Undercover: Present Tension (09/09/76)

Novels, novels. I’ve been reading, and not finishing, a lot of them lately, most by young American writers, and the great majority seem to be stuck, in subject and sensibility, in some ill-defined gap between the Sixties and the Seventies. They’re stuck between that time when something happened (just what, no novel outside of Raymond Sokolov’s Native Intelligence has begun to tell me) and the time when nothing happens. This decade is more than half gone and characters in novels no less than people on the street are still reminding one another that the Sixties are over; talk of the Eighties almost never goes beyond jokes about 1984 that are as banal as the adjective “massive” or the phrase “if it didn’t exist we’d have to invent it.”

The legacy of the Sixties seems to be either unfinished business or amnesia (Eldridge Cleaver returns home to face a Sixties rap sporting mind-boggling new opinions and the latest in rapist’s fashions); the Seventies feel like a holding action, whether against or in anticipation of something, one can’t tell. There is little that connects in new American fiction, especially in the work of younger writers; there’s no real focus. Novelists are still trying to catch the Sixties on the page (one hopes the best of them will be back in ten or 20 years for another shot), but the speech of their characters usually sounds false and humorless no matter how formally accurate it may be; here, rote accuracy defeats realism. Novelists are beginning to try to catch the Seventies, but while the speech often seems right, or at least not wrong (Seventies speech has little shape beyond a reliance on cliché, est-speak or glittering vacuity), Seventies characters have nothing to talk about.

The current flood of novels written strictly in the present tense may simply indicate the desperate attempts of novelists to give their fictions an immediacy they don’t in fact possess—but an exclusive use of the present tense produces more than anything else a sense of limbo. The past dissolves, the future loses all reality, and a reader is left with characters that evade all context and only live from day to day. Such writing is representative of the times in that it submits to them; it doesn’t shape the times, let alone transcend them. It can offer comfort, re-assurance and the feeling that one is not alone, but whether it can provide any real novelty or permanence—continuity with the past—is doubtful. Will-o’-the-wisp, the present-tense novel is unlikely to anchor itself in the mind of a reader because it is unlikely to have attached itself to complexities of time. Perhaps because of a refusal of time, much contemporary American fiction lacks density and it lacks conviction—the conviction you recognize in those novels that seem to have been written with the unreasonable determination that those who read them will in some mysterious way be left not quite the same afterward—and the alternative to such conviction on the part of the serious novelist is narcissism.

Ann Beattie’s intriguing first novel, Chilly Scenes of Winter (Doubleday, 280 pp., $7.95), is immune to few of these problems, but that may be because these problems of present-day sensibility, which I have been discussing in terms of form, are—as delineated in the daily affairs of her characters—Beattie’s subject matter, and as such Beattie is like the doctor who runs the risk of catching the disease he or she is attempting to deal with. Chilly Scenes of Winter is a present-tense novel, but here, the sense of suspension and insubstantiality—of time, of values, of purposes—such a device produces seems to be what Beattie wants to talk about.

The story is set in the winter of ’74, though it seems more like Charles and Sam, two men in their late 20s, drag through their days like ghosts out of Marty (“Whatta you wanna do tonight, Marty?” “I dunno, whatta you wanna do ?”), secretly wishing they were young enough (and, one suspects, rich enough) to be Holden Caulfield. They suffer pains of loss for the Sixties, and the Sixties’ wash over into the early Seventies; it’s not clear what they want to retrieve or preserve from those better days, or what they had, except that then they felt not merely young but alive—part of something grand and noble and bigger than themselves. As in J.R. Young’s classic short story about Woodstock, which appeared in these pages in 1970, Charles and Sam are the people who didn’t go to Woodstock, but who in their fantasies pretended that they had. Now they are thrown back into a solitary existence and severed from any greater social reality; the world has shrunk and they have shrunk with it.

Despite Charles and Sam’s constant talk of the past—the book revolves around Charles’s almost morbid yearning for his former lover, who has gone back to her husband—the past as they summon it up is as colorless and unfocused as the present. Even their nostalgia is halfhearted. The rock & roll songs—and rock & roll gossip (is Rod Stewart dead?)—that float through the book, courtesy of Charles’s car radio or a jukebox, seem as melancholy as silence: the limbo rock. Sam keeps twisting the radio dial for Dylan’s new album; he wants to hear “what Dylan has to say in 1975.” It’s a good joke on Charles, who, with the social, political and musical salvations of the previous decade dissolving behind him, grows more desperate by the page for the salvation of his one true love—what Dylan had to say in 1975 was Blood on the Tracks, not a good sign for anybody’s one true love.

Ann Beattie’s novel isn’t going to have them dancing in the streets; it isn’t profound, it isn’t funny, and there isn’t enough sex in it to get a book club interested. I was interested, though, because Beattie confronts the problems of fiction in a contemporary setting and because she made me care about her characters and what might become of them. I keep looking for novels that will do no more than that.

Rolling Stone, September 9, 1976

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