Philip Roth: The Anatomy Lesson; Farrar, Straus & Grioux; New York.

Louis Auchincloss: Exit Lady Masham; Houghton Mifflin; Boston.

In the opinion of Tom Wolfe, “the introduction of realism into literature… was like the introduction of electricity into machine technology. It was not just another device. It raised the state of the art to a new magnitude.” If Wolfe is correct, then what we have witnessed in recent American fiction is nothingless than a power shortage. The hegemony which realism enjoyed from the time of Mark Twain and William Dean Howells until just after the Second World War has come under assault from a younger gen­eration of writers (“fictionists” as they prefer to call themselves) who find their models in the neo-fabulism of Beckett, Pinter, Kafka, Hesse, and Marquez. Wolfe attributes the rise of neo-fabulism in American fiction to the fact that almost all “serious” writers of the post-war generation are university educated. Divorced from the broad range of experience outside the academy, the younger novelists base their writing not on life but on books. What results are “fictions” which hold a mirror not to nature but to themselves. There can be little question that what Gore Vidal refers to as “American plastic” (which is more commonly known as “post-mod­ernism”) has become the dominant narrative modein graduate programs in creative writing. At the same time, novelists laboring in the old realist tradition are increasingly prone to repetition and self-parody.

Although the decline of realism coincided with the rise of post-mod­ernism, there is probably no direct causal link between the two phenomena. Instead, because the nature of the reading audience itself has changed in the post-war years, realistic fiction is no longer able to serve the same needs that it once did. Historically, the novel was a bourgeois art form which came into being with the rise of the middle class and flourished as a mimetic representa­tion of social reality. In our own time, however, the documentary function of narrative-fiction has been largely taken over by films, television, and feature journalism. To the extent that there is still a market for fiction among the middle class, it is demanding not social realism but fantasy–spy thrillers, horror stories, Harlequin romances, and various forms of pornography.

Without the adulation of either the reading public or the literary taste mak­ers, talented young storytellers have little incentive to write realistic novels. Consequently, the most prominent practitioners of realism are those writers who have been around for years. The tendency toward repetition and self­ parody, then, is at least in part the natural consequence of literary attrition: as they get older, novelists who write from experience and observation often run into difficulty finding new and arresting material. We encounter very different responses to this dilemma in Philip Roth’s The Anatomy Lesson and Louis Auchincloss’s Exit Lady Masham.

Since the publication of Goodbye Columbus in 1959, Roth has created our image of the Jewish family in transition. As Robert Penn Warren has noted, the emergence of an identifiably Jewish fiction in the decades after World War II parallels the renaissance in Southern literature a generation earlier. In both cases,a traditional and insular subcul­ture was being assimilated into the mainstream of American life. Such an experience often produces the sort of interpersonal conflict and elegiac self­-consciousness upon which literature thrives. Unfortunately for the ethnic novelist, the agony of assimilation does not go on indefinitely. After a certain point, both Blanche DuBois and Sophie Portnoy become not so much an achronisms as cliches.

The AnatomLessois an intriguingly self-referential novel which deals in part with the mid-life crisis of a notorious Jewish novelist who has run out of things to write about. Nathan Zuckerman (pro­tagonist of two earlier Roth novels, The Ghost Writer [1979] and Zuckerman Unbound [ 1981]) is reduced to an almost infantile level of dependency by an unexplained pain which runs through his neck and shoulders. Racked with guilt over the death of his parents (his brother contends that their father never recovered from Zuckerman’s publica­tion of Carnovsky–an autobiographical novel about growing up in a repressive Jewish household); addicted to a pain­-killing combination of Percodan, vodka, and marijuana; and bored with a harem of mistresses who serve as surrogate Jewish mothers; Zuckerman is finished as a novelist.

Whether or not Zuckerman’s creator is similarly finished is an open question; that his relationship to his material has become increasingly attenuated isn’t. Because nearly every one whom Zucker­man encounters fears ending up as a character in a Zuckerman novel, the events in The Anatomy Lesson are not only part of Roth’s narrative but also potentially part of a book which his protagonist might write. The result is a kind of metarealism; for a novelist like Nathan Zuckerman (or Philip Roth?) life is essentially part of the prewriting process.

In a recent interview, Roth identified the theme of the Zuckerman novels as “the unreckoned consequences of art.” In The Anatomy Lesson Zuckerman is “longing to escape his art, to be released from the rewards, from the readers and from the meaning given to his work, from the relentless self-consciousness and the endless self-mining and the moral paradoxes inherent in the vocation.” Accordingly, Zuckerman decides to abandon his present calling and pursue a career as a physician. Already 40 and possessing no aptitude for sci­ence, this ambition is more than a trifle quixotic. Zuckerman imagines that doc­tors are productive citizens who are constantly in touch with reality, while writers are parasitic loners who live in a world of neurotic dreams.

The moral pomposity and self-delu­sion of his decision to take up medicine establishes ironic distance between Zuckerman and his creator. (The notion that such a career move would prove an antidote to spiritual malaise is hardly original: Saul Bellow used it in Hender­son the Rain King, as did Walker Percy in The Moviegoer.) However, the impulse which drives Zuckerman to such extreme action is meant to be accepted at face value. The “unreckoned consequences of art” are moral as well as aesthetic. And yet the character of whom Zuckerman is most contemptuous is the morally righteous literary critic Milton Appel.

Appel is the prototypical neoconservative, an old-time Jewish radical who has moved to the right both culturally and politically. Once an admirer of Zuckerman, Appel now accuses his former protege of anti-Semitism and challenges him to do an Op-Ed piece on behalf of Israel. Zuckerman finds Appel to be an insufferable prig who is trying to atone for his youthful rebellion with senile moral posturing. Unfortunately, Roth fails to develop the rich potential of the Appel-Zuckerman feud. This failure reflects a fundamental moral confusion on Roth’s part. Although he is not ready to endorse neoconservatism himself, Roth is careful to filter his criticism of Appel through the distorted lens of Zuckerman’s animus. Because Zuckerman and his absurd medical fantasies provide no alternative moral norm, readers are left with the sense that the consequences of art are not only unreckoned but ultimately unfathomable.

Bereft of experiences and observations, the realistic novelist can always turn to history for narrative resources. To do so, however, is to raise the question of why one would choose to write a historical novel as opposed to a straight­-forward historical discourse. The answer would seem to be that a historical novel is merely a version of the past, whereas more conventional histories must maintain at least the illusion of objectivity. Thus, a work of historical fiction is likely to say as much about the period during which it is written as about the one in which it is set. This is certainly true of Louis Auchincloss’s Exit Lady Masham.

Ostensibly the memoir of a woman who rises from obscure origins to become a servant and confidante of Queen Anne, Auchincloss’s novel reflects many of the concerns of present-day America. In the character of his narrator/protagonist Abigail Hill, Au­chincloss gives us a witty and sensitive modern woman who–through the magic of fiction–is allowed to consort with the Duke of Marlborough, Jonathan Swift, and Anne Stuart herself. There is even something of an inchoate feminist sensibility in her description of the lot of women as depicted in Restoration comedy. She tells us that “the female of the species had two choices in the stage world of Congreve, both humiliating: to yield at the altar and become, soon enough, a betrayed spouse, or to yield without sanction of the altar and become a whore.”

As the friend and agent of Tories seeking to influenee national policy, Abigail helps to end a bloody European war. Auchincloss thus posits an ideologi­cal conflict between Whig greed and Tory benevolence. The 18th-century liberalism of the Duke of Marlborough results in international war and domestic poverty, while the noblesse oblige of Swift, Harley, and St. John brings peace and a genuine concern for the poor. Auchincloss seems to be arguing for a traditionalist conservatism which is not directly wedded to laissez-faire capiral­ism. Those who have followed the recent philosophical debates of the right will recognize this as what George Will calls “conservatism properly understood.”

Although Auchincloss lacks Roth’s manic energy, he more than compensates with an elegant prose style and coherent world view. The difference between Roth and Auchincloss is the difference between scatology and irony. To see that this is so, one need only compare any of Zuckerman’s statements of sexual ennui with Abigail’s descrip­tion of her husband Samuel Masham: “His present indignation was as feigned as his erst while ardor; he had no passions at all, only a mild acquisitiveness.” In style as well as setting, Exit Lady Masham seems of another age.

While one hesitates to draw sweeping conclusions on the basis of only two novels, The Anatomy Lesson and Exit Lady Masham do suggest some of the problems and prospects facing contem­porary American realism. Philip Roth seems to have gone stale because he has used up his ethnic roots and has no new inspiration to draw upon other than the angst of the successful writer. By fushion­ing a historical narrative which can be instructive for our time, Louis Auchincloss has found a limited solution to the autobiographical dilemma. Seen through the perspective of time, the communal past is often more “real” than the personal present.