Roth, Mailer, Bellow Running Out of Gas

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 establish.

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 sinners.

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 years.

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 gives?

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.