Philip Roth: The Anatomy Lesson; Farrar, Straus & Giroux; 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 mode in 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 ColumbusinI959,Rothhascreatedour imageoftheJewishfamilyintransition. AsRobertPennWarrenhasnoted,the emergence of an identifiably Jewish fictioninthedecadesafterWorldWarII parallels the renaissance in Southern literature a generation earlier. In both cases,atraditionalandinsularsubcul ture was being assimilated into the mainstreamofAmericanlife.Suchan experience often produces the sort of interpersonalconflictandelegiacself consciousness upon which literature thrives. Unfortunately for the ethnic novelist,theagonyofassimilationdoes not go on indefinitely. After a certain point,bothBlancheDuBoisandSophie Portnoy become not so much anach ronismsasclichfs.
TheAnatomyLessonisanintriguingly self-referentialnovelwhichdealsinpart with the mid-life crisis of a notorious Jewishnovelistwhohasrunoutofthings towriteabout.NathanZuckerman(pro tagonist of two earlier Rothnovels,The Ghost Writer  and Zuckerman Unbound [ I981]) is reduced to an almostinfantilelevelofdependencyby an unexplained painwhichrunsthrough his neck and shoulders. Racked with guilt over the death of his parents (his brother contends that their father never recovered from Zuckerman’spublica tion ofCarnovsky-an autobiographical novel about growing up in a repressive Jewish household); addicted to a pain killingcombinationofPercodan,vodka, and marijuana; and bored with a harem of mistresses who serve as surrogate Jewish mothers; Zuckerman is finished asanovelist.
Whether or not Zuckerman’s creator issimilarlyfinishedisanopenquestion; that his relationship to his material has become increasingly attenuated isn’t. BecausenearlyeveryonewhomZucker man encounters fears ending up as a character in a Zuckerman novel, the eventsinTheAnatomyLessonarenot 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 NathanZuckerman(orPhilipRoth?)life is essentially part of the prewriting process.
Inarecentinterview,Rothidentified thethemeoftheZuckermannovelsas “theunreckonedconsequencesofart.” InTheAnatomyLessonZuckermanis “longingtoescapehisart,tobereleased fromtherewards,fromthereadersand from the meaning given to hiswork, from the relentlessself.consciousness and the endless self-mining and the moralparadoxesinherentinthevoca• tion.”Accordingly,Zuckermandecides to abandon his present calling and pursueacareerasaphysician.Already 40 and possessing no aptitude forsci ence,thisambitionismorethanatrifle quixotic.Zuckermanimaginesthatdoc tors are productive citizens who are constantlyintouchwithreality,while writersareparasiticlonerswholiveina worldofneuroticdreams.
The moral pomposity and self-delusionofhisdecisiontotakeupmedicine establishes ironic distance between Zuckermanandhiscreator.(Thenotion thatsuchacareermovewouldprovean antidote to spiritual malaise is hardly original:SaulBellowuseditinHender sontheRainKing,asdidWalkerPercy inTheMoviegoer.)However,theim• pulsewhichdrivesZuckermantosuch extremeactionismeanttobeaccepted atfacevalue.The”unreckonedconse• quences of art” are moral as well as aesthetic. And yet the character of whom Zuckerman is most contempt· uous is the morally righteous literary criticMiltonAppel.
Appel is the prototypical neoconser-vative, 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 challengeshimtodoanOp-Edpieceon behalfoflsrael.ZuckermanfindsAppel tobeaninsufferableprigwhoistryingto atone for his youthful rebellion with senile moral posturing. Unfortunately, Rothfailstodeveloptherichpotentialof theAppel-Zuckermanfeud.Thisfailure reflects a fundamental moral confusion onRoth’spart.Althoughheisnotready to endorse neoconservatism himself, Roth is careful to filter his criticism of Appel through the distorted lens of Zuckerman’s animus. Because Zucker· man and his absurd medical fantasies provide no alternative moral norm, readers are left with the sense that the consequencesofartarenotonlyunreck• onedbutultimatelyunfathomable. Bereft of experiences and observa· tions, the realistic novelist can always turn to history for narrative resources. To do so, however, is to raise the ques· tionofwhyonewouldchoosetowritea historicalnovelasopposedtoastraight forward historical discourse. The an• swer 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 fictionislikelytosayasmuchaboutthe period during which it is written as about the one in which it is set. This is certainly true ofl.ouisAuchincloss’sExit LadyMasham.
Ostensiblythememoirofawoman who rises from obscure origins to become a servant and confidante of QueenAnne,Auchincloss’snovelre· fleetsmanyoftheconcernsofpresent• day America. In the character of his narrator/protagonist Abigail Hill, Au chinclossgivesusawittyandsensitive modern woman who-through the magicoffiction-isallowedtoconsort with the DukeofMarlborough,Jonathan Swift,andAnneStuartherself.Thereis evensomethingofaninchoatefeminist sensibilityinherdescriptionofthelotof women as depicted in Restoration comedy.Shetellsusthat”thefemaleof thespecieshadtwochoicesinthestage worldofCongreve,bothhumiliating:to yield at the altar and become, soon enough,abetrayedspouse,ortoyield withoutsanctionofthealtarandbecome awhore.”
As the friend and agent of Tories seeking to influenee national policy, AbigailhelpstoendabloodyEuropean war.Auchinclossthuspositsanideologi cal conflict between Whig greed and Tory benevolence. The 18th-century liberalism of the Duke of Marlborough results in international war and domes• ticpoverty,whilethenoblesseobligeof Swift,Harley,andSt.Johnbringspeace and a genuine concern for the poor. Auchincloss seems to be arguing for a traditionalist conservatism which is not directlyweddedtolaissez-fairecapiral ism. Those who have followed the recentphilosophicaldebatesoftheright willrecognizethisaswhatGeorgeWill calls”conservatismproperlyunderstood.”
Although Auchincloss lacks Roth’s manic energy, he more than compen·sates with an elegant prose style and coherent world view. The difference between Roth and Auchincloss is the differencebetweenscatologyandirony. To see that this is so, one need only compareanyofZHckerman’sstatements of sexual ennui ith Abigail’s descrip tion of her husband Samuel Masham: “Hispresentindignati0nwasasfeigned ashiserstwhileardor;hehadnopassions at all, only a mild acquisitiveness.” In style as well as setting, Exit Lady Mashamseemsofanotherage.
Whileonehesitatestodrawsweeping conclusions on the basis of only two novels, The Anatomy Lesson and Exit Lady Masham do suggest some of the problems and prospects fucing contem porary American realism. Philip Roth seemstohavegonestalebecausehehas useduphisethnicrootsandhasnonew inspiration to draw upon other than the angstofthesuccessfulwriter.Byfushion ing a historical narrative which can be instructive for our time, Louis Auchin• doss has found a limited solution to the autobiographical dilemma. Seen through the perspective of time, the communal past is often more “real” than the personalpresent.