In a passage that neatly captures both the nature and the problem of what is called "postmodern" fiction, a character in a John Barth story muses:
"Another story about a writer writing a story! Another regressus in infinitum! Who doesn't prefer art that at least overtly imitates something other than its own processes?"
Who indeed? The interesting thing about John L'Heureux is that, from the evidence of The Handmaid of Desire, his fourteenth novel, he does and he doesn't. At least that, presumably, is why, in order to mount an attack on the postmodern novel, he has written . . . a postmodern novel.
When Olga Kaminska, en route to take up a temporary position in the English department of an unnamed West Coast university (L'Heureux has taught at Stanford for many years) advertises to us by a casual remark that she can read the mind of the airline stewardess approaching her, we think: telepathy? science fiction? No, she's a witch! A few pages later, the author tips his hand, and it turns out that Olga, the central character in The Handmaid of Desire, knows what the other characters in the novel are thinking, because she is, in fact, the writer of the novel. Aha! we say, a self-reflexive meditation on the nature of writing -- and our heart sinks in apprehension of a couple of hundred pages of selfreferential prose. Our spirits rise soon enough, however, for what follows is a frothy, convoluted farce which, if less thoroughly engaged than Kingsley Amis's 1954 debut, Lucky Jim, or the best of David Lodge, nonetheless catches and skewers precisely the mad solipsist pretensions of humanities academia on the eve of the millennium.
Olga arrives at the university to find her new colleagues in a high state of sexual and professional confusion. The chairman of the English department, Robbie Richter, is having a literary-theory-induced nervous breakdown, which is interfering in complicated ways with Zachary Kurtz's plans to seize control and re-christen the department the Department of Theory and Discourse. Zachary's obsession with his professional schemes is destroying his marriage to Rosalie, but their new baby looks like it might save their relationship -- until it turns out that what it really looks like is Gil Rudin, Zachary's colleague and Rosalie's sometime lover.
Meanwhile, in the realm of the less strictly heterosexual, Peter Peeks, a Californian-bodied, empty-headed undergraduate ("To me, Foucault is a god. I mean, that's really what he is, a god.") is having a fling with the hopeless " post-postmodern" writer Francis Tortorisi. Jealously spying on them is Maddy Barker, who in turn is lusted after by the lesbian Catholic Chicana-studies expert, Concepcion. In a gloriously topsy-turvy twist, Concepcion becomes uncertain of her sexuality -- "Was she really different from a normal gay woman?" -- but her bid for tenure is nevertheless secured when Eleonora Tuke irrefutably proclaims: "She's a Chicana and a lesbian and a good scholar in a minor field . . . but let us not forget that she is a Chicana and she is a lesbian. How many of us can claim that? Am I right? I'm right."
Beyond hopeless, you might think. But it is this generally ghastly crew of literary lunatics Olga intends to sort out, and sort them out she does, directing her characters out of the careful weighing of probability and motive toward the heavens and hells she believes they have earned for themselves.
L'Heureux has a delightfully light touch with the crazies who have taken over the asylum, from Concepcion and her "cell of postChristian feminists" revising the Catholic Angelus prayer to exclude the verses "all about Jesus and therefore irrelevant," to Eleonora Tuke's endless blather about "video acrostics and virtual poetic reality and sound grids" (not to neglect Moo Rudin, whose new "Dick and Jane" for the children of interracial couples, Dirk and Jahine, has just been rapturously received by the publishers). Underneath the sparkling surface, however, L'Heureux is working away quite seriously at his central theme: What has gone wrong with the teaching and writing of literature, and what can we do to fix it?
As far as the first question goes, L'Heureux is quite clear that it is a moral as well as an imaginative failure that has brought us to this unpretty pass, in which all concerned with the business of literature play intellectual games on the sidelines, refusing to step into the arena in which Dickens and Tolstoy struggled -- and conceal that refusal behind a claim that the arena does not really exist, that the power of fiction to illuminate human nature is an illusion.
As for the second question, L'Heureux is also clear that a straightforward return to a traditional understanding of literary practice can save us. Thus the salvation of Robbie Richter (the crazy department chairman) from his theory-induced madness, through the steady diet of good fiction Olga brings to his hospital bed concealed in the wrappers of Foucault's History of Sexuality. Thus, too, the set of lectures delivered by Olga, who takes over Robbie's course "The Problem of Evil: Hitler, Stalin, the Holocaust, and Ecology" (!) and devotes it to the steady subversion of postmodern insight through a traditional exposition of St. Thomas Aquinas. Seasoned observers of the academic scene will smile grimly over the confusions of Olga's students:
"It's the environment," some of them said, "She's anti-pollution." Others felt she wanted people to take responsibility for moral discrimination, whatever that was supposed to mean. But there were others . . . who decided that her lectures implied the existence of an absolute standard of right and wrong, which they found disturbing. Absolutes, by definition, were not democratic. They were not multicultural. They were unfair.
Over the course of the term, attendance drops off precipitously, but Olga's concern has never really been with the students. With the faculty she is a complete success, parceling out destinies in judicious accordance with her characters' desires and deserts and, by the way, acting out for us, with her quiet hours sitting at home and her episodes of writer's block, L'Heureux's idea of the responsible writer at work.
It would be nice if one could simply celebrate L'Heureux's romp through the groves of academe and leave it at that. But the book mounts a serious argument about the nature and possibilities of fiction and invites therefore a serious response. And here we come upon some difficulties. First, insofar as L'Heureux's central theoretical point is surely that fiction is a moral art, it is troubling that some of the least attractive characters in the book are arbitrarily appointed to good ends. We understand entirely when Zachary Kurtz's crass career ambitions lead him to lose his wife and child and then to a rageinduced heart attack. But why -- to take just one example -- should he lose them to Gil Rudin, adulterer and sex-and-money-obsessed Hollywood mogul turned literary charlatan? We are not talking here about the doling out of good and bad destinies in accordance with some pious program. The central insight of the long history of the novel is that, in the absence of fire and flood and other apocalyptic events, character is destiny -- and there seems to be no obvious relation between Gil's endlessly insulting crassness and the successful new marriage to Rosalie in which he waltzes off into the sunset.
Second, it is by no means clear that a simple return to traditional ways of thinking about literature will lead to any golden age of fiction and literary criticism. Something has happened (call it modernism, call it what you will) that seems to have made the emergence of a new Dickens or Tolstoy unlikely:
While most postmodern work is indeed perfect trash, we have not had T. S. Eliot and Joyce and Faulkner for nothing, and it would have been nice to have some sense from L'Heureux of a way forward that is not simply a way back.
Finally, and perhaps inevitably, the many postmodern passages in which L'Heureux, through Olga, meditates on the nature of writing are as fatal to the magical trance into which fiction can put the willing reader as they are in any of the postmodern productions L'Heureux mocks.
That these problems jar in so essentially lighthearted a production -- that we care enough about them -- is itself testimony to L'Heureux's achievement. But if a return to the powerful fiction whose absence L'Heureux so much laments requires only that writers put aside intellectual games and meditate honestly on character in action, one is tempted to ask why he did not simply do so himself.
Saul Rosenberg is associate editor of Commentary.