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Critical Review by Anatole Broyard
SOURCE: "Painted into Opposite Corners," in New York Times Book Review, Vol. LXXXII, No. 41, October 9, 1977, p. 14.
In the following review, Broyard compares Unsworth's The Big Day to MacDonald Harris' Yukiko. Though his critical evaluation focuses more on Yukiko, Broyard uses it to illustrate why he finds The Big Day a disappointing follow-up to Mooncranker's Gift.
Yukiko and The Big Day illustrate, all too neatly in my opinion, two contrasting attitudes toward the novel, two unrewarding corners into which quite a few authors have painted themselves. MacDonald Harris writes a dogged, log-ahead prose under the assumption that his story is irresistible enough to grip and hold the reader. Barry Unsworth offers impressive style and technique that overwhelm the thin and rather stale idea behind his novel. Mr. Harris's style, his novelist's equipment, seem to be virtually forgotten in his preoccupation with his subject. His diction is deadpan, and there is hardly a memorable sentence in the book. His tone seems solemnified by the grandeur of what he is attempting. He has no time for frivolity, for bandying words or digressing into the psychological complexities of his characters. He is a bringer of a message, a purveyor of profundity.
Compared to him, Mr. Unsworth strikes me as a literary playboy. He enjoys the run and rhythm of a sentence, the happy impact of a well-chosen word. He has such a consummate talent for getting inside his characters' obsessions, he so blurs the figure-ground boundaries, that his characters spill like wine over the table he has set. It is, however, merely a platter of hors d'oeuvre.
Yukiko concerns four men, three American soldiers and a Japanese-American interpreter, who land on the island of Hokkaido in August of 1945. Their original mission was to deliver Havenmeyer, a commando, and his interpreter Ikeda to the island by submarine so that he might blow up a heavy-water plant. Under ambiguous circumstances, the submarine runs aground on a reef, and Gus, the sub commander, and Angelo, his navigator, are forced ashore with the other two.
Havenmeyer is a caricature, a destructive machine. Ikeda is a shadow, a mere decoder of language. Gus, the narrator, seems to have been hired, as one hires a butler, to bring a wry, humanistic perspective to the proceedings. Against all these predictable elements, Angelo embodies the unpredictable. He is moody, ironic, laconic, mysterious, forever saying things the others fail to understand. This deliberate inscrutibility, one supposes, is meant to create an aura of ominousness, of more-than-meets-the-eye, of suspended tensions.
When Gus asks Angelo whether he deliberately ran the submarine aground, Angelo will not talk about it, even though they have been friends and fellow officers for several years, even though four men were drowned as a result of Angelo's "mistake." It is not "healthy," Angelo says, to dwell on such things. He is not traumatized by the incident; he just does not feel in the mood to discuss it. He is, in other words, a prototype of contemporary fiction.
It may seem that I am laboring the point, but in fact most of the action in the book is of this nature. Mr. Harris is forever retreating into coy obscurity. There is no reason, for example, for Gus and Angelo to accompany Havenmeyer on his suicidal mission. The war is almost over, they point out. Under the circumstances, the mission is not only suicidal, but pointless. Havenmeyer invited them to leave, adding that they are useless anyway—yet they tag along with him, more obedient to the author or the plot than to their own convictions.
Sensei, Havenmeyer's local contact, is a school-teacher. His name, in fact, means teacher. He is an Ainu, one of a tall, pale, hairy, primitive people who are discriminated against by the Japanese. Sensei's behavior is consistently baffling, beginning with his mirrored sunglasses. After speaking of the novels of D. H. Lawrence, which he has puzzled out with a dictionary, Sensei delivers a homily on love, which he follows up, like a true teacher, by presenting to the group an "Air Fairy," a remarkably lifelike rubber doll that they are invited to employ for whatever kind of communion best suits their individual needs.
Why does Sensei introduce this doll? What does it have to do with Havenmeyer's mission, which he is supposed to assist? Is this some sort of psychological test? Is he practicing Ainu voodoo on them? Havenmeyer and Ikeda use the doll, which is named Yukiko, for simple masturbatory purposes. Gus has a vague but more complex attitude toward it. Angelo turns away in disgust.
Sensei consistently refuses to advance the mission or to clarify his position relative to the Americans. Everything he says must be filtered through the stumbling translation of Ikeda, which makes for considerable monotony and causes Sensei to seem even more stilted and removed than he already is. When he takes Gus on a dangerous eight-hour boat trip for the sole purpose of having him photographed in the nude—a preliminary step for the manufacture of a rubber doll in his image—Gus never even asks Sensei why they are doing this.
After a couple of hundred pages of undistinguished conversation and little action, all five characters come to seem like zombies, passive creatures of the author's will, simply waiting for him to put them to work. Now, it has always been my feeling that a good character occasionally overflows the author's intention and appears to speak to us directly. He takes on autonomy and denies that he is only part of someone else's "story." A character who is tranquilized by the author, who is held in thrall to a preordained plot, is nothing but a doll like Yukiko.
At the end of Yukiko, it is not Havenmeyer who blows up the heavy-water plant, but Navy dive bombers. If it is possible for them to do this, why was Havenmeyer sent in the first place? The point I am making is that there is a gratuitous looseness of thinking here that has tended to become an accepted convention. As I see it, one of the functions of a novel is to usher us into the presence of mystery, to frame, reaffirm and perhaps even celebrate certain indissoluble tensions that we all share. But this is not the same as making mysteries out of everything and nothing.
In the name of the social order, the Victorian novel tied up every loose end, but the novel of the 70's, in a belated backlash, seems determined to untie them. Only connect, E. M. Forster said; and now it has become only disconnect. Disorder is our pride. Romanticism has degenerated from the extravagant to the random.
Readers seem to have accepted the situation with a remarkable complacency. The willing suspension of disbelief was never more willing. Familiarity breeds contempt: if a character's behavior does not contradict every expectation, he is the worst sort of conformist. The melancholy result of this fashion is that the true mysteries—love, loneliness, the fear of death, the need for a structure of some kind—are lost in a welter of trendy improvisation, of scare-crows dressed in Samuel Beckett's clothes.
While Mr. Harris attempts to "rivet" us, Mr. Unsworth is content merely to entertain us. Cuthbertson, his protagonist, has founded a bogus school that confers "degrees" on those who cannot get them elsewhere, particularly foreigners who have not mastered English. There is a good deal of talented parody of this last group, and I am reminded of Malcolm Bradbury's witty novel, Eating People Is Wrong, which was written at least 15 years ago. There are echoes of Kingsley Amis's Lucky Jim, too, but faint ones.
The Big Day seems to have a very limited ambition. Most of Mr. Unsworth's considerable talent is expended on the disintegration of Cuthbertson, and while his is a brilliantly rendered decline, it is not enough. Cuthbertson, a rigid character, is undone by such influences as the shifting patterns of light on his highly polished desk, by the odor of hyacinths that an overzealous assistant has concealed in his office, by his attempt to persuade himself that his school is an honest attempt at education, by his emancipated wife's importunities. No one can suggest better than Mr. Unsworth the panicked floundering of a consciousness about to drown in its own elements. Like the rubber doll in Yukiko, The Big Day is a skillfully crafted but lifeless artifact. Cuthbertson has no more personality than Yukiko. He is only a vehicle for a certain kind of exercise.
Mr. Harris's previous novel, The Balloonist, was nominated for the National Book Award in 1976. Mr. Unsworth's last novel, Mooncranker's Gift, was one of the best books I read in 1974. If I were asked to explain why these two authors have not done better here. I would be tempted to answer that the reading public has not sufficiently moved them to exert themselves. A cynic whose name I forget said that people deserve what they inspire. I think that readers certainly do.
This section contains 1,488 words
(approx. 5 pages at 300 words per page)