Other Voices Bookshelf

by C.W.. Cannon

Appears in Other Voices #29

Review of Innovations: an Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Fiction, edited by Robert J. McLaughlin

I doubt anyone will ever publish an anthology called Great Fiction That You Won't Likely Find Elsewhere. It's a title that would have suited Robert McLaughlin's Innovations: an Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Fiction. The project of the title which McLaughlin did select is a bit tricky to pin down. His introduction, and the preface by John O'Brien, give the short story collection a manifesto-like character which I thoroughly enjoyed. O'Brien: "That the mainstream reviewer has difficulty with this fiction speaks to...how profoundly ill-read most reviewers are and how dull they are" (ix). McLaughlin: "One might think of the purpose of art as being to sow confusion. I like this idea of art" (xvii).

Me too. I also like McLaughlin's insistence that certain gatekeepers of culture--let's say "mainstream reviewers"--think far too little of the mainstream reader's intellectual abilities, not to mention spirit of play. Certain yesmen who call themselves critics (McLaughlin fingers James Atlas, for example) have volunteered in a Dumb Down America campaign which has led to the arid cultural climate where certain species of art can't easily flourish. But which species of art would that/those be (besides writing in general, of course)?

This is where McLaughlin might just as well have said, "read the damn book and see," because the efforts by both he and O'Brien to characterize the common denominator in their featured authors are either strained or even mildly disingenuous. This is not to say the works don't represent a common 'school' or attitude toward fiction--McLaughlin considers and rejects terms like avant-garde, experimental, and postmodern, finally settling on innovative (doesn't work for me). It's just that the conceptual boundaries around this 'movement' or 'aesthetic' are still too hazy to tie down. And who cares? I don't, really, except that I think the envelope is too often defined in the wrong ways. For example, emcee O'Brien ends his preface with "we will not warn the reader that there are no plots, that the characters are not real people, that there are few if any lessons to be learned (except perhaps about fiction)..."(x). This last "non-warning" is what disturbs me the most. The goal of providing alternatives to tepid, allegedly 'social-issue' driven bourgeois realism is laudable, and urgent. But does it require more imaginative writers to dispense altogether with commenting on anything other than formal technique?

Happily, the stories in Innovations go well beyond the technically difficult (though intellectually simple) assignment of playing games with language or subverting/extending the forms and act of fiction. The best work in the anthology acts on many fronts. It has a distinctive and often beautiful surface (language), it plays magic tricks on dear reader by messing with formal expectations (self-referentiality, parody, metafiction, etc.), and it does offer "social lessons"--in aesthetic, artful ways, of course. It's a tough twelve stories to organize into any coherent order. But I'm going to do it even though it's gauchely unpostmodern. I'd group them into three periods and call them Genesis (John Barth, Donald Barthelme, Robert Coover, Gilbert Sorrentino); Prehistory (Felipe Alfau, Djuna Barnes, Gertrude Stein); and Continuing Tradition (William Gaddis, Cris Mazza, David Foster Wallace, Curtis White, John Edgar Wideman).

Felipe Alfau's "A Character" starts the ensemble off on the correct note. In the first paragraph we learn of the writer's intent to write a story, but hardly does he begin when he's called away and must postpone his writing. Then we get this: "Now that the author has set me on paper and given me a body and a start, I shall proceed with the story and tell it in my own words" (1-2). Of course all kinds of strange adventures take place as the story's boundaries fade away at points, come crashing down at others. The act of pulling the form out from under the reader's feet causes a sense of slippage--let's call it a headtrip--that I've always found pleasant. Many, though not all, of the assembled stories feature such technical maneuvers. John Barth, in his famous "Menelaiad," threads around layers so fast as to induce a faintly sickening giddiness. Barth's story, told by the character of Menelaus to himself and Homeric dinner guests, is classic parody gone whole-hog at every level of word, sentence, page, and hopelessly obscured flashback. Robert Coover also warps the field of representation in "You Must Remember This." He gives us the raunchy porno scene with Bogie and Bergman that we never saw in Casablanca, then trips things up as the poor movie images begin to sense the inhuman limitations of their unworldy stage.

If you like this kind of thing--I love it--Innovations offers exemplary material. However, not all of the fictions do this. Many of the stories' "innovations" are not very deep in a formal sense. This doesn't make these stories bad fiction, it just points up the strain in the editors' attempt at aesthetic coherence. The Djuna Barnes and Gertrude Stein selections ("Ladies Almanack: July,""A Little Novel"), while certainly innovative in terms of language--especially the magnificent Barnes--don't lead to any radical new awareness of form beyond the easy promise of their titles. David Foster Wallace's "Little Expressionless Animals," for all its flashy sound quality, is basically a story of romance, fame, and betrayal set in heartless Hollywood. A fine genre in itself, but how "innovative" is it, really? I know, Alex Trebek and Pat Sajak are characters, it's about the pathos of a Jeopardy! champion, and it's all so deliciously tongue-in-cheek! That's fun stuff, of course, but it's basic satire, really, not a huge leap in terms of form. It's a great story, though and this is why: it exposes the tawdry, but really tragic, silliness of a culture that elevates media moguls to cosmic visionaries and which, like Jeopardy!, reduces all values to equal, small, trivial meanings. In other words, like the best realism, it subjects contemporary (read: postmodern) culture to an unforgiving mirror. In this case, the mirror has a groovy frame, is maybe tinted some funky color, but it's basically the same operation.

Another story which subverts form only superficially is Cris Mazza's "Is It Sexual Harassment Yet?" It looks like this on the page: In the left column is a fairly uninflected third-person account of a floor captain at a fancy restaurant who is stalked, whose life is pretty well destroyed, by an obsessive, disturbed waitress. The right column has the distinctively voiced first-person point of view of the predatory waitress herself, who reports that the floor captain has been sexually harassing her, though this is the least of her imaginative accusations. But which of the two voices is the more unreliable, really? The edgy female's voice, or the one that comes across as more detached?

This technique raises questions about narrative reliability and demonstrates the writerly craft of inventing distinct and opposed voices, but the use of columns rather than successive sections to accomplish this is primarily a visual innovation only. I tried reading the two 'simultaneous' narratives at the same time, but I couldn't pull it off. Mazza's story is a fine one, however, and it's also "important." It's downright prescient. It doesn't bother me that the story offers, in fairly straightforward language, a "lesson" about one of the pressing social issues of our time. The content and form do not sardonically contradict each other, they ask together: has the unfinished work of the feminist revolution left us in a limbo of severed halves? At any rate, depriving Mazza's story of its political dimension would make it an unsatisfying half-a-loaf.

The freshest and most invigorating breeze in Innovations was for me an easy choice: Curtis White's "Bonanza," an excerpt from his 1998 book, Memories of My Father Watching T.V. "Bonanza" presents a view of Bonanza, the T.V. series, as filtered through the Beckett-esque flatulent rage of a narrative entity referred to as the "Wild Father." The Wild Father claims that he was never accepted as a character by Ben, Hoss, and Little Joe Cartwright, so he now spews creative, critical hatred at everything they represent (which is a lot). Sometimes, though, the Wild Father seems to be only a wasted, petty man watching too much T.V. and approaching a death caused by bad lifestyle choices. Meanwhile, form is bent every which way as the tenor of the language morphs from Ponderosa platitudes to filthy obscenity to stereotype blackjive to pseudo-academic. All of it parody, vicious parody. But the main reason the piece works so well is--dare I say it?--because of its emotional intensity. It's a pissed-off story that stinks as badly as the disgusting secretions of the Wild Father himself, which are described in gross, icky detail.

Finally, the politico-cultural rage saturating White's fiction is the best argument against limiting the kind of work represented in Innovations through overly formalist or language-oriented definitions. The best stories in the book have the three-fold attack strategy of form + language + cultural subversion. In his introduction, Robert McLaughlin slams James Atlas for complacently admitting that he never plans to read Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! McLaughlin is correctly outraged that Atlas' only response to the sensual miracle of the Absalom language is apparently boredom. In addition to its unique and beautiful voice, Absalom, Absalom! is a milestone in the modernist exploration of the limits of form. It also speaks volumes about the relationship between history in the abstract and the human subjects who 'make' and re-tell it. But the final ingredient is equally essential: it's deeply critical of a real history and a real place, and the writer's profound emotional engagement with the issues involved is unfakeable.

Such criteria are also satisfied by the best work in Innovations. The collection is capped by a recommended reading list of a hundred and one titles, drawn mostly from the past fifty years. I haven't read all of them, but most of the ones I have read are critical not only of form, but of culture and society in more concrete ways as well. Many of the big American titles could easily be called "New Left" (especially if you add 'pre-' and 'post-'). Most of the list that I'm familiar with is pretty much anti-bourgeois in either a Nietzchean or a Marxist sense. Terms like avant-garde, modernist, postmodern, experimental, and "innovative" simply don't factor in this final, essential subversive element. Maybe we should at last steer away from words that sheepishly lay claim either to language or chronology alone. Maybe we should pick one which would bring a messy cluster of uncontrollable associations with it: Radical? Subversive? Bohemian? Or maybe we should just read lots more of it and keep thinking, laughing, dreaming.