In her essay, "Notes Toward a Dreampolitik," Joan Didion describes the funeral of a motorcycle outlaw portrayed in The Wild Angels,the 1966 "classic exploitation bike movie" starring Peter Fonda. After the gang has raped and murdered while destroying a small town, "They stand at the grave, and, uncertain how to mark the moment, Peter Fonda shrugs. |Nothing to say,' he says" (99). Didion finds in this remark the existential myth of the outlaw embracing man's fate, a myth that suits both the motorcycle gang and the film's teenage audience. The adult audience, including Didion herself, sees in this remark the moral emptiness of these fallen angels; for them, there is nothing to be learned from human experience; there is nothing to say. The film bothers to say this: art, even schlock, has the habit of revealing something about the essence of human life, bad or good.
When we look around at contemporary fiction, though, we notice that this habit of revelation is missing. Because T. Coraghessan Boyle's story "Greasy Lake" has recently been presented in X. J. Kennedy's fifth edition of his literature anthology, Literature (along with stories by John Updike, James Joyce, and Katherine Anne Porter), comparisons are bound to occur. Although this is not the place for a survey of Boyle's work, a brief overview of "Greasy Lake" may serve as an introduction to his short fiction and to a major theme in it: the failure of moral nerve that has become a commonplace in contemporary fiction.
If postmodern means anything (and there is increasing evidence that, like political, it doesn't), it refers not only to the oft-noted element of self-consciousness or "intertextuality," but more importantly to a Fonda-like shrug and the admission, "nothing to say." We are all accustomed to the ubiquitous breaking of the proscenium that is the hallmark of "clever" mass-produced art. From Robbe-Grillet to Roseanne, the wink into the mirror has become habitual, almost a nervous tic. But while the conservative art forms that practice this "hey, ma, no hands" approach to post-modernity holds fast to some sort of "family values," the avant-garde of postmodern fiction, because it is in the grip of a self-image that transcends anything so banal as beliefs, is necessarily limited to parody. It attempts satire, but because it lacks any moral standards, its exaggeration and self-absorption can only serve as frenetic substitutes for a moral point of view.
Before postmodernism and its resulting habits put a stranglehold on fiction, one of the most common practices of the twentieth-century short story was presenting the sudden insight of a character under pressure. Any number of stories that make up the core of a traditional course in short fiction - and that make up most anthologies - could serve as examples: "The Death of Ivan Ilyich," "A & P," "Araby," "The Jilting of Granny Weather-all." At the moment of emotional climax, the usually unwilling protagonist encounters a sudden Joycean epiphany, a new awareness of the reality of human existence. The titles I cited, of course, are good examples of this practice; like any facet of fiction, revelation can be handled well or ill and we are all familiar with stories that have banal or stupid morals tacked on willy-nilly.
Contemporary fiction has, to a great degree, avoided this last problem by avoiding revelation altogether. In these worlds of fiction, there is nothing to be learned, nothing to be revealed; there is only the endless circuit of plot and character, the zanier, the more discordant, the more violent the better. Boyle's fiction, though, goes further to parody the revelatory nature of fiction itself. Characters in Boyle's first two collections, Descent of Man and Greasy Lake & Other Stories, are frequently put in a position to understand the world around them and then to act according to this new understanding; but each time they ignore the knowledge, fumble the opportunity, or avoid the entire situation. …