Last in the Funhouse

Patrick Parrinder

  • Gerald’s Party by Robert Coover
    Heinemann, 316 pp, £10.95, April 1986, ISBN 0 434 14290 5
  • Caracole by Edmund White
    Picador, 342 pp, £9.95, March 1986, ISBN 0 330 29291 9
  • Lake Wobegon Days by Garrison Keillor
    Faber, 337 pp, £9.95, February 1986, ISBN 0 571 13846 2
  • In Country by Bobbie Ann Mason
    Chatto, 245 pp, £9.95, March 1986, ISBN 0 7011 3034 2

If the preferred style in American fiction of the last two decades could be summed up in a single title, it would surely be ‘Lost in the Funhouse’. John Barth’s short story, published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1967, was a composite text in which an account of a family’s visit to a fairground was spliced in with what appeared to be a set of instructions from a fiction-writer’s manual. The funhouse (in British English, a Hall of Mirrors) was both the climax of the visit to the fair and an apt metaphor for the complex distortions of multiple-narrative self-conscious fiction. Prodigious vitality, virtuosity, erudition, self-parody and a grossly anarchic humour were the characteristics of the ‘funhouse’ style, which soon came to be identified with novelists such as Barthelme, Coover, Pynchon and Vonnegut as well as with Barth. Funhouse fiction appealed simultaneously to two rather different audiences. Its narrative self-consciousness (later to be renamed Post-Modernism) satisfied the demand in universities for an intellectually challenging mode of contemporary fiction which could be expounded to students. On the other hand, its promise of unbridled entertainment opened the way to a cult following and eventually to the best-seller lists. Older novelists joined in the fun: there was Nabokov’s Ada, and there was Portnoy’s Complaint. Self-conscious comic fiction caught the mood of the late Sixties, as we shall see: but it was nonetheless fairly remarkable that a novelist could be a ‘Post-Modernist’, a member of the avant-garde, without foregoing fashionable success, academic honours and large royalty cheques. The heavy price which novelists since Henry James had had to pay for being labelled as experimental artists was, it seemed, no longer being exacted.

Robert Coover, born in 1932, certainly has no reason to complain of neglect. ‘America’s most outrageous novelist presents a new, wildly comic and erotic entertainment,’ screamed the paperback edition, ten years ago, of his long novel The Public Burning. The same novel was described by the New York Times Book Review as an ‘extraordinary act of moral passion’ and a ‘dazzling conflation of Blake’s Prophetic Books, Pope’s Dunciad, the Walpurgisnacht in Faust and the grossest underground cartoons of today’. Its pivotal event was the electrocution of the atom spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. The British edition of Gerald’s Party, Coover’s latest novel, comes larded with tributes from Angela Carter and Malcolm Bradbury, both of whom insist on its canonical status. Coover is ‘a master’, says Carter, and according to Bradbury he is ‘one of the great innovative writers of the United States’.

At least Coover has been taught on college campuses all over the United States, thanks to the inclusion of a short story of his, ‘The Babysitter’, in the appropriate Norton anthology. (I have taught it myself, and it is splendid seminar material.) The principal characters of ‘The Babysitter’ are a married couple going out to an evening party, their children, the babysitter, Jack (her boyfriend) and Jack’s buddy Mark. There is no single authoritative story-line, though some readers might claim that it is possible to deduce one. In a series of discontinuous paragraphs Coover cross-cuts between the fantasy-stories which the various characters might have told themselves as the evening progressed – fantasies with a strong element of voyeurism, seduction, violence and the humiliation of women – and the result is hilariously confusing. Gerald’s Party differs from ‘The Babysitter’ in two principal respects, each of which perhaps exemplifies the general evolution of funhouse fiction. Coover’s new novel unfolds a single, increasingly surrealistic chain of events, without the devices of discontinuity or multiple narrative; here there is an evolution from Post-Modernist self-consciousness – a repertoire of tricks gone stale from over-use – to outright fantasy. In addition, the events are recounted by a first-person narrator, so that they can be seen as the nightmares of a single solipsistic imagination. (The funhouse, we remember, is a Hall of Mirrors.) But, allowing for these differences, Gerald’s Party takes material strongly reminiscent of ‘The Babysitter’ and stretches it out over three hundred pages. The result is less a ‘totally exact and cunning work of fictional experiment’ (as Malcolm Bradbury is quoted as saying on the dust-jacket) than a Post-Modernist potboiler.

There are some novels which ought to be confined to the pages of somebody else’s fiction. ‘I’ve got this great idea for a novel,’ I imagine a character called Robert Coover saying in a corner of Gerald’s living-room. ‘It begins in the middle of a party just like this one. There are no chapter-divisions, and after a few pages it begins to dawn on the reader that for the whole length of the novel I’m going to keep him trapped at this very same party! You wouldn’t think I can keep it up, but I can – just you wait! There’ll be lashings of sex, of course, clothes-swapping, wife-swapping, people getting killed – it’ll be the biggest orgy ever written. My narrator, who’ll be the host, will be trying to clear up and keep order a little, but his anal fixation will keep finding more direct outlets ... And there’ll be bathroom scenes, and all the time the toilet will be blocked – you wouldn’t believe the fun I’ll get out of that! And right from the start there’ll be a dead body, a girl who’s been stabbed – I’ll make her an actress whom everybody’s slept with – and at first nobody even notices her. And then the police arrive, but they just join in the party, and if a few suspects get beaten up and even tortured, why should that spoil anyone else’s enjoyment? And later there’ll be newspaper reporters, and a television crew, and crowds of actors and actresses improvising a play (what’s a party or a novel anyway, if not a piece of theatre?), and I’ll have just one genuine artist present, a painter whose pictures are full of doors and mirrors, and she’ll go off and drown herself in the bathtub – just think of the symbolism! And I’ll put in a bit of religious allegory, with the party representing a hell on earth and the actress’s body Original Sin – and my final sex scene can be seen, if you want, as the Promise of Redemption – and then there’s the police inspector ...’ But Mr Coover has moved on, and some other party-guest is receiving the benefit of his subsequent revelations.

Gerald’s Party may be fun to contemplate, but it is hell to read. Neither carnivalesque invention, half-hearted allegory nor literary parody can obscure the fact that this is a tediously over-inflated extravaganza, a funhouse both brutal and boring. The satirical intent and political awareness that Angela Carter seems to find in it (‘Robert Coover’s furious new novel takes on all the queasy affluence of Reagan’s America and hits it right below the belt’) are, I would say, non-existent. What is below the belt in Gerald’s Party – and there is a great deal – is mostly what you’d expect to find there. There is always an element of satire in the voracious self-parody of Post-Modernist novels – but usually it is satire which costs nothing and hurts nobody. As for the ‘metaphysical’ message of the novel – which is roughly that parties are compelling as well as nightmarish and that, though all life is there, since it’s all happening at once, nobody has time to take much notice – this was all said in the 36 lines of Philip Larkin’s ‘Vers de Société’. While nobody would deny that Coover and his contemporaries opened our horizons twenty years ago, I would see Gerald’s Party as the work of a writer imprisoned in his own success. If this were to be the last of the funhouse novels I doubt if anyone would complain very much.

Edmund White, Garrison Keillor and Bobbie Ann Mason belong to the generation of American writers born during the Second World War. White’s Caracole is set in an imaginary country, part European and part Third World, in the midst of a pre-industrial Belle Epoque. The characters are decaying aristocrats and their hangers-on – writers, intellectuals, actresses and courtesans – living in a city with an atmosphere of perpetual carnival. Caracole has epigraphs from George Eliot and Stendhal, and its tone is set by White’s ability to recreate the burnished prose of a more elegant age; at times it has the air of a classic novel translated from the French. L’amour, in White’s hands, is the subject both of fervid description (as in some vintage piece of erotica) and of worldly and cynical epigrammatic reflection. ‘Love does not obey the laws of amiability,’ we are told, and ‘love is the least sociable of the sentiments’ (because ‘not even the beloved is interested in it’). These philosophic pronouncements on the solipisism of love are enforced by a good deal of solitary self-amusement on the part of Gabriel, the hero. Gabriel – and this is true of characters in all four novels under review – is also a conspicuous urinator. The air is thick, sometimes with his ‘urgent jets’ and at other times with his ‘milky arcs’. In one sharply-visualised scene Gabriel is seduced at a party by his uncle’s mistress, an actress who leads him off to the nearest room suitable for a mutual masturbation session: ‘She took his hand and led him into a small toilet filled with mirrors of every shape winking and burning on every shelf.’ White’s aesthetics and manner of approach are entirely different from Coover’s, but we seem to have got back into the funhouse by another entrance.

Gabriel is the traditional Young Man Up from the Provinces, where the ‘up’ is not merely geographical. He is introduced to the capital by Mateo, his worldly uncle, and by Daniel, a young dandy who plays the Lord Henry Wotton to Gabriel’s Dorian Gray. ‘Daniel will be good for the boy – or bad for him, it comes to the same thing,’ according to Mateo. The art that Mateo admires consists of ‘small but daring experiments within an exhausted tradition’. According to one of his friends, ‘in art, in love and in thought, principles should be secondary to style, if style meant rubato, a lingering for significance.’ It is this moral ambivalence which gives White’s cadences their peculiar savour, even if we never quite know whether his sentences will terminate in a last flowering of fantasy or an anticlimactic thud. ‘Her hand felt so small and precise and boned with such firmness that Gabriel admired her for the first time as an animal.’ ‘Nothing would have been more natural than a free-for-all to determine which brute could rape this seductive child.’ Caracole is full of sentences like these which turn sex and violence into literary play, and it also contains an element of self-parody, though this stops short of any moral disapproval or satirical distancing. Rape-fantasy is presented as natural (‘Why don’t you rape me?’ Gabriel asks the lady whose hand we have seen him admiring), but, at the same time, the ‘brutes’ in the passage quoted above are the officers of an occupying army. The plot of Caracole is somewhat offhand, but its tempo is affected by the need to present a sequence of suitably varied and romantically exquisite sexual encounters. What is absent from Caracole is the anarchy, verbal voracity and imaginative excess of the funhouse novel. Instead, White offers a decorous and defiantly decadent sample of High Porn.

Gabriel’s life begins at Madder Pink, a decaying country mansion where he is seduced by Angelica, a tribal princess. He soon finds himself undergoing a savage wedding (the obligatory orgy scene) before being taken prisoner, rescued, and hurried off to the capital in which the rest of the novel is set. He is a half-wild young man whose transition from the feral to the fashionable is accomplished with many orgasms and at considerable cost to body and mind. He becomes nervous, undernourished and prematurely aged – this is his Dorian Gray aspect – but, on another level, he takes the capital by storm. The last scene is a masked ball at the Governor’s Palace which takes place against the background of a long-delayed popular revolution erupting in the streets. Not only are Gabriel and Angelica avidly reunited behind the arras of the palace ballroom, but events over which our hero has no control lead to his emergence as a potential revolutionary leader. In short – and up to the final pistol-shot which erupts in the ballroom – Caracole is like a 19th-century romantic novel with sex scenes taking the place of political ones. ‘They were bewitched by what their bodies had done to them,’ we read.

Caracole naturally demands a capital city for its main setting. The funhouse novel, too, is necessarily either urban or suburban. One likely source for an alternative to funhouse fiction would seem to be the rural tradition, which did so much to shape the American novel in the past. But can an authentic rural novel still be written? For the most part Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon Days is what its winsome style and catchy title promise: the rural tradition packaged and filleted for urban consumption. Lake Wobegon, a sort of Midwestern Ambridge, lies north-west of Minneapolis and is well-known to followers of Keillor’s popular radio show A Prairie Home Companion. Lake Wobegon Days is a more or less seamless mixture of local history, smalltown calendar, family chronicle, childhood memoir, and low-key soap opera, and like the prairie it goes on and on. The book is long on charm, and has some good jokes, but its emotional mutedness and anecdotal structure betray its origins as an anthology of radio tales.

People in Lake Wobegon tend to worry about the following things. Is it time to put the storm windows up? Will Christine and Keith make it through the snow for Thanksgiving? Why does my neighbour spend all his time in that poky little shed in back of his garage? Would TV ownership reduce my chances of being one of the Elect? If I go out and pee in the snow, will the stuff freeze before it hits the ground? Why was I born here and what must I do to become a famous author? Is this God’s own country or just a dreary, complacent little hole in the map of central Minnesota? The best things in Lake Wobegon Days are the evocation of a pioneering history at once heroic and farcical (Lake Wobegon was the site of New Albion College), and Keillor’s depiction of one of America’s lesser-known ethnic identities (the town’s only landmark is the Statue of the Unknown Norwegian). This book may be a ‘No 1 American Best-Seller’, but the Wall Street Journal was surely in error in comparing its author to James Thurber. Thurber is remembered for such apocalyptic tales as ‘The night the bed fell’ and ‘The day the dam broke’. No such distressing excitements have disturbed the peace of Lake Wobegon since the New Albion College made its exit, pursued by a bear, in the late 1850s.

Bobbie Ann Mason’s In Country portrays a strictly contemporary America in which the characters spend much of their time playing video games, watching TV reruns and listening to Bruce Springsteen. Nevertheless, this is a genuine rural novel, concerned with characters disinherited from, and trying to come back into connection with, the American land: both senses of ‘land’ are intended here. Mason is not a word-spinner or virtuoso stylist like the novelists considered above, but she has an acute ear and eye and she writes in prose which is plain, stripped-down and adequate to its theme. And her theme is an explosive one. We tend to forget now – though it was obvious enough at the time – that the late Sixties, when not just the American novel but whole portions of American culture and society seemed to be getting lost in some sort of funhouse, were also a time when young Americans were killing and getting killed in what everyone knew, at bottom, to be a hopeless, obscene and demoralising war. Post-Modernist fantasy included war among its multiple targets of humour and satire, and its denial that there could be any true representation of reality could be seen as subverting war propaganda. Nevertheless the American funhouse novel has been fairly consistent in diverting its readers’ attention from what was being done or had been done in their name in Vietnam. An element not just of frivolity but of downright evasiveness lingers on in the three novels considered above. Edmund White’s capital city is compared on the dust-jacket to Paris under the Nazis, Venice under the Austrians and Rio under the Portuguese – anywhere you might say, except Saigon under the French or the Americans. Most sections of contemporary American society are represented at some point in Gerald’s Party and Lake Wobegon Days, but neither novel even hints at the existence of the social group who form Bobbie Ann Mason’s subject, the Vietnam veterans.

Samantha Hughes, the central figure of In Country, ought to have grown up on a farm. Instead, her father enlisted in the Army and was blown to pieces in Vietnam in 1966. (Most of the names on the Vietnam Memorial in Washington are, we are told, ‘country boy names’.) The novel is set in western Kentucky, culminating in a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Washington. Abandoned by her mother, and living with an uncle whose life is being wasted by post-Vietnam stress syndrome and possibly by Agent Orange, 17-year-old Sam Hughes develops a morbid desire to understand and, if possible, re-experience the late Sixties. She meets with a wall of reticence and inarticulacy as she tries to find out what Vietnam was like. Is it Vietnam or ‘her own crazy family’ which accounts for the weirdness of the people around her? Once she has found her father’s letters home and the far more candid journal that was left behind among his personal effects, she thinks she has the key she was looking for. Her Uncle Emmett, whose only remaining occupation is birdwatching, finds Sam camping out in the local cypress swamp, which she quixotically imagines to be something like the Vietnamese jungle. Emmett is not a funhouse person. ‘If you can think about something like birds, you can get outside yourself, and it doesn’t hurt as much,’ he says, adding that ‘I can barely get to the point where I can be a self to get out of.’ Earlier, in a tense and finely-observed scene, Mason has portrayed a veterans’ dance breaking up into fighting and drunkenness. The vets cannot form lasting relationships, and many of them are suffering from sexual impotence. In Country will doubtless be seen by some readers as uncomfortably moralistic. Sam Hughes was not an easy character to bring off wholly successfully: sometimes she seems too wide-eyed, and at other times her responses are too much those of her author. But this is a courageous and poignant first novel, a moral fable by a writer unafraid of sentiment – the climax comes with the characters’ visit to the Vietnam Memorial – and capable also of expressing a precise and disciplined anger. Formally, In Country has strong affinities with some recent Second World War novels, notably David Hughes’s The Pork Butcher. But it is also true to contemporary American life in the one sense that really matters, which is that of giving an unexpected and wholly persuasive meaning to that life. The party is over, and Bobbie Ann Mason, for one, has noticed.