- Original Sins by Lisa Alther
Women’s Press, 608 pp, £6.95, May 1981, ISBN 0 7043 2839 9
- Amateur Passions by Lorna Tracy
Virago, 192 pp, £7.95, April 1981, ISBN 86 06 81971 9
Original Sins is a big, fat novel that looks as though it should be sold by weight – ‘a couple of pounds of fiction, today, please.’ It has the air of the novel as commodity, of an item designed to be sold, a programmed bestseller. Amateur Passions is a slender, almost anorexic collection of short stories, each one pared down to the glittering bone, fiction produced by authentic internal compulsion. Although carving on ivory is not the easiest thing in the world, it is possible to maintain a very high degree of quality control over short runs, and Lorna Tracy’s quality control is so stringent that there is not one flabby sentence or second-hand image in the whole book. The same cannot be said for Alther, who is often reduced to stylistic tics such as ‘“I don’t hate men,” said Emily with hatred,’ and, like many American writers, believes it is possible to summon up an entire social ambience by the judicious use of brand names, such as Bass Wejuns and L.L. Bean down vests.
Nevertheless, both writers share a dominant theme – that of, in Paul Goodman’s phrase, ‘growing up absurd’ in the US: growing up under Male Anglo-Saxon Protestant hegemony in a world where the minorities, defined either by sex or race, considerably outnumber the alleged majority. Lorna Tracy approaches the matter like the most elegant of subversives, palming her razor blades. Lisa Alther has tackled it head-on, and it seems to have reduced her to a numbed cynicism.
It is of considerable sociological interest that Original Sins, which describes political radicalism digging its own grave, should swoop up the US best-seller lists at this point in time. The novel sets itself a wide scope, recent American history from the mid-Fifties to the mid-Seventies, taking in the divergences between North and South, black and white, the Civil Rights Movement, the Women’s Movement, Commie-hating, voter registration and the sex war. It is five and a half hundred pages long. It is no mean feat to write such a long novel whilst maintaining a fixed sneer. Such is Lisa Alther’s achievement.
Apart from a certain tempered nostalgia for the landscape of rural Tennessee and Kentucky, and an enthusiasm, albeit tinged with irony, for Women’s Liberation, Alther’s sardonic tone is so all-embracing that one could even suspect the dedication, ‘For my friends and family, who have given me so much help with this book and so much joy in life,’ might be a wry joke. Alther’s antic and mannered narrative style diminishes the exceedingly important issues about which she writes to sets of grotesque attitudinisings. Here is no magnificent failure of an epic panorama, but a mean-spirited disaster – in sum, no more than yet another trashing of radical chic. This might be more gripping had she herself not trashed radical chic already (in Kinflicks), and if the wholesale shift to trendy neo-conservatism, and worse, had not made radical chic seem, with hindsight, positively benign.