Milan Kundera, Mario Vargas Llosa, John Berger, Nadine Gordimer & the Realist Novel of Commitment

July-August 1989By Ed Block Jr.

Ed Block Jr., Associate Professor of English at Marquette University, was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Africa and a Fulbright Fellow to West Germany. His interest in novels of commitment is part of a scholarly concern for comparative literature viewed from the perspective of Christian values.

In her June 25, 1987, article in The New York Review (“The Fictions of America”), Eliza­beth Hardwick manifests some ambivalence about the state of American fiction. It is probably safe to assume that Hardwick has in mind the work of such post-modernists as John Barth, Donald Barthelme, Thomas Pynchon, Stanley Elkin, and Rob­ert Coover — to name just a random few. Their hallmark is a rejection or distortion of many traditional narrative conventions, and an ironic — if not derisive — treatment of character and moral action. Now it is true that there exists a strong contingent of realist writers like Walker Percy, John Updike, Saul Bellow, Larry Woiwode, and Reynolds Price who reject at least the latter of these post-modern­ist conventions. But in at least one other regard they sometimes resemble the post-modernists. Ev­en realists like Woiwode, Bellow, and Percy some­times lose a sense of what Hannah Arendt called “the public realm.” Like the post-modernists, they sometimes stray into an apolitical or ahistorical mode which undermines the moral dimension of their work by making it more parable-like than re­alistic. Despite its references to AIDS, mind-alter­ing drugs, and a health-care grantsman run amok, Percy’s The Thanatos Syndrome, for instance, cre­ates an atmosphere almost unreal in its details.

Of course it is the post-modernist mode that these days receives the greatest fanfare in the na­tional reviews. It is also considered, at least by many academic critics, the vanguard of American fiction­al innovation.

In two relatively recent examples of post-mod­ern fiction, Donald Barthelme’s Paradise and Robert Coover’s A Night at the Movies, we see the chief characteristics of the mode. Each presents but a pale shadow of the novel’s potential to exert a powerful moral claim. Paradise celebrates the appar­ent ecstasy that Simon, a 53-year-old New York ar­chitect, experiences when his wife leaves him, and three young models from Denver move in. But ev­en when his complex feelings for the three women elicit reflection and moral questioning, we scarcely take Simon’s agonies seriously. Even less compell­ing are the insights derived from Coover’s wildly in­novative imitations of old movie themes. Not only do the post-modernist “tricks” of fragmented nar­ration, empty viewpoints, parody, and linguistic high jinks distance the reader from whatever hu­man experience the linked stories seem to deal with, but the events themselves appear as just more fragments of American life, unrelated because un­focused on the values and lived experiences of real human beings.

After earning respectability as a form of mor­al learning and cultural formation in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the novel appears to be falling back into disrepute — if not with readers, then at least with certain novelists. A couple years ago nov­elist E.L. Doctorow observed that modern writers may have lost “the passion of our calling, which is the belief that writing matters, that there is salva­tion in witness and moral assignment.” Having lost their resolve, many contemporary novelists like Barthelme and Coover offer up diversions, confec­tions, and sensationalisms, as if the problems of and challenges to moral human selfhood no longer matter.

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