In each of these bright and technically lively new novels, a clerkly but ambitious person—in one case a college dean, in the other a chess master—encounters a tricky tempter who offers, among other things, money and sexual delight. In both cases loss of occupation and derangement of values follow close on, and the Faustian experience brings—if nothing worse—a sense of personal history that can be neither renounced nor adequately understood.
Austin Wright’s The Morley Mythology considers the case of Michael Morley, fifty, a geologist recently become dean of his college, happily married with two grown children, doing well and feeling pretty good about it. But “Michael Morley” is not one person but a throng of interior selves, each with a special sense of what Morley should be and do. When the dean starts getting anonymous phone calls from someone who seems to know his secrets shockingly well, the delicate equilibrium of his inner community, which serves the purposes of the tyrannical and anxious adult superego known as “the boss,” is thrown into turmoil and panic:
The only problem to worry about, repeated the manager, is the question what to do. What, if anything. You could scare him, suggested the boy—bluff, fake him out…. The mother said you should be gentle: a madman like that must be suffering, she said. Can you even begin to imagine how much?… The sister said madmen don’t yield to persuasion or sympathy. The only way is to be practical, take the measures that will force him to stop. Call the police, she said, and arrange a trap. Or get an unlisted number. The sheriff said that this would be a surrender to the outlaw. The father agreed. Why should you let a mad stranger cut you off from the unknown, from forgotten friends, geologists from other universities, cousins passing through town?
These and the other inhabitants of Morley’s consciousness feel especially threatened because the phone calls, by reviving the long-suppressed interests of his childhood, threaten to wake up the dreaded “boy king,” the imaginative, impractical, irresponsible childhood self whom they deposed so many years ago. The “Mythology” of Wright’s title consists of those interests, the devotion of a bright and rather privileged child in the early 1930s to objects and names that hold deep and private value: Diomedes in the Iliad, the boy king Richard II, George Pipgras of the Yankees, a singer at the Met named Dorothee Manski, the steamer Priscilla on the Fall River Line, a pleasant cow encountered on a tour of Poland, and the like. Later, recognizing that these accidental attachments were mostly second-rate, the aging boy king adds a new series of certified winners, including Kirsten Flagstad, Wagner’s Tristan, Louis Armstrong, and Ted Williams.
The best thing in the book is Wright’s playful and loving exploration of this Mythology, which (he explains in a note) is made up of his own youthful enthusiasms. He has composed a rich and coherent private world whose hidden structure keeps revealing itself in marvelously unexpected ways, as in the discovery that Flagstad and Manski were friends and once appeared in the same performance of the Ring. Nostalgia may be in long supply these days, but Wright manages these materials with compassionate tact, right down to the young Morley’s affecting fear that his fantasies about his favorites, ritualistically induced by twirling a paper clip or a loop of string around a pencil; are evidence of private madness, a fear which his adult selves evidently share.
But The Morley Mythology runs into trouble, I think, with its plot. The mysterious caller turns out to be an affable fat man named Macurdy, a real-estate agent and amateur “researcher” of other people’s lives, who claims that he wants to help Morley write a book for the golden-oldies trade. But he knows of the dean’s one serious moral lapse, his casual affair with his sister-in-law, Ruth, which he manipulates Morley into re-enacting with his own young girlfriend (also named Ruth). When he shows Morley his photographs of this second fall and not unreasonably gets accused of blackmail, Macurdy claims to be deeply hurt, goes off to sulk (Morley anxiously starts calling him up), and presently kills himself.
Macurdy is hard to fathom, but his novelistic function seems clearest in his Mephistophelian denials toward the end of the book:
“All those things you are a fan for are dead and gone. Your steamboats were junked thirty-seven years ago. Your ballplayer pitched his last game almost forty years ago. All your singers are dead….”
You mean he deliberately lured us on to expose ourselves? asked the narrator. A lousy con game? What for? Can’t believe it. He didn’t lure me, he lured the boy king, said the boss, uncomfortably, while the sheriff said, Ask him, and the manager said, Silence, Macurdy: “A grown man, nursing your past like that. Not the great past. Not the heritage from the past, whatever that is, or whatever history we are supposed to know so as not to relive it—none of that. Only your own special narrow coddled baby past full of its steamboats and its cows and its Nazi idols—“
Morley’s main buried fantasy has been that the young king’s favorites aren’t really dead or destroyed but somewhere, somehow, live on. Macurdy the “real-estate” man insists that fantasy and fact must be sharply distinguished, and as nearly as I can tell the novel reluctantly endorses this cruel demand. By the end of the book Morley, as a result of Macurdy’s betrayal, has lost his self-respect, his deanship, and almost his wife, and the Mythology has shriveled into a harmless hobby, “a small madness to protect us all from worse,” as one of his selves puts it.
As the book presents him, Morley the adult seems a decent enough man on the whole, no more pompous and self-regarding than most “successful” people and no more confused about where his affections and obligations lie; and Morley the child is positively lovable. Yet somehow he must be punished, and I’m not sure whether it’s because he’s a dean, an adulterer, or just a former boy. Even if we should care more about “the great past” than about our private memories and devotions, this is hard to do continuously, and I’m not at all sure that it would make us better human beings. A warm, inventive, very funny novel until it’s nearly over, The Morley Mythology seems finally to stumble over an unnecessary concession to an inappropriate kind of “seriousness.” In the impulse to indict Morley’s devotion to his own past for being what Macurdy nastily calls “psychological capitalism,” Austin Wright betrays the nostalgic energies that have created this novel’s most absorbing and touching moments.
Thomas Gavin’s Kingkill is a first novel, and it’s probably too long and sometimes a little too lenient toward its striking similes and verbs:
Giant cypress trunks had been drawn like sinewy taffy from the ooze, and hardened and crusted with moss. Their roots humped away in all directions, making knobby islands in the water. Ahead, a branch bowed across the stream. Under it hovered a dancing shadow, looming, and with a veer of the boat he was in it, a cloud of insects that took him for their sun. He raced to the door and slammed himself inside. A pair of ladies talking on a sofa watched him slapping at himself as if he were putting down small rebellions all over his body.
But too much of a good thing is better than none at all, and some occasional verbal overexuberance can be gladly forgiven in a book that is as strongly designed and as modest in its claims to large significances as this one.
Set in early nineteenth-century America, the novel hinges on the later life, and death, of Johann Nepomuk Maelzel, the egregious charlatan and promoter still remembered for inventions he didn’t invent, most notably the metronome and the “mechanical” chess-player that Poe and others exposed as a fraud. Maelzel’s entourage (whose historicity I can’t vouch for) includes his dour assistant, Henri Rouault, Rouault’s enigmatic wife Louise, and, as the story’s central consciousness, William Schlumberger, a young, hump-backed Alsatian chess wizard recruited by Maelzel as the latest (and last) operator of “The Turk,” the robot that’s to make their fortune in the crude and gullible New World.
Schlumberger, whose devotion to chess is pure and intense, is lured into his demeaning and fraudulent new occupation by his passion for the whorish Louise, who also services her religious-fanatic husband and the wildly perverse Maelzel too. She soon vanishes, leaving Schlumberger with riddles enough to perplex the rest of his life. Was her summons to America just another of Maelzel’s tricks, or did it express some real love? Did she abscond with Maelzel’s money, or did he pay her to leave Schlumberger in a despair that could be exploited? Did she really write Maelzel a letter years later, before dying a sordid death in Chicago? Did she ever “leave” at all, or was she murdered by the vengeful Rouault or even Maelzel himself?
Whatever the whole truth, after participating in Maelzel’s elaborate and unsuccessful schemes for many years and nearly dying of yellow fever in Havana, Schlumberger learns enough to murder the old devil on the brig Otis during the passage to Philadelphia, where he himself lives on, without love or chess, for some forty years. We last hear of him in 1876, musing about the Corliss Dynamo he’s just seen at the Centennial Exhibition and still trying to figure out who did what to whom when he was young.
Gavin tells this romantic tale in a fittingly complex way. The novel’s time structure keeps looping back on itself, creating gaps in our knowledge that may or may not be filled in later. We don’t discover until the end that the person who’s writing the book out of old diaries and newspaper stories is Schlumberger himself, and Schlumberger young and green, Schlumberger amid his awful trials, and Schlumberger the aged scholar of his own history blur intriguingly into one another. And of course we never learn more about the mysterious Louise, the wily Maelzel, or the crazed Rouault than does Schlumberger himself.
The effect is of a rich circumstantiality that remains open to interpretations which Gavin admirably refuses to pin down for us. His energetic, rich prose points to objects and events and not to some selection of their possible “meanings,” as this description of a fire in Manhattan may show:
…a bareheaded old man in carpet slippers who wore a pair of spectacles with the glass in one frame smashed to a blind star…wandered from one clot of firemen to another and at last climbed the steps of a house where Schlumberger could see flames jumping in a groundfloor window like children wanting to see out. The old man opened the door, stood patiently aside while yellow-black smoke billowed out like hastily departing guests, and as it began to clear, entered the house. He emerged carrying a scroll-back armchair patterned with patriotic eagles, which he placed in the street. Next he brought out an armload of clothing. A few spectators, neighbors apparently, attempted to dissuade him from a third entry…. The old man shook them off. He came out, staggering and weeping from the smoke, carrying a footstool on which he had placed a humidor lined with pipes and a tinderbox. A fat woman in house robe and nightcap who had been standing at the foot of the porch steps emitting regularly spaced shrieks followed the old man onto the street, beating his shoulders with her fists while he drew the armchair around toward the flaming house. She shied away after he raised a threatening backhand, and he sat in the chair, stuffed a clay pipe and sparked a wick from his tinderbox, his hand trembling slightly as he held it to the bowl and the tears perhaps no longer entirely from the smoke.
You could make up a lot to say about this moment—the mirroring of natural destruction in human violence, the perception of disaster in the terms of normal life (“children wanting to see out,” “departing guests”), the uncertainty about whether the old man wants to save objects or just use them as he normally does, the odd pathos of lighting a small fire in the midst of a large one, the simultaneity of grief, anger, comfort, and alert interest. But while much is made available by this active prose, nothing is ostentatiously insisted on—reading it is rather like studying history, where interpretation of the data is always necessary, sometimes satisfying, and never conclusively right.
The same restraint prevents continuities from becoming mere “patterns.” There’s a lot of fire, for example, in Schlumberger’s life; the book begins with the first of his “firedreams,” in which a conflagration saves him from checkmate by the hated Turk, and, after a number of actual fires, we eventually learn that the Turk was in fact destroyed by fire on July 5, 1854. But this is made to mean nothing except, perhaps, that Schlumberger’s subconscious concerns make him selectively responsive to certain modes of waking experience. Likewise with the book’s use of the rather obvious associations of chess with warfare. Schlumberger’s favorite king, a figure of Bonaparte, has a hunched back like his own, and martial imagery, Napoleonic and otherwise, represents his struggle against domination by Maelzel, the “king” he finally (under the assumed name of “Bishop”) checkmates in the end game aboard the Otis. But again these are the terms of a character who’s a chess player, not the author’s gestures toward significances outside the story.
Best of all, Gavin never spells out one meaning that would blatantly thrust a modern reader’s concerns into a story that doesn’t need them. The Turk is a machine, or purports to be, one which bests human beings at a difficult human art. Schlumberger hates it, and himself for operating it, not simply because it’s a fake, not even because it’s a commercial fake that reduces the game he loves to a bit of side-show flummery. He hates it because it asserts that mind is inferior to mechanism and because he knows, however bogus this particular expression of it may be, that this assertion may be true.
Rouault, in his youth a machine-breaking Luddite, now must humiliatingly keep the Turk in repair. Schlumberger feels that he ceases to exist, as a chess genius or anything else, when inside the Turk, where he tends to lose track of the game or doze off, where his already deformed body is further shamed by the unyielding cramped quarters, where, assailed by a mosquito he can’t evade or even see, he gets the fever that almost kills him. Like Henry Adams some years later, he might reasonably take the dynamo he sees in his old age as the symbol of an abysmal breach of continuity with the values of the past. But he does no such thing, though the dynamo disturbs him, and I congratulate Gavin for not making his story a fable about the strain between imagination and technology.
Kingkill accepts (as The Morley Mythology can’t quite do) the likelihood that personal history, for all its confusions and contradictions, may be about all we have to tell us who we are. And, unlike most “historical” novels, it never forgets that those tempting points at which personal history intersects with “the great past,” offering possibilities of meanings larger than the merely private kind, are very infrequent, hard to decipher, usually best left alone, at least in fiction.
August 4, 1977