Milan Kundera, Mario Vargas Llosa, John Berger, Nadine Gordimer & the Realist Novel of Commitment
BEYOND NOVELS AS A FORM OF DIVERSION
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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