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Writers From the Diaspora of Truth : THE JULES VERNE STEAM BALLOON Nine Stories by Guy Davenport (North Point Press: $21.95, cloth; $11.95, paper; 176 pp.) : ROSE THEATRE by Gilbert Sorrentino (The Dalkey Archive Press: $20; 139 pp.)

December 06, 1987|Douglas Messerli | Messerli is the publisher of the Sun and Moon Press

Over the last 2 1/2 decades, Guy Davenport and Gilbert Sorrentino have come to be recognized as two of the leading postmodern fiction writers, that is as fiction writers working against the normative patterns of psychological realism established by authors of the 1940s and 1950s such as Robert Penn Warren, Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer and John Cheever. Of course, fiction--even 20th-Century fiction--has always included far more than the psychological novel allowed, as Davenport and Sorrentino are well aware. In this sense, perhaps, it is a disservice to confuse these writers with something standing entirely apart from the modern tradition. For Davenport's interconnected stories, "The Jules Verne Steam Balloon" owes more to the high modernist collage-fictions of Max Ernst and to the pre-modern philosophical treatise-fictions of Soren Kierkegaard than to the self-referential modes of much of contemporary writing. And Sorrentino's "Rose Theatre" is, as is all of his fiction, deeply steeped in the modernist novels of Flann O'Brien and James Joyce.

Indeed, Davenport's story-series might be best illuminated in the context of a modern masterwork of interrelated tales such as Eudora Welty's "The Golden Apples." True, where Welty and writers like her use myth and history as symbols to reveal the psychological complexities of the lives of ordinary characters, Davenport employs outlandish figures who inhabit a world in which myth and history are demeaned, forgotten, or downright dangerous. In "Pyrrhon of Elis" the Skeptic philosopher Pyrrhon levels all meaning--in an ironic reversal of Descartes--by doubting the existence of everything around him, including himself: "I may not be, I think." In "We Often Think of Lenin in the Clothespin Factory," the characters speak nostalgically of art and artists from Pushkin, Canaletto, Rilke, and Robert Walser to the Aleksandr Deineka, "Workers' Summer Vacation Pool" and "Lenin Taking a Walk in His Car" as if all were equal. And in "Bronze Leaves and Red," Davenport approaches the unforgivable in writing a tale in which our century's monster, Adolf Hitler, is represented as living in an idyllic world of social calls to Wagner's widow, chess games, music, macaroons and metaphysical discussions. These stories present, in short, exactly that world which Welty and so many other great modern writers feared for us.

But these are purposeful intrusions of possible evil in a world that otherwise is as idyllic as Welty's King/Zeus figure, Davenport's Hugo Trevmunding romps in a world alive with sexual excitement and desire. Through his interleaving of botanical descriptions and the actions of his various Scandinavian pan-sexual lovers, Davenport's Sweden literally throbs with an almost adolescent agitation of its sexual parts. Brother and sister, brother and brother, sister's lover and brother, brother and sister's lover's students--everyone gets into the act in Davenport's panegyric to free sex. And indeed, living as we do in an AIDS-conscious culture, Davenport's liberated 1960s Sweden becomes as mythic, as magical and desirable as the Greek myth embedded in Welty's 1940s small Southern town.

And as in Welty's world, the worst dangers to the boys of Hugo's NFS Grundtvig lie not in the past--in outmoded laws or in parental displeasure--but in a loss of the present made meaningful by dreams of the future and understood through the past. The villains of "The Jules Verne Steam Balloon" are those levelers of meaning as exemplified by Hugo's mysterious bicycle rider, a young man he encounters, falls vaguely in love with, and attempts to teach. But the bicycle rider, lost in neural hallucinations of LSD, marijuana, cocaine and the promises of a fraudulent Transcendental Meditation Group, will not be taught. In that throbbing world of the living, the bicycle rider experiences nothing but the phantoms of his own non-acts. It is Hugh, like Welty's Virgie Rainey, who can see clearly the signs of the heavens, who has the vision to transform his acts into meaning in life. For Virgie, the vision is represented in the image of Perseus severing the head of Medusa; for Hugo, it is a wonderful contraption of the 19th Century, the stream balloon, inhabited by creatures of some science fiction future: Here the present truly meets the future in its past.

One wonders how these "stories" read apart from each other; together they make perfect sense.

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