“Sturdy, old-fashioned storytelling”—it carries a heavy burden indeed in that expression “old-fashioned.” The linear plot has a long history, not only in the life of the culture, but for each of us personally; being “told a story” connotes in each of our infantile histories the memory of placating, soporific experience, as self-indulgent and satisfying as thumb sucking. Over the centuries, this kind of pleasure, compounded agreeably of pretended apprehension and secure anticipation, was not thought incompatible with serious commentary on adult matters like money and morals, the tale and the teaching bound together by the denouement in some sort of terminal snugness. But in the early years of this century, it seemed likely that we would get away from such tired formulas and shamefaced conventions of storytelling—would do away, not only with the “lived happily ever after” conclusion but with the contrived obstacle course leading to it. Partly the old conventions seemed to be used up; partly the idea of earning moral and material kudos in return for demonstrated virtue appeared ridiculous in the modern world; partly the linear plot was uncongenial with a central development of modern concern, the expansion of self-consciousness.
Thus for the greater part of the present century, the reputable forms of fiction have diluted or actively avoided “mere” storytelling, in favor of some more active device of reader involvement. We have had puzzle novels, which the reader had to reassemble and interpret; visionary novels,in which the narrative, if any, was a mere screen to be seen through; mirror novels reflecting multiple consciousnesses; psychological novels, in which the action was all interior; and antipsychological novels, in which inner action had to be inferred from an impersonal description of external facts. The list could be extended, and exemplary names assigned to the various types; but it is enough that narrative has been in relative eclipse—which is why its return nowadays is heralded with the reassuring, yet ambiguous, adjective, “old-fashioned.” Still, though linear plot and tailored character are centuries old and have been once rejected, it is too glib to think their potential has been altogether exhausted; indeed, just the opposite could be happening. The sorts of novel that were supposed to render linear narrative obsolete seem to be undergoing some obsolescence of their own. One ought then to look afresh at what is being done with the old form—just in case.
John Irving’s The Cider House Rules is a fine example of the kind of novel that brought linear plots and their cutout characters into disrepute in the first place. It has an intricate plot in the old sense of an intrigue, as well as several subplots, all of which it pursues with relentless disregard for elementary probability and complete indifference to the mental or emotional life of its actors. Homer Wells is introduced to us as an orphan born in an obscure asylum in Maine, and put up for adoption several times, unsuccessfully, until he becomes the protégé of, and ultimately assistant to, Doctor Larch, resident at the asylum. Here, without formal medical training, he acquires the arts of gynecology, his attention divided about equally between childbirth and abortion procedures—the latter are illegal, to be sure, but under Doctor Larch’s expert skill and humane concerns presented as “doing the Lord’s work.” Homer Wells grows up in this milieu, and is shaped by it; the asylum is remote and isolated, Doctor Larch is the only figure of authority on the horizon; the foundling becomes the doctor’s junior colleague. But at a crucial point in his young manhood, he revolts against the idea of abortion, and decides to participate no longer in such activities. He does however assist at an operation on a wealthy young woman from out of town named Candace, and is afterward taken into the family of her fiancé, Wally. Here, in due course, he becomes initiated into the skills of apple growing and cider making; if not formally adopted, he is accepted into the family.
All this time Homer is watched over from afar by the vigilant and unscrupulous Doctor Larch, who kindly shields him from participation in World War II by writing into his record a purely fictitious heart condition. Wally is now recruited, sent abroad, lost over Burma, and apparently killed. This clears the way for Homer and Candace to consort, produce a child, and retire to the old orphan asylum for the infant to be born. Unexpectedly, Wally turns up, badly crippled but alive. After momentary hesitation, Candace marries him, palming off her child by Homer as an adopted infant. (The people in Maine are such simpletons that they swallow this story unquestioningly.) Candace is thus able to settle down to matrimony with Wally, tempered by ongoing adultery with Homer; and the arrangement continues for fifteen years, during which a small-town Maine community is so high- or simple-minded that not a breath of suspicion is voiced.
Meanwhile, the omniscient Doctor Larch has arranged for Homer to be supplied (unbeknownst to himself) with a false identity, complete with fake academic and medical diplomas, so that at the appropriate moment he can be slipped into place as successor to the older man. Thus when his domestic arrangements are recognized and revealed by a fellow graduate of the asylum (who penetrates in an instant disguises that nobody else had seen through for fifteen years), an easy retreat is open to Homer. Back to the asylum he goes, fortified with phony documents and disguised (or so we’re supposed to think) behind a beard, to assume or resume a medical practice. Apparently he is quite satisfied with his medical competence (though his experience is strikingly limited), and he has forgotten without effort his previous moral objections to abortion. The various loose ends he leaves behind—Wally deceived, Candace deserted, his son, now grown, in limbo—remain without serious attempt at explanation or reconcilement. Inconvenient minor characters are dispatched or disappear without explanation. To keep Homer happy, he is provided with a tractable nurse at the hospital. A dying fall on the pianola.
The Cider House Rules gets its title from a set of typed rules posted annually in the cider house of the apple farm for the guidance of the picking crew who come every fall. Though simple and sensible, the rules are not much observed, partly because the apple pickers are almost all illiterate, partly because the crew boss has his own rules, which he enforces with a well-used knife. The cider-house rules are thus dead letters; and by elevating them into his title, Irving surely wants to suggest that most rules can and should be treated as dead letters. That surely is the triumphant tale of Homer Wells, who gets the use of Candace without any of the responsibilities, gets eased into medical practice without the need of formal training for it, and solves his moral dilemmas over abortion without the necessity of thinking about them.
The weight of Irving’s plot combined with the thinness of his characters puts a heavy burden on the author’s prose, which combines Dickensian jocularity with Dickensian sentimentality. He is better at dealing with processes—scraping a uterus, crushing a load of apples, fixing machinery, fighting—than at conveying the feelings of people. Irving is quoted as saying he wanted to write a “Victorian” novel; it would be an exercise in the ridiculous to compare the moral weight of The Cider House Rules with that of, say, Trollope’s Orley Farm.
The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende comes to us from Chile in a translation by Magda Bogin. The author is a cousin of the late president of that unhappy country, and her book is a family history. The first three-quarters describe the doings of a large and tumultuous tribe, the last quarter recapitulates with deep and quite natural embitterment the recent history of her native land.
A central figure in the first part of the novel is the compulsive, macho Esteban Trueba. He is passionately in love with Rosa, the eldest and most beautiful of the Del Valle girls, and has gone off to the northern mines to make the fortune that will enable him to marry her. While he is away, Rosa is poisoned in a botched attempt to murder her politician father. Esteban returns, overwhelmed with grief, and goes off to bury his sorrows in solitude while rehabilitating a derelict family farm at Tres Marías. His violent, authoritarian methods succeed in restoring the farm to profitability; they also spill over into a series of rapes of the women of his peons—rapes that don’t prevent Esteban from considering himself a model landlord.
After nine years of unremitting labor and brutish rut, Esteban has built up his farm and finds it appropriate to take to himself a wife. His choice falls on Clara, younger sister of Rosa, and a thoroughly distinctive young lady. She has the gift of second sight; she can also cause tables and other household objects to move around the room without touching them; and since the death of her sister Rosa, nine years before, she has deliberately refused to speak a single word. Abruptly one day, without having heard anything from him, she announces that she is going to marry Esteban; and so, in short order, she does.
With this marriage at the center of the tale, we follow the Trueba family through two more generations of turbulent and various activity. The two sons, Jaime and Nicolás, manage to enrage their increasingly reactionary father in slightly different ways, Jaime by becoming a physician to the underprivileged, Nicolás by turning (under the influence of his mother’s occult notions) to an array of visionary creeds and flaky practices. But the real thorn in old Esteban’s flesh is his daughter, Blanca, who falls in love with, and becomes pregnant by, a radical peasant leader from Tres Marías itself. Hideous temper tantrums ensue, and acts of grotesquely autocratic parental tyranny; at length, under cover of a hastily arranged and utterly impossible marriage of convenience (to an aristocratic French homosexual), Blanca is delivered of a daughter, Alba.
Before long, Alba is ready to repeat her mother’s indiscretion with a student radical named Miguel; but at this point the focus of the story shifts to the national political scene. A leader known simply as The Candidate, but who is clearly Salvador Allende, is elected president, and events follow the pattern familiar to anyone who has observed, over the past dozen years or so, the news reports from Chile.
Two bitter twists for the Trueba family connect that domestic chronicle with the larger disaster of the nation. Old Esteban Trueba, though passionately anticommunist and active in planning the coup that overthrew The Candidate, finds himself neglected and despised by the new regime—as did, apparently, many reactionaries in Chile itself. (Once in power, fascist regimes have no use for mere parliamentarians, no matter how conservative.) And in a climactic turnabout, old Trueba’s adored granddaughter Alba is savagely tormented and brutally raped by a police officer who is no other than one of Trueba’s own bastard children, sadistic as an infant and bestial as an adult. Even if a bit mechanically, this turn of the story works out the notion of retribution, and ties the gruesome ending of the novel into at least symbolic relation with the first part.
In that more purely novelistic first part, Allende rightly pays more attention to the women of the Trueba clan than to the inflexible, almost mechanistic, males. The spiritualist readings of the ladies, their fortune-telling enterprises, their attachment to fads, faiths, and folk remedies are explored in endearing particularity. Viewed with skeptical affection, they are entertaining creatures; but after a couple of hundred pages, the reader is likely to develop an irritating sense that Isabel Allende doesn’t really know what to do with this cast of picturesque eccentrics. They are often silly, usually sensitive, mostly unpredictable, and therefore (in the pages of a novel) likable; but directed energy they do not have. The ladies of the clan build, or cause to be built, a big town house; they decorate it elaborately according to their tastes of the moment; they enlarge it to accommodate guests or hobbies, let it disintegrate, restore it, hide in its multiple recesses during the bad days. This is the house that gives its title to the novel; it is largely the creation and the concern of the women, scarcely less fragile and evanescent than their fantasies in a male society of rock-hard realities.
Allende has clearly profited from her reading of Gabriel García Márquez; though a little more equivocal than he about the various preternatural deeds and beliefs of her characters, she uses them to lay a dusting of legendary and mythical feeling over her story. About the only narrative tricks to which she resorts are occasional brief passages written from the point of view of Esteban Trueba himself. A long-withheld explanation in the book’s final pages informs us that these are the result of a collaborative effort in reconstructing the past from Clara’s diaries; the joint editors of the material have been the embittered patriarch and his ravaged granddaughter Alba. Thus the novel belongs among those that build toward an explanation of their own existence. Apart from that traditional mark of closure, the final pages develop a mood of reconciliation, even after the horrible events of butchery, rape, and terror that mark the coup. Allende’s novel suggests in its closing pages a serenity that is achieved with some difficulty. This is very different from Irving’s wrap-up, about which there lingers a pervasive sense of “Well, I got away with it this time.”
A third book that relies on straightforward, limited narrative is Stanley Elkin’s The Magic Kingdom, probably the densest and most memorable (I don’t say the most ingratiating) of the three. It is a book by an extraordinary artist in language. It is also extremely funny and its effect is often that of a strong emetic. That combination leaves the reader wondering which way to turn—not perhaps the worst position for a thoughtful reader to be left in. Elkin’s hero is a Briton (his idiom curiously flavored with a distant Yiddish) named Eddy Bale; his son Liam has just died at the age of twelve, after an agonizing illness. Though the outcome was never in doubt, Liam’s parents have worked themselves into hysteria and beyond, raising money by every conceivable publicity device in the desperate hope of being able to save their child. All they really did, as they understand at last, was to prolong his misery. They have now, at the beginning of the novel, absolutely and finally failed; and between fury and exhaustion, they separate. It is from this blank wall of grief and solitude that Eddy Bale launches the project that makes the story. He proposes to raise money, assemble some terminally ill children, and take them on an expedition to Disney World in Florida. Not to help them—they are beyond help—just to give them a little pleasure before they die.
Eddy then assembles a forlorn caravan—seven children, each possessed of (and sometimes simply identified by) its own special, mostly horrifying disease, and five supervisory adults, including Eddy, a doctor, a nanny, and a pair of nurses, male and female. The children are preternaturally wise but not unduly solemn; they range from a smart-ass troublemaker of fifteen to a little gnome of eight who is dying of premature senility. Naturally, Disney World affects them less than the experience of finding themselves among a group of fellow sufferers. Grotesque as they are, Mr. Elkin is too sophisticated to present them simply from the outside as a menagerie of freaks. Between curiosity and self-importance they investigate the other children’s diseases and brag of their own; they get scared in the tunnels and give a hard time to Goofy and Pluto. They run wild in the souvenir shops, badger the hotel management, and bamboozle reporters who try to interview them.
Just as lively are the adults, especially the two nurses, Colin and Mary. In public, both are cool, professional, expert; within, both are haunted—Colin by a well-earned guilt over his infidelity to his London lover (also named Colin), Mary by a devouring sexual drive that she cannot satisfy (except briefly, by masturbation), because she can produce only mongoloids and monsters. The nanny is a muzzy, loving idiot, the doctor a howling neurotic, and Eddy Bale (as he repeatedly tells himself) on the verge of insanity. So it is a true ship of fools, and the voyagers are lucky to return after a week in the magic kingdom minus only one of their number.
It’s hard to praise a book like this for its good taste in handling an impossibly difficult subject without implying that it’s somehow timid. Nobody will take that notion very seriously who has read the hilarious account in the first chapter of Eddy Bale’s interview with the queen of England. Elkin is gentle yet tough with his forlorn children, funny yet kind with his distrait adults; as a whole, he has written a sensitive book. One is therefore distressed at what seems a major lapse toward the end. Colin has taken his charges to see a Disney parade; but the show he wants them to see and mock is the lineup of on-lookers—the flabby, bloated, misshapen, middle-aged Americans from whose awful ugliness the doomed children will be exempt. It is a stroke of misanthropy that reminds one of Swift; but one doesn’t feel that the children—and least of all Colin, who instigates them—have been educated (or, better, experienced) so that they could take part in such a scheme.
To set against this lapse, I will quote a passage, not untypical, from a scene in which the children are dreaming on the plane carrying them to Florida:
Little Tony Word, dying of leukocytes, of clear, white, colorless cells watering his blood and turning it pale, of petechia and purpura, the petty hemorrhages across his face like so many false freckles, of fatigue and fever and bone pain, of malignant cells buttering his marrow with contamination, of major and minor infections exploding inside his body like ordnance, of the inability of his blood to clot, of his outsized, improperly functioning organs, all the cheap cuts—his liver, his kidneys—of his compromised meat—of leukemia—of the broad palette of chemicals with which his oncologists painted his blood, going over it, careful as art restorers, chipping away at the white smear that poisoned it, bringing back the brisk, original color from their tubes of vincristine and prednisone and asparaginase and dexamethasone and mercaptopurine and allopurinol and methotrexate and cyclophosphamide and doxorubicin and other assorted hues—dying, too, of time itself, of the five- and six- and seven-year survival rate (Tony is now two years beyond his last remission but freckles have begun to reappear along his jawline and his renal functions are in an early stage of failure)—little Tony Word dreams of his low-salt meals, of the liquids and fruit juices he is forced to swallow, almost, or so it seems to him, by the pailful, of all the rind fruits he must eat, and which, because of the invisible germs and hidden dirts which might be on his mother’s hands, he must peel himself—the sealed orange, the difficult apple, the impossible pear, the ordeal of a grape, which he handles with specially sterilized toothpicks, as he does everything, to avoid the accident of cuts which will not stanch—encouraged, too, to prepare his own well-balanced, nutritious meals (though he’s not allowed to go near a stove), his boiled and scrubbed green leafy vegetables, washing lettuce, kale and cauliflower, broccoli, sprouts, cabbage; washing everything, eggplant and potatoes, shallots and mushrooms, then consuming the congealed pot liquor which he has to scrape from the side of the pot with a spoon and spread on toasted sandwiches (from which he first must tear away the crusts) just to be able to get it down, or drinking the broth, thick as barium, to get at the vitamins and minerals, and eating the flaccid vegetable flesh; preparing the meats, too, scrubbing (this much, at least, his own idea, the scared kid’s) his veal and ham, his steaks and chops, his joints and shanks, so that everything he eats, or so he thinks, tastes of a light seasoning of dish-washing detergent, learning to cook even at four and already at ten an accomplished chef, teased for this, for this only, not for his weak and sickly ways, his inability at games (which he would not have been permitted to play anyway), or even his high anxiety as a spectator sitting well back in the stands in the gymnasium lest he be hit by a stray ball, or far away from the sidelines when what they would surely snicker at him for should he call them his mates went outdoors to play, but because they know he cooks, have heard him brag of it who has nothing else to boast of (save his pain, save his endurance, save the one or two or, at the outside, three years he has left to live perhaps, and which he has never mentioned), seen him in the lunchroom chewing his queer veggie remnant sandwiches with their vitamin slime and viscous mineral fillings, have seen him fastidiously peel his fruits and drink his juices, his quart of bottled water from which someone else has first to remove the cap and then pour into a paper cup lest Tony cut his finger on the saw-toothed cap or the bottle opener or the drinking glass he was not even permitted to use accidentally break. So the small dying boy tosses and turns, dreaming his breakfasts of champions, his athlete’s meals, his health faddist’s strict dietary laws, sated in sleep, stuffed, full as a glutton, who has never been hungry, dreaming of food who is not hungry now.
The unrelenting pressure of these dream sentences, the stabbing irony of phrases like “cheap cuts,” “veggie sandwiches,” “breakfasts of champions,” and “dietary laws,” all bespeak an artist at work. Elkin is telling a story, true enough, but he is telling it through, not alongside, his characters and their situation. His book challenges a resilient and imaginative reader.
It won’t have escaped attention that all three of these novels take their fundamental themes from topics under discussion in the press. They don’t argue theses or for that matter contribute directly to an understanding of the topic involved. Only a fraction of one of them is what used to be called engagé; and none really tries to be photographic. Rather, they work to deepen our feelings. In this undertaking the linear plot, so far as it tends to mark and hold characters by a single mannerism, to manage them in the interests of its own “development,” still betrays the limitations that called it into question some seventy years ago. Where it hides itself, as a skeleton should, under the lineaments of realized humanity, it can still contribute—the more quietly, the better—to the vitality of that infinitely formless form, the novel.
July 18, 1985