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Writers on the Storm

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

One of the most reassuring things about walking into a bookstore is how little the stock changes from day to day. Sure, the new titles and displays revolve constantly, but once you get among the shelves, the world seems largely fixed. It’s as if, somehow, literature is a stable universe where new material gets added, but nothing is ever really taken away.

That sense has been heightened this month with the appearance of new novels by four of our most famous literary lions--Norman Mailer’s “The Gospel According to the Son” (Random House), Philip Roth’s “American Pastoral” (Houghton Mifflin), Saul Bellow’s “The Actual” (Viking) and Thomas Pynchon’s “Mason & Dixon” (Henry Holt). In the words of Yogi Berra, it’s deja vu all over again.

On a certain level, this bit of publishing synchronicity is simply a coincidence, a quirk of scheduling that has little to do with anything other than these writers’ ability to persevere. Still, the near simultaneous reemergence of four such iconic novelists is worth noting for the questions it raises about American literature and how it has or has not changed. Is this, in the words of Brian Stonehill, professor of English and media studies at Pomona College, “an important moment in literary history?” Or does it represent what novelist and critic Ishmael Reed calls “defensive white male literature, the senior citizen pantheon’s last gasp?”

In other words, do these once-venerable authors continue to resonate, or are they, as Reed puts it, “dinosaurs” whose literary moment has come and gone? “Certainly, the idea of the pantheon remains valid,” says novelist Leslie Marmon Silko, who served as one of the judges for this year’s PEN / Faulkner fiction award. “Only the notion that it is limited to certain white male writers has changed.”

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Indeed, a similar convergence of prominent novelists from later generations would show vastly more variety in ethnicity, gender and point of view.

Twenty-five years ago, the subject was less complicated. Then, Mailer, Roth, Bellow and, to some extent, Pynchon stood at the epicenter of American culture, as close as this country had to a literary honor roll. Their books were large, consequential, grappling with big themes and unwieldy chunks of experience.

Although in our current landscape of aesthetic fragmentation, it’s hard to imagine anyone seriously considering the notion, these writers came up in a climate where one could still aspire to bring forth the so-called Great American Novel, the definitive statement that might sum up an age. In 1973--the same year Pynchon staked his claim with “Gravity’s Rainbow"--Roth actually wrote a novel with that as its title. Roth telegraphed his satiric sensibility by choosing for an epigraph Frank Norris’ comment that “the Great American Novel is not extinct like the Dodo, but mythical like the Hippogriff,” though one senses his intentions were more complex.

Today, however, even the term “Great American Novel” stirs up something akin to disbelief. “It’s not a phrase used by people who read,” says Jonathan Franzen, a novelist who writes about fiction for the New Yorker and Harper’s. “Rather, it’s almost belittling. ‘He’s taking a year off to write the Great American Novel,’ that sort of thing.” Novelist and critic Nicholson Baker admits he “never really understood this particular fixation. Nobody sits around fretting about the Great English Novel.”

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Mona Simpson, author of “Anywhere but Here,” reiterates Baker’s point, suggesting that “the notion is a quaint one, the mark of a culture coming into its own. The whole idea becomes preposterous once a culture has some sense of itself, as we do now.”

Even Mailer, who at 74 remains cantankerous and controversial--his new book retells the Christ story from the perspective of the savior himself--sees the idea as moot. “This is not an era sympathetic to serious young novelists,” he says by phone from Chicago, where he is on tour. “In the 1940s, we used to talk seriously about the Great American Novel, but I don’t think it exists anymore. Now, everyone would attack you for the things you don’t know.”

Mailer’s point is well-taken, for there is no doubt society has changed. On the one hand, identity politics may have rendered the notion of a cohesive American perspective obsolete; on the other, literature is no longer central to the way we understand the world. In the first few decades after World War II, books possessed a kind of primacy in American culture. Literary writers regularly graced bestseller lists, and popular magazines published stories by J. D. Salinger and John Steinbeck.

But technology and its applications have changed the way we experience and understand artistic expression. Thus, although Stonehill argues that “my students write and read more than they did 12 or 15 years ago,” he also admits that they do so “hastily and impatiently, with ornament and precision gone.” Reed puts it another way: “Things have become more compressed. People don’t have time. It’s very risky writing a long novel today.”

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It may seem surprising that Bellow shares that point of view. Yet while his most famous efforts--"Herzog,” for instance, or “The Adventures of Augie March"--are “fat books,” in recent years he has turned toward the slimmer form of the novella. Reached at his home in Massachusetts, the 82-year-old Nobel laureate says, “I understand that people are harassed, plagued by competition for their attention from TV, papers, magazines, radio and so on. Mentally, it’s very tiring to respond.” For that reason, he notes, “I’ve had to find a shortcut, a way not to abuse people; they’re abused enough.”

Although his new book explores themes familiar to his readers--moving between alienation and the necessity of love--it weighs in at a mere 104 pages, barely enough reading for an afternoon. While that may represent an accommodation, Bellow also speaks wistfully about the past.

“They had it good in the 1920s and 1930s,” he remembers, “and for a time after World War II. The public was used to turning toward novels. Now, all that has been preempted. There’s a greater dispersal of the American mind over a wide field of interests. People are more concerned with direct, un-mediated expressions of behavior. It’s no longer novelists who imagine it for you. There’s an impoverishment of inner life, and that, after all, is what the novel is about.”

Some younger novelists are not so sure. “Ambition is not necessarily measured by breadth; it’s the depth of the thing,” Simpson points out. “Isaac Singer wrote books that were very specific but ambitious as well.” For her part, Silko, whose 1990 novel “Almanac of the Dead” was wide-ranging, argues that the form “continues to be relevant in making sense of the culture. What it can do is take a larger overview, the pulse of the community.”

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Likewise, Franzen cites David Foster Wallace’s monumental “Infinite Jest,” which has sold more than 45,000 copies in hardcover, and says, “All the writers I know are trying to do something like that.” Baker takes a similar position: “I don’t believe that we’ve even begun to mine the depths of the American experience. I certainly have in the back of my mind the pathetic hope that whatever I’m working on will be a contender, that it will be important in a huge, absolute and staggering way.”

The same could be said of both Roth and Pynchon, who continue to produce novels that approach broad American themes in all their complexity and range. “American Pastoral,” in fact, may be Roth’s most sweeping effort since “The Great American Novel,” a book that moves away from what some reviewers have derided as his incessant navel-gazing to tell the story of a clash between generations in a New Jersey town, played out against the backdrop of the 1960s at their most charged.

“Mason & Dixon,” meanwhile, attempts nothing less than a full-scale reappraisal of 18th century America, as perceived by the surveyors who laid out the lingering scar of the Mason-Dixon line. Both novels are challenging in narrative and conception. Interestingly, they are receiving a great deal of attention. With 100,000 copies in print, “American Pastoral” is already high on many bestseller lists, and “Mason & Dixon’s” first printing of 200,000 is almost unheard of for literary fiction.

Pynchon, of course, is a special case. His notorious reclusivity (he has never granted an interview, and his last known photograph is a high school graduation portrait, circa 1955) makes him, Stonehill suggests, “a cult figure among the kids.” That status also has something to do with his outsider’s persona, his refusal to participate directly in the marketplace.

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“Perhaps because he was born in 1937,” Stonehill notes, “and in a way was much slower than those others to enter the bourgeois contract of marriage and family, he’s maintained a youthful perspective. He’s not an ample paterfamilias invested in society, and this keeps him sexy, since the culture is skewed toward the young.”

Stonehill’s take is interesting, especially since “Mason & Dixon’s” 773 pages of dense, faux 18th century prose seems at odds with youth culture’s increasingly post-literate perspective. Still, he remains optimistic about the novel. “The Web,” he explains, “holds people’s attentions for hours. As a result, we’ve been learning again how to sit in front of some kind of text for an extended period without being interrupted by commercials. We’re learning to read again.” Pynchon alone, it’s worth noting, has inspired several Web sites where his readers can study his more obscure pieces and chat about his work.

As for Reed’s contention that American literature has moved beyond the postwar pantheon, Bellow jokes, “I don’t feel part of a pantheon. I hardly belong to a mantheon.” For his part, Mailer has no intention of retiring gracefully; he’s already planning his next book, a retrospective of his 50-year career, and hopes to write the second part of his big CIA novel, “Harlot’s Ghost.”

“If you feel a responsibility to the culture,” he says, “then you feel it, and the form it takes depends on your talents, your ambitions, your optimism-pessimism quotient--it depends on many things. Are you responsible or not is the question, and it’s hard to appear that way if you’re not at the center. So staying in the center becomes an interesting activity, an attempt not to relinquish one’s place at the table. After all these years, I still feel I have as much to say as anyone in America. I still have as intense a responsibility to the culture as I have ever had.” Thus, Mailer believes, the real issue is longevity: “One must remain intact,” he declares, “to remain in the game.”

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Baker sympathizes but sees it in a slightly different way. “I haven’t read anything by Bellow since about 1979,” he admits. “But when I take a bath, I always think of the scene--I think it’s at the beginning of ‘Mr. Sammler’s Planet’ where he describes the water going down a drain. With Roth, certain parts of ‘Portnoy’s Complaint’ have stuck with me, even though I haven’t read that book in years. Just the thought of it makes me happy. Writers capable of fixing themselves in one’s memory for that long deserve to remain in place in the firmament, not to be dislodged.”


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