Is there a law of gender among fictional narratives, according to which some types are characteristically male and others characteristically female? This question – posed by some recent critics – is answered almost too neatly by the first two novels under review. Alan Sillitoe’s Life goes on is a rampant adventure-tale of a male rogue, or rogue male, on the loose between two marriages. Mary Gordon’s Men and Angels shows a happily-married heroine struggling tenaciously, in her husband’s absence, to preserve her own integrity by defending her home and children against an intruder.
Life goes on is a sequel to A Start in Life (1970 – not to be confused with a novel of the same title by Anita Brookner). In the earlier book Michael Cullen left working-class Nottingham for the metropolis, fell into the proverbial bad company, and ended up as a convicted gold-smuggler. Now, having been abandoned by his wife after ten years of idleness in the Cambridgeshire village of Upper Mayhem, he needs very little persuasion to get back on the road. ‘If I’m not on the move, I’m not living,’ he thinks. Soon this first-person narrator endowed with Sillitoe’s fine storytelling talents is not merely on the road but on the run.
Cullen, who thinks of his novelist-father as a ‘randy old prick-head’ and ‘walking penis’, is himself a chip off the old block. Once back in London, he discovers that his father is ghosting the memoirs of Claude Moggerhanger, who used to be his – Michael’s – gold-smuggling boss and is now an eminent peer. Moggerhanger’s latest business, it transpires, is to supply the Soviet Union with consignments of high-grade heroin laundered through the British Isles but originally grown on collective farms in (you guessed it) the Soviet Union. Lord Moggerhanger is looking for a new chauffeur and courier. Protest as he may about keeping his hands clean, Cullen is the sort of permanent adolescent who (having failed to become a sailor, a pilot or an engine-driver) would do almost anything to get behind the wheel of another man’s Rolls-Royce. Naturally he cannot resist Lord Moggerhanger’s offer, and (apart from the occasional trip by sea, rail or air for variety’s sake) the heart of his narrative consists of dashes and dodges in the yellow Roller up and down the motorways which currently criss-cross pastoral England. One would have to go back to the days of John Buchan to find an English fictional hero capable of squeezing so much fun out of driving a car.
Should Cullen blow the gaff on Lord Moggerhanger’s exploits? And could the British social fabric survive their exposure? Life goes on has a plot which hinges on these and similar questions, but the thriller material sits lightly on the framework of a picaresque novel in which hitchhikers, lay-bys, motorway cafés and petrol stations take the place of the genre’s traditional quota of fellow travellers, gipsy encampments, roadside inns and changes of horses. Cullen, who likes to think of himself as a hard-boiled rogue, has a soft spot for almost any waif, stray or female under sixty who crosses his path. The waifs and strays are, as often as not, billeted on his father or dispatched to Upper Mayhem to keep the home fires burning; while errant females are bedded and discarded at the rate of approximately one every fifty pages.
No contemporary novelist has a stronger sense than Sillitoe of the wool-gathering, homespun poetry of the masculine adventurer, the free-born Englishman for whom (in one of Cullen’s striking anachronisms) this is still a ‘cosy and exciting country to live in’. Sillitoe has a nice ear for English place-names: there are high jinks at Doggerel Bank, Back Enderby, Peppercorn Cottage and Upper Mayhem, all (appropriately) dens of thieves. Local patriotism is in plentiful supply, since so many of the companions Cullen picks up are, like himself, ‘all-knowing bottom-dog Nottingham’ types, sentimental Sherwood Foresters torn between the bleak romantic thrill of setting off at dawn up the Great North Road and the domestic attractions of a spot of hearthrug pie or a strong pot of jollop.
English novelists, Cullen’s father tells us, have always been attracted by the demotic – which is evidence that Sillitoe is well aware of one of his main sources of strength. Conversely, Life goes on, like most fiction nowadays, is not free of the heavy hand of writerly self-consciousness. Virtually every (male) character here is at once an actual rogue and a potential writer. Cullen in his less frenetic moments sits down to write a novel on his father’s behalf which brings home the prestigious Windrush Prize. His friend Bill Straw, an ex-soldier, manages to churn out a full-length thriller – a feat which not even his faith in the ‘old infantry training’ as a standby in any emergency can do much to explain. Finally, Sillitoe rounds off this bubbling entertainment with a hint that he might consider a further instalment. At the end Cullen’s charmed life has once more left him a married man, on the straight and narrow, with a job in an advertising agency. It is hard to believe that he is meant to stay there.
With Mary Gordon’s Men and Angels we move, in terms of narrative types, from Cavalier male to Puritan female, and from voyageur fiction to a novel whose central metaphor is that of the voyeur. Anne Foster, an underemployed art historian and mother of two, decides on a nine-month separation from her husband in order for both to pursue their careers. Anne stays on with the children in Selby, Massachusetts, a town which (we are told) ‘maleness’ has shaped, since it is the home of a two hundred-year-old college to which women have only recently been admitted. Nevertheless, with Michael Foster’s departure we enter a predominantly female world. Anne soon finds herself torn between the demands of two powerful women, one a cultured and worldly aristocrat, the other a fiercely self-centred born-again Christian. Mary Gordon traces, in meticulous detail and with growing intensity, the unequal but opposite threats to the nuclear family which these two women pose.
Jane Watson is the formidable daughter-in-law of Caroline Watson, a famous American painter who is the subject of a New York exhibition which Anne has been chosen to arrange. Both Jane’s presence and the personality revealed through the painter’s letters and journals are powerful influences in the novel. Set against them is the pathetic, deluded world of Laura Post, the child-minder whom Anne engages so that she can devote herself to Caroline’s paintings and papers. Laura is the novel’s voyeur, the self-appointed keeper of Anne’s conscience. She is the victim of a deprived childhood (a last cruel and telling scene says all that needs to be said about her parents’ relationship), and, so far, her destiny has been to be expelled from every ‘family’ with which she has come into contact. Laura, ‘wise as serpents and innocent as doves’, sets out to demand an exclusive love and devotion which Anne cannot possibly give her. She is the Puritan as schizophrenic, a Biblical literalist who, when Anne finally tries to get rid of her, commits suicide according to the letter of a passage from Isaiah. These contrasted characters, Watsons and Posts, vying for the heroine’s soul are triumphantly done. I am less sure of Mary Gordon’s success with Anne herself.
Far from being a religious fanatic, Anne Foster is the traditional moderate puritan heroine. Her surname is as gently and plainly allegorical as are those of Fanny Price, Jane Eyre, Dorothea Brooke and Isabel Archer. She is torn between fostering the artistic reputation of Caroline Watson and fostering Laura. Like many 19th-century heroines, she exemplifies the puritan virtues of humility, moral fervour, domestic tenderness, provinciality and a certain conception of social equality; and like them, too, she is something of a prig. One should not underestimate the difficulty of putting a heroine of this kind into the centre of a contemporary novel.
Anne, who is strikingly pretty and intelligent, has always been known as a ‘good girl’. To her friends, who tend to be sexually promiscuous, she stands as a reassuring symbol of marital fidelity. When her husband has gone it is, as much as anything, her friends’ anxiety that she should not step down from the pedestal on which they have set her which prevents her from succumbing to adulterous temptation. Her nine-month ordeal by single parenthood becomes, in the end, a close-run victory for the combined forces of moral integrity and maternal instinct. ‘What do you think having children does to your moral life?’ she has once worriedly asked a neighbour. She finds, as others have done, that children, if allowed to, will insinuate themselves as the very basis of morality.
The danger of Anne’s situation, so far as the novelist is concerned, is that it simultaneously offers the material of an exacting moral study and an ever-present possibility of sentimental stereotyping. For example, Anne’s interest in Caroline Watson must be, first and foremost, that of a professional art historian. But when she finds herself making excuses for Caroline’s failure to be a good mother, she wonders what that means about her ‘as a mother, as a scholar ... And Michael was the one person she could ask, himself a scholar and the father of her children.’ Not only is this the voice of a somewhat rarefied manner of life but, from what we see of it, Anne’s work as an art historian draws its strength from precisely the same sources as her feeling for her children; there is no real conflict here at all. Similarly, the climax of her claustrophobic domestic battle with Laura leads to a final image in which, conventionally enough, the heroine is ‘looking out’ at the world beyond the windows of her home. Though she is supposed to be a career woman, the voyage out has not yet happened and her victory has lain in protecting her home. After Laura’s messy suicide the drama of cleaning up the house is recounted with revealing intensity. Without exception, Anne’s friends and family rally round to help her. Men and Angels is, arguably, an implicitly anti-feminist novel in which a high degree of reassurance is conveyed by the heroine’s display of maternal passion, of responsibility towards her children (whom Laura was prepared to sacrifice), and by her preparation for her husband’s return.
Such a judgment may be premature: not only does Men and Angels show us other women with different priorities, but Laura’s existence casts the gravest doubt on the adequacy of domestic virtues and family values. Haunting the margins of the novel is the story of a fashionable doctor and art collector who died suddenly of leukaemia, his last words being a strangled shout of ‘There is no justice!’ In Anne’s world there is a ‘dry, well-formed white bone of justice’, as Mary Gordon puts it in one of the incisive images which grace Men and Angels. But Anne’s justice is that of a heroine who knows herself, and is known by all around her, to be one of the Elect. People rally round Anne because, they think, she is ‘so much better than they are’. There is something a little too tidy-minded in the device of loading all the repellent aspects of puritanism on poor crazy Laura, while making Anne Foster a heroine whom everyone in the novel effortlessly likes. But Mary Gordon’s achievement is to have given fictional shape to some of the most difficult contemporary issues and feelings surrounding the family, whether or not she has satisfactorily resolved them.
The themes of voyeurism, claustrophobia and religious fervour all crop up again in Maggie Brooks’s Heavenly Deception, as does the final endorsement of parental love and responsibility: but there the analogy with Men and Angels ends. Heavenly Deception is a propaganda novel, a frankly one-sided account of how a rational and sharply observant young person might voluntarily submit to a process designed to turn her into a moronic zombie. The process described is familiar to students of contemporary religious cults, and has been the subject not only of allegations and counter-allegations in the press but of litigation and proposed legislation. Heavenly Deception is, apparently, based on the author’s experiences while researching a film on the followers of the multi-millionaire Korean Messiah, Reverend Sun Meung Moon.
Carmen Stone attends a seven-day Moonie retreat in the hope of rescuing her sister, who has joined the cult. The rescue mission is a failure, and after a brave fight, in which the suspense is maintained for nearly three hundred pages, Carmen, too, has a religious revelation which leads her to spend her life among people who at first struck her as little more than a bunch of childish psychotics. Are cult members like Carmen brainwashed, or do they brainwash themselves? Brooks returns a deliberately equivocal answer to this question, while taking us in gruesome detail through the torture tactics of which the cults have been accused. Hunger, sleep-deprivation, group manipulation, boredom, emotional blackmail, denial of privacy and the threat of forcible restraint all play their part. Nevertheless, the reason Carmen does not make her escape, as she several times determines to do, is that she lacks the necessary resolve.
This is a powerful study in psychic manipulation, and a well-aimed and hard-hitting story. While most of the book takes place behind the closed doors of the Moonie retreat, there is one scene lampooning members of the medical profession who patronisingly dismiss the fears of parents beside themselves with worry about their errant, brain-fogged children. Doubtless Brooks’s attitude to those churchmen and academics who are currently helping the ‘new religious movements’ to gain respectability would be equally scathing. But in addition to repeating material that can be found in academic sociology and investigative journalism, this novel has unavoidable literary echoes, too. It must be hard in 1985 to write on the topic of ‘totalitarian brainwashing’ without in any way echoing Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-Four, and Maggie Brooks has certainly not managed this feat.
Though anti-Communism would seem to be the cornerstone of Moonie beliefs, they share certain features with Communist movements, such as their vague, cliché-ridden utopianism and their belief in the efficacy of interminable indoctrination sessions. Any detailed fictional account of their practices is likely to verge on anti-utopian satire. Carmen’s story, like Winston Smith’s, shows the pre-ordained defeat of a character by the combined forces of heredity and environment. The protagonist, standing for humanity and freedom of thought, is laid low by a mixture of external forces and his or her inherent weakness of character. So Carmen capitulates to a His Master’s Voice, hush-puppy utopia based, like Orwell’s, on the perversion of family symbolism. She comes to love Heavenly Father (alias Reverend Moon) much as Winston comes to love Big Brother.
Like Orwell, Maggie Brooks helps to prime the reader’s resistance by a mixture of intellectual analysis, pathos, and odd crackles and sparkles of humour. In Heavenly Deception we see not only the depths of irrationality of which cultists are capable but the hysterical worship of patriarchy which animates a movement in which ‘all roads lead to Father’. In one of her most chilling lines, Brooks writes of the cultists’ craving for self-sacrifice that ‘they longed to have something more valuable to offer than just their minds and bodies.’ Carmen, whose vivacity is typified by her observation that the Moonies’ idea of God is like a ‘huge, unhappy barrage balloon’, is shamed in the end into offering up her mind and body. ‘We don’t like to be judgmental in the Family,’ she is told, and she earns constant rebukes for her alertness to human failings. What emerges from this lucid and passionate indictment is that the cults, for all their other-worldly claims, encourage the abuse of power over others in a manner all too worldly and human.
In Love Always Ann Beattie takes a racy and mildly satirical look at another bizarre world, that of contemporary media luminaries. This is a story of what happens when Hollywood comes to Vermont or, more precisely, when the actors, promoters and hangers-on of a TV soap opera get mixed up with the editorial staff of a chic weekenders’ magazine. Lucy Spencer writes a spoof agony column for the magazine Country Daze under the name of Cindi Coeur. Nicole, her 14-year-old niece, is a TV celebrity who is currently modelling for a ‘Nicole doll’; by the same token, Lucy’s own pen-name presumably alludes to the Cindy doll. Another character is the author of a fiction called Buzz offering a mosquito’s-eye-view of people at a fashionable resort. Love Always, too, offers a deadpan bug-on-the-wall view of the denizens of a trash culture. Beattie’s characters are obsessed, not with being themselves, but with their particular choice of alter ego, role model, screen identity, surrogate persona or fetish.
In theory, Nicole’s arrival from Los Angeles for the summer disrupts the rural tranquillity in which Lucy, left stranded by a previous lover, is dozing her life away writing off-beat journalism and carrying on a clandestine affair with her editor. But the Vermont which the characters so self-consciously inhabit is itself seen through a thick ‘country daze’ – the result of too much ‘white dust’ at $125 an ounce. Though it is not as tightly constructed as one would like, Love Always contains some brilliant moments of baroque comedy. Beattie has a sharp ear for newspeak from the dope-face, not to mention a taste for sensational plot developments. Anyone weirded-out by the thought of reading about tranqued-up shit-kickers getting revved up, coked-out and o.d.’ing should perhaps be warned that no glossary is provided. Love Always, however, is not a cult novel so much as a wryly impartial report on some of the glossier varieties of contemporary narcissism. The guys and dolls of Beattie’s world, emotional chameleons of the Walkman society who make love without even bothering to take their earphones off – can they really be taking over Vermont?
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