The novel has an unstoppable momentum because it’s driven overwhelmingly by the voice of a person in utter despair, a person who declares himself invisible at the opening, and who restates that claim at the end, mockingly declining to try anymore to live with any awareness of the difference between right and wrong….”
by kristina eldredge
“I call you by name, my green, my fluent mundo.”
Wallace Stevens wrote those words near the end of his magnificent poem, Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction. Stevens loved the green world. Winter was like a death to him. I think of him, his lonely lines echoing in my head, when I look at the green life that still can console the heart in Prospect Park and along the Brooklyn streets.
You can’t say “What kinds of books do you read in a time like this” because there hasn’t been a time like this, for me and for many Americans. This is a new time. Margaret Drabble, in her (highly recommended) novel The Gates of Ivory, writes about Good Time and Bad Time. The people in her civilized, artistic, politically aware London world are in Good Time and the characters traveling in Cambodia on the murky, poverty-stricken trail of Pol Pot are in Bad Time. Drabble’s designation draws on quantum physics with its notion of time being vertical rather than horizontal. Everything is happening at the same time, but some people are experiencing nerve-shattering horror and some are having tea and watching the telly.
In New York, we’ve now had the experience of Bad Time. I’ve sat on unnaturally empty subway cars with a sense of jittery unknowingness: Was this the Wrong Time to get on this subway? Are we headed for the stop I want, or for some unknown and horrible fate? Knowing how many innocent people met a sudden death on Sept. 11, you can’t help being extra-conscious of the always-present possibility of tragedy. Normally, you have told yourself you’re being silly, alarmist, paranoid. Now you bite your lips knowing you aren’t being any of those things.
Ellison’s Wild Ride
So who do you read? I happened to be rereading Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man when the disaster occurred. I found that after those first nerve-shot days I could return to the narrative and be absorbed by it, because Ellison’s novel is about a man caught up in forces beyond his control. Even though the protagonist’s experience is crucially that of an American black man in the 1930s, the book is about a series of nightmares from which the character can’t awake. (Fitting the mood of this time, perfectly.) First, he’s sucked into a misadventure with a wealthy white philanthropist from the college he attends, and by following the man’s orders, manages to deliver him to such stark reality of Negro (as it’s called then) life that the man is sickened and our protagonist, the invisible one who is also never named, is expelled. Shattered, he tries to make a life for himself in New York, but finds hard hearts and closed doors in the Wall St. businesses he approaches. A brief stint in a paint factory where he is exposed to unsafe working conditions leads to a nervous breakdown and a stay in a mental ward. On release, the man tries to put his life back together in Harlem and finds himself taken up by a political group who want to use his rhetorical skills to forge a “new Marcus Garvey.” The rest of the book finds him struggling to be an effective activist within the controlling ideology of the group.
I realize Invisible Man isn’t exactly contemporary fiction, which is what this column is supposed to be about, but my plans for the column were blasted in the wake of the bombing. I couldn’t read anything new, I had to read writers I had already read. And there’s a value to rereading, since you’re revisiting your own emotional terrain as well as the book’s. I remember being blown away by Invisible Man in my early twenties, and it’s stood for a long time as a high-water mark in my conception of what a novel can be. Ellison’s main character moves through so much geographical, psychological and social terrain it’s dizzying. The novel traces a black man’s journey from Southern segregationist society to Northern, integrated-but-still-unequal, racial politics. More explosively, it deals with a man’s understanding of himself mixed with projections he gets from society at large. Ellison manipulates the metaphors of invisibility and blindness at many levels, so that the book is about identity in general as well as the black experience. The novel has an unstoppable momentum because it’s driven overwhelmingly by the voice of a person in utter despair, a person who declares himself invisible at the opening, and who restates that claim at the end, mockingly declining to try anymore to live with any awareness of the difference between right and wrong.
But I have to admit that I wasn’t quite so knocked out by Invisible Man this time through. In the last third of the book, it felt like the action was too relentless, too noisy. I missed a finer rendering of the characters, a slower exploration of certain scenarios. For instance, the protagonist is seduced by a white woman who’s had too much to drink, who keeps calling him “Boo’ful,” and who he tries to hold off for as long as possible. Her lust for him seems slightly caricatured. The leaders of the somewhat sinister “movement” the character gets involved with never emerge as real people. Still, Ellison does many things so well — the impassioned but wryly honest narrative voice, the many crowd scenes, the sensuous descriptions of music — that overall, the book sustains its extraordinary intensity.
In times of disorder, I reach for writers whose work resonates with a certain dread and sadness. (Some might prefer a spirit-lifter like P.G. Wodehouse, but the clash of cheerfulness with the mood of the hour is too discordant for me.) Lorrie Moore writes as though in the shadow of an event almost as horrible as the one we’ve just experienced. Like Don DeLillo, her writing is infused with a sense of toxicity, and she has a gallows humor, whether her subject is illness and mortality, as it often is, or not. There’s a fragile and morbid hum to her work, as though people are always at risk — if not of death, of something so ridiculous it exposes all of life’s absurdity in a single gesture. She’s often howlingly funny.
She’s funniest about the Midwest, and academics. In a story from her collection Birds of America set at an academic conference, a character listens to an English academic complain: “You’re not a poetess, I hope. … We had a poetess here last month, and things got a bit dodgy for the rest of us. … She kept referring to insects as ‘God’s typos.” And from Like Life, another story collection, the harrowing “You’re Ugly, Too” about a single woman teaching in the Midwest and having a cancer scare: “Her students were by and large good Midwesterners, spacey with estrogen from large quantities of meat and cheese. They shared their parents’ suburban values; their parents had given them things, things, things. They were complacent. They had been purchased. They were armed with a healthy vagueness about anything historical or geographic.”
Here’s the thing about Lorrie Moore: She’s fast. Her writing moves fast, and she moves quickly through subjects. This can feel, occasionally, a bit glib. She skates over things, breaking rules of fiction right and left. She does virtually no description or set-up in her stories. She doesn’t show, she tells. But she tells you things in a subtle murmur that catches you off-guard with its originality and humor, and makes you realize that this is no ordinary expository voice.
I don’t think Moore is slowing down as a writer. Her novel Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? virtually gallops through some fairly familiar terrain — two teenage girls experimenting with sexual power, one gets pregnant, the other tries to head off catastrophe — but still hits its marks, is still effective, when the breathless ride is over. (The novel is even set in a town called Horsehearts.) How does she do it? It’s simply that Moore is so intelligent that even her slack writing is bearable, and her good writing can open up the heart in a way that, after all the quickness and wisecracks, makes you gasp.
Like Life, her second collection of stories, contains the amazing “The Jewish Hunter.” This story, as many of Moore’s do, concerns a woman from New York getting involved with a Midwesterner and fighting with her prejudices and snobbery toward his provincialism. (The story shows off Moore’s way with a one-liner, but it goes way beyond that.) On a deeper level, it’s about a woman staving off intimacy. Much as part of her wants to yield to the warmth and protectiveness this man offers, she continually stresses their differences to herself (he enjoys bad ethnic food, something a New Yorker could never approve of) and she finds ways to extricate herself. But she can feel her own lostness as she speeds away from him — she senses the way her rootlessness protects her from serious involvement with people.
What I find comforting in Moore is the sense that her characters are groping in a confused moral landscape. (Many times, this seems like the only way to view the world.) In a story called “Real Estate” in her collection Birds of America, a character is driving past a house she used to own, and feels critical of the new owners for pulling out the forsythia bushes as if they were weeds:
But maybe they were weeds. She never knew anymore what was good life and what was bad, what was desirable matter and what was antimatter, what was thing the itself and what was the death of the thing…
This sense of lostness precedes personal crisis in Moore — it is from this blankness that people try to connect and the same blankness is waiting for them when the connection dies. What’s good? What’s bad? There’s a feeling that values really are indecipherable, a distant abstraction. Her characters try to love, but they come from landscapes that seem emotionally alien from each other and themselves. Moore sets one story, “Like Life” (from the collection of the same name), in the future and makes explicit much of the disembodiedness she suggests elsewhere:
Maggie lost sleep. She began to distrust things, even her own words; too much had moved in. Objects implanted in your body — fillings, earrings, contraceptives — like satellite dishes, could be picking up messages, substituting their words for yours, feeding you lines.
That sense of confusion, not knowing what is good or bad, is also expressed by the protagonist at the end of Invisible Man::
When one is invisible, he finds such problems as good and evil, honesty and dishonesty, of such shifting shapes that he confuses one with the other, depending on who happens to be looking through him at the time.
The writers come to their sense of moral relativity differently. Moore uses a smaller canvas than Ellison, writing often about houses, marriage, the structures by which middle class people try to give themselves a sense of permanence, but she exposes the whistling emptiness behind these efforts. Ellison’s character fights a more violent and symbolic battle and comes to the conclusion that in telling the truth, he encounters condemnation, while lying has brought him acclaim. Both writers observe that it is somewhat difficult to tell the difference between good and evil, at times.
I think this is the difference between fiction writers and politicians. A fiction writer, of necessity, tries to imagine all points of view, or admits that there can be a murkiness between right and wrong when all aspects are considered. A politician often caricatures or simplifies an opposing point of view for the sake of rhetoric. I don’t find such statements as “America is the greatest country in the world” (Joe Lieberman said it in a television interview, but many others utter this soundbite all the time) the least bit persuasive. Where did we get such an inflated idea and why do we assert it, bombastically, at a time of war when it could further inflame our enemies? Why do we think we’re “great”? We boast of being a democracy but don’t even have up-to-date equipment to get an accurate count of a presidential vote. We have one of the highest rates of toxic emissions in the world and we refused to join the Kyoto treaty to address that problem. We have shocking internal violence, from Columbine to Timothy McVeigh. What’s “great” about all this? Of course, we have many good points too, even great ones, but can’t we acknowledge that every country feels pride in its heritage, culture, and policies, and every country considers itself “great?” Or that it’s diplomatically tactless to say you are “the greatest” in any case?
The greatness of American writing, and I do mean greatness, is its honesty and complexity in confronting the moral queasiness that is our heritage. It’s an enormous subject, but American writers have always risen to the challenge, whether with a precise and devastating brush like Moore’s, or a feverish outpouring of eloquence like Ellison’s.