Jerusalem Poker - 405pp. Wildwood House. £5.95.
There is an assumption,
among those who read it, that avant-garde fiction makes
greater intellectual demands on its audience. The same
demonstrably unwarranted assumption exists among science-fiction
readers. In both cases this myth of the Happy Few lays
an obviously flattering, unction on the souls not only
of the readers but of the hacks who produce the stuff
as well. Within the garrison of a self-justifying aesthetic
they are immune to hostile criticism. Are Kosinski's
characters wooden, his dialogue banal? He but mirrors
the alienation of the modern spirit and the death of
language. Are Burroughs's cut-ups, opaque and nonsensical?
So is the subconscious mind. Does Ballard's auto-eroticism
fail to ignite your combustion chamber? Then it is all
your own failure to plumb the century's horrid depths.
More and .more the promoters of the avant-garde speak
in the self-referring, slightly dotty accents of Ufo
chic investigators, and Reichean thapists. Often, indeed,
such clap-trap is swallowed (and regurgitated) whole
by the writers of the counter-culture (as the avant-garde's
Junior Chamber of Commerce is known), who sense, no
doubt correctly, that it is along the lunatic fringe
that their likeliest market lies.
the second novel of a projected Jerusalem Quartet by
the American anti-writer Edward Whittemore, should appeal
to the lumpen-intellectual end of the avant-garde spectrum.
(The science-fiction equivalent would be A. E. van Vogt.)
Whittemore's model is Pynchon, but in a Reader's Digest
Condensed Book version with the hard words pruned way,
the syntax simplified, and the prevailing ache of misanthropy
magically transformed to woozy, bromidic bonhomie as
of an ancient stand-up comic making a charity peal.
There is no dishonour or dishonesty in doing this. After
all, why should one audience be catered rather than
another? Under the aspect of eternity all emperors are
naked and all erudition a vain pretence.
That it is possible
actually to admire the book is demonstrated on its back
cover, where an excerpt from a much longer review in
the American Harper's Magazine is quoted to the effect
that Whittemore "assassinates the banal, revealing
the authentic current; of madness that courses through
human affairs, reminding us that the fantastic is ubiquitous,
invisible only because we have shut our eyes to it He
discovers the genuinely mythic in modern history and
repopulates the world of literature with heroes and
villains who are precisely as large as life".
A highly orthodox
litany of avant-garde hype, and a proof of God's benevolence
in so ordering the universe that no matter who you are
or what you look like there will be someone somewhere
who will love you.
The Harper's reviewer
also claims that " Whittemore is more easily compared
with Tolkien. than with any other writers who come to
mind ". I agree that they share a similar genteel
poverty of imagination and that both are lame humorists,
but Whittemore, the modernist, disdains the traditional
crafts of scene-painting and costume design. In consequence
his exotic locations are as particularised as his characters,
of whom each is another chip off the old archetypal
block of infantile omnipotence, super-heroes all.
© Thomas C
Disch - published in the Times Literary Supplement,
1 September 1978