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The Post-Modern Aura : THE ACT OF FICTION IN AN AGE OF INFLATION by Charles Newman (Northwestern University: $18.95, hardcover; $7.95, paperback; 203 pp.)

September 29, 1985|Ronald Gottesman | Gottesman teaches American literature at USC. and

The volume under review is to ordinary literary-cultural polemics what an anti-personnel bomb is to your standard mortar shell. Strident in tone and virtually universal in its condemnation, Charles Newman's angry and ambitious jeremiad is apparently designed to catch the attention of an audience merely distracted by ordinary verbal fireworks. Like Mad Max of movie fame, Newman is alert, resourceful, agile and quick on the draw. Armed with all manner of conventional and special-purpose weapons (irony, moral indignation and arcane learning among them), Newman can strike with deadly force but wishes to be perceived as by nature stoically tender. In real life a novelist, he behaves as author of this book like Clint Eastwood with a Ph.D. in the history of consciousness. He seems at times to forget that what redeems Jeremiah is that he loved those he excoriated.

Newman's thesis is that contemporary American culture is bankrupt first because of forces--organizational, economic, technological--beyond our individual control and second because of personal failures of intelligence, nerve, will and the ordinary decencies. In an inflationary time (his key metaphor), everybody wants to be in on the take, and while we are all engaged in looting, nobody seems to notice that we are destroying our own community, a community in which real life, authentic fiction and genuine criticism once walked hand in hand.

"The sense of the Post-Modern," Newman explains, "is quintessentially one of instability with immobility. In cultural matters, inflation abstracts anxiety, suspends judgment, multiplies interpretation, diffuses rebellion, debases standards, dissipates energy, mutes confrontation, undermines institutions, subordinates techniques, polarizes theory, dilates style, dilutes content, hyperpluralizes the political and social order while homogenizing culture. Above all, inflation masks stasis." The faster we run, the behinder we get. The post-modern "drift," Newman believes, is like a patent nostrum in reverse, and the result is a culture afflicted by more terminal diseases than we have doctors to treat them.

Newman is mad as hell about this state of affairs, and his book is a veritable arsenal of invective unleashed to correct it. His targets include (but are not restricted to): the University, the Middle Class, Television, European Theorists, New Critics, Textualists, Liberals, Neo-conservatives, Popular Culture, Hardcore Realists, Academics, Revolutionaries, Visionaries, Reactionaries, Skeptics, the Smug, Publishers, Stock Brokers and Book Reviewers. He dislikes in particular the work of John Gardner, William Gaddis, Raymond Federman, John Irving, E. L. Doctorow, Harold Bloom, Robert Coover, William Gass, Ann Beattie, Raymond Carver and most other post-modernist writers, critics and theorists, especially the theorists. He seems to approve of Ortega y Gassett, Theodore Adorno, Edmund Wilson, Karl Marx, E. N. Cioran and (especially) Gerald Graff, director of the Northwestern University Press, who provides a defensive preface that anticipates and dismisses criticism of the book on the curious grounds that because it dispassionately savages adherents of all literary and ideological faiths, it is progressive in the best sense.

The bad guys (he has nothing to say about feminists or feminism) are characterized as narcissistic, self-indulgent, aggressive, arrogant, self-puffing, absolutist, hysterical, decadent, posturing, outrageous, delirious, solipsistic, cerebral, self-reflexive, hermetic, privatized, hegemonic, deluded, wacky, pathological, peripheral, atomized, willful, arbitrary, degraded, static, cataleptic, bourgeois, venal, imitative, monologic, professionalized, attitudinizing, abstract, unreadable, automatic, insipid, predictable, banal, derivative, oligopolistic and cynical--even though they are occasionally brilliant and funny. Graff does well to prepare for counterattack.

The chief deficiencies of Newman's analysis are that it is intemperate, repetitive and vague--which does not mean that it is without merit. The argument gets better toward the end of the book, and the much-praised chapter on the relationship of the publishing industry to other conglomerate corporate enterprises would make a fine essay if it were revised and tranquilized. But as it stands, the chapter and the book suffer from hysteria, overkill, and from too great a faith in the explanatory power of economics as science or as metaphor. Newman is a better novelist than he is a cultural critic, and would do better, in my opinion, to make William and Henry James his mentors than Henry and Brooks Adams.

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