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The un-generation

December 30, 2007|Morris Dickstein | Morris Dickstein teaches English at the City University of New York's Graduate Center. His books include "Leopards in the Temple" and, most recently, "A Mirror in the Roadway: Literature and the Real World."

American fiction lost three of its most warmly admired figures this year, all dead at the age of 84 after long careers. Critics love the idea of literary generations, but it would be a challenge to find themes or ideas to link the disparate work of Norman Mailer, Grace Paley and Kurt Vonnegut. At a Paris Review gala last spring, Mailer spoke about Hemingway's enormous influence despite his inability to portray a convincing woman character (a charge sometimes leveled at Mailer himself). Hemingway made up for it, he said, by creating a style. In more modest ways, this could be said about Mailer, Paley and Vonnegut as well. No one would mistake a paragraph of theirs for the prose of another writer.

Though it was a critical and commercial triumph, Mailer often downgraded his first novel, "The Naked and the Dead" (1948), by saying that it had no style for it borrowed its style from the 1930s writers who first enthralled him, especially John Dos Passos, James T. Farrell and John Steinbeck. But in books like "The Deer Park" (1955), "Advertisements for Myself" (1959), "The Armies of the Night" (1968) and "The Executioner's Song" (1979), Mailer showed himself to be a master of at least two distinct styles, one of them flat and stark in the hard-boiled Hemingway manner, the other baroque and complex, answering to every subtle vibration of his inner life. For all his public antics, Mailer's most memorable exploits took place in the arena of the sentence: arresting metaphors, paradoxical speculations, physical details that made a personality tangible. In his coverage of conventions, he could conjure up the actors in the political drama as if they were characters he invented rather than public figures he observed. This writing was fueled by a sharp intelligence, at once self-absorbed and keenly attentive, but also by his fascination with power and performance. On the page, he became another such character, as proud of his many personalities as of his protean style. Despite his gift for introspection, Mailer became more of a public person than any writer since Hemingway and Malraux. The latter's incendiary mix of activism and reflection, along with his tropism for extreme situations, made him another early model for Mailer.

Vonnegut was no world-shaker, though he eventually exerted serious influence as a guru to the young, as someone they trusted. He saw himself as an ordinary Joe with a small, peculiar gift, and he made fun of Mailer's posturing toward the end of his most popular novel, "Slaughterhouse-Five" (1969). After surviving the firebombing of Dresden as a prisoner of war, his plain-man hero, Billy Pilgrim, finds himself, of all places, among literary critics discussing the death of the novel -- a frequent subject in those postwar years. One of them says that since people don't read well enough anymore, "authors had to do what Norman Mailer did, which was to perform in public what he had written." This mild joke, launched at the height of Mailer's and Vonnegut's fame, actually points to something these contemporaries, including Paley, had in common: a sense of the breakdown of the novel, blurring the lines between literary fiction and autobiography, but also poetry in Paley's case, science fiction for Vonnegut, journalism and social criticism for Mailer.

Paley responded to the rumored death of the novel by not writing one, though she tried for years after the success of her first book of stories, "The Little Disturbances of Man" (1959). In this book and two later collections, "Enormous Changes at the Last Minute" (1974) and "Later the Same Day" (1985), she came off not as a minimalist, reducing events and emotions to the bare bone, but as a miniaturist, like her friend Donald Barthelme, packing worlds of feeling into a turn of phrase, building drama into the eccentric path of the sentence rather than the conventional plot of a story. Like Mailer and Vonnegut -- indeed, like Roth and Updike -- she leans on autobiographical surrogates that keep her close to what actually happened while she improvises upon it, ruminating it into meaning. "There is a long time in me between knowing and telling," she says, in the story "Debts," to a woman who wants her to tell her grandfather's story.

As Mailer developed his style, Paley created a distinctive female voice -- quirky, humane, tough and tender -- with a cadence that rings in your head after you've stopped reading. Here is how one story, "The Long-Distance Runner," begins: "One day, before or after forty-two, I became a long-distance runner. Though I was stout and in many ways inadequate to this desire, I wanted to go far and fast, not as fast as bicycles and trains, not as far as Taipei, Hingwen, places like that . . . , but round and round the county from the sea side to the bridges, along the old neighborhood streets a couple of times, before old age and renewal ended them and me."

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