When novelist John Gardner complained recently that no good fiction is being produced here, among those he fingered was Saul Bellow; a good man, Gardner said, a man we love for his goodness, but in reality a writer of essays, not fiction, who has fashioned stick figures to parcel out his messages. Not the first time this criticism has popped up; and others of Bellow's ilk have chafed at the complaint that their creative imagination is wanting.
Now along comes Cynthia Ozick, whose third book of stories, Bloodshed and Three Novellas (nominated recently for the National Book Critic's Circle Award) is just about to appear in paperback. She has managed, in addition to stick figures, to create silver godlets, a human/goat who draws upon the divine, the anima of ancient Hebrew king and reek conqueror, and incarnations of contemporary novelists, and has tossed herself in as well, adding a prologue in case, somehow, we still miss the point.
And what's her message? That maybe we ought to think twice before writing stuff like this.
Her text is illustrated in "Usurpations (Other People's Stories), " one of three thematically linked pieces of the four in this collection, a provocative, parablelike "invention directed against inventing ," as she calls it. A story in dread of miracles, of the magic that kills; in dread of imagination - and out of lust for it.
Lust is what it comes to - lust, and levity. Not lust in its familiar fleshly trappings, but a hungering for magic, for miracles, fobidden in the Jewish ethos from which Ozick writes, and a jungering for other people's stories. ("Thou shall covet . . . ") But Ozick has a further concern: ought Jews be storytellers at all, or does imagination itself - Afflatus, trance, images, as she puts it - offend the Second Commandment? "Does the commandment against idols warn even [Against] ink?" she asks. That Jewish ethos warns also that all that is not Law if levity; a life not devoted to study of the holy Law is a life wasted.
But in these far-from-Messianic times, when levity, if anything, is the yeast of life, what's a poor writer to do? (No, be clear, a good writer, for Ozick is that, and seems to get better from story to story.)
From the lips of Saul, a fraud and an untutored philosopher, salesman of false silver crowns with supposed magic powers, a usurper if ever there was one - an answer. (But first, see the level of subtlety at which Ozick's fiction works: Saul was originally the Hebrew king given his crown by God when the people demanded a king - chosen quite specifically, a nobody, no genius, a herdsman, a most unlikely fellow, so that when great deeds were done people would ever be reminded to credit them to God, not to his mouthpiece.) Out of the mouth of this contemporary Saul, in this age when God seems far off, comes the notion that if Adam deserved to hear from Him, so do we.
"Adam is better than me and you? We don't go around like a nudist colony, between good and lousy we already know what's what, with or without apples . . . But who says Ha-shem ["the Name," for the unspoken name of God] stops talking? . . . Wishes, dreams imaginations . . . A wish is the voice, a dream is the voice, an imagination is the voice, all is the voice of Hashem the Creator.
Imagination, then, is planted by the Creator. Loving its blossoms is just another way of loving him. That makes it O. K. for us to read, at least - a great relief. Of course Saul goes ahead to contradict himself in following lines. And, Ozick goes considerably further, in this sage, funny , ludicruous, serious story, to ponder whether it's O. K. for her to write.
You could think about the themes that run through "Bloodshed," "Usurpation" and "The Mercenary" at great length. ("An Education" is easier; you can accppt it without much pondering.) The more of the Jewish idea, as Ozick calls it, you have at your command, the broader the levels of meaning you could explore.
But you don't need that to find them interesting reading, if at times flawed by some unwieldiness in literary sense. At times this woman seems to say too much. Yet you are left with the feeling that here is a writer who is reviving up for something big, and for whatever is coming next, watch out.