Americana – Don Delillo
This was Delillo’s debut novel, and his prose crackles with intelligence and originality. Dave, the first person narrator, is a young executive at a television network. In a manic chapter (the Friday review meeting) he observes people like Weede Denney and Reeves Chubb engage in an absurdist charade of mendaciousness and ineptitude and toadying. When he’s not killing time in his office Dave navigates through New York as if he owned it – he seems to know everyone and has beautiful women at his beck and call. Yet he feels a profound desolation and solitude. And there’s the killer. This might have worked as a satire of corporate life, for it’s funny in parts and has a fast-moving surface sheen good for skating on. But with a protagonist suffering from angst that potential melted away. Especially when the angst comes across as a contrivance. In Part Two we take an excursion into Dave’s youth, but he’s no different from the adult version: one cool customer with hidden depths. After leaving a party rife with inanity (Dave gets off some of his trademark quips) he stands outside in the dark and quiet and thinks, “It was a Sunday night in early September, and my body beat with sorrow at the beauty and mockery of all bodies.” Shortly thereafter, as Dave was shagging fly balls at a deserted ballpark, I decided to part company with him. So I missed his cross-country trip, in which, according to the back cover, he makes a “mad and moving attempt to capture a sense of his own and his country’s past, present and future.”
The Bluest Eye – Toni Morrison
The first person narrator in Morrison’s debut novel is ten-year-old Claudia; the book seems to be about her and her sister. Pecola appears as a secondary character, a poor soul who has everything going against her. But Pecola’s story begins to take up more space; we even get the life histories of her parents. At the close of the chapter devoted to her father he rapes Pecola. What follows next is a chapter featuring Soaphead Church, who has a thriving business as a Spiritualist and Psychic Reader. Pecola comes to him, asking for blue eyes (so that she can be beautiful, like white people). Soaphead rents an apartment from a lady whose mangy old dog revolts him; he gives Pecola some poisoned meat and tells her to feed it to the dog, and “if the animal behaves strangely, your wish will be granted on the day following this one.” The dog dies horribly and Soaphead goes to his desk and writes a long, instructive letter to God, much of it justifying his sexual desire for little girls. Pecola gets her wish; we learn this in a chapter in which she’s talking obsessively about her blue eyes to an imaginary friend; she’s gone over the edge. In an Afterword Morrison expands on the genesis of the novel and its broader theme (racial self-loathing). Though she wanted readers to interrogate themselves for the smashing of Pecola, many “remain touched but not moved.” Beyond my “poor soul” reaction, I was both unmoved and untouched. The fault lies primarily in the way Pecola is presented. She mostly appears in disconnected segments in which she’s observed by others; this placing her on the sidelines amounts to an avoidance of her. Other elements detracted from believability, foremost of which was the over-the-top garishness (the Soaphead chapter is an example). And the degree of ugliness was alienating. Some people get more than their rightful share of it, but to express it so graphically made me feel as if it were being shoved in my face (here’s the Truth, like it or not). Lastly, Morrison’s attempt to impose newness through typography stuck me as gimmicky. We get chapters in which the margins aren’t justified; we get sections in italics; chapters begin with excerpts from a white child’s reader: HEREISTHEFAMILYMOTHERFATHERDICKANDJANE . . . Morrison ends her Afterword by writing that “the initial publication of The Bluest Eye was like Pecola’s life: dismissed, trivialized, misread. And it has taken twenty-five years to gain for her the respectful publication this edition is.” Morrison’s Nobel Prize was surely the deciding factor in the republication. As for the belated respect, Morrison deserves credit for her intentions.
Seven Poor Men of Sydney – Christina Stead
In Stead’s debut novel (I’ve been using those last two words a lot lately) she lets her prodigious talent run unchecked. Her characters are speaking machines, going on and on in a manner so rarefied, so hyper-intelligent that it was difficult to follow. No discernible plot emerged – just a lot of socialism and unhappiness – and the emotions were pitched way too high. Finally, two thirds of the way through, the tidal wave of words began washing over me, and I quit reading. There were stretches in Poor Men when the weight of words and ideas was lifted, when people interacted, and these interludes were wonderful; they’re better than what most authors are capable of. Though Stead would always remain an undisciplined writer, she would learn some things about her craft. In The Man Who Loved Children we get an entire novel that is wonderful.