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To touch on his sore spots about current fiction and "the storytelling of everyday life," Baxter often opens with overtly mundane scenes, such as funeral eulogies, gossipy parties, or the Disney movie Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, before moving on to sometimes slender fictional parallels. A Dow Chemical flack's actual description of the physical side effects of a chemical spill as a "vomiting-type thing" aptly starts off an appreciative essay on Donald Barthelme's humorously fractured and irrational portrayals of the modern world. But more often, Baxter crankily stretches his conceits without producing much tension: Observations about Jimmy Swaggart's resemblance to an abusive father appear in a study of melodrama; and in an exploration of the cults of victimhood and deniability, he cites such disparate examples as Jane Smiley's novel A Thousand Acres and the memoirs of Richard Nixon ("the greatest influence on American fiction for the last twenty years"). His complaints seem to be less with bad writing than with "the postmodern impatient, middle-class Puritan" (whoever that may be) and American culture's expectations of revelations, action, and moralized "human clichés" in contemporary fiction. His generalized social commentary aside, Baxter's aesthetic criticism has some modest insights (e.g., the recurrence of gum-chewing in Lolita). Typically, though, it's pedestrian, and occasionally it's self-serving. When he tries to get additional mileage out of such canonical standards as The Great Gatsby or The Death of Ivan Ilyich, there is little that seems fresh or startling.
Much as he tries to challenge conventional taste, Baxter often gets stuck halfway between his idiosyncratic aesthetics and his narrative dislikes.
“The most pleasurable and instructive book on the craft since John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction.” —City Pages
“Baxter displays his characteristic wit and intelligence as he muses about the influence of culture and politics on the art of storytelling.” —Ploughshares
|Dysfunctional Narratives, or: "Mistakes Were Made"||1|
|Talking Forks: Fiction and the Inner Life of Objects||79|
|Maps and Legends of Hell: Notes on Melodrama||161|
|The Donald Barthelme Blues||197|
Lately I've been possessed of a singularly unhappy idea: The greatest influence on American fiction for the last twenty years may have been the author of RN [Richard Nixon], not in the writing but in the public character. He is the inventor, for our purposes and for our time, of the concept of deniability. Deniability is the almost complete disavowal of intention in relation to bad consequences. A made-up word, it reeks of the landfill-scented landscape of lawyers and litigation and high school. Following Richard Nixon in influence on recent fiction would be two runners-up, Ronald Reagan and George Bush. Their administrations put the passive voice, politically, on the rhetorical map. In their efforts to attain deniability on the arms-for-hostages deal with Iran, their administrations managed to achieve considerable notoriety for self-righteousness, public befuddlement about facts, forgetfulness under oath, and constant disavowals of political error and criminality, culminating in the quasi-confessional passive-voice-mode sentence, "Mistakes were made."
Contrast this with Robert E. Lee's statement the third day after the battle of Gettysburg and the calamity of Pickett's Charge: "All this has been my fault," Lee said. "I asked more of men than should have been asked of them."
Lee's sentences have a slightly antique ring. People just don't say such things anymore.
What difference does it make to writers of stories if public figures are denying their responsibility for their own actions? So what if they are, in effect, refusing to tell their own stories accurately? So what if the President of the United States is making himself out to be, of all things, a victim? Well, to make an obvious point, they create a climate in which social narratives are designed to be deliberately incoherent and misleading. Such narratives humiliate the act of storytelling. You can argue that only a coherent narrative can manage to explain public events, and you can reconstruct a story if someone says, "I made a mistake," or "We did that." You can't reconstruct a story - you can't even know what the story is- if everyone is saying, "Mistakes were made." Who made them? Everybody made them and no one did, and it's history anyway, so let's forget about it. Every story is a history, however, and when there is no comprehensible story, there is no history. The past, under these circumstances, becomes an unreadable mess. When we hear words like "deniability," we are in the presence of narrative dysfunction, a phrase employed by the poet C. K. Williams to describe the process by which we lose track of the story of ourselves, the story that tells us who we are supposed to be and how we are supposed to act.
The spiritual godfather of the contemporary disavowal movement, the author of RN, set the tenor for the times and reflected the times as well in his lifelong denial of responsibility for the Watergate break-in and cover-up. He has claimed that misjudgments were made, although not necessarily by him. Mistakes were made, although they were by no means his own, and the crimes that were committed were only crimes if you define "crime" in a certain way, in the way, for example, that his enemies like to define the word, in a manner that would be unfavorable to him, that would give him, to use a word derived from the Latin, some culpability. It wasn't the law, he claimed. It was all just politics.
Excerpted from Burning Down the House by Charles Baxter Copyright © 1997 by Charles Baxter. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted September 29, 2009
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