Almost single-handedly, David Lodge has done what many would have thought impossible. He has taken a moribund—some might have said dead—minor genre, the academic novel, from its sickroom, set it on its feet, given it a slap or two, and sent it out to places it has never entered before. The genre was at its best during the 1950s when nonacademic novelists and poets in considerable numbers began to take jobs as “writer in residence” in institutions of higher learning, particularly “progressive” ones; often they came away astounded by what they had seen—and eager to tell. Some of the academics themselves, less than enthralled by the scholarly pursuits for which they were trained, decided to try writing a novel—and naturally chose the subject closest to their eyes or spleen. The liveliest productions of that period can still be recalled—and reread—with pleasure: Mary McCarthy’s The Groves of Academe, Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim, and that small masterpiece, Randall Jarrell’s Pictures from an Institution. At their best, such novels combined exuberant satire of academic types and the positions (both intellectual and hierarchical) they held with a kind of knock-about comedy that often slipped into farce (Lucky Jim cutting up the bed sheets). Occasionally one found, as with C.P. Snow’s The Masters, a sober meditation on the workings of academic power.
What happened, of course, is that the academic novel soon became a vehicle for settling professional or personal scores and venting petty hostilities. A smug knowingness replaced the earlier exuberance; types quickly degenerated into stereotypes: the embittered faculty wife, the English department wimp, the platitudinous fraud, etc. Campus adultery or other forms of sexual irregularity became the chief centers of action. The genre turned sour, reaching what I recall as its nadir in an ill-natured novel called Party at Cranston, which exposed the alleged impotence of one (thinly disguised) literary critic of distinction and the sexual rapacity of another of comparable fame or notoriety. Well before the campus storms of the late Sixties uprooted a number of longstanding assumptions, the academic novel had become as unfashionable (with readers and publishers alike) as the giant tail-finned cars of the decade when it most thrived.
What David Lodge has managed to do is to make the genre international, and to reveal new sources of satiric enjoyment in some of the exotic growths that have sprung up in the wake of the 1960s. In Changing Places (1975), he lifted a dully domesticated and ambitionless Englishman, Philip Swallow, from the red-brick University of Rummidge (roughly Birmingham) where he taught and sent him to Euphoric State University (roughly Berkeley) just in time for all the action in 1969; while at the same time transporting Morris Zapp, a brash, cigar-chewing structuralist, from Euphoria to the humdrum precincts of Rummidge. The transatlantic comedy of Changing Places—the comedy of cultural displacement and moral confusion—is handled not only with wit and ingenuity but with knowledge: Lodge knows the American academic scene almost as well as the British, and his ear for American locutions is more accurate than that of most Englishmen who have tried to reproduce them.
In Small World, described as “a kind of sequel” to Changing Places, jet travel, direct-dialing telephones, the Xerox machine, and foundation grants have made the international conference rather than the classroom or library the real center of contemporary academic life. Back and forth the professors jet—to Zurich (Joyce), Amsterdam (Semiotics), Vienna (Narrative), Jerusalem (the Future of Criticism).
“That’s how it is in the academic world these days,” said Morris Zapp [who, like Philip Swallow, reappears in Small World]. “I was telling a young guy at the conference just this morning. The day of the single, static campus is over.”
“And the single, static campus novel with it, I suppose?”
“Exactly! Even two campuses wouldn’t be enough. Scholars these days are like the errant knights of old, wandering the ways of the world in search of adventure and glory.”
“Leaving their wives locked up at home?”
“Well, a lot of the knights are women, these days. There’s positive discrimination at the Round Table.”
Zapp’s reference to the Round Table points to the central comic device of the novel: the use of Arthurian romance (as interpreted by Jessie Weston in From Ritual to Romance) to provide an underlying “mythic” structure for all the comings and goings, the quests, the mistaken identities, the reversals and revelations, with which Small World abounds. While both Zapp and Swallow have important parts in the new book, the real hero is an innocent, indeed virginal, young Irishman, Persse (by extension, Percival, Parsifal) McGarrigle, who has written a thesis on the influence of T.S. Eliot on Shakespeare. At the novel’s opening conference at Rummidge (where Zapp gives a lecture on “Textuality as Striptease”), Persse meets a beautiful, dark-haired graduate student, Angelica, who reveals not only that she is writing a doctoral dissertation on Romance, but that she is an adopted child, an orphan “found in the toilet of a KLM Stratocruiser flying from New York to Amsterdam.” The elusive Angelica, who keeps disappearing and reappearing in various guises, becomes Persse’s own Grail, the object of his quest.
But there is a greater prize for which the roster of megaprofessors are competing: the UNESCO Chair of Literary Criticism ($100,000 tax-free, no students to teach or papers to grade, an office and secretary in Paris, and encouragement to fly to conferences all over the world at UNESCO’s expense). The awarding of this refulgent Grail is in the power of the elderly Arthur Kingfisher, Emeritus Professor of Columbia and Zurich universities and the “doyen of the international community of literary theorists.” The old man is not only sexually impotent but intellectually sterile of any new critical theories. As any student of the footnotes to The Waste Land or the program notes to Parsifal must know, the ailing Fisher King awaits the restoration of his potency (and the fertility of his realm) through the agency of a virginal young knight—who else but Persse McGarrigle?
The internationalization of the academic profession of course reflects the internationalization of literary theory, a largely post-Sixties phenomenon—now perhaps fading?—that has fundamentally affected the study of literature in America and England and in outposts around the world. When Professor Fulvia Morgana of Padua meets Professor Morris Zapp (who is en route to Bellagio) on a plane, the following conversation takes place:
“And now Derrida,” said Fulvia Morgana. “Everybody in Chicago—I ‘ave just been to Chicago—was reading Derrida. America is crazy about deconstruction. Why is that?”
“Well, I’m a bit of a deconstructionist myself. It’s kind of exciting—the last intellectual thrill left. Like sawing through the branch you’re sitting on.”
“Exactly! It is so narcissistic. So ‘opeless.”
“What was your conference about?”
“It was called, ‘The Crisis of the Sign.’ ”
“…How was it?”
…”As usual. Many boring papers. Some interesting parties.”
“Who was there?”
“Oh, everyone you would expect. The Yale hermeneutic gang. The Johns Hopkins reader-response people. The local Chicago Aristotelians, naturally. And Arthur Kingfisher was there.”
The only real holdout for the old humanistic, belletristic approach to English studies is the rather dull Philip Swallow, and even he is drawn into the jet-age competition.
None of the current fashions escapes Lodge’s good-natured ridicule. In its absurd way, Small World is nearly as encyclopedic in its treatment of the varieties of literary theory, from the mythologizers to the Marxists, as Terry Eagleton’s Literary Theory (reviewed in these pages by Denis Donoghue late last year); one can almost imagine a hardpressed graduate student relying on it to answer an “identify-and-briefly-explain” exam question on, say, “Textuality.” The appeal of the novel is, inevitably, parochial to a degree, though I think its natural audience extends well beyond the confines of the academy. A more serious impediment is Small World’s length, which seems to me inordinate for an extended series of learned jokes, no matter how funny or apt most of them are. The very elaborateness of the mythopoeic structure requires, if justice is to be done to each of its components, an excess of detail. Although the academic scenes are regularly enlivened by farce and by episodes of energetic and sometimes freaky sex, the reader begins to feel not only jet lag but verbal exhaustion—as if one were forced to fly nonstop around the world three times in the company of nonstop talkers. In this respect, Small World seems to me less successful than the more compact Changing Places—but excellent entertainment nonetheless.
There is not even a whiff of the academic in the short stories of Grace Paley, of which Later the Same Day is her third collection in twenty-five years. While not prolific, she has become a living monument of sorts; stories from The Little Disturbances of Man (1959) and Enormous Changes at the Last Minute (1974) are not only anthologized but revered and imitated by the very young generation of story writers now coming into print. While some of her appeal for them is perhaps nonliterary, influenced by her part in the antiwar movement of the Sixties, antinuclear campaigns, and a skeptical attitude toward various forms of institutionalized authority, most of it is explained by her writing—her idiosyncratic style, with its small verbal surprises, her oblique and humorous approach to tumultuous family dramas, her portrayal, at once tough-minded and compassionate, of urban Jewish women who have had a lot to put up with. She seems especially close to children, the wayward, and the very old. I cannot think of a story more instructive to a group of beginning writers than “A Conversation with my Father” (from Enormous Changes). In a few luminous pages, Grace Paley not only presents us with a moving account of a daughter’s love for a mentor-father still wholeheartedly alive at the very brink of death, but grapples with the difficulties of fiction itself, opposing the traditional plotted story with its air of finality to the (apparently) unstructured sort that permits its characters “the open destiny of life.” One senses in much of Mrs. Paley’s fiction a rejection of both plot (“the absolute line between two points which I’ve always despised…because it takes all hope away”) and the closed ending as somehow crushing to the hand-to-mouth struggle for independence and survival in which her characters are engaged.
The title, Later the Same Day, is apt, for a number of the characters from the earlier collections now reappear, suitably aged. Preeminent among these is Faith, the narrator of some of the stories—a wry and somewhat combative woman with old left sympathies and “a yellow dog contract with Bohemia.” She has two lively sons, Richard and Tonto, a succession of mates (Ricardo, Clifford, Philip, Jack), and a cluster of women friends (Ruth, Ann, Susan), who mostly have children and no husbands and who consider themselves socialists of one stripe or another. Faith also has a pair of elderly parents, now living in a Jewish old people’s home in Coney Island. The passage of time has not been kind. In “Friends,” Faith, Susan, and Ann visit Selena, who is dying of cancer. Selena’s husband had left her years before, and her only child, Abby, “was found in a rooming house in a distant city, dead.” Dismissing her friends at the end of the visit, Selena tells them that she wants “to lie down and think about Abby. Nothing special. Just think about her, you know.” On the long train ride back to New York, Susan falls asleep, and Ann sits down opposite Faith.
She looked straight into my eyes with a narrow squint. It often connotes accusation.
Be careful—you’re wrecking your laugh lines, I said.
Screw you, she said. You’re kidding around. Do you realize I don’t know where Mickey is? You know, you’ve been lucky. You always have been….
As is usual in conversations, I said a couple of things out loud and kept a few structured remarks for interior mulling and righteousness….
I said, Annie, I’m only forty-eight. There’s lots of time for me to be totally wrecked—if I live, I mean.
Then I tried to knock wood, but we were sitting in plush and leaning on plastic. Wood! I shouted. Please, some wood! Anybody here have a matchstick?
Oh, shut up, she said. Anyway, death doesn’t count.
I tried to think of a couple of sorrows as irreversible as death. But truthfully nothing in my life can compare to hers: a son, a boy of fifteen, who disappears before your very eyes into a darkness or a light behind his own, from which neither hugging nor hitting can bring him. If you shout, Come back, come back, he won’t come. Mickey, Mickey, Mickey, we once screamed, as though he were twenty miles away instead of right in front of us in a kitchen chair; but he refused to return….
In “Dreamer in a Dead Language,” Faith visits her parents at the Children of Judea home and is exposed to a cruel irony: her intelligent, lively, restless old father complains about the disappearance of brains (the brains of the other residents) all around him, only to reveal that his own mind is slipping: he would like to leave the home and divorce his wife of many years but can’t because, he says, they were never married in the first place. Faith’s panicky response to all this is to shock the old man with an account of her own love life and then to flee. In a typical ending, in which the tragic is halfway converted into the absurd, the stricken Faith takes her two boys to Brighton Beach and encourages them to bury her up to the armpits in the sand, leaving her arms free, as she instructs the elder, “so I can give you a good whack every now and then when you’re too fresh.”
These two pieces and one other, “Somewhere Else,” which juxtaposes an incident on a tour of China with an incident in the South Bronx, are not only characteristic but first-rate, worthy of the company of the previous collections. But Later the Same Day as a whole shows, I am afraid, a considerable dropping off in both inspiration and achievement. While she is wonderfully skilled in suggesting not only the locutions but the rhythms of Jewish-American speech of the immigrant generation, Grace Paley is far less convincing when she adopts the tongue of a middle-aged black woman who has seen lots of troubles (in “Lavinia: An Old Story”) and tries to force it into the quirky Paley mode (“I said: Mama, I see you just defile by leaning on every will and whim of Pa’s”). This story, like several others (“A Man Told Me the Story of His Life,” “Zagrowsky Tells”), seems to have been written from an enlightened point of view rather than from the inspired waywardness of the author’s imagination. Still others strike me as slight or diffuse or, in the case of “Listening,” as so self-consciously cute in both language and sentiments as to seem almost a parody of the Paley mannerisms. But even when she is not in top form, Grace Paley is apparently incapable of writing a story that does not, through some flash of insight or turn of phrase, provide its moment of distilled pleasure.
Not unrelated to Grace Paley in sensibility, Lorrie Moore is one of those young writers—Amy Hempel and David Leavitt are others—whom Knopf has been publishing in rapid succession as if to dispel forever the old notion that no one wants to buy a first collection of short stories by an unknown author. However these books have done commercially, they have certainly demonstrated the vitality and attractiveness of the short form as it is shaped by talented young writers.
Lorrie Moore composes “how-to” stories: “How to Be an Other Woman,” “The Kid’s Guide to Divorce,” “How to Talk to Your Mother (Notes),” “How to Become a Writer,” and one simply called “How.” Collectively, these and the other pieces that make up Self-Help present a dismal account of failed relationships, disappointed yearnings, dying, crazy, or senile mothers and neurotic daughters, loose ends, and the ongoing battle between the sexes. While no one wins, it is the women who are the biggest losers. Yet Lorrie Moore is no soured feminist. She is funny and inventive, and the impact of her stories is often as exhilarating as it is dismaying. Here, for instance, is the insight of a young woman, Charlene, who is having an affair with a married man (“How to Be an Other Woman”): “When you were six you thought mistress meant to put your shoes on the wrong feet. Now you are older and know it can mean many things, but essentially it means to put your shoes on the wrong feet.” The piece is constructed around a series of injunctions and instructions that the young woman gives to herself. All of the clichés of the situation are wryly exploited.
The next time he phones, he says: “I was having a dream about you and suddenly I woke up with a jerk and felt very uneasy.”
Say: “Yeah, I hate to wake up with jerks.”
He laughs, smooth, beautiful, and tenor, making you feel warm inside of your bones. And it hits you… people will do anything, anything, for a really nice laugh.
Don’t lose your resolve. Fumble for your list. Sputter things out as convincingly as possible.
Say: “I suffer indignities at your hands. And agonies of duh feet. I don’t know why I joke. I hurt.”
“That is why.”
“That is why.”
“But you don’t really care.” Wince. It sounds pitiful.
“But I do.”
For some reason this leaves you dumbfounded.
He continues: “You know my situation…or maybe you don’t.” Pause. “What can I do, Charlene? Stand on my goddamned head?”
Whisper: “Please. Stand on your goddamned head.”
“It is ten o’clock,” he says. “I’m coming over. We need to talk.”
The story called “Go Like This” is not really a manual of self-instruction but a powerfully imagined first-person narrative of what it would be like for a young woman with cancer to decide to kill herself on a certain day (Bastille Day, in fact). She announces her intention to her husband, who has withdrawn from her sexually since her operation, and then assembles her friends for a public announcement. They react in ways that reveal not only their characters but an assortment of possible responses—responses that again reflect the prevailing clichés of our time. Some are, like her husband, supportive, telling her that she is doing a beautiful, creative thing. The Catholic couple flee in dismay, leaving their umbrellas behind. Another friend, Olga, insists on eroticizing the encounter with death; advising delay, she says, “You haven’t earned your death yet. You want the orgasm without the foreplay.” The play of ironies enlivens the course of the story without, in this case, mitigating its essential grimness.
The emotional range of Self-Help is narrow. The “how-to” device becomes, after two or more examples, something of a gimmick. Yet Lorrie Moore’s wit, her psychological acuity, and the deadly accuracy of her social observation are such that one looks forward to what she will write next.
August 15, 1985