Arnold Bennett, reviewing Dodsworth, observed that the novels of Sinclair Lewis “have always one admirable quality: they are about something.” What living novelist, intending praise, would make a remark like that about a distinguished fellow writer today? To do so would be an act of the gravest intellectual gaucherie. The art of fiction, insofar as it aspires to be regarded as art, is no longer expected to be “about” anything so mundane as (in Bennett's words) “a definite, important, and understandable theme, which affects whole classes and even whole nations.” What suffices—what is, indeed, preferred—is a fastidious collision of ego and artifice. In what is sometimes called “the new fiction”—perhaps to distinguish it from those outmoded “old” novels that combined a minimum standard of readability with a cast of credible characters—the workaday details of common experience are steadfastly avoided in the effort to render, as perfectly as possible, a pure state of mind. Even that most encompassing of all fictional genres—the picaresque tale of adventures in unfamiliar worlds—has been effectively transformed into a chronicle of the mind's errant lucubrations.
This effort to abridge or wholly to eclipse the traditional impositions of the prosaic in the writing of prose fiction is undeniably a powerful artistic ideal just now. But in literature, as in life, the ideal often proves unobtainable. The need for fiction to be “about” something somehow persists even in the face of the author's fondest dreams of eliminating it. The “something” that fiction is “about” may have become woefully shrunken and abstract, an object so minuscule that the imagination all but labors in vain in its effort to establish some compelling sense of involvement with it, but it is there. It survives, if nowhere else, in the very place where the author has labored hardest to remove it: his style.
In the widely praised novels of Jerzy Kosinski, certainly, the reader is instantly enclosed in a style calculated to vanquish the commonplaces of experience. Fictional artifice, carried to an icy and antiseptic perfection, is designed here to jettison everything but the gratifications of the authorial voice, and this voice—so much more powerful and “real” than any of the characters or actions it describes—is the locus of a distinct, and distinctly repugnant, moral atmosphere. It is the voice of revenge, seeking to impose its will on a world that has proved resistant to the unfettered appetites of the ego. The world which denies these appetites their unqualified victory over experience is stripped of its quotidian attributes, and its place taken by a malevolent abstraction more amenable to the authorial fantasy of power and subjugation. Style thus serves as a coefficient of moral retribution, silencing all independent life.
Cockpit1 offers yet another example of Mr. Kosinski's assiduous style and the moral vision it has been created to serve. Its speaker and protagonist and only significant character, the hateful and omnipotent Tarden, is an impresario of elaborately staged punishments, and its action consists of splintered anecdotes in which his cruel and carefully devised entrapments are recounted with a detached but undisguised erotic relish. Tarden, we are asked to believe, is a former agent for some unspecified government “service”—presumably the CIA, but perhaps other “services” as well. Now, for reasons that, like all motivation and causation in this book, remain obscure, he is a fugitive of sorts, and living under an assumed name—a name that is, indeed, a “fiction”: a fact we are expected to invest with surpassing significance—yet he enjoys a freedom of movement unknown to lesser mortals. Societies high and low the world over are magically accessible to him. Expertly knowing in the ways of money, business, medicine, diplomacy, technology, and quick disguise; expert too in duping hotel clerks, government bureaus, and beautiful women; and endowed with prodigious memory, athletic skill, unlimited funds, and sexual charisma, he devotes his unbounded freedom to unlovely scenarios of self-satisfaction. Not the least of these are episodes of apparent sexual defeat which mysteriously contribute to his self-esteem. When, in Cockpit, an erection is not forthcoming, a whore turns out to be an inviolable virgin, or a lady acrobat is sealed against penetration, Tarden emerges nevertheless as the moral victor.
Some of the gamier anecdotes involve Tarden's eavesdropping upon and secretly photographing his girl friend making love to another man in a rendezvous carefully prepared by himself, and the gang rape of another woman whose life is spared for the purposes of having her murdered by means of radiation. (This, too, calls for much fancy camera work: Tarden is, throughout, a paragon of the photographic enterprise.) Other episodes are excursions into still other varieties of sexual humiliation, gratuitous violence, and the observation of grotesques. At every turn, the “crimes” are themselves grotesquely out of proportion to the lurid punishments. All of Tarden's victims are strangers, naturally, for he is everywhere a tourist on the make—a genius at measuring others' vulnerabilities on first contact, and quickly exploiting them for harsh purposes never explained. Always aglow with unappeased erotic energy, he lives as a libertine of violence, a Don Juan whose conquests are guaranteed to fail his exacting standards of exoneration. All must in some way be punished, if not by death then by what, in the mirror-world of Cockpit, is construed as a fate almost worse than death: the withholding of the hero's sexual favors.
It is all, of course, the sheerest nonsense, a succession of narcissistic pirouettes danced in a mind vacant of human contact, but it is, like so much of the new fiction, portentous nonsense, nonsense parading itself as arcane wisdom. It purports to tell us something important, even urgent, about the fate of the world; it offers us a moral fable for the times. Not for nothing does Cockpit close on a quotation from Dostoevsky's The Possessed: we are meant to reflect on its transcendent implications. But what these seem to come to is something Mr. Kosinski could hardly have intended, for they add up to little more than a parody of the famous Dostoevskian dictum: If the CIA exists, so the episodes of Cockpit suggest, then everything is permitted. This, I am afraid, is just about the size of Mr. Kosinski's moral imagination. This is the miserable little object that lies buried beneath the debris of all the pointless intrigue. And the scenario designed to serve such a dubious proposition does not even have the virtue of examining its implications in relation to anything remotely resembling recognizable experience.
The unspeakable Tarden is, in the end, only another self-bemused embodiment of that tiresome modern convention, the anti-hero, drawn to the specifications of that threadbare genre, the anti-novel. In this version, the anti-hero has transferred to the realm of personal gratification, if not indeed to a private dream world, all the license and eccentricity, all that freedom from scruple and constraint traditionally attributed to the cardboard protagonists of the spy thriller. It is, in its way, an inspired literary hybrid, this crossing of the anti-novel with the spy thriller, even if the French had already produced the first specimens—inspired, because what both these genres have in common is precisely what a writer of Mr. Kosinski's radical isolation most desperately needs as his donnée: the freedom to ignore all worldly plausibility. In exercising that freedom with such determination and force, he does indeed tell us something important about the pathology of the literary imagination at the present moment. But he leaves the world of the novel untouched, for like the life it is obliged somehow to reflect, it too requires that minimum degree of human contact he eschews.
In the stories that Leonard Michaels has gathered in I Would Have Saved Them If I Could,2 we descend from this icecap of the implausible to a more familiar, not to say well-trodden, world. We are restored to the antic embrace of the self-conscious, self-doubting, self-mocking male offspring of the New York Jewish middle class, with his furiously articulate rigmarole of shame, frustration, complaint, and overweening ambition that, whether in pampered childhood, rebellious adolescence, or disabused manhood, somehow fails to realize its fondest dreams. In this crowded literary terrain, Mr. Michaels has staked out a distinct, if extremely narrow, corridor of his own. There is no room in it for robust buffooneries, lengthy tirades, extended narrative, or outsize energies of any sort. All the familiar emotions are miniaturized, reduced to an emblematic distillation, refined to an essence. There is, in these very short stories, fragments of stories, and notes for stories, something like a shortage of oxygen, a concentration and constriction so intense and short-breathed that the author seems able to speak to us only by emitting brief, muffled screams of pain. Were the terrain less crowded, the source of this pain might, perhaps, be altogether baffling, for the stories themselves rarely disclose the roots of the malaise they express. Mr. Michaels is not the sort of writer to fill in a landscape, deck out a character, or dwell for long on the specifications of circumstance. As it is, he scarcely needs to bother. We know these scenarios by heart, and all that remains for him to do—all, in any case, he chooses to do—is to expose, with a neat surgical precision, the particular nerve in question.
If there is something immensely impressive in this extreme concision of statement—and there is—there is also something sadly wanting in it. For here again we find ourselves in the presence of an object—exquisitely made, in this case, but nonetheless minuscule in size—altogether insufficient in scale to support the intense artistry lavished upon it. Reading a story called— what else?—“Storytellers, Liars, and Bores,” which is, of course, about the trials of a writer of stories (“After work I'd see my newest friend, the one who told me boring stories. Her name was Memory”), and which ends with a dream in which the author imagines himself being introduced to Kafka (“He shook my hand, then wiped his fingers on his tie”), I am reminded of Cyril Connolly's observation, in Enemies of Promise, that “The perfectionists, the art-for-art's-sakers, finding or believing life to be intolerable except for art's perfection, by the violence of their homage can render art imperfect.” Connolly is speaking, in this passage, of literary dandyism, and Mr. Michaels is indeed a bit of the dandy, abjuring commonplace locutions and mundanities in favor of elegant and macabre metaphor (“Sentences issuing from my mouth took the shape of eels and went sliding away among the faces in the room, like elegant metals, slithering in subtleties, which invited and despised attention”). He is very much the perfectionist (“remarkable,” as Connolly wrote, “for the intense stripping process which they carry out”). And the price paid for this feat of purity and concision is precisely the one Connolly named: “certainly perfection has a bleaching, death-wishful quality.”
That “death-wishful quality” abounds in these stories, especially in the best of them, of which the very best is the first, entitled, appropriately, “Murderers,” in which some boys risk the dangers of a precarious climb to the roof of a house in order to spy on a young rabbi and his wife in their daily ritual of ecstatic love-making. One of the boys, in a fit of voyeuristic transport, loses his footing and plunges to his death (“Arnold's ring hooked a nailhead and the ring and ring finger remained. The hand, the arm, the rest of him, were gone”). “Murderers” too is a miniature, but an unforgettable one.
At the center of this book, however, is a ten-page chronicle or memoir—it can hardly be called a story—that does much to explain the insufficiency of all this art. Called “In the Fifties,” it is a catalogue of the author's experience in his decade of coming-of-age, and like everything Mr. Michaels writes, it is at once extremely vivid and extremely bleak. It touches, but never more than touches, on personal encounters, books read, political events, drugs, sex, jobs, literary aspirations, and school. Especially school: “I went to school—NYU, Michigan, and Berkeley—much of the time. . . . I read literary reviews the way people suck candy. . . . I was a teaching assistant in two English departments. . . . I took classes in comparative anatomy and chemistry. I took classes in Old English, Middle English, and modern literature. I took classes and classes. . . . I wrote literary essays in the turgid, tumescent manner of darkest Blackmur. . . .”, etc. Somehow everything else in this memoir, even the most intense personal experience, is dwarfed by the recurrent evocation of the academic jailhouse, and the thought dawns that Mr. Michaels, though vastly gifted, has little or nothing but this academic experience to write about. That impulse toward the miniaturization of experience is less an aesthetic option than a moral necessity. Style is the object in this woefully constricted oeuvre because no other object is obtainable. The collision of ego and artifice must serve, perforce, in lieu of the world “out there.”
In Cockpit, there is a scene in which Tarden visits a tailor in Florence in order to have some military uniforms made to his specifications.“‘You must be an actor,’ he [the tailor] exclaimed. ‘And these uniforms are for a play or a film?’” To which Tarden replies: “No, I am not an actor. A one-man theater, more likely.” More likely, indeed. For these fictions by Kosinski and Michaels are a form of one-man theater in which the author enacts and reenacts the lonely rituals of his hermetic isolation.
1 Houghton-Mifflin, 249 pp., $8.95.
2 Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 188 pp., $7.95.