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Our Dreams in His Head
Mega-Money Fiction

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 Simple Plan

Scott Smith

Knopf, $21.00

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 ones either.

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,
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.
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.
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

Allan Folsom

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 hero?
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 office.

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, after all.

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 down.

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.

The Fermata

Nicholson Baker

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 Signature Model."

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

Jonathan Lethem

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

Psalms

April Bernard

Norton, $17.95

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,
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
("Psalm of the Wind-Dweller")

Oh rest, when sudden sun illuminates the shade

Kiss my hands, my foot, the ends of my hair
Erase the lines another drew upon my brow
("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.

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 all, redemptive.

Dwelling Places

David Ferry

University of Chicago Press, $12.00 (cloth)
$7.95 (paper)

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,
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.
The wild man sleeps in the maple-shaded alley

hidden behind the garden fence behind

the wooden garden seat weathering gray
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.
In the alley between the yard and the old theater
the wild man is, covered with leaves or clad
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,
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.

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,
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.
And now the sharp blade of the axe of time
has utterly out away that tangle of shadows.
The naked waters are open to the sky now
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.

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



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