"Infinite Jest: Reviews, Articles, and Miscellany"

Roth, Mailer, Bellow Running Out of Gas

by Sven Birkerts

The New York Observer
October 13, 1997

There comes a moment -- it is scored in the evolving grain of things -- when
the balance between a father and son draws up even, holds for an
instant, and then begins its slow tipping in the new direction. I'm
talking about power here. Not physical power, but proprietary, maybe
psychological. That which, however defined, forms the archaic
scaffolding of so many male encounters and exchanges.

The curious thing about this subtle but hugely consequential shift is
how seldom it's negotiated. Usually it just comes about in the complex
course of things. And when it does, the father tends to be the last to
know. Denial is operative, sure, but often the son will feel compelled
to carry on the pretense. He is loyal, wants to be decent; he is also
mindful that one day, it will be his turn.

This whole business -- what might be called the succession question -- has
been on my mind a good deal lately. Not because I'm thinking about my
own father (though God knows I am), but because it suddenly no longer
seems possible to ignore what is happening with our literary fathers.

How to say this? How to be tactful and properly grateful for everything
they have given us -- we have scarcely had time to reckon the gift yet -- but
also how to say what needs saying and preserve one's sense of honor as a
reader and critic. I mean -- out with it! -- that our giants, our
arts -- bemedaled senior male novelists (and this will only deal with
males) are not connecting. Not the way they did. Once they seemed to
shape the very cultural ectoplasm with the force and daring of their
presentations. Their books had, in any publishing season, the status of
events. Now they don't. They have been writing manifestly second-rate
novels in recent years and they are not -- much -- getting called onto the
carpet for it.

I'm talking now about Philip Roth, John Updike, Norman Mailer and, to a
degree, Saul Bellow, though one wouldn't need a shoehorn to get a few
others on to the list. There have been other changes, granted. The
publishing world has been ravaged by corporate greed and has, in recent
years, suffered a deep crisis of confidence. But that can't account for
the books. The latest novels -- "American Pastoral," "Toward the End of Time,"
"The Gospel According to the Son" and "The Actual" -- are weak, makeshift and
gravely disappointing to all who believed that these novelists had a
special line on the truth(s) of late modernity. Not one of the books can
stand in the vicinity of their author's finest work.

Specific failing can, and ought to be, itemized, but not here. Oddly (or
not, depending on how jaundiced is your view of the backstage
machinations of the literary world), with the exception of Mr. Updike's
newest, which has been K.O.'d right at the starting bell, the critical
community has been kind to the grandees. All of us, I suppose, carry the
burden of our gratitude for past performances. Maybe that's why Mr. Roth
could walk his tedious scissors-and-paste job past most of the
gatekeepers; why Mr. Mailer took only a few pokes; why no one quite
dared suggest that Mr. Bellow's latest novella chewed serenely on not
much cud.

But when this body of recent work is viewed alongside the writing of the
younger brothers -- Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, Robert Stone and John
Edgar Wideman, to name several -- the contrast is striking. These authors
seem to be looking at the larger world, assessing the twin claims of
politics and spirit. We feel in their books, certainly in "Mason & Dixon"
and "Underworld," some of the pressure of seriousness that we were once
so sparked by in their elders. But these elders are no longer spinning
the stuff of our times into lasting art. The once-thrilling researches
into the self have proved exhaustible. No less important, they are not
holding themselves to the literary standards they did so much to

The generational perspective is, I realize, slightly misleading. Mr.
Bellow (b. 1915) and Mr. Mailer (b. 1923) broke into print in the mid-
and late-1940's, while Mr. Updike (b. 1932) and Mr. Roth (b. 1933)
arrived in the late 50's. They do all share one big thing: They were all
together on the great ride. They were there when fiction mattered, and
fiction mattered, in part, because they were there. They drove, all
four, like high-finned gas-guzzlers across the unfurling decades. They
siphoned the postwar life-boom right into their novels. Think of the
exuberance, the forward pitch of early Mailer, the spritz of Bellow
circa "The Adventures of Augie March" and "Herzog"; think of Mr. Roth's
flaming portraits of renegade Jews, and Mr. Updike's entitled suburban

On they rode -- and for so long. Through the convulsions of the late 60's,
shedding wives like inhibitions, trying to unscramble generational war
and write the new codes of liberated sexuality. Indeed, much of their
writing was about sex, eros standing as a kind of shorthand for
unhampered living. There was very great wanting in all those early
books. The writers were drawing their material up out of themselves by
the bucketful. The novels were an elevated and electric sort of
navel-gazing, but that was what the period was about. We can't think
back on that liberation period without thinking of them.

They continued -- solid in the 70's, ensconced in the 80's. And still they
fed on the reservoirs of self. Messrs. Updike, Roth and Bellow all
depended on proxy narrators, men of their own age and time-period
weathering society upheaval and experiencing the agony of the gender
wars. Henderson, Herzog, Portnoy, Piet Hanema, Harry Angstrom Only Mr.
Mailer strayed a bit, turned to documentary, Egyptology and
quasi-biographical impersonations. But what astonishing engines under
those hoods! Consider that Mr. Bellow has been publishing books since
1944. Mr. Roth, the youngest of the bunch, has been at it for nearly 40

These writers have each had, in other words, at least two score years to
be rendering the dramas of their lives and times -- first as precocious boy
wonders, then as triumphant alpha males, makers of our postwar
literature, and then-now-as senior eminences. They own a Nobel and more
Pulitzers than you could fit into a henhouse. Is it any mystery that
these novelists might along the way have begun to believe themselves the
elect, the infallibles?

I'm talking about narcissism now, the male variety, with its attendant
exalted belief that one is in some way co-terminous with the world,
steering it with will and desire. The pathology that, in one version at
least, needs over and over to gain the admiring (as in ad mirare: "to
reflect back") love of women, that struts pridefully forth holding
sexuality-the penis-aloft as its talisman.

But the story does not end here with the male eternally rampant. Youth
declines into maturity, maturity sinks toward dreaded old age. The lion
paces a weary circle and lies down. No one would reasonably expect the
artist to carry on in his former style. Opportunities for quiet recusal,
for edging from the race, abound. But -- Mr. Bellow excepted -- these writers
have kept on drilling out roughly a book a year -- each, for as long as
anyone can remember, holding the spotlight on himself by main force.
Surely they are no longer striving to keep the wolf from the door. What

We are back to the question of narcissism -- to the monomaniacal absorption
in self fostered at every turn by a media culture. Narcissism, it would
appear, does not slacken with the years, it only grows. Only there is a
problem. The very thing that made these artists avatars of the
self-seeking liberation culture is now their unmaking. Not because we,
as a culture, have ceased to focus upon ourselves, but because they, as
writers, have fallen victim to the law of diminishing returns. The self,
however grandiose, is finite; the wells do dry up.

There's more. The narcissist is no more immune to time -- to aging and
death -- than anyone else. As my wife, my therapist, formulates it for me:
"Aging is a narcissistic injury." When the narcissist faces the loss of
the self and its reflected glory, he reacts with rage. And indeed,
checking in on some of the works of later years by our masters, we are
overwhelmed by dissonant music from the downside of the artists: Mr.
Bellow's Dean Corde in "The Dean's December" snarling at the underclass;
the cataracting vituperations of Mickey Sabbath in "Sabbath's Theater";
Ben Turnbull in "Toward the End of Time" venting himself in every
direction We see anger at promises not kept, at prerogatives usurped,
and deep bitterness about an America that has betrayed its youthful
innocent promise. But also, with scorching vindictiveness at
times -- especially in Messrs. Updike and Roth -- comes the lashing out at
women. Women, the supposed adoring ones, whose job it was to keep the
illusion of perpetual youth and power intact. Dare we tie this, as Mr.
Updike seems to in his new book, to the failure in age of the sexual
fix? Could the whole business really have been driven by the say-so of
an upstanding phallus? A frightening thought.

Everything I've ventured here is rash and general, but I fear that if I
split too many hairs, the big point will get qualified away. The fact is
that for whatever host of reasons -- cultural, personal/psychological -- our
great seers are not seeing so well, nor crafting as intently as they
once did. To be sure, literature is not a big-tent act anymore, not the
way it was more than 20 years ago, but this is more reason, not less,
for trying to honor the art. The struggle is to stem the tide, to create
again a serious public through prodigious exertions of imagination and
skill. And thinking now of Mr. DeLillo, Mr. Pynchon and others, to turn
the gaze of the reader back upon the larger world.

What frustrates and saddens more than anything is the relinquishing of
care. The books flow forth yearly, whether they need to or not. There is
a sense of haste, of slackness, of the draft deemed sufficient; hanging
over everything we sniff out the cordite whiff of arrogance. Is it that
the times no longer propose faith in a recognizable posterity? Is the
arrogance in fact despair? This is hard to answer. What is clear is that
each of these recent books lacks that core impersonality, that
transpersonal sense of necessity, that will to deeper meaning without
which any effort must be judged ephemeral.

Ephemeral work ultimately holds the idea of art in contempt. Cynical,
desperate, it furthers the erosion of the larger continuity. The
challenge is there for the younger talents: to write in such a way, at
such a level, that our much decorated masters get the idea and either
bestir themselves or gracefully yield to the sons.