A Novel in Verse
by Brad Leithauser
A Few Corrections
by Brad Leithauser
Post Your Opinion
|When Truth Can't Be Found in the Details
by Jerry White
Brad Leithauser's work gives American literary postmodernism a good name, and God knows that's no easy task. I know, I know, postmodernism is famously all things to all people; if modernism was too often a lazy shorthand for "icy and utterly baffling," postmodernism too often seems to stand for "basically meaningless, but kinda cool." That's not what I think is going on in Leithauser's work. When I try to define postmodernism, I generally pull out Jean-Frantois Lyotard's pithy statement that in a postmodern world, "le grand rTcit a perdu sa crTdibilitT" [the "great narrative" has lost its credibility], which can be found in his short book La condition postmoderne (1979). Leithuaser's novel A Few Corrections, and his "novel in verse" Darlington's Fall, provide good examples of productively engaged forms of this kind of scepticism. Both of these works pull us out of the fictional worlds they create and call attention to the "grand story" of rule-bound narrative, all in good postmodern fashion. But that's not all they do. A Few Corrections has lots to say about what an odd culture the American Midwest has, and about the way illusions can, in the end, redeem our shortcomings. Darlington's Fall is quite intimately engaged¨in a way that's similar to Oliver Sacks' Uncle Tungsten¨with the effect that a limited access to "truth", scientific or otherwise, can have on the life of the mind.
The running joke in A Few Corrections' is that each chapter opens with the same obituary for seemingly successful Midwestern businessman, Wesley Sultan. As the novel progresses, hand-scrawled amendations are made on the obituary. By the penultimate chapter thirteen, there's a huge (and rather comical) amount of correction on the tiny little narrative of a man's life. This echoes the growing awareness of the narrator, who we soon learn is Luke Planter, Sultan's son by a marriage unacknowledged in the original obituary. The original obituary covers up far more than it explains; Wesley Sultan, Luke discovers, wasn't good at much except seducing women. Biography, it seems, even the most straightforward and bland sort, is utterly unreliable. The only way to sum up anything is through the use of a seemingly infinite number of qualifications, and the sheer number of these qualifications makes it clear that it's all inadequate anyway. That narrative form has simply lost its credibility.
This is not, of course, all that is going on in the novel. Leithauser's final chapter consists of what seems to be the correct biography, and it has a melancholy but gentle tone to it, even if it does, quite self-consciously, make Wesley sound like a classic example of a man without qualities. "Despite his long and stable career, Wesley might reasonably have been described as a man without a compass. Or perhaps as a restless soul who never went much of anywhere. Although he retained his good looks to the end of his life, evidently he felt too old, on leaving the Company at the age of fifty-nine, to seek out salaried employment elsewhere. He set off on his own, embarking on a number of speculative, poorly researched investments. These predictably came to nothing" (271). It's hard not to feel the emotional engagement on the part of our narrator here, hard to take this final entry as another example of the "jeux de langage" that Lyotard claims defines a postmodern world-view. And consider the book's very last line, which recounts Wesley's survivors: "And also by a son, Luke Planter; formerly of the New York investment firm of Gribben Brothers; now a novelist" (274). Ah ha! I can hear readers say, so this is just another meta-fictional circle! There's no way to figure out if this is all meant as truth and omniscient narration winning out in the end, or if this is just a different novel by Luke Planter.
But that's not how the book reads, and as a result that's not the impact that this last line actually has. Luke's careful attempts to redeem himself through some sort of redemption of someone he barely knew is not exactly the stuff of postmodern irony; it's all actually quite moving. And sure there are moments of intense, circular self-reflexivity. For instance, during a visit to the Kellogg's Cereal museum in Battle Creek, Michigan, Luke recalls how "[w]e wander through the museum, peering at old photographs, old cereal boxes, old black-and-white televisions that have reached that previously only theoretical limit of programming¨free programming: They show only commercials" (213). I know this may sound condescending, an intellectual slumming in the blandness of the Midwest, like Frederic Jameson at the West Edmonton Mall (a place which he has actually visited, by the way). But a bit later, Luke is talking with Sally Admiraal, whom Weseley had "married" while already married to another woman, about how it may seem like Restoration, Michigan is a limited world. "But in the end I can only reply to you, It doesn't feel like an impoverished world. Oh, no: It felt as complete as anywhere on the globe and perhaps that's what being young really is: the gift of taking with you, wherever you go, a sense that the possibilities of the place you're in are infinite" (257). That's quite lovely, in a self-consciously sentimental, touchingly vulnerable way. We are held at a distance in this book not to flatten out the narrative, but to see it and to feel it more clearly.
Something very similar is going on in Leithauser's long poem Darlington's Fall, which chronicles the joy of scientific discovery at the same time that it sometimes strips its own narrative illusion-making bare. The narrative centres around Russel Darlington, a fictional naturalist whose passion for the natural world is unmatched (and which is also evoked by lovely drawings by Mark Leithauser, brother of Brad), but who is possessed of a vague longing for something beyond science, beyond the silent world in which he's immersed. At one point, Leithauser's narrator asserts that "So much in the world is believable / Solely because it's real," a few lines later admitting that "while any invocation / To the Muse is apt, these days, to look too / Quaint to be credible, I'd turn for assistance / To the world's creatures: to cat, dog, sheep, hen, bull; Kangaroo and kinkajou, gnu and kudu" (118). The faith in the real that Leithauser is expressing here is contradictory. This is, after all, essentially a call for attention to the specific over the systematic, and Leithauser crafts the call in terms of the effect of a muse (even if the unlikely candidates for the role are Kangaroos and gnus). But towards the end, we read:
This is Darlington's dream, his widest hope:
No longer just the isolate detail,
The coaxed disclosures of the microscope
And scalpel, forever partial and piecemealÓ
But now at last to sight the res in sum,
Fixing on Life Itself, on Life in Essence ű
The quaint notion of the Tlan vital
Updated, squared with all the latest science:
To reach that more than metaphorical
Cave whence the whole animal kingdom's come
So it turns out that Darlington wants a world beyond metaphor, a world beyond the attention to tiny details or entirely local realities. I like this back-and-forth on the question of local reality, of small detail, because that kind of attention, while a hallmark of postmodernism (whose scepticism towards verifiability leaves only an attention to the local, the immediate), is also central to the idea of scientific verifiability (which, to paraphrase Eisenstein, finds God in the details). This kind of contradiction, though, is far from a being a problem; that kind of contradiction is at the heart of Leithauser's vision. This is a narrative full of longing, both for personal happiness (Darlington is a lonely sort) and for knowledge, and so the impossibility of achieving the pure, transcendent knowledge that he invokes seems part of the book's overall thrust, its lament. It's not that this kind of knowledge is unavailable, exactly, but it sure is elusive; its echo comes in the love of other people whom Darlington pursues. Listen to the quiet despair in this stanza:
He reassembles the bare bones of the tale:
A mother dead in childbirth (leaving her first born, age four);
A father lost to cancer (having initially
Forfeited a portion of his tongue); a wife who,
After divorce, passed from husband to husband (until
Madness claimed her hand for good); a mentor on the floor
(Felled by a stroke). Leaving: one Russel Dar- lington,
Partly crippled, mostly friendless, age forty- three,
A man hopelessly in love with a girl nineteen.
When nothing's to be done, what's a man to do?
Darlington's Fall is, in short, a narrative about not quite getting there, not quite connecting. For a book about scientific discovery, it's full of imagery of confusion, ambiguity, and of being overwhelmed. "Each day the books arrived, or call them bricks, / The building blocks of a short of Babel tower: / All those 'explanations' whose sheer / Profusion ű books on top of books, tier upon tier ű / Threatened to overshadow everything/ They meant to explainÓ." (216). What, then, is Leithauser trying to tell us about knowledge, about the meaning of discovery? It's finally not so different from the kind of discovery that unfolds in A Few Corrections, and that's a kind of discovery that shares a great deal with a postmodern world-view.
I have a feeling that Leithauser would likely bristle at being discussed in these terms (he has, after all, written eloquently for the very conservative review The New Criterion), but I do think that the connection is meaningful, not least because of the way he seems to be redeeming that worldview of ill-repute. Leithauser's characters, when faced with the dissolution of the stories that help them make sense of the world around them, do indeed find themselves alienated. But they also respond through the creation of narrative; one becomes a novelist, the other remains committed (with whatever amount of melancholy) to a scientific vocation. For better or worse, we do find ourselves moving away from the hermeneutic of faith that, in the wake of the Protestant reformation gave birth to the modern understanding of interpretation (biblical, literary, and to a limited extent, scientific), towards a society more defined by a hermeneutic of suspicion, of scepticism. Leithauser is aware of this, but what makes him an important part of American letters is his ability to make us simultaneously see beyond mere doubt or mere clarity.
Jerry White is Assistant Professor of Film Studies at the University of Alberta.