Wednesday, June 11, 2003

The Devil and Daniel Silverman

I don't keep up with contemporary literary fiction as I used to. But then, I don't keep up with contemporary anything anymore, even in areas of professional as well as personal interest. Even as a former rock critic I gave up on following popular music in the early 90s, just after those great albums by Sting (the first three solos), Paul Simon (Rhythm of the Saints, etc.), Peter Gabriel, Laurie Anderson's "Mr. Heartbreak." The last great singles I can remember were around then, too. For awhile I dutifully followed the music of the artists I'd admired most, from George Harrison and Paul McCartney to Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, James Taylor and the aforementioned. By the mid 90s I didn't recognize half the top ten. By the end of the decade, it was all as foreign to me as the "Wax to Watch" on KQV was to my parents when I was 15.

Ditto for movies. The video store is a violent blaring blur. I don't go to the movie theatre with much enthusiasm anymore. I mostly feel I'm being conned. How many cops (or supercops) and robbers (or supervillains) movies and TV shows am I condemned to watch in this lifetime? Isn't there something else to do drama or comedy about?

Literary fiction is a bit different, though not really. There's the charged fog of hype to deal with. And there's so much of it, so little time left. Part of it I'm sure is that I am not part of any community that has or follows enthusiasms in new novels and writers (for in fact it was always impossible to keep up with everything.) I started my own explorations, first of Latin American writers, then of contemporary American Indian fictions, which was very rewarding. And I'd catch on to a more or less mainstream novelist once in awhile with great enthusiasm. Some of those have waned (David Lodge, for instance) but others have joined a personal pantheon whose new work I try to follow: Pynchon, DeLillo (who I've been reading since his first novel; I think my name's still on a blurb on the paperback of his third), Jim Harrison, Linda Hogan, Leslie Marmon Silko, a few others.

But I'm falling behind even in that. Richard Powers is literally writing novels faster than I can read them. In some ways it's because my horizons broadened: I listened to more classical and jazz and world music, explored directors from all over the world in depth on video, and read classic fictions I'd faked my way through in school. But now it's probably just the sound of the winged chariot, and a general discouragement. What does it matter anymore?

Which is a long way (which is my way) of saying that I probably wouldn't have picked up The Devil and Daniel Silverman (Leapfrog Press) if I hadn't been conducting an email correspondence with the author, Theodore Roszak. All his work that I knew was non-fiction. I vaguely remember seeing one novel, "Pontifex," a long time ago, but I assumed that was the one indulgence a celebrated non-fiction author used to be permitted by publishers in a different age. Turns out this is his fifth novel, and judging by its merits, I've been missing something.

The subtitle/blurb is "A Wickedly Funny Novel about an Outraged Liberal Trapped in a Fundamentalist Bible College." With the novel's title, it doesn't have to add "outraged Jewish Liberal." So in this "high concept" (which is mogolspeak for "obvious cliché") era in which the trailer is the movie, I'm expecting a lot of Jim Carrey fish-out-of-water scenes, although involving a relatively exotic fish. (Insert your own Jewish joke here.)

Well, the only part of this I want to give away is that this novel is a lot better than that. Daniel Silverman (who is gay as well as Jewish and liberal) is a more subtle character, more individualized, who finds himself forced to confront some transcendent issues, even if he'd rather not. Without spoiling the story, I can say I was impressed by how he changes within the main action, which is itself not as predictable as the title and blurb led me to believe.

This is the kind of contemporary novel that should be part of our popular fiction today. It deals conscientiously with important social issues but it's full of humanity and it's very entertaining, with elements of suspense, humor, and---now don't tell your friends this part---intellectual debate.

Sure, there's enough irony and puckish literary allusion for David Lodge fans, maybe even for devotees of Delmore Schwartz. But even the fundamentalist characters have dimension, life and a weird sort of sympathy. The all-too typical bicoastal portrait of the frozen and hearty Midwest, and all those tall, toothy folks who actually say, "you betcha," yields after the first pages to a more nuanced though no less paranoid portrayal. It's just that the paranoia gets more and more justified, even as the characters get more and more human. The exegesis of fundamentalist beliefs is thorough and thoroughly frightening, but Silverman's suppression of hysteria for an anthropological analytical calm is both effective in engaging these doctrines, and funny in a spooky, edgy way, so as readers we may find ourselves freaked by our own suppressed hysteria.

A couple of Roszak's previous novels have been optioned for film and you can see why---even in this era when it's extremely hard to get a good script made, especially if it's about contemporary American reality not involving serial killers, his writing is cinema-sympathetic. And in this novel there's a terrific central scene, that plays awfully well in the cinema of the mind.

Anyway, there should be more novels like this one, and this one should be read. Now I am going to read previous Roszak novels? You betcha.

Wednesday, June 04, 2003

The Manticore

This is a kind of addendum to the previous (that is, the following) essay on Jung. After I'd written it, I watched yet another video on Jung, which I "happened to see" on the return table at the library. Called "Matter of Heart," it might have been the best I've seen so far, though I wouldn't recommend it as a starting point. There's no narration, and there are a lot of interviews with analysts who worked with Jung (out of some 40 hours recorded for the Los Angeles Jung Society) and with their accents (especially Barbara Hannah's English one) it's tough going at times. (The John Adams score is great, though.)

But hearing analysts talk about the process suddenly reminded me of something else that led me to read Jung. It was a novel I read by Robertson Davies, that was largely the account of a Jungian analysis.It's The Manticore, the middle book of the Deptford Trilogy, probably his best known fiction. Davies was at various times a magazine and newspaper editor, scholar and teacher, playwright and screenwriter, essayist and more or less always, a well-regarded novelist. He was born in Canada in 1913 and lived there most of his life; he died in 1995.

He was greatly influenced by Jung, and was president of the Ontario Jung Society. But as far as I can make out, it was all from reading Jung's books and books and articles about Jung. I can't find a reference to him being analyzed in Zurich, as the narrator of The Manticore is. Of course he may have known Jungian analysts, and he seems to know Zurich and environs pretty well. So the irony I suppose is compounded in my case, since I learned about Jungian analysis largely from a writer who hadn't experienced it either.

I suppose I found a used copy of The Manticore and knowing Davies name, acquired it, because I read it before either the book that precedes it or the one that follows it in the trilogy, which is somewhat (though not completely) sequential. (I now have all three in a single King Penguin paperback edition.) I know I read it in Greensburg, which means it was before 1988, and probably after 1984.

I've just re-read it, for the third time. Clearly I was fascinated the first two times by the illustrations and descriptions of Jungian concepts, such as the shadow, projection and the Anima. So fascinated in fact that I largely forgot the plot. The three novels unravel the multiple mysteries and delve into several characters involved in a violent death, which may be a murder or a suicide (until the final pages seems to clear it up.) Though the story is serpentine, the diction and structure of these novels are pretty straightforward, so they are the kind of novels that hook readers: nice and somewhat spooky summer reading, perhaps, with the additional benefit of absorbing Jungian archetypes.

In The Manticore, both the character being analyzed (the son of the very wealthy murdered man) and the analyst (a woman roughly his age) are very believable. Analysis, as Davies knew, has its own plot which in outline is usually repeated in the course of an analysis. So there is something of a built-in structure and of course the built-in drama of what the analyst describes, which bears directly on the death and on the major characters of the other volumes. It's also a good dramatic device for largely first person narration.

Since Jungian analysis differs from the Freudian particularly in not being so fixated on either early childhood or sex, more biographical material is naturally presented. Jungian analysis also offers the person analyzed some conceptual tools to use, which in this case are also tools for readers to try to "figure out" the mystery. The Jungian use of archetypes and myth, and Jung's profound interest in alchemy as a psychological system (rather than the profane and reductionistic image of it as superstitious unscientific fools trying to turn lead into gold) also play into Davies mood of the uncanny and occasionally the grotesque. (He's also written ghost stories.) And after all, one of the major characters in this trilogy is a famous magician.

But to return to my first concern, I find that The Manticore still provides some of the best brief descriptions of Jungian concepts such as the shadow and the Anima, and how they work in real life. The narrator's initial resistance is often the reader's, though the narrator brings more obvious baggage unique to this character. He's a famous lawyer, and prides himself on being very rational. While Jungian psychology challenges some of his assumptions, his training in the law helps him accept others. His most important teacher of the law, for example, warned him about witnesses or clients whose view of the world "is absolutely clear because they cannot understand that our personal point of view colours what we perceive; they think everything seems exactly the same to everyone as it does to themselves. After all, they say, the world is utterly objective; it is plain before our eyes; therefore what the ordinary intelligent man (this is always themselves) sees is all there is to be seen, and anyone who sees differently is mad, or malign, or just plain stupid."

Knowing the error of this is also a novelist's wisdom, of course. But the narrator goes beyond even his mentor's understanding. "I am beginning to recognize the objectivity of the world, while knowing also that because I am who and what I am, I both perceive the world in terms of who and what I am and project onto the world a great deal of who and what I am. If I know this, I ought to be able to escape the stupider kinds of illusion."

"All very fine," he adds. "Not too hard to formulate and accept intellectually. But to know it; to bring it to daily life---that's the problem. And it would be real humility, not just the mock-modesty that generally passes for humility."

The last part of that video, "Matter of the Heart," emphases piece by piece what's at stake these days. Humanity is about to destroy itself and it daily deeply wounds the world without knowing-that is, believing---what it is doing. Yet the skills to know that, to at least begin working on that, are available to all. Someone mentions that Jung said if people stopped projecting the evil they fear that's in themselves on their neighbor, that alone could change the world. The more people who understand these concepts and learn to use these skills, the easier it will be for all to use them, to debate their application but simply to acknowledge that we have to look inside ourselves and our relationship to what's outside, and not just blame others.

These are fundamental skills. That's another word we need to take back. There's nothing fundamental about fundamentalism. The fundamentals of baseball are hitting, running and catching. Swinging at the ball with a tireiron is not fundamental, it's crude. Getting everybody on your team to throw the ball into the stands and call it a home run, and getting your umpires to throw everybody out of the park who doesn't agree---well, it just ain't really baseball, is it?

It's time to grow up. Reading the Deptford Trilogy is a pretty good way to start learning these skills. For all you thinking, feeling, sensation and intuitive types alike. Besides, you'll also learn what a Manticore is.