This first novel about an apprenticeship in the literary life is the object of grand and flattering publicity. "The most important comic-Jewish novel since 'Portnoy's Complaint,' " the copy on an advance edition declares, then flutters away into the realms of ecstasy: "Ben Janis, the hero of 'The Great Pretender,' is a character in the tradition of Holden Caulfield, Lucky Jim and Alexander Portnoy, and the novel he inhabits -- hilarious, poignant and distinguished -- is worthy of standing beside those of Salinger, Amis and Roth." Leaving no stone unturned, the copy then draws comparisons with James Joyce and Peter De Vries before at last surrendering the book itself to the reader's attention.
To be sure, whether an author should be called to account for his book's publicity is a debatable proposition -- though in my experience most authors are eager accessories after the fact -- but the excesses committed in the name of "The Great Pretender" cannot be ignored because they are, well, so excessive and so utterly unsuitable. To be blunt if uncharitable about it, "The Great Pretender" is a labored, lifeless book that can be defined as a "novel" only by those of exceedingly liberal disposition; it more closely resembles an autobiography in which, for reasons unspecified, the names have been changed.
Whatever its genre, James Atlas' book is similar to those by Salinger, Amis and Roth only in that its central character is young ("The Catcher in the Rye"), Jewish ("Portnoy's Complaint"), British-educated ("Lucky Jim") and utterly self-preoccupied (all three). There the similarities end. While the famous novels to which it is gratuitously compared crackle with life, energy and wit, "The Great Pretender" merely drones along in uninterrupted narcissism; though Ben Janis would have us believe that he is modest and self-critical, and though "The Great Pretender" represents itself to us as an exercise in self-mockery, it is soaked with self-importance from first page to last.
It is an example of a literary phenomenon that has become depressingly familiar in recent years: a book centered on a first-person narrator who demands the reader's attention for no other reason than that he regards himself as endlessly fascinating, and does nothing further to earn the reader's interest. "The Great Pretender" is intelligent and competently written, but it offers only two characters who come to life (neither of whom is Ben Janis), it contains nothing in the way of plot or narrative tension, and its efforts at humor are too often more embarrassing than amusing, especially where sexual matters are concerned. The book is simply there, an inert lump that never bestirs itself from gazing at its own navel.
In brief: Ben Janis begins as a high school student in Chicago and ends up flying east from California to take a job at Time magazine. In between he has attended Harvard and Oxford, had a number of sexual experiences but "hardly ever enjoyed it once," written a great deal of (as to his credit he well knows) bad poetry, and generally attempted to launch himself on a lit'ry career. "I publish, therefore I am," he writes in what presumably is intended to pass for wit, and: "The library was my sweatshop. The typewriter was my sewing machine."
From this last we are to draw the obvious parallel: In turning to literature, this second-generation Jewish American is following in the footsteps of his parents, whose paths were less exalted but led in the same direction. Like them he is highly conscious of being an outsider (England he dismisses as "just one more place I don't belong") and determined to make a place for himself, to be accepted in the larger world without losing connections to the old neighborhood. To say that it is a familiar story is a considerable understatement; "The Great Pretender" adds nothing new to what has been said far better by writers from Henry Roth to Philip Roth. It merely retraces ground that already has been thoroughly, indeed exhaustively, explored.
The book does have its moments: Bob, Ben's friend and roommate, has an ebullience that provides welcome relief from Ben's whiny self-absorption, and Morgan Ames, who is Robert Lowell in the thinnest imaginable disguise, is amusingly and revealingly depicted. But not one of Ben's girlfriends is more than an object of his fantasies and desires, the members of his family are stock characters from the Jewish American department at Central Casting, and the amount of dormitory bull-slinging to which the reader is subjected is intolerable. James Atlas may or may not possess the novelist's skills and instincts, but they are scarcely in evidence in this empty little book.