Epic Voices: Inner and Global Impulse in the Contemporary American and British Novel

By Robert Arlett | Go to book overview

6
The Epic and Beyond

EACH OF THE FOUR NOVELS DISCUSSED CONTAINS A PRIMARY NARrative texture consisting of a particular approach to the display of complex impulses that constitute a field of radical inner and outer interplay. Their simultaneous reach for authenticity in dealing with contemporary history and integrity in personal investigation marks the state of epic fiction in the third quarter of the century. Each author, in the seriousness of their global scrutiny and self-scrutiny, reaches to accommodate, as did Whitman’s epic, both the “simple separate person” and the “En-masse” of the age—though the resultant complexity of each narrative is a far distance from that of the romantic epic.

If the romantics found in the natural world their version of what the pre-Platonic epic critics agreed was special inspiration, recent epic novelists have claimed little inspiration outside of their own frail, if courageous, selves. Even in Daniel Martin, the most stable and perhaps less far-reaching either externally or internally of the four novels, the natural world is treated in a fashion close to the elegiac (Devon seems to represent a lost pre-war world even if Dan seems to circle back there as the narrative ends). In Why Are We In Vietnam? what is left of the natural world is close to destruction and that condition is even more imminent in the present of Gravity’s Rainbow, which seems about to become a more intense version of the wasteland of the post-war “Zone.” In The Golden Notebook the natural world of Mashopi must be dismissed as nostalgia in the narrative’s devaluative process.

These novels add to Aristotle’s description of the epic’s narrative form as containing numerous simultaneous events in that they also contain a range of voices, although the experience conveyed by the interaction of those voices is essentially ad hoc. Wilkie compares epic poets to the succession of Hebrew prophetic writers who rejected contemporary orthodoxy while rooting themselves within the traditions of the prophets of the covenant.1 What Marcus

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