Monday, May 09, 2005



This week's New York Times Book Review featured two irresistible items. First: Butch Trucks, the once-and-future drummer for the Allman Brothers Band, kicks Roy Blount Jr. and (the late) Grover Lewis down the stairs for daring to impugn Duane Allman's character. I relished every word of his righteously indignant letter. I was also delighted to discover that he's a Saul Bellow fan, and that he and Dickey Betts enjoyed debating the finer points of Zen Buddhism when they weren't onstage thrashing their way through "Whipping Post." I'm hoping that next week's issue will include a similarly bristling communication from Jai Johanny Johanson.

Second: there was a very interesting piece by Lee Siegel, in which he takes Freud to task for his destructive impact on imaginative literature. Siegel is a smart guy--also the hardest-working critic in show biz, with regular gigs at The Nation, The New Republic, and Slate--and when I met him recently at a party, we had a nice conversation about a book we've both long admired: Eileen Simpson's Remembering Poets. He's certainly right to argue that Freud's "universal paradigm for the human personality" has turned out to be something of a blunt (and parochial) instrument. Yet another part of his argument seems pretty wobbly--the suggestion that Freud's mechanical notions of human behavior have killed off the "idiosyncratic, original inner and outer lives" of the characters we encounter in postwar fiction.

To buttress this argument, he first cites the nouveau roman. It would be charitable to call that a red herring: the nouveau roman is a gimmick, a cul-de-sac currently occupied by Alain Robbe-Grillet and about 19 readers. Siegel's next bit of evidence--the postmodern novel, with its "self-annulling irony, deliberate cartoonishness, montage-like 'cutting'"--is more persuasive. Still, he manages to bash postwar fiction for its puddle-deep characterization without mentioning a single author. And once you consider some actual examples, the thesis begins to fall apart. Does Siegel really believe that, say, Rabbit Angstrom has no psychological depth as a character? How about Nathan Zuckerman (if anything, we know too much about that guy) or Augie March? I mention Updike, Roth, and Bellow deliberately, because they're not flukey exceptions to the rule: they're mainstream postwar novelists, with large audiences and more decorations and medals than Tommy Franks. But there are plenty of other examples. Are Alice Munro, Charles Baxter, Jane Smiley, David Gates, Penelope Fitzgerald, Tobias Wolff, and V.S. Naipaul (a random sample, really) all so in thrall to Freud that they can't create characters with a 3-D, Victorian amplitude? I just don't see it. Blame the Golden Sigi for his zanier conceptions, sure--but not for the Death of Depth, which I maintain is alive and kicking. (For a different take on the same piece, see Maud Newton's post from the other day.)

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