She spoke of death, likening middle age to the second half of a football match. The game, she said, long since decided, was drawing to a close. Short of breath and flecked with mud, trembling in every limb, the players struggled up and down the pitch, waiting for the final whistle to blow.
The image is plausible enough, but the hint of parody in the language, the suggestion of life wrapped up in a rugged simile, should warn us not to take it too seriously, even if Beryl Bainbridge does pursue it in the title of her very funny new novel. Injury Time in this context is time added on for stoppages, a game’s last ghostly flicker, and the injuries in this case are a rape, some broken ribs, and a sliced ear which causes its balding owner to feel his philandering days are done—“Women were used to men losing their hair. They didn’t expect ears to recede as well; he wasn’t Van Gogh….”
Edward Freeman, a portly and timid accountant, has invited a married couple to dinner at the house of his mistress Binny, the charming, nervous, and rather slovenly woman who is the author of the football analogy. The dinner has not been a great success, and has already been interrupted by Binny’s drunken friend Alma, tearful and throwing up, when a gang of bank robbers arrive and settle in for a siege. At this point another view of life’s second half appears. “Christ,” one of the robbers says, “They’re all past it. We’ve landed in an old people’s club.”
In fact, Binny’s analogy is less a picture of middle age than a forlorn bid for mental mastery over a world which seems more and more bewildering, scattered with omens of damage and distress. She and Alma see a disorderly collection of aged bums having a drink on the street, and she says, “It’s everywhere. Where are the police?” She notices the two taped fingers of the fishmonger who serves her, is almost knocked over on a zebra crossing, worries about a child in an abandoned pram. (There is no child, as it happens, the bank robbers are using the pram to smuggle their money away from the bank.) Binny finds the world “menacing and full of alarms,” “less predictable” than it used to be. She compares her life to railway travel gone wrong: “The guard was on strike and the communication cord had been ripped from the roof.”
Edward too finds violence and dishonesty and infidelity everywhere, and wonders whether these sad changes don’t have something to do with a new nonchalance about hats: “No sooner had the homburgs and the bowlers disappeared from the City than everyone grew their hair longer, and after that nothing was sacred.” It’s a theory, in much the same way that Binny’s analogy is a description: an unconvinced gesture toward a troubling state of affairs which is nameless, perhaps unnamable, but nevertheless almost solid enough to touch. What is it that’s gone wrong? Edward certainly has some sort of grasp on England’s moral decline and fall:
Edward spoke in low undertones of a decaying society, the gradual breaking down of law and order, overcrowded prisons, lack of money. There was no doubt about it, they were living in decadent times…. “Why, only last week,” he confessed, “I was undercharged at the chemists…. Do you know, I pocketed the surplus change without a word. I’m not proud of my action, but I did.”
Even the robbers worry about the falling-off of standards, disapprove of Edward’s adultery—“I can’t hold myself responsible for your morals,” one of them says. “That’s your lark, not mine. I don’t hold with you deceiving your missus, but I’m sorry if we’ve added to your difficulties”—and are shocked by Binny’s haphazard housekeeping. “It’s bloody disgusting up there, missus,” another robber says of Binny’s dusty bedrooms. “Don’t you believe in cleaning?”
“The whole world’s changed,” Binny says, and wonders, with the daft, engaging, alarming helplessness of almost all the characters in this book, whether parents ought to hit their children more than they do.
She had started with such liberal leftish ideas upon most things—education, socialism, capital punishment, sex and so forth—and then, like an old and tired horse knowing the road home, had veered inexorably to the right.
The point is not that such political homecomings have been known to happen; the point is that they have been happening, in England, with all kinds of unlikely people, not out of altered convictions but out of a weary bafflement, a sense that decency and common sense and habit will not cope with the rough new world. England has been living in the twentieth century for quite some time—about seventy-eight years—but English sensibility, until very recently, inhabited a much older, cozier place. “Darling, you can be very sensitive and persuasive,” Binny says to her daughter Lucy, asking her to get her younger sister to come downstairs. “Lucy strolled into the hall and called loudly, ‘Come down, Alison, or I’ll bash your teeth in.’ ” In this perspective, the robbers are both a physical manifestation of Binny’s panic, a proof that you get what you fear, and a confirmation of her sense of things, her panic’s material justification. There is an eerie collaboration here between the way the world is and a frightened interpretation of it. Binny is right about the world’s threats, but wrong about their form. When she is raped she is surprised that the rapist doesn’t stub out a cigarette on her breast or swing on the chandelier as he is supposed to. And when Binny and her guests decide the robbers are not such bad fellows because they haven’t killed anyone (merely raped a woman and beaten up a member of the gang), or when Edward proposes a game of pingpong in front of the upstairs window, to let people outside know they are unharmed, and then is afraid he may have overdone his merriment during the game (“He hoped the newspaper reports wouldn’t distort the scene at the pingpong table. He wanted Helen to read that he was alive and well, not having the time of his life”)—these moments are extremely funny and very disturbing, since they make collaboration, in the moral sense, so pathetically, comically comprehensible.
One of the great virtues of Bainbridge’s style is the subtlety with which she can immerse us in lives we should ordinarily feel too comfortably distant from our own. From her first novel on—Injury Time is her sixth—she has been the chronicler of the small and awkward existences which usually surface, if they surface at all, in soap opera and very solemn films and fiction—a neglected middle class as well as an eccentric working class. But Bainbridge is not solemn and she is not sentimental: her undeceived wit and her lightness of touch make her one of the most distinguished writers now working in England. In spite of the title of Injury Time, Bainbridge’s style is a good deal stealthier than Binny’s, more poised, less elaborate. Here is Edward, for instance, feeling sympathetic to Binny’s plight as the mistress of a married man:
It was rotten for her, reeling out of the dentist alone, unable to depend upon him at Christmas, forced to see him at times mostly convenient to Helen. He gave her so little; he denied her the simple pleasures a wife took for granted—that business of cooking his meals, remembering his sister’s birthday, putting intricate little bundles of socks into his drawer.
This quiet prose, with its subdued clichés (“It was rotten for her,” “He gave her so little”), its precision of detail (“little bundles of socks”), its faint exaggeration (“reeling out of the dentist”), and its splendid irony (“simple pleasures”), depicts a situation that is entirely normal and thoroughly disgraceful.
It’s everywhere” is an appropriate sentiment for The World According to Garp, except that there the phrase would refer not to a changed historical situation but to something like the condition of the universe, a place of casual overkill and uncanny bad luck. Injury time is a fairly relevant notion too, since John Irving’s impressive score is three rapes, two assassinations, two accidental deaths, the loss of an eye, the loss of an arm, a penis bitten off, and a whole society of women with amputated tongues. Irving is very deft at moving from grotesque, even cruel, humor to amiable realism and back, and his novel is consistently intelligent and amusing, has an appealing equanimity in the midst of apparent awfulness. Yet the book feels rather tame in the end, in spite of its violence and timeliness, its response to the turbulences set off by the women’s movement.
There is an air of unruffled cleverness about the whole work which means that even its most shocking effects are easily assimilated, perceived as effects. Nothing in The World According to Garp is quite as unsettling as the closing scene of Injury Time, where Binny is taken away by the robbers as a hostage, and fat old Edward tries to go with her. “I’ll never leave you,” he cries, as he scrambles into the moving car. Then he is shoved back out on to the road, and Binny thinks, Liar. The last sentence of Injury Time reads, “A woman at a window screamed, like the blast of a whistle.” Presumably Binny will be let go later, and the match is not over, but at this moment it doesn’t matter, since we have just seen the defeat of hapless, belated courage and a whole frightened life, perhaps a frightened nation, has spoken in a bit of burlesque and an anonymous scream.
T. S. Garp (the initials standing not for Thomas Stearns but for Technical Sergeant, which is what Garp’s father was) is a writer whose mother becomes a well-known feminist, finally killed for her convictions—more exactly, for having shown the way to liberation to a woman whose husband didn’t like it. Garp is brought up at the “vast and famous Steering School,” where his mother is a nurse. He marries the wrestling coach’s daughter, and later becomes wrestling coach of the school himself. He too is assassinated, caught in the crossfire of public and personal resentments, shot by a girl who thinks he killed her sister by screwing her, and who is also a member of the society of mute women, a radical group which has been attacked by Garp. The group has dedicated itself to the memory of Ellen James, an eleven-year-old girl whose tongue was cut out after she had been raped. “You mean this Ellen James Society goes around not talking,” Garp asks, “as if they didn’t have any tongues?” “No, I mean they don’t have any tongues,” his mother says. “People in the Ellen James Society have their tongues cut off. To protest what happened to Ellen James.” Ellen James herself later appears in the novel. She is not an Ellen Jamesian, she would love to be able to talk.
Garp meanwhile spends some time in Vienna with his mother, who writes her celebrated autobiography, A Sexual Suspect. Garp publishes a fine first story, a promising first novel, a disappointing second novel, and a shocking best-seller, all about rape and the quaint and impossible masculine desire to preserve women and children from harm. Garp knows about this desire not because his wife has been raped but because he is a protective father who has managed to kill one of his children and maim the other by crashing into a car parked in his driveway. The fact that his wife was in the parked car at the time, indulging in a bit of farewell fellatio with her boyfriend, did not help.
There are fine set pieces in the novel: Garp’s conception in the hospital where his mother worked, his father a terminal case just alive enough to do the necessary deed (Garp’s mother was determined to manage without men in her life as far as possible); Garp’s attending his mother’s funeral in drag because no men were to be allowed in, and his discovery there by his future assassin (“Hi!” he writes on a pad, thinking he has hit upon a way of concealing his gruff voice, “I’m an Ellen Jamesian.” “Like hell you are,” the girl replies. “You’re T.S. Garp”); Garp’s sudden death in the wrestling room at the Steering Academy. And Irving is very persuasive about what Garp sees as the “leer of the world,” an expression first found on the face of a rapist caught by Garp and the police and released almost immediately because “nobody proved nothing.” Garp’s publisher thinks that the writer’s death, “in its random, stupid, and unnecessary qualities—comic and ugly and bizarre—underlined everything Garp had ever written about how the world works.” “It was a death scene,” the publisher thinks, “that only Garp could have written.” This is a nice touch, since Irving has written it, while Garp only played it, but we may also glimpse here a reason for the tameness of this accomplished novel.
There is really no gap between the way the world works and the way Garp thinks it works, no resistance to his vision, only gruesome confirmation of it. I don’t mean there is no gap between Irving and Garp. Indeed, Irving works at this very problem, invents characters he says Garp could not have invented, has Garp himself think of writers as “observers” and “imitators” of human behavior; has him see writing as a kind of hopeless salvage operation: “A novelist is a doctor who sees only terminal cases.”
At one point Irving dramatizes the question memorably, when Garp invites an interviewer to tell him anything that had ever happened to her. “I can improve upon the story,” Garp says, “I can make the details better than they were.” The interviewer is a divorcée with four young children, one of whom is dying of cancer. But Irving really does present reality as something to be transcended or worked over rather than reported on or understood, and Garp’s central difficulty is that he is so caught up in his life that he can’t imagine anything, and therefore can’t get back to being a writer. This neat antagonism between the real world and the writer’s world, this romantic conception of the creative imagination, ensures the insulation of literature, however much reality may be pillaged as a source. The imagination wins all such matches, because it makes up all the rules; and a novelist who sees only terminal cases is too sure of the world he sees, and sees too little of the world.
Yet The World According to Garp, like Injury Time, is a realistic novel in an interesting sense. The characters in both of these books endure their world as it is, and their authors accept the world as they see it. John Casey’s first novel, by contrast, is as its title says, a romance, not only because it describes a love affair and the fantasies that get entangled in it, but because it assumes a world that is not yet made but only in the making. Accidents happen, a child dies in a fire; there is a rape in the past of one of the characters. But there is no conspiracy, no altered America, no world according to Casey. There is no history, even, only the stubborn, strangling illusions of history, embodied in families and cities and institutions, and superstitions about some times and places being more significant than others. I don’t mean to suggest that Casey or his characters think the accumulations of history are easily shed, merely that they think they should be shed, that they are a burden, an error, not a destiny.
Mac, a dogged Canadian living in a theater commune in Iowa, likes being there “because the people could behave in more ways than would ordinarily be possible.” What makes this thought remarkable is not the rather sloppy picture of liberty it conjures up, but the fact that Mac, a tidy, compulsive, rather self-righteous ex-Catholic, can appreciate these promises of variety. Like Charles Swann, and with better results, he likes people who are not his type, who are not types at all, and he is able to love his volatile girlfriend Anya, to follow her to Iowa and out of Iowa, without always understanding her or approving of her. He is also able to watch his friend Raftery, a poet and beginning guru, walk out on his grieving wife, and not condemn him for it, although he knows exactly why others would do so, and why he himself might wish to condemn another person for doing the very same thing.
What makes An American Romance remarkable is something similar: a laborious respect for differences. “There are quick short truths as well as slow enduring ones,” Mac thinks right at the end of the book, and one suspects that Casey, like Mac, had to learn to believe there were any truths at all besides slow enduring ones. Anya, the other major figure in the book, Radcliffe girl, director of the Iowa theater, maker of a stylish, successful movie, is the opposite of Mac, a jerky incarnation of everything he needs to know. She is not as well drawn as Mac, perhaps, but one senses an enormous effort of will on the part of the novelist, a refusal to give up until Anya’s temperament spills out on to the page. As it does, often enough.
Casey has a huge appetite for fact, for the authentic report on experience. If a woman has a child in this novel, she will tell someone about it (“Now, when the contractions came faster toward the end…”); if dinner is served, we get the menu and the mastication and all (“He crunched a potato puff ball between the roof of his mouth and his tongue. Stuffed in a piece of meat hanging with strands of red cabbage…”); if a cow has to be dragged out of a water-logged pasture, we are spared no details (“Mac drove in and backed the tractor near the cow’s head. He unwrapped a length of chain, ran it around the clevis pin, and hooked it…”). But Casey’s appetite produces varying effects. There are sharp documentary accounts of farming, filming, cooking, fishing, screwing, going to college, playing ice-hockey, watching Shakespeare. But there is also a horrible verbosity and pretentiousness in the book, since one of the aspects of Casey’s appetite is a grinding belief that everything can be put into words, and above all that delicate feelings can be described as if they were a cow being pulled out of a field. Some samples:
It was all promise, and the promise was that the messy, uneasy, cumbersome parts of her would boil up, and rise like vapor to be distilled into a higher form….
What affected him was the thought of the inchoate gas of future time spinning into spheres, his mind a space undefined by outer boundaries, only by the center of the accumulated system….
Her sensations clicked through her skeleton below her cloud of feeling, like tiny Zuñi dancers trying to get the cloud to burst into rain….
His shame had been like a chill on exposed rot in his nerves through his whole body….
In the erotic broth of waiting, Anya loved the spice of their envy.
This is genuinely awful writing, of a kind one doesn’t often see in print, and the problem is compounded by Casey’s frequently faded jargon (“inner space,” “coming in on a tactile level”), and his inability to spot an anticlimax as it lumbers up.
But as soon as she got rid of the dissatisfaction of her loneliness, Anya found that there was a deeper dissatisfaction in her. She thought it had to do with her career as a graduate student in English.
Or again, Anya, thinking hard about Mac’s intensity, decides to describe it to herself as “ponderous.” Then she prefers “massive”; and finally “she thought the right word for his attention to her was meaty.”
There is a good deal more of this sort of thing than I care to quote, and An American Romance is often very dull indeed, as well as hard going. To reverse the old phrase, I had to keep putting it down. Nevertheless, there are characters in Casey’s book, in a sense in which there are none in the other novels under review, and not many in contemporary fiction in general. I don’t mean Casey’s people are lifelike, they are often quite wooden. I mean one feels clearly in the writing that these characters are taken from life, that the writing itself is a struggle to explore and delineate personalities which the writer has not invented; and that the struggle is successful enough for Casey’s people to stay in the mind as people, whereas T.S. Garp, for example, or Edward Freeman dissolve back into the books where they belong. And Casey can also write with a fine precision:
Mac was often blind to his feelings. No, she thought. He’s blind to the beginnings of his feelings. When they arrive, he sees nothing else.
Indeed, even Casey’s indefatigable attempts to bundle reality into words are a reminder that there is a reality on which such attempts can be made. Bainbridge and Irving allude to the world, but Casey dumps us in a material America, which is the only place where the American romance, the escape from history, the project of living a life rather than suffering it, can be tested against the not always flexible facts.
April 20, 1978