Books

A good knife-hand and a touch of fine madness

THE GHOST WRITER by Philip Roth JAILBIRD by Kurt Vonnegut

Barbara Amiel October 22 1979
Books

A good knife-hand and a touch of fine madness

THE GHOST WRITER by Philip Roth JAILBIRD by Kurt Vonnegut

Barbara Amiel October 22 1979

A good knife-hand and a touch of fine madness

Books

THE GHOST WRITER by Philip Roth JAILBIRD by Kurt Vonnegut

(McGraw-Hill Ryerson, $11.95)

(Doubleday Canada, $12.50)

If their lives were more visible we might see that dentists or bankers are every bit as ingrown a group as writers. Probably dentists discuss the teeth of fellow dentists and write about their friends' gum problems in learned papers. Bankers likely eye each other's new picture cheques and copy them— otherwise why would we always be stuck with ochre-toned pictures of diseased Canadian sunsets no matter which money institution we patronize?

But writers do it so publicly. They socialize with one another, sometimes in such specifically located sites as Fire Island, New York (for rich American writers), or the writers’ retreat near Bracebridge, Ontario (for struggling Canadian ones), and get their photos published comparing typing-elbow on the beach. Everything is grist for the writer’s mill: their early problems with puberty, their mother’s problems with their puberty, the book they didn’t like on someone else’s puberty and, of course, themselves and the vocation of writing. This last theme has become particularly fascinating to American writers. Sophie's Choice had as its hero a struggling young William Styron, Dubin's Lives had a young Bernard Malamud and now Philip Roth goes one better and gives us a young Philip Roth, a middle-aged Bernard Malamud and the art of writing—all in one very short and very clever little novel.

It centres on the visit a young (23) and promising (four short stories published) writer named Nathan Zuckerman—Philip Roth—pays to the New England retreat of the great Jewish writer E.I. Lonoff—Bernard Malamud, more or less. While Zuckerman is pouring out his breathless lit-crit analyses of Lonoff’s work and European culture as a whole, he glimpses through a halfopened door a young woman of extraordinary beauty: “Where had I seen that severe dark beauty before? Where but in a portrait by Velázquez?”

Elsewhere, too, it turns out. After

eavesdropping on a late-night conversation in which the girl beseeches Lonoff to rediscover life by leaving his aging wife, kissing her young breasts and going off to Italy in tandem, Zuckerman creates an identity for the girl. She is Anne Frank who, having managed to live through the Holocaust, cannot reveal her identity for fear of diminishing the impact of her famous diary.

Practice, practice, practice. Given a base of real talent, a writer can polish and refine his style to exquisite heights simply by the force of sheer work. So it is with Roth. All the fat of his early prose writing, the excesses and indulgences of Letting Go heaped onto his books like plates of falafel and coleslaw and dumplings and potatoes, has been pared down to a lean meal. His sentences sing. The voices of his characters

are inimitable. Says a greying Yankeeborn Hope Lonoff to the Anne Franklike girl as she bequeathes Lonoff to her: “. . . if once in six months you get him to accept an invitation to somebody’s home, then it’ll be even worsethen for the hour before you go your life will be misery from his kvetching about what it’s going to be like when those people start in with their ideas. If you

dare to change the pepper mill, he’ll ask what’s the matter, what was wrong with the old one? . . . Change the soap and he goes around the house sniffing, as though something is dead on the bathroom sink instead of just a bar of Palmolive .... There is his religion of art, my young successor: rejecting life!”

This “religion of art” may be one of the themes of Roth’s book—or it may not. Just what the book says is its real problem. Discussions of the moral responsibility of the artist are tied up (naturally) with the theme of Jewish guilt; Roth has a hilarious sequence in which a Jewish judge evaluates one of Zuckerman’s stories by means of a questionnaire concluding with the query, “Can you honestly say that there is anything in your short story that would not warm the heart of a Julius Streicher or a Joseph Goebbels?” Despite the plentitude of literary allusions, the book doesn’t begin to deal with the morality or religion of art. The Ghost Writer is really a compelling short novel about some people that Roth knows very well, and part of the problem with his work is simply that: he writes about his tribe—middle-class Jewish intellectuals—and never gets sufficiently beyond the tribe to universalize its experience.

Practice and literary sophistication may be the strengths behind Roth’s work; when it comes to Kurt Vonnegut, readers enter an entirely different experience. Some novelists throw light on the human condition through the accumulation of small detail; others use the human soul. Vonnegut gives us moments that cut through the pitch-black muddle of our lives to sudden illumination, through something that wavers between a touch of fine madness and full-blown insanity.

His new novel, Jailbird, is Vonnegut’s best work since Slaughterhouse-Five. The hero, Walter F. Starbuck, is a convicted Watergate conspirator. As Nixon’s special adviser on youth affairs he had been given a basement office which turned out to be a handy place to store trunkfuls of money. At his trial Starbuck refuses to exonerate himself by turning state’s evidence. (In 1949 he had given testimony to the House UnAmerican Activities Committee that was intended to blunt McCarthy by documenting the patriotism of many Americans who had once been Communists. This resulted in years of persecution and the jailing of one of his friends for perjury.) Having decided never to testify again, Starbuck goes silently to jail where he and his guard, Clyde Carter, President Carter’s third cousin, take mail-order courses on bartending and air conditioning. On his release Starbuck manages to become vice-president of America’s largest corporation, RAMJAC, and again, innocently, ends up in jail.

Vonnegut is a spiritual anarchist. His targets in this book are every aspect of the American system, all torpedoed with skill and accuracy. One only

wishes he could spend some time in China or Somalia and see what he could do with their systems: surely they deserve to be Vonnegutized. For Vonnegut has that enviable skill of being able to compress a range of experience into a couple of lines. He sums up his career as youth adviser, for example, in a terse telegram: “YOUNG PEOPLE STILL REFUSE TO SEE THE OBVIOUS IMPOSSIBILITY OF WORLD DISARMAMENT AND ECONOMIC EQUALITY. COULD BE FAULT OF NEW TESTAMENT. (QUOD VIDE.)”

Vonnegut’s stylistic trade mark, the repetitive phrase—in this case “imagine that,” among others—is a brilliant device. What most of us would take for granted, stops him dead. He hears the tinkle of absurdity. An ordinary lunch “in Stegemeier’s Restaurant in downtown Indianapolis” is placed in context: “The first atomic bomb had not yet been dropped on Japan. That would happen in about a month. Imagine that.” The phrases are like a leitmotiv; they give additional significance to the stated themes by underscoring them. Talking about a young Hispanic with a portable radio, who “if he had done me some kindness, might now be an executive in the RAMJAC Corporation,” Vonnegut writes: “The radio was turned to the news. The newscaster said that the air quality that day was unacceptable. Imagine that: unacceptable air.” Vonnegut’s talent is one of the very few, if not only, truly original voices in contemporary American writing. Without Vonnegut there would be no ear to hear the sound of Western absurdity. Imagine that. Barbara Amiel