Charles Webb Essay - Critical Essays

Webb, Charles

Webb, Charles 1939–

Webb, an American novelist and short story writer, is the author of The Graduate. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 25-28.)

Certainly, Mr. Webb possesses talent. ["The Graduate" is written] with an economy that makes Hemingway seem long-winded and his dialogue is human speech reproduced with an accuracy usually found only in trial transcripts. This last gift is a mixed one which Mr. Webb should watch like a hawk. Two hundred pages of characters interrupting each other to say "What?" can create tension headaches in the most seasoned reader. The one talent which Mr. Webb does not possess—and who does?—is the talent to write a novel that starts out in one direction and ends up success-fully in another….

The trouble is that whatever is eating at Benjamin Braddock is never explained. "The Graduate" swerves from its trail-blazing path and works out into the heavy sexual traffic to disappear completely in a boy-gets-girl wind-up. (p. 20)

Haskel Frankel, in Chicago Tribune Book Week (© The Washington Post), December 8, 1963.

Several pages of [The Graduate] are taken up by one word: "what". It occurs somewhere in the region of 238 times, punctuating the sparse, vacuous dialogue, calling for a repetition of what has just been said, or a clarification, or merely confirming the speaker's continued existence. The impression is of a hopelessly unsatisfactory long-distance telephone call prolonged against all reason by some absurd lingering belief in the possibility of communication….

The Graduate consists almost entirely of dialogue: the inarticulateness of the characters is allowed to speak for itself. These characters, prosperous and responsible citizens, appear to reflect a society rapidly degenerating into idiocy. The hero's own condition is different, but no attempt is made to explain it. It is even taken for granted as something inevitable like puberty. Neurosis or nausea, anomy or angst—though Mr. Webb is careful not to give it a name—overtakes highly educated young persons at the age of twenty-one, as is well known, and their case histories, like the antics of lunatics in former times, can be seen to be quite hilarious—but only, one must assume, retrospectively, not introspectively, so far as the patient himself is concerned.

The first novel on this theme has become almost a genre in itself in America, and this is an original contribution to it. But as usual with this kind of fiction, with its violent repudiation of the intellectual glosses Europeans use to condone a similar state of mind, one suspects that if things were really so bad Mr. Webb would never have bestirred himself to write the novel. Certainly his hero would have been revolted by such an undertaking. The worst must be over, therefore, but it is impossible to say what comes next. "What?", or "What!", or simply "What", the blankest of sounds, is left echoing in the mind.

"What? What! or What," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1964; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), March 19, 1964, p. 229.

Charles Webb belongs to no cult, puts forward no philosophy, and probes no psychologies…. [The title character of Love, Roger] seems to have little control over the major decisions of his life. Nor is he happy when he does try to act. (p. 34)

Does all this add up to another anti-novel about an antihero? It does not. Webb feels for his characters and invites the reader to follow suit. Instead of using his settings as microcosms or symbols, he plants his characters firmly on the page and moves them around rhythmically. He makes us want to know what they are going to do next. Love, Roger is a human novel about fallible humans trying to get together humanly.

As in The Graduate, Webb's uncannily realistic dialogue carries most of the weight of the book's theme. He makes speech a living process. He catches the hesitations and the stoppages, the repetitions and the missed meanings of everyday talk. Characters speak for reasons other than communicating information; they try to protect themselves, to unburden themselves, or to touch each other. Often a remark does not answer the one that went before it. Nevertheless, the characters sometimes know each other better after a few pages of dialogue even though they have not conversed in the usual sense. Again, the words that fall between them may show the hopelessness of their coming together at all. (pp. 34-5)

The novel's weak point is its texture. For all its rightness, Webb's dialogue does not mesh with the long, unbroken blocks of print that recount the details of Roger's daily routine—cleaning the office, walking home from work, getting ready for bed. These slow-moving passages, besides creating problems in cadencing, neither develop the plot nor help us know Roger any better.

Yet, in the main, the book goes down smoothly. Love, Roger is a surface novel that escapes superficiality. Writing with both rhythm and control, Webb tells his story through speech and physical movement rather than through psychological analysis. A useful comparison may be Kingsley Amis's Lucky Jim. Both stories describe their characters objectively, both center around a groping young man, and both have a sure, light tone that adapts well to cinema. What is most important, both say something important about human relationships. (p. 35)

Peter Wolfe, in Saturday Review (copyright © 1969 by Saturday Review, Inc.; reprinted with permission), September 13, 1969.

With a curious fascination, Mr. Webb writes of uptight people who yearn to break out and sometimes do—but only through desperate, grotesque lunges. Each of the three stories in ["Orphans and Other children"] centers on a naïve, rather straitlaced observer—a fifteen-year-old girl living with her aunt in California, a widower newly admitted to a "villa" for the aging in that state, and a solitary young man who acquires a New England Laundromat in hopes of leading an independent life. In each case, the observer is pounced upon, aroused, tempted, and very nearly ruined by characters—proselytizing nudists, a swinging widow, a bank clerk eager to unload his fiancée on a total stranger—who feel that they have found the answers to life's riddles, or who at least want to force answers on others. Mr. Webb's narrative is marked by smooth, understated dialogue that unwraps each person's pretenses layer by layer, and this is admirable. What is not so admirable is the sniggering amusement that the author often exhibits toward his lost souls. Mr. Webb has too much talent to be wasting time on titillating the unhappy and repressed. (pp. 82-3)

The New Yorker (© 1974 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), September 2, 1974.

Charles Webb has written, among other novels, "The Graduate," a more thoughtful work, as is usually true, than the better-known movie it became. "The Graduate" conveyed a sense of the slightly hysterical quest for panaceas in the late sixties. It was funny, effective, light-handed on the "meaningful" touches—achievements the author might have been expected to build on.

["The Abolitionist of Clark Gable Place"] is similar in mood and style. But all we learn of characters and situations in this book comes to us through the dialogue; there is no description. The talk is pointed and careful, almost free of any false note. But, as with eavesdropping, too much cannot be seen. There are too many oddities without clarification. These people seem human to us—no small accomplishment. They are recognizable in facets, but shallow: quiet people who remain but little affected and affecting even in the most melodramatic situations. We perceive them at angles, never in dimensions.

Webb miscalculates. His creatures contradict themselves, just like real people, but because we know so little of them, the opposing sides of personality do not unite to appear complex but remain diffuse. The sarcasm in bed of Ruthanne, who is later presented as a romantic, or the vicious faux pas dropped into casual conversation by Mrs. Fellows, hitherto seen as benevolent and generous, make us think not of complicated minds at work, but rather that the author has heard them incorrectly. Their whims creak like the plot devices of an older type of novel.

The depiction of emotional interactions, of lives collapsing amidst chit-chat after the manner of Chekhov, is carefully understated, indeed to excess….

Kenneth [the protagonist], unrealistic and unlikeable, fails to hold a woman, a job or the reader's attention. He is without positive qualities. He does not fight his incomprehensible world like the traditional anti-hero, he shies from it. This could be the theme of a fascinating character study, appealing perhaps to a Dostoevsky or a Beckett, but Webb is not the man to write it. He likes to hurry; the plot rushes us along. For a tale this swift and slight of matter, a short story with fewer characters might have been better.

Perhaps the author is trying to alienate the reader in order to express his character's sensations and to get across a touch of polemic about contemporary life. The solutions seized upon frantically but without much heart, the exhaustion of hope, the dread of an unsafe future which fill Kenneth's mind and heart are, perhaps, visions of the early seventies, aimless, violent, emotionally arid. There's just enough oddity here and realism in the conversations to make us think that there must be depths of meaning somewhere. But these are negative virtues at best.

Webb, who is an expert technician, a fine dramatic craftsman and recorder of speech patterns, has attempted to support too much on too little. He has played for the high stakes of defining his times, and he has lost, but not ignobly. (p. 41)

John Yohalem, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 18, 1975.

I never read Charles Webb's The Graduate, and when I saw the film I assumed that the squirmingly funny scenes of social and sexual embarrassment owed almost everything to the director and actors. After reading the three long short stories in Orphans and Other Children, I would now guess that they owed considerably more to the author of the novel. Charles Webb writes with insight and humour about loneliness and deprivation and the embarrassment caused by those who do not care to those who do…. All three stories are written mainly in dialogue, fast, cool and functional like a good film-script. (p. 686)

John Mellors, in The Listener (© British Broadcasting Corp., 1975; reprinted by permission of John Mellors), May 22, 1975.