David Madden Essay - Critical Essays


In The Poetic Image in Six Genres, David Madden acknowledges two principal influences on his work—his grandmother’s storytelling and Hollywood films—both explored in the autobiographical novel Bijou. He considers both to be “extremes.” Nevertheless, from his grandmother he learned the impact of the storyteller on his or her listeners and from motion pictures he learned the techniques for making his own “stories more vivid, the action more immediate.” These two extremes or opposite forces—the oral storytelling tradition in the South and the visual realm of popular-culture films—combine in Madden’s novels to produce an abiding fascination with the role of the narrator-performer and the contrast between the life of action, that of the speaker or storyteller, and the life of the imagination, that of the listener or audience. To some extent, most of Madden’s novels explore this duality while also drawing on a nostalgia for old films and film heroes.

Because he comes out of the southern oral storytelling tradition, Madden, like William Faulkner, relies heavily on a fairly fixed source of raw material that he reworks in various forms. Thus, characters from one novel may reappear, sometimes under different names; situations may recur as well, in stories retold from a different point of view or stitched into a novel. All of Brothers in Confidence, for example, reappears as part of Pleasure-Dome, a much later work, with changes in the principal characters’ names. Most notably, Hollis Weaver, the narrator in Brothers in Confidence, is replaced by Lucius Hutchfield, who narrates both Pleasure-Dome and the earlier work, Bijou. Retelling the material from Brothers in Confidence allows Madden to reshape this material into a sequel for Bijou. On the Big Wind, which appeared in 1980, combines stories appearing in magazines as early as 1966, including “The Singer,” a variation on the Cassandra Singing material that Madden reworked for fourteen years.

Madden’s justification for this reworking of material rests in his interest in the storytelling tradition, where repetition of a favorite story only enhances the storyteller-listener relationship, and in his interest in experimenting with point of view. “In this shifting from one perspective to another on the same material,” he comments in The Poetic Image in Six Genres, “I have learned more aboutmy own interests, and about the teller-listener relationship.”

One corollary of this fascination with the teller-listener relationship is Madden’s concept of the artist-storyteller as “con man,” an idea the novelist claims to have borrowed from Thomas Mann. In his 1980 essay “Let Me Tell You the Story,” Madden speaks of this metaphor as one way of focusing his interest. “The relationship between the storyteller and the listener,” he adds, is like that between the con man and his mark, who charge each other through phantom circuits of the imagination; the storyteller uses many of the same techniques for capturing attention, holding it, and projecting the reader into a totally different world from the one he is living in.

Such creation Madden calls the “pleasure-dome,” the concept explored in his sixth novel.

Not surprisingly, most of Madden’s novels involve some form of storytelling by central characters with listeners swayed or held captive by the magical words of the speakers. Often it is the con man, such as Travern Weaver in Brothers in Confidence or Lucius Hutchfield’s corrupt older brother, Earl, who weaves these tales; often it is the artist-hero himself, Lucius in Pleasure-Dome or Hollis Weaver in Brothers in Confidence. Even a minor work such as “Hair of the Dog,” a detective story showing the influence of the “tough-guy” writers of the 1930’s on Madden’s fiction, involves a story told in prison, as do Brothers in Confidence and Pleasure-Dome.

The two novels that do not explicitly explore this teller-listener relationship are The Beautiful Greed and The Suicide’s Wife. Although both employ storytelling in at least one episode as a means of revealing character, even to some extent altering a relationship between the speaker and the listener, in neither novel is storytelling the focus of the book. Alvin Henderlight in The Beautiful Greed has shared a cabin for months with the mysterious Franco before Franco tells his story; in The Suicide’s Wife, Ann Harrington’s lack of inhibition in bed with her husband’s colleague serves as a device for altering her life, not that of the listener.

Of these two novels, only The Suicide’s Wife is not autobiographical. While it grew from a dramatic monologue concerning a suicide that happened on “the periphery” of Madden’s life, it does not concern the writer or a writer-hero, the autobiographical hero in most of Madden’s novels. Incidents from The Beautiful Greed, perhaps because they are largely autobiographical, do appear elsewhere, notably in Lucius’s artist-con man scheme in Pleasure-Dome. Only The Suicide’s Wife remains outside this storytelling context, unique also in its treatment of the duality of passivity and action within one central character, Ann Harrington, the suicide’s wife.

The Beautiful Greed

Madden’s first novel, The Beautiful Greed, was published by Random House in 1961 as part of the publisher’s First Novel series. The book was Madden’s master of arts thesis project at San Francisco State and drew heavily on his stint as a crewman aboard a Merchant Marine ship scheduled for Brazil but, in the novel at least, destined for Taltal, Chile, on a mercy mission to aid Chilean earthquake victims. The novel’sprotagonist, Alvin Henderlight, is clearly autobiographical. Aside from sharing with the novelist his Merchant Marine experience, Alvin is also from Knoxville, has motion-picture ideas about going to sea, reads voraciously (particularly Joseph Conrad and Herman Melville), and bears a physical resemblance to the novelist with his short stature and balding head. He also has a family much like Madden’s own and that of other autobiographical heroes in Madden’s novels: a father who drinks; a mother who works, most often as a maid or in a factory; and two vagabond brothers.

The Beautiful Greed is also a very conscious literary work strongly influenced by Conrad’s sea fiction. The title comes from a passage from Lord Jim (1900) referring to the insatiable hunger of the seaman for experience and adventure, a passage that serves as the epigraph for Madden’s book. Like Conrad’s novel, The Beautiful Greed takes illusion and reality as its central theme, particularly Alvin’s gradual disillusionment. As the novel progresses, so does Alvin’s awakening to the brute reality of life. His spiritual and psychological journey parallels the ship’s slow progress south, through the Panama Canal and eventually on to Chile and, for Alvin, to true knowledge and experience.

The ship is another conscious literary device, a microcosm of the world’s society. Young, old, bestial, intelligent, all different nationalities and human types are represented on board. Using these varieties of human beings, Madden explores the conflict between intellect—Alvin is dubbed the “professor” for his reading habits—and brute, insensitive action. Alvin and his cabin mate—the mysterious, remote Franco—are pitted against a crew of men whose brutal jokes include pitilessly trapping a sea bird and mercilessly using Franco as a scapegoat. For the most part, the novel follows the pattern of the bildungsroman, but its message is clearly existential. When the enigmatic, falsely dignified Franco reveals the truth about himself in a compelling story, he also leaves Alvin to face the consequences of his choices and actions aboard ship. Once committed to staying on board the Polestar, Alvin must face the brutish men whom Franco escapes by returning to his home in Taltal. Alvin has passed the opportunity to leave with Franco; his change of mind comes too late to alter the implied course of events with which the novel ends: Alvin’s own torture at the hands of the crew. While relying excessively on conscious literary devices and on the author’s own experiences, The Beautiful Greed is nevertheless noteworthy as a first novel for the author’s attempt to deal with important issues about people’s relationship with themselves and others and the meaning of their actions.

Cassandra Singing

In Cassandra Singing, Madden turned away from predominantly autobiographical material to work with a story originating in a conversation with a messman aboard the novelist’s Merchant Marine ship—a tale of a girl who joined a motorcycle gang after “her brother was killed in a smashup.” Analogies exist in several forms, including various play versions and at least two short stories, “The Singer” and “Lone Riding.” Madden acknowledges being obsessed with the story for more than fourteen years.

Set in eastern Kentucky rather than the Knoxville of the novelist’s childhood, the story revolves around what Madden has described in The Poetic Image in Six Genres as “the strange relationship between a motorcyclist named Lone and his invalid sister Cassie.” Besides this nearly incestuous relationship, Madden also attempts to capture the life of the mountain people and the threat to their folk existence posed by progress represented in the novel by the steady encroachment of bulldozers that will raze Lone and Cassie’s home. His efforts are successful, for he is able to depict in detail the violence and deceptive simplicity of the mountain people, particularly through their dialect and mannerisms.

Perhaps because the story existed in dramatic form first, the novel relies heavily on dialogue, making immediate the conflict between Lone, who represents action, and Cassie, who represents imagination. Through Lone’s vivid retelling of his motorcycle adventures with his companion Boyd, Cassie, bedridden for years with rheumatic fever, is able to envision the life of action she has longed for but never had. Thus, she becomes one of the earliest of Madden’s characters enchanted by the storyteller’s art and imaginatively transported into a “pleasure-dome” of his own making. Lone likewise becomes one of the first of Madden’s storytellers to dramatize the oral storytelling tradition prevalent among mountain and southern people.

Despite its successes, Cassandra Singing moves too slowly at times. It represents a testament to Madden’s love of words, an essential trait in any writer, and his skill in capturing the speech of mountain people, yet the conversations become too repetitious, the action too prolonged. Like The Beautiful Greed, moreover, the novel draws heavily on other literary works and motifs. Cassie and Lone’s relationship, as Madden has acknowledged in The Poetic Image in Six Genres, is “partly inspired” by the “brother-sister relationship in the Oresteia [458 b.c.e.], Eugene O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra [1931], Jean-Paul Sartre’s The Flies [1943], and Jean Cocteau’s Les Enfants terribles [1929],” and Cassie herself by Frankie in Carson McCullers’s The Member of the Wedding (1950) and Cassandra, “the Greek prophetess of doom, who was condemned never to be believed.” Coupled with the biblical allusions that accompany Boyd’s...

(The entire section is 4817 words.)