Great Fictions,
Hothouse Plants

The Robber Bride, by Margaret Atwood

I have just finished reading one of my favorite novels, John Fowles' The Magus, and for the second time in three years, I have gone straight from Fowles' brilliant anatomy of modern love to Margaret Atwood's The Robber Bride. (I am reading the latter, in a sense, backwards. Another time I'll explain.) I am also thinking, with some seriousness at last, about writing an essay on House Made of Dawn, by N. Scott Momaday, to be entitled, "William Eastlake's House Made of Dawn: An Essay on the Menard Paradox." And I am about to read, once I finish The Robber Bride and munch up a couple of popcorn-flavored murder mysteries (Nevada Barr's Hunting Season is here, and I finally got around to buying Thomas Perry's Pursuit), John Barth's still relatively new novel, Coming Soon!! Considering the merits of three novels and four writers, I find myself thinking about what sets the Atwoods and Fowleses apart from the Momadays and Barths.

... What sets the Atwoods apart from the Barths?

Ironically, considering where Momaday ends up on the scale, what I come upon as the distinguishing element is what I have to call "frivolousness." I don't mean by that "humorousness." I find Atwood laugh-out-loud funny sometimes, and I think the humor of the last fifty pages of The Robber Bride is an important part of the book's point. I'm afraid I mean something much more potentially damning. In the sense I mean, Barth's amusing puzzles are as frivolous as James Ellroy's bloody masturbatory fantasies and Momaday's Mandarin reduction of the suffering of Indian people to glittering, elegant verbal sonorities. Not evil or immoral for their frivolousness, regardless of the value judgments I've loaded those descriptions with, but not good either. They are merely various entertainments. A case in point, which I will not pursue here, is a comparison of the self-indulgent screeds of Cormac McCarthy with the relentless savagery of Leslie Silko's Almanac of the Dead, a novel worth more in cheap paperback than the entire McCarthy oeuvre would be in leatherbound Franklin Mint editions. McCarthy, like Thomas Harris and too many others of my contemporaries, is a purveyor of what I have come to call "Jewskin lamp" aesthetics: excellent craft in the service of evil.

I can imagine the rising hackles of literati everywhere, even before I post this blasphemy; but in my mind, there is little to distinguish the work of a Stephen King from that of a John Barth. They have chosen, King and Barth, to excel in slightly different crafts. But both are essentially entertainers, regardless of differences of audience, technique, or material. Fred Astaire, after all, is not a lesser dancer than Barishnikov. Likewise, so much of the new violence, the new nihilism, the new misogyny that passes for serious contemporary fiction is essentially bathroom and under-the-bedsheet stories for arrested children. And Momaday, I think sadly, has been entertaining himself for more than twenty years, to the disappointment of us all.

There is a kind of seriousness in Atwood and Fowles and Wallace Stegner, a kind of respect for the world, that is lacking in Barth's work, with perhaps two exceptions, the title story of Lost in the Funhouse and the moving novel/story series (out of print) entitled On With The Story. Interesting that the first is a story about the sterility of story-telling, and the second is a collection of stories much less gripping than the real story captured in the spaces between the words. But that is precisely the point, I think. Barth refuses to take the world seriously, whatever his reasons and their persuasiveness, and while it is a lot of fun, when he hits his marks, to laugh with him, the real world, the world we must cope with every day, is nothing like his delicious constructs. It is the world of pains, joys, deadly misunderstandings, and simple, terrible responsibilities that we will find in the work of writers like Stegner, Fowles, and Atwood. That is the real world, one Rafiki is prepared to rap us, Simba, or Berkeley, on the head to vivify.

... There is a chance that I know what I'm talking about.

In defense of such orchestrally sweeping generalizations above and below, I might add that I have read at least half of Barth's fiction and some of his non-fiction, a wheelbarrow-load of Atwood, all of Momaday (repeatedly), and nearly all of Fowles. I re-read The Sot-Weed Factor less than a month ago and was deeply disappointed by precisely the element I am attempting to describe, in a book I have admired for decades since first reading it as a young college professor very full of his own excellences, a Hamlet or Fortinbras impatient with world-weary Lears. And I am sensitive to the fact that Fowles himself has identified what I am calling a great book as "a novel of adolescence by a retarded adolescent." What can I say, except, indeed it is, and the reading of it, as the years pass, creates a palimpsest of our own emerging maturity.

All this preparation doesn't give me papal authority, but it means there is a chance that I know what I'm talking about. I love dozens of writers, for different excellences and to differing degrees, including the four I am comparing just now and others far less worthy or successful. And I respect many writers for qualities that I admire and even covet for my own work. But only a few do I consider "great," and their greatness lies in what I am attempting to distinguish from the frivolousness of most contemporary fiction. That said, I will sail without a backward glance into the sunsets of subjectivity.

The Blind Assassin

It is the task of fiction to explain things to the prisoners in the cave. As writers, we are the newly blinded attempting to describe color to the always blind. What was is gone; we cannot even look to check our recollection. How tempting it is then, in our helpless despair, to lapse into games and puzzles and entertainments. We know, in our deepest souls, that no words can recreate, much less equal, the greens of the Canadian rainforest, the beauty of a horse playing on a sunny day, the smell of air after being told we are loved, the taste of cold water when the heart is still recovering from hard work or play. Even for those who make their craft look elegant and effortless, the reality that language paints is no more precise, no more accurate and complete, than fingers smearing primary colors on a wall or a child whistling Beethoven.

The Magus, by John Fowles

And yet, books like The Magus and The Blind Assassin and Stegner's Angle of Repose succeed in seeming windows on life. Not a distorting mirror in a funhouse, but a glass approaching transparency. And the authors do succeed, each of them, by accepting and endorsing, as Henry Fielding taught them to do, the limitations of fiction's nature, the fact that the books are, after all, glass and not the reality beyond.

To extend the analogy, Barth's fiction draws our eyes to the glass itself, insisting that the glass is, after all, an important part of the reality behind it. The writer, after all, creates the glass, not the view. There, I think, is the key, that bit of ostentatious but implicit egoism. So much post-modern fiction is about self-importance, whether the writer's or the work's. When the writer looks in the mirror he is not looking for us, but for himself. And this is not to say that Fowles and Atwood are without ego. Far from it, in fact. The ego that operates confidently with such self-effacement as they manage is almost divinely secure and therefore colossal, a kind of divinity (as Fowles acknowledged in his alternate title for The Magus, The Godgame).

Ultimately, I love examining the finely etched and delicately colored lenses of writers like Barth, and I love the amusing things their books do to the world, once my eyes focus through them. But I admire even more writers like Louise Erdrich, who somehow manage to keep our eyes on the view while coloring the glass, as well as writers like Jim Welch who keep the glass, crude though it may be, clean. But the great ones, the writers I come back to again and again, marvelling anew at their strength and genius, are those who tempt us, with the perfection of their craft and the integrity of their vision, to believe there is no glass, only an open window to a world we must learn to live in, or die.

Take issue with me; help me see the error of my ways. Drop me a .

Some related links:
I have pages devoted to the work of Momaday, Stegner, Erdrich, and Welch, and discussions of Fowles', Barth's and Silko's work, reviews of Atwood's The Robber Bride, Alias Grace, and The Blind Assassin, and reviews of Erdrich's The Antelope Wife and The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse. Those pages will take you to other sites you should find useful, such as a selection of sites devoted to Atwood.

Dancing Badger Home Essays on Western American Literature Buy Books Book Reviews [mainly]
In Association with


Go to Powell's Books
Search for out-of-print
titles at Powells,
your best used book resource.