Commentary Magazine


MF, by Anthony Burgess; West of the Rockies, by Daniel Fuchs; A Cry of Absence, by Madison Jones; Losing Battles, by Eudora Welt

Words

 

MF.
by Anthony Burgess.
Knopf. 242 pp. $5.95.

West of the Rockies.
by Daniel Fuchs.
Knopf. 166 pp. $5.95.

A Cry of Absence.
by Madison Jones.
Crown. 280 pp. $5.95.

Losing Battles.
by Eudora Welty.
Random House. 436 pp. $7.95.

Birds of America.
by Mary McCarthy.
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. 344 pp. $6.95.

There are times when the print just stays right on the paper, when the words are nothing but words. The metamorphosis, “change of form, structure, or substance, esp. by witchcraft or magic,” doesn’t work. The novelist makes his gestures and his commands but the spirits refuse to appear, we see the conjurer’s wand and his hat, but there is no rabbit. What an embarrassment.

The reviewer especially is then put on the spot, although his predicament is certainly contemptible to the performer, and probably irrelevant to the paying audience. “Mr. Magus, properly costumed and of good bearing, knew his lines well and gestured handsomely, lifting his climactic hand exactly as though it grasped a pair of fuzzy ears; but this observer failed to see a hare dependent.” Maybe as Observer seems to suspect, this was due to his own poor vision or his own dull lack of susceptibility. The paying audience applauded. Other reviewers even praised the rabbit itself for its size, liveliness, and one for its sleek brown coat, another for its pure white fur. Uncharmed reviewer is odd man out.

The easiest and probably the most important way to tell others about a novel you have been reading is to take it as real, as a group of real people in a real place performing real actions, even though we may do this in the guise of talking about “characters” and “settings” and “plot.” We see what moral pattern unfolds from these persons and places and actions, and we confess whether or not this engages us and requires our approval or disapproval. And perhaps we add a few words, too, in one way or another, about the author’s skill, how he compares in this with other writers, and whether or not we think he will do better next time. After all, what the reader of the review wants to know is, need he or need he not actually read the book? Will it keep him awake, and will other people expect him to talk about it?

It is too late for this useful kind of report of the five novels more or less under discussion here. All of them have been for some time candidates for talk at lunch or dinner. All have had rather mixed reviews, including high praise and doubts, all are by successful professional authors, and I myself could bear reading only one of them, which was Mary McCarthy’s Birds of America. The others were mere words that in the first place I did not like, and as I saw the worlds these words invited me to imagine, I found these worlds not only unrecognizable as any part of our world but dismally unwelcome as imaginary worlds. I cannot say, then, that I really “read” them. I only plowed through, groaning louder all the way. Let me save the other one, Birds of America, for last.

_____________

 

Anthony Burgess has written some dozen novels, including the very successful A Clockwork Orange, and some half-dozen works on language and literature, among these, A Shorter Finnegans Wake. His latest fiction is MF (the title represents the initials of the hero Miles Faber, also the current term of Oedipal opprobrium, and doubtless much else as well). It is written in a series of puzzles and jokes and riddles, “crammed with the fracted crackers of useless data,” as the hero says, and with literary allusions. The taste for this sort of thing is a special one which I do not happen to share. A small sample should enable you to decide if you like it. This passage is more straightforward and coherent than most, but it displays what I take to be a lack of real observation and feeling—what triteness is more exhausted than scorn of “Madison Avenue”?—and for these the substitution of fancy language and an intrusive modishness as in the “Mailer” gratuity.

I strolled toward 44th Street, admiring the upward thrust of the masonry which pushed back the night to the limit, the new broom of the Partington Building especially, with the stubbier Penhallow Center and Shillaber Tower flanking it. I admired also the vast induced consumer appetite of this civilization, expressed in its windows and sky signs. It is safer to be bombarded by pleas to eat, drive, play, or wash hair with Goldbow than put Madison Avenue and its tributaries in the service of the ideology of the ruling power. A free society.

The freedom was perhaps expressed in the act of robbery being performed, somewhere near 39th Street, by three shag-haired youths on an old man who had a rabbi-beard. There was no violence, only the urgent frisking for notes and small change of boys desperate for a fix. No kicks from mugging, no leisure to hurt save where resistance was offered. The old man knelt, crying. Some few passers-by watched with little curiosity: this was daily soap-opera of the streets. On the wall behind someone had chalked Screw Mailer; an indifferent workman up a ladder was chipping out a smashed window in tinkles.

To my ear, this prose has the loud empty noise of rock music, totally derivative of older and more authentic modes, made appealing to some by private reference, by a confidence in stock response, by blurred jokes which only the young can hear. The plot is like that, too, swift, full of spy-story switches and obscurities and puzzles; and obscenities; and I quite believe the hero when he says, “Don’t try distilling a message from it, not even an espresso cup of meaningful epitome or a Sambuca glass of abridgement, con la mosca.” No one could doubt Burgess’s extensive cleverness or his fantastic energy, but MF is mere public frenzy.

_____________

 

Daniel Fuchs published three novels about New York in the 30’s, then became a screenwriter. This short book, West of the Rockies, is his first since those days. It has been praised by good critics.

But how strangely the words and the phrases seem to lie on the page—to me a puzzle more perplexing than Burgess’s wild language. I suppose I just haven’t the key to it, I lack the responses that would lift the words into life.

I can try to explain it this way. The story is about a time in the late 50’s, before Hollywood’s decline: a screen star, someone of the stature of Rita Hayworth or Ava Gardner, is on the run to Palm Springs with a small-time agent, kept man of a rich wife. The star is in hysterics and is endangering a major production. Various people try to get her back to work.

Now, as this story makes itself known to us, it is very much a recitation; someone is telling the story, although the narrator is anonymous, omniscient, third-person. This unseen narrator is trying to tell us what it is like to have “star quality,” the strange gift or curse that makes famous performers what they are. He cannot show us, he can only talk about it. The narrator rambles, repeats himself, as all of us do when we tell a story—and what I can’t make out is the meaning of his style. He speaks in a thesaurus of clichés, but without any apparent irony over it. Perhaps there is irony, and my tone-deafness makes me miss it. And everyone in the story speaks in exactly the same way, piling up the clichés, first the clichés of the little dead metaphors of ordinary speech: “Sticks to me like glue. . . .” “She sits like a bump on a log. . . .” “You can wait until the cows come home. . . .” “She lays there in the dumps, all tuckered out. . . .” “Deep down they know the wife’s got nothing but contempt for them, and it’s a Donnybrook, cat and dog from the word go. . . .”

Then they speak in another sort of strange jargon, somewhat less credibly perhaps, but again, possibly an accurate rendition of some Hollywood dialect, picked up from the language of “literary” screenplays. Almost, I can hear Bette Davis doing it. “What did they do, send you down to chastise me?” “Because I wanted you to come flying to me of your own volition.” Just so, the narrator says to us, “She was on the rebound,” and then, “He was consistently unfaithful to his young, inexperienced wife.” A mother visits her son, and this I swear is an actual quotation, at “his lavish home.” There is a further curious effect, which is that nearly everything is said twice. “She was wound up, all excited by the emergency.” “Claris was pinned down, . . . he was obliged to stand by. . . . Claris was a minor employee and of no importance. . . .” “He was puzzled, uneasy. . . .” “The producer was gone, no longer standing alongside.”

Perhaps this sort of thing does not seem strange to other readers, it may even lead them through the words into a vision of the realities of old Palm Springs and old Hollywood, the ancient scandals and gossip and glamor and squalor. But for me, they were words and phrases, just lingo, they are gone, they have split, they are no longer there.

_____________

 

On A Cry of Absence, by Madison Jones, we can be relieved of my verbal schemes, and go on to speak of the actions and moralities presented, almost as if they were real. A Cry of Absence has been highly praised by excellent critics: “A masterpiece of fictional art,” Allen Tate. It is a story of the South, set in 1957, the days of the first struggles and violence of “The Movement.” And, for what it is worth, the novel is carefully and well done, in the manner of the conventional fiction of some years ago. A genteel Southern lady learns that her son has murdered a Negro activist, and finally learns of her own unconscious complicity in the climate that led to the crime, I must admit that I read this book totally without sympathy. The characters seemed to me straight out of the standard Southern stock company; and while I can believe that it would be agonizing to find that a son was a racist murderer, I refuse to believe that such a situation can be made to stand for that long-ago dilemma of the South in general. The family theme does not make the problem human, it makes it sentimental. Perhaps the moral dilemmas of ordinary human beings in social crises, especially those of genteel ladies, can be genuine only when they are so prophetic by so many long years, as in Faulkner and as in Peter Taylor, that we do not in our first reading quite understand them; and such scenes will not do as apologetics long after the special agony has moved to new grounds.

With Eudora Welty’s Losing Battles I must return to my word-games, since my sternest sense of duty could not get me more than half through this long weird pastoral dream of life in some legendary South of years gone by. And Eudora Welty is such a splendid writer, has been for so long. . . .

On the first page there are eleven figures of speech, each of them just as pretty as a picture. The moon goes down “on flushed cheek. . . . A long thin cloud crossed it slowly, drawing itself out like a name being called. The air changed, as if a mile or so away a wooden door had swung open. . . .” “Then a house appeared on its ridge, like an old man’s silver watch pulled once more out of its pocket. . . .” And so on, and on, with real flowers among the flowering prose, “still colorless as faces,” until, at the bottom of the page and just over the leaf, “The distant point of the ridge, like the tongue of a calf, put its red lick on the sky.”

I quit right there, actually, so there is no point in telling you of the incredible high jinks at the family reunion for Granny Vaughan’s ninetieth birthday, as Ella Fay, and Miss Beulah, and Mr. Renfro, and Brother Bethune, and Uncle Percy, and Aunt Nanny, and Uncle Dolphus, Uncle Noah Webster, and finally, brave Jack, home from Parchman Prison, all romp and reminisce chin-deep in pure Mississippi molasses. One can only say that he trusts Eudora Welty has got it out of her system now and can get back to some diet less rich. As Miss Beulah said, “That coconut cake’s so tender I advise you to eat it with a spoon.”

_____________

 

But I see now, as I come finally to say a few words about Mary McCarthy’s Birds of America, that my excuses for disliking A Cry of Absence and Losing Battles were perhaps the wrong ones. Those Southern bouts of nostalgia, in the first place, are not really any more illegitimate as ex-post-facto apologetics than is Birds of America; nor, in the second place, are they really worse cases of infatuation with the artifacts and foods and personalities of the past. There must be other reasons, then, why I like this book so much and can’t stand the others.

I stick to my dislikes, to my claims that Madison Jones should not present the former racial system of the South as cultured and its opponents as boors, and also that Eudora Welty’s tapestry of petit point is self-indulgent. But Mary McCarthy presents her American past in the form of a woman, too, a woman committed to the “old” ways—the ancient ways of the 1940’s—and from the special vantage point of the family. Her heroine is a twice-divorced harpsichordist seen through the adoring, if ironic, eyes of her teen-age son. Even, this heroine is seen with more admiration, with less historic complication, than is Madison Jones’s Hester Glenn. And the opponents of Mary McCarthy’s heroine are boors as monstrous, no, even more monstrous, really, than the opponents of Mrs. Glenn. They are American military men and the dread modern bourgeoisie. Although she would not be able to bear the surrounding rhetoric, no doubt Mary McCarthy’s Rosamund Brown would have approved, might even have envied, the cry in Eudora Welty’s book at the Renfro family reunion, “Ready for your next plateful? Here’s the sausage I saved you from last year’s hog! Here’s some more home-cured ham, make room for more chicken. Elvie! Buttermilk! This time bring him the whole pitcher!”

Rosamund Brown, in her last-ditch Pyrrhic stand for real American cooking, against frozen dinners and “gourmet” cans, stuffs her son with “pot roast and New England boiled dinner and fried chicken and lobsters and scallops and bluefish and mackerel and scalloped oysters and clam chowder. They had Cape Cod Turkey, which some people said was salmon but his mother thought was baked fresh cod with a stuffing. They had codfish cakes and corned beef hash and red flannel hash and chicken hash (three ways), spoon bread and hominy and Rhode Island jonnycake and country sausage with fried apple rings and Brown Betty and Indian pudding and pandowdy and apple pie and cranberry pie. . . .”

The book seems to have become known now as some kind of assault on Tip-Top Bread and on capitalism—so it appeared on one television interview, when the author responded, so it seemed to me, with great charm and with but little sense of what was being done to her; which is exactly how she ought to have responded. That capitalism may have become an evil because it has corrupted the quality of loaves of bread will of course seem to be a frivolous charge to many minds. What is bread? Only the staff of life—and then what else.

_____________

 

But aside from that, two things, the first of them the more important. It is the novelist’s job to locate in the actual texture of life, in manners, in taste, in things so small and so important that we others never notice them, the signs of the great drifts of time. These signs Mary McCarthy notes in great detail in bright clear prose, surrounding with these observations this mother and her son, two people I liked very much and found completely credible. Myself a sentimental father of three about the age of her Peter Levi, I take him to be one of the few renditions of “youth” in contemporary fiction that catches their awkward Puritanism and their vulnerable charm.

And another confession of my bias that endears this book to me. Those small things in the drift of time that the novelist must see should of course be “sociologically” true, though, as I was glad to find Mary McCarthy could not, the novelist need not, ought not, explain this. Here, my abrupt opinion is that her sense of things is correct. Modern corporate finance capitalism has deprived us not simply of crunchy crusts, it has deprived us of the baker. The baker was a man who stood sweating before his midnight oven on his own two feet, providing for his family and for his neighborhood on his own terms, as best he could make them. Everywhere—so I say, abruptly—our kind of capitalism is depriving us of men like this, farmer, mechanic, carpenter, shopkeeper, builder, trader, and they will not come back. Only the independent intellectual has been neglected so far. That we have lost the cook in the kitchen is the home sign of it all.

Now this is not new, but I find Mary McCarthy’s statement of it poignant. General ideas on “ecology” are already a bore, the corporations have taken them up for their television advertisements. So back to the surface, and then to those last words of Birds of America, now become famous. A phantom speaks to the young hero. “Perhaps you have already guessed it. Nature is dead, mein Kind.” It seems to me that the three hundred pages of her story have earned Mary McCarthy the right to say that. In the reviewer’s sense of it, the shocking thing is that we can take this with such a quibbling, nibbling, ungrateful sort of acceptance, quite as though we could not or need not care.

_____________

 

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