Newspaper article International New York Times

The Power of 'Negative Influences'

Newspaper article International New York Times

The Power of 'Negative Influences'

Article excerpt

What works inspired two authors to take an opposing approach in their writing?

Thomas Mallon

When I was an undergraduate at Brown in the late '60s and early '70s, one could find fiction by Richard Brautigan and John Barth and Kurt Vonnegut on nearly every dorm-room desk. The girl posed with the chocolate cake on the cover of Brautigan's "Revenge of the Lawn" remains as familiar to my mind's eye as the feathered, froufrou Janis Joplin of "Pearl."

It's true that some of the fiction preferred by my collegiate generation -- the weightier stretches of Vonnegut, almost anything by Pynchon -- tried to conduct serious historical and even philosophical business. But little of it was realistic in the usual sense of that literary term; its dominant characteristic was a kind of whimsy. High on its own high concepts, it offered a slightly stoned, goofball secession from its tumultuous era rather than any direct engagement with it. The fiction I saw being read all around me seemed mostly, like the newest jargon of literary criticism, a game about itself.

If I had a particular bete noire, it was Donald Barthelme, whose very short stories appeared regularly in The New Yorker. Some of them were simply over my head, but others seemed to be no more than the author's own head trips. In "The Party," Barthelme had King Kong, "now an adjunct professor of art history at Rutgers," thrust a hand through a window. In "Rebecca," a woman named "Miss Lizard" has a green complexion and a female lover who likes country-western music. (Generally miserable, Rebecca "thought about sticking her head in the oven. But it was an electric oven.") And in "A City of Churches," the municipality contains nothing but churches: "'That one,' he said, 'houses the United Methodist and the Board of Education. The one next to it, which is Antioch Pentecostal, has the barbershop. …

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