THE STORIES THUS FAR
Partly in order to say hello to William Gass again and to meet his St. Louis colleagues Stanley Elkin and Howard Nemerov, in the September after that spring conjunction in Grand Forks, I went to Washington University in Missouri to address the student body in connection with that university's undergraduate orientation program. As the date approached, I fixed my imagination duly upon the subject of Orientation -- and then learned that what I was really expected to do was read from and chat about my novels and stories.
I wound up more or less reviewing My Fiction Thus Far: a kind of self-orientation prompted by the LETTERS project, which for better or worse -- and against my personal shop rules -- happened to involve a character from each of my previous six books.
The talk was delivered in Washington U's Graham Chapel, which is also by way of being Bill Gass's classroom. So popular a teacher is he, I was told, it is the only hall on campus commodious enough to seat all the students who sign up for his courses.
The LETTERS novel was published in 1979; the project of self-orientation is ongoing. What follows is an amended text of my "orientation lecture," bringing that project up to date. It appeared in the New York Times Book Review in 1984.
We meet this morning under a mutual misapprehension. You had been led to expect that I would read from and talk about my fiction; I had been led to believe that I'd be addressing the new freshman class as part of their orientation program, and that is what I originally prepared to do. I shall see whether I can do both at once.
As to my orienting university freshpeople to their new academic environment, it is the blind leading the blind. I know very little about Washington University beyond the fact that there are on its faculty at least two excellent writers of fiction and two excellent poets -- William Gass, Stanley Elkin, Howard Nemerov, and Mona Van Duyn -- all of whom are reported to be fine teachers as well. Enroll in their courses before you graduate. As they are also quite famous, hit them for letters of recommendation for your job-placement files, and you'll be a shoo-in to graduate school if that is whither you incline. But do this only after you have done brilliant, even astonishing work in their courses; otherwise take your C and don't be pushy.
That's all I can think of in the way of specific practical advice for Washington University undergraduates. Speaking more generally, I remind you that orientation literally means determining which way is east, whether for architectural purposes (if you're building a medieval Christian church, you aim it in that direction, as Graham Chapel is properly aimed) or for funerary purposes (a well-oriented corpse lies with its feet to the rising sun). Apparently it wasn't until the end of the nineteenth century that orientation came to mean getting one's bearings, literally or figuratively, and not until well into the twentieth that it was used specifically to name the project of suggesting to new American college students that they're not high-school kids any longer, but responsible young adults commencing a major phase of their intellectual apprenticeship; taking a tour as it were of the lunchrooms and classrooms, lavatories and laboratories of the Western cultural conglomerate of which Washington University, for example, is one wholly owned subsidiary among many others, and we hope you'll enjoy your stay here.
In short, the word orientation came to mean finding out where in the occidental world we are as more and more of us came to suspect we didn't know. I feel on familiar ground. Indeed, when I set about to find something from my fiction suitable for this occasion, I realized that the general project of orientation -- at least the condition of disorientation which the project presumes -- is my characteristic subject matter, my fictionary stock in trade. Intellectual and spiritual disorientation is the family disease of all my main characters -- a disease usually complicated by ontological disorientation, since knowing where you're at is often contingent upon knowing who you are.
It is a malady, of course, epidemic in the literature of the last hundred years: one of its orientations, you might say, as they use the term in crystallography. What's more, the specific malaise of academic disorientation I find recurring from book to book of mine like a flu virus one had thought oneself done with. William Carlos Williams remarks in his autobiography that after years and years as both a practicing physician and a practicing poet, it occurred to him one day in a brow-slapping swoop of insight that the word venereal is related to the goddess Venus: It was a connection too obvious for him to have noticed. In the same way, I hadn't quite realized how academic, in this special sense, my life's work as a writer of stories has been. All of my books, I see now, are in the genre the Germans call Erziehungsromane: "upbringing-novels," education novels -- a genre I had not found especially interesting after David Copperfield except as a vehicle for satire or an object of parody. And the satirical and parodical possibilities have been pretty well exhausted too, I'm sure.
More dismaying, when I reviewed my six offspring under this aspect, I realized that what I've been writing about all these years is not only orientation and education (rather, disorientation and education), but imperfect or unsuccessful or misfired education at that: not Erziehungsromane but Herabziehungsromane: "down-bringing novels." That I failed to recognize this before last week is exemplary: I am obliged to reorient myself to my own bibliography, as one must occasionally revise one's view of oneself retrospectively in the light of some new self-knowledge, usually bad news. And this reorientation is the more timely because my work in progress involves for better or worse the systematic reprise, reorchestration, reorientation of themes and characters from that bibliography: a sure sign that a novelist has passed forty.
The themes of that work in progress, I suppose, are regression, reenactment, and reorientation; like an ox-cart driver in monsoon season or the skipper of a grounded ship, one must sometimes go forward by going back. As an amateur sailor and navigator myself, I like the metaphor of dead reckoning: deciding where to go by determining where you are by reviewing where you've been. Aeneas does that, in Carthage and in Hades; many of the wandering heroes of mythology reach an impasse at some crucial point in their journey, from which they can proceed only by a laborious retracing of their steps. This is the process, if not the subject, of my novel-in-regress, and it is the substance of this orientation talk.
Todd Andrews, the hero of my first novel (The Floating Opera), goes to college originally -- that is, he enrolls in a particular curriculum in a particular university -- in order to fulfill his father's expectations more than his own. His own expectation is to drop dead before he finishes this sentence, from a certain kind of heart disease he learned he had while serving in the army in World War I. It takes him most of his undergraduate career (and most of a chapter) to discover what on earth he's doing there in the university; his orientation period, you might say, lasts almost to the baccalaureate. Even postgraduately, he is given to unpredictable shifts of life-style: In successive decades he plays the role of a libertine, an ascetic, a practicing cynic; he ends up at 54 (his present age in the novel) a sexually feeble small-town nihilist lawyer with an ongoing low-grade prostate infection and subacute bacterial endocarditis tending to myocardial infarction, writing long letters to his father, who committed suicide a quarter-century since. The fruit of his education, formal and informal, is one valid syllogism:
1. There is no absolute and ultimate justification for any action.
2. Continuing to live is a variety of action.
3. Therefore etc.
Whence he moves, less validly, to the resolve not only to kill himself that very evening, but to take a goodly number of his townspeople, friends, lovers, and such with him: He means to blow up the showboat of the novel's title by opening the acetylene gas tanks under the stage that fuel the house and stage lights at landings without electricity. The attempt fails; the show goes on; Todd Andrews's deductive faculty is restored, perhaps by the gas, and he understands (but neglects to inform Albert Camus) that, given his premises, he's likely to go on living because there's finally no more reason to commit suicide than not to.
If this sounds to you like the thinking more of a 24-year-old than of a 54-year-old, that is because the author was 24 at the time. Todd Andrews is a moderately successful lawyer -- he lucks out on the two major legal cases in the plot -- but he couldn't have done better than a gentleman's C+ in Logic 1, and he must have flunked The Chemistry of Gases cold. I hope your education will be more successful.
Novel #2, The End of the Road, is set on and around the campus of a seedy little state teachers college at the opening of the fall term. (In the film version, the campus sequences were shot at Swarthmore, of all inappropriate places: one of the loveliest campuses in the east. This was the first in a series of ruinous mistakes made by the film makers, who, as film makers sometimes do, combined considerable cinematographical expertise with considerable dramaturgical ignorance.) The central character is a grad-school dropout and ontological vacuum named Jacob Horner, who is subject to spells of paralysis because he suffers from the malady cosmopsis, the cosmic view. He is teaching English grammar on orders from his doctor, as a kind of therapy; but the prescription fails, as did his education. He becomes involved with a colleague's wife, a kind of nature-girl on the wrong trail: Nature may abhor a vacuum, but she shows her abhorrence by rushing to fill it. The novel ends with an illegal and botched abortion fatal to the young woman (this was the 1950s) and a final abdication of personality on Horner's part. The film critic John Simon accurately remarked that the principal difference between the novel and the film is that whereas the novel concludes with a harrowing abortion, the film is an abortion from start to finish. But I see now that it is Horner's aborted education that originally wound the mainspring of the plot: his total disorientation in the concourse of Baltimore's Penn Station, where he first becomes immobilized because he can't think of any reason to go anywhere -- and, apparently, can't go anywhere without a reason.
Those two novels make a little duet: a nihilist comedy and, if not a nihilist tragedy, at least a nihilist catastrophe. I am a twin -- an opposite-sex twin -- and I see in retrospect that I've been oriented as a writer to the same iteration-with-variation that my sister and I exemplify: a sort of congenital redundancy. There followed a pair of very long novels, The Sot-Weed Factor and Giles Goat-Boy, each of whose heroes begins with a radically innocent orientation of which he is disabused in successive chapters. Ebenezer Cooke, the hero of The Sot-Weed Factor, matriculates at Cambridge University near the end of the seventeenth century; he has been ruinously disoriented by a tutor who professes cosmophilism, the sexual love of everything in the world: men, women, animals, plants, algebra, hydraulics, political intrigue. Cooke, like Jacob Horner, tends toward paralysis; he copes with the tendency by a radical assertion of his innocence and his fondness for versifying: He declares himself programmatically to be a virgin and a poet, as one might choose a double major, and sets out for the New World with a commission as Poet Laureate of the Province of Maryland. But the commission is spurious, his talent is questionable, the New World isn't what he'd been led to suspect and commissioned to eulogize; his innocence grows ever more technical and imperfect. In the end he has to marry a whore and contract a social disease in order to regain the estate he didn't recognize as his until he'd lost it. His poetry gets a little better, but it's written figuratively in red ink -- his own blood -- and it's admired for the wrong reasons. By the time he is legitimately appointed Poet Laureate, he couldn't care less. Ebenezer Cooke would recommend that you choose some other major than Innocence, which he comes to see he has been guilty of.
Giles Goat-Boy, raised by the goats on one of the experimental stock-farms of an enormous, even world-embracing university, takes as his orientation program the myth of the wandering hero: He majors, as it were, in mythic heroism. It is not a gut course, though Giles has to descend into the very bowels of knowledge, and of the Campus, in order to earn his degree. And after nearly 800 pages, the main thing he seems to have learned is that what he's learned can't be taught: In his attempts to eff the ineffable, his truths get garbled in transmission, misconstrued, betrayed by verbalization, institutionalization. He almost ceases to care -- as, I'm sure, many serious teachers do. But the almost is important.
After those two long books came a pair of short ones, my favorites. Both are about orientation, disorientation, reorientation. Both involve wandering heroes from classical mythology, usually lost. (One reason why classical mythic heroes need to know which way is east is that they traditionally travel west. But they always lose their way.) The first book of the pair is a series of fictions for print, tape, and live voice called Lost in the Funhouse. The title speaks for itself, orientationwise. The other is a series of three novellas, called Chimera. I'll glance at those novellas briefly through the lens that this occasion has given me, and then we'll have done.
"Dunyazadiad," the opening panel of the Chimera triptych, is a reor-chestration of one of my favorite stories in the world: the frame-story of The Thousand and One Nights. You know the tale: how King Shahryar is driven so mad by sexual jealousy that he sleeps with a virgin every night and has her killed in the morning, lest she deceive him; and how that wonderful young woman Scheherazade, the Vizier's daughter, beguiles him with narrative strategies until he comes to his senses. For a time, I regarded the Nights as an insightful early work of feminist fiction: Scheherazade is called specifically "the Savior of her Sex"; the king's private misogyny is shown to be dangerous not only to his women but to his own mental health and, since he's the king, to the public health as well. Later in my own education as a writer, I came to regard the story as a kind of metaphor for the condition of narrative artists in general, and of artists who work on university campuses in particular, for a number of reasons:
1. Scheherazade has to lose her innocence before she can begin to practice her art. Ebenezer Cooke did, too; so do most of us.
2. Her audience -- the king -- is also her absolute critic. It is "publish or perish," with a vengeance.
3. And no matter how many times she has pleased the king before, her talent is always on the line. That is as it should be, up to a point, with all of us.
4. But this terrifying relation is also a fertilizing one; Scheherazade bears the king three children over those 1001 nights, as well as telling all those stories. Much could be said about those parallel productions. . .
5. Which, however, cease -- at least her production of stories ceases -- as soon as the king grants her the "tenure" of formal marriage. So it goes.
My version of the story, told by Scheherazade's kid sister, Dunyazade, echoes some of these preoccupations. Dunyazade reviews their history for her young bridegroom, the king's brother, Shah Zaman of Samarkand:
"Three and a third years ago, when King Shahryar was raping a virgin every night and killing her in the morning, and the people were praying that Allah would dump the whole dynasty, and so many parents had fled the country with their daughters that in all the Islands of India and China there was hardly a young girl fit to fuck, my sister was an undergraduate arts-and-sciences major at Banu Sasan University. Besides being Homecoming Queen, valedictorian-elect, and a four-letter varsity athlete, she had a private library of a thousand volumes and the highest average in the history of the campus. Every graduate department in the East was after her with fellowships -- but she was so appalled at the state of the nation that she dropped out of school in her last semester to do full-time research on a way to stop Shahryar from killing all our sisters and wrecking the country.
"Political science, which she looked at first, got her nowhere. Shahryar's power was absolute, and by sparing the daughters of his army officers and chief ministers (like our own father) and picking his victims mainly from the families of liberal intellectuals and other minorities, he kept the military and the cabinet loyal enough to rule out a coup d'état. Revolution seemed out of the question, because his woman-hating, spectacular as it was, was reinforced more or less by all our traditions and institutions, and as long as the girls he was murdering were generally upper-caste, there was no popular base for guerrilla war. Finally, since he could count on your help from Samarkand, invasion from outside or plain assassination were bad bets too: Sherry figured your retaliation would be worse than Shahryar's virgin-a-night policy.
"So we gave up poly sci (I fetched her books and sharpened her quills and made tea and alphabetized her index cards) and tried psychology -- another blind alley. Once she'd noted that your reaction to being cuckolded by your wife was homicidal rage followed by despair and abandonment of your kingdom, and that Shahryar's was the reverse; and established that that was owing to the difference in your ages and the order of revelations; and decided that whatever pathology was involved was a function of the culture and your position as absolute monarchs rather than particular hang-ups in your psyches, et cetera -- what was there to say?
"She grew daily more desperate; the body-count of deflowered and decapitated Moslem girls was past nine hundred, and Daddy was just about out of candidates. Sherry didn't especially care about herself, you understand -- wouldn't have even if she hadn't guessed that the King was sparing her out of respect for his vizier and her own accomplishments. But beyond the general awfulness of the situation, she was particularly concerned for my sake. From the day I was born, when Sherry was about nine, she treasured me as if I were hers; I might as well not have had parents; she and I ate from the same plate, slept in the same bed; no one could separate us; I'll bet we weren't apart for an hour in the first dozen years of my life. But I never had her good looks or her way with the world -- and I was the youngest in the family besides. My breasts were growing; already I'd begun to menstruate: any day Daddy might have to sacrifice me to save Sherry.
"So when nothing else worked, as a last resort she turned to her first love, unlikely as it seemed, mythology and folklore, and studied all the riddle/puzzle/secret motifs she could dig up. 'We need a miracle, Doony,' she said (I was braiding her hair and massaging her neck as she went through her notes for the thousandth time), 'and the only genies I've ever met were in stories, not in Moormen's-rings and Jews'-lamps. It's in words that the magic is -- Abracadabra, Open Sesame, and the rest -- but the magic words in one story aren't magical in the next. The real magic is to understand which words work, and when, and for what; the trick is to learn the trick.' "
In other words -- as Dunyazade and Scheherazade and the Author come to learn in the pages that follow -- the key to the treasure may be the treasure.
The tuition for that sort of lesson can be very high. Retracing one's steps -- "becoming as a kindergartener again," as the goat-boy puts it -- may be necessary to a fruitful reorientation, but one runs the risk of losing oneself in the past instead of returning to the present equipped to move forward into the future. Perseus (in the second Chimera novella, called "Perseid") understands this, though he's not sure for a while what to do with his understanding. He too has retraced his heroical route, recapitulated his mythic exploits, and not for vanity's sake, but for reorientation. As he says one night to the nymph Calyxa, as she and he are making love:
"Well, now, perhaps it was a bit vain of me to want to retrace my good young days; but it wasn't just vanity; no more were my nightly narratives: Somewhere along that way I'd lost something, took a wrong turn, forgot some knack, I don't know; it seemed to me that if I kept going over it carefully enough I might see the pattern, find the key."
"A little up and to your left," Calyxa whispered.
And a bit farther on:
"Thus this endless repetition of my story: As both protagonist and author, so to speak, I thought to overtake with understanding my present paragraph as it were by examining my paged past, and, thus pointed, proceed serene to the future's sentence."
Perseus's research is successful: He finds the Key and moves on to his proper destiny, which is to become a constellation in the sky, endlessly reenacting his story in his risings and settings. Perseus "makes it" because his vocation is legitimate: He doesn't major in Mythic Heroism; he happens to be a mythic hero, whose only problem is what to do for an encore. And if his ultimate stardom is ambivalent (he can't embrace the constellation he loves, which hangs right next to him forever), it is the ambivalence of immortality, as Keats tells us in his "Ode on a Grecian Urn."
More cautionary is the lesson of Bellerophon, the hero of the final Chimera novella. Like Giles the goat-boy, Bellerophon aspires to be a mythic hero; it is his only study. When Perseus reaches middle age, he researches his own history and the careers of other mythic heroes in order to understand what brought him to where he is, so that he can go on. Young Bellerophon's orientation, on the other hand, is that by following perfectly the ritual pattern of mythic heroism -- by getting all A's and four letters of recommendation, as it were -- he will become a bona fide mythic hero like his cousin Perseus. What he learns, and it is an expensive lesson, is that by perfectly imitating the pattern of mythic heroism, one becomes a perfect imitation of a mythic hero, which is not quite the same thing as being Perseus the Golden Destroyer. Hence the novella's title, "Bellerophoniad." Something similar may befall the writer too fixated upon his/her distinguished predecessors; it is a disoriented navigator indeed who mistakes the stars he steers by for his destination.
He is not, however, my Bellerophon, entirely phony: He is too earnest for that, too authentically dedicated to his profession, whatever the limits of his gift. What's more, he really does kill the Chimera -- that fictive monster or monstrous fiction -- to the extent that it ever really existed in the first place. Bellerophon's immortality is of a more radically qualified sort: What he becomes is not the story of his own exploits, as Perseus does up there among the other stars, but the text of the story "Bellerophoniad." Pegasus, the winged horse of inspiration on which Bellerophon has flown, gets to heaven (in fact, he's one of the constellations in the Perseus group); his rider is thrown at the threshold of the gate, falls for a long time (long enough to tell his long tale), and is transformed just in the nick of time into the pages, the sentences, the letters of the book Chimera. To turn into the sound of one's own voice is an occupational hazard of professional storytellers; even more so, I imagine, of professional lecturers.
That brings us to the present, appropriately, just at the end of my allotted hour. All these retracements, recapitulations, rehearsals, and reenactments really would be simply regressive if they didn't issue in reorientation, from which new work can proceed. But that, as Scheherazade says, is another story, for another night.
I wish you good luck in your own orientation. East is over that way.
POSTSCRIPT 1984, FOR THE CLASS OF 1988
The novel LETTERS, alluded to above and published some while after that orientation lecture, centers upon an enormous (and hypothetical) third-rate American university, Marshyhope State, constructed for my purposes on the freshly filled saltmarsh of my native Dorchester County, in Maryland. The year is 1969, the heyday of U.S. academic imperialism and gigantism. Marshyhope's architectural symbol and intended beacon to the world, The Tower of Truth, on the eve of its dedication already shows signs of subsiding into the fenlands whence it sprang, like the Hancock Tower into Back Bay Boston.
As R. D. Laing rationalizes schizophrenia, at least in certain cases, as a sane response to a deranged but inescapable set of circumstances, so the cautionary example of Marshyhope State suggests that -- in certain cases, at least -- the fault of disorientation may lie not in ourselves, Horatio, but in our alma maters and paters. To disoriented undergraduates (and to readers bogged down in LETTERS) I say: By all means allow for that possibility -- but do not jump to that conclusion, as it is most likely mistaken.
My little novel Sabbatical: A Romance (1982) carries the Laingian scenario farther. Todd Andrews in The Floating Opera (and again in LETTERS) wonders sentence by sentence whether his heart will carry him from subject to predicate; in Sabbatical, set on Chesapeake Bay in 1980, the background question is whether the world will end before the novel does.
More specifically, the question is whether one can responsibly bring children into the disoriented powder-keg wherein we dwell. The prospective parents in Sabbatical are literal navigators, of a seaworthy cruising sailboat (she is a proper young academic, on sabbatical leave; he is a decent, middle-aged ex-CIA officer, between careers). They are oriented; the course they steer is accurate, if not always straightforward. What's more, after years of marriage and trials large and small they remain happily in love with each other. In an oriented world, their landfall -- and progeny -- would be assured. In the troubled and dangerous waters through which they, like the rest of us, necessarily sail, however, no degree of skill in navigation or of seaworthiness in the vessel guarantees that the destination will still be there at our Estimated Time of Arrival.
This being the more or less apocalyptical case -- the Sot-Weed Factor supplanted as it were by the Doomsday Factor -- why set a course at all, whether toward graduation or procreation or distinguished career or further fiction? This is the approximate subject of my next effort at self-orientation: my novel presently in the works.
But that, as Scheherazade says, is etc.