When Lao-tse wrote that “the sage is ruthless and treats the people as straw dogs,” he provided an epigraph for the cruel frivolities of John Hawkes’s and John Barth’s latest fiction, in which the hapless characters are raped, carved up, burned with cigarettes, bestialized. Characteristically, Hawkes’s novel is a solemn, black-crepe affair, while Barth’s is antic and disheveled; but in both books the characters are pulled through the wringer and impatiently slapped on the line like so many lumps of wash.
Nothing so rude or airy as life itself breezes through these pages, for Hawkes and Barth are sovereign masters of metafiction, intent upon bending every detail to their authorial will and whim. In their appetite for empty chatter and sordid incident, the two are practically kin. “I can’t help but think of fictions as artifacts created out of always the nothingness and always pointing toward that source of zero, a sort of zero source,” Hawkes observes in a recent interview. “That is why for one reason among others I so admire John Barth, because the more elaborate the fiction gets, the more you create, the more you know exactly the nothingness it inhabits.”1 Elaborate nothings are what these novels are, curling heaps of phenomenological macaroni. Now and then a well-turned sentence emerges like a golden strand, only to be smothered with gobs of wordy excess. Lumpiness rules the void.
With Virginie: Her Two Lives, Hawkes is once again playing the keeper of the crypt, decorating the sarcophagi with amorous doodles. The novel, narrated by a tremulous waif named Virginie, shuttles like a time-machine from a castle of regimented decadence in rural France (the year—significantly—is 1740, the year of Sade’s birth) to a low-rent house of bawdiness in Paris (1945). Under both roofs Virginie flits about on her errands like a nest-tidying bird, bearing rapt witness to the debaucheries and sadistic rites of all these devoted sensualists. She’s the Eternal Child, enveloped in a milky glow of unsullied innocence. In the chateau, where Virginie conscientiously tends the hearth, the harem-master—Seigneur—is a noble, enigmatic swell in ivory-colored breeches whose speechifying (tediously) spells out the novel’s theme.
“I must tell you, Virginie,” he said at last, the strength of his deep voice belying his sadness, “that the man who creates women is an artist clearly comparable to artists who create images or coerce solid matter into new and startling forms. Is it actually not more difficult to work with a woman’s living flesh than to squeeze paint from tubes or chop away at blocks of stone or chunks of wood? Oh, yes, the creator of women is burdened, challenged, inspired as no ordinary artist is: how can a lifeless work of art compare with a woman?…”
In the Parisian household, Bocage—Virginie’s brother—is also given to philosophizing about the avid needs of the flesh. Giving the girls an earful, he gasses:
“What is this woman’s very person if not desire? What does this ordinary woman understand if not precisely this state of affairs? that she herself is desire, that she exists in the form of desire, that she desires generally and specifically throughout all the minutes of the day and in her dreams, which is to say that she herself is absorbed in the desire that is her self and knows, as only she can know, that her desire comes first and then the man. There you have it, ladies: the desire of the ordinary woman is not prompted by a man, does not have its origins in the glance of some passing man who melts her heart, invigorates the mind, calls forth desire. No, it is quite the opposite: in the true woman desire comes first, the man second. The woman, I say, is not dependent on the man. No, the woman in all her consciousness lives out her days until at last…[etc.]”
Were Virginie written by Peter De Vries, the whores might very well be filling their nails during these filibusters and sighing, “Yeah, yeah, get on with it, daddy-o.” Other bits of dialogue suggest the impish hand of S.J. Perelman. “Virginie,” cries one of the supporting cast, “fetch the kettle. We are going to introduce Lulu to the raptures of steam!” And coming upon a forlorn boy, Seigneur big-heartedly says, “We shall assign him to the tutelage of Père La Tour so that he shall grow into a stable boy of manly proportions.”
But although John Hawkes is often touted by his admirers as a comic writer,2 his touch is far from nimble, his manner seldom slangy or racy. Steeped in a cultured funk, his novels strive to be erotically rich and dark and Continental—pillow books for postmodernists. Or as Hawkes told Robert Scholes in The New Fiction (1974), “[My] fiction is generally an evocation of the nightmare or terroristic universe in which sexuality is destroyed by law, by dictum, by human perversity, by contraption, and it is this destruction of human sexuality which I have attempted to portray and confront in order to be true to human fear and to human ruthlessness, but also in part to evoke its opposite, the moment of freedom from constriction, constraint, death.” So we get a dreary flogging of Sadean themes set in a world damp and raw and unforgiving.
Not surprisingly, then, the sex in Virginie is seldom affectionate or carefree: it becomes another futile scrape of the fingernails against the walls of nothingness, an orgasmic death rattle. In Hawkes’s previous novel, The Passion Artist, the finale of a bout of fellatio is described as a “long uncoiling of the thick white thread from the bloody pump,” an unappetizing discharge made all the more unappetizing when the hero is kissed by his nymphetseducer and realizes that “the girl was returning to him…his own seminal secretions, his own psychic slime.” Set in a European urban deathscape, The Passion Artist is awash with psychic slime, its surfaces sticky with mold and caked semen. If the phlegmatic nausea of The Passion Artist seemed indebted to the French New Novel (Nathalle Sarraute, particularly), the pornographic lyricism of Virginie summons up the ghost of Anaïs Nin, a writer Hawkes is on record as admiring. Not only does Nin’s pet word “labyrinth” turn up with telling frequency,3 but the book’s claustrophobic eroticism recalls the clamminess of Nin’s posthumous best-sellers Delta of Venus and Little Birds. Indeed, Virginie is Hawkes’s little bird, beating in the void her feverish wings. “I have become the burning bird in a burning cage….”
For all its humid to-do, Nin’s erotic writing tended to be cosmopolitan and domestic, with Colettish schoolgirls in white socks bouncing on their lewd uncles’ knees. Hawkes’s recent erotic writing has gone in for a more bucolic kick. In The Passion Artist, Hawkes’s unfortunate protagonist was hosed down with a shower of horse urine (“So, little Konrad Vost, you have shamed the horse!” shouts a tormenting ogress), and in Virginie a horse receives unwanted dental work at the clamping end of Seigneur’s pincers—“The horse squealed once, squealed again, as if a suffering pig were lodged inside its belly….” Later, a dog and a pig form a squealing, grunting threesome with a maiden named Colère as Virginie secretly watches from behind a curtain of black netting. Perhaps a new ark ought to be built to shelter the innocents of the animal kingdom from the lunging advances of Hawkes’s characters, who somehow believe that a horse’s bleeding gums offer the key to a woman becoming A Woman.
Of course, these bestial interludes aren’t there for cheap, sordid effect. No, the point of these incidents is to illustrate that old pornographic wheeze about submission being the true source of sexual transcendence. Or as Seigneur explains to Colère, “By embracing an animal, or several animals, you do no more than to embrace the very man, those very men, for whom you are now preparing yourself in the art of love. Adoration cannot live without debasement, which is its twin.” John Hawkes’s fiction is heavy on debasement, but the adoration comes in stray, feeble glimmers; it’s really the pulping of flesh and not its sanctification that engages his imagination
In the Imagination on Trial interview, Hawkes is understandably testy about having his own imagination labeled by a reviewer as “contemptible,” and yet there is something unclean about the workings of his mind. No matter what riotous coupling is taking place in barnyard or boudoir, one is always aware of Hawkes conducting the action from the pit, at a sluggish tempo. A slogging, death-haunted determinism rules Hawkes’s fiction—every kiss threatens to turn into an invitation to cannibalism, every caress a prelude to bondage. John Hawkes has a flair for stirring up queasiness, and his lyrical touches often have a sweet dying fall, but he’s become so snug and smug in his role as the Prince of Mortification that his sadomasochistic episodes are turning into a tired riff, like the suicides in Joyce Carol Oates’s novels. (When Oates’s characters open the medicine cabinet, it’s usually check-out time for their stay on earth.) Despite the ogress’s cry in The Passion Artist, it’s really John Hawkes who insists on shaming the horses.
After the slow-grinding, interlocking minutiae of Letters, John Barth may have thought that his readers deserved a breather, and he’s given them one: Sabbatical. Set largely on a sailboat nosing along the chops of the Chesapeake Bay, Sabbatical is a chummily facetious scribble about a former CIA officer and his sweetie and all the weird, wacky things that happen to them “twixt stern and starboard.” Like other Barth novels, this one ladles on the Maryland lore: the tweeting couple is named Fenwick Scott Key Turner and Susan Seckler (nicknamed “Black-Eyed Susan,” after the Maryland state flower), and their sailboat is dubbed Pokey, in honor of those two Baltimore legends Francis Scott Key and Edgar Allan Poe. A comical twosome, Fenwick and Susie trade teasing wisecracks like a nautical Sonny and Cher, announcing flashbacks and flash-forwards, unfurling digressive reminiscences, bringing chapters to a close as if cutting to a commercial.
…Good night, Fensele.
Good night, Susele. Good night, Miriam. And Carmen B. Seckler and Havah, and Chief and Virgie, and Orrin and Company. Marilyn Marsh too; the whole cast. Good night all.
Yeah. Good night, Marilyn Marsh. What time is it?
Three. We’ll get out of here as soon as it’s light.
We forgot Gus and Manfred.
Good night, poor fellows. Rest you easy.
The reader doesn’t even know yet about Gus and Manfred, really.
What the reader doesn’t know would fill a book.
Oy. Who said that?
As their voices crisscross on the page, the novel seems to be broadcasting in stereo, with static crackling from each speaker. The static is set off by the noisy busyness of Barth’s language: the clever-boots names (Eastwood Ho, Edgar Allan Ho), the sudden bursts of alliteration (“bald, brown, bearded, barrel-chested” is how Barth describes Fenwick, while Susan is “sunburnt, sharp, and shapely”), the clickety-clack interior rhymes of—well, this: “Fenwick steadies the tiller in the crack of his ass and trims the starboard genoa sheet for the new tack.” Barth also busies up his text with footnotes, mock headlines, and clippings about the CIA scissored from the Baltimore Sun.
For all its snappy patter and kissy-poo antics, however, Sabbatical soon proves to be a chirruping ode to nothingness, as taxing to flesh and spirit as Virginie. As in the story “Night-Sea Journey,” which appeared in Barth’s 1968 story collection Lost in the Funhouse, the ruling conceit of this novel is the upward swim of sperm toward ovum, a teeming migration beset with strife. After sex with Susan, Fenwick zips up, content in the knowledge that “a hundred million of his sperm, give or take ten million, are doing their upstream best in Susan’s plumbing, aided by a good head start.” But later, in a footnote, the fate of Fenwick’s sperm is compared—tastelessly—to the Final Solution:
…The mortality rate of his spermatozoa is on the order of 99.99999999999%, or 187,200,000,000 dead for each “survivor.” Confronted with these calculations, Carmen B. Seckler [Susan’s mother] will remark that by comparison to such odds, the Jews’ deportation to the Nazi death-camps looks like a minor hazard, though she alone of her entire neighborhood survived it.
And swallowing semen is compared to mass “cannibalism.” So the thinning-out of sperm becomes a metaphor for the absurd random chanciness and epic waste of life itself, with an added peril tossed in: abortion.
Susan wails into his chest-hair It was twins!… I didn’t have an abortion, Fenn. I had two abortions!
Fenwick has no voice. Her face awful with red wet grief, Susan explains: that double shlup from the vacuum aspirator, as if the dog Tibor had gobbled two baby mice!…
And this odious “shlup,” too, is a metaphor. “Stories can abort, too,” Susan tells Fenn. “Plenty are stillborn; most that aren’t die young. And of the few that survive, most do just barely.” Slain fetuses, decimated sperm—creation in Sabbatical is one long trail of casualties and squelched possibilities.
Sex continues to exact a punishing toll long after all that pre-partum turmoil. Pages of squirming detail are devoted to the mutilations of Susan’s twin sister Miriam, who one Sunday afternoon in 1968 is gang-raped by a pack of motorcyclists (“…[the men] talked seriously about cutting off her nipples and eating them as some kind of initiation rite, but decided to piss on her instead…”), only to be tortured again by a “rescuer” who peppers her body with cigarette burns and eventually leaves her kneeling in the dirt, a beer bottle sticking out of her assaulted bottom. Staggering out of the woods, reeking of sweat, blood, and dried urine, Miriam is raped again by a burly dude in a pickup truck.
When Fenwick makes unconvincing clucking noises of concern and tries to subdue Susan’s too-graphic account, saying, “The details are just dreadfulness…,” she disagrees: “Rape and Torture and Terror are just words; the details are what’s real.” But the details too are mere words, and the accumulation of sadistic flourishes only serves to distance us from the experience, to turn it into a virtuoso literary exhibition—a novelistic form of knife-juggling. Whether it’s a horse being subjected to squealing anguish in Virginie or a woman running a rapist gauntlet in Sabbatical, the horror seems to derive less from life than from the author’s desire to furnish his novel with showy scenes of blood and humiliation. The horror is so clumsily and shamelessly stage-managed that you end up feeling not so much pity or terror for the victims (who are simply used as straw dogs), as a mild lurch of disgust at the authors for misapplying their talent so. They give in to sadism dutifully, like apprentice floggers. Perhaps it’s fussily old-fashioned of me, but I prefer humming sensations to deadened nerves, pleasure and play to defilement, firm footing to these d0rifting, sealed-off islands of nothingness. Sade is a master only for those intellectualized out of their wits.
But it would be a mistake to leave the impression that what’s wrong with these novels is that they defame the dignity of life (whatever that is) or violate John Gardner’s notions of what constitutes moral fiction. Reviewing The Auroras of Autumn by Wallace Stevens, Randall Jarrell praised Stevens’s intelligence and cool mastery but lamented that “it would take more than these to bring to life so abstract, so monotonous, so overwhelmingly characteristic a book.” What’s sapping about these books is that they too are so characteristic. Once again John Hawkes has given us a novel loaded with soiled sex, acres of damp rot, and bird and flower imagery (sometimes in the same sentence: “In the sunlight the poor tulip she was glowed as redly as the blood still impossibly wet at the severed end of the bird’s neck”). Once again John Barth has tricked up a novel which mimics the stratagems that go into the tricking-up of a novel. “I resist and resent very much the idea of associating research with fiction writing,” huffs Hawkes in The Imagination on Trial, but if your imagination has turned into a sick ward, wouldn’t it be better to step out for an invigorating bolt of air? There’s more to fiction than fiction, and descents into the field don’t seem to have incapacitated Dickens, Zola, Balzac, Dreiser…—you know, the big guys. Perhaps they were a sturdier breed.
June 10, 1982
In The Imagination on Trial (Allison & Busby, distributed by Schocken, 1981). ↩
“Comic yet terrible” is how Robert Coover describes Virginie in a back-cover blurb, and, curiously, Coover himself has just published a droll little word-machine—rakishly titled Spanking the Maid (Grove Press)—which explores Sex as Ritual, Sex as Submission. Unlike Virginie, Coover’s novelette truly is comic, though a little too fond of the lash. ↩
“Did I dream the darkness that wears soft the stone, like sheep in the narrow passages of a labyrinth?” ↩