Two Serious Ladies – Jane Bowles
Jane Bowles had talent, but in this novel (her only one) it’s limited to the creation of scenes. Various people meet in an odd setting and they talk, interact; it’s well-written (especially the dialogue) and even entertaining. What’s missing is a plot to bring the scenes together. It’s all a random assemblage. The two ladies of the title are Miss Goering and Mrs Copperfield, but why are they deemed “serious”? They act so erratically that they merely seem nutty. The novel made no sense, from the opening pages (where I could accept not knowing what was going on) to the last page (where the absence constituted an overall shortcoming). I believe that ideas occurred to this author, and she went off on tangents. When she wore a tangent out she skipped to another. A fan of Ladies might claim that life is random, senseless, and that I should just go with the flow. Or that it was an offbeat comedy. Well, I did go with the flow, I did find scenes funny in a muted way. But I need coherence – some purpose or point – to be satisfied. Does Jane Bowles deserve the prestige of being published by the Library of America? This book includes, besides the novel, her play, stories and letters (many to her husband Paul). When Ladies came out, most critics, like me, didn’t “get it.” But there were friends of Paul and Jane with clout, such as Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote, and they loved it. It was acceptance by the gay artistic community that eventually elevated it to the status of a cult classic. As for the letters – I merely flipped through the pages. The early ones are very long and chatty, filled with events, people, plans. The last ones evoke pity; reading them is like witnessing the disintegration of a personality. All that is left of Jane is a barely intelligible plea to “go home.”
Waveland – Frederick Barthelme
In the beginning I found this novel readable. Which is unusual, these days. Most novels (eighteen out of twenty) don’t get reviewed because I don’t stick with them far enough. And, of the ones I do review, when was I last enthusiastic? You’d have to go back to two of Willa Cather’s stories in March of this year (though her collection as a whole wasn’t that good). I read fiction every night, so this is a dreary period. Is it me or the books? In the case of Waveland, it’s both. Barthelme presents a dysfunctional world in which offbeat characters in offbeat situations do a lot of talking in offbeat dialogue. When I stopped reading (I got halfway through this very short book) the aimless, world-weary protagonist was living with two women – his girlfriend and his ex-wife. His ex was beaten up by her boyfriend, and felt uneasy being alone. A one-armed Gulf War veteran is thrown in the mix, apparently to spout angry cynicisms. This is a form of literary fiction in which menace is an important element. The girlfriend, we learn on the second page, has been exonerated in the murder of her husband – not enough evidence. The ex-wife has a history of off-the-wall behavior, and the violent boyfriend is waiting in the wings. Even the vet seems to be potentially dangerous. All this could work, I suppose – except that, like his world-weary protagonist, Bartheleme doesn’t seem that much interested in his scenario. There’s little momentum to Waveland; we drift a lot, and eventually I drifted away. Maybe I’m weary too – of fiction and its devices (when I can recognize them as devices).
The Old Devils – Kingsley Amis
When he was thirty -two Amis achieved success with Lucky Jim. Thirty-two years later Devils was published, and he was finally awarded the Booker Prize. This is something that I believe he coveted. In between those two novels he produced a steady stream of work, much of it mediocre, but with this novel he gathered his resources and wrote a big, carefully-crafted work that the Booker jury could not ignore, especially coming from an aging lion of English literature. The major resource he called upon was his ability to use language. But, unfortunately for this reader, that’s all he had. A novel should have a plot, but there’s only a pretense of one in Devils. Here it is: Alum returns to Wales with his wife Rhiannon and they resume relations with a bunch of old acquaintances. These acquaintances talk, think, have feelings, and drink tremendous amounts of liquor. The men seem pretty much the same: elderly, decrepit, condemned to loveless (and sometimes miserable) marriages, and not fully alive. The women are more spirited, and generally use their energies to inflict pain. Except for the two characters I’ve assigned names to, it took an effort to tell one person from another. Alum’s sharpness is distinctive, and Rhiannon is portrayed with affection; the novel’s only cohesive element is the fact that a number of the men are in love with her. But the world Amis creates is a dismal one, and the emotion of love seems out of place. He’s comfortable being mean; his humor is a nasty, cutting sort. I used the word “acquaintances” instead of “friends” because nobody seems to care much about anybody else. This not caring about anybody extended to me. As stated, this novel-without-a-plot is a mainly display of Amis’s prose, but it often gets tangled in its own inventiveness. When I entered the last stretch I was impatient for it to just be over. Then, on the final pages, reports from another party surface suggesting that Rhiannon and Peter find love. A happy ending? It’s so unlikely that I believe Amis was incapable of showing it actually happening.