Without certified great authors to promote, the whole literary business begins to get pretty questionable—and without the heaviest doses of pretension, without the constant suggestion by reviewers that readers have a duty to read the year’s crop of classy novels, the fact that authors produce objects just like companies do becomes all too obvious. (Without the insistence that our whole culture, our national identity, is regularly at issue in new books, it might have been easier to admit that John Cheever’s reputation as an American oracle was primarily the result of his dogged persistence and the fact that the eastern milieu about which he wrote was shared by most of the people who wrote about him.) Outside of this phony temple of significance, back in the real world, there’s no reason for a book like Zuckerman Unbound—no reason outside the demands of Roth’s career and his own sense of well being. Expose the book to the air and it dies.
Philip Roth has written two of my favorite American novels of the last twenty years, Portnoy’s Complaint and The Great American Novel, his wild-eyed and little-read tribute to baseball. Looking for something to pass the time, I picked up Zuckerman Unbound, forgetting the emptiness of The Ghost Writer, the novel in which our pal Nate made his debut. The book is a sleepwalk; the pallid, “newly successful author struggles with success and wonders who he really is” plot—the literary equivalent of a rock band’s song about the rigors of stardom—couldn’t have cost a man of Roth’s talent enough sweat to justify a load of wash.
Rave reviews unintentionally give the game away. The New York Times: “Sure in every touch, as clear and economical of line as a crystal vase.” Time: “An ear for dialogue that approaches perfect pitch.” And, dead on the mark, The New Yorker: “Mr. Roth has evolved… into something of an exquisitist, moving… among his by now highly polished themes with ever more expertness and care. The comic diatribes seem almost engraved.” Impressive, isn’t it? I mean, when’s the last time you saw an engraved diatribe?
Savor those phrases once more: “crystal vase,” “expertness,” “perfect pitch,” “highly polished,” “exquisitist.” They sound even more like copy for a New Yorker ad for expensive goods than descriptions of New Yorker fiction, which part of Zuckerman Unbound was. Imagine, though, applying such words to any novel that has made a difference in the literary history—or the history pure and simple—of this country, and the decadence of the criticism, and the novel in question, is made clear. The values promoted here are little different from those being hustled on the paperback charts by You Can Prosper in a World Gone Mad quickies: what is being celebrated is control—mastery. To what end? As an end in itself, of course.
There is no question that Roth is in control of his material, and control of his material has always been his problem. His first full-length novel, Letting Go, may be the most elegantly written of all postwar American novels, but it has nothing to say. But Portnoy’s Complaint—which, out of desperation, I reread after, ah, polishing off Zuckerman Unbound—is the work of a man pumping up his obsessions and then letting them power him through a book: delight in language explodes on the page. As with any great novel, the question is not the writer’s control of his material so much as the tension between his control of his material and the possibility that the material will control him. You enter a theater in which you are forced to watch, and are then implicated in, a struggle in which victory and compromise are painful and exhilarating, in which all possibilities of life are heightened. Was Melville in control of his material in Moby Dick or Pierre? Faulkner in The Sound and the Fury? Mailer in Why Are We in Vietnam? or The Executioner’s Song? If the question had a simple answer we would remember none of these books.
There’s a terrible scene at the end of Zuckerman Unbound in which Zuckerman, who has been experimenting with various forms of hubris throughout the book, flies to the deathbed of his estranged father to effect a reconciliation. Zuckerman blows the scene, and so does Roth: all the high polish and perfect pitch in the world can’t make a reader inhabit such a scene along with a character when it is so clear that nothing is at stake beyond the scene’s formal construction—and the need of the novel, like all novels, to end.
When the word “exquisitist”—the Oxford English Dictionary defines “exquisitist” as “dandy” or “fop,” which says less about Roth than about the values of the critic who chose the word—can serve as the justification for an American novel, then the case is being made that American novelists no longer need anything to write about; that they simply write, and write with polish, is enough. And the free ride given authors like Roth—or, rather, given his reputation—has results: it keeps the scores of younger and lesser-known writers on the sidelines, out of the light, out of the market. It makes them seem marginal, regional, tentative, amateurish. It organizes our literature around a pantheon of reputations and helps keep everyone else unread.
FUN, FUN, FUN
→ The Terrible Twos, a novel by Ishmael Reed (St. Martin’s, 178 pages, $11.95). Ishmael Reed doesn’t do what black novelists are supposed to do. First, he doesn’t write about misery and degradation; he writes historical fables in which blacks and whites function as Americans, as people caught up in a grand con game they haven’t begun to understand. Second, he lives in California, a sin compounded by his argument that California is producing a multiracial, multicultural literature that makes the East Coast white bourgeois novel seem tired and old hat. Third, he takes voodoo—or hoodoo, or vodun—seriously. This bothers many people who have never raised an eyebrow at Walker Percy’s heedless Catholicism.
In The Terrible Twos, Reed flips back and forth between politics and irritability and achieves little more than the mildly entertaining polemic of The Last Days of Louisiana Red—there’s nothing here to match the vision and revenge of Mumbo Jumbo or Flight to Canada. After a quick opening in the present, we move to the 1990s; having liked its actor, America has a male model for a president. All rights to Santa Claus have been bought up; then Saint Nick is kidnapped, and the fate of the power brokers hangs in the balance. If this sounds like a flimsy premise for a novel, it is, and Reed seems to lose interest about halfway through. Good lines and amazing scenes abound (Nelson Rockefeller in hell, chained to his Attica crimes—Reed is grinningly merciless with him), but the characters never come alive; jumping around Reed’s asides and his moments of vision, they don’t have much to do. Reed never sticks with anyone or anything long enough for anyone or anything to stick with the reader. The Terrible Twos reads like a draft—an idea that, for lack of anything better, got turned into a book.
→ Edie: An American Biography, by Jean Stein, edited with George Plimpton (Knopf, 455 pages, illustrated, $16.95). Plimpton, who has made a career out of pretending to be a quarterback, a movie actor, et cetera, here pretends to be a biographer, along with Stein stringing together snatches of interviews with the known and the would-be-known without a word of narrative. So what if biographers are supposed to weigh conflicting material and render judgments—“What is truth?” you know? That issue aside, the endless thoughtful reviews this book has elicited have missed the point. It’s not a question of whether the late Edie Sedgwick, California golden girl with East Coast money who became Andy Warhol’s superstar of the year back in those fabulous sixties, did or did not represent something important about “celebrity,” “America,” “the sixties,” or anything else. People like to read about a rich, beautiful woman destroying herself with drugs and fame—it’s fun. That’s why the book is selling.
→ Pieces and Pontifications, by Norman Mailer (Little, Brown, $20). The conceit here is that we’re presented with two books: 208 pages of “Pieces,” very minor, confused, or meandering essays Mailer wrote in the seventies; and 192 pages of “Pontifications,” that is, interviews. The latter, which a slavering Michael Lennon claims in a preface are “literature,” are particularly disturbing in terms of literary decline: the more recent suggest that the people Mailer most trusts are his sycophants.
→ The Troubles: A Jaundiced Glance Back at the Movement of the 60’s, by Joseph Conlin (Watts, 423 pages, $16.95). Conlin is a middle-aged white male, and he’s pissed. He wants his privileges back, and if he can’t get them, he’s going to get even with the people who took them away. He does this by reducing the politics of an entire decade to the foibles of a few media stars and equating the struggles for women’s liberation to the campaign to save the whales.
→ The Valley of the Horses, a novel by Jean M. Auel (Crown, 501 pages, $15.95). From the author of the best-seller The Clan of the Cave Bear (blond Cro-Magnon beauty grows up with grunting Neanderthal darkies) comes the second installment in the “Earth’s Children” doorstop series. This time our heroine, Ayla, “sets out in search of love.” Yes, I’m quoting the flap copy, but that is what this Paleolithic version of the sort of “women’s fiction” that has survived on the best-seller list throughout this century is about. When you finally get to the payoff, the big sex scene that brings all 500 pages to a thrilling conclusion, it reads just like the sex scenes that conclude brave-heroine novels set in regency England, Napoleonic France, post-Napoleonic New Orleans, or robber-baron Chicago. “Jondalar, do you want me to …?” “Only if you want to, Ayla.” “It would please you?” “It would please me…”
→ Jimbo, by Gary Panter (Available from Raw Books, 27 Greene Street, New York, NY 10013, $3.50 postpaid). A large-size collection of the comic extravaganzas Panter published in the L.A. punk magaiine Slash from 1978 to 1980: the exploits of, as one can read in the introduction, “a young man with the physique of a brick, the intentions of a saint, the temper of a mad dog, and the brain of, depending on the circumstances, either Tom Swift or a Quaalude of dubious provenance.” That I wrote the introduction to this hilarious and stirring book, and am thus quoting myself, is a conflict of interest that can possibly be excused on the grounds that I didn’t get paid. Those interested in what’s happened to L.A. punk publishing since Slash turned itself into a record company should seek out the current issue of NOMAG ($2 in book and record stores; $3 by mail from No Magazine, PO Box 57041, Los Angel& 90057). There’s a terrific piece that’s almost about the Descendents, the Hermosa Beach combo that produced last year’s wonderful “Fat” EP, and a loving photo spread that responds to recent reports on the Beverly Hills trade in Indonesian house slaves with the convincing argument that in these difficult economic times it’s vital to “buy American.”
California, September 1982