Modern styles are confessions of failure, point helplessly to a world which, in the end, eludes the writer. Kafka’s baffling directness, Joyce’s infinite ingenuity; Mann’s lifelong impersonation of a boring old codger; the raveled syntax of Proust and James, that interminable prose which always seems to find room for one more quibbling clause: all these styles are wonderfully eloquent and successful confessions, but what they confess is a failure to make language reach right up to the world. The idea of the mot juste has died on us, because no words are entirely right any more.
It is not so much that words have failed us as that reality has come to refuse the names we used to give it, has become too vast and too brutal and too unstable for our old nouns; and our own contemporaries, adrift in the wake of the great modern writers, can’t even make a style out of this dilemma, since the dilemma has already been explored, exhausted, laid low, rendered familiar. They are left with their language, which is all they have if they are writers, and a world which they can evoke or allude to but never secure with a steady, old-fashioned grasp.
All four of these new novels, two by South Americans and two by North Americans, confront this situation, take the insufficiency of words for granted; all four then go on to cheat this insufficiency in strikingly different ways.
The first option they offer is this. The writer can refuse to have a language of his own, he can carry out the disappearing act that Flaubert always promised but never performed, that Joyce kept performing only to reappear for applause as the magician in charge of the show. He can take, as Manuel Puig does, letters, lyrics of old tangos, police records, newspaper cuttings, diaries, radio serials, telephone calls, conversations, prayers, confessions, take the unadulterated language of the world itself, that is, and edit it into a text, into a portrait of shabby, desperate life in a small provincial town in Argentina in the Thirties and Forties. He can add, as Puig does, in direct imitation of Joyce, some remarkable interior monologues, some comically formal questions about his characters (“What in that moment was her greatest desire?” “What in that moment was her greatest fear?”), and some stilted, statistical accounts of human occasions (“New feelings experienced by Fanny the night of April 26, 1937….” “Route of Fanny’s tears: her cheeks, her neck, Pancho’s cheeks, Pancho’s handkerchief, Pancho’s shirt collar, the weeds, the tosca soil of the grass lot, the sleeves of Fanny’s dress, Fanny’s pillow”).
Puig is the author of all this, of course, the conductor of this concert of bald, broken details, but as a writer he makes no linguistic appearance. His world is without the ordered articulacy of what we normally recognize as literature, and since he is less angry than Flaubert and less flamboyant than Joyce, he conveys patiently and modestly a sense of just what such a world is like. It is like the world of bad fiction, since it is the world of bad fiction, gracelessly imitated by life itself. A consumptive hero tries painfully to behave like any other faithless, gambling, drinking, bragging Latin American man; silly, chattering heroines try to make movies and novelettes carry clear messages of their nameless, overflowing distress; an abandoned girl, like a figure in a melodrama she has never even heard of, murders her wandering lover.
Heartbreak Tango seems to me even better than Puig’s earlier Betrayed by Rita Hayworth because its characters’ movements are clearer, and because the general implication of the montage of cliché and cheap romance and gossip is firmer: it is that all comment on such lives is tactless, untrue, condescending. The lives must speak their own poor dialect, and the writer’s job is to reconstruct it. The danger, of course, is that the reconstruction will be either too ironic or too sentimental, and Betrayed by Rita Hayworth wobbled both ways every now and then. The balance of the new book is virtually perfect.
Where all comment is tactless, a personal style must be a cruel luxury, an affront to all those who live not so much without style as below it. Richard Stern’s practice suggests the opposite view: style is what saves buried lives from extinction, style is the mark of an exceptional and delicate attention. Reality in general may refuse names, but small pieces of the world can still be held in language if we choose carefully enough and if our touch is light enough, if we can catch our piece of world without crushing it beyond recognition. Stern has a style in a perfectly old-fashioned sense, and Other Men’s Daughters is an old-fashioned novel, an impressive plea for the private life as a continuing subject for serious fiction. “A statistical case could be made,” Stern’s hero thinks, “for the absolute uniqueness of every human feeling and event.”
This risk of having this kind of style is that it will deteriorate into a manner, and Stern’s does at times. He masters his fragile and banal subject—the love affair of a settled, married Harvard professor of medicine and a golden-haired young summer-school student—by means of a fierce, precise, compressing intelligence, and this can result in a brittle wit (“He was wearing a dark tweed suit, the only one in sight not in summer clothes. It was like a coffin coming through a circus”) or in ugly, mind-stopping epigrams (“Somewhere in the schedule sits life”) or in a sort of crowding in the sentences (“Even then much more of the world was in their heads than in talk with each other”). Far more often, though, indeed for most of the book, it yields fluent, sharp prose like this:
That double vision of the mind which knows but cannot feel or act its knowledge, which squats behind its own bones and measures everything from within those slats, which, at five o’clock, takes the long view of its own troubles like a surveying god, and at five-fifteen shrivels into a nut of egotism; human duplicity with its sparkling outer and inner crepuscular brains, cortical light dazzling over opaque old fear.
Or like this, a description of the girl’s father seeing his daughter with her Harvard lover in the south of France:
It overwhelmed Mr. Ryder. Too much, too quick. The garden noise, the flowers, the silken heat, the tiny lady in long dress and sandals hoisting water arcs over a tomato field, the fluent doctor, his daughter, even his own displacement (a condition as real as these other things), all of it worked against meaning. Mr. Ryder was used to thinking clearly, feeling strongly, deciding quickly. Now cloth seemed as much a part of flower as of the shirt it composed, the shirt had as much to do with the heat as with the body it clothed…. What was a daughter anyway? Something visible, glinting fibers, dark spheres, a triangle. This disorientation passed in a second, but was a deep, unique, strange second in Mr. Ryder’s life. Meaning, decisiveness, movement: useless, that was what visual disintegrity spelled for him, and as it passed, and as a giddy ease it brought passed too, Mr. Ryder fought back for what he knew: settlements, breakage, families, homes, plans, the order of the world….
Other Men’s Daughters is certainly literary, full of allusions; even academic, because Stern has slightly overdone his homework in medicine. But if we use those terms as serious pejoratives, indeed as anything other than means of pointing to certain characteristics of the work, we shall miss the urgency and the distinction of Stern’s treatment of his profound theme: the necessary end of particular seasons in our lives, the pain and confusion and exhilaration of leaving safe old places when they have become truly uninhabitable. The novel closes on a small evolutionary hope: we survive, we climb into our futures on the falling scaffolding of our past habits.
An absence of style, an assertion of style. Thomas McGuane’s Ninety-Two in the Shade represents something trickier: a jagged, broken flight from style. “Facetiousness,” the book’s hero thinks briefly, “can be a way of dancing at the edges of the beautiful; it can also be facetiousness.” This is a facetious novel, full of pompous rhetoric that the writer himself is sending up. “Skelton could not see these things without some irrational desire to be a liberty apostle and horseman of the light, a shy delivery boy of eternity’s loops.” The same Skelton falls into a “swoon that was as much as anything a part of his more than trifling instinct for some kind of topographical perspective upon his own life.” “Thomas Skelton felt that simple survival at one level and the prevention of psychotic lesions based upon empirical observation of the republic depended upon his being able to get out on the ocean.”
One of McGuane’s favorite tricks is to break eloquence with incongruity: “But there is a life that is not a life, in which the more adamant obstructions of the heart masquerade as loss, dreams, or carburetor trouble.” Another is the cute, jerky joke: “The shadows lay this way and that, the way…six grandmothers will fall when simultaneously struck by lightning.” Another is a sort of wan, casual whimsy: “He looked like a wasted rat of imprecise morals.” It is all too nervous and erratic and camped up to work very well in its own right but the general patchy effect serves McGuane’s intricate, interesting purposes well enough.
The language of the novel mimes gaudy American reality, is a copious parallel parody, a simulacrum in words of the tasteless shifting disorder of what McGuane calls Hotcakesland, “American con carne.” And the plot then denies all this, dissolves it into tidy elegance. A young man (Skelton) gets a boat and goes out to guide visiting tourist-fishermen among the reefs and bays off Key West, because guiding is the one thing in life he is good at and wants to do. Another man, who is in Florida because he shot a man in Kentucky one hot summer afternoon when it was about ninety-two in the shade, threatens to kill Skelton if he goes out guiding. Skelton has to go, the other has to kill him. They both die. A dance at the edges of the beautiful.
McGuane appears to enjoy the inevitability of these deaths, to take an aesthete’s delight in the relentless, symmetrical paths which carry these men to their final encounter, and certainly the book’s facetiousness reinforces this impression, as do exchanges like this:
“His life was real colorful. I have one thing against him though: he had no sense of humor. You should never kill somebody if it isn’t funny.”
“I don’t like that idea.”
“That’s because you don’t understand it.”
But the truth of the novel is more complex. In a completely deadened world there is an excitement, as Skelton finds, in the thought that somebody wants to kill you. In a totally meaningless and unnatural world there is a moral beauty in following your instincts, even if your instincts issue instructions to kill or be killed. At the same time, all killing is clearly senseless, a stupid trap for both you and your victim, and that is why we have to see the humor of murder. It is cruelly funny, because the joke is on both of you, and no one is left to laugh. These are the thoughts, though, it seems to me, of a culture absolutely at the end of its tether, and the ironic, defeated moral of Ninety-Two in the Shade belongs with them. Look askance, is Skelton’s motto:
Well, thought Skelton, life looked straight in the eye was insupportable, as everyone knew by instinct. The great trick, contrary to the consensus of philosophy, is to avoid looking it straight in the eye. Everything askance and it all shines on.
Yet even this sheepish policy demands more time and space than we seem to have, in McGuane’s view, since Skelton, for all his theories about averting his eyes, is killed. The book is a flippant, lucid, somber American allegory, and between the bleak, neat deaths of two men and the slow anarchic slither into lifelessness of the rest of the country, there is only the alert, breezy talent of the allegory’s author. Facetiousness is also a way of revoking dark conclusions even as you propose them. I don’t mean to say that McGuane is entirely in control of all these meanings, that his frequent ineptnesses are all part of a subtle master plan. I mean simply that McGuane mobilizes all these meanings with such verve and intelligence that the end of America can’t really be as nigh as his book suggests it is.
An absence, an assertion, a flight. José Donoso provides yet another variation. His style becomes the baffled retriever of dreams. At least Puig, Stern, and McGuane had subjects, however different those subjects were: shoddy confinement in the provinces, the shake-up of a change of life, the farcical apocalypse of America. In The Obscene Bird of Night the subject disappears and the style has to follow. It is not a matter of reality evading words but of reality vanishing altogether into phantasmagoria. The task of language here is to leave the world and chase the logic of the personal nightmare. Yet there is nothing allegorical about Donoso’s vision. This is not a picture of Latin America in a grotesque dream, it is the grotesque dream of a profoundly Latin American mind, something quite different.
On the strength of this book Donoso has been compared with Grass, Céline, and García Márquez, and for once such comparisons really help. Partly because Donoso clearly is a writer of the stature of the others, but also because the unreality which is his theme has a great deal in common with their demonized landscapes. All four are the polar opposites of Anglo-Saxon writers, whose world is depressingly real, whose empiricism dogs them even in their furthest flights of fantasy. McGuane is a good example, Donald Barthelme is another; I think also of Tolkien and Mervyn Peake in England. The real world lets none of these writers go. For what I take to be vastly dissimilar historical causes leading to similar effects, Grass’s Germany, Céline’s France, and the Latin America of García Márquez and Donoso (and of Borges and Carpentier and Cortázar) are the same world upside down: it is the empirical reality of things that seems incredible, that seems to require an act of faith on the part of the perceiver.
The difference between Latin America and Europe in this respect is that the condition is an ancient one there, not an accident of this century, and it is for this reason that the old school of naturalism in Latin American writing seemed such a wrong turning. How could writers devote such attention to the details of a world no one really believed was there, even when it was hitting them in the face? In this context, Puig represents an interesting, complicated throwback: he persuades his countrymen of the dull reality of their world by showing them the unreality of even their most modest dreams.
Donoso, on the other hand, invites us to watch the world become its own ghost, fade into invisibility like the old woman in the last paragraph of his book. She has been burning rags and bundles on a fire under a bridge:
The wind disperses the smoke and the odors, and the old woman curls up on the stones to sleep. The fire burns a little while next to the shape left there like just another package of rags, then it starts to go out, the embers grow dimmer and burn out, turning to very light ashes the wind scatters. In a few minutes, there’s nothing left under the bridge. Only the black smudge the fire left on the stones, and a blackish tin can with a wire handle. The wind overturns it and it rolls over the rocks into the river.
It is worth insisting on that tin can, which in most European and North American fiction would serve to remind us that the world goes on with or without the old women. Here it first underlines the absence of human life in this scene, the only life that counts here; then it vanishes itself.
Donoso has as many styles as he has nightmares, and I can best describe his method, crudely, as part ventriloquism and part proliferation. Ventriloquism because every character who appears in the narrator’s mind is quickly impersonated, is allowed his or her own voice and idioms and manners. And proliferation because the basic imaginative movement of the book is a kind of fantastic gigantism, a sort of rapid vegetable growth of every idea into monstrosity. A half-witted girl sleeps with a man who wears a giant’s head made of papier mâché when he distributes advertising handbills. We then learn that the narrator has borrowed the giant’s head in order to make love to the girl incognito. Enough? There is more. Provoked by the narrator’s borrowing the head and by the money he made on the deal, the head’s official user begins to loan it to anyone who wants the half-witted girl:
They came from faraway sections of town to make love with her. Schoolboys and skilled workers were the first, then flashy types in cars. Later on, I saw gentlemen in automobiles driven by uniformed chauffeurs; diplomats in cutaways; generals with glittering epaulets; distinguished academicians with their chests covered with medals and gold braid; potbellied priests as bald as kneaded greaseballs; landowners; lawyers; senators who, while they made love with her, made speeches about the terrible state of the nation; movie actors made up like whores; radio commentators who knew the absolute truth….
It is impossible to tell whether this unlikely parade takes place in the “real” world of the novel or in the hyperactive mind of the narrator. The same is true of other proliferations: two women prepare clothes and furniture for a new baby that never appears, and, as the barren months and years go by, make smaller and smaller items until they are at work on the tiniest of miniatures; the neglected old women in a home for cast-off servants go out begging, and, coughing and whimpering and wailing, soon terrify the neighborhood by turning into bands of geriatric muggers. The book offers countless examples of this scaring, comic escalation.
Yet Donoso’s concern is not really the discrepancy between reality and frantic illusion, although his narrator does occasionally try to calm down and get things straight. A girl who was supposed to have been a witch and a saint, in that order, was perhaps neither a witch nor a saint. “I’m sure something very simple happened.” She fell in love and got pregnant and her father put her away in a convent. The rest, her activities as a witch and the miracles she performed as a saint, is legend. But the legend is everything, and who cares, as the narrator says elsewhere, about the “poor realistic story” of a pregnancy? Similarly, although time constantly doubles over in the novel, so that figures from the eighteenth century seem to possess people in the twentieth in order to live out once again those old configurations of dream and desire, The Obscene Bird of Night is not really a novel about the defeat of linear time. Witches meddle with time, certainly—“old women like Peta Ponce have the power to fold time over and confuse it, they multiply and divide it”—but then who imagines the witches, what needs and fears give birth to them and their brood of familiars?
Donoso’s title comes from a letter from Henry James, Sr., to his sons, suggesting that life “flowers and fructifies…out of the profoundest tragic depths of the essential dearth in which its subject’s roots are plunged.” “The natural inheritance of everyone who is capable of spiritual life,” the letter continues, “is an unsubdued forest where the wolf howls and the obscene bird of night chatters.” The novel spells out with brilliant, lurid invention the logic that is almost hidden in those sentences. We inherit the unsubdued forest because of the essential dearth of our lives, the wolf and the bird are the legitimate children of our loneliness. This gloss brings the elder James very close to the novel’s other, unmentioned patron. “I don’t want to repeat the scene, there was no such scene,” the narrator says of his copulation with a witch, “it was a nightmare that produced monsters.” The phrase is too close to Goya’s famous caption for the allusion to be an accident. The sleep of reason produces monsters, Goya wrote under a famous drawing, and again the logic has to be underlined. If our reason were less repressive, its sleep would engender fewer monsters.
The book does not suggest, then, that life is a dream or that reality is all in the mind. It suggests that reality can be seen as presenting such a dearth of life that our frightened, starved minds will take refuge in nightmare, indeed that nightmare will visit and infest us whether we choose it for our refuge or not. The consequent difficulty is not that we can’t tell truth from fantasy, but that we lose ourselves in an infinite jungle of truthful fantasies and fantastic truths, are left a prey to the howling wolf and the chattering bird.
This novel is full of contradictory versions of single circumstances. The half-witted girl who slept with the giant is pregnant by the giant; pregnant by the narrator; or not pregnant at all. The narrator is a deaf-mute who has always lived in the Casa, a retreat house for nuns, orphans, and old women; or he is a writer, the defecting secretary of the local landowner, in hiding in the Casa, only pretending to be deaf and dumb. The landowner himself longs for a son but never has one: or he has one, but it is a monster, and the father creates for his child a colony of mutations recruited from all over the world, housed in a spreading domain where even the statues are hunchbacked and acromegalic, so that the child will grow up believing deformity is the norm, and normality is monstrous.
Over the whole book hangs the original legend of the girl who was witch or saint, witch and then saint, who contained in one body those flanking, abnormal, exiled segments of reality. Donoso seems to suggest that if the world could reclaim both the saint and the witch, the excess of light and the excess of darkness, reconcile the figments it has banished to the right and to the left hand of its ordinary course, the nightmares would end, the monsters born of the very narrowness of our lives would cease to exact their harrowing revenge, and all the rival versions of the truth would add up.
It is an appealing thought, but Donoso must know that such schemes for the recapture of wholeness are themselves inhabitants of the sleep of reason, recurring dreams of the Western mind. And the whole force of this spectacular novel rests in the end with the anarchic old women who live in the Casa and who, even more than the narrator’s fertile, restless mind, are the owners and bearers of major meanings of the work. They are the humiliated and offended of Latin America, the miserable and excluded of a whole half-continent, stealthily accumulating all the power their long submission has entitled them to. They hoard things in the Casa—“their employers’ fingernails, snot, rags, vomit, and blood-stained sanitary napkins”—and they reconstruct with this filth a “sort of photographic negative not only of the employers they robbed it from, but of the whole world.”
If Puig and Stern offer careful, oblique reflections of an elusive reality, if McGuane holds up an erratic, distorting mirror to a deformed America, Donoso leads us through the looking glass into a garden of cavorting monsters. But there, at the end of the magical perspective, lurk the irreducible old women. As in Kafka, a familiar reality waits at the end of the nightmare, and the sleep of Latin American reason produces huddled monsters that are all too easy to identify in the daylight.
December 13, 1973