Our Dreams in His Head
Commercial fiction is commonly regarded by "serious" writers with a mixture
of envy and contempt -- as the product of people who aspire to trade their talent
(making a generous assumption) for summer in the Hamptons. But perhaps commercial
fiction is as badly understood as avant-garde writing. Think of it as the output
of writers who live off what they write, who have a capacious vision of their
audience, and whose literary preoccupations are tempered by an acute sense of
the reactions of that audience -- writers who look for a point of convergence
between their artistic ambitions and the demands of the huge, profit-driven industry
that links writer to mass market. Our fiction reviewers explore these themes here,
examining some of the big-money books that publishers are offering this season.A
by Daniel Goldin
We think of artists as people who do what they want, and the price they must pay
for not having to go to staff meetings or hunch over a machine all day long should
at the very least be economic insecurity. Occasionally a popular writer such as
Dickens -- who made a lot of money in his lifetime -- squeezes into the canon,
but his presence there remains something of an anomaly. He doesn't get the same
kind of play in academia as Kafka, Melville and Dostoyevsky -- self-destructive
writers who never made much off their work. The prevailing attitude to the popular
writer is one of admiration mixed with contempt: his muse is sometimes conceded
to be an excellent muse, but what does that say about the writer himself -- who
sent her out into the streets to turn tricks
for him? Scott Smith's original idea was to write A Simple Plan as a screenplay,
perhaps with the notion of selling it for a lot of money and ending up in a nice
house with nice things and good schools for his kids and so forth. Such ordinary
ambitions, of course, have fueled the production of many great books since Gutenberg
put an end to patronage by mass producing words. But they have brought Smith some
criticism in the press -- where the "modern" idea of the alienated, world-renouncing
writer still holds considerable sway. A Simple Plan didn't end up as a
screenplay, because it was meant to be a book -- with a book's bias toward thought
and description -- which would seem to prove Scott Smith's integrity as a writer.
But he made a great deal of money from it, upwards of a million dollars according
to The New York Times, and that has shaken some critics' sense of justice.
Ironically, people are asking the same question of Scott Smith that he asks of
his main character: should he have kept the cash? A question that invites another
question: would we have kept it? A Simple Plan is a work of popular fiction,
which means it was intended for all sorts of people. A book that can take a Boston
secretary from her cold bus ride, a Tampa Bay CEO from his first class plane cabin,
and a New Yorker from his clingy skepticism, put all three in the head of a character
from Ashenville, Ohio and keep them there for 300 pages -- such a book requires
different skills than one designed for a niche audience of like-minded writers,
academics, and critics. Perhaps not superior skills, but not necessarily inferior
So called "mass-market" fiction works largely on the principle of identification
and fantasy. We follow a single character, a hero large enough and empty enough
to hold a population, through a series of trials and ultimately to triumph.
Hollywood movies and books such as those by John Grisham, and for that matter
Charles Dickens, give us back our daydreams with just enough of the unpredictability
of life to keep us from recognizing them as our own. "Vision" is a word we often
hear at the Academy Awards -- applied to the creators of even the most tawdry
blockbusters. At first it seems a strange, almost obscene misnomer, this word
we associate with religious prophecy given to some slick generator of box-office
revenue; that is, unless one considers the word "vision" here to be unconsciously
opposed to "introspection."
Those blessed with "vision," then, are more eye than brain. They have the
magical ability to leave their own heads and rout through the sensibilities
of a population for the perfect fantasy of the moment. These people are primarily
mediums, secondarily artists, and for this reason they are said to possess "vision."
Their work -- and this is not to denigrate it; because it's hard work, and takes
great concentration -- is not so much an act of creation, as discovery. In a
sense, a "mass market" work is shaped more by the audience than by the author,
or at least must seem that way. It must appear to have been born whole, inevitable,
without gestation and labor. If writers get insufficient credit in Hollywood
-- that ultimate arena of the mass market -- it is because giving them credit
would spoil the illusion that a movie is not made, but simply is.
Smith tells the story of Hank Mitchell, an oddly colorless Everyman who works
as an accountant at a feed store in Ashenville, Ohio. Hank, his brother Jacob,
and Jacob's friend Lou discover a downed plane in a snow-covered nature preserve.
The plane contains a dead pilot and 4.4 million dollars in cash. The "simple
plan" Hank cooks up is to hold the money for six months; if no one claims it
when spring thaw reveals the plane, they are to divvy up the packets of bills;
if there's word of the money, Hank is to burn it. Complications arise and Hank
commits one murder, then a second to cover up the first, and then a third, and
so on, each time convincing himself that he is doing exactly what circumstances
demand. The murders grow increasingly nasty, complete with spectacular Grand
Guignol effects -- a blasted water-bed and a blasted human bladder, an innocent
old lady decapitated by a machete -- but always we have the sense that these
botched acts of violence are inevitable, proceeding logically from Hank's (and
our) decision to keep that cash-filled duffel bag in the downed plane. The murders
Hank commits, in a sense, happen to him. He experiences them in much
the same way that we as readers do. Smith's triumph here is to make us identify
with a mass murderer, to go along with his justifications, even to hope for
his success as we would with any character in a powerful work of popular fiction.
And this is an ambitious literary achievement, pushing the boundaries of the
mass market form. For it is no less than the American Dream, that catchword
of the Reagan era, which Hank lugs home with him on that cold December 31st,
the day before the new year, when the first chapter of the novel draws to a
close. And our emotional investment in Hank's fate seems in some way tied to
our emotional investment in America.
I approached the table hesitantly,
These fantasies, the very ones perpetuated by the American media, are suddenly
more than fantasies. And the new closeness of these fantasies only serve to make
Hank and Sarah's default status that much more depressing, only serve to show
them the bars of his cell.
as if I were afraid Sarah might hear me. . . . There were all sorts of brochures,
at least thirty, probably more, travel brochures and pictures of tanned women
in brightly colored bikinis, a family skiing and riding horses, of men on tennis
courts and golf courses, of tables laden with exotic foods. `Welcome to Belize!'
they read, `Paris in the Spring!'. . . Everything was shiny, slick looking;
everyone was smiling; all the sentences ended in exclamation points. . . . These
were Sarah's wish lists, I realized with a pang; this is what
she dreamed of doing with the money . . . Switzerland, Mexico, Antigua, Moscow,
New York City, Chile, London, India, the Hebrides. . . . Tennis, French, windsurfing,
waterskiing, German, art history, golf. . . . The lists went on and on, places
I'd never heard her mention, ambitions I'd never dreamed she had.
So if, somehow, we were forced to relinquish the money now, we wouldn't
merely be returning to our old lives, starting back up as if nothing of import
had happened; we'd be returning having seen them from a distance, having judged
them and deemed them unworthy. The damage would be irreparable.
Hank inhabits a world of foreclosed farms, cramped "starter houses," and cement
bridges; people live off unemployment checks and sleep in trailers propped up
on cinder-blocks; they get their sustenance from casseroles, Jell-O, and powdered
donuts. Smith's version of this world is neither romanticized, cool, nor existentially
minimal. It has none of the bluesy, greasy-chic of a Jarmusch movie, or the highly
mannered, almost symbolic hopelessness proffered by "serious" writers such as
Raymond Carver. It is simply the matter-of-fact thing itself, and the only possibility
for change in this collapsed, demoralized dead-center of America is for money
to drop from the heavens -- which is exactly what happens. We are with Hank when
he conspires to keep the cash because if we were consigned to the dreary store-front
offices of a feed-store in Ashenville, we too would commit an "innocent" crime
to escape its confines.
We are with Hank when he commits his first murder -- finishing up an act that
begins with an impulsive blow from his maladroit brother Jacob -- because the
"right" choice seems almost equally cruel. Is Hank to give up Jacob, tell all
to the police, with the inevitable trial, conviction, and poverty to follow,
and leave his own pregnant wife suddenly husbandless and poor? Prison and penury
loom immediately so large in our eyes, pressing an old, half-dead man's nostrils
shut so small . . . And afterwards, well, we've already committed murder; what's
another to keep the first hidden? . . . And so on through successively bloodier
murders, all of them seemingly predetermined, all of them simple in the planning
but fraught with unimaginable consequences.
This is not your usual piece of fantasy-identification. Our Everyman is not
the sinewy-minded youth of The Firm who, at least, is a "winner" -- a
quality that has more or less replaced "good" in the world of popular fiction.
Hank Mitchell is humdrum, cowardly, and holds the job of accountant, a familiar
subject of ridicule in the popular media. Smith does achieve a very slight,
almost Brechtian distancing, which takes us a bit out of the realm of popular
fiction. We are repelled even as we are drawn into Hank's consciousness. We
go in and out of being him. In short, we don't so much identify with him as
identify with his need to escape, and later with his fear of dire consequences,
and later still with his lost hopes as the "simple plan," which whips so violently
and unpredictably through the novel, finally lies flat and dead as Ashenville,
Ohio itself. Our hearts beat with Hank's not because we want to be him but because,
unwittingly, we have been made his accomplice.
The word accomplice floated up from somewhere in my mind, and
for perhaps the first time in my life I understood what it meant. It was a powerful
word; it connected people, bound them to one another.
The American Dream -- that half-true promise of limitless opportunity -- lives
now only in the lotto ticket and in the pile of cash by the dead pilot, a faint
sputtering light that serves only to illuminate our squalor. That A Simple
Plan succeeds as a book attests not only to Scott Smith's gifts as a writer
but to the degree of our own desperation. America created this story and the author
was merely the medium of transmission. (At least, so goes the illusion, for there
is always some interesting distortion involved in the transmission, an idiosyncratic
authorial voice slipping in now and then.) Hank Mitchell harps on the notion of
his acts being predetermined because he senses what we pretty much know: he has
been possessed by the times, his free will ripped apart by this overwhelming force.
And the author, too, having found his premise and his purpose, had no choice but
to tell it through to the end -- as it had to be told. There is, indeed,
an utterly humorless, fateful quality to the prose, sentence clumping after sentence
like Hank and Jacob and Lou clumping toward that plane in the snow. The style
is utilitarian, and it seems the right style, the only style befitting a book
with such a grim goal. Smith has been set upon to put that moribund and dangerous
creature the American Dream out of its misery, but like Hank killing his brother's
injured dog, he makes a terrible mess of the job -- splitting bone and spilling
blood and letting the death throes go on for an unbearable length of time. By
the end, we wonder if he shouldn't have let the poor creature go on living.
For an author one presumes to have been at least partly motivated by profit
-- realized, in this case -- Smith strangely presents money as the root of all
evil. Or perhaps not so strangely. For it is a very American contradiction,
the cohabitation of puritanical loathing of gain and raw greed. Perhaps Smith
half believes the anti-"popular" ideology of his critics, who hear the clangor
of the assembly line in the word "bestseller," and half doesn't believe it.
The result is a compelling, perverse, and somewhat abhorrent piece of popular
fiction. The author has taken away our fantasies, but instead of returning them
to us in a pretty bouquet with a little invented luster, he hands them back
with their fascinating, hideous roots facing up.
The Day After Tomorrow
Little, Brown and Company, $24.95
by Matthew Kopka
What would cause a publisher to pay a first-time author two million dollars --
a record -- for a first novel? Perhaps it was the fact that Allan Folsom had written
a couple of movies for television. Or maybe his book's selling points seemed more
than obvious to the people at Little, Brown: it starts with a bang, remains action-packed
throughout (I counted 472 dead), and even introduces a few new S&M wrinkles.
It's got evil science of a gleaming high-tech sort; it's filled with stylish European
locales, and the author has a keen sense of, if not style, then commodity: expensive
cars and brands of Scotch abound. There's a love interest of the sexiest sort,
whose loyalties remain in doubt until the last. And it will look very good on
film, drawing male and female viewers -- an important consideration. With
all these earmarks of a bestseller, the question of whether The Day After Tomorrow
is good may seem a little obtuse. But let's be a little obtuse, and start
with the most general sort of critical criteria. Is it, for example, credible?
Not terribly; but few thrillers are. Pile one wild event onto another for 500
pages and credibility becomes less and less an issue. Perhaps this gives us the
first rule of successful thriller production: grab 'em with your setup.
Big feature films (MGM has already bought the rights to this one) are supposed
to hit their "hook" -- the twist that really grabs the audience -- by the ten
minute mark. The Day After Tomorrow starts, somewhat inelegantly, with
its hook: the hero chances on the man who killed his father, and tries to strangle
him. The man gets away.
One can see Folsom weighing the advantages and disadvantages of his opening,
which is sure to compel attention, but requires him to fill us in: Who's our
The villain? When did the murder take place? The reader is forced to wade through
all the answers to these questions, getting back up to the speed of the hook
by page 46, or what might very well be the ten minute mark in a two-hour film.
To compensate, Folsom works hard to arouse our interest in the main character,
Paul Osborn, an orthopedic surgeon.
Characters may well be the second most important ingredient in such a book's
success. Here, Folsom surely seems to have an agenda firmly in mind. The guys
tend to be "well-built"; women have "terrific" bodies. The women are somewhat
more thoughtfully limned than men, who remain "impish rogues" and "baby-faced"
or "brash young" types on one hand, characters "of military bearing" on the
other. The most interesting things about protagonist Paul Osborn are a) he's
got a temper and b) he reads every copy of People that comes into his
Still, he's endearing in his haplessness and that keeps us going. But it's
hard to care about the villain, Karl Von Holden, enough to make the book's climax
count as it should. Because we've moved, by now, into a Nazi intrigue, and Von
Holden is Aryan-handsome, Folsom must battle against stereotype to give him
any dimension whatsoever. And the odd fact that Von Holden suffers hallucinations
-- seeing the Northern Lights when he's under stress -- isn't enough.
What about the craft? Like too many new books, The Day After Tomorrow
contains sentences Folsom should have been forced to reckon with. Some bear
a world-weary tone that just misses the mark: "That was the thing about being
a detective, the possibilities for almost anything were endless." Or: "To perform
a postmortem on a head is the same as autopsying [sic] an entire body except
there's less of it."
Sometimes the writing is just plain bad. The cumulative frenzy of "She felt
as if she'd locked union with a beast and in so doing had unleashed a primitive
fury that had built, moment by moment, thrust by thrust, into a gargantuan firestorm
of physical and emotional hunger from which there was no escape or release except
through complete and utter exhaustion" leaves us tired too.
And sometimes it's not only baggy, but over the top: "It was a truth that
he had never been totally naked with another human being since he was a child.
And the one child who had seen him that way he later bludgeoned to death with
a hammer and hid the body in a cave, and that had been at the age of six."
So Folsom's no Graham Greene. His murders seem made for a movie instead of
a book. And some of the contrivances, like a villain who wears prosthetic limbs
of different sizes, seem more silly than inspired. What, then, is working in
this novel, and why will it sell? It's a Book of the Month Club Main Selection,
Well, for one thing, it flies. The longest chapter is nine pages; most are
three or four. It's all of a highly digestible consistency, without lumps or
dense places that one must stop to ponder. Proceeding incrementally as it does,
it gives the illusion that it's unfolding everywhere. And as the action heats
up, Folsom plays his biggest advantage like a harp: every new outcome-retarding
surprise has us chafing with irritable pleasure. Like it or not -- and let's
face it, this covers a thousand sins -- I found myself unable to put this book
To be fair, Folsom grows more surefooted as he goes. My list of "clunks,"
"logical breakdowns," and "questionable plot-advancing coincidences" was about
complete by page 300, diminishing to a few blips the rest of the way. He's done
his homework -- the book has the kind of detail that builds authenticity. We
even get more than we need. Within the plot's spare frame, fine touches -- calabash
pipes, sneezes -- loom pleasing and large. And, for suspense, Folsom neatly
exploits our collective paranoia -- although it's implausible that latter-day
German labor leaders, peace activists, and environmentalists were all implicated
in the diabolical scheme -- whose purpose I guessed all too soon. But
few people -- no one who matters -- read thrillers this way. The conventional
thriller is a place we enter to pass an afternoon: the speed of events there
tends to render us passive, able only to marvel at good and evil's ingenuity,
taking pleasure in both, not analyzing them. The real critical questions are:
does the book have the action, the twists, the requisite sex, the dewy aura
of novelty we seek? Folsom's publishers have a lot of books to sell to earn
back their advance. Don't be surprised if they do.
Random House, $21.00
by Kerry Fried
To the barely initiated (I number myself among them), pornography seems grim and
relentless -- the characterization minimal, the plots and props geared, in a rickety
way, toward one or more moaning payoff. (I refer here only to soft, that is, nonviolent
porn.) Perhaps its two dimensions are part of the pleasure for adepts, as archetypes
such as mustachioed firemen or lacrosse-playing schoolgirls cavort with gym teachers,
of either sex. Philip Larkin wrote one such novel, Trouble at Willow Gables,
while taking his finals at Oxford: "I am spending my time doing an obscene Lesbian
novel, in the form of a school story." This fascination stayed with him. Sixteen
years later, in 1959, he thanked the historian Robert Conquest for some new booty:
Yes, I got the pictures -- whacko. I admired the painstaking realism
of it -- I mean, the teacher did really look like a teacher, & I greatly
appreciated the school-like electric bell on the wall.
But, he lamented, "The action & standard of definition left something to be
desired. I'll leave you to guess what."
Such material gave itself few airs. But there has always been the sort of
book which suddenly popped up behind Moby Dick or Thus Spake Zarathustra
on parents' bookshelves, those paisley-covered unmarked editions of Henry Miller
or, a decade or two later, best-selling paperbacks of Delta of Venus.
Porn was chic and could even be reviewed if it was called erotica. If the characters
were still ciphers, the women at least seemed to have some autonomy. Now the
very term "pornographic" can have a delightful aura on book jackets. Advance
praise on a galley of Jill Hoffman's Jilted began: "Seldom have I read
so achingly beautiful, yet so well-honed, so pornographic, yet so tender a novel."
On the shocking-pink paperback of Nicholson Baker's Vox -- a novel
detailing one extended phone-sex encounter, and the first of Baker's novels
to be marketed aggressively to a mass audience as "illicit" rather than "art"
-- the Cosmopolitan reviewer declares herself "too wrung out to go on."
Vox made me feel wrung out too, though not in quite the same way, after
reading sentences like "I'm pinching the underpeening skin in the fingers of
my right hand, and I'm jostling my balls nervously with my left hand." Nicholson
Baker, that most gentle and jolly of writers, the man who could spin an entire
tale around the mysteries of shoelace wear and tear, wrote that sentence? A
sentence only narrowly saved by the adverb "nervously"?
In fact, Baker has been a provocateur from the start. His debut, The Mezzanine,
complete with footnotes, details the lunch hour of a man who actually enjoys
working in an office. Talk about a taboo subject! And he seemed to write in
360-degree sensurround, his descriptions of the supposedly banal awakening the
most jaded of senses. He followed this with Room Temperature, which has
a similarly self-deprecating and endlessly curious narrator. Baker has him exhaust
such hitherto unmentionables as nose-picking, "big jobs" or "jobbing" (I'll
leave you to guess what, as Larkin put it), and stealing change from his mother's
bag. Room Temperature is a novel of domestic pleasure and stability,
with a twist. "Was there ever a limit between us. Would disgust ever outweigh
love?" Mike asks, and seems determined to find out.
Tenderness -- not disgust -- toward women pervades Baker's work. His mix of
high and low styles -- exclamations like "Holy Moly" and "Jeezamarooni" collide
with elegant, complex syntax or epigrams -- makes his characters' obsessions
surprisingly harmless and hilarious. His prose seems incapable of conveying
the dangerous power of obsession or leveled desire; it's too self-aware and
-mocking. In The Fermata, the generous and creepy assertion "Each woman
inspires her own fetishes" is followed by the wacky "And it isn't that Joyce
has some ludicrous Vagi-fro or massive Koosh-ball of a sex-goatee -- in fact
her hair isn't thicker really than most."
The Fermata's narrator, a 35-year-old temp named Arno Strine, is writing
his autobiography -- "it's harder than I thought!" he admits. Arno has "Fold-powers";
that is, he can stop the world and use it as his own pleasure ground. Naturally,
he uses this gift not for evil or material gain (he would feel guilty about
stealing), but merely to undress a good number of women and momentarily
place them in compromising positions. Always, in his view, with respect and
love. It's impossible not to like Arno, even as he scampers around between objects
less of desire than admiration and fascination. His office-mates frozen around
him, he undresses Joyce, his boss. There follows a tender -- and lengthy peroration
on Joyce's "exuberant" pubic hair, of which this is only a small part:
Its blackness sparkles, if you will -- its curving border reaches
a little higher on her stomach. A little? -- what am I saying? It's the size
of South America.
Despite the jacket-copy assertion that The Fermata is "an altogether morally
confused piece of work," the book follows a much straighter path than Baker's
other circular works. It is more about loneliness than power -- Arno can only
find happiness by ceding control -- thanks to a Jeff Stryker penis pump. He even
thinks of going back to graduate school. The ultimate office novel!
But before Arno reaches this point, there's a good deal of rollicking fun
and too-protracted pornographic chapters. Arno writes porn while in the Fold
and surprises women with it, with varying degrees of success. To rewrite the
classic feminist epigraph, in Arno's world, pornography is the theory, masturbation
is the practice.
The Fermata, like Baker's other books, gains little from bare-bones
synopsis. The pleasure is literally in the text -- Arno's terms for "love organs"
are so varied, "my gender-beam," "My Juiceman," "my troika," "my yokel," and
his terms for dildos no less so. There's the Monasticon, "a large twisting Capuchin
monk holding a clit-nuzzling open manuscript" and "a giant Armande Klockhammer
Arno either knows himself exceptionally well or not at all. That is, he knows
he should know better than to go around interfering with women but he justifies
himself by pointing out his difference. Asking various others about how they
would behave if they could freeze the universe, he grows dispirited. They seem
to want instant -- and foul -- gratification. Arno only uses the Fold to "live
out my perennial wish to insert some novelty into the lives of women."
The fascination of The Fermata lies in this sub-conundrum: Is Arno
a savior or a sensitive brute? Since he's so obviously a brute, and a filthy-minded
one at that, why does he seem so harmless, so likable? His quick mind is more
intriguing than its taste for porn -- though phrases like "dildasmic" and "It
is, I think, a more handsome penis than I deserve!" go a long way toward making
the explicit palatable and fun. Anyone who can stop time and refer in self-delight
to his "chronanisms" can't be all bad.
Despite all its orifices, The Fermata is an emotional history. Baker's
stress is on loneliness, daily rituals, and love. What's memorable about this
book is less the sex and the sex toys than Arno's unlikely evocations of day-to-day
love -- the noise of his ex-girlfriend's nail clipper, "which I listened to
in bed as some listen to real birdsong, is one of the most satisfying memories
that I possess of that relationship."
Baker is a writer of intimacy and, to paraphrase his paraphrase of Updike,
novels are experienced in private and life is too short to worry about propriety.
Not too short, however, to contemplate the increasing convergence between literature
for grownups and "adult" entertainment.
Gun, With Occasional Music
Harcourt Brace & Company, $19.95
by Tracy Cochran
Picture Philip Marlowe alone at a strange and dangerous party, snorting piles
of drugs, looking for a killer while everybody around him, even the animals, trips
their brains out. Jonathan Lethem's first novel is a wry, funny, ruefully knowing
near-future vision, a high octane blend of Chandler and Philip K. Dick, about
Conrad Metcalf, a tough-talking, seen-it-all p.i. While investigating the murder
of a former client, Metcalf stumbles onto a trail of corruption that leads him
on a tour of a sunny Californian world as gauzy and empty of substance as a hologram.
Questions are outlawed. Drugs are legal and free. Everyone and everything is controlled
by a grey, ubiquitous Inquisitor's Office. Like Marlowe, Metcalf tells himself
he's beyond caring. Like Marlowe, of course, he's not. Lethem is good with names
and other funny details. He doles out his droll fare deadpan, and he pulls back
at just the right moment. The free drugs that fuel this grim world, for example,
are nicknamed "make," as authentic as "junk" or "crack." "Forgettol" does just
what it says; likewise "Believol" and the rest: "My blend is skewed heavily towards
Acceptol, with just a touch of Regrettol for that bittersweet edge, and enough
Addictol to keep me craving it even in my darkest moments."
It's cool writing; funny but not in a
way that makes you laugh. Coolest of all, and true to the sensibility that seems
to be emerging among writers in their 20s, Lethem has a retro attitude about
the present (or the very, very recent past.) As when Freudians come door-to-door
like Jehovah's Witnesses:
A neatly dressed woman in her late twenties or early thirties stood
in the doorway, and behind her a young guy in a suit and tie was walking up
the steps. `Hello,' she said. I said hello back. `We're students of psychology.
If you're not too busy, we'd like to read you a few selections from Freud's
Civilization and Its Discontents.' It took a minute for me to blink away
my confusion. This kind of thing didn't happen in my neighborhood. `No,' I said.
`But thanks no. I'm not a believer myself.'
This is a world that has moved way beyond psychology or history or any pretense
about human connection. As Metcalf tells Grover Testafer, a urologist suspect
who collects antique TV magazines, banned since the Inquisition decreed that TV
should be all abstract patterns without words or plot: "You think you're pining
for some old program, but what you're really missing is a kind of human contact,
a kind that's not possible anymore."
As the story unfolds, our first broad clue that this is not a straight sci-fi
p.i. story is the evolved dachshund Metcalf mows down on his way through a revolving
door. His real problems start when he runs into a kangaroo that tries to punch
his lights out to scare him off the case: "My edge was surprise. I probably
had intelligence and experience on him too, but in a fight with a kangaroo I'll
take surprise, thanks." Of all the artificially evolved creatures in this strange
world, however, the nominally human babyheads are the worst. Stimulated beyond
love and play and all other childish things, these hard-drinking little monsters
in stretchy p.j.'s huddle together in dingy "babybars" and think thoughts that
are supposed to be incomprehensible to ordinary adults.
Lethem, who describes himself as having been "born in the '60s, watched television
in the '70s, and started writing in the '80s," seems to want to underline his
media consciousness. He wants us really to get the picture: he's got a "babyhead"
camping it up with artifacts from every movie we've ever seen -- the handgun
that triggers a stream of ominous music, most notably. We get it, but it does
freeze frame the story and destroy the little momentum that's been built.
Gun, With Occasional Music breathes light and air into doomy, gloomy
postures and attitudes that have become so sacrosanct in sci-fi p.i. movies
that even when Arnold or some other high-priced hero winks at us they do it
in character. But for all his pop-cultural knowingness, Lethem lacks the skill
and experience necessary to manage the tightrope act of parodying a form while
practicing it at the same time. His evolved animals and pugnacious little babyheads
are fabulous ideas that don't go anywhere. We don't care enough about the characters
to be shocked by the extent of their evil, or get a charge out of Metcalf's
ultimate breakthrough. In the end, Metcalf belongs to a long line of lonely
guys in an indifferent world. He goes out pretty much as he came in, strung
out on a blend of Acceptol with a dash of Regrettol, a kind of futuristic slacker,
resolving to snort make and chill until things get less weird. All alone. Lethem
should have shined the light on this musty little conceit, too. But he didn't,
and ended up with a kind of romantic postadolescent despair.
Metcalf has every reason to feel aimless and alone in such a world, but readers
-- addicted as we are to the rush of a good story -- long to end things with
a bang. Still, Lethem's sullen p.i. has style. He invests his bleak, skewed
observations with a certain self-awareness and a certain aspiration for himself
and the others that is almost sweet. And he's funny. Which may be what separates
us from the animals, even evolved animals, after all. Poetry
by Carol Moldaw
Psalms, April Bernard's second book of poems, has a grit which acts to
give it its unifying polish. The poems are, as she says, "a sequence out of sequence."
They are most powerful taken together but do not form a linear story. There are
settings, landscapes, references, and much emotion, but no anchoring narrative
context. In this sense, Psalms is very much in keeping with the Biblical
psalms: suffering, and its attendant problems and complexes, its moods, revelations,
desires, resignations, tortures, and redemptions constitute "the story." The proximate
cause of this particular suffering, while it may be discerned, or guessed, is
so beside the point, so far outstripped, it is off the map. While only a few of
the poems in Psalms address God directly, they almost all engage in that
argument with the self which, as Yeats said, makes poetry. The predominant color
and mood of these poems is grey, a grey even more differentiated than the "exactly
twelve shades" longed for in "Psalm of the Surveyor of the Middle Latitudes."
There, the speaker bemoans the loss of "long afternoons/of this grey and that
grey: the edge of the subway platform, the hem/of a curtain in the picture window."
Grey in these poems is the color of loss, of catastrophe, of a city's triangle
of sky; of smoke, fabric, pre-dawn light, heat, despair. It is not the grey of
blandness or silence. Where there is smoke there is fire, and these are combustible
poems. The fire that is lit and articulated here may have started as a brush fire,
or even a hearth fire, but soon spread: "If it took an immolation to bare the
ground, that is what it took" ("Lamentations and Praises").
"I will give you so many particulars you need not know facts," the poet says
toward the close of her book. Indeed, the primary strength of these poems is
not their occasional use of King James's diction, but their accurate particularity
and their restless juxtaposition of disparate tones. While the use of phrases
like "all you people" and "mine eyes," of the imperative mood, and of parallel
structure, serve to give the poems an only occasionally inflated ring of biblical
authority, their deeper power accrues from Bernard's unsparing honesty pinpointing
the welter of human emotion: Today the prayer came like blood upon my lips:
Give me the courage not to hate,
("Psalm of the Wind-Dweller")
Take the sweet taste from the violent thought,
Give me charity for my stammering heart,
And let me on your wind pass one dreamless night
Oh rest, when sudden sun illuminates the shade
Kiss my hands, my foot, the ends of my hair
("Psalm of the One Who Has No Dwelling Place") Bernard's eye for landscape, including
cityscape, is sharp, and her ear is compelling, quirky. She is able to shift moods
and tones in a single beat, to keep the reader with her even when the inner logic
of thought is inaccessible. Occasionally a line seems too crammed, an internal
rhyme too jolting, a mode of address too portentous or affected, so that the poem
doesn't carry the weight of the tone. But these are small qualms compared to Bernard's
overall vitality, originality, and grace.
Erase the lines another drew upon my brow
One of the most moving poems is an elegy, "Trio Psalms," which has Bernard's
characteristic offhand shifts of thought. It begins "And sometimes we are cut
off/in the midst of conversation./That vase of peonies goes there" and ends
"The vase of peonies goes where?/And so in the midst/sometimes we were cut off."
The small changes within the repetition, the change from "that vase" to "the
vase," the deletion of the word "conversation," and especially the question,
which -- as if absentmindedly -- echoes the opening directive, all deftly shape
the poem into an enactment of a conversation. The death, occurring within the
midst of the "conversation" of friendship, is signaled by the question being
left unanswered, and the shift from "are cut off" to "were cut off." Thus the
death seems to occur also within the course of the poem, and we, in some measure,
experience both the intimacy of the friendship and the abruptness of the loss.
Bernard gets it exactly, and elegantly, right.
If there is a storylike progression embedded within Psalms, it has
to do with the poet's changing relationship to God. In the first poem, "Psalm
of the City-Dweller Gone Home," the poet "would be afraid to find" God, and
yet is looking for him, "as for my bitterest enemy." In the last sequence, "Lamentations
and Praises," the poet first quotes from the Biblical psalms and then acknowledges
her own form of supplication:
"Out of the depths I cry to Thee, O Lord. Hear my voice. And let thine ears
be attentive to the voice of my pleading."
Lately I've been taking these pages out into the sunlight and holding them
flat for you to read. You have become my favorite reader.
There is something immensely appealing to me in these last lines and this
image -- the childlike simplicity of the gesture, its matter-of-factness, the
implicit acknowledgment of the writer's process of writing the book we are now
reading, the directness of the relationship to God. The sunlight seems fresh,
as after a long harrowing storm. Pages are being written. Writing is, after
University of Chicago Press, $12.00 (cloth)
by Harry Thomas
Not until I had read Dwelling Places several times did I see how ingeniously
resourceful, ambitious, and admirably modest a book David Ferry has made. It's
a thin book, oddly so (the third section, for instance, consists of one two-page
poem), and for this reason and because it is his first collection since Strangers
(1983), one suspects that Ferry has culled sparingly from a larger stock. Ferry's
tone is uninflected, decorous, even unapologetically serene at times. He seldom
appears in propria persona, as the agent of action or even emotion. But
the chief token of his modesty is how much he translates and in other ways draws
on the texts of others. Dwelling Places carries the subtitle Poems and
Translations and of the book's 33 poems no fewer than 12 are translations,
while two others paraphrase prose pieces, two more are ekphrases, and one responds
to a poem by Tom Sleigh. Toting up these numbers I was reminded of an observation
Berryman made in his essay on Pound: "All ambitious poetry of the last 600 years
is much less `original' than any but a few of its readers ever realize. A staggering
quantity of it has direct sources, even verbal sources, in other poetry, history,
philosophy, theology, prose of all kinds." Yet even by this standard Ferry's book
would appear to be uncommonly, even originally, unoriginal. Ferry is a religious
poet, a Christian, reticently. His subject is the traditional one of religious
poetry, the soul's progress. Through the book's five sections Ferry advances from
forms of affliction, through the soul's swealing night, to regeneration, to, finally,
willing reconcilement. We recognize the pattern as being the same one that Ferry
traced two years ago in his fine verse translation of Gilgamesh. What is
remarkable about Dwelling Places is not so much the presence of the mythic
pattern as Ferry's modes of presentation, especially his ways of establishing
his own presence and involvement in the pattern. We meet Ferry first, for instance,
in the silence of what he omits from the book's epigraph: "-- Even unto this present
hour we hunger, and thirst, and are naked, and are buffeted, and have no certain
dwelling place" (I Corinthians 4: 11). The passage so quoted and placed
renders the poet anonymous, one with the collective experience it sketches. But
Ferry has edited Paul's sentence to achieve this effect; the sentence in the King
James Version, Ferry's source, does not end full-stop at "dwelling places," but
continues: "And labour, working with our own hands: being reviled, we bless; being
persecuted, we suffer it; Being defamed, we intreat: we are made as the filth
of the world, and are the offscouring of all things unto this day." One
feels immediately that Paul's sudden self-righteous ferocity is entirely foreign
to Ferry's character, but at the same time one feels that the full passage impinges
on the book's spiritual progress, that Ferry, in a different field and with a
different tone, is the Christian working with his hands and suffering revilement.
The second poem in the book, "Dives," illustrates Ferry's mode of securing
an effect by way of simple juxtaposition. The poem comes just before the sestina
"The Guest Ellen at the Supper for Street People" (for me as great a poem as
the famous sestinas by Sidney, Auden, and Bishop) and like many of Ferry's poems
it has a sestina-like sinuous overlapping of word, image, and motif: The dogheaded
wild man sleeps in the back alley,
behind the fence with bittersweet adorned,
The wild man sleeps in the maple-shaded alley
in the corner of the garden over near
where the viburnum flowers or fails to flower,
depending on whether or not we water it.
Many times over again it has survived.
The leaves are homely, crudely rough-cut, with
a texture like sandpaper; an unluscious green,
virtuous in look, not really attractive;
like Kent in Lear plainspoken, a truth-teller,
impatient with comparison as with deceit.
hidden behind the garden fence behind
the wooden garden seat weathering gray
In the alley between the yard and the old theater
in the corner of the garden over near
where the Orson Welles Movie Theater used to be,
from which in former days you faintly heard
the voices of the great dead stars still vying
in rich complaint, or else in exaltation
of meeting or farewell, in rituals
of wit o'ermastered, or in ecstasy
of woe beyond the experience of saints.
the wild man is, covered with leaves or clad
under a scribbled hieroglyphic sign. The poem's in-and-out focusing and refocusing
is Ferry's way not only of setting the "wild man" in uneasy relation to the suburban
garden and our culture of silver-screen ecstasy -- a culture in which he is given
no dwelling place -- but also for setting the culture in relation to the past.
Ferry, as he acknowledges in his notes at the end of the book, has taken his homeless
"wild man" from two studies of the mythic wild men of the Middle Ages and antiquity
(the epithet "dogheaded," for example, comes from Herodotus). The reader may be
tempted to think that this historical perspective merely permits Ferry to excuse
himself (and us) of responsibility for the man's distress, to see in his condition,
in fact, not distress but sanctified "freedom." Our focus is radically altered,
however, by the poem's title, "Dives" being the proper name of the rich young
man in Luke's parable who will not give his wealth to the poor and thereby save
himself. In the poem, we now realize, it is Ferry whose spiritual well-being is
all the time under scrutiny.
in the bark of our indigenous flourishing trees,
elaborately enscrolled and decorated
with the names of heavenly pity; there he sleeps
in the freedom of his distress among abandoned
containers of paint, eggshell and off-white tinots,
umbers both raw and burnt, vermilion, rose,
purples, and blues, and other hues and shades,
close by the rangled roll of wire screening,
The dozen translated poems in the book occupy important stations in Ferry's
spiritual journey. This explains why Ferry has not gathered them into a separate
section at the end of the book, why he has felt free to edit them -- omitting
lines, changing titles, introducing words and images, and, in the case of Baudelaire's
"Les Aveugles," entirely reordering a poem's parts -- and why he takes none
of the traditional steps (meter, rhyme) to make his translations resemble in
style the original poems. Perhaps Ferry agrees with Nabokov's view that any
attempt at artistic translation (Drydenesque imitation) is doomed to produce
"nothing but a farrago of error and improvisation." But Ferry's translations
are not Nabokovian "literal reproductions" distinguished by "the rigor of fierce
fidelity." Ferry regards each poem he translates as a record of spiritual findings,
and his renderings seek to preserve the findings. Consider "The Lesson": The
stream still flows through the meadow grass,
as clear as it was when I used to go in swimming,
And now the sharp blade of the axe of time
not good at it at all, while my father's voice
gently called out through the light of the shadowy glade,
trying to help me learn. The branches hung down low
over those waters made secret by their shadows.
My arms flailed in a childlike helpless way.
has utterly out away that tangle of shadows.
and the stream still flows through the meadow grass. I find the idiom here very
winning, especially "to go in swimming," where one might have got the translatorese
of "to go swimming," and the tender, self-forgiving "not good at it at all." The
sweet, ruminative persona makes one think of the old man in Wild Strawberries.
It certainly doesn't make one think of the man who wrote, in Latin, this poem:
the poet of the tautological epithet and grandiloquent line, the Great Cham himself,
Samuel Johnson. There are material differences between Johnson's Latin and Ferry's
English -- Ferry has changed the title and dropped the final couplet in which
Johnson points the moral and reveals in an apostrophe why and to whom (a friend)
he has written the poem -- but these differences come to seem insignificant beside
the ontological difference, the difference in spiritual character, between the
two poems. Ferry has made a beautiful poem of personal reconcilement and peace,
but he has made it in his own voice and for his own purposes. As is always
the case with translation, one hears Ferry saying in reply. No poet has ever
invoked a muse of translation; there is only the Muse of creation. Paradoxically,
this is a modest view of translation.
The naked waters are open to the sky now
Ferry concludes the book with a half-Baudelairean, half-Pauline poem which
calls on the reader, too, to fill with the Muse's spirit. I close with "Envoi":
Let these not be the black, imaginary
flowers of hell, nihilotropic,
turning their iron faces toward
no light but the light of the dead letter.
Originally published in the April/May 1994
issue of Boston Review