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

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

BEYOND NOVELS AS A FORM OF DIVERSION

By Ed Block Jr. | July-August 1989
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.

Enjoyed reading this?

READ MORE! GET A FREE 7 DAY TRIAL

SUBSCRIBE TODAY

You May Also Enjoy

Fragmented Lives of Incomplete Reckoning

Man’s efforts are lost if they are not embedded in and do not proceed from the eternal perspective, without which they remain fragmented impulses.

Why Don't People Read the Spiritual Classics?

Show me a classic and I’ll show you a book few people read unless they’re…

A Japanese Graham Greene

Endo seeks to foster and exemplify such religious concepts as sin, redemption, and resurrection in his characterization and plot.