American fiction lost three of its most warmly admired figures this year, all dead at the age of 84 after long careers. Critics love the idea of literary generations, but it would be a challenge to find themes or ideas to link the disparate work of Norman Mailer, Grace Paley and Kurt Vonnegut. At a Paris Review gala last spring, Mailer spoke about Hemingway’s enormous influence despite his inability to portray a convincing woman character (a charge sometimes leveled at Mailer himself). Hemingway made up for it, he said, by creating a style. In more modest ways, this could be said about Mailer, Paley and Vonnegut as well. No one would mistake a paragraph of theirs for the prose of another writer.
Though it was a critical and commercial triumph, Mailer often downgraded his first novel, “The Naked and the Dead” (1948), by saying that it had no style for it borrowed its style from the 1930s writers who first enthralled him, especially John Dos Passos, James T. Farrell and John Steinbeck. But in books like “The Deer Park” (1955), “Advertisements for Myself” (1959), “The Armies of the Night” (1968) and “The Executioner’s Song” (1979), Mailer showed himself to be a master of at least two distinct styles, one of them flat and stark in the hard-boiled Hemingway manner, the other baroque and complex, answering to every subtle vibration of his inner life. For all his public antics, Mailer’s most memorable exploits took place in the arena of the sentence: arresting metaphors, paradoxical speculations, physical details that made a personality tangible. In his coverage of conventions, he could conjure up the actors in the political drama as if they were characters he invented rather than public figures he observed. This writing was fueled by a sharp intelligence, at once self-absorbed and keenly attentive, but also by his fascination with power and performance. On the page, he became another such character, as proud of his many personalities as of his protean style. Despite his gift for introspection, Mailer became more of a public person than any writer since Hemingway and Malraux. The latter’s incendiary mix of activism and reflection, along with his tropism for extreme situations, made him another early model for Mailer.
Vonnegut was no world-shaker, though he eventually exerted serious influence as a guru to the young, as someone they trusted. He saw himself as an ordinary Joe with a small, peculiar gift, and he made fun of Mailer’s posturing toward the end of his most popular novel, “Slaughterhouse-Five” (1969). After surviving the firebombing of Dresden as a prisoner of war, his plain-man hero, Billy Pilgrim, finds himself, of all places, among literary critics discussing the death of the novel -- a frequent subject in those postwar years. One of them says that since people don’t read well enough anymore, “authors had to do what Norman Mailer did, which was to perform in public what he had written.” This mild joke, launched at the height of Mailer’s and Vonnegut’s fame, actually points to something these contemporaries, including Paley, had in common: a sense of the breakdown of the novel, blurring the lines between literary fiction and autobiography, but also poetry in Paley’s case, science fiction for Vonnegut, journalism and social criticism for Mailer.
Paley responded to the rumored death of the novel by not writing one, though she tried for years after the success of her first book of stories, “The Little Disturbances of Man” (1959). In this book and two later collections, “Enormous Changes at the Last Minute” (1974) and “Later the Same Day” (1985), she came off not as a minimalist, reducing events and emotions to the bare bone, but as a miniaturist, like her friend Donald Barthelme, packing worlds of feeling into a turn of phrase, building drama into the eccentric path of the sentence rather than the conventional plot of a story. Like Mailer and Vonnegut -- indeed, like Roth and Updike -- she leans on autobiographical surrogates that keep her close to what actually happened while she improvises upon it, ruminating it into meaning. “There is a long time in me between knowing and telling,” she says, in the story “Debts,” to a woman who wants her to tell her grandfather’s story.
As Mailer developed his style, Paley created a distinctive female voice -- quirky, humane, tough and tender -- with a cadence that rings in your head after you’ve stopped reading. Here is how one story, “The Long-Distance Runner,” begins: “One day, before or after forty-two, I became a long-distance runner. Though I was stout and in many ways inadequate to this desire, I wanted to go far and fast, not as fast as bicycles and trains, not as far as Taipei, Hingwen, places like that . . . , but round and round the county from the sea side to the bridges, along the old neighborhood streets a couple of times, before old age and renewal ended them and me.”
This is not strictly colloquial or literary, realistic or symbolic, social or personal, but all of these things. It promises to be about people but also about cities, about wandering but also about staying close to home. Paley was the Jane Jacobs of fiction, attuned to chance urban encounters but also the pull of family life -- boisterous children, bickering husbands and ex-husbands, an elderly father. Paley was dead serious about leftist politics, to which she devoted as much energy as to writing and teaching, but in her reports on “the little disturbances of man,” the ebb and flow of love and loss, she was something of a fatalist, like Vonnegut. She also believed in happy endings, the power of literature to improve on life, to offer pity and sympathy where life would withhold it. This explains the unexpected happiness that descends like grace in her best stories, such as “Goodbye and Good Luck,” about the ups and downs of a woman’s affair with an aging star of the Yiddish theater, and “An Interest in Life,” which gives us another abandoned woman who somehow finds love.
In “A Conversation With My Father,” the old man asks her “to write a simple story just once more,” something with an actual plot, a straight line from beginning to end. She tries to please him, though she detests such stories. Still he protests: Her stories miss the tragedy of life, the cruelty and brutality, the lack of options. She demurs. Her open form gives her characters something of an open destiny, even where life might deny it. Though her world is anything but outsized and heroic, she wants her people to be capable of change, as Mailer does. For Vonnegut, on the other hand, change is an illusion in a world that seems essentially meaningless.
Like Mailer and Paley, Vonnegut did his best work between the 1950s and the 1970s, especially in the novels “Mother Night” (1961), about a treacherous American double agent in wartime Germany, and “Cat’s Cradle” (1963), about the end of the world. His novels are ingenious constructions, but his characters, caught in the web, have little freedom. The war taught Vonnegut that life and death are absurd, our fates arbitrary. Stuff happens -- “so it goes.” Vonnegut’s reaction to the so-called death of the novel was to write one without chronological sequence or plausible causation, those vital ligaments of traditional fiction. In “Slaughterhouse-Five,” Billy Pilgrim has “come unstuck in time.” As he travels numbly between the traumatic past, the dull present and the inescapable future, they seem to be unfolding simultaneously, and he feels helpless in all of them. He is besieged by memory, conscripted into it. For this pilgrim there is no progress, only an absurd trajectory too much in his mind’s eye.
William Styron wrote a moving, though tentative, book about depression, but Vonnegut somehow turned depression into literature. The science-fiction elements -- Billy’s abduction to another planet -- provide glimpses of another world that highlight the follies of our own, including our sense of hope and our belief in free will, those deranged little markers of man’s pride. Inspired as much by Vietnam as by the atrocities of World War II, “Slaughterhouse-Five” is a brilliant twist on the antiheroic war novel going back to “Journey to the End of the Night,” “The Good Soldier Schweik” and “Catch-22,” a book with its own scrambled time scheme and dark fatalism, its jokey sense of the inevitable. Like Paley, Vonnegut had the gift for making ordinary things seem unfamiliar, but without her glow of discovery or possibility. His portrayal of injured innocence buffeted by a coarse, unfeeling world spoke deeply to the adolescent Weltschmerz of the 1960s. It gave young people a sense of seeing through everything, as Holden Caulfield had done a decade earlier.
Just as Mailer, with his mock bravado, seemed to wrestle the world into submission, and Paley stepped back and observed its foibles wryly, Vonnegut, at heart a child of the Midwest, took full measure of the damage the world could do to simple values and the people who held them. With their accumulated wisdom, these three writers’ living presence mattered, but we might miss them more if they had not left so much behind.