Go to Chapter One
Go to Style
Stylists and Visionaries: 25 Years of American FictionBy Michael Dirda
Sunday, June 1, 1997
Picking the winners in fiction's race for the canon really is a mug's game, especially since teachers and critics keep changing the track rules. A front-runner like Hemingway now seems ready for the pasture, or even the knacker's yard, while a late-starter such as Zora Neale Hurston recently swept into the winner's circle of the Library of America. Will she stay there? Will Hemingway make a comeback? Wait and see.
Still, on an anniversary, near the end of a century, it's fun to look back on 25 years of American fiction, to make a few guesses, cheerlead for the underappreciated, observe the trends. I haven't read all the important fiction since 1972 -- hardly -- and am likely to miss any number of favorite writers and books. But I'm not locking down a definitive shortlist or charting bestsellers: More simply, these are the books that, to my mind, have been the truest mirrors to American society in our time, or have attempted innovative forms of storytelling, or revealed new subject matter, or generated schools of imitators, or done all of these. Of course, a few are simply books that won my heart and I can't help but love them.
These United States
Let's start with the key works, those few books since 1972 that have tried, with more success than not, to depict the complex and troubled soul of America. I mean Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, John Cheever's Collected Stories, John Updike's Rabbit tetralogy, Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon, Raymond Carver's Where I'm Calling From: New and Selected Stories, William Gaddis's JR, Cormac McCarthy's All the Pretty Horses, and E. Annie Proulx's undervalued Accordion Crimes. I think all these books could and should become classics, school texts, the books that represent our quarter-century in future literary histories. All are substantial efforts that take up, often with visionary power, the cankers and rose-colored dreams of contemporary American life: politics, race, money, work, technology, coming of age, the spiritual self, immigration, sex, suburbia. If you want to understand the way we live and think and feel now, these are the books to read first.
If, however, one were to push forward the single author who best addresses the obsessions of the past 25 years, Don DeLillo is the man. His first book, prophetically titled Americana, appeared in 1971, and since then he has published a half-dozen novels devoted to the paranoid style in American life, chief among them Players, The Names, White Noise (a professor of Hitler studies caught up in an Airborne Toxic Event), Libra (Lee Harvey Oswald), and Mao II ("the future belongs to crowds"). A new book, rumored to be his masterwork, is due this fall. In DeLillo's case the oeuvre seems greater than any single title in it.
A handful of other strong writers can also point to an impressive body of work as the best representation of their talents: the much-mocked but phenomenally gifted Joyce Carol Oates; the virtuosic pasticheur Thomas Berger; the dean himself, Saul Bellow; cool and canny Philip Roth; the wittiest Roman of them all, Gore Vidal; the late Stanley Elkin, master of razzmatazz; and that doleful enchanter Steven Millhauser. One might also include Updike here, especially for his first-class short fiction (surely an omnibus volume is overdue), his one-shots such as The Witches of Eastwick and his African satire The Coup, and, not least, for his wide-ranging criticism and appealing poetry: Like him or not (I do), he is our most accomplished living man of letters, just as Vidal is our most entertaining. Forced to choose single works by such captains of industry, I would especially praise Berger's Pulitzer-denied depiction of small town life in the 1930s, The Feud; Roth's portrait of the artist, the Nathan Zuckerman sequence (particularly The Ghost Writer); Elkin's tour de force about a Florida retirement community, Mrs. Ted Bliss; and Bellow's homage to Delmore Schwartz, Humboldt's Gift. Oates's novels are so various -- from the gothicky Bellefleur to the grim Because It is Bitter and Because It is My Heart to the suave psychological thrillers written as Rosamond Smith -- that one can only shake one's head in astonishment.
Which leaves Steven Millhauser. In a neat bit of framing Millhauser brought out his dazzling first book, Edwin Mullhouse, in 1972 (the year Book World was born) and this year received a Pulitzer Prize for his latest, Martin Dressler. He is, I believe, the most inventive, wistful, sexy and dryly comic American writer of our time, his only compeers being John Crowley and Russell Hoban. Millhauser's forte is the short story or novella (In the Penny Arcade, The Barnum Museum, Little Kingdoms), often about a dreamy, and usually doomed, minor craftsman -- a cartoonist, a creator of clockwork automatons, a master illusionist, a neglected painter. At his best this reserved genius can disclose the tragic love story hidden in the entries of an art exhibition catalogue, revel in the illicit gropings among the play pieces in a game of Clue, take you aboard for the eighth voyage of Sinbad, or coolly describe the jaded erotic fancies of ancient Cathay.
Crowley's Little, Big is the most generally admired postwar American fantasy (and a favorite novel of critic Harold Bloom). The Drinkwater clan lives in a turn-of-the-century house that seems to grow bigger the farther you go into it; their family photo album includes pictures of elves; and they turn out to be major players in the secret history of the world. The diminuendo of the book's closing sentences evokes its autumnal magic: "The world is older than it was. Even the weather isn't as we remember it clearly once being, never lately does there come a summer day such as we remember, never clouds as white as that, never grass as odorous or shade as deep and full of promise as we remember they can be, as once upon a time they were." As for Russell Hoban, at his best he is the finest all-round writer in the world: author of brilliant picture books (about Frances the Badger and Captain Najork); of a wistful, Beckett-like parable for middle readers, The Mouse and His Child; and of the inspired Riddley Walker, a post-nuclear holocaust Huckleberry Finn, told in fractured English, largely about spiritual regeneration. Like this last's youthful hero, Hoban remains at heart a "connection man," looking for meaning beneath the surfaces of life.
Riddley Walker is one of my favorite American novels of the past quarter-century, along with John Sladek's shamefully neglected, and very funny, Roderick: The Education of a Young Machine; Gene Wolfe's grave and subtle Book of the New Sun -- if T.S. Eliot were to write science fiction, this would be the result; Gilbert Sorrentino's rumbustious send-up of the literary life, Mulligan Stew; David Markson's gallows-humorous novel cum commonplace book, Reader's Block; and that apotheosis of petitesse, Nicholson Baker's The Mezzanine, an epic about a young businessman on his lunch hour.
A similarly fizzy mix of sighs and laughter characterizes the stories of Donald Barthelme, laced as they are with deadpan jokiness, high-culture literary allusion, and hip, urban lingo. For a good decade Barthelme the scrivener was the most influential short-story writer in the country, preceded in this hallowed post by John Cheever, the grandmaster of suburban desperation, and followed by Raymond Carver, the minimalist laureate of the working and drinking classes. Though these last seem to me writers of greater depth, Barthelme could make you laugh out loud. Two other comic writers of this time stand out: Peter De Vries, with his satires of modern religion and sexuality (in Slouching Toward Kalamazoo a contemporary Hester Prynne wears a sweater proudly emblazoned with a scarlet A Plus), and the multi-talented Garrison Keillor, whose Lake Wobegon Days -- relating the serio-comic history of a small Minnesota town -- was heralded as an American classic, but mainly in Britain. Perhaps we've grown so used to hearing Keillor spin out his extravagant, Thurberish tales on the radio that we underestimate his amazingly fertile genius.
The critic George Steiner (whose own short novel, The Portage to San Cristobal of A.H., allows an aged Adolf Hitler to defend his racist policies -- and to take credit for the creation of Israel) once named William Gass and Guy Davenport the two most distinctive stylists in America. Gass's stunning early fiction falls outside the time limits of this essay, but The Tunnel looks, so to speak, as though it might become a literary K-2, a perennial challenge to tough, fearless readers: It relates, in dizzying leaps of simile and stretches of metaphor, the real and fantasy life of a morally repugnant college professor of German history. Like Gass, Guy Davenport is better known as an essayist, but his fiction -- collages of higher learning -- exhibits an almost hieroglyphic beauty. Try Tatlin! or Da Vinci's Bicycle.
Say the word "style" in fiction circles and the name James Salter cannot be far behind. Exquisitely urbane, almost raffish, Salter is the contemporary writer most admired and envied by other writers. Like a fighter pilot or mountain climber (he has been both), Salter displays perfect control and understated grace; he can, when he wants, break your heart with a sentence. (Fans frequently quote to each other the closing paragraph of his erotic third novel, A Sport and a Pastime.) Dusk and Other Stories won a PEN/Faulkner award, but Light Years, his ambitious, somewhat neglected account of a marriage winding down, may be his masterpiece.
Salter has published only a half-dozen, relatively short but perfect books in 40 years. One might liken his unassuming artistry to that of other unassuming, proudly regional masters: Baltimore's Anne Tyler (The Accidental Tourist), Albany's William Kennedy (Ironweed), North Carolina's Reynolds Price (Kate Vaiden), as well as Alison Lurie (The War Between the Tates), Jane Smiley (A Thousand Acres), Alice McDermott (At Weddings and Wakes), and New York City's E.L. Doctorow (Ragtime). Each has produced superb work, won prizes, given temporary respectability to the bestseller list -- and yet always seemed slightly old-fashioned, quietly content to cultivate his or her particular postage-stamp of soil. Here the model is the genial Peter Taylor, whose easygoing, bourbon-smooth prose in The Old Forest and Other Stories chronicles life among shabby-aristocratic Tennesseans. Taylor's old friend Randall Jarrell once dubbed him the American Chekhov, and, as usual, childe Randall was spot on.
The Sound of Many Voices
Most of the writers mentioned so far have been WASPs, white Southerners or urban Jews -- long the three main power sources for American literary energy. Nevertheless, the most important development in publishing of the past 25 years is certainly the boom in writers of quite different ethnic backgrounds. Amy Tan (The Joy Luck Club), Louise Erdrich (Love Medicine), Oscar Hijuelos (The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love), Gish Jen, Cynthia Kadohata, Sherman Alexie, Sandra Cisneros, Cristina Garcia, Leslie Marmon Silko and many others deservedly earned both plaudits and popular success for their fiction, much of it about the clash between traditional family values and the allures of mainstream America. Above all, African-American fiction took off in the '80s following the runaway success of Alice Walker's The Color Purple and the deeper mastery of Toni Morrison (crowned in 1993 with a Nobel Prize in literature). [See Jabari Asim's essay about African-American literature.]
In some ways, this renaissance in "multicultural" writing reflects the ongoing globalization of American reading habits. During this past quarter-century we have raptly identified with the heroes of books by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Salman Rushdie, Milan Kundera, Laura Esquivel, Umberto Eco, Kazuo Ishiguro, Isabel Allende, Chinua Achebe, and Patrick Suskind. Increasingly, literary boundaries -- between nations, between genres -- are breaking down and Americans are eagerly joining the transnational reading public that frequents the Library without Walls.
This barrier-bashing also extends to more intimate matters. Over the past 25 years, gay novelists have benefited from, and often championed, a fiction that more fully reflects the variety of human sexual experience. Writers such as the multi-talented Edmund White, Andrew Holleran (Dancer from the Dance), James McCourt (Time Remaining), and David Leavitt (The Lost Language of Cranes) have acquired a mass readership, even with books resolutely focused on gay life. The onset of AIDS obviously drained some of the high spirits out of gay fiction, replacing the angst and elation of coming out with anguish over the death of loved ones. Hence the late, alas, Paul Monette achieved his greatest fame neither for his screwball comic novel Taking Care of Mrs. Carroll nor his poetry, but for his sorrowful memoir Borrowed Time. Lesbian fiction has also blossomed in the 1980s and '90s, frequently in detective stories and fantasy, and in a new vogue for erotic writing by women (see Carole Maso's recent Aureole).
Mysteries, historical novels and other forms of genre storytelling have emerged from their own closets during the three past decades. Romance fiction, such as Diana Gabaldon's thrilling Outlander, swept onto bestseller lists. In Lonesome Dove Larry McMurtry elevated the Western into a folk epic, and Pete Dexter nearly matched him in Deadwood. Cormac McCarthy's All the Pretty Horses and The Crossing -- the first installments of the not-yet-complete Border trilogy -- set coming-of-age stories against the kind of grim Tex-Mex background of Sam Peckinpah's bloody film "The Wild Bunch." Paul Auster's New York trilogy (City of Glass, Ghosts, The Locked Room) transmuted hard-boiled detective stories into compulsively readable metaphysical mysteries. Since its publication Michael Shaara's The Killer Angels, a deeply authentic-seeming recreation of the Battle of Gettysburg, has been frequently named the best American novel about war since The Red Badge of Courage. By contrast, Toni Morrison's Beloved retold a different, perhaps even more horrific Civil War story, in which a mother commits infanticide to save her child from a life of slavery. The versatile George Garrett produced, to critical acclaim, two of his three richly evocative Elizabethan novels, The Succession and Entered from the Sun.
Meanwhile, Harry Crews took up the Southern grotesquerie of Flannery O'Connor and fused it with the redneck storytelling of an Erskine Caldwell: Car focuses on a man's attempt to eat a Ford Maverick, and Body boldly travels into the bizarre alternate universe of professional musclemen and -women. Similarly, John Hawkes, widely admired for his icy style, continued to blend elements of Gothic, experimental and erotic fiction into his own dark vision of love and family life (Travesty). Even Tom Wolfe's The Bonfire of the Vanities, an enormous popular success, loosely modeled itself after a Victorian triple-decker to portray the reprehensible movers and shakers of contemporary New York life.
Two of the most sheerly enjoyable genre works of our period also proved quietly revolutionary: George V. Higgins's street-smart, ear-perfect Boston crime novel The Friends of Eddie Coyle and William Gibson's hard-wired sf classic Neuromancer: "The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel." The Higgins inspired Elmore Leonard -- the most highly regarded crime novelist of the '80s -- and a host of epigoni; the Gibson gave rise to numerous accounts of lowlife hustlers in a high-tech future. It has, in fact, been a great age for both these popular genres. Think of the wry thrillers of Ross Thomas (Chinaman's Chance, The Singapore Wink), the easygoing mastery of Donald Westlake (particularly in the Dortmunder capers), the versatile Ed McBain and Lawrence Block, the complex espionage and Washington novels of Charles McCarry, not to pass over the more ambitious, if more uneven, work of Robert B. Parker, James Lee Burke, and Sue Grafton. For many readers James Crumley's The Last Good Kiss stands out as the most emotionally powerful American private-eye novel since Ross Macdonald's The Chill.
Though Gibson owns the cyberpunk trademark, the most admired sf writer of the past quarter-century is the productive Ursula Le Guin, at once feminist, Jungian, funny and wise. Thomas M. Disch and Samuel R. Delany -- twin giants of the American New Wave -- both cracked the sf glass ceiling during the 1980s, Disch revealing a dazzling talent for everything from children's books (The Brave Little Toaster) to satirical horror fiction (The M.D.), Delany transforming himself into a post-modernist critic and experimental novelist (the Neveryon books). Philip K. Dick -- "our own homegrown Borges," in Le Guin's words -- may have died in 1982 (though who can be sure with this writer?), but his work proved a pervasive fin-de-siecle influence, in part through reissues of his novels (The Man in the High Castle, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) and publication of his letters and manuscripts. His vision of a dirty, overcrowded slum world, where everything is gradually falling apart, is now the way most of us imagine the 21st century. Dick has seen the future and nothing works.
But there are scarier tableaux. Thomas Harris's two eye-popping horror novels, Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs, have been acclaimed as the period's masterpieces of dark suspense by no less than Stephen King, himself a virtual force of nature, amazingly fecund, inventive and, like other prolific authors, sometimes undervalued and denigrated. Starting with The Land of Laughs, Jonathan Carroll's artful novels depict American expatriates and Eurotrash caught up in nightmarish fairy tales: Vanity Fair meets Weird Tales, as I said in a review of Sleeping in Flame. Art Spiegelmann's haunting Maus earned plaudits for its depiction of the Holocaust in terms of mice and cats, and, along with Harvey Pekar's grimly humorous American Splendor, helped win for comics a new audience and respectability.
The Big Picture
Not surprisingly, the least successful subgenre of fiction since 1972 has also been its most ambitious: the mega-novel. Joseph McElroy's Women and Men, Norman Mailer's Ancient Evenings and Harlot's Ghost, Harold Brodkey's long-anticipated, intermittently readable The Runaway Soul -- all were seriously disappointing: logorrhea in excelsis. John Barth's epistolary LETTERS, the sprawling fiction of William Vollmann, Richard Powers's The Gold Bug Variations, and David Foster Wallace's recent Infinite Jest were admired with reservations, as were two of my favorites: Sorrentino's Mulligan Stew and Gass's The Tunnel. Perhaps only William Gaddis (A Frolic of His Own), Thomas Pynchon (Mason & Dixon) and one or two others have managed to create wholly successful mega-novels. And even they have their detractors. In a real sense, though, these grand undertakings are the books that matter most. As Italo Calvino once wrote, "Overambitious projects may be objectionable in many fields, but not in literature. Literature remains alive only if we set ourselves immeasurable goals, far beyond all hope of achievement."
There are many more authors I should like to mention, from Robert Stone and Robert Coover to the exuberant Paul West and the much-honored Carol Shields -- not to overlook such personal favorites as W.M. Spackman and Felipe Alfau, the witty and tricksy Harry Mathews, the irreplaceable Avram Davidson . . . But one must stop somewhere.
As we glide toward the millennium, it is obvious that the radical developments in fiction will increasingly draw their energies and inspiration from computer hypertext, the cyberspace Garden of Forking Paths. The next 25 years should be exciting ones. [See David Nicholson's essay on page 23.] But what final judgment can we make of this past quarter-century? I see, in truth, a small shelf of remarkable works, though only a few feel as permanent as The Great Gatsby, The Sound and the Fury, Lolita or Invisible Man. But give the others time. You never know. The people who bemoan the death of the novel simply haven't read enough of them. After looking back at such variety and accomplishment, I can willingly echo Ezra Pound's famous remark about his own famous generation: "It is after all a grrrrreat litttttterary period."
Michael Dirda is a writer and editor for Book World.
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company