There's a day for labor, so why not more books? Neurotic ruminations and worse in the contemporary novel form eclipse class, social and economic issues.

BOOKS: THE ARGUMENT

September 06, 1998|By Speer Morgan | Speer Morgan,Special to the Sun

If people spend a third of their lives working, why aren't ther more serious novels being written that concern work? On the eve of Labor Day, it seems like a pertinent question. An easy answer would be that work can be boring and the last thing someone wants to read about in a novel. But why are there so many memorable contemporary movies that have workplace subjects as well as settings - titles such as "Clockwatchers," "Nine to Five," "Matewan," "Silkwood," "Norma Rae"? And why are such movies coming out all the time - like the new, superb French movie about working conditions in the Paris police department, "L.627?"

There are, in fact, more than a handful of fine novels about working and the lives of working people, but many were published in the 1930s, when writers generally identified with the rising labor movement and the causes of working people.

Jack Conroy's 1933 novel "The Disinherited" followed the working life of Midwestern laborers in the Depression. John Steinbeck's 1936 novel "In Dubious Battle" concerned a labor strike.

Edward Dahlberg, Mike Gold and Tom Kromer dealt with those '' who were at the bottom of the economic heap - new immigrants, people on the fritz who were lucky to hustle an occasional job.

There are, of course, a few such novels from other decades - like Larry Brown's recent novels about Southern blue-collar men or Ellen Glasgow's 1925 novel "Barren Ground," a vigorous, balanced portrait of a rural woman with hard-driving ambition. Such novels, while exotic, were stripped-down paradigms of the traditional novel: realistic stories, reaching downward in the social strata, about characters who are fighting for survival, respect and position.

But in 1922, James Joyce published a work that was to herald a new era in the novel. "Ulysses" concerns the mental experience of three characters in Dublin during a single 24-hour period in 1904. The novel's focus is decidedly away from social and economic reality, as it floats along on an elaborately constructed magic carpet of techniques - a literary compendium of language experiments and burlesqued prose styles.

Its more obscure chapters require a guide to understand. "Ulysses" set the standard for complexity and inwardness, over time becoming the flagship novel for the twentieth century. In its wake, the serious novel's focus changed from social to psychological, from realism to art for its own sake, and the ideal novelist became a daring, eccentric artificer.

John Clellon Holmes described himself and his novel-writing friends in New York in the 1940s and '50s as giving themselves "migraine headaches" trying to stuff their novels with cleverness and irony. Since that time there have been counter-trends in the art novel, but the Modernist spirit still prevails, with its emphasis on ornate style and idiosyncratic "vision" - an unquestioned buzzword in literary criticism which implies that works of art should refract the elaborate mental singularity of the writer.

Unfortunately, this results in many otherwise promising novels growing soggy with neurotic rumination, casual obsessions and recherch self-indulgence - whatever, in short, happens to be on a novelist's mind.

Another effect of the Modernist revolution in fiction is that even the best-remembered novelistic characters of the last 40 years have tended to live outside the realm of economic or social constraint - farther outside it than most of the real people I know, at any rate.

Humbert Humbert of Nabokov's 1958 "Lolita," the young Beats of Jack Kerouac's novels and the frantic whiner Moses Herzog from Saul Bellow's 1961 novel "Herzog": all characters who, in retrospect, seem to rather dully assume the uniform of the

romantic iconoclast, the borderline personality, as if it were the required clothing of a significant American fictional character in the last half of the 20th century.

In recent novels, the fictional handling of class, social and economic issues is desultory in the face of a mass emphasis on psychology.

Characters are less social beings than psychological entities, ruminating about boredom, anxiety, "authenticity," adjustment to the phases of life, domestic issues, sexuality - all real enough. Unmoored from a material reality, however, their stories float increasingly far away from the affairs of real people.

John Updike's body of work is instructive in this regard because some of it seems to contradict the opinion. Updike is an old-fashioned man of letters, accomplished in several genres. His novels and stories are greatly concerned with domestic subjects such as relationships and the dissatisfactions of lust. At his least interesting, the 1968 novel "Couples," for example, Updike has written of the unhappy bedroom cavortings of suburbanites living in some apparent economic utopia.

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