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Of Authenticity and Prophecy

March 08, 1987|RICHARD EDER

Idon't follow this closely, but my impression is that our various space probes have taken most of the intelligent life out of the old question about whether there is intelligent life on Mars. At least, none of the sentient hardware we have floated in its vicinity has reported any. What does seem beyond dispute is that there is no book reviewing on Mars. Our earthling publishers would have heard of it, and they would have jacket quotes.

Of course, the absence of book criticism is no conclusive proof of the absence of intelligent life. For that matter, the absence of intelligent life doesn't necessarily rule out book criticism.

If you were to imagine, though, a delegation of Martian reviewers coming this way for a tour of book fairs, literary panels and PEN meetings, what would it find?

In Latin America, the cultural clash of "civilizing" and "indigenous" histories; the high-colored ironies of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's magical realism, the sober and sharper ironies of Mario Vargas Llosa, who brings up to date, in his accounts of idealistic and foolhardy revolutionaries, Bolivar's old dictum: "I have plowed the sea." Eduardo Galeano's monumental attempt, part way finished, to write a conscious and subconscious history of all the Americas, ours included.

In South Africa, the ability of writers to deal unsparingly with social realities, without the slightest compromise of artistic resonance, as with Athol Fugard and Nadine Gordimer. And the more recondite and harder parables of J. M. Coetzee who deals in artistic resonance without the slightest compromise of social passion.

In Eastern Europe, the complex humanism, ironic and celebratory, of the Czechoslovak novelists Milan Kundera and Josef Skvorecky and the Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert. And in the Germanys--less divided literarily than politically, and more aware than any other Western European literature of the East-West divide--the complex humanism, ironic and denunciatory, of Martin Walser, Stefan Heym and Gunther Grass. To take--in all these cases--only a few.

For these three literary zones the inexistent Martians would gather, in vastly different ways, a sense of relationship between the individual imagination and the movements of history, variously conceived in realistic, satiric or mythical terms.

And in the United States? Let us say, for example, that the delegation were to share out John Updike, Saul Bellow, boast of Philip Roth, Raymond Carver, Ann Beattie, Bobbie Ann Mason, Donald and Frederick Barthelme, Tobias Wolff, Laurie Colwin, Anne Tyler, Deborah Eisenberg. "Lord (Mars), but these Americans write well," they might report. "Profoundly. Unsparingly. With a productivity in honed subtleties quite beyond any possibilities of national consumption; one that might, like the wheat surplus, be exported to the Soviet Union; particularly since Gorbachev seems to have a use for such a thing."

On the other hand, the report might continue, it would seem that in America there are no social problems, no political issues. The country exists in unforgettable and acute detail; but it doesn't exist anywhere in particular. There is no Third World around it. There is no big-power confrontation, and there is no nuclear threat. America is a country of private lives, feelings and lack of feelings about oneself, bad consciences between the generations, internal distances, and enough resources to keep everyone in cole slaw or cold salmon--here you may choose between Mason--Carver or Beattie--Updike. All this goes on in a cage of some sort, but nobody can see the bars or name them. There is contagion but no disease.

Like all visitors, these imaginary and, I will admit, manipulated Martians have missed quite a bit. There are other writers. There are the parodists of our national legends--a Vonnegut, a Doctorow, and the early Joseph Heller. There is the denunciatory force of our Vietnam literature--I am thinking, best and most recently, of Bobbie Ann Mason going beyond her small-scale mastery into the powerful "In Country," and of Larry Heineman's "Paco's Story."

There are a number of remarkable writers who find widely different ways to make the world visible in American lives. Joan Didion's "Democracy" confronts our national sense of uniqueness with the damage it has done in poorer and more fragile countries. Jay Cantor's "The Death of Che Guevara" is an extraordinary feat of imagining revolution in an impassive continent. William Gaddis's "Carpenter's Gothic" treats foreign policy as a domestic illness. Don De Lillo and Denis Johnson--"White Noise" and "Fiscadoro"--write of the end of the world as present and not future. Carolyn See imagines the unimaginable in "Golden Days," a novel of nuclear survival. And Stanley Elkin's "The Magic Kingdom" makes dying children an extraordinary reverse image of our life.

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