Charles Newman Essay - Critical Essays

Newman, Charles (Vol. 2)

Newman, Charles 1938–

American writer of fiction. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-22.)

Newman is a student of philosophy and a critic; he sounds as though he's in control of every word [in New Axis] even when he's making things difficult for the reader; he has garlanded his volume with sub-titles, epigraphs and prefatory passages about Indians, and there is a sense of his style being mainly a contortion to avoid committing himself to much explicit narrative statement. But his tortured down, dry, elliptical responses to life as son, lover, father, do tell us something personal, something about the community….

Claire Tomalin, in The Observer, July 7, 1968.

The brittle, hysterical tone of the stories [in New Axis] is intended to convey the point that ordinary life in these surroundings is ludicrous to the point of the surreal.

It is all fair, if rather breathless and knowing, satire. Mr. Newman's technique is oblique and suggestive—the stories add up to a kind of patchwork quilt of suburban ghastliness, sometimes entertaining, sometimes obscurely sick. What the book lacks is much suggestion of a desire to say things either directly or fully. Mr. Newman seems to be skating over surfaces, selecting, and cramming in as much shocking allusiveness as possible. His characters are puppets worked by strings of detached and ironical cleverness. The short story form is suitable for such sharp surrealist vignettes, but Mr. Newman has not achieved more than that.

"Surreal Estate," in Times Literary Supplement, July 25, 1968.

[Charles Newman's] "The Promisekeeper" is a tower of babble inhabited by characters named Agapecropolis, Wittgenstein and Grassgreen, and a crackpot individualist who keeps sailing around the world in progressively smaller boats and is finally wiped out by a flood of shucked corn. (Dare one whisper academic humor?) If you feel energetic enough to compute the point where the clichés cancel each other out, you may find yourself breaking through to something fresh. But I think Mr. Newman has been engulfed by his clichés, and I suggest you lie down until your wave of energy passes.

Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, in The New York Times (© 1971 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), June 24, 1971.

It isn't every day that we're offered a tephramancy (divination by means of ashes, especially from an altar or ruined temple), least of all one interrupted by vaudeville shows that temper the vatic emphasis with festive wit. "The Promisekeeper" is all of that, its title page bearing not only the subtitle "Divers Narratives on the Economics of Current Morals in Lieu of a Psychology … Here Embodied in an Approved Text Working Often in Spite of Itself," but also announcements about the interruptions to come. We are even promised "Hearty Family-Type Fare," "Modern Decor" and "Free Parking." It's not so much a title page as an ad for a prankish disposition which, like a man-carrying Montgolfier balloon, is about to ascend on its own home-grown thermal and maybe explode….

[The] books's centrifugal, antic vigor keeps tugging one's mind away from that tephramantic leit-motif; the relentless panache almost blurs the doings of the characters; and the narrator's acute self-consciousness, now inhibiting him almost completely, now energizing him into farcical convulsions, very nearly becomes the subject of the novel. None of which is bad; it just means that we have here not so much a story as an exhibition, not so much a prophecy stunt as a stunted process, not so much a black comedy as a kaleidoscopic psychodrama….

Mr. Newman … writes a mordant, steely prose in which hyperbole functions as a norm while matter-of-factness humanely kills all sorts and conditions of schleps even as their gums begin to beat…. Mr. Newman's second novel is a taxing but rewarding achievement, both monstrous and captivating, a book like a shark with the Loop in its womb.

Paul West, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1971 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), August 1, 1971, pp. 4, 19.

Charles Newman's second novel, The Promisekeeper, is even more polished and enigmatic than New Axis, which was a serenely jarring little work not quite a novel and not quite a group of stories. Like New Axis, the new novel is a feat of style, a continuous performance on the part of the author—who is mysteriously present throughout, omnipotent and helpless as his protagonist, a man trapped in a deathly comedy. That Newman is always performing is by no means an indication of his being egotistically involved in his fiction; on the contrary, one feels in reading and rereading The Promisekeeper that its robust and desperate humor, its stunning dialogue, its deranged settings, are elaborate distractions for both author and sympathetic reader, for we need most of all to keep from going mad. Look, there is something sufficiently crazy out the window!—Newman seems to be consoling us….

The novel is both comic and deadly, but not grotesquely comic; it is a comedy of immediate possibility. It is more mysterious than the zoned-off world of, say, Nabokov's Ada, mainly because it is American and should be comprehensible. And Newman is much more civilized than Nabokov, who seems not to be drowning, not seriously, in his own fictional worlds, though he has the energy to arrange for the extravagant drownings of others. Newman exhibits some of Nabokov's self-sustaining irony, his sense of the closed, airless, hilariously doomed systems human beings construct for one another.

[His] works establish Newman as one of our most exciting and unpredictable writers, one with an amazing range of styles and worlds. For Newman, anything is now possible.

Joyce Carol Oates, "In the Heart of the Heart of the Country," in Partisan Review (copyright © 1972 by Partisan Review, Inc.), Vol. XXXIX, No. 1, 1972, pp. 118-20.