Let others worry about answers; the role of George W.S. Trow is to raise disturbing questions.
Why does George Plume have to have so many injections (administered by a private nurse who seems more like a custodian)? Why is Bobby Bison (a tycoon with some resemblance to Howard Hughes) sinking into sloth and paranoia while his empire slowly disintegrates? What happened between Vivian Aspair (editor of the feminist rock quarterly Mother Rock) and Lester Rax (founder of Moonshadows, the old rock monthly that used to come out on newsprint), causing irreconcilable rifts in the Rock Critic Establishment? All we can say for certain is that Vivian and Lester lived together for a while ("but that was before Monterey?), and that now she espouses "a theory that women have an innate urge toward percussion which has been thwarted by men."
A major riddle is that of Alani Beach, a once-glittering resort area with long rows of expensive, high-rise hotels. Today, the ads are enthusiastically proclaiming that "Alani beach and the whole alani beach area ARE MORE NEARLY ALIVE THAN THEY'VE BEEN FOR YEARS." Unfortunately for the total impact of the ads, they go into details: "The little fish that were dead are swimming again; the big hotels that had to close for a while (because of all the talk) are open. Many times, the sun shines -- on the sidewalks, on the park benches (many of which have been repaired), on the beach itself." Drugstores "have new, expanded security precautions. Restaurants that had to close because of the small green snails appearing suddenly everywhere have opened for certain things."
In these 16 stories, reprinted from The New Yorker, Trow inverts the basic trend of fiction from Homer through Hemingway. Through all the centuries of the past, people kept turning pages primarily to find out what happens next. People are lured through the thickets of Trow's prose by an uneasy questioning about what already happened. He is not the first to use this technique; it is the mainspring of mystery fiction. But when you pick up an opus by P.D. James, you can expect an answer at the end. In Trow, there are not answers; only new nuances to the questions.
Trow has a firm grasp of his own qualities. "The stories in 'Bullies,'" he has said, "Take place in a landscape rather like history with the tide out." That is certainly the flavor of Alani Beach, which not only has little green snails in the restaurants but marauding in the hotels with poor security and red, stinging plants in the water, clogging the pipes and turning the water to a kind of jelly.
The lanscape is sometimes like that of science fiction (particularly the British "new wave" of such authors as J.G. Ballard in the mid-'70s), but Trow's clearest affinity is to a fellow-denizen of The New Yorker: Donald Barthelme. There is the same polished, deadpan style, the same feeling that the material for a whole novel has been compressed into a few pages, the same fragmented approach to a traumatic reality, the same ambiguity of genre; narrative prose dancing on the verge of surrealistic poetry. It may be that we are witnessing the birth of a new New Yorker school of fiction. If so, George W.S. Trow is one of its most promising young practitioners.
Trow's speciality, to judge by the samples in this collection, is a branch of black humor; the comedy of euphemism. His archetypal situation is one in which something terrible has happened and people are trying to make the best of it, walking around the edges of psychological craters and picking words carefully for their cosmetic values rather than the information they convey.
A fair sample is his first story, "I Expand My Horizons," in which narrator Jack Duff (who has undergone a "divorce and one or two other failures") is learning "to focus my energy." One way he does this is by staying in bed, sometimes all day. Another is by becoming, all alone, "a major dance company -- The Jack Duff Dance Experience." The company's chief interest is the VM or Valid Movement, which turns out to be any movement Duff happens to perform.
In "I Cover Carter," an unnamed writer (who might very well be Jack Duff) spends a whole year, beginning with the 1976 Democratic campaign, trying to write a book, an article, at least a publishable sentence, about the Carter phenomenon; after a few months, his right hand starts to tremble, a small red rash appears on his left, and he has nearly finished the title of an unwritten article; "Almost definitely have title: "The Reign in Plains Falls Mainly on the . . .' -- but can't come up with last word."
Perhaps the cleverest pretender in Trow's gallery is Gerry Plume, a furniture manufacturer whose cushions are stuffed with a substance the U.S. government has declared harmful to children. She is busy making television commercials for "The Gerry Plume Adult Divans." There is nothing that cannot be viewed positively, if you try hard enough.
There is no problem at all in viewing Trow positively. If works of fiction had Nielsen ratings (as he fantasized in a New Yorker story published too late for inclusion in this volume), he would be able to claim only a small fraction of the potential audience, for he appeals to a highly specialized taste. But in the rarefied, eccentric field he cultivates, his writing is consistently good and frequently brilliant.