A. S. Byatt is something rare in contemporary literature: a fiercely intellectual writer who nevertheless manages to make her work accessible to readers who are less intellectually inclined. She achieves this more successfully in some of her books than in others: Possession, of course, was her most commercial, and possibly her best, effort.
Babel Tower, the third novel of a planned quartet (the first two are The Virgin in the Garden and Still Life) is as compellingly readable as Possession, though it might perhaps appeal to a rather smaller group of readers. It is an ambitious work that raises any number of interlocking questions, and in telling its ostensible story—the not unusual one of a woman’s search for meaning and wholeness outside of marriage—it engages many of the contradictions of nineteenth and twentieth century literature and philosophy.
It is 1964. Frederica, in her mid to late twenties, has married the wrong man for the wrong reasons. The daughter of a middle-class family of freethinkers, she studied literature at Cambridge and enjoyed a life there of intoxicating intellectual and sexual liberty. But when she is thrown off balance after the shocking death of her sister, she accepts the comfort offered by Nigel Reiver, the attractive scion of a horsey, county family and the sort of upper-class philistine to whom Hardy was referring when he stated that “we Britons hate ideas, and we are going to live up to that privilege of our native country.”
Frederica views her own situation in terms of Forster’s Howards End.
Frederica views her own situation in terms of Forster’s Howards End. She is beglamoured by Margaret Schlegel and, seeing in Nigel and his ancestral house a modern likeness to Mr. Wilcox and Howards End, she follows Margaret’s injunction, “only connect,” and marries Nigel. In her decision she is inspired not only by Forster but by Ursula and Birkin’s ideal of the perfect oneness in Women in Love, “the wonder of existing not as oneself, but in a consummation of my being and her being in a new one, a new paradisal unit regained from the duality.” With the Reivers, as with Forster’s Wilcoxes, the connection is a failure, or rather is insufficient to the very different characters of the protagonists. The intellectual Frederica, a woman whose greatest passion is not sex but thought, is bound to the very physical Nigel who hates and distrusts abstract thought of any kind. Frederica is as trapped as another of Forster’s heroes, Rickey of The Longest Journey: like him, she is exiled from the free society of the mind represented by Cambridge and bound to a chained friend who eventually becomes a jealous foe. As Nigel, personally threatened by the joy Frederica takes in books, resorts first to mental cruelty and then to physical violence, Frederica becomes literally a prisoner at Bran House: Tennyson’s Mariana in the moated grange, guarded by Nigel’s inscrutable sisters and Pippy Mammott, a sinister Mrs. Danvers figure.
It is thus that the young men she had known and loved at Cambridge find her, and like a band of knights they determine to rescue her from these ogres. But the rescue is not so easily effected: Frederica has a small son, and her terror of losing him gives Nigel a psychological advantage over her. Also, like many another woman, she is prone to blame herself rather than her husband for her plight: “it’s all my fault,” is her constant, and infuriating, refrain. But eventually she makes her way to London and takes up the life she might have known had she not met Nigel, doing some odd literary work and teaching literature in night classes. In due course she files for divorce.
Interspersed with this story is a parallel one: a fable, written in slightly archaic language, about an idealistic group of utopians who left Paris after the Terror in order to found a community in the countryside. They settle in La Tour Bruyarde, the ancestral home of their charismatic and brilliant young leader, Culvert. The inhabitants of La Tour Bruyarde speak in the philosophical terms of the early Romantic period, expressing a belief that what is natural is good, and that it is possible to live in perfect freedom and mutual accord. Benign at first, Culvert is apparently based upon the early nineteenth-century French utopian Charles Fourier, who is descibed as “a gentle and eccentric thinker who . . . believed human harmony could be achieved by indulging all human passions and desires.”
But as the community becomes increasingly isolated from the outside world and Culvert pushes his definition of “freedom” to ever new and frightening limits, he comes increasingly to resemble a more sinister contemporary of Fourier’s, the Marquis de Sade, who “asks, if we are free to follow our passions, who can prevent us from following our desire to hurt others, to kill, to rape, to torture? Those are, he says, human passions; they are natural.” Eventually Culvert’s mistress, much like the modern Frederica, is forced to flee her moated grange.
As the novel progresses, the connection between the two stories becomes evident; the historical fable turns out to be a novel called Babbletower which is being written by a provocative and physically repulsive artist’s model of Frederica’s acquaintance, Jude Mason. Frederica recommends Babbletower to the publisher she assists; the novel is published, and promptly, on the wake of the Lady Chatterley trial, prosecuted under the 1959 Obscene Publications Act. The two trials—Frederica’s divorce and Jude’s book trial—are conducted almost simultaneously. Each one distorts the reality of the events and characters it seeks to define through the use of formulaic language, and by interpreting events through the ill-conceived standards of the fearful, philistine culture itself.
As the novel progresses, the connection between the two stories becomes evident.
The relevance of Culvert and his followers to the 1960s Zeitgeist also becomes increasingly evident. Byatt presents the Sixties as a late and violent manifestation of the Romantic ethos, and all the fallacies of that ethos are represented in the goings-on of Swinging London. As we muse on de Sade and his ideas about liberty, we are reminded that when Frederica arrives in London, Marat-Sade is all the rage, “a theatre of blood, of screams, of bodily extremity.” Culvert, like the D. H. Lawrence whose work Frederica examines with her students, “hoped to make the rhythm of the people’s blood hum to the rhythm of the turning earth and light the fire of the new Sun in all their hearts.” William Blake, the author of the phrase “Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires,” haunts the conscious and subconscious lives of the London characters. And a charismatic minister, Gideon Farrar, has founded a religious order called the Children of Joy whose strange sexual ceremonies mirror those of Culvert’s group.
A subplot involves a government commission looking into possible educational reforms, a major topic of debate during the Sixties, when educators sought to make learning more fun and “relevant” by increasing the pupil’s individual freedom. The commission visits various experimental “open classrooms” and reflects on the nature of learning. Though open classrooms seem to have been the order of the day—as they continue to be some thirty years later— various characters in Babel Tower, clearly reflecting Byatt’s own views, are not persuaded. “Rules facilitate,” says one. “Rules create order, and without order is no creativity. . . . There is a pleasure in learning ordered rules which seems now to be despised.” Another work of art to which Babel Tower obliquely refers is Lord of the Flies.
But originality at all costs, creativity ex nihilo, is the fashion; the art students of Frederica’s acquaintance resist learning about Giotto or Titian, for fear the masters should prove too influential and stand in the way of pure inspiration. Another trend which became prevalent in the Sixties, that of seeing teaching as a kind of therapy, is fiercely resisted by Frederica, who “retorts that she is not a therapist, and her students are not sick. They are intelligent people, who need to think hard and deep, and don’t get the opportunity.”
Byatt raises a seemingly infinite number of questions: about language and thought, freedom and captivity, the condition of women and the various reasons for it, Romanticism and its follies. The novel answers very few of these questions, which makes it all the more compelling. Life is composed of a series of complex and reverberating choices; we can choose our bonds, our chained friends or jealous foes, or we can, conceivably, be free.
The hype that has attended the publication of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, and the rave reviews that have poured in right on cue are, on the whole, unjustified. No kidding, you will say; no one short of a new Melville or Twain should merit the kind of oohing and aahing that has gone on in the pages of New York magazine and The New York Times, among other publications. Nevertheless, Wallace is extremely gifted and might indeed qualify as the definitive Generation X writer, though not everyone will take that to be an accolade. The New York Times Magazine has called Wallace the Nineties version of Jay McInerney. I suppose that this is their idea of a compliment: after all, McInerney got to be rich and famous. But McInerney’s fame was the product of gimmicky writing and dedicated party-going. Wallace’s sudden renown is based on a very real talent and the kind of magical ear that few writers even come close to. An example: one man approaches another after an AA meeting. “Good to hear you, I could really I. D. with that bottom you were sharing about, the isolating, the can’t and can’t, it’s the greenest I’ve felt in months, hearing you.” At another AA meeting, when a preppy guy demurs from giving a ceremonial hug to Roy, a scary-looking black man, claiming that he’s “simply uncomfortable with the whole idea of hugging,” Roy goes into a fit:
“You think I fucking like to go around hug on folks? You think any of us like this shit? We fucking do what they tell us. They tell us Hugs Not Drugs in here. We done motherfucking surrendered our wills in here,” Roy said. “You little faggot,” Roy added. . . . “I done had to give four hugs my first night here and then I gone ran in the fucking can and fucking puked. Puked,” he said. “Not comfortable? Who the fuck are you? Don’t even try and tell me I’m coming over feeling comfortable about trying to hug on your James-River-Traders-wearing-Calvin-Klein-aftershave-smelling-goofy-ass motherfucking ass.”
Infinite Jest has many such golden moments, but it is hard and occasionally painful to dredge through all the nonessential verbiage to get to them: the book is an unholy 1,079 pages long. That seems, in fact, to be the novel’s one truly unforgettable feature, its defining characteristic. The general reader who has heard of Infinite Jest might not remember much about it, but he always remembers that it is enormous.
This is not the Renaissance, where books such as The Decameron (in Penguin, 833 pages) or Don Quixote (1,050 pages in a Signet edition) were not out of line within their culture. Nor is it the nineteenth century, when novels such as The Pickwick Papers (863 pages, Signet) appeared in serial form and were read over a period of many months. It is America, some decades after the Hemingway revolution. Why then might a novelist decide to create a work of such length? I can think of four reasons: (1) he has so enormously much to say on his subject that any length is justified; (2) he is not skillful enough to control his prose; (3) he is mentally unbalanced; (4) he is making a bid for attention.
In Wallace’s case, the first proposition is nonsense: his subject, addiction in its many manifestations, is unquestionably interesting but for every arresting insight or observation the reader must slog through scores —no, hundreds—of paralyzingly boring pages about the mechanics of drug taking or tennis drills (and I am a tennis fan; I weep for the reader who is not). At his worst Wallace writes a sticky and opaque prose:
. . . which balcony means that even the worst latex slip-and-slide off the steeply curved cerebrum’s edge would mean a fall of only a few meters to the broad butylene platform, from which a venous-blue emergency ladder can be detached and lowered to extend down past the superior temporal gyrus and Pons and abducent to hook up with the polyurethane basilar-stem artery and allow a safe shimmy down to the good old oblongata just outside the rubberized meantus at ground zero.
And that is only the last quarter of the sentence! About halfway through Infinite Jest, I found myself suffering from the same symptoms—blazing migraine, exhaustion, and depression—that assailed the hapless readers of the high-art novel in Martin Amis’s The Information, making me think Amis a rather more perceptive writer than I had previously believed him to be.
To go back to the four propositions above, the second is doubtful; it is hard to believe that a writer as clearly intelligent as Wallace is incapable of controlling and shaping a novel. The third is a distinct possibility: Wallace has, in any case, admitted to having undergone serious problems with depression and addiction (the drug-obsessed characters and detailed scenes at AA were clearly based on reality) and one might reasonably make a connection between addiction to substances and a perverse addiction to writing; perhaps Wallace was simply incapable of dragging himself away from his word processor.
When it comes to the terrors and compulsions of addiction, Wallace can write masterfully.
When it comes to the terrors and compulsions of addiction, Wallace can write masterfully. Not everyone will buy his vision of addiction as a metaphor for American society—that might be a theory with which only addicts can feelingly concur—but it is undeniable that addiction is a hot subject in today’s world, and once you think in terms of addiction almost everything seems—spuriously, I believe—to be explainable in terms of it. Most of the characters in Infinite Jest have one self-destructive habit or another, be it alcohol, crack cocaine, marijuana (yes, it does seem that marijuana can hook you as surely as heroin), sex, success, or entertainment: the compulsion to be entertained is an addiction in its own right, and a lengthy and excruciatingly boring subplot is concerned with a subversive attack upon the United States (by Canadian separatists, of all things) effected through the introduction of a film that is a distillation of “orgasm, religious enlightenment, ecstatic drugs, shiatsu, a crackling fire on a winter night—the sum of all possible pleasures refined into pure current and deliverable at the flip of a hand-held lever.” This movie is so entertaining that anyone who watches it will remain helplessly glued to it, a lotus-eater without will or desire.
Wallace’s descriptions of the testifying that goes on at AA meetings are so riveting that it is easy to see why, in the last decade, these get-togethers have become the entertainment of choice for leisured nonalchoholics in places like Los Angeles. These tales do not simply provide voyeuristic satisfaction, they describe every extreme of human behavior: far from simply showing how degraded human life can be, they also show the heights to which courage and heroism can attain. In a society in which the oral tradition and even live theater are practically dead, such narratives represent one of the few remaining examples of genuine public storytelling, far more honest and less theatricalized than the TV talk shows. In this arena, Infinite Jest has the shock power of Miss Lonelyhearts, and it also provides the kind of fascinating material that was to be found in Edie, or in a less distinguished example of nonfiction narrative, Julia Phillips’s You’ll Never Eat Lunch in this Town Again: the simple wonder of how much abuse a body can take before it gives up the ghost, the amazement that the instinct for self-destruction can take such very bizarre forms.
So why is the book so long? The fourth possibility, that Wallace is simply asking for attention, is the most probable, and the fact that Little, Brown & Company has cheerfully played along would seem to clinch it. If so, the ploy has worked; but I would be curious to know how many of the book’s fervent fans have actually read it, word for word. For myself, life seems too short to squander so many reading hours on something which is only intermittently rewarding. Editor’s note: We wish to call attention to the publication this month of Vital Signs: Essays on American Literature and Criticism by James W. Tuttleton (Ivan R. Dee, $27.50), portions of which first appeared in The New Criterion.
- Babel Tower, by A. S. Byatt; Random House, 640 pages, $25.95. Go back to the text.
- Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace; Little Brown, 1,079 pages, $29.95. Go back to the text.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 14 Number 9, on page 63
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