ON MORAL FICTION

The essence (which is all you need) of this profound and petty essay appears in 1978's Pushcart Prize collection (p. 220)—and an indisputable essence it is: what Arthur Miller so eloquently demands from drama, novelist Gardner demands from fiction—that it seek "to improve life, not debase it," that it "ought to be a force bringing people together, breaking down barriers of prejudice and ignorance, and holding up ideals worth pursuing." Who would argue with that?—or with Gardner's fervent defense of the model to be found in Homer, Dante, and Tolstoy: "the gods set ideals, heroes enact them, and artists. . . preserve the image as a guide for man." The pettiness and problems set in, however, when Gardner analyzes "what has gone wrong in recent years" with fiction and criticism—and in his formulas for how-to-do-it-right. Blaming the Freud-Sartre-Wittgenstein philosophical constellation for generating a cult of despair and nihilism, Gardner excoriates the writers who play games, manipulate, wallow in "texture," or ignore "eternal verities" for current causes—and he scorns the style-obsessed critics (his characterization here is caricature) who praise them. But, as Gardner disposes of one novelist after another—Walker Percy, Bellow ("sprawling works of advice, not art"), Didion, Heller, Updike—one gets the feeling that he's a bit too intent on eliminating the competition and that he's unable to see a moral lesson in any book that makes its point implicitly, indirectly, "accidentally," or with humor. (This suspicion is confirmed by the fact that Gardner's full praise is reserved for Fowles' Daniel Martin, which wears its lesson-in-living-ness on its sleeve). Narrower still—though fascinating—is Gardner's notion that True Art (the phrase becomes an incantation) can only be produced one way: "One begins a work of fiction with certain clear opinions. . . and one tests these opinions in lifelike situations," using an almost mystical "intuition" (the True Artist is heavily romanticized throughout). But, excessive and self-limited as Gardner's "rules" for moral fiction may be, they do illuminate the lousiness of much of today's writing, they do remind us of the viability of some centuries-old models, and they will provoke a good deal of healthily furious literary fisticuffs.

Pub Date: April 19, 1978

ISBN: 0465052266

Page Count: 238

Publisher: Basic

Review Posted Online: March 29, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 1978

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The phrase “tour de force” could have been invented for this audacious novel.

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A LITTLE LIFE

Four men who meet as college roommates move to New York and spend the next three decades gaining renown in their professions—as an architect, painter, actor and lawyer—and struggling with demons in their intertwined personal lives.

Yanagihara (The People in the Trees, 2013) takes the still-bold leap of writing about characters who don’t share her background; in addition to being male, JB is African-American, Malcolm has a black father and white mother, Willem is white, and “Jude’s race was undetermined”—deserted at birth, he was raised in a monastery and had an unspeakably traumatic childhood that’s revealed slowly over the course of the book. Two of them are gay, one straight and one bisexual. There isn’t a single significant female character, and for a long novel, there isn’t much plot. There aren’t even many markers of what’s happening in the outside world; Jude moves to a loft in SoHo as a young man, but we don’t see the neighborhood change from gritty artists’ enclave to glitzy tourist destination. What we get instead is an intensely interior look at the friends’ psyches and relationships, and it’s utterly enthralling. The four men think about work and creativity and success and failure; they cook for each other, compete with each other and jostle for each other’s affection. JB bases his entire artistic career on painting portraits of his friends, while Malcolm takes care of them by designing their apartments and houses. When Jude, as an adult, is adopted by his favorite Harvard law professor, his friends join him for Thanksgiving in Cambridge every year. And when Willem becomes a movie star, they all bask in his glow. Eventually, the tone darkens and the story narrows to focus on Jude as the pain of his past cuts deep into his carefully constructed life.  

The phrase “tour de force” could have been invented for this audacious novel.

Pub Date: March 10, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-385-53925-8

Page Count: 720

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Dec. 22, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2015

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A kind of Holden Caulfield who speaks bravely and winningly from inside the sorrows of autism: wonderful, simple, easy,...

THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME

Britisher Haddon debuts in the adult novel with the bittersweet tale of a 15-year-old autistic who’s also a math genius.

Christopher Boone has had some bad knocks: his mother has died (well, she went to the hospital and never came back), and soon after he found a neighbor’s dog on the front lawn, slain by a garden fork stuck through it. A teacher said that he should write something that he “would like to read himself”—and so he embarks on this book, a murder mystery that will reveal who killed Mrs. Shears’s dog. First off, though, is a night in jail for hitting the policeman who questions him about the dog (the cop made the mistake of grabbing the boy by the arm when he can’t stand to be touched—any more than he can stand the colors yellow or brown, or not knowing what’s going to happen next). Christopher’s father bails him out but forbids his doing any more “detecting” about the dog-murder. When Christopher disobeys (and writes about it in his book), a fight ensues and his father confiscates the book. In time, detective-Christopher finds it, along with certain other clues that reveal a very great deal indeed about his mother’s “death,” his father’s own part in it—and the murder of the dog. Calming himself by doing roots, cubes, prime numbers, and math problems in his head, Christopher runs away, braves a train-ride to London, and finds—his mother. How can this be? Read and see. Neither parent, if truth be told, is the least bit prepossessing or more than a cutout. Christopher, though, with pet rat Toby in his pocket and advanced “maths” in his head, is another matter indeed, and readers will cheer when, way precociously, he takes his A-level maths and does brilliantly.

A kind of Holden Caulfield who speaks bravely and winningly from inside the sorrows of autism: wonderful, simple, easy, moving, and likely to be a smash.

Pub Date: June 17, 2003

ISBN: 0-385-50945-6

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2003

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