Last week I shared with you some of my thoughts about what is wrong with American literature. This week I want to take a closer look at three American writers to see if their writing is transcendent (i.e. redemptive in the way David Foster Wallace used the word), or if they are part of the ‘Literature of Angst and Malaise.’
The three writers I’m going to take a look at are John Updike, Richard Yates, and William Gaddis, for I think these three men set the bar, so to speak, for what we now call American literature. They set us on a path we are still (for the most part) traveling.
So let’s take Updike first, for his vision comes closest of the three to positing what I call a redemptive aspect. The Rabbit books reflect an existential search for meaning, and the tension between secularism and faith in the modern world is palpable. Updike himself said his novels were “moral debates” for which he does not possess any answers. The fact that he has these debates is what makes his oeuvre almost redemptive. But he does not go far enough in my opinion. His stories deal with a loss of faith, and when faith is recovered in the end, it is ironic (see In the Beauty of the Lilies), which is to say the author falls just short of making an actual claim in favor of the role of faith in our lives. Updike’s Toward the End of Time makes it clear why he cannot make such a claim. This book is about the apocalypse, and again we see a battle between the human, the potentially transcendent, and faith. Updike’s book is a mix of psychological realism and science fiction, with a nod to various theological and philosophical points of view; but what mostly characterizes the book is that it’s point of view is decidedly ironic. In an attempt to square the moral conflict, the narrator, Ben, takes on the personae of four different time travelers in an attempt to discover some clue about the nature of the end (death). At the end of this novel, as the apocalypse approaches, there are two Biblical symbols of hope that linger, a hope in transcendence (the gathering birds and the stars, which are eternal), a hope that may be part of a cyclical view of time, but at the same time the narrator also notices that some moths, a symbol of the darker side of Nature in the context of the book, have “mistakenly hatched” and struggle to live. So even in the midst of the potential for resurrection we are surrounded by the aura of death in this book, and while that is certainly an ironic position to take, it also suggests that one cannot perhaps transcend the realities of the world we live in. For the narrator, Ben, death is part of the pattern of living the struggle.
So what am I critiquing here? I am critiquing vision. Vision is the only thing worth critiquing. Vision is the only thing you can have legitimate arguments for or against. My criticism is simply that I would go further; where for Updike there are fragments of faith like pieces of cloth, rags that possess little in the way of utilitarian value, especially if you are seeking transcendence; for me transcendence must be possible for every reason that exists, because our only concern when we consider life and death is: Do we survive after death? That is the goal – to survive our deaths, to retain our personal identity as we transition from this plane to the next. Transcendence is perhaps a better word than redemptive aspect (I used the phrase redemptive aspect because that was the word David Foster Wallace used in describing the kind of literature we should write, a kind of literature that Wallace felt had eluded him.)
So again, in my opinion, Updike falls just short of achieving a transcendent experience for both the reader and the characters in his book. (My goal is to provide a transcendent experience for both the reader and my characters.)
As for Yates, I think Revolutionary Road is all one needs to say. The patterns of death that Updike’s Ben sees are the same patterns of death that bind Frank and April Wheeler to their misery. And Yates himself will not go beyond those patterns. Moral questions are reduced to a quest for the American Dream. Yates himself said of the book “If my work has a theme, I suspect it is a simple one: that most human beings are inescapably alone, and therein lies their tragedy.” And indeed, the focus of the book is on the tragedy, so there is no real possibility of transcendence.
Again, this is a critique of vision. Again, the visions of both Yates and Updike are similar: both are responding to an America they see all around them, an America without a whole, a spiritual core.
Finally, Gaddis; one can argue that the characters in all of Gaddis’ books are searching for meaning and values in a world that fails to offer either. Transcendence is offered only as a possibility, and only through the use of the imagination, the creative process (painting in Recognitions), but there are no guarantees. In his last novel, Agape, Agape, the decay of the narrator parallels the decay of the culture the narrator sees all around. The images we are left with, the images that linger after reading Gaddis, are images of the bleakness of life, of despair, in fact one could say that the notion of despair itself has become transformed and is a part of the very structure of this last novel. The reader is forced to accept this bleak vision. So again, what links these three writers together is vision. So what I am saying is really that their vision is not my vision. And yes, there are certainly many obvious differences in how they present their visions to the world; differences in style, use of language, all of the mechanics that are the hallmark of the technical side of writing. But for me the inability or unwillingness to move into truly transcendent terrain is my central objection. It is the same objection, I think, that Horace Engdahl and the Swedish Academy raised in 2008.
Peter Damian Bellis is the author of One Last Dance & Other Stories (1996), which was a 1997 Minnesota Book Award Finalist, and The Conjure Man (2010), which made the informal long list for The National Book Award in 2010. He is also the publisher of River Boat Books.