09 February 2016

Thomas Berger’s Who’s Teddy Villanova? as a Barthian post-modernist fiction

Thomas Berger’s Who’s Teddy Villanova? as a Barthian post-modernist fiction

(This is a paper I had presented at the Wednesday Circle of the Professors of Department of Languages and Liberal Arts, University of Magdeburg, Germany, during my stint in 1995-96. I have reworked and rewriten and modified the paper to make it more current. - Oct 2005

Originally presented at the Colloquium on Postmodernism in Literatures in Engish, Department of English, University of Madras, Sept 30 - 1 Oct 1992)

John Barth, in his essay entitled ‘The Literature of Replenishment: Post-modernist Fiction,’ writes:
“My ideal post-modernist author neither merely repudiates nor merely imitates either his twentieth-century Modernist parents or his nineteenth-century pre-modernist grandparents… (he) should hope to reach and delight, …beyond the circle of what (Thomas) Mann used to call the Early Christians: professional devotees of high art.”
Barth further writes, in specific reference to the post-modernist fiction: “The ideal post-modernist novel will somehow rise above the quarrel between realism and irrealism, formalism and “contentism,” pure and committed literature, coterie fiction and junk fiction. Alas for professors of literature, it may not need as much teaching as (James) Joyce’s or (Vladimir) Nabokov’s or (Thomas) Pynchon’s books, or some of my own.” [For the information of new, uninitiated readers, John Barth’s THE SOT-WEED FACTOR is one of the long-standing essentials of past-post-graduate studies!)

At the same time, Barth feels that this ideal work will not be off-handed or too light or frivolous, rather it will be delighting and call for further re-readings.

The writings of the contemporary American novelist, Thomas Berger, well qualify to meet the demands of Barth’s expectations. Berger’s writings have ranged from a mock-epic on the Frontier West and Custer’s Last Stand (Little Big Man), through a work set in the American 30s (The Feud) to Who Is Teddy Villanova? (WITV), a detective pot-boiler, and Nowhere, a novel, the events of which happen in a Utopian Land (deja-vu Samuel Butler’s Erewhon !). He has written (at the time of my seminar) fourteen works of fiction since 1958.

Of all these, his 1977 detective fiction written in the form of a pot-boiler novel, Who is Teddy Villanova? can be termed as a stand-offish attempt among his corpus. Of course, no two works of Berger are similar in context or genre; but his Reinhart Tetralogy deal with the same context, Little Big Man has a sequel and so on…; hence WITV is a very different attempt.

Almost all of his fictional works, much like the entire corpus of the post-modern fiction, have language as the theme, and irony and satire as the technique, even while trying to emphasise the spirit of cultural subversion and anarchy that this movement has come to be reckoned by the critics of literature. Where this particular work differs is in its generic approach. Instead of resorting to the standard and high-priestly approach towards writing (post-modernist and post-structuralist writing in particular), much like the writing of Philip Roth, Donald Barthelme or Thomas Pynchon, (not to mention the encryption-fiction writings of Umberto Eco, paperback Dan Brown and some of the Calvinos), Berger chooses the medium of what is called ‘the popular and kitsch novel’ better known as pot-boiler fiction.

Berger uses this medium to portray his concern for the individual in a world polluted with deception, cunning and disguised realities. According to Prof. Hassan,
“Power and Fraud rule that world, distorting appearances and realities, pressing man to the limits of his sanity, and pressing him on the guilt-ridden role of victim or aggressor. But threats also contain their own answer, and shields may be fashioned of weapons. Man’s response, therefore, is to adopt a stance of knowing craziness, resilient simplicity, or defensive defenselessness.”
Berger’s weapon to combat the cultural and social threat takes the form of language. His hero, Russel Wren, is a former teacher of English from State University New York, turned detective by the quirk of fate. He has “…literary pretensions and a style that Samuel Johnson might have developed had he been born 250 years later in New York…” Throughout the work, he juggles with the art of literary parataxis, as much as Berger interests himself for both verbal arrangement without connective as well as parataxis of ideas.

At the very beginning, this is how Wren introduces himself:
I was an unlicensed private investigator, but I possessed an unlicensed firearm… (pressed upon me once, and then forgotten, by a client who, suspecting his wife had taken a lover, had worked a ruse-suicide attempt that, owing to a hair-trigger had cost him an earlobe)… [A]gainst any arm more formidable than a pen-knife it would be outweaponed; and in New York, defending oneself against attack not only is in heinous violation of innumerable ordinances but might well provoke the frustrated assailant to bring a successful suit for damages.
Any author of a detective novel would introduce its protagonist through hectic action of mind or body, in the process of establishing him a macho-type personality; but not Berger. His craft lies in subverting action into words and demystifying the world of survival. His is an approach of “complicated simplicity”, deriving his lineage from the American literary ancestors in Hawthorne, Faulkner and Melville.

At one juncture of the plot, having gone through some harrowing experiences of adventure and escapades a detective hero normally goes through (and is quintessentially let down if it does not happen!), Wren remarks irritated to Alice Ellish, his girl-friend’s room-mate: “Look! I’ve had an unfortunate day, an unconscious night, and an unprecedented morning…” (p.145). A little later, the following conversation ensues between him and his client-cum-alleged criminal Washburn:
“You won’t get a sou from me, you contemptible cur.” Despite his arch terminology, he appeared authentically grim; … I replied in kind, subtly trying to curry his favor by emulation of idiom.
“I am not the knave you take me for, Sir. The day is not more pure than the depths of my heart.”
But he was not mollified by the famous line, and it is a general pity that Racine, like Goethe, is notoriously banal when Englished. (p.152)
Philip Kuberski feels that there is more to the frontal word play than meets the eye, that the literary language is only an external manifestation of a serious of “signs and symbols of sexual and aggressive repression” that Berger loads upon his protagonist. However, this linguistic display makes Berger’s New York, a symbol by itself for any place of crime on earth. Berger achieves this by overturning or subverting an already perverted world of the contemporary metropolis - in this case New York - which has come to be identified more with ghettos, hoodlums, crimes, fraudulence, punk and coke culture and MTV, and the jetsam and flotsam of a fast-paced society, than with its arts, management and cultural schools and festivals. Berger writes with a black humor reminiscent of Faulkner and Melville and portrays a world that Tom Wolfe does with much more somber inflection in The Bonfire of Vanities. Though, the lack of high-seriousness in no way demeans or dissociates Berger’s work from the mainstream.

The work at hand, without moving out from the track of realism, of portraying what is truthfully, also has its innovative and experimental orientations. The book is replete with strange and weird syntax styles, arch constructions of the Jamesian and Macaulayan type, the essentially hardboiled jargons of detective fiction, the hundred percent commercial jingoisms of American television world, juxtaposing alongside the contemporary and post-modern self-reflexiveness. Consider the following contrasts. First, Wren’s conversation with his secretary Peggy Tumulty. “Fantasy has its uses, Peggy. In dreams begin responsibilities, according to your countryman Yeats” (p.239). Next, his ratiocination during his escape from the Police, with the aid of a Gay Assault Team, “… though I have nothing those professing to the persuasion of Marcel Proust, André Gide, and perhaps even the Great Will himself, I am not myself an invert, having, when it comes to intimacies, an absolute addiction to the other and not the same” (p.124). In short, Berger could have made his character simply state his loyalty towards heterosexuality, with lesser intellectual aspirations that the life of the lay readers treating the work as a regular pot-boiler journeyman fiction were made easy.

Consider further how Berger plays with language and the use of related images. At one point, Wren, the ex-English instructor states, “I could only manage my sweep of reason by assembling a broom straw by straw” (p.235), and a little earlier, when he accuses his girlfriend of cohorting with the villains, he says, “…[J]udging from the feathers of the rest of your flock, you are yourself of criminal plumage” (p.177).

Leonard Michaels finds much reflections of “contemporary literature” in Berger’s work – “hilarious and serious at once,” when he writes:
'Berger’s style, which is one of the great pleasures of the book, is something like S.J.Perelman’s – educated, complicated, graceful, silly, destructive in spirit, and brilliant – and it is also something like Mad Comics – densely, sensuously detailed, unpredictable, packed with gags. Beyond all this, it makes an impression of scholarship…'
For Thomas McClanahan, the work poses a different challenge. Desperate ‘to look through the language for a plot,’ he declares that “The pretentious overwriting becomes trying… when the descriptions do nothing to advance the story.” As far as he is concerned, “Wren’s descriptive rambling [is] a futile attempt to save a lackluster book.” McClanahan is over-reacting, since a conscious post-modern credo is to lose itself in the labyrinth of language and is not critiquing the work within the canons of post-modernism. If one accepts that WITV, like Berger’s other works, is an assay at deconstructing the banality of day today human experience and reconstruct the worldly chaos into a meaningful struggle. Berger does adhere to the idea of societal meliorism. He does not try to vindicate the brutality and violence present around us either. For Berger, existence is inevitable, to be gone through whether it is painful or coke-induced happiness. As Reinhart, the protagonist of the eponymous tetralogy declares: “I’m not here to bury life, but to recognize it…” (Reinhart in Love, p.132). And Berger’s approach is to recognize it through the greatest human invention of all – language. As he once described, he is “essentially a voyeur of copulating words.”

To conclude, if the novel is written in an “arch, allusive and rhetorically exhibitionistic style: loquacious, periphrastic, euphuistic”, and does not take itself seriously… therein lies the raison d’etre of this detective parody. It is at once a worthy inheritor of the title “a truly post-modern novel”, whose primary aim is to use the last resort of human sanity – language - to construct a mouse-trap out of conceit, as Friedrich Dürrenmatt described the essential function of comedy, and draw its unsuspecting reader to a lethal dose of literary voyeurism even while delighting and entertaining them; it is also a worthy successor to the children of its creator’s forbear – Hammett, Chandler and Macdonald. And if that does not suffice to authenticate the work’s place in the halls of literary fame, consider the sweep of its touch – Jean Racine, Goethe, Ruskin, Proust and Elias Canetti at one end and, Mad Comics and Charlie Chaplin at the other end.

- To be Annotated with Bibliographical Sources