The two books under review could have been chosen (as they were not) to illustrate fundamentally divergent approaches to the use of narrative action or event in contemporary fiction. Plot—in the sense of a shaped series of events leading through complication to some kind of resolution or conclusion—is still a scarce commodity in serious literature, though there has recently been some reaction in its favor. The craving for story is probably as intense as ever, but to gratify it one must turn to the writers of “adult” children’s books (Tolkien) or to the purveyors of crime and suspense (a number of whom happen to be good writers). Or else be prepared to abandon seriousness altogether and grab some lively trash from the nearest paperback stand.
Of course the absence of plot does not necessarily entail a dearth of action. Narrative impact can as well be overwhelmed by an excess of events as attenuated by a scarcity. Bizarre or surreal inventions come easily to most writers, and a piling-up of them can convey to a reader the sense of having consumed an elaborate hors d’oeuvre varié in lieu of a three-course Aristotelian meal. A plethora of event seriously weakened, I think, the two novels—Geronimo Rex and Nightwatchmen—by the gifted young Southern writer Barry Hannah.
His new collection, Airships, which has won the Arnold Gingrich Short Fiction Award, reveals that the temptation of l’événement gratuit is not limited to Hannah’s longer fiction. One of the best stories is “Deaf and Dumb,” which tells of an afternoon in the life of a young woman named Minny, whose husband, Daryl, has a hard time making a living as a real-estate agent. The heat is dreadful.
It hit ninety-eight degrees and the parking lot of the A&P was the worst, with heat waves thick over the black pavement. There were four Cadillacs out there with the rabble of other cars. She got in the Chevy Nova, no air-conditioning and failing muffler.
The muted quality of her days and years, her thwarted artistic yearnings, her first love, her happy sexual feeling for her husband—all these are worked into the story briefly and with great delicacy. But then, while the exhausted Minny is taking a nap in the one room where the air-conditioning works, her sons find a king snake in the garage and hit it over the head with a hammer. The youngest boy brings the snake, wrapped around the hammer, into the bedroom, where his mother is lying with her baby daughter curled next to her on the bed. So far so good. But then, knowing that “it was a sin for his mother to be asleep in the daytime, the baby-sitter gone,” he hits her in the mouth with the hammer, and the snake, which had been only stunned, wakes up and writhes on the bed. I find that hammer blow not only gratuitous but hardly believable in the context. Whatever the symbolic gain, the loss in credibility and the shattering of a fragilely sustained tone almost ruin the story.
A number of the stories are indeed spoiled for me by such happenings; incidents of meaningless violence are sometimes multiplied to the point where a Barry Hannah story begins to resemble a Sam Peckinpah movie. Other stories get by despite such antics, thanks to Hannah’s communicated delight in the oddities of Southern behavior and idiom, his talent for lightning-flash characterization, his genuine inventiveness as opposed to his propensity for tricky effects. One long story, “Testimony of Pilot,” follows the career of a saxophonist named Quadberry from his small-town Mississippi boyhood to his return from Vietnam with a ruined back (he dies during an unsuccessful operation at the end). Though Hannah’s narrative excesses are in evidence throughout, several scenes are so beautifully mounted and sustained that they briefly (too briefly) exalt his artistry to the level we associate with Eudora Welty and Flannery O’Connor. The scene that especially impressed me has to do with the way Quadberry pulls together a grief-stricken high school band after the sudden death of its much-loved director and leads them through the Bolero, simultaneously conducting and playing his own saxophone—“bent over his horn almost out of sight.”
Hannah’s most memorable stories are those that dramatize in a fairly realistic fashion the yearning, pathos, and muddle in the lives of his lower-middle-class Southerners. Of the surrealistic stories, which are extravagantly grotesque and often cruel, only the three Civil War tales incorporating a fantastically reinvented Jeb Stuart seem to me successful; the others are full of momentary dazzle that quickly fades.
Detour could hardly be more different from Hannah’s work, long or short. It is an extremely dense, ambitious, and stylistically accomplished first novel by a young intellectual who has written on Svevo and who (on the evidence of this book) enjoys an intimate, frame-by-frame knowledge of every film made by Antonioni, Bergman, Bresson, Buñuel, Chabrol, Fellini, Godard, Hitchcock, Ophuls, Truffaut, Von Sternberg, and Welles. The novel, told in the first person by an unnamed young man, consists of extremely long paragraphs in which a brief sentence or so of inconsequential narration (“I left her apartment,” “The stewardess brought us our drinks”) introduces often more than a thousand words devoted to the analysis, or, more properly, deconstruction, of some impression, thought, or gesture before the leap to the next paragraph. At one point the narrator describes the method and its raison d’être:
You have no conception of the abyss that lies between paragraphs. You see me coming to the end of a paragraph but actually I am burrowing deeper and deeper into the sentences. I am descending in a plane perpendicular to the sheet of paper. But then I must make the leap, the life or death leap. And I make it at the moment when I seem to be absolutely certain that I will not leave the paragraph that sheathes me for a new one that might not accommodate me. But at the moment when I am resolved to remain because the traffic across the abyss is too heavy then I am conscious of myself in the paragraph, I am conscious of all the decor in the apartment, I am conscious of myself as object among objects, and so I must move on because I am in danger of coinciding with myself, instead of striving forever beyond my frontiers. So it is almost as if I leap across the space between paragraphs at the moment when I am damned eternally to the paragraph I am presently in.
And on and on for another nine hundred words before the existential leap is finally accomplished. Elsewhere he writes, “I am aware of how the sentences I do write now are bombarded by, weighed down with, all the other sentences that might have been written.” And again: “Sentences leave stenches if they are not flushed away by other sentences.”
There is a minimal story. The narrator, who has just returned from a Wanderjahr or two in Europe, spends two days in New York before proceeding to Cleveland to enter medical school. While watching Bresson’s Mouchette at the Thalia theater, he is picked up by a young heroin addict (now on methadone) named Anne. They make love with some difficulty and on the next day take a long walk from the Upper West Side to the Village—a walk that occupies over one-hundred pages of the novel. After a few hours with his parents, the narrator flies to Cleveland, accompanied by Anne. There they move in with several young people, one of whom, a would-be medical student, starts something tenuous with Anne. The narrator sets out impulsively to fly to Toronto, ends up in Montreal instead, and then hitchhikes to Toronto, where he calls on Anne’s alcoholic father. He returns to Cleveland, decides to quit medical school, and says goodbye to Anne and the others. Though one welcomes the widely separated suggestions of story as gratefully as if they were carefully rationed swigs from a canteen during a trek across convoluted and often arid terrain, it is obvious that the reader must find his recompense elsewhere.
The insubstantiality of the “I”—of the narrator’s self—provides the main psychological (and philosophic) interest of this curious novel. Though he exists and does things in the world, is the son of middle-class Jewish parents who bicker with each other and burden him with obligations, his existence is entirely problematic, always on the point of dissolution or total depletion. To validate his existence, he gnaws on the inside of his lip until it bleeds or bites his forefinger until it too bleeds. He is almost as preoccupied with masturbation as Alexander Portnoy, but the act, often stemming from the anxiety produced by a girl’s presence, has little association with pleasure. “I wanted to masturbate as a vindictive commentary on my desire, sinuous, inappropriate…. I masturbated often to cut a hole in the block of the day, emotions that could not find relief in strenuously acceptable activities found their relief in masturbation.” No slab of raw liver for him. Although the novel’s dust jacket refers to the narrator’s maturation, I can see no evidence of such a transformation. He seems as disoriented, as fragmented, at the end as in the opening pages. The detours, which have formed the substance as well as the method of the novel, have led nowhere. Process is all.
A number of the paragraphs of analysis and deconstruction afford pleasure in their minute discrimination of phenomena:
Birds flew the pennant of their flight across the river…. The black man pointed to the birds, my birds, the birds afflicted by and swathed in the bandages of my sentence, and said that at any split second they looked like they were standing still. And yet they got across the water. Then he pointed to the water and noted their reflections dying. It was as if the reflected wings were beating all the more madly to insure the prolongation of the reflection. And yet the frantic beating hastened the dissolution of the reflection…. I remembered the narrator’s voice in “Jules et Jim”….
Furthermore, the sentences of which these paragraphs are composed are stylistically impressive, demonstrating a masterly control of diction and rhythm, an often startling metaphoric gift, and a range of effects extending from Swiftian bluntness to Proustian elaboration.
Detour is relentlessly allusive, and (up to a point) one can enjoy the virtuosity with which Brodsky loads every rift with borrowed ore. The cinematic references are the most obvious, occurring as they do on nearly every page, but the novel also abounds in quotations, semi-quotations, paraphrases, and echoes from Shakespeare, James, Proust, Eliot, Kafka, Rilke, Hemingway, and dozens of other writers. The influence of Joyce, Svevo, and Beckett is pervasive. Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky, the existentialists, the structuralists, and the linguistic philosophers are constantly waving to the reader from the near background. Sometimes the effects are exhilarating, as in this amalgam of Truffaut, James, and Hemingway:
She slapped me playfully on the cheek, like Jeanne Moreau after she interrupts Werner’s domino game. We had a past. We had mannerisms to play back, to fall back on…. But perhaps she would cut me down at the moment of my highest leap, like Margot Macomber. The hero of “The Beast in the Jungle” masks his fear with diplomacy and states that you never invite a lady to accompany you on a tiger hunt. For when you do, as St. Francis Macomber did, you get it in the back. You never invite a lady on a tiger hunt not because you might be exposing her to frightful dangers but because she might crown your success with a shot in the back.
But the pleasures of recognition pall, and what had once been welcomed as an enlivening device becomes ultimately tiresome, a mere tic or fashionable reflex. Brodsky too often seems less a novelist than the brightest graduate student in the room.
Is Detour worth the forced march that its reading involves? Not for me, despite the virtuosities displayed along the way. But Brodsky’s progress will be interesting to follow. Three novellas and another novel by him are promised for this year. I find it difficult to imagine that a writer as verbally skilled and erudite as he will not eventually produce an important book—though it may not be a work of fiction at all.
June 15, 1978