Commentary Magazine


The New American Novel

You may quote me. . . . Man is vile,
and makes nothing worth making,
knows nothing worth knowing.

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Cat’s Cradle.

Anathematization Of the world is not an adequate response to the world.

Donald Barthelme, Snow White

Something decidedly peculiar has been happening to the American novel over the past fifteen years. The various labels attached to the new American fiction—black humor, satiric fantasy, anti-realism, self-reflexive writing, fabulation, mythopoeia, absurdism—have by now become the clichés of the weekly newsmagazines, and there is enough congruence among the competing terms at least to reassure us that they point to a common object. Although some attempts have been made to link the writers of the 60’s and 70’s with the pioneers of European and American modernism of the earlier 20th century, it has been frequently, and justly, observed that the new American novelists break sharply not only with the tradition of realism rooted in the 19th-century novel but also with the modernist ideal of the novel as a perfectly wrought, intricately consistent work of art. That is, in this vehemently contemporary fiction, there is a cultivated quality of rapid improvisation, often a deliberate looseness of form; a love of pastiche, parody, slapdash invention; a wilful neglect of psychological depth and subtlety or consecutiveness of characterization; a cavalier attitude toward consistency of incident, plot unity, details of milieu; and, underlying all these, a kind of despairing skepticism, often tinged either with exhilaration or hysteria, about the validity of language and the very enterprise of fiction.

Now, I would like to propose that we might put this whole cluster of iconoclastic qualities in sharper focus by trying to define the peculiar relation to history that has evolved in recent American fiction. History, it should be remembered, given America’s early, compelling dream of itself as a unique new experiment in the evolution of mankind, has tended to exert rather more of a mythic pressure on the novel in this country than has been true in Western Europe. (The eschatological nationalism of the Russian novel would in this respect provide a complementary parallel to the American tradition.) In a good deal of 19th-century American fiction, conditioned as it was by a constantly expanding frontier, there was a sense of unexhausted possibilities constantly opening out from the limitations and vexations of actual American society: Huck Finn’s final resolution “to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest” is the celebrated archetypal expression of this general sense. Pushed to its theological extreme, this impulse to move into the solitary freedom of God’s open country results in a metahistorical pursuit of the Absolute, as in Moby-Dick. Seen through the lens of a post-Puritan moral realism, it becomes a disillusioned vision of failed American utopianism, the Territory turned into an empty dream, as in Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance.

The idea held by imaginative writers of an American historical destiny, however troubling or maddening it might be, clearly crossed a decisive watershed in the collective shock of World War I. The helpless involvement of the United States in the destructive processes of world history and the shattering experience of modern mechanized warfare, made it difficult for serious writers to sustain even the vestiges of our stubborn national innocence. The Hemingway of the 20’s responds to the awfulness of the historical moment with an effort to fashion a stoic, perhaps heroic, privatism. Beginning at the end of the 20’s, America’s one major modernist, William Faulkner, gives the final turn to the old dream of national history by creating out of the experience of the South a myth of American destiny as tragic, irreversible decline, doom devolving from the primal sin by which a national heritage was founded on the enslavement of one race and the dispossession of another.

The novelists who came to prominence in the 40’s and early 50’s often saw themselves quite consciously as direct heirs of Faulkner or Hemingway, or occasionally others of that same generation. Faulkner’s brooding sense of doomed history recurs in a variegated array of Southern writers, sometimes lumped together as the Southern Gothics, ranging from the organ-like amplitudes of William Styron’s apocalyptic grandiloquence to the poltergeists of Truman Capote. Further to the North, Hemingway’s cultivation of a fiercely masculine individualism in the face of the essential nastiness of history would be emulated by a variety of writers of the new generation—perhaps most notably by Norman Mailer, at some moments of his career a hero-worshiper of Hemingway to the point of inadvertent parody.

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In any case, what I should like to stress is that the writers who comprised the new generation in the period immediately after World War II faithfully followed the American novel of the 20’s and 30’s in its effort to engage, through the accumulation of persuasive mimetic detail, historical forces that had come to be seen as potent threats either to the integrity of the individual or to the viability of our collective destiny. On the level of technique, this meant that there tended to be little formal iconoclasm in this group, its prevalent fictional mode being what one still broadly designates as realism—an orientation vividly illustrated in the fiction of the finest writer of this generation, Saul Bellow. Bellow’s novels of urban (usually, intellectual) life intelligently trace the minute and manifold impingements of the historical moment and of a specific milieu on the consciousness of an individual who is trying to bring some coherence into his private world, often against the headlong current of the historical moment. Bellow’s most recent books, though steeped in the evolving American moods of the 60’s and 70’s, and more philosophical in temper, remain perfectly consistent with the aims and procedures of his earliest work of the 40’s.

Norman Mailer, on the other hand, in his shifting and for the moment truncated career as a novelist, illustrates precisely how American writing has tended to move into a new, problematic relationship with history. His first book, The Naked and the Dead (1948)—in many respects still his most adequate novel—draws on techniques of Dos Passos, Farrell, Steinbeck, and other American social realists of the 30’s in order to present a panoramic view of American society in the crucible of war, the writer using his medium to grapple strenuously with the complex ideological forces that were exposed in the war, and struggling to imagine some way to a livable human future beyond this or other wars. Mailer’s two novels of the 50’s, Barbary Shore and The Deer Park, try to explore technical possibilities and human situations beyond the purview of The Naked and the Dead, but he remains in both of them an essentially political novelist, keenly attentive to how power is exerted in a particular time and place, how ideology and the moral imagination respond to the felt pressures of power. In Mailer’s two novels of the next decade, however, An American Dream (1964) and Why Are We in Vietnam? (1967), a radical shift occurred, a shift that may explain why Mailer has written no novels since. The very titles, of course, emphasize a programmatic concentration on issues of national destiny, but both novels in fact are largely devoted to the playing out of private fantasies. Frequently articulated with stylistic brilliance, the fantasies do on occasion illuminate certain aspects of the larger American context, but too often their self-indulgence only leads us down some primrose path in Mailer’s own teeming mental garden. After such fiction, this abundantly talented writer, losing purchase on both form and subject, seems to have concluded that he had little choice but to become a self-dramatizing journalist.

In the American novelists who began to publish a decade later than Norman Mailer, this elusive and profound relationship between history and private fantasy repeatedly proves to be the key to a whole fictional world. Some traumas by their nature seem to take time to make themselves felt in imaginative work, but from the perspective of the mid-70’s it is a little surprising to note how many of the new American novelists of the 60’s have been obsessed by the harrowing memory of World War II, even in cases where the writer was too young to have taken part himself. (For the rather old-fashioned sensibility of the young Mailer, by contrast, the war experience was punishing, but hardly traumatic. Indeed, one gathers that he left for the Pacific spoiling to write the Great War Novel, armed with the assumptions and literary methods of the immediately preceding generation of writers.) Joseph Heller’s widely influential Catch-22 (1961), one of the trail-blazing novels in the mode then commonly identified as black humor, offers a paradigm for the whole new movement in fiction: a wildly spinning, zanily farcical vortex of narrative invention turning around a center of unassimilable horror—the violent raw absurdity of death in time of war.

This was the war, after all, that had begun with the literal translation of eschatological belief into a systematic national policy—genocide—and that ended, on the other side, with the use of new instruments of destruction capable of obliterating human life on our planet. This war pregnant with the end of all things is the consuming subject of both of Thomas Pynchon’s major novels, V. (1963) and Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), and it equally haunts most of the fiction of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. Of the commonly acclaimed new American novelists, only John Barth has not reverted directly to the war, though his work has patently been produced in the psychological aftermath of the war, something symptomatically suggested in his first novel, The Floating Opera (1955), where a traumatic memory of a dead man in a trench—it is “displaced” into World War I—functions exactly like Catch-22’s hole of horror at the center of the fictional vortex.

If much of this fiction has been obsessed with the war and the terrible revelation of the nature of history embodied in the war, the writers, following the general logic of obsessions, have addressed themselves more to the materials of recurrent fantasy than to their ostensibly objective referents. What I am suggesting is that these novelists even (or perhaps especially) when their surface details are most insistently historical, have been concerned with something very different from history. Indeed, one frequently finds their adversary impulse toward contemporary reality accompanied by a predisposition to dismiss it impatiently, not to bother with imagining it in any complex way. This quality was shrewdly observed a number of years ago by Burton Feldman in a trenchant critique of black humor (Dissent, March-April 1968): “For all the violence of its assault on American culture, Black Humor gives no sense that this enemy is worth attacking. It is only there, a middle-class moonscape; and then Black Humor slips off into fantasy and parody.”

Middle-class moonscape is an apt description of the America evoked in the fiction of Kurt Vonnegut, where outraged social criticism, sentimental moralism, and science-fiction fantasy form a piquant if not altogether credible ménage à trois The case of Vonnegut is an instructive one because the comic-strip clarity of his novels lucidly illustrates a conception of history largely shared by Pynchon and Barth, though perhaps partly camouflaged through the complicated elaboration of design in their more ambitious work. Vonnegut has obviously been the most widely read of the new novelists because his stylistic, structural, and psychological simplicity, coupled with a genuine verve of narrative inventiveness, makes him the most easily accessible of these writers. I would attribute at least some of his popularity, however, to the need of many readers over the past decade for a novelist who could write away history while seeming to write about it.

Vonnegut clearly has the greatest personal claim to the experience of radical trauma in the war, having been a prisoner of the Germans in Dresden at the time when all of the city’s structures and a large part of its population were incinerated in a massive American firebombing. That particular experience is at the center of one novel, Slaughterhouse Five (1969), but its presence is implicit in most of what Vonnegut has written. The conclusions Vonnegut draws from this ghastly memory are worth summarizing because they embody, at the lower limits of complexity, attitudes of a whole literary generation.

Most pressingly, the novels articulate an uncompromising cynicism about politics, about all forms of nationalism, all collective endeavor, about the potential for destructive evil in even the most seemingly innocent and private of men. As a character in Cat’s Cradle (1963) is made to say, “Man is vile, and makes nothing worth making, knows nothing worth knowing.” The individual, especially if he is in any way an artist, is bound to be misrepresented, violated, viciously exploited, by the sinister powers that govern collective existence. (One might recall that Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow makes paranoia a central formal theme, repeatedly invoking a ubiquitous Them—the capital T is the author’s—out to get the hapless individual.) Characteristically, the writer-protagonist of Vonnegut’s Mother Night (1961), caught in a cross-pull of the devious political operations of Nazi propaganda, American and Russian intelligence, says he feels like a pig taken apart by the experts, who have managed to find a use even for his squeal: “The part of me that wanted to tell the truth got turned into a liar! The lover in me got turned into a pornographer! The artist in me got turned into ugliness such as the world has rarely seen before.” In the face of such an assault, the novelist can only adopt a series of strategies of self-protective flippancy and cheerfully apocalyptic pessimism, converting the novel into an extended evasive action taken against Them, the powers that would rape—or as we unfortunately say in America these days, “co-opt”—the artist or any individual trying to guard his own fragile and private truth.

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It will be observed that there is a Manichean split here between the unalterable forces of boundless evil and the residual nostalgia for goodness, truth, and love in some individuals (hence the sentimentality beneath the cynicism in Vonnegut). Such dualism in itself implies an avoidance of real history, which presents itself as a highly variegated set of mixed moral phenomena, not as a simple split between good individuals and evil collectivities. What is still more revealing, however, in regard to the dehistoricization of history in Vonnegut is the absolute equality he requires of horrors perpetrated on all sides. Man, at least in his political guise, is equally vile everywhere, whether he is a Nazi, an American, or a Soviet Russian, and so Dresden and Hiroshima are, quite without qualification, the exact equivalent of Auschwitz and Dachau. Taking the symmetricization of history even one step further, Vonnegut implies that all these loci of horror mean no more or less on the moral scale than the thoughtlessness with which an absent-minded scientist (in Cat’s Cradle) idly invents a doomsday weapon that subsequently destroys all life on earth.

Actual history is above all the realm of constant, nuanced, endlessly perplexing differentiation, but in Vonnegut and other American novelists of the 60’s and 70’s, we find the following simple chain of equations: all history is mindlessly destructive, all destructiveness is impelled by the same underlying forces or motives, and can be reduced to the same basic formula, and so all engagements in a particular historical cause are equally lunatic and futile. A comment made by a character in Donald Barthelme’s Snow White (1967) beautifully illustrates this whole leveling approach to history as well as the characteristic literary manner it engenders in Vonnegut, in Barthelme himself, and in a good many of their American contemporaries:

If I had been born well prior to 1900, I could have ridden with Pershing against Pancho Villa. Alternatively, I could have ridden with Villa against the landowners and corrupt government officials of the time. In either case, I would have had a horse. How little opportunity there is for young men to have personally-owned horses in the bottom half of the 20th century! A wonder that we U.S. youth can fork a saddle at all.

Barthelme is a shrewd writer if ultimately a trivial one, and it is clever of him to choose a relatively peripheral historical conflict in order to show how all sides are interchangeable, each having its own spurious myths (the American patriot’s hero-worshipping “I could have ridden with Pershing”) and its own clichés (the revolutionary slogan of a struggle against “landowners and corrupt government officials”). Equally characteristic of the new American writing is the way this total disillusionment with the supposed “complexities” of history turns directly into verbal clowning: two opposed alternatives of participation in a Mexican revolution suddenly switch into a farcical tangent, expressed in mock-serious language, about the lack of “personally-owned horses” and how it has afflicted “U.S. youth.” The technique ostentatiously destroys distinctions between what is central and what is peripheral in human experience. The course of history itself is seen not as a weighty, momentous development in experienced time, but as an abstract scheme of contentless dates, perhaps a diagram in a notebook, “the bottom half of the 20th century” from which the speaker peers up at the mechanically interchangeable figures of Pershing and Pancho Villa somewhere near the top. Such a sense of history as symmetrically indifferent pointlessness is shared by others of the new American novelists, but Barthelme may well infer the most consistent artistic consequence of this sense by openly withdrawing from the serious representation of men and women caught in the web of history to a mimicry of verbal and cultural gestures, the fiction devised chiefly as a collage of linguistic waste products, a study of what the author himself calls “the trash phenomenon” in language.

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The dehistoricizing of history—the absence of a sense that history provides mixed possibilities for achievement and change, as well as repeated occasions for disaster—largely explains, I think, the final effect of hollowness or slightness in even those works of recent American fiction which have assumed massive proportions and aspired to encyclopedic statements about technological civilization in the 20th century. I have in mind those fictional blockbusters that are periodically celebrated on the predictable front page of the New York Times Book Review as the greatest achievement in American writing since Melville, or in modern writing since Joyce. (One does not want to be too cynical about such things, but it is well to bear in mind that there are powerful American establishments in book publishing, journalism, and literary academia that have vested interests in discovering an unquestionable new masterpiece at the rate, say, of one every eighteen months.) The two most conspicuous novels of this sort since the mid-60’s are Barth’s Giles Goat-Boy (1966) and, seven years afterward, Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. In both, the proliferation of historical and pseudo-historical detail runs roughly in inverse proportion to any truly historical grasp of events. Taken together, they demarcate the upper and lower ranges of attempts to write a Great American Novel with historical conflict seen as a matter of Tweedledum and Tweedledee. Pynchon’s descriptive brilliance and architectonic inventiveness are such that one sometimes forgets the simplicity of the formula on which he builds his 900-page structure. In Barth, on the other hand, the endless complication of surface details is of so brittle a cleverness that it constantly reveals the tediousness of the novel’s informing conception.

Giles Goat-Boy is little more than an immensely inflated translation game, the world conceived as a university, its sacred texts as syllabi, the cold war as a rivalry between East Campus and West Campus, each equipped with an all-powerful computer capable of shortcircuiting the entire academic realm. Thus the Jewish mentor of the novel’s Archetypal Hero—for Joseph Campbell and other handbooks of Jungian anthropology have been schematically superimposed on the schematic translation game—solemnly informs Giles: “Moishe says in the Old Syllabus, Except ye be circumcised like me, ye shall not Pass. But in the New Syllabus Enos Enoch says Verily, I crave the foreskin of the mind.” Here in capsule is the problem of the novel as a whole: it is hard to see what is gained by translating Old and New Testaments into Old Syllabus and New, in thinly disguising Moses and Jesus as Moishe and Enos Enoch (for the latter see Genesis 5:24), in substituting academic passing for theological salvation. The transparent coding activity at best affords the sorts of mental gratification that might appeal to a reasonably alert high-school sophomore while, on the negative side, it allows for a relentlessly simplistic reduction of historical facts—in this particular case the facts of religious history. The broader cold-war plan of the novel can be manipulated, through the mechanical logic of the translation game, as a perfectly symmetrical interplay of forces, the complex and changing conflict of interests between two large political systems since 1945 reduced to East Campus and West; to two acronymic computers, EASCAC and WESCAC; to Slavic Tweedledumsky and American Tweedledeeman. The simplicity of pseudo-historical conception is at bottom the same as Vonnegut’s flat equation of Dresden with Auschwitz, but without Vonnegut’s engaging simplicity of manner.

As Giles Goat-Boy slowly recedes into the detritus of failed experiments in American fiction, the one real question it raises is why it should have been initially received by so many critics, especially in the more popular reviewing media, with such extravagant enthusiasm. In addition to the general thirst for greatness in the American novel to which I have alluded (with a concomitant tendency to confuse greatness with bigness), literary circles in this country are inclined, in a period which has placed special value on the anti-conventional, the oppositional, to mistake mere verbal vaudeville for stylistic vitality, grotesquerie for originality, callow cynicism—as in the de rigueur scenes of orgiastic abandon cerebrally conceived—for probing moral vision. In all these features, Barth’s most ambitious book represents the typical characteristics of the new American novel at their puerile worst. His more modest concentration on ironized myth and on the exhaustion of narrative possibilities in his two volumes of fiction since Giles suggests that without the ability to engage imaginatively the dynamic complexities of real historical process, the novel, like the morally paralyzed hero of Barth’s second book, The End of the Road, has no place to go.

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Gravity’s Rainbow, at least at first glance, reveals many of the same generic features as Giles Goat-Boy. It, too, presents an enormously ramified fictional structure meant to give an encyclopedic account of the relentless destructiveness of history in our era. Here, too, the menace of apocalypse is conveyed with a kind of savage hilarity, the characters purposely reduced to grotesquely named cartoons, verbal slapstick abounding, bizarre and lurid fantasies spinning out of historical centers, orgiastic scrambles and endlessly deviant sexual couplings deployed to incarnate the perverseness and the cynical exhaustion of the human spirit. The general effect of Gravity’s Rainbow, however, is quite different from that of Barth’s book, this novel being alternately repellent and engrossing, intolerably tedious and illuminating, but not finally trivial.

Pynchon’s setting is the European theater during the final months of World War II and the immediately subsequent period of the Occupation. His constant focus is the V-2 rocket, which is seen as a mystical icon, as a sexual symbol, and, above all, as the towering, mesmerizing vehicle of apocalypse which is the logical end-product of industrial civilization. The whole scheme is elaborated with a formidable degree of intellectual complexity. Pynchon is fundamentally a philosophic writer—at times, one suspects, too inexorably philosophic for the formal needs of the novel—and he uses his looming Rocket to explore basic questions of probability and determinism, entropy and order, randomness and paranoid system, in intricate detail. Possessing an extraordinarily well-stocked mind, he is able to put to active use as much precisely observed lore—from science, history, and popular culture—as any living writer in English.

Indeed, Gravity’s Rainbow often seems only residually narrative, less a novel than an “anatomy,” one of those eccentric baroque compendia of bizarre associative learning like Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621) and Sir Thomas Browne’s Religio Medici (1643). Pynchon is a brilliant stylist with a love for mimetic detail (though the overall conception of the book is schematic and mythic rather than mimetic), and this novel is studded with impressive set-pieces, from the evocation of a dozen generations of a family in a New England graveyard near the beginning to the great lyric description of the ultimate flight of the rocket at the very end. Most appropriately for a novel in which the central symbol is a complex instrument of technology, the writer is able to shape the imagery and conceptual materials of science and technology into vital elements of his style. To cite one of hundreds of examples, this is the way he defines a mood of edginess between two lovers: “They’re both of them peevish tonight, whippy as sheets of glass improperly annealed, ready to go smash at any indefinite touch in a whining matrix of stresses.”

For all these indubitable resources, Gravity’s Rainbow is a novel that satisfies one unevenly in segments rather than as a whole. The problem is not that it lacks structural unity. On the contrary, Pynchon is the most artfully designing of the new American novelists, and the seemingly disparate pieces of his novel are interwoven with an elaborate tracery of verbal, imagistic, folkloric, theosophic, pop-culture, and scientific motifs. The difficulty is rather in Pynchon’s schematic conception of the movement of history which is his subject. I would argue, in fact, that he closely resembles Barth, Barthelme, and Vonnegut in finally not taking history very seriously, despite the overwhelming density of actual historical detail in the book. Perhaps the best way to see this is in his notion of a conspiracy of international capital, which is in many respects his most compelling historical argument.

Pynchon can be persuasively disturbing in his evocation of a ubiquitous profit-motive that works through international cartels, manipulating wars and producing death as its logical end-product: “Don’t forget the real business of the War is buying and selling. . . . The true war is a celebration of markets.” Such statements have a certain aphoristic resonance, though they seriously misrepresent the character of a war in which the fundamental motives were ideological, not economic. The ingenuity of Pynchon’s method is sometimes pointedly suggestive in making it difficult for us to distinguish between historical fact and fictional invention. There actually were, of course, connections in the 30’s between I.G. Farben and duPont, as he repeatedly and effectively reminds us. On the other hand, when an I.G. Farben executive in the novel angrily rejects the proposal to develop a ray capable of blinding everyone for a radius of miles—because after the war there would be fewer customers for the company’s dyes—fictional invention is used to expose the inner logic of historical facts, teasingly leaving us to wonder whether it might actually be historical fact. By the time we are well into the novel, however, the idea of international capital produces visions like this:

A Rocket-cartel. A structure cutting across every agency human and paper that ever touched it. Even to Russia. . . . Are there arrangements Stalin won’t admit . . . doesn’t even know about? Oh, a State begins to take form in the stateless German night, a State that spans oceans and surface politics, sovereign as the International or the Church of Rome, and the Rocket is its soul. I G Raketen.

This, of course, is not history but paranoid fantasy using historical materials—or eschatological symbolism drawn out of history, which amounts to the same thing—and I don’t think Pynchon himself really escapes the schematic simplicity of the paranoid vision merely by naming paranoia repeatedly as an explicit theme and attributing it to his principal characters.

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History as seen here through the experience of World War II is a process of pure destructiveness, posing for the frail individual’s futile hopes of survival only the question of whether the acts of destruction are patterned or random. Thus the narrator wonders how a mathematician, charting the statistical curve of German rocketfall on London, can “be so at his ease with these symbols of randomness and fright? Innocent as a child, perhaps unaware—perhaps—that in this play he wrecks the elegant rooms of history, threatens the idea of cause and effect itself. . . . Will Postwar be nothing but ‘events,’ newly created one moment to the next? No links? Is it the end of history?” Again, Pynchon, the most intelligent of the new American writers, keenly perceives the problematics of the concepts with which he is working but is nevertheless trapped by them as a novelist. If the end of history is at hand, historical time being only a welter of statistical events, without causal links, all bent on destruction, there is no objective ground for narrative structure; calculated formal design must substitute for anything like development in the novel; and perhaps most crucial, there are no criteria for selectivity in the novelist’s shuttle between history and invention.

Let me briefly elaborate this last point because I think it may explain how Gravity’s Rainbow can be at the same time a complex architectonic structure and a lamentably flabby novel. If history is no longer a realm of concatenation, if there are no necessary connections among discrete events and no possibility of a hierarchy of materials ranged along some scale of significance, any associative chain of fantasies, any crotchety hobbyistic interest, any technical fascination with the rendering of odd trivia, can be pursued by the novelist as legitimately as the movement of supposedly “significant” actions. The end of history, in other words, is a writer’s license for self-indulgence, and Pynchon utilizes that license for page after dreary page of Gravity’s Rainbow as he describes at incredible length varieties of turds in a sewer, varieties of revolting wine-jelly candies in a British cupboard, varieties of bizarre sexual combinations in a very long daisy-chain, and so forth.

The lack of selectivity leads to local flaws; the unwillingness to make differential judgments about historical events results in a larger inadequacy of the novel as a whole. A very high-level Vonnegut, Pynchon presents a perfectly symmetrical picture of devotion to the technology of death during the Hitler era (and, implicitly, since) in Germany, England, America, and Russia. Whatever the surface differences, the same isomorphic forces are imagined impelling all nations. One would never guess from this novel, for example, that there were after all significant differences between a totalitarianism unsurpassed in its ruthlessness and political systems that had some institutional guarantees of individual freedoms, or between a state that was dedicated to fulfillment through genocide and one that was not. It is precisely for this reason that Pynchon’s Europe of 1944-45 seems so much like a “moonscape,” despite all the seemingly documentary detail.

Such leveling of historical distinctions is disastrously encouraged by the post-Freudian cliché through which Pynchon sees all events and around which he elaborates his central symbol. The Rocket is, of course, a monstrous phallus, Eros turned to Thanatos, the Death Instinct having absorbed all mankind’s libidinal energy. The point, insisted on over and over, is made perfectly explicit near the end. An interpolated voice, commenting on the protagonist, says that Dr. Jamf, the sinister German scientist who had loomed behind the action, “was only a fiction, to help him [Slothrop, the protagonist] explain what he felt so terribly, so immediately in his genitals for those rockets each time exploding in the sky . . . to help him deny what he could not possibly admit: that he might be in love, in sexual love, with his, and his race’s, death.” Virtually all the ingenious contrivances of plot and character in Gravity’s Rainbow are finally illustrations of this single idea. History reduced so exclusively to the working out of the Death Instinct is metapsychological myth, no history at all, and what it generates in the novel is a proliferation of variations on one unswerving formula that in the end tells us nothing new about the challengingly ambiguous interplay of people and power in real historical time.

The encouragement given by critics to this sort of facilely schematic cynicism about history suggests that we may be in for a good deal more of it. To cite a very recent example, E.L. Doctorow’s bestseller, Ragtime,1 set in the Teddy Roosevelt era, weaves together fictional invention with a tendentious selection of facts about actual historical figures and events in order to give the impression that the most basic impulse of American life at the time was realized in lynching, gunning down of strikers, slow starvation of immigrants, and the like, all ultimately presided over by a Mephistophelean J.P. Morgan. (The Morgan enterprises here are an exact equivalent of Pynchon’s I.G. Farben.) The middlebrow reviewers, while celebrating Doctorow’s “boldness” and “originality.” did not see fit to observe that his version of American history is one that could easily fit into a handbook for urban guerrillas. The novelists’ leveling approach to history in fact now seems often replicated in literary criticism. Thus, Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory,2 an otherwise workmanlike documentation of the literary impact of World War I on Englishmen, is utterly unconvincing in its repeated insistence that Heller, Pynchon, the later Mailer, all of Vonnegut, respond to more recent conflicts in essentially the imaginative mode developed in the experience of 1914-18. Not surprisingly, the sweeping archetypal notions of Northrop Frye are enlisted to facilitate this critical schematization of literary history.

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Now, the whole line of argument I have been advancing here may give the impression that the only legitimate novel in my view is an old-fashioned realistic one, and that I have found these particular novelists wanting chiefly for their failure to treat history in the manner of Zola or Arnold Bennett. I should like to stress that I have no quarrel at all with fantasy or flaunted artifice in the novel but only with their deployment in ways that are ultimately self-indulgent and mechanically repetitious, that tend to turn the imaginative energies of fiction into a crackling closed circuit. Let me offer one brief counter-example to indicate how a novel written in a manifestly antirealist mode can still put us in touch with the nature of real forces at work in history. The book I have in mind is Nabokov’s Pale Fire (1962), a novel that could well be the finest that has appeared in English since the beginning of the 60’s. The celebrated intricacy of artifice in Pale Fire has been the subject of much solemn explication (including some of my own), but what saves the evident “brilliance” of the book from mere cleverness is that it illuminates the deeper perplexities of art operating in history in a way the novels we have been considering do not.

At first thought, any serious connection with real history would seem quite implausible in this novel where all political events are the fantasies of a madman recessed within the structure of a poem by a fictitious poet. Kinbote, the narrator, one recalls, while supposedly editing and annotating the last work of a recently deceased American poet, John Shade, spins out a fantasy of himself as the dethroned monarch of a certain vaguely northern European kingdom called Zembla, taken over by a ruthless revolutionary party, the Extremists, who have sent an obtuse but implacable assassin in pursuit of the former king. All this delusional material is presented in one of the most elaborately patterned novels of recent decades, the narrative being a complex interweave of recurring images, colors, anagrammatic clues, and literary allusions. The political “reality” of Zembla, moreover, is ostentatiously of a comic-opera variety, abounding in secret doors, underground passages, midnight escapes, and other predictable paraphernalia. (The narrator at the end actually contemplates remaking the story as a swashbuckling movie to be called Escape from Zembla.)

Nevertheless, Pale Fire succeeds in creating an evocative sense of history as a scary but compelling arena in which different options for human enhancement or disfigurement, different levels of consciousness, are generated by shifting events and political systems, by the varying circumstances of individual and national culture. Nabokov keenly understands that there are, after all, qualitative differences between living in a totalitarian state, where the perfect ideal of man is to be, like the assassin Gradus in the novel, an obedient goon with a gun, and living under political systems where there is enough freedom of consciousness for the poet, the lover, the madman (Shade and Kinbote between them are all three) to enjoy immense riches of inner experience even in the painful comedy and the bizarre contradictions of their wayward mental life. The fact that all the central events of the novel are patent inventions has the paradoxical effect of sharpening this ultimately political theme.

Pale Fire, in a weirdly refracted fashion, is a piece of searching spiritual autobiography for Nabokov, who has felt himself so acutely to be a displaced poet victimized by the violent upheavals of 20th-century history, forced first to flee Bolshevik terror in his native Russia, then Nazi terror in Germany and afterward in France. Nabokov’s own father was gunned down by “Russian fascists” (his term) in Berlin in 1922; later his brother died in a Nazi concentration camp. Pale Fire’s absorbing fantasy of assassination, then, is devised to articulate a desperately serious political concern that has haunted the writer for most of his adult life: what validity beyond mere escapism does art possess, seemingly so fragile, futile, and finally impotent in the face of murderous history; and, conversely, what is the inner nature of the politics that systematically subverts and destroys every important value enhanced or fulfilled by art? The self-conscious fictional prism of Pale Fire manages to focus a vivid sense of history in which man is not universally vile but both abysmally vile and mysteriously splendid (Kinbote, the mad poet-commentator, is in his own odd way both), and so the fiction finally leads us, as the novels of Barth, Pynchon, and company do not, to ponder what it is about the varieties of historical experience that makes possible such contradictory extremes of destructiveness and creation.

_____________

 

The recurrent difficulties among the newer American novelists in establishing an imaginative connection of this or any other kind with history may well reflect more general problems of American national consciousness since the early 1960’s, but that is beyond the scope of the present discussion. The abundance of inventive energy manifested in the recent American novel surely warrants the careful critical attention of anyone interested in new possibilities for imaginative prose. A comparison, however, with novelists who have come to prominence elsewhere during the past ten years—like Argentina’s Manuel Puig, Colombia’s Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Israel’s Amos Oz—suggests that there are still viable fictional means, both realistic and fantastic, for tracing the pressures of history on individual lives, or the large forces at work in history, even from our disaster-skewed perspective “in the bottom half of the 20th century.” Lacking the dangerously tentative medium of history, the voices that address us from the American novel may be sharp and arresting but will continue to speak with a shrill finality that often seems the author’s, not the world’s.

_____________

 


Footnotes

1 Random House, 270 pp., $8.95.

2 Oxford University Press, 363 pp., $13.95.

_____________

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