The bad news about George Stade is that, all things considered, he is not, at this stage of his development, as good a writer as the late Vladimir Nabokov. The good news is that in "Confessions of a Lady-Killer" there are long stretches that call to mind the great, transplanted Russian. My vocabulary contains no higher praise.
"Confessions" is Nabokovian in its tight control of language, in its preoccupation with madness and illusion, in the curious case with which it can probe and portray feelings that lie too deep for logic to process them or words to express them except obliquely. Stade resembles Nabokov, above all, in the skills with which he engineers sudden reversals of perpective, illuminating an action of his novel, as it is being performed, so that its meaning becomes completely changed. He is obviously an author who likes to play with the minds of his readers, and those who find this distasteful had better go back to Marvel Comic. But he plays knowingly, thoughtfully and with positive results.
The novel's ambiguities begin with its title. A lady-killer, according to The American Heritage Dictionary, is "a man reputed to be exceptionally successful and often ruthless with woman." Victor Grant, the narrator and brooding central figure of the story is the other kind, not mentioned in the dictionary -- the kind who kills ladies.
He has the lofiest of motives for this activity, which begins as a one-shop project but seems to be developing into a bad habit before the novel ends. At first, the only person he wants to kill is Jude (Judith), the wife of his best friend, who has taken away from him the two people he most loves; his wife and his namesake, tobias Victor, who is Jude's child. If murder is ever justified, this looks like a good example.
According to Victor (who is our only source of information), Jude is not only ugly and sanctimonious (in the speical, with-it way of those contemporaries who erect their self-interest into a universal, unassailable cause), she is also vindictive, carelessly cruel, and inclined to submerge human value in abstractions.
Victor's resolution to kill her comes after she had left her husband, Bill, whom she had forced to undergo a vasectomy a year earlier in the name of her own liberation. Her demands for a settlement with her genial, ineffectual husband have an epic scope: "I gathered that Jude was not going to ask for alimony. She was against it in principle. Instead she wanted $57,600 or $200 for each of the weeks she had slaved for him as a housewife. She also wanted $50,000 damages for Bill's sexism, which had retarded her growth into full androgynous beinghood. But she would settle for the round sum of $100,000. She wanted the apartment and its contents and was seeking a court order to have Bill locked out. She wanted custody of Tobias Victor. Bill could baybsit with home once a week and could take care of him during the summer (presumably so that Jude would be free to travel.) She wanted $1,000 a month child support, adjusted annually to the cost-of-living index." And so forth.
All this is Bill's problem, of course, and Victor does not really decide that murder is the answer until he further learns (or deduces) that Jude has alienated his wife, Samantha, in order to have a lesbian affair with her, that Jude is making her son wear dresses, and that she is planning to abduct him permanently overseas after subjecting him to a sex-change operation.
Grant (or Stade) builds what looks like an airtight case not only against Jude but against the women's movement she represents so loathesomely. To parallel his mental preparation, he undergoes a long, rigorous program of physical conditioning to equip himself as a murderer, and in his memoirs he dwells on its minutiae in loving (narcissistic) detail. By the time it happens, the murder scene is one of the most thoroughly anticipated in the annals of fiction. Then it happens, and the book begins to change character.
Like Nabokov, Stade has a special talent for death scences -- a talent for blending the comic and the ghastly into a seamless, unnamable new entity, but also a talent for linking death and metamorphosis. As she dies, Jude is transformed into a real, vulnerable and seriously misunderstood human being. It is the first time she has had this status in the mind of Victor, who is the reader's only source of data, and the transformation strikes the book like and errant ray of light flashing into a sewer, like a stroboscopic flash of sanity in a mind lost to insame compulsion.
This is, in a sense, only the beginning. One killing leads to another, and the same thing happens again -- except that, involving a different victim, each death is different. When he has killed enough people to gain a fairly rational perspective, Victor is a changed person, his pseudo-clever misogyny has been reduced to ashes, and the book can be modulated to a conclusion.
George Stade has significant things to say not only about why there is a women's movement but about the illusions we create to identify and justify ourselves, about the curious blend of ineptness and inspiration that makes humanity unique and uniquely interesting, about the interactions of thought and deed and about the decline of human relations in our time. He emboides these statements in a properly complex, nuanced fiction, and he does it with a gratifying mastery of style.
It is too bad, of course, that he sometimes tends to remind one of Nabokov and that the comparison inevitably does him a disservice, but one esitates to suggest what he can do about this problem. Perhaps he could get himself exiled from the United States, spend a couple of decades living as an alein among strangers and then start writing in Russian.