EDWARD WHITTEMORE, 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.

Jerusalem Poker, 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


©Anne Sydenham 2001-2016