The reports of the death of the novel appear to be greatly exaggerated, at least if the flood of fiction that comes in for review is an indication. Here’s a look at five new books – some successes, some failures, some old hands and some new stars.
The Serial: A Year in the Life of Marin County, by Cyra McFadden (Knopf, $4.95)
Like, Cyra McFadden is really upfront. She totally interfaces with us about what Marin and the California thing are really like – the whole high-energy trip with all these happening people. Only in marvelous Marin are there garage sales with live music, hot hors d’oeuvres, Parducci Vineyards Gamay Beaujolais. Where it’s at, you know? And weddings, like Martha’s numero cinco that begins the book, or celebrations of open commitment and feeling exchange, like that of Kate and Harvey which ends it. are really outta-sight – tabbouleh, whole-wheat lasagne, soybean canapes, a Moog synthesizer, two electric guitars, and Spanish champagne. Only in Marin, right?
Of course there are a few really sick people who just can’t take the whole Marin head-set. Sam Stein, for instance, who flipped absolutely at a pool party and left for Hammond, Indiana, screaming, “Vasectomies. mandalas. acupuncture, saunas, sourdough, macrame.” But then anyone who sees Hammond, Indiana as a viable alternative is on a security trip anyway and probably lacks any inner resources.I mean, he just can’t handle freedom, you know?
For really together people like Kate and Harvey, though, Marin is just the only place. They’ve both got a terrific lot of ego-strength, and they survive an in-credible amount of trauma. Daughter Joan joins the Moonies and has to be de-pro-grammed, their Manx. Kat Vonnegut, Jr.. offs himself in the driveway under the Motobécane. and for a while Kate and Harvey, though married in the legalistic sense, aren’t coming from the same place at all. Kate wants an open, loving relationship and Harvey just wants to get his jockey shorts ironed. But Kate joins the sisterhood and then a commune, takes assertiveness training, and gets into body personality awareness through a totally liberating affair. Then Harvey has his nervous breakdown, which is very healthy – as Kate says, a nervous breakdown is just nature’s way of telling you you’ve freaked. So they finalize the parameters of their interface, and reaffirm their marriage vows, their mutual willingness to give each other space to grow, their organic union under the cosmos as cojoined persons. I mean, com-mitmentwise, it’s just so fantastic, you know? If you’re into process, you’ll really get off to this book. It’s all about how to hang loose on the human journey, and very funny.
The Public Burning, by Robert Coover (Viking. $ 12.95).
Another scathing treatment of American culture, this book belongs to the genre of historical fantasy which a couple of years ago sent E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime zooming to the top of the best-seller list. But Ragtime was a readable book. The Public Burning isn’t, though it is probably more serious in its intentions. The “burning” of the title is the 1953 execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg on their conviction for stealing U.S. atomic secrets for the Russians. Coover moves the execution chamber from Sing Sing to Times Square, the execution date to June 18, the Rosenbergs’ fourteenth wedding anniversary, and opens the execution to the public. Though Coover doesn’t confront the question of their guilt directly, he clearly believes them to be the victims of J. Edgar Hoover, of Republican political ambitions, and finally of a corrupted American populace. Coover’s Americans – he’s an Iowan who currently lives in England – are afflicted with a universal miasma of spiritual emptiness or decadence and self-serving pragmatism.
I hated reading this book. Three hundred or so of its 534 pages are boring, pretentious, and often as shrill as General Walker – a broadside posing as a novel. But it does have one brilliant strategy. Coover uses as his novel’s protagonist Richard Nixon, and the chapters in which Nixon reveals himself are uncanny in their portrait of Nixon as a human being whose good impulses and natural sympathies are invalidated by his essential loneliness and lack of moral purpose. Coover explains Nixon as Nixon, with his weak sentimental image and his inarticulateness, has never been able to explain himself. Like the comic California stereotypes in The Serial, this Nixon has no center and so falls prey to the spirit of expediency. In this novel he is, as Garry Wills called him. Nixon Agonistes.
Otherwise, The Public Burning, like the current economy, suffers from inflation. In the vintage words of another Californian, “If you want to send a message, call Western Union.”
The Widower’s Son. by Alan Sillitoe (Harper and Row, S8.95).
After the stridency of Coover’s important failure, one turns with pleasure to three novels in a quieter vein. The Widower’s Son is undoubtedly the finest recent novel I have read, far better in dealing with similar themes than David Storey’s much-acclaimed Saville. Sillitoe is one of Britain’s Angry Young Men, but his anger at class discrimination is controlled and analytical. As in The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, he is here concerned with the individual efforts of an admirable man to free himself from the emotional strictures of his inherited place in society. The sensitivity and insight with which the book’s story is shaped, the reality of the characters, and above all the restraint and delicacy of the author in telling it makes this a book to read more than once.
The Thin Mountain Air, by Paul Horgan (Farrar. Straus & Giroux, $8.95).
Ten years ago. in the fall of ’67, I discovered Paul Horgan, not that he was waiting to be discovered. I was living in the country at the time, and throughout a rainy isolated November I immersed myself in Horgan’s world, a world of reflection and intelligence. In The Thin Mountain Air, the latest of Horgan’s three Richard novels, that world, I am happy to report, still exists, better than ever. In The Thin Mountain Air. Richard leaves college in the early 1920’s, because his father, the Lieutenant Governor, has been stricken with tuberculosis and the family seeks his cure in Albuquerque’s “thin mountain air.” That air inspires a number of other things also- lust, deceit, hate, and love. If you’ve read the earlier books, you’ll want to read this one. If you haven’t, you’ll want to read them all. Horgan writes wonderfully.
Family Affairs, by Jane Watkins (Harper and Row. $8.95).
In a time of tight money like the present, first novels are rare, and a publisher is to be commended who brings one out. Family Affairs well deserves the gamble. The story of three generations of family love, misunderstanding, and forgiveness, it is written with the wry humor and graceful introspection we have come to associate with British novelists like Margaret Drabble and Muriel Spark. So it seems appropriate that Iris Murdoch calls it “thoroughly convincing.” I agree. The situation and characterization in Family Affairs bear comparison with Sillitoe”s book, high praise indeed. Am I chauvinistic to say that it pleases me to find here a woman at the center of the story? The heroine Alma, unlike the cardboard Kate in The Serial or the allegorical Ethel in The Public Biirning. is a real, comprehensible, mature, non-ideological human female. She is worth knowing.
Recent and Recommended
Browse at Your Own Risk, by George Price (Simon and Schuster, $7.95).
Nobody draws the backs of television sets – those little bumps and grooves and knobs and screwheads and places that wires go in and out and get wrapped around – better than George Price. In fact, nobody has a more vivid economy of line, and more just plain fun exploring the contours of furniture and people. Price People are bemused survivors of urban clutter, cock-eyed optimists (and pessimists) whose view of life is summed up by the man who arrives from work to announce to his wife: “I heard a bit of good news today. We shall pass this way but once.’” One cartoon book that’ll keep getting swiped from the coffee table.
– Charles Matthews