By Evan S. Connell
In the introduction to his cacophonous masterpiece U.S.A., John Dos Passos hints at some of the disparate themes invoked by the three letters of his title:
“But mostly,” Dos Passos concludes, “U.S.A. is the speech of the people.” The statement, born out in the remarkable 1,500 pages that follow, can be taken two ways. First, of course, it alerts us to the different modes of speaking that will be on display. Dos Passos ranges the diapason of American speech in U.S.A., from the Ivy League poets affecting the long “a” to the Wobblies exclaiming “By gum!” and insulting the “burjwa.” Speech is descriptive, like clothing or furniture, and Dos Passos could use it to etch a scene as indelibly as Edith Wharton could with a low-cut gown or Gustave Flaubert could with a garishly decorated bedroom. Speech also has a deeper, less specifiable significance in fiction for the simple reason that the sole material available to a writer is the word. Words are a wonderful, infinitely pliable material, certainly, but still they seem cumbrously artificial things with which to delineate the contours of a person, or even more to express that person’s noblest and basest traits (painting and music seem somehow more natural forms for the task). As Ursula K. Le Guin put it, “The novelist says in words what cannot be said in words.” And because he has only words, the writer attempting to reveal a person must turn to speech. Speech is the outward appearance of thought; it is character incarnate.
The two roles of speech are highly complementary. A writer uses the habits of speaking to emphasize individuality: accents, intonations, vocabulary, vocal tics—a nearly depthless well of mannerisms can be drawn from to fasten a character to a time and place, and to shrewdly endow him with the blemishes of reality. At the same time, the purpose of unspoken speech is to suggest a character’s universality, the desires and fears he holds that surpass circumstance and wrap the future back upon the past to form an unbroken circle of human experience. In Evan S. Connell’s 1969 novel Mr. Bridge, the pendant to his 1959 breakthrough Mrs. Bridge, the wealthy, middle-aged, middle-American, middlebrow lawyer Walter Bridge is goaded by an impudent friend into a rare fit of pique:
“Since I amuse you,” said Mr. Bridge, “go ahead. Gamble at cards or on horses or anything else. Behave as you please. Far be it from me to lay down the law for other men. As far as gambling is concerned, I feel under no compulsion to shut down the card games and racetracks and the rest of it. Free enterprise, even for such borderline industries, is one of the cornerstones of this country, and it appears to me that a degree of license is advisable. A man ought to do as he wills, so long as he does not infringe upon the rights and liberties of others. However, if you gamble, be prepared to accept the consequences. And I do happen to believe you will lose, should you decide to tempt fate again. Assuming you did win a certain amount on your trip to New Orleans, I say more power to you. But you have entered a fool’s paradise. The law of averages exacts its toll. Whoever gambles is a fool—a fool! Make no mistake about it.”
Much of Mr. Bridge’s life is nailed down in this brief exordium—the painstaking scrupulosity, both moral and verbal (“As far as gambling is concerned, I feel under no compulsion….”), the reliance on clichés to articulate principles (“accept the consequences,” “tempt fate,” “fool’s paradise”), the fundamental, almost sacramental conservatism in politics and temperament alike. Mr. Bridge is trapped by the limitations of his era and thus lives on as a relic of the 1930s uppercrust: Republican, anti-Semitic, averse to New Deal reform of any kind, and a stalwart proselytizer of the Gospel of Wealth. But due to these very specific inhibitions, which dictate the cramped boundaries of his personality, a timelessly recognizable character emerges. Here is a man to whom dignity and propriety are of higher value than feelings, who considers himself too urbane to ever experience joy or heartbreak, for whom good things are “satisfactory” and bad things are “disagreeable” (the words appear again and again in the novel). In one scene he momentarily tries to understand the inexplicable reticence that prevents him from ever opening up to his family:
He sipped the drink, feeling too tired to eat, wondering why he could not talk to the family about his work. At first when the children were small it was not possible, but now? What was there to say? They had asked, it was true. And whenever they asked, whether the questions were sincere or not, he had answered elliptically, turned the offer into an ironic joke. Why? He knew that he did want to confide in the family. Now they were asking. Why had he rejected the chance? He felt that he was close to understanding; then something intervened like a shade drawn down. After all, they could not possibly care about the testimony of a streetcar conductor involved in a traffic accident on the eighteenth of September of last year. The exchange with Judge Hibler made little sense out of context…. None of this would make sense at the dinner table. They might listen, but it would be a strain. No. No, he thought, as he peered into his glass, there is almost nothing I can say to them. My life is cut in half. The halves remain side by side in perfect equilibrium like halves of a melon. I suppose the same is true of most men. Or are they somehow unlike me? Are they able to share themselves?
Mr. Bridge’s final consolation to these sad thoughts is an affirmation that, whatever his weaknesses, at least he is true to himself: “I cannot live differently than I do. Whatever the reasons for this, good or bad, they exist. Evidently that is enough.” Implicit in Mr. Bridge is Connell’s belief that Walter Bridges always have been and always will be with us, though their particulars alter; indeed, that they are people we know intimately. The disturbing power of Connell’s best character studies derives from the fact that they are not voyeuristic but associative. We see aspects of ourselves in them, no matter how materially different our lives may be. But you have to get the particulars down to get to the essentials.
So that is the key to the unsummarizable diversity of Connell’s books (nineteen of them now upon the publication of a new and selected story compilation Lost in Uttar Pradesh), which travel from 1930s Kansas City to 1960s San Francisco to the Battle of Little Bighorn to 12th-century Jerusalem, to list only a few of the settings in which Connell has immersed himself. Mrs. Bridge is about a sheltered, “dismally bored” housewife who, like the heroine of Chekhov’s “The Darling,” is incapable of holding an opinion that hasn’t been given to her by someone else (her naiveté is brilliantly captured in a scene in Mr. Bridge that has her eating a fortune cookie without knowing to take the slip of paper out of it). Mrs. Bridge bows to the godhead of proper manners, and the understated narration that fleshes her out is filled with the blandly propitiating modifiers “rather,” “quite,” and “a trifle.” She seems a painfully extreme example of a squandered, shallowly-experienced life, but there are not many people who won’t suffer some pang of recognition from, for instance, her rushed impressions at the Louvre, which she had been waiting her whole life to visit and yet somehow blurs into just another vague afternoon:
In the Louvre she immediately recognized the Venus de Milo, even though they happened to approach from the rear, and of course the Mona Lisa was unmistakable; it looked exactly like the reproductions. The tapestries seemed familiar somehow; perhaps it was just that most tapestries looked alike, and most Greek vases, and all mummies.
(Still, Mrs. Bridge decides, “Paris was really altogether different from Kansas City.”)
|The pangs of recognition are often even more stabbing in Connell’s 1966 creation Earl Summerfield, whose journal makes up the precisely-titled novel The Diary of a Rapist. Summerfield is a petty clerk at the State Employment Bureau (“I’m the only one who doesn’t belong here,” he tells himself), who daily dilates upon every frustration, every perceived insult, and every imagined conspiracy against him until his self-absorption mutates into dementia. He is sycophantic with his supervisors, uxorious with his wife, and lazy and banal when alone (“Pfee-Pfaw. Life’s tedious. I’m feeling fagged. What would it be like to live in London? I might enjoy that, also might be more successful there”). His increasingly sadistic rants seem at first a way to pass time. But though Summerfield’s psychosis escalates rapidly (he may also remind readers of the kind of people who go on shooting sprees at schools), the germs of his disease—egocentrism, paranoia, self-pity—are latent in all airstreams:|
I spend too much time looking in the mirror—positive indication of failure. I should learn to Act, worry less about my appearance. I have a good reputation, conscientious, always pleasant, never curl my lip at anybody. Too much so. People think of me as a vegetable, assume I don’t mind the abuse. They think I’m not aware of the hurts, the insults, everything else. But I realize how I’m being treated. Oh yes.
Summerfield is also following newspaper stories of an alleged pedophile and murderer, about whom he writes, “All I’m sure of is that he acted out a familiar wish & that’s enough for the State to kill him.” It’s a hellish, dooming identification, and readers of The Diary of a Rapist is similarly oppressed by the vices, complaints, and self-justifications they share with a monster as Summerfield becomes. The novel is a painful and singular reading experience because it is a mirror that reflects only what is darkest in us.
The proverbial distant mirror is also present in Connell’s more recent work, his historical novels and his famous 1997 biography of General Custer. Of his inspiration to write The Alchymist’s Journal, his 1991 novel told from the viewpoint of the 16th-century Swiss alchemist Paracelsus, Connell has said that “alchemists are somehow related to the twentieth-century physicists, and especially to the people who crafted the Bomb…. Not logically, but viscerally.” Deus Lo Volt!, a fictional chronicle of the Crusades, was published only a year before September 11, and yet sheds more insight on religious fanaticism than contemporary novels directly confronting terrorism and our present wars for civilization. The verisimilitude of Deus Lo Volt! (the title means “God wills it”) is its own reward: not once does the voice of pious medieval chronicler Jean de Joinville slip to allow anachronisms or modern editorials. Yet his earnest and convoluted rationalizations for the Crusades, whose spectacular failure totals nothing more coherent than a traveling carnival of slaughter and avarice, have uncanny resonances to all wars and all religious and sectarian antagonism:
Christians perish for the sake of futurity, Turks for the wickedness of misbelief, since Almighty God who creates and sustains, who makes and destroys, has ordained that at the cost of suffering to Christianity the false light of Islam should be extinguished.
With Custer Connell found perhaps his greatest subject. The reader will already have perceived that the basis of the continuity with which Connell connects the past with the present is not at all gratifying to the reputation of humanity. His characters are all fatally circumscribed by the blinkered views of their eras. None are able to imagine acting other than they do. None are capable of changing, even those who are afforded dim glimpses of the consequences of not changing. Both Mr. Bridge and Earl Summerfield are made to sigh to themselves, “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow”—a hard hand of certainty compels them to their fates. And a hard irony undergirds these books (alloyed at times by tenderness, at times by humor) because we are given a view of the characters’ fates that they never have the wherewithal to see. But it is not a comforting irony, since we are also indicted by it. We too are taking part in our own history whose chronicles our heirs will read with fascination and disgust, and never quite learn from. So Custer, forever galloping headlong into the greatest concentration of Sioux warriors ever assembled, never able to draw up his reins and avoid destruction. Large portions of Son of the Morning Star are devoted to scraping away the accretions of mythology making Custer out to be a martyr or a devil, something either super- or subhuman. We find instead a redoubtable, willful general, supremely confident and supremely vain, who simply could not believe that he could lose to a bunch of Indians, no matter how many they numbered. He is the most memorable of Connell’s characters moving inexorably to their doom, perhaps because he also seems to represent a nation that has time and again charged as heedlessly into folly and devastation.
The stories collected in Lost in Uttar Pradesh are necessarily of a softer species than the full-dress novels. The straitened space allotted to the short story encourages sketches and evocations and a certain open-endedness. The stories are allusive rather than deterministic. Speech has not quite hardened into destiny. Still, speech remains the origin for these creations. Connell writes in his preface, “Stories speak with a thousand voices,” and each of these stories, most of which have no plot and very little action, are predominantly a venue for a character to stand before us and pour out everything he has to say on a whatever is most on his mind.
Most of these stories have been collected before—really, anyone who has read St. Augustine’s Pigeon or The Collected Stories from 1995 can spare themselves the outlay. But Lost in Uttar Pradesh is the best of these collections (and likely the last) because of the crafty arrangement. We are introduced to Muhlbach in “Arcturus” as a stolid husband attempting to keep his household together while his wife succumbs to cancer, and we rejoin him a half-dozen stories later in “St. Augustine’s Pigeon,” where he is a widower on a quixotic search for female companionship. Uncle Gates is a crusty, bigoted retired history professor in “Nan Madol” who returns in the title story slightly more deaf and even more anxious to share the tales of his travels before he takes them to the grave. J.D., the Midwesterner who denied his small-town birthright and gave his life to traveling, is still restive in “The Walls of Ávila,” to the great envy and bitterness of his conventional childhood friends, but has finally decided to come home and settle down in “The Palace of the Moorish Kings.” Proctor Bemis, an obese epicure living in plush country-club retirement, is in his eponymous story shaken to read that the United States had developed a provisional plan to attack Japan with poison gas in World War II; one hundred pages later, in “Election Eve,” he ruins a party with a monumental, fairly discombobulated rant against everyone in the federal government from Joseph McCarthy to Jesse Helms. (Mrs. Proctor Bemis, a Reagan-idolizing Republican, duly receives her own chapter to speak her closed mind.)
Muhlbach, who ultimately starred in an expanded role in The Connosieur from 1974 and Double Honeymoon two years later, is the most fully-rounded of these characters (there are many others I haven’t named), and “St. Augustine’s Pigeon,” along with the splendid picaresque “Hooker,” is the best story here. Like all Connell’s completely realized characters, Muhlbach is trapped in an inevitable fate. He is “reasonably affluent, stuffed with trivial comforts, with a home in the borough, two children, and [his] wife is dead.” Now, suffering through a night of loneliness and lust, he heads to Manhattan to “discover a mistress”:
Exactly what sort of mistress should a man have? The possibilities are infinite. A ballet mouse, agile and quiet and seldom noticed? Or a more heroic piece of goods? One of the great madams, say, regal and unforgettable, with a cold eye and a bank account and scattered parcels of real estate, supporting her amplitude behind black corsets like a formidable girl from faraway provinces. Or an actress dressed up in hats and veils. A society girl?—somebody you could introduce to senators. Well, he thinks, who or what’s waiting for me? My shoes are polished and there’s money in my pocket. Not a great amount, but enough for tonight. I’m ready for adventure. Now, let’s see, where shall I find it?
Obviously, a man this deliberate and pedantic is not going to pick up a girl in Greenwich Village, much less a “great madam,” and he walks into debacles as assured as Custer’s. But Muhlbach is possessed of an imagination and is aware, even as the needs of the flesh lead him astray, of the absurdity of what he’s doing. He must be Connell’s favorite character—he’s one of the few who is in on the joke being played on him—and there is great warmth and sympathy surrounding his humiliation. In fact, Connell is sympathetic to most of the men here (they are almost all men) who so compendiously share their memories and remaining hopes. To Connell, as long as you are still interested in learning and sharing knowledge then the arc of your life will never be completely dictated by your weaknesses. When J.D. decides to get married and settle down in his hometown, his friends are strangely filled with regret, despite the fact that they had been urging this course upon him for years. “Perhaps without realizing it,” the narrator says, “we trusted him to keep our youth.”
There is a sense that Connell’s settings have become increasingly distant and esoteric over the years because exploring deeper and deeper into the recesses of history is the means by which he keeps his youth as a writer. I wrote earlier that the key to his range was his capacity to build characters with refined period details—and this is so, but it is only the artistic key. Such a talent would be wasted were it not for the unflagging curiosity he has of the world, and the tireless study he devotes to learning about it. In the 1990s an interviewer asked Connell a few importunate questions about his psychoanalytic motives as a writer. Connell deflected the questions, saying that he had never read Carl Jung and so couldn’t be answerable to the man’s diagnoses. At the end of the preface to Lost in Uttar Pradesh, Connell writes, “Jung remarked that whoever speaks in primordial images speaks with a thousand voices; he lifts the idea he is seeking to express out of the occasional and transitory into the realm of the ever-enduring.” There is no way to know when Connell first dabbled in Jung, but I like to think it was directly after the interview. It is easy to believe that he heard the name and realized there was yet more uncharted territory he could explore.
Sam Sacks has written books reviews for Pittsburgh Pulp, The Tucson Weekly, The New York Press, The Las Vegas Weekly, Columbia Journal of American Studies, freezerbox.com, thefanzine.com, and The Quarterly Conversation. He lives in New York City.