Unfunny AmoralistsnGail Godwin: A Mother and TwonDaughters; The Viking Press; NewnYork.nNancy Thayer: Three Women at thenWater’s Edge; Doubleday & Co.; NewnYork.nby Susan Tunneyn”Th Lhe first use of good literature,”nG.K. Chesterton once wrote, “is that itnprevents a man from being merelynmodern. To be merely modern is to condemnnoneself to an ultimate narrowness,njust as to spend one’s last earthly moneynon the newest hat is to condemn oneselfnto the old-fashioned. The road of the ancientncenturies,” he warned, “is strewnnwith dead moderns.” Chesterton’s pointnholds, as iadicated by the fact that mostngreat novelists have closely observed thenfollies of their times. Noticing what isnpeculiar, or ridiculous, requires knowingnwhat is not peculiar—that is, lasting.nThe trick, of course, is to believe in thenlasting and eschew the peculiar. There isnall the difference in the world betweennnoting the latest absurdity in hats andndeciding to wear it.nSatirists have always understood thisndistinction, and 20th-century satiristsnperhaps even better than those of earlierntimes—in the 20th century, satire is thenexaggeration of the modern. An excellentnexample is the work of EvelynnWaugh. In Vile Bodies, for instance,nWaugh lays waste to the Jazz Age by takingnwhat was modern—the partying,ngossiping, carefLiUy frivolous ethos of thenBright Young Things—and making itnthe very center of his characters’ lives. Asna result, the lives they lead are empty andnsometimes tragic. The characters almostnnever reflect on their condition, thoughnonce in a while a glimmer of understanding—andndespair—shines through.n”Masked parties. Savage parties, Victori-nMiss Tunney is a free-lance tvriter.nan panics, Greek parties. Wild West partiesn… dull dances in London and comicndances in Scotland and disgusting dancesnin Paris—all that succession and repetitionnof massed humanity . . . those vilenbodies. …” Waugh knew that a characternwho cannot resist making himself anpart of every fad and folly of his time isnalready a satire. Vile Bodies is full ofnridiculous characters leading ridiculousnlives, and the results are hilarious. Thenresults are also devastating: the charactersnscarcely seem to notice how mined theirnlives are, but the reader recoils in genuinenhorror. And this is precisely the effectnWaugh intended. In short, Waughnfrom the Life of the Liberated Woman isnhere in nauseating excess. Everythingnthat feminists insist will guarantee anwoman a free and happy life is included.nBut here’s the rub. Cate isn’t happy.nPeevish, bad-tempered, self-righteous,njealous, she bickers constantiy with justnabout anyone who happens to benaround. Selfish and self-indulgent, she isnanything but adult, and certainly notnfree. Cate is a prisoner of her own stupidity.nShe has made being modern, beingn”free,” being unattatched, the center ofnher life. As a result she has no center atnall.nIn the hands of a Waugh, Cate prob-n’• ‘.V MiiiliiTiindTwo l>.uiplncis’i> . . . [a| ipiicioii’.. harniDiiioii.s Isook- ant-xpansivfnami im:it;in;iiive it’k’braliiin or.Anifiiian life …”n•Sew York Times Book Reviewn(.•njjios’-iiii; and iltcp.nknew that the proper place for the completelynmodern man is in satire.nGail Godwin seems not to understandnwhat Waugh knew so well. Her ramblingnnovel is the story of Cate, a complete,nand aging, child of the Me Decade. Catenis the consummate Me. She wants onlyntwo things from life: honesty and totalnfreedom to follow her own star. But sincenher only criterion for judging anything isnwhether or not it is good for her, she is incapablenof honestiy evaluating anything,nleast of all her own actions. This self-centerednessnthat allows her to seeonly as farnas her own nose she regards not as indulgence,nbut as intelligence. Cate doesnnot accept responsibility for any of thenmistakes in her life. That, after all, wouldnnot be “fair to herself.” Nor is she responsiblenfor the fiimre, since that is allnup to “the pattern.” But she does collectnhints about the pattern: she regularlynconsults I Ching, and she divorced hernfirst husband after receiving a “message “nfrom a random line in a novel.nEvery platitude, every stock episodennn— Timenably would have been a masterpiece ofnsatire. Unfortunately there is nothing innthis book to suggest that Ms. Godwinnfinds any of this in any way fiitiny. Therenis no wit, no sarcasm, nothing but thenblandest sort of storytelling. Godwinntakes Cate seriously. How very sad this is.nGodwin had an opportunity to do somethingnimportant. She could have been anbest-selling women novelist exposingnmodernity, as it is manifested in the feministnmovement, as a false idol. And shencould have been funny to boot. But Ms.nGodwin seems incapable of drawingnsuch a message from her characters. Justnas Cate will not take responsibility for hernlife, Godwin refuses responsibility fornher characters. She will not judge them,nso the characters are out of her control.nThe problem is that just as one needs anmoral perspective to tell right fromnwrong, one also needs a moral perspectivento tell if something is funny or not.nAnd if the author can’t see what is funnynor tragic about her characters, the readerncertainly won’t either.n^mmmmmmZln]ovcmberl982n