The titles alone of these books offer a sort of cultural history, conjure up a landscape of psychiatrists and crackups, of shaky personal universes threatened, ruined, rescued, and abandoned every other day. Nickel Mountain is different perhaps, suggests either fiscal allegory or a homely, rural geography, but then even that looks like a commentary on the rest or a rebound from them. Only in America (as the phrase used to go) have the nerves been promoted to such starring roles, or at least given such widespread and appreciative coverage. It is as if Virginia Woolf and Nathalie Sarraute had bred a whole crew of frantic followers, each one edgier than the last, as if panic had become the only authentic subject left for fiction.
It is an oddly manageable panic, of course. Those titles are all neatly self-conscious, hint at professional distances from disaster, at a trim sense of humor watching over all the disarray. And this is how the characters in the books behave. They watch themselves as their authors watch them, they fake fears in order to feel real fears—which they then can’t get rid of except at vast personal cost. They flirt with their own disintegration, partly on the off chance that salvation may lie among the scattered pieces, but mainly out of a careering desperation, a sense of lives slithering trivially on at random, quite out of control. In that perspective, the idea of a genuine disaster seems almost reassuring. Again, Nickel Mountain is the exception, but it proves the anxious rule. John Gardner seems actively to be looking for a quieter, steadier, older world to explore, a fictional kingdom beyond the pale of educated, middle-class, white American, frequently Jewish, lovingly cultivated distress.
The best place to start on a closer description of the territory is probably Barbara Raskin’s Loose Ends, a fast and funny novel set in Washington. Its theme is the excited isolation of Coco Burman, thirty-two years old, married twelve years, mother of four children, and eager to write at long last her best-selling book, which will bring her instant fame and a spot on the Dick Cavett Show.
All Coco wanted was to make the minor literary leagues, to recycle some of her own leftover life (like converting slightly green Saran-wrapped roast beef into hash) and show how a sensitive American woman, reared in and ruined by the inverted values of the 1950’s, could never find happiness.
Now is her chance, it seems, because her husband Gavin has confessed to having slept with someone else, and his infidelity, unlike her own, counts. She hovers on the verge of a breakdown, takes up her analysis again, gets someone to look after the children full time, and holes up on the back porch with her Smith-Corona and a box of Bond. But then Gavin leaves her altogether; her best girl friend is in South America; her shrink goes off to Europe; and an old flame, having shown up just in time, beats a quick retreat as soon as he realizes he’s needed. Things look bad for a while, but Coco meets some girls in a commune down the street, takes part in a Women’s Independence Day march, finds out that Gavin’s girl friend is not the girl she thought it was, and learns (from Gavin’s first wife) that the whole scenario of all her married squalls was askew—Gavin had not left his first wife for her, her own identity did not rest entirely on the satisfaction she got from needling him all the time. Best of all, she discovers that her permanent hysteria has simply died, gone away. She drafts mental letters to her analyst (“Sincerely yours, Ms. Givings”), can’t understand what has happened to her, but there it is.
The only way to quit smoking is
to quit smoking.
The only way to quit eating is to
Coco has quit every jumpy subterfuge that made up her life. She reaches for her typewriter and begins now, after all her false starts on patently bad novels, to pound out what looks horribly as if it may be The Book We Have Just Read.
Loose Ends is a little too self-conscious about its place in the wake of a fleet of similar novels, or at least novels on similar subjects, but this doesn’t matter much, and my summary of what happens in the book doesn’t really give any idea of what is so good about it. We don’t have to believe in Coco’s final liberation to enjoy the book. I think I do believe in it, but only if it belongs to the woman of the second half of the novel, to the distraught and funny figure who has been switched for the taunting, more purely histrionic Coco of the beginning. The first Coco is not quite human enough to receive the second Coco’s blessings, or even to recognize them when they arrive.
This seems to be largely a technical question, a matter of changing focus and tone of narrative. In any case Coco’s final freedom represents that moment in a novel where most novels, even very great ones, are terribly weak: the moral pay-off, the earned illumination of the hero or heroine. Some curious theory about life being definitely worth it (as distinct from probably worth about even money, or at least better than whatever we might exchange for it) seems to make us hanker for these comforting scenes of people learning from experience. But it is experience itself that novels really deal in: brittle, transient, shocking, boring, multifarious, unredeemed experience. Novels collect accretions of detail in the same way that short stories shed them, and Barbara Raskin’s details, social and physical as well as psychological, are what make her novel work so well. Nothing appears in this book except by its particular name—
For dessert, Coco produced some instant Jell-O Chocolate Whip, which she casually called mousse and served in small earthen brown pudding cups
—and its finest effect is perhaps its completely convincing evocation of a woman cracking up and flipping out (and hamming those things up for good measure) while running a home and mothering four children with amazing efficiency. Separate slices of a life, simply whirling around, without making contact.
But then none of this would serve if Ms. Raskin were not consistently and unobtrusively funny, with a wit which seems to flow naturally from Coco’s head. Here is Coco thinking about stranded wives (the casual slang and cliché go perfectly with the careful/careless scatter of incongruous names):
So that now—oh, yes, now, for the first time—Coco could understand…how even the queen of the Western world, Jackie Onassis, had to pay her dues when she received telescopic-lens visions of Ari at a Parisian restaurant with the fantastic Maria Callas. Now Coco could relate to the plastically beautiful Joan Kennedy, summering comfortably, when news of Chappaquiddick trickled through her ears and into her bloodstream like poison running through King Hamlet’s body. And there was Eleanor Roosevelt, the Great Lady used only as a front for Lucy Rutherfurd et al., and Princess Margaret watching her consort consorting with ladies-in-waiting, and Mrs. Profumo seeing Christine Keeler’s picture on top of her breakfast tray every morning, and even Liz Taylor, who got hers after she did in Debbie and Sybil, when Dickie took a tumble for the slim, thin Florinda Balkan, and Simone Signoret ducking photographers when Yves Montand was putting it to Marilyn Monroe. And Princess Saroyan [sic] bopping through airports while the new queen presented heirs to the Shah, and Dory Previn singing her heart out while Mia Farrow gave birth to twin baby boys. That was a good one—that was really putting the old knife in. Because now for the first time, Coco could really dig Medea and Clytemnestra and Marianne Faithfull and the coach’s wife in The Last Picture Show and Simone de Beauvoir and Abigail McCarthy and, oh, dear, how many more?
Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying doesn’t have this kind of pace and intelligence—indeed for much of the time it looks like one of Coco Burman’s earlier, self-indulgent drafts of her novel-to-be showing how a sensitive American woman can never find happiness. It gives us the picaresque, sometimes funny, sometimes touching adventures of Isadora Wing, on the run from her psychoanalyst husband, in quest of joy and her own true self. She takes off from an analysts’ congress in Vienna with an unpromising English adept of the views of R. D. Laing, and rattles around Europe from fiasco to debacle, predictably finding true liberation (fragile, of course, but authentic) at the end without him. Above all, in intervening chapters, she remembers: her mother, her sisters, her old lovers, her previous, lunatic husband. “What was this crazy itinerary anyway if not a trip back into my past?”
Most of the book’s comic targets (greasy Egyptians, lecherous Lebanese, fat, sentimental Germans, and so on) are too large and too easy to be worth hitting at all, and the wit often seems to be working harder than it ought to be:
The ultimate sexist put-down: the prick which lies down on the job. The ultimate weapon in the war between the sexes: the limp prick. The banner of the enemy’s encampment: the prick at half-mast. The symbol of the apocalypse: the atomic warhead prick which self-destructs….
This is flogging a dead horse (to coin a phrase) and the book also has far too much maudlin or portentous self-examination which it seems we are meant to take seriously:
When the chips are down and I’m alone with a man for days on end, then I realize more than ever how unliberated I am. My natural impulse is to today. All my high-falutin’ rebelliousness is only a reaction to my deep-down servility….
I am nailed to the cross of my imagination. And my imagination is as horrible as the history of the world.
Nevertheless, or even partly because of all this, the book has a helplessness, a vulnerability that makes it very likable, and in some backhanded way successful. The flaws in the writing parallel the heroine’s mistakes in her life—indeed are her mistakes reappearing in another form, since she is revisiting her life in the writing, compounding her (usually generous) errors the second time around. And then at the risk of sounding like a man who’ll forgive anything for a couple of wisecracks, I must say there are some very good jokes in this novel: “Think of those Egyptians who built the pyramids, for example. Did they sit around worrying about whether they were Equal Opportunity Employers?” “He was a medievalist and before you could say ‘Albigensian Crusade’ he’d tell you the story of his life.” I particularly like the subtle insinuation of “the first of my many psychiatrists, a short doctor whose name was Schrift.”
With Stanley Elkin and Grace Paley the territory changes slightly. In Loose Ends and Fear of Flying, the flirtation with disaster is the heroine’s personal, chosen game, and the writers simply describe it. In Searches and Seizures and Enormous Changes at the Last Minute the same flirtation belongs not to any one character but to the writers themselves, and it is not a chosen game. It is the total condition under which the writing takes place, it is place, theme, style, and story all at once.
One of Elkin’s characters is said to be “greased by daily contact with the surreal.” Another remarks that logic was invented to “tame surprise and make the world consecutive.” The implication is that this was an inevitable but useless ploy. Like rhetoric. “Rhetoric,” yet another character thinks, “feebly tried to account for the unaccountable, but its arguments were always as whacky as the defenses of alchemy, elaborate as theories of assassination.” One can enjoy this state of affairs, of course, as even Elkin’s most driven people do: “I’ve a weakness for example, a sweet tooth for instance and all the gossip inherent in idea. A joke better than a story, an hypothesis richer than a case….” But the enjoyment is inseparable from a panic at the sheer unmanageable craziness of the ordinary world, and writing, in such a world, is both a cry of despair and a short-term pain-killer, smoke screen, displacement activity. Language is what holds a monstrously disorganized reality at bay, or allows you to dip into it cautiously, like a child tasting soup that might be too hot or too salty. You poke at the world and run, ring its doorbell and take off.
Character, like language, is a defense against disorder, and the real subject of the three short novels contained in Searches and Seizures is a complicated invention of character by means of snowballing language. The writer invents characters who invent themselves as they talk and thereby invent him, the writer. (“He sleeps. I sleep. He dreams. I dream.”)
I’m Alexander Main the Bail-bondsman. I go surety. Generous as a godfather or an uncle in films, each day paying out pledge like a rope in the sea, flying my streamers of confidence….
I’ve been spared a lot, one of the blessed of the earth, at least one of its lucky, that privileged handful of the dramatically prospering, the sort whose secrets are asked, like the hundred-year-old man. There is no secret, of course; most of what happens to us is simple accident. Highish birth and a smooth network of appropriate connection like a tea service written into the will….
He was thirty-seven. Single. A famous heart patient. A schoolboy….
And off we go into these stories: a day in the life of a Cincinnati bailbondsman, visiting jails, courts, lawyers, clients, dreaming of two small-time crooks who once jumped their bail (in his dream they are robbing the tombs of the Pharaohs), taking potshots with his gun at his mock-Dickensian clerk (” ‘Button your sweater, Mr. Crainpool, please. How many times do I have to tell you.’ I like him to look cold. It gives him the look of a clerk in Dickens and lends tone to the place”); the quest for love and self of young Brewster Ashenden (” ‘Brewster, you are probably the last young man in America still looking for himself,’ Father said. ‘As a man who has a certain experience with slogans, I have some sense of when they have lost their currency’ “), ending up in intercourse with a rutting bear on a decorously landscaped English estate; the anomie, madness, and leap to his death of a man who inherits a condominium in Chicago from his father.
What guides and gives structure to these fictions is Elkin’s fidelity to the oddness of his own imagination, which in turn simulates a fidelity to the jerky, arbitrary movements of the real world. This means that the pieces of the fictions—patches, paragraphs, sentences, gags—tend to be better than the wholes they hardly turn out to be parts of, and William H. Gass’s allusion (on the dustjacket of the book) to Henry James’s notion of the “beautiful and blessed nouvelle” is so inapt as almost to constitute a definition in reverse of what Elkin is doing. Of the three stories here, only the third comes together to make the comic, desperate sense the other two hint at rather darkly. Marshall Preminger starts life again in his father’s apartment, tells the self-congratulatory committee of the condominium (“Where are your blacks? Where are your PR’s? The answer is simple, my dear Marshall. There aren’t any. We’re not only a community, we’re a ghetto. You know things, you’re a scholar. Athens was a ghetto. Rome was…”) how strange he feels there:
“I’ve lived provisionally here,” he said. “Like someone under military government, martial law, an occupied life. This isn’t going as I meant it to. I’m a stranger—that’s something of what I’m driving at. My life is a little like being in a foreign country. There’s a displaced person in me. I feel—listen—I feel…Jewish. I mean even here, among Jews, where everyone’s Jewish, I feel Jewish….”
He has always felt left out, “wall-flowered by life”: “Many are called but few are chosen. And some, like himself, weren’t even called.” And so, after various false euphorias, he breaks down, goes mad, and is “astonished that madness was so rational.” He still understands everything, functions perfectly (apart from an uncontrollable weeping). “How was he mad, then? In what did it subsist? Unhappiness. Unhappiness was his only trauma, his single symptom. Misery as fixed and settled as his overbite….” Marshall jumps from his balcony, and for all the world like his creator, battling with chaos by means of language, throws words against the rushing air and the ground rising to meet him:
“Cage,” he shouted. “Net,” he screamed. “Pit, sheath, vesicle, trap,” he roared above gravity…. “Nest,” he yelled, “carton, can….” “Jakes,” he squealed, “maw!”
The craziness of the world makes a far more stealthy entrance into Grace Paley’s work, turns up discreetly at the corner of sentences (“In the morning she became interested in reality again, which she had always liked”; “I often see through the appearance of things right to the apparition itself”), peeps out of casually strange narrative habits (“people sitting in trees talking senselessly,” as a character complains, “voices from who knows where…”). But it is nevertheless omnipresent. Grace Paley, as several people have said, is a regional writer, the scribe of a local moral and psychological dialect. She writes about New York City in the way that Giono wrote about Provence or George Borrow wrote about gypsies, quietly maps out a whole small country of damaged, fragile, haunted citizens. This would seem to suggest some sort of order and stability and continuity—at least a world which stays put long enough to be fixed in fiction by a writer who publishes a book only once every fifteen years (Grace Paley’s previous volume The Little Disturbances of Man appeared in 1959). But the suggestion is deceptive. This country is veined with cracks just waiting to open, as the language of these books is strewn with almost invisible landmines:
I wanted a sailboat, he said. But you didn’t want anything.
Don’t be bitter, I said. It’s never too late.
No, he said with a great deal of bitterness. I may get a sailboat…. But as for you, it’s too late. You’ll always want nothing….
But you’re right, he said sweetly. You know the mind is an astonishing, long-living, erotic thing.
Is it? she asked. Then she wondered: What is the life expectancy of the mind?
What happens in these seventeen new stories? A woman watches her children play in a park. She visits her mother and father in the Children of Judea. Another woman has a brief affair with a young song-composing taxi-driver; another returns two library books that are eighteen years overdue. Children die; friends die. A mother takes to long-distance running. Blacks, Jews, Italians, Puerto Ricans, the Irish all appear and speak: the melting pot, romantic New York, a meeting place only in print now for modes of life fiercely at odds in reality.
Grace Paley’s language hovers constantly on the edge of an awful cuteness and whimsy, performs an elaborate balancing act, and for an example of what it looks like when the writer falls off the wire we have only to turn to the back of the jacket of the book, where we learn, in Grace Paley’s own words, that she is a “somewhat combative pacifist and co-operative anarchist” and that she writes short stories “because art is too long and life is too short.” Unfair evidence, perhaps. In the book the writer stays on the wire all right, and the successful act is obviously harder to illustrate. Two men stroll past Faith perched in a tree. They are listening to Bach on a transistor radio, discussing fussily. Faith thinks:
Well, I must say, when darkness covers the earth and great darkness the people, I will think of you: two men with smart ears. I don’t believe civilization can do a lot more than educate a person’s senses. If it’s truth and honor you want to refine, I think the Jews have some insight. Make no images, imitate no God. After all, in His field, the graphic arts, He is pre-eminent. Then let that One who made the tan deserts and the blue Van Allen belt and the green mountains of New England be in charge of Beauty, which He obviously understands, and let man, who was full of forgiveness at Jerusalem, and full of survival at Troy, let man be in charge of Good.
“Faith, will you quit with your all-the-time philosophies,” says Richard, my first- and disapproving-born….
Another story has Faith worrying:
I drank a little California Mountain Red at home and thought—why not—wherever you turn someone is shouting give me liberty or I give you death. Perfectly sensible, thing-owning, Church-fearing neighbors flop their hands over their ears at the sound of a siren to keep fallout from taking hold of their internal organs. You have to be cockeyed to love, and blind in order to look out the window at your own ice-cold street.
The writer doesn’t exactly fall off the wire in that second passage, but she wobbles, and the last sentence there may tell us why. Grace Paley is occasionally a bit defensive about the breeziness of her writing manner; seems tempted to apologize for it. If you’re not blind or cockeyed, she implies, you need jokes in order to be able to look out at the cold street. But then if the jokes don’t come off, you’re left with your thin skin. If they come off too well, you’ve hidden the street away altogether. And the nagging question keeps returning: what if the world after all could be looked at without the filter of fun?
In a remarkable story printed here Grace Paley has a writer visit her very old father, who asks her to write a simple story, “the kind de Maupassant wrote, or Chekhov, the kind you used to write.” The writer thinks, and comes up with a bald, ironic tale about a woman who becomes a junkie in order to remain close to her junkie son. The son then gives up dope and leaves the city. His mother stays, hooked for good, hopeless. “We all visit her,” the story ends. The writer’s father says that’s not it at all, she’s left everything out, but when she tries again, she puts in all kinds of quiet eccentricities and odd details, writes a Grace Paley story, in fact. The father concludes that jokes are her trouble, because she won’t confront tragedy and despair.
Grace Paley’s jokes are an expression of her hope, then, a personal, human cancellation of life’s mournful lack of a sense of humor. Stanley Elkin’s jokes are more or less exactly the reverse, a reflection of life’s taste for eerie black comedy. The beliefs, stances, and of course tones of the two writers could hardly be more different. And yet the general effect of their fiction is strikingly similar: the imagination holds out its hostages to the dark, feeds words to the surrounding madness. One tells stories, as Grace Paley diffidently, bravely, and untruthfully says, “in order, you might say, to save a few lives.” One doesn’t save lives, but one does salvage a bit of dignity and consciousness.
“It was different in the country,” John Gardner writes, and Nickel Mountain seems to be intended as a monument to this difference. It tells the old-fashioned, slow-moving tale of one Henry Soames, obese owner of a rural diner, and his wife, his stepchild, his friends and acquaintances in the foggy, frosty Catskills. The book has handsome, if rather daunting etchings by Thomas O’Donohue, which illustrate selected moments in the text, pin down frozen pieces of narrative identified by Victorian captions: “Sometimes when he was not in a mood to read he would stand at the window and watch the snow”; “And then her head came up and she was perfectly still, looking at him.”
Where Gardner’s The Sunlight Dialogues was a mock nineteenth-century novel about a real twentieth-century dilemma, the new book is (or is trying to be) a real nineteenth-century novel about the timeless ordinariness of most of our lives, measured out as they are in universal events and rituals like marriage, childbirth, illness, mistaken kindnesses, and accidental death. The language, compared with Gardner’s earlier, flashier excursions, is much chastened, and only occasionally falls into swooning simile: “The room was full of sunlight and the smell of coffee like heaven’s love”; “He held back, struggled hard against himself like a lion converted to Christianity.”
Several things go wrong, though. First, people crack up in the country (and in this novel) too, and since Gardner, like most writers, is more at home with people cracking up than he is with people just going about their humdrum business, the contrast between city and country begins to pale a bit. Second, the traffic between sophisticated writers and simple lives can go only one way. You can show, that is, how complex simple lives are when you look at them closely, and here as in The Sunlight Dialogues Gardner does this well. What you can’t show, if you’re a complicated writer, is how simple simplicity is. All you can offer is a set of mirror images of your own complication. Then again, you can show how simple people delve into metaphysics in their own language, and Gardner, again, does this rather well. I don’t think you can presume, with any success, to render their obscure states of mind in your own grand, speculative manner. Fancy passages like the following would make almost any book trip over itself. Is Henry Soames drunk, perhaps?
Drunk. Maybe they were right. Not drunk from whiskey, but drunk from something else, maybe. Drunk from the huge, stupid Love of Man that moved through his mind on its heels, empty and meaningless as fog, a Love of Man that came down in the end to wanting the whole damn world to itself….
I don’t find this unconvincing, I do believe Henry is entertaining some such feeling. I simply find it tactless, and costly for the whole work: the writer’s infliction of this gross allegory on an inarticulate character separates the writer from his character almost irretrievably. Gardner uses the word “mysterious” and its cognates a lot, and when we learn that a girl has just realized (“in alarm”) that she has lost what she had never realized she had, we know we have swopped the simple country life for some Jamesian kingdom of complication.
On the other hand, as the book lumbers on (like fat Henry Soames himself), it actually heads into complication and comes alive for a while before Gardner kills it off with a slow and sententious concluding section called (you’ve guessed) “The Grave.” Here is the complication, the puzzle. Truck drivers crash and get killed on the road that goes past Henry’s diner. A boy is struck by lightning. Pure accidents. But then a man in his car hits a woman because he didn’t see her soon enough on the road, and the woman dies. That’s an accident too, but the man’s deciding to hide the woman’s body and her belongings, and to say nothing about it, isn’t. Conversely, Henry Soames shouts at a man who falls downstairs and dies, and Henry can’t shake off the thought that he has caused the man’s death.
What is discreetly outlined here is the structure of several long debates in The Sunlight Dialogues (is Nickel Mountain an earlier novel published only now?). Life is all accidents, but some of these accidents we take part in. If we accept our parts, we can be haunted or crippled by unreasonable guilt. If we don’t accept them, the universe will simply seem to go on without us, and our only chance of a slender human dignity will have slipped away. “I wouldn’t mind going to hell,” an old man thinks here, “if I thought I’d earned it. Better than getting a last-minute pardon, as if everything you did was no account, any more than a joke.” Guilt is damaging, but the thought of the rule of sheer chance is intolerable. The death of the man falling downstairs was an accident, a friend tells Henry’s wife,
It was an accident, Henry was the accidental instrument, a pawn, a robot labelled Property of Chance. That’s intolerable, a man should be more than that….
Here as in his other fiction, Gardner shows a marvelous gift for making stories ask balanced, intricate questions, for getting his complex questions into tight stories, as in the report of the two old brothers who had lived in New York State all their lives and then moved down to Florida. The second day they were there one brother killed the other with an axe, “just like that, nobody ever learned why.” But then such a story hardly belongs in the unanxious countryside, in a “pastoral novel,” which is Gardner’s description of Nickel Mountain. It belongs perfectly, of course, in a world of loose ends, fears of flying, searches and seizures, and enormous changes at the last minute.
March 21, 1974