AMERICAN FICTIONS: 1940-1980 by Frederick R. Karl


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Ten long, roughly chronological essays (something like ten lecture-series from college courses)--in which Prof. Karl offers his view of recent US fiction, analyzing dozens of novels in highly academic terms. . . and generally applauding the rise of modernism. First, before those decade-by-decade essays, come three introductory chapters: Karl laments the media celebration of an uneven few (Styron, Updike, Vonnegut, Mailer), while Gaddis, Pynchon, and Joseph McElroy make real creative history; he summarizes the dilemmas of the postwar US novelist, facing an ""intense, fervid quest for wholeness"" in a paradoxical culture, trying ""to resolve the influence of Kafka with native American spatiality""; and he sees ""the pastoral"" as the persistent theme throughout US fiction, referring to Cheerer, Gass, Gardner, Wright Morris, and others. Two chapters then focus more or less on the Forties--the modern novel heralded by Hawkes and Bellow (whose later work is savaged), the war novels of Jones and Mailer, and ""growing up"" fiction. Here, however, as throughout, the chronological format breaks down badly: Karl's discussion of the bildungsroman strays all over the map, from James Purdy (unfairly neglected, Karl argues) to an unnecessary put-down of World According to Garp. (""We should not confuse ourselves that narrative is necessarily the place where literature is located."") The Fifties are emblem-ized by Gaddis' The Recognitions, Ellison's Invisible Man, and William Burroughs; there's a chapter on the political novel, jumping ahead to heap dubious praise on Robert Coover's 1977 The Public Burning. The key novels of the Sixties, for Karl, are Barth's Giles Goat-Boy, them, Catch 22, V, and John Williams' The Man Who Cried I Am--while less-favored writers (from Walker Percy to Updike and Roth) are grouped as ""The Didactics."" Relatively brief chapters follow--on the minimalists, with Barthelme's The Dead Father as the touchstone work; on ""The Female Experience,"" with routine book-reviews of Kinflicks, Fear of Flying, Toni Morrison, and others. And while the problem for Sixties novelists was ""that there seemed to be too many realities,"" in the Seventies ""it has become difficult to determine what, if anything, reality is."" Unsurprisingly, then, the emphasis in the last decade is on Pynchon and Barth--with interminable analysis of Letters, which ""seems to be a form of literary masturbation"" but ""will be to future generations a landmark fiction."" Many readers, almost all of those outside academia, will to some extent disagree with Karl's fundamental premise here: that the ""autotelic"" nature of modernist US fiction--""its self-containment, its nonreferential quality, its establishment of internal values""--is a clear step forward. Moreover, even on its own terms, this attempt at ""A Comprehensive History and Critical Evaluation"" is unfocused and oddly organized, with strained bracketing, s, fragmented discussion of multi-decade writers, and crude pigeon-holing. Still, on particular novelists, Karl is a keen, thoughtful judge (e.g., the uneven John Hawkes oeuvre), even if his textual analyses are often narrowly academic; despite excess enthusiasm, he offers solid appreciations of the work of important experimental writers. So, while only those who share Karl's radical-ivory-tower view of US fiction will give this the stature of a history-cum-encyclopedia, all serious students of the novel (encouraged by an unusually detailed index) will want to consult, browse. . . and, perhaps, argue.

Pub Date: Dec. 28th, 1983
Publisher: Harper & Row