An Odd Tetralogy
The Empire City.
By Paul Goodman.
Bobbs-Merrill. 621 pp. $6.95.
This tetralogy-plus of novels is a very odd work. Odd not because of its abundant and ingenious fantasy, or the variety of literary genres it includes, or its encyclopedic learning, or the many points of view—Marxist, Freudian, Reichian, Taoist, Buberian, Anarchistic, Aristotelian—it brings to bear on this learning, or the successive metamorphoses of its central characters, or its wealth of unpopular and once-unpopular opinions. It is odd because this surface does not correspond to a similar depth. The often dazzling play of intellect conceals an elegiac emotion. The free inquiring spirit frequently falls into a set of postures and attitudes. The mantle of high-aesthetic literary experiment—and Goodman twitches it often—adorns a practical and moralizing intention. The work’s exuberant surface tends to fix itself in a series of tintypes and so seems illustrative rather than actual. And ultimately, despite a number of beautiful and moving passages, all this richness of material and invention yields a sense of aridity.
The novels are arranged chronologically and oriented about the greater public issues of our times, moving from the Great Depression through World War II to the pax Eisenhowerana and the Great Prosperity. The first of these, The Grand Piano, is, in Goodman’s words, an “almanac of alienation,” where the actions of various “sociological humors” are taken to demonstrate that the following-out of any of the assumptions or attitudes of capitalism must necessarily lead to some dissociation from society (and, therefore, that this economy is itself alienating): Mynheer who lives handsomely on false credit and, as the “Intellect of Man,” plans a radical educational program; the financier Eliphaz who is dedicated to converting all use-value to exchange-value, that is, to abstracting the world; Emily, his daughter, who yearns only for permanent possessions; and Arthur, his son, who, as the ultimate consumer, is also engaged in destroying himself; and finally Lothair, Laura, and Horatio Alger who live on relief and pursue in their several ways their disagreements with society.
The State of Nature, which follows, centers on the war, which is seen as the dissolution of society and the establishment of the state of nature, as the fulfillment, therefore, of the alienating tendencies of The Grand Piano : Eliphaz dies and Arthur is killed in the war; the architect Laura becomes the camoufleur of her own constructions and is deserted by her twin sons, Lefty and Droyt; Lothair sets free the animals of the Central Park Zoo; and evacuated city children ravage the countryside.
The Dead of Spring (subtitled “After a War”) deals with what Goodman calls, after Comte, the “sociolatry,” the condition of the complete bureaucratization of daily life accompanied by the worship of society. Here Laura (otherwise named “the Glancing Day” and “Truth”) commits suicide, Mynheer embarks on a flight out of this world, and the other characters, each maimed in some crucial way, undertake a series of ritual mournings, sacrifices, labors, in the hope of instituting a true community, of producing new life from violence, or with it.
The Holy Terror, finally, is announced as a “Register of Reconciliation”—the surviving characters have prospered with age and grown more satisfied with the state of things. There is a set of “neolithic rituals”—Conversing, Dancing, Eating, Murdering Father are some of the chapter headings—which provide an etiquette of communal life; and Horatio even ventures momentarily outside the little world of what Goodman calls “our friends” and becomes a member of the PTA, a very funny episode, neither flat nor thin.
Unfortunately, there is not the space here to discuss in any kind of detail the permutations of the characters as sociological, psychological, and metaphysical types, or the wealth of interconnections between these, or the little essays, tedious or fascinating, which crop up here and there, or the passages of high comedy or of rare poignancy and beauty (most of them in The Holy Terror, certainly the best of the novels): the final portrait and death of Lothair, the death of Arthur, Mynheer’s parable of the uncarved block, the children’s card game, the often charming urban pastoral romance of Horatio and Rosalind.
“There is no fool like a wise man,” the saying goes, and most of the faults of The Empire City may be laid to this sort of folly, for the work is largely didactic in its intentions, an effort to trace the path of the author’s search for salvation and to instruct the reader in the dilemmas of life, proper communal relations, the nature of freedom, mental health, etc. Goodman’s style is generally schematic and his tone sweetly reasonable; like a big fish below who devours the flashing minnows of the surface, a universal statement rises up to swallow a particular (e.g., “At this suggestion there was a buzz of excitement, for a contest always arouses enthusiasm”). Where the particulars escape they tend to survive, on the one hand, as mere exempla, as instances of a universal proposition or moral maxim, and, on the other hand, as a set of precious objects. The bother here is that Goodman, like a “dull sublunary lover” forever pointing at the physical beauty of his beloved, continually insists on the value of these precious objects, on the truth of his ideas, the excellence of the ways of life he advocates, the significance of certain memories, tags, phrases (the “lordly Hudson” and all that), and on his own patient reasonableness. But this seems to me, finally, not very interesting, and even sentimental (for the sentiment is fixed to an image, is not left freely creative) and self-indulgent. Nor is it greatly to be wondered that the search for salvation should lead to the desert and to the worship of golden calves. At its least intense, this didactic element becomes snobbery and pose. In the sportive Grand Piano, for example, sailor bars are taken to be the antechamber to Heaven; in the more domestic Holy Terror, it is lofts in Hoboken. Here, as elsewhere, one too often feels the elbow of doctrine poking through the threadbare sleeve of the fiction.
Were it not for the abundant fruitfulness of The Holy Terror, one would be tempted to think that the quest for wisdom had dried the springs of life in Goodman, that his satire had turned back on him as it did on the rationalist Gulliver among the Houyhnhnms. But this last novel strongly suggests that, like his mynheer who has fallen in love with “his Only World,” Goodman has given himself to the surfaces and smells of this our only Yahoo-world. The Empire City is no ordinary work, and not the least of its wonders is how it can be so very good and bad at the same time.