Before us are three novels—one of them crypto-Victorian, one old-fashionedly Modern, and the third so relentlessly up-to-date that it can be read as a fictional appendix to The Culture of Narcissism. Two of the books are stylistically ambitious; the third pretends not to be, but is sufficiently deft in its own dead-pan way. Let’s begin with the latter.
Falling in Place is the second novel by Ann Beattie, who, primarily through her stories in The New Yorker and elsewhere, has established herself as a sort of cultural anthropologist specializing in the recently young. More specifically, she has become perhaps our most authoritative translator-transcriber of the speech-patterns, nonverbal communications, rituals, and tribal customs of those members (white, largely middle-class) of a generation who came of age around 1970—who attended or dropped out of college, smoked dope, missed connections, lived communally, and drifted in and out of relationships with a minimum of self-recognized affect or commitment. In her new novel she extends her age-range upward to forty and downward to ten and below; she even briefly includes a rich, alcoholic grandmother for good measure.
The characters fall into certain groupings which are casually linked. The most important is an affluent, upper-middle-class family who live in Connecticut within commuting distance of New York. Its members are John Knapp, a Princeton graduate now on the brink of middle age who makes a good living in advertising; his embittered, sarcastic wife Louise, from whom he is semi-separated; their teenage daughter Mary, who has flunked English and must as a consequence go to summer school; their neurotically fat ten-year-old son John Joel, who spends much of his time in a tree; and their small son Brandt, whom we scarcely see. Because of the semi-separation, which developed in an unplanned way, John and Brandt live with John’s mother in Rye during the week and join the rest of the family only on weekends.
The second grouping consists of unmarried people still in their twenties. These include Cynthia, a PhD candidate at Yale who resentfully teaches the summer-school English course that Mary Knapp resentfully attends; Cynthia’s boyfriend Peter Spangle, who has run through most of his inherited money and sets out for Spain soon after the novel begins; Spangle’s ex-girlfriend Nina, who is currently John Knapp’s mistress in New York; Spangle’s friend Bobby, a hyperactive poet who shows up at Cynthia’s apartment looking for Spangle; and a half-crazy magician who meets Cynthia in a New Haven laundromat and falls in love with her.
Then there are the minor characters: a spaced-out drug supplier who provides Nina with plenty of marijuana; a disturbed boy of twelve named Parker who commutes to New York to see his shrink and is given to such practical jokes as pricking a pin-hole in his mother’s diaphragm; a suburban feminist, Tiffy, who involves herself more and more with Louise Knapp; and Angela, a sexy fifteen-year-old who is Mary Knapp’s tyrannical best friend.
The above dramatis personae (I apologize for its length) goes a considerable way toward summarizing the plot—such as it is—of Falling in Place. Will John’s semi-separation from Louise become complete, leading to divorce? Will Nina, whom John is wild about, stay with him, perhaps even marry him, or will she take up again with Peter Spangle, who, arriving stoned at her Columbus Avenue apartment, is allowed to spend the night? Will Spangle eventually return to Cynthia, who doesn’t even know that he has come back from Madrid? There is nothing particularly urgent about any of these possibilities. Whatever emotional center the novel has is provided by John, whose wife withers him with her contempt and whose children are as negative and sarcastic as she; at least he is permitted enough inwardness to allow us some participation in his guilt and desperation. A climax of sorts occurs when the fat boy John Joel shoots his sister with a pistol which his insidious friend Parker has given him, claiming that it was unloaded. But throughout the novel purposeful action and even consistent desire are largely suspended, thereby limiting our involvement; in their place we find shifting alliances, aimlessness, and a pervasive depression masked occasionally by bursts of manic exuberance and the need to turn everything—sex, love, jobs, parenthood—into wacky or bitter jokes.
Not for a moment does one doubt Ann Beattie’s knowledge of these people or the authenticity of her recording of their scene. Here she is at home with her fifteen-year-olds:
Angela looked at her watch. It was a silver watch with single diamonds at the top and bottom of the face—another gift from her grandmother. She was waiting exactly half an hour, as she always did after dinner, for the food to settle in her stomach, but not be digested. Then she would turn up the volume on the stereo and go into the bathroom and stick her finger down her throat to vomit so she would stay thin. By the time her father shouted for the music to be turned down she would already have thrown up and flushed the toilet…. The lipstick she had just stroked on wasn’t the color she was going to wear to the party anyway, so that didn’t matter…. Mary was the only one she let in on her secret…. “You’re a pervert,” Mary had said. But Mary thought everybody was a pervert: her brother, because he was fat; Henri, the poodle…, because he sniffed crotches…. Angela had tried to find out, earlier in the day, whether Mary had ever French-kissed somebody…. Mary didn’t say “yuck,” so Angela decided to assume that she had done it.
She knows exactly how Nina’s supplier (who went to Bard College) can, when stoned, talk about chickens, Three Mile Island, drugs, and the United States space program all in the same paragraph without pausing for breath. She knows the records her characters are listening to, the slogans on their tee-shirts. When not transcribing their speech or listing the artifacts they wear or use, she narrates their activities and thoughts in a sequence of (mostly) simple, declarative sentences in which affect is suppressed almost to the point of numbness. Yet these sentences are not dull; they are carefully adapted to the “cool” treatment of her material that Ann Beattie has perfected. She successfully creates the illusion of letting the facts speak for themselves, of letting things fall into place. On a page-by-page basis the novel held my interest as an exceptionally good documentary film or television program might. But I finished this skillful book about hurt and saddened children with an awareness of diminished returns. So much passivity, aimlessness, and narcissism is easier to take in small doses—in Ann Beattie’s short stories for instance—than in a novel of this length.
Though The Transit of Venus is set in our time—with references to Palomar and the red-shift controversy and to the torturing of political prisoners in Latin America—its mode is more Victorian than contemporary, closer in certain respects to the fiction of Charlotte Brontë than of Ann Beattie. The novel opens with a violent tempest through which a young man of humble birth makes his way to an English country house, where he is to be employed by a snobbish, pompous old man who needs an assistant. There the young man encounters two beautiful, impoverished orphans from a far country, one of whom—the fair one—is engaged to the son of the house. The assistant falls deeply in love with the elder (darkhaired) sister, but his passion is unrequited, for the virginal dark sister in turn falls in love with a dashing young literary man of unsound character who is engaged to the daughter of a lord residing in a neighboring castle. An affair—intense but hopeless (since the literary young man goes through with his marriage to the lord’s icy daughter)—takes place; finally abandoned, the dark sister languishes in London and contemplates suicide before she is rescued by a rich, polished, and courageous “older” man from overseas—a man who devotes his wealth and energies to a noble cause. They marry happily. Years pass. The low-born assistant has risen in the world. Though he has also married, his love for the dark sister is as strong as ever. Then, abruptly, the dark sister is widowed. At last the two are reunited…. The shocking denouement is not narrated but can be deduced from dire hints planted, like unobtrusive time-bombs, along the way.
The above summary is designed to indicate the romantic substructure of fantasy beneath a surface of perfect topicality. Shirley Hazzard’s elegantly written new novel spans approximately thirty years in the lives of its characters—from the 1950s to the present. The far country from which the orphaned girls, Caroline (“Caro”) and Grace Bell, come is Australia. The rich man who rescues Caro is Adam Vail, an American who is involved in an organization rather like Amnesty International, devoted to the rescue of political prisoners. Caro’s faithless lover is Paul ivory, a bisexual playwright who, we learn, harbors a guilty secret that goes back to the tempest with which the novel opens. And the faithful lover is Ted Tice, who becomes a celebrated astronomer, in demand at international conferences at Stockholm and Rome. Current events, national (especially English) characteristics, bureaucratic attitudes, precise details of backgrounds, settings, and manners—all of these are handled expertly by Shirley Hazzard as she moves her figures between continents and social classes. She, like Ann Beattie, knows what she is writing about.
The archaism of the novel is of course deliberate. Inviting the reader to recall her nineteenth-century forebears, Miss Hazzard describes Ted Tice in these terms: “He was young and poor and had the highest references—like a governess in an old story, who marries into the noble family.” It is a brave author these days who celebrates integrity, personal honor, and the endurance of unrequited love. Shirley Hazzard does not hesitate. In several twistings of the plot and in several key scenes she not only risks but deserves the charge of sentimentality, an effect so calculated that it can hardly be called a flaw. She retains the ancestral right, derived from George Eliot among others, to comment upon her characters, to predict their futures, and to judge their failings. Observe the authorial hand in this passage, which concerns the one extramarital fling that Christian Thrale, Grace’s very correct bureaucrat of a husband, permits himself:
Christian’s situation had abruptly become a predicament. To feel for his isolation in it, one must realize that Cordelia Ware had been the only unpremeditated episode of Christian’s existence since Grace Bell…. In the Cordelia Ware undertaking he had ventured out on his own. It was a mutation as of fish to land. And Christian, gasping on the bleak shingle, knew himself a creature of the ocean and the shoal.
It was the point at which, in an old book, the protagonist might awake to find it all a dream.
In his solitude he said, “I blame myself.” An accusation that seldom rings entirely true.
The Transit of Venus affords many pleasures, chief among which is the brilliantly metaphorical style. Here is an elderly stroke-victim (Christian Thrale’s father) who has-made a little temporary progress: “When the doctors came he had small witticisms, and some complaints. Like a ball lobbed to a great height, he made his few last diminishing bounces.” And here is an elderly physicist at a dinner in his honor: “His taciturn importance was implacable. Women attempting conversation with him heard their voices rising to a squeak: it was like scratching one’s name on a historic monument.” Often the phrasing has a rhythm and incisiveness that goes back beyond the Victorians to Jane Austen: “She did not choose to have many thoughts her husband could not divine, for fear she might come to despise him.”
Unfortunately for the momentum of her elaborate story, Shirley Hazzard’s metaphoric and epigrammatic gifts, which are admirable, are too often linked with a cultural knowingness that becomes mannered. Allusions to literature and the other arts abound, some of them transparently disguised (“…brightness fell from her hair”). Although the Australian heroine, Caro Bell, is believably established as a charming and honorable young woman, her literary cultivation is pitched so high as to suggest that she has been created in part out of an antipodean need to outshine the British on their own terrain. In certain crucial scenes she and the other characters quote poetry to one another or swap aphorisms, thereby stiffening the dialogue and deflecting it into rather unproductive channels. The reader, instead of being allowed to move with the emotional current, is stopped short while he struggles to identify a quotation. Interesting and accomplished as it is, The Transit of Venus lacks the propulsive narrative energy of its great Victorian prototypes.
An archaic quality pervades The Passion Artist as well, an archaism that recalls not the nineteenth century but the perhaps more remote era of High Modernism in its Continental, often surrealist phase—the era of Kafka, Rilke, Svevo, and Canetti, the climate of Magritte and the early de Chirico. The title itself alludes to Kafka’s marvelous story A Hunger Artist, which is quoted (along with Rilke’s The Book of Images) as an epigraph. The setting of the novel—John Hawkes’s eighth—is a nameless city of vaguely Central European attributes and the desolate marshy plain, crossed by a derelict railway, that surrounds it. Anachronistically conceived, the city is small and bleak, “consisting almost entirely of cheaply built concrete dwellings and unfinished apartment houses.” There are trolleys and horsecarts but also fuel pumps, motorcyclists in goggles and leather, and teletype machines. In this city without national monuments, ponds, or flower gardens, the central feature—depicted even on its postcards—is a prison for women that bears the resonant, multilayered name of La Violaine. Within La Violaine are prisoners whose names evoke a whole world of European fiction: Berenger, Kimski, Servelle, Roterman, Jouffe, Le Touze, Spapa, Hauptman, Nerval. Also among the inmates is Eva Laubenstein, imprisoned for incinerating her husband; she is the mother of the passion artist himself, Konrad Vost.
The term is heavily ironic as applied to Vost when we first meet him, for he is a bespectacled, middle-aged, black-suited pharmacist’s assistant of the utmost rigidity, precision, and correctness, a widower who makes daily visits to the café facing the gates of La Violaine and weekly visits to the grave of his wife. He is, throughout the novel, the passive recipient of sexual advances—or assaults—from a variety of women ranging from a school-girl prostitute who resembles his daughter Mirabelle to a gigantic drunken slut of a peasant named Anna Kossowski; at one point (in a flashback to his childhood) he is forced by Anna to endure a “golden shower” from a huge mare (also named Anna Kossowski) as a punishment for having explored, with childish curiosity, the anus and vulva of the horse. Described with copious detail, the sexual episodes have the weighty precision and coldness of “literary” pornography—the kind of writing one associates with, say, L’Histoire d’O. Energized by a terror of the female genitalia (once described as “a small face beaten unrecognizable by the blows of a cruel fist”), the fantasy-content is almost exclusively sado-masochistic.
Apart from the sexual episodes, the main events of The Passion Artist concern the revolt of the prisoners in La Violaine. Konrad Vost joins a volunteer force of men, armed (significantly!) with sticks, to put down the revolt. After a savage battle in which Vost (for once the active partner) brings his stick crashing against the skulls of women old and young, the volunteers are routed, and Vost himself seemingly has his right hand cut off by a hatchet-wielding woman and replaced by a silver hand concealed in a black glove. Later, after a whole series of flashbacks to the dungy countryside of his childhood, Vost encounters his mother, the redoubtable Eva Laubenstein, finds that his hand has not been amputated after all, and is once more sexually overwhelmed, this time by the hatchetwielder. By the end Vost has learned certain profundities: marriage must never in any way become maternal; a woman does not have a bunch of violets between her legs; in no other way can a woman so reveal her eroticism as by an act of the will. This last insight is the one that completes Vost’s transformation into a true passion artist.
It is tempting to make fun of the Ivy League Freudianism that permeates this novel. And a certain amount of funmaking is in order, for John Hawkes takes himself very seriously as an intrepid explorer of man’s dark side, associating the “moral center” of his fiction with Joseph Conrad; what is more, Hawkes’s former teacher and lifelong friend, Albert Guérard, evokes not only Conrad but Faulkner in his review of The Passion Artist.* The novel itself reaches us launched by a cheering squad of Hawkes’s fellow novelists—John Barth, William Gass, John Irving, Gail Godwin. In the face of all this, I can only say that I find the moral and intellectual pretensions of Hawkes’s novels sophomoric at best. Nor am I able to discern the comic element which Hawkes and his admirers are always talking about and which apparently lurks somewhere in the reconciliation of innocence and depravity, in the flowering of beauty in the very slime-pits of the soul.
What I do find is a certain amount of hokum in full bloom. Though his work no doubt reflects, as he says, his own deep psychic conflicts, Hawkes seems incapable of dramatizing—or socializing—them. Lacking the metaphysical urgency with which Kafka was able to endow his psychic conflicts, those of Hawkes remain on the level of dream, nightmare, obsession—untested by any meaningful interaction between characters. In short, they never emerge fully into fiction, as do, for example, the nightmarish elements in works like Victory or even Sanctuary.
Where Hawkes does excel as a literary artist is in his ability to embody even the most grotesque workings of his fantasy in language of startling concreteness and precision. He is drawn to images of ruin and decay, of fetid swamps, rusting machinery, and mountainous or wrinkled flesh. All of the senses are involved—the tactile and olfactory as well as the visual. Microcosmically, Hawkes is a superb stylist, a writer of hallucinatory power.
The smell in his nostrils was like that of a naked human shoulder green with mold. He felt himself in a waking sleep, suspended between clear sight and silence: this was the landscape that had swallowed legions; everything and nothing lay at his feet. It was then that he heard the one sound that even he, in all this wet or spongy vastness, could not have anticipated: laughter, the shrill tones of what could only be an old woman in the grip of laughter.
On and on they march—the stately, perfectly formed sentences bearing their bizarre freight of imagery. Perhaps we should forget the claims made for Hawkes as a significant novelist and cherish him as one of the best of our latter-day surrealist poets.
May 15, 1980