This section contains 1,345 words
(approx. 5 pages at 300 words per page)
Critical Review by Elizabeth Beverly
SOURCE: "Static on the Page," in Commonweal, Vol. 119, April 10, 1992, pp. 26-7.
In the following review, Beverly asserts that Keillor's style is not successful in the novel form in his WLT: A Radio Romance.
On page 12 of Garrison Keillor's mocking and rowdy first novel WLT: A Radio Romance, which tells the story of the rise and fall of a radio "empire" in mid-century Minnesota, "Roy [pays] Leo La Valley $10 to tell a raw one on the 'Noontime Jubilee,' to get a rise out of Ray." Here's the joke: "So Knute told Inga he loved her so much he wanted to buy her a fancy new bed—he said, I want one with that big cloth thing up over it? She said, a canopy! He said, no, that's under the bed and we're going to keep it down there."
The book tempts me as critic to advise simply, "If you like this sort of joke, you'll like the book. Read it." And with that partial recommendation I could dismiss it. But I find Keillor's novel to represent such a troubling failure, one which raises so many fundamental questions not just about the art of writing, but also about the art of reading, that I want to linger with the joke, and the set-up, a little longer. Here we have it all: what is most intriguing, frustrating, tantalizing, and ultimately disheartening about this first novel.
What intrigues me is simple. Our eyes alone cannot get this joke. We must hear it. We know that Keillor, the well-known radio personality, understands this. Does such understanding mean that the novel will innovatively meet the challenge of revealing a primarily aural culture through the medium of print? Does Keillor wish to make a serious statement about competing technologies? Will philosophical or cultural ghosts haunt the novel? Will we be treated to jokes, plot, and thought, all at once?
My frustration originates in Keillor's one genuine technical innovation. He decides to tell the story in countless short sections that resemble nothing so much as segments of mid-century radio programming. Short installments that variously inch forward moment by moment or lurch forward through catastrophe. Train wrecks and bran muffins rate both the same space and the same pacing. These short sections may accommodate Keillor's snappy style, but they seriously hinder his ability to tell a story from the inside. There's not enough room to move, not enough time to fill in background information.
We readers have another problem: the device immediately reveals that we are in the absolute thrall of a petty tyrant of narrative. We know that we'll get what we're given and not a sentence more. Naturally, this truth underlies all fictions, but the greatest fiction writers conceal it, and allow their readers to imagine that they alone conspire and dream with the characters. Most readers never want to wonder just who is running the show. They just want the show to go on, and to include them perfectly.
Keillor's attachment to his device keeps his characters at a distance. There is no room for reflection; their plights simply drive the engine of plot, and resist the serious consideration we would give them were such events to happen in the lives of people who mattered to us. Is this the philosophical point of the novel: that the medium of print entraps as surely as that of radio waves? When finally, in chapter 14, Keillor indulges his philosophical ruminations about the role of radio as oral art, we don't know how to read his meanings. Is this straight parody? Or heartfelt intellectual yearning? Or simply a joke that we should get?
I'm tantalized by what this particular author thinks about this particular story. Garrison Keillor, the clever, appealing guru of folksy contemporary radio, wrote this novel and it concerns the life of radio. We cannot forget the promise inherent in the conjunction of author and subject. Yes, this is an extra-literary yearning, that we might learn something from a master, but even the text swells with the promise. Take the joke on page 12. If we simply tune into the program, we'll hear the joke and either get it or not. The book offers us the real story of what goes on behind the scenes. It suggest that we'll learn something about radio, something about human motivation, something about industry and spirit.
If this is the hope, the reader is bound to be disheartened, for the joke is a mild killer. The joke is a bad joke. I don't mean bad in the sense of "raw," although some readers might find it so. And I don't mean bad in the sense that puns are always bad; we get them and we laugh and then we feel stupid because we got them and wanted to laugh. No, I mean that this is a bad joke because the impulse that gives rise to laughter is a tiny meanness. We laugh at someone else's expense. Poor dumb Knute. A kind man, a loving man, and a man who can't tell a canopy from a piss-pot.
In just the way that the Inga-Knute Joke is a bad joke, so is WLT: A Radio Romance a bad novel. But it doesn't take its own temptation to be bad quite seriously enough. And this puts the reader in an odd position. Reading this book feels a lot like standing in the cloakroom of a Midwestern elementary school before the bell rings while a big guy in your class tells first the one about the fat lady who must use the freight elevator, then the one about the "old lecher named Wendell / Whose cock was indeed monumental …," and then the one about a little boy whose father died in a boiler explosion on a train so that other kids in another school can gather around him and sing "Ashes in the overalls / From one little weiner and two black balls." What is the big guy getting at? Is this humor? Is this cynicism? Oral culture? Folk history? Maybe you laugh, and maybe you don't, but you've got to wonder why the big guy goes on and on. You've got to wonder what you'll say when he's through.
Oddly this book, in its good-natured refusal to embrace its own moral questioning, introduces the notion of sportsmanship into reading. Are you a good sport, finding the book an "endearing" portrait of a moment in America's life, or are you a goody-goody, someone who needs to lighten up? These are not issues that should occupy a reader. It is the author's job to understand his intentions. If he wants his readers to laugh at fat ladies and pity orphans, his writing will invisibly direct them to do so. If he wants them to worry about a culture in which some cruel people laugh at fat ladies, then such a worry will seem like the most sensible one in the world.
I think that Keillor the novelist doesn't know what he wants. He cannot hear what he wants. He is learning to work in a medium which, in this case, has resisted him. This novel is a failed venture, but bespeaks a great hope. Maybe Keillor is embittered, maybe he's lighthearted. In either case, Garrison Keillor can tell remarkable stories; he can drop one-liners and spin out endless yarns. He can make us laugh. Hard. What he needs is practice on the page, not just as a writer, but as a reader.
If he were my friend l'd send him right to the work of Eudora Welty, tell him to listen not with his ears, but with his eyes too. Look at the white space, the shape of paragraphs, the length and roominess of lines. Listen to tempo and cadence and mood. Learn that great fiction may sound harsh or may sound gentle, but it always dignifies its characters and their stories with seriousness, even as it laughs. When stories work on the page, we hear the warm voice of them rising in the print. They are sure and helpful, and invite us to read.
This section contains 1,345 words
(approx. 5 pages at 300 words per page)