and some miracles, like Tom Jones and The Rainbow, score even higher. But nothing is more apt to limit a novelist than this kind of pattern-making, unless it be humorlessness. Still, for those who enjoy tedious argument about the current situation, American Mischief will do, and I, for one, look forward with quiet eagerness to learn what Robertson Davies is going to do next.
February 8, 1973