Madison Smartt Bell | Critical Review by Sven Birkerts

This literature criticism consists of approximately 5 pages of analysis & critique of Madison Smartt Bell.
This section contains 1,201 words
(approx. 5 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Review by Sven Birkerts

SOURCE: "Madison Smartt Bell/Debra Spark," in his American Energies: Essays on Fiction, Morrow & Co., 1992, pp. 380-85.

In the excerpt below, Birkerts detects a "moviemaking" quality about Straight Cut, remarking: "I have no problem with that. Entertainment is entertainment. What bothers me is that the idea of literature got mixed in."

On the desk in front of me are two books, 20 Under 30: Best Stories by America's New Young Writers, edited by Debra Spark and Straight Cut, a novel by Madison Smartt Bell. The dust jacket of the latter features a cut-in color photograph of a handsome and brooding young man, and the author's biography begins: "Born in 1957 …" The note on the other book has me reaching for my cane: "Debra Spark was born in 1962 …" No doubt about it, the marketing mind has decided to locate the cutoff line between prodigy and ordinary adulthood at a round three-zero.

This is something new, and a quick retrospective glance will confirm it. Joyce had written Dubliners and most of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man before he was thirty, Lawrence published Sons and Lovers at twenty-eight, and when Hemingway affixed the date—September 21, 1925—to the manuscript of The Sun Also Rises, he was a mere twenty-six. Nobody exclaimed over their precocity, or flashed their numbers at the public. These were adult artists; they had long since put sweet youth behind them.

The changed perception, I'm certain, stems in part from the demographics of what has come to be called a youth culture. But the real explanation goes deeper. Quite simply, it's become extraordinarily difficult for a writer—any writer—to give comprehensive expression to our times. The forces are too various and incalculable. The rate and magnitude of change have outstripped the integrating powers of the psyche. Even older, proven writers are at a loss. The feel of life out there in the present seems to elude their verbal net. With the possible exception of Don DeLillo's White Noise, I can't think of a single recent work that has managed to get a narrative frame around the ambient sensations of the cultural moment. And DeLillo is no beginner. The near impossibility of achieving significant art has raised the threshold—any literary attainment before the age of thirty starts to look remarkable.

Madison Bell touched on some aspects of this malaise in his essay "Less Is Less: The Dwindling American Short Story" in the April issue of Harper's. Although he deplored the "low-key noncommittal presentation" that characterizes the fiction of writers like Ann Beattie, David Leavitt, and Bobbie Ann Mason, Bell did not pay sufficient heed to the conditions that foster it. Against the engulfing insubstantiality, he raised the example of Peter Taylor, "arguably the best American short story writer of all time." But Taylor does not write toward the present, he turns against it; his work is an ongoing time capsule of Southern mores in the forties and fifties. Bell noted this, of course. Nevertheless, it was Taylor he invoked to bolster his final point: "Literature might as well undertake certain responsibilities abandoned by the rest of the entertainment industry." The syllables scarcely chime with conviction.

When I first ran up against that phrase yoking literature to "the rest of the entertainment industry," I assumed that Bell was being deliberately wry. But now, after reading Straight Cut, I realize that my impulse was too charitable. The book is a straightforward middle-brow page-turner that has been dressed up to look like something more: an existential thriller, an investigation of fast-lane morality. Forget the pretense. Starve it for a day, and it will reveal its true shape—a screenplay.

I have no problem with that. Entertainment is entertainment. What bothers me is that the idea of literature has got mixed in. I hear Bell touted in certain circles as a comer, a serious writer. And then he goes public with big diagnostic pronouncements, raises a call for a responsible fiction. When a man takes the time to build his own gallows, we ought at least to do him the courtesy of hanging him.

Straight Cut is actually Bell's third novel. He won the terrifying moniker of "promising" (Cyril Connolly: "Whom the gods would destroy, they first call 'promising'") with The Washington Square Ensemble and Waiting for the End of the World. Both were praised for their energy and their openness to the edges of culture. Both were also criticized for their shapelessness and excess. Bell has evidently taken those reactions to heart—Straight Cut is pure narrative.

The plot begins simply enough. The protagonist, Tracy, who's living in numbed estrangement from his wife, Lauren, gets a call from his old moviemaking and drug-dealing partner, Kevin. Kevin wants him to fly to Rome immediately to edit a film. Tracy is suspicious—he knows just how duplicitous his "friend" can be, and he's being given far too much money up front—but he agrees anyway. Deadlocked souls love a promise of trouble. The project turns out to be small potatoes. Living in a borrowed apartment, Tracy falls into an automaton routine of work and sleep, hiding from everything. Until one day he comes back and finds Lauren in his room and a mysteriously locked briefcase parked by the door. As this is, ultimately, a genre novel, I dare not take away the sole reader incentive by divulging any more. The staples are all there: drugs, sex, guns, stakeouts, smuggling, betrayal, death … And yes, the usual gritty location shots in Brussels and London.

Take away the plot, and the critic has nothing left to bite into. Characterization is nonexistent. Whether this is by design or just a result of hasty execution I can't say. Possibly Bell wanted Tracy to be one of those hard-hurting iceberg narrators—he is given a drinking problem and a penchant for Kierkegaard. But there is an enormous, if superficially subtle, difference between an understated character like Jake Barnes and an undeveloped cutout like Tracy. And without a sense of who Tracy is, you can make nothing of the dark vibrations that he claims to feel for Kevin, or the wavering passion that Lauren seems to elicit.

I go on at this length only because Straight Cut is being sold to us as something that it's not. The back of the jacket features the New Yorker seal of approval: "Every sentence he writes is a joy." And other critics weigh in with phrases like "ennobled vision" and "Between your screams of delight are his overtures with death …" This is just blurbing, I know. But every so often we need to blow the whistle on it—after all, you might be the one tricked into buying the book. Bell's every sentence is not a joy. I open the book blind and find: "In Kevin's entryway I waited five minutes before I could stop shaking. Another drink would have gone down good but I didn't have one handy." The pages are filled with this kind of unshaven prose. Anyone capable of reading Kierkegaard ought to know that good should be well. For that matter any writer who can celebrate Peter Taylor as our living master should be well aware of how the line between literature and the entertainment industry gets drawn.

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This section contains 1,201 words
(approx. 5 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Sven Birkerts
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