Cover Stories

Patrick Parrinder

  • Lives of the Poets: A Novella and Six Stories by E.L. Doctorow
    Joseph, 145 pp, £8.95, April 1985, ISBN 0 7181 2529 0
  • The Pork Butcher by David Hughes
    Constable, 123 pp, £5.95, April 1984, ISBN 0 09 465510 3
  • Out of the Blue by John Milne
    Hamish Hamilton, 309 pp, £8.95, March 1985, ISBN 0 241 11489 6

‘Here’s something out of the quaint past, a man reading a book,’ remarks E.L. Doctorow’s narrator as he rides the New York subway. The other passengers in the subway are not readers but listeners, hooked to their earphones and tape-players, ‘listening their way back from literacy’. And before literacy? ‘The world worked in a different system of perception, voices were disembodied, tales were told.’ If tale-telling is the sign of a primitive culture, we – this would seem to imply – have the novel; and the more self-consciously civilised among novelists have sometimes been anxious to disclaim the form’s own origins. As E.M. Forster wearily put it, ‘Yes – oh dear yes – the novel tells a story.’ But storytelling will outlive the novel, and it is also elemental to the novel. It is not coincidental that each of the books under review ends with the lure of a further, untold story: a story which might or might not turn out to be the one we have just read.

In the closing paragraphs of Out of the Blue a CIA agent tells his ‘truly horrific story’ of the novel’s central character – a story, however, that the reader is not allowed to hear. The Pork Butcher finishes in exactly the same way. (‘The story had begun. William’s notebook was on his knee. For a moment he wished he could understand the man’s language, but did it matter? ... ’) And E.L. Doctorow’s collection terminates at the point where the author-narrator surrenders his typewriter keys to another person, an immigrant child who, like himself, may conceivably grow up to be the ‘writer in the family’. Other examples of this convention would be easy to find. Where earlier centuries preferred the modes of tragic or comic finality – ‘Go, bid the soldiers shoot’ or ‘And they all lived happily ever after’ – we prefer the note of recurrence and renewed narrative promise. What satisfies us most is to be assured, not of the characters’ eternal happiness, but of their continuing novel-worthiness: ‘And that is another story.’

Where E.M. Forster was right, however, was in implying that the ostensible story the novel tells need only be a cover story. There is always an analogy between reading and detective work, and this is particularly clear in a book like Lives of the Poets, a series of ‘six stories and a novella’ potentially unified by the suggestion (made only in the dustjacket blurb) that the narrator of the novella is also the imagined writer of the stories. Is this, or isn’t it, a meaningful hypothesis? The reader of these terse, stylish and varied pieces has a certain amount of sleuthing to do.

For an initial clue, we could take a passing reference to one of the principal figures of Doctorow’s 1975 best-seller, Ragtime: Harry Houdini, the escape artist. In a story called ‘The Leather Man’ the narrator, a policeman, is reminded of Houdini as he watches a girl doing weird gyrations in the midst of the crowd at a rock festival. Studying the film of her movements that he has shot, he sees ‘someone in a straitjacket’, ‘the classic terror ... of someone straitjacketed and trying to break free’. ‘Lives of the Poets’, the novella which takes up nearly half of Doctorow’s new book, is full of tales of men trying to escape from the institution of marriage. (Every middle-aged man his own Houdini?) Jonathan, the narrator of ‘Lives of the Poets’, has gone to earth in a pied-à-terre in Greenwich Village, leaving his wife stranded in upstate New York. Jonathan’s solitude is supposedly for writing in, though what he does, most of the time, is to mooch over his own and his fellow writers’ marriages. His own domestic battles, he tells us, have ‘reached the stage where we send in other marriages to do the fighting’.

These other marriages are the substance of the ‘lives of the poets’, a title that has little to do with Grub Street or Samuel Johnson. The favoured means of escape for Jonathan’s colleagues consists in finding an even more constricting straitjacket, a solitary cell that women cannot enter. We hear of a writer burying himself in a sub-basement padlocked from the inside, and of another who is becoming a Buddhist monk. The masculine hermitic ideal that is indulged (before being finally disclaimed) in this book suggests nothing so much as a male backlash against the demand for feminine Lebensraum which energises contemporary women’s fiction.

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