One does not have to read very far in V. S. Naipaul’s new novel1—the first short chapter will do—to experience that peculiar sensation, a mixture of confidence, anxiety, anticipation, empathy, pleasure, and suspense, that every confirmed reader of fiction recognizes and yearns for (often, alas, to little avail nowadays) as the special satisfaction to be derived from this branch of literature above all others. From the moment that the novel’s dubious hero and his even more dubious mistress arrive at Thrushcross Grange, a woebegone agricultural commune on a politically troubled Caribbean island, we see straightaway that Naipaul is the real thing—a novelist who creates a world, who conjures up compelling characters and commands our assent in their complex fate. Thrushcross Grange, everywhere advertised by the slogan, For the Land and the Revolution—“The signs were all new. The local bottlers of Coca-Cola had put one up; so had Amal (the American bauxite company), a number of airlines, and many stores in the city”—is presided over by a putative Muslim “leader,” the refugee of rape and assault charges in London, who lives in comfort on the handouts of the local business community while his teenage followers languish in squalor and despair. In the exchanges of this opening chapter, the first dishonesties are revealed, the first fears made palpable and irreversible, the first glimpses given of the fantasies used to disguise the grim reality, and from them, with a unity of action and design we scarcely any longer expect in a work of fiction, the terrible denouement follows in the final chapter that restores the same few characters to the same barren ground.
It is another mark of Naipaul’s novelistic gift that we are not tempted, for the duration of our reading, to linger over the niceties of his style, admirable as we sooner or later acknowledge that style to be, for his is a prose—economical without being elliptical, pictorial without being decorative—placed so swiftly and so completely at the service of his characters and his story that it would seem frivolous, should we think of it, to detach our attention from the progress of the action to the mechanics of its realization. It is not primarily of art that his accomplished artistry induces an intense consciousness, but of life—for Naipaul’s fiction has the classic centrifugal power of carrying us beyond the boundaries of its vividly rendered microcosmic events to that larger terrain in which we, too, feel implicated and portrayed.
Guerrillas is a short novel, almost too compact for the breadth of experience it embraces, yet it holds us in its grip with a tale at once so tragic and so far-reaching that it has the effect of expanding in the mind to a size far greater than the swiftly paced action it recounts. The scene is that now familiar island of the mind, based on the historical Trinidad that shaped the author’s early life, which Naipaul has succeeded in making as much a part of the permanent geography of fiction as Dickens’s London or Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County. The time is the present, when the illusionist ideologies of Third World “independence,” masking a primitive struggle for power and preferment, hold the island in a volatile state of political incoherence. The colonial power has departed, leaving behind a political vacuum that is also, for local demagogues, liberal idealists, economic adventurers, and the demoralized populace, a complete moral void. The new order, in a half-conscious parody of the old, has quickly established its fragile simulacrum of a social hierarchy. A charade of old manners, no longer anchored to the old stability that gave them meaning, coexists with symbols of new authority, itself a chimera compounded of false sentiment and naked force. We are adrift in a half-world where nothing is quite real except the atavisms that paralyze the energies of social reconstruction and nullify the value of individual action.
Into this lost tropical “paradise,” now a wasteland of political intrigue and economic stagnation, comes Peter Roche, an English liberal fresh from the celebrity of his ordeal in South Africa. There, as a white participant in the black resistance movement, he had been a famous victim of police torture and, as a consequence, has become something of a Third World hero. Roche has written—out of no special conviction about its importance, we soon realize—a book about his South African experience. He does not really regard himself as a hero. About the extravagant virtue attributed to him, he is publicly diffident and privately ironical, if not actually queasy, yet he readily accepts the kind of homage that is paid to such heroes in liberal London. One of the dividends of this homage is an affair with the woman who is assigned to do the publicity for his book. Another is the public-relations job that comes to Roche, on the strength of his Third World celebrity, working for an island trading company originally founded on the slave trade and now uneasy about its future in the island’s new racial scenario. Soon after he takes up this job as political arbiter for a company of dubious reputation, the woman from London comes to live with Roche as his mistress in the house on the Ridge, an enclave reserved for the privileged but now precarious survivors of the old regime and the privileged managers of the new.
Naipaul’s portrait of this woman, Jane, is one of his most terrifying creations, and not because there is anything especially grotesque or unusual in her character, but precisely because she is in so many essentials a familiar figure—indeed, a fixture—of the liberal culture we all know. With her “casual nihilism” and her glib phrases “about the coming crash and the disintegration of systems,” her easy espousal of apocalyptic ideas dimly understood, confidently asserted, yet never in any degree seriously attached to a sense of her own destiny, she is the perfect incarnation of a mode of smart, mindless political promiscuity that Naipaul, with a breathtaking indifference to the pieties that now deny such connections, does not hesitate to equate with her reptilian appetite for sexual conquest. In mind and body alike, she is without conscience or commitment, a moral cipher, capable of making a striking, if superficial, impression in her protected London world, where her facile comments “suggested knowledge, alertness, a degree of political concern,” but now, in the harsher political climate of the island, where there is no longer any room for error, she is quickly revealed as a sinister, destructive force.
From Roche, whom Jane sees at first as an exemplary “doer” in a world where others only talk and make excuses, completely missing the more delicate shades of his own self-irony and self-doubt, she has acquired the tag ends of the ideology he acts upon and publicly represents without wholly believing in. When we first meet her, we see her through her lover’s now detached and disaffected vision: “The sea anemone, he thought, waving its strands at the bottom of the ocean. Rooted and secure, and indifferent to what it attracted.” About a casual remark that she makes, dismissing as “half dead” the England she has temporarily abandoned and to which she expects sooner or later to return in perfect safety, Naipaul writes: “It was what [Roche] had taught her, what she had picked up from him and incorporated, as words, as a passing attitude, into the chaos of words and attitudes she possessed: words that she might shed at any time, as easily as she had picked them up, and forget she had ever spoken them.” In the disaster that Jane brings on herself, culminating in her sexual violation and brutal murder at the hands of the half-breed black-power leader, Jimmy Ahmed, whom she has casually flattered and seduced without ever taking seriously as a man or a mind, Naipaul gives us a haunting symbol of the world we too inhabit, for the real “guerrillas” of his fable are not the unseen forces hiding in the bush but those bemused ideological adventurers, like Jane and Roche and Jimmy Ahmed himself, conducting their ruinous raids from the illusory sanctuary of ideas that bear no real relation to the actualities they confront.
In the figure of Jimmy Ahmed, too, Naipaul flouts all liberal pieties. Although Ahmed is portrayed with a subtle and persuasive sympathy, Naipaul is nonetheless merciless in showing us that everything about the man, including his manhood and even his name, is phony and confused, an image fabricated in the ideological empyrean of London radicalism and its media allies. This is the source of Roche’s fame too, of course, but in Jimmy Ahmed’s case, the consequences prove more dire. When catastrophe comes and his communal movement is unmasked as a political fraud—the movement that Roche’s company is, on his advice, subsidizing, largely on the basis of a reputation earned in faraway London, but that lacks in reality the least shred of native support—Jimmy Ahmed does not have access to the kind of safe exit still readily available to a white outsider like Roche. Ahmed the “leader” is the casualty of a political fiction, just as Ahmed the man is a sexual casualty, secretly acknowledging that he has left his manhood in England with his white English wife and meanwhile nursing his broken spirit with the sexual favors of the ugliest of the boys at Thrushcross Grange, whom Ahmed has made his whore. Nothing is more audacious in Naipaul’s novel—and nothing more persuasive—than its sexual-political equations, which clearly identify Ahmed’s sexual behavior, no less than Jane’s, as a correlative of political frivolity and nihilism. Nothing is more curious, either, than the way Naipaul has been able to get away with these sexual-political equations, suffering (so far as I know) no stigma or attack for such a thoroughly “conservative” view of both human nature and the radical enterprise. It is almost enough to make one believe that literature—at this level, at least—is still taken seriously, though one cannot help wondering how a writer of similar gifts and similar beliefs, but one less favorably situated in relation to the Third World, would fare in the ideological jungles of the West. But this, come to think of it, is part of the ironic substance of Guerrillas too. Its author is a shrewd judge of what, as a native of the Third World himself, he can get away with, and in this book, at least, he goes the limit. Guerrillas stands in the great tradition of novels that anatomize the effect of ideology on the lives of those it has thoroughly “possessed” and destroyed. It can be placed beside Conrad and Turgenev without embarrassment, and amply confirms Naipaul’s position as one of the most important of living writers.
Joyce Carol Oates is, like Naipaul, a steady worker in the literary vineyards, and she too addresses her work to what might be called topics of the day—in The Assassins2 we are given not only a political assassination, but something akin to a replay of the Attica prison riot and all manner of reference to current events and ideas—but there, emphatically, the resemblance ends. Miss Oates is actually closer in spirit to Naipaul’s character Jane than to Naipaul himself.
Reading this ill-written book, which, in its irritating combination of thoughtless haste and inflated length, seems to have been influenced by the electric typewriter more than by any intelligible novelistic idea, I can fully appreciate for the first time why its author’s copious production of novels, short stories, poems, critical essays, reviews, and sundry other effusions has become something of a scandal in the literary (or at least the publishing) world. Writers genuinely admired and enjoyed, writers whose works are actually read, are not, I think, very often admonished to write less. The suggestion so frequently conveyed, obliquely or otherwise, that Miss Oates writes too much speaks, I find, to a genuine grievance. For The Assassins is the sheerest rubbish. It is a torture to read, as there seems to be no mind in charge of its inchoate assemblage of characters and events, and beyond that, it is extremely repugnant in what it substitutes—with a perfect confidence in its literary efficacy—for the work of intelligence or imagination.
As rubbish, however, the book has an undeniable fascination. For Miss Oates’s is a learned rubbish, an educated rubbish, the kind of rubbish that can be produced only by a writer who has immersed himself in the “lessons” of modern literature. These “lessons”—the accretion, no doubt, of a steady classroom examination of the modern classics—are distilled, in Miss Oates’s novel, in a disabling sophistication that, for all its knowing reference to events in the world “out there,” is only another mode of academicism. Alienation—that talisman of the academic modernist—is Miss Oates’s abiding theme, as violence is her abiding solution to every problem of fictional dramaturgy. But alienation, in The Assassins, is something willed and imposed, an obligation dutifully met and mechanically negotiated. It serves a function very similar to that of the happy ending in the genteel fiction of the Howells period: it is what custom decrees and culture ennobles, and it bears no necessary relation to the experience of the characters who are its ostensible embodiments. In this respect, as in others, Miss Oates has a completely conventional mind, a mind tethered precisely to the conventions of popular anguish. This, I suppose, is the basis of whatever appeal she commands, for she obliges us to question nothing about received ideas or established assumptions, which she mimics and vulgarizes without in any way illuminating. It is a mercy, in a way, that she is so inept, for were she technically more adroit and even minimally readable, she would be more of a menace.
The story of The Assassins is the story of the Petrie family—Andrew, the charismatic politician, a New York State Senator on his way to becoming Governor, an egghead Huey Long in the making, a conservative theorist and gifted demagogue, who is the assassin’s victim; his brothers, Hugh and Stephen, the one an artist and the other a religious nut, though no nuttier, really, than the other catatonic personalities who pass, in this novel, as sensitive barometers of the spiritual life of our time; and Yvonne, Andrew’s widow, a woman we are invited to believe capable of serious intellectual effort but whose mind, interminably revealed to us in the disjunctive, telegraphic parody of the stream-of-consciousness that Miss Oates employs as her principal narrative mode, is vacant of the least trace of consecutive cerebration. What distinguishes these characters—or rather, Miss Oates’s perception of them, for they have no independent existence—is an endemic paranoia, a madness that sees menace, betrayal, anger, and concealed violence in every face, gesture, and human exchange. Buried, and destroyed, in the novel is a modest family chronicle, on the model of a John O’Hara story, with its conflicts of affection and dominance, its dirty sexual secrets and social snobberies. But Miss Oates never allows that chronicle to emerge in any coherent form. She is, in a sense, “above” the demands of the family documentary. At home only in the paranoid scenarios of the disembodied mind, she is able to attach her characters to the social fabric only at the point where violence, physical or psychological, relieves her of the obligation to illuminate their real life in the world.
There is a particularly ugly scene in The Assassins—a scene in which Yvonne is first shot and then dismembered with an axe. The act is arbitrary and meaningless, without significant connection with anything that has preceded it or anything that follows, yet Miss Oates dwells on its physical details as if it were crucial to her story, which it is not. I thought at that moment of Naipaul’s extraordinary delicacy—for it can, I think, be so described—in the handling of Jane’s horrific death in Guerrillas. The scene in which Jimmy Ahmed’s wretched lover, tormented with jealousy and rage, butchers this woman with his rusty saber while Ahmed holds her fast, is never really described to us in all its gory detail. We are made to feel it, and we do feel it, profoundly, but we are not made to see it. Naipaul is too serious to titillate us with the details of an obscene action, and he has no need to. The entire novel comes to climax in that dreadful action, and we feel the weight of everything he has invested in this terrible moment. In The Assassins, we are uninvolved in anything but the perversities of literary taste.