Friday, January 02, 2009

The background of unpretentious sense

Unsentimentally pinning “experimental” fiction to a mounting board—it is, he says, “dissent according to fashion”—Patrick Kurp recalls the days when he was “young and impressionable and unable to distinguish idiosyncratic mastery” from topical trash. The time was the early seventies. John Barth and Donald Barthelme were the rage, but even “such lesser lights as Ronald Sukenick, Harry Mathews and Joseph McElroy” were being accorded a respectful critical attention.

Not by everyone, however. Nabokov wrote to an editor who had sent him a new novel, hoping for a jacket blurb: “Let me thank you, or not thank you, for Harry Mathews’ The Conversions. It is a shapeless little heap of pretentious nonsense.”

By a stroke of luck, I happened to pluck off the shelves last night a novel that I had purchased, new, in hardback, when I was not yet twenty. (In those days there was a bookseller in downtown Santa Cruz who got to know his customers’ tastes very quickly. He probably recommended it to me.) The novel was A Cry of Absence (1971) by the now forgotten Madison Jones. I have no memory of reading the novel, I haven’t even opened it in years, although it is filled with scorings and marginalia. What a year 1971 was in American fiction! In addition to Elkin’s Dick Gibson Show and Flannery O’Connor’s Complete Stories, the year saw the appearance of Rabbit Redux, Doctorow’s Book of Daniel, and another marvelous novel that no one remembers—Brock Brower’s Late Great Creature, about an actor like Boris Karloff famous for his roles in horror films. (Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose won the Pulitzer Prize.)

In such a publishing season, Jones’s novel was sure to be overlooked. Leafing through the book, rereading the passages I had underlined, I am impressed by the unexcited passion of Jones’s prose, especially the precise and morally demanding language that he has put in the mouths of his characters:

“And you know she’s wrong. It wouldn’t make any difference if her being wrong was harmless, but it’s not. It’s destructive. And you know it is.” She paused for a moment. Then, “Your mother thinks we want to destroy her ‘way of life’ and she’s right. Wouldn’t it really be a favor? To you, for instance? You can’t even follow out your own convictions, apparently. So you have just retired into a kind of sad neutrality.”It is too bad, I suppose, that A Cry of Absence has disappeared without a trace. But I am oddly heartened by the fact that such old-fashioned novelists as Jones once stood in the background, unmoved by exhortations to dissent from the proven methods for writing fiction, and more interested in writing unpretentious sense than in making a fast name for themselves.

Are there still writers like that around?