Frederick Busch Essay - Busch, Frederick (Vol. 7)

Busch, Frederick (Vol. 7)

Busch, Frederick 1941–

Busch is an American novelist, short story writer, and editor. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 33-36.)

Frederick Busch sets stories in the remoter Lake District, the west of Ireland and the hills of New York State, and offers [in Breathing Trouble] not only dismal but macabre glimpses of the human condition: a man obsessively returning to a rubbish dump for 'what's left'; a father and daughter waiting to hear from the mortuary when the winter-hard earth will have softened sufficiently to allow the refrigerated mother to be buried. Throughout the stories, a morbid self-absorption nuzzles in a closer than comfortable relation with loss and death.

Busch's message is at times gloomily convincing. A metaphoric, rhythmed prose provides an often powerful back-up to the plot, conveying states of heart and broken mind more adequately than any long, authorial explanation…. But he takes his characters and their problems over-seriously and forces a solemn symbolism on material sometimes too flimsy to hold it, as in his zoo story where, finding ourselves benighted in the Nocturnal Mammal House, we are not allowed to miss the existential significance of the instructions to STAND IN PLACE UNTIL YOUR EYES ARE USED TO THE DARK. (p. 231)

Susan Knight, in New Statesman (© 1974 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), February 15, 1974.

Frederick Busch's is a spiky and demanding talent. A highly self-conscious writer, his style draws attention to itself like the raised sinews of a poised hand, and the act of writing and the difficulties a writer has in relating to others are recurrent themes. Mr Busch insists on the gap between words and the inchoate processes of feeling. Things are catalogued and vividly rhapsodized in the continuous present, but the characters [in Breathing Trouble and Other Stories] talk either obliquely or with the empty and circling inanities to which two closely related people frequently have recourse. On occasions, inevitably, the tautness falls over into over-writing…. [But what] saves these stories from banality or melodrama is a remarkable ability to catch, to transcribe, the American voice and the indeterminations and discontinuities of conversation.

"The Formless Flux," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1974; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), February 22, 1974, p. 173.

Conversations and events twang with tension [in Manual Labor], though there's something odd about how it's done. Busch draws a disparate power out of words which, looked at slowly, could as easily be innocuous; he presents paining disputes which can often be entirely convincing without really evoking the hostilities involved or mentioning the subjects concerned. Perhaps it's this: the characters are themselves reading and talking between the lines, treading too carefully, sometimes being noncommittal and overly considerate, to the point where the arguments are partly over this process itself. (p. 192)

As a phrase, "failure of communication" can't help suggesting a trite and trendy outlook, but as played in this novel it is simply human. Mostly. Well, Busch certainly escapes trendiness in his principle that repairs are possible and desirable, that Phil and Anne are not utter clunks for … [their] principle that one can live even with a cracked wall "as long as we can fix it." This principle is so firmly woven into the book that even the ending comes off not nearly so goofy as it would be in isolation.

I must complain about the framework. The fetal voices end up feeling ghoulish, despite restraint, and succeed in providing neither continuity nor a wider perspective. The long first-person narratives could have been presented as such without excuse; even though the act of shutting oneself off to squirrel away pages enters usefully into the plot, the mechanism remains cumbersome. (pp. 192-93)

Mitchell Marks, in Chicago Review (reprinted by permission of Chicago Review; copyright © 1974 by Chicago Review), Vol. 26, No. 3, 1974.

["Manual Labor"] is presented in stark, chilling detail by … three separate voices, and though it is for the most part a meditative, poetic achievement, there are moments when Busch accumulates such tension that the reading of it is almost painful….

"Manual Labor" is something of a tour de force. Stylistically, it is very "contemporary," that is, its sentences are terse, cautious, precise, at times mildly ironic, but never do they veer into abstraction. For nearly the entire length of the novel, Busch is concerned with setting down the observed physical details of his characters' New Hampshire and Maine houses. We follow the Sorensons as they work, sometimes together, sometimes separately…. They work almost constantly, because it is work—manual labor—that is their salvation. Close to the edge of disaster, as they are, and at the novel's conclusion, close to the edge of the ocean, they must put their faith in simple, physical things, and in their unquestioned love for each other, if they want to survive. This desperate and perhaps monomaniacal necessity is reflected in the novel's prose.

It is as if the deliberately underplayed technique of the French nouveau roman were utilized for humanistic purposes, with the intention of charting not the helpless disintegration of two people but, boldly enough, their difficult, minimal survival and the subsequent strengthening of their marriage. The novel's concluding words are: "We'll live." Frederick Busch is to be congratulated for having so beautifully combined the rigorous discipline of one kind of novel with the genuinely compelling concerns of another. (p. 66)

Joyce Carol Oates, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 3, 1974.

The first paragraph—indeed the first phrase—of Frederick Busch's second novel, Manual Labor, presents a nearly insuperable obstacle to our reading on:

After I died they moved from Massachusetts and they bought a house and acres of land in New Hampshire where they rose early and worked all day at projects with their hands….

"This is a romance," says the bled-away fetus, the boy that they lost in the middle of month nine after nine years of marriage, preparing us for the tale which he is about to help unfold….

In the beginning is the end: before the Sorensons are permitted to glimpse the dawning of a new day, they will know all manner of catastrophe…. But somehow they will transcend all this (though exactly how or why we never know, save that the preconceived design of the novel requires it and the author says so)….

Now a writer takes an awful chance when he invokes a fetal narrator. Making all possible allowances in the name of goodwill, conceding almost everything to "romance" and its loose, commodious conventions, the besieged mind refuses assent. To make matters worse, not only is the idea unacceptable, it is unnecessary. Nothing comes of it—no resonance, no poignancy, no sense of loss, of waste, of anguish, no added perspective, no special insight or knowledge, only the foolish put-upon reviewer's sense of absurdity that this should need saying, that a fetus, however advanced in term, makes for one hell of an embarrassing narrator….

The narration is deployed in roughly equal parts between two voices, hers and his (or three, if you include its)—the stream of their consciousness, hers in the form of a "letter" to her mother which is not intended for the mails, but only as a means of disgorging herself of her torments, and his as a kind of journal. Both the "letter" and the journal are immensely self-conscious; she's vaguely "artistic," he's an aspiring poet, and both strive for literary effect, both of them continuously aware of themselves as engaged in the act of composition, of "writing." The agonized, lurid turbulence of her "letter" with its endless repetitions and variations, its moist glandular biologizing, owes far more to merely literary, attitudinizing madness than to the authentic inner life of a fully created character. Generally, he is merely boring when not fatuous, energetic only in his descriptions of the processes by which dilapidated houses may be restored and renovated—only, that is, when he's writing a handbook of "manual labor." He, too, is "literary" in the invidious sense: manual labor as spiritual healing, that odd romantic notion.

Everything is given, nothing revealed. Everything has its source in literary conceit smuggled in from the presumed American romantic tradition…. (p. 25)

Words clog all passages; events are never permitted to happen…. In a rigged, wildly improbable and prevailingly silly dénouement and climax the world bursts in upon their isolation in the form of a fugitive government lawyer, literally a runaway who hides out in a nearby abandoned church, who has suffered the world too much and can endure it no longer….

In college workshops across the land this sort of thing sometimes goes by the name of "creative writing"; there still exist undergraduates who are moved by it. (p. 26)

Saul Maloff, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1974 by The New Republic, Inc.), December 7, 1974.

Manual Labor begins dramatically. A never-to-be born infant "thinks"… [and although] his words are supernatural, they suggest the fact that [his parents], Phil and Anne Sorenson, are driven to confront the meaning of infant mortality, their disjointed marriage, and the mysteries of life and art.

The novel is patterned carefully. After the infant thinks of events which he has not witnessed, he surrenders as it were, to Anne's "letter." This letter is an attempt to expiate her guilt, to shore up her existence. She writes rapidly, madly, and painfully. Her sentences "drown" her, but she manages to recognize some reasons for her contradictions and mistakes. She begins to understand the need for patterns (even if they distort reality) and word-play….

Phil writes the next section. He is more professional; he tells himself that "I'm sure that narrative leads to sanity, and slowly, carefully, chiseling the details, I must make what's happening come from what's happened; that will tell me what's to come. I have to organize, pull it into lines, directions. I will not go mad. Anne won't go mad. We'll survive." Although he writes painstakingly, unlike Anne, he is unsure of his complete power (artistic, masculine, spiritual). He is also haunted by the ghosts of family life.

Phil works steadily. His manual labor symbolizes his artistic endeavor. (The novel is about various marriages.) When he is unable to construct correct patterns, he is uneasy. He is afraid, unlike Anne, to court madness and sleep….

Phil writes about the "triangle." (Actually there is a more complex geometrical figure in the novel.) He realizes that he is "tangled in the lines," that life wrenches art out of shape (and vice versa). He continues at his labor, knowing as did Anne earlier, that words are somehow "corpses": "I will not lie again, not this way. No more lousy poems, no more still-born narratives: I'll do whatever I do, and then it will be done, and I'll be through."

There is great irony. Phil stops writing at last…. When he finally does, he confronts silences, eternal questions. He learns that "life" is as empty as the blank page; it must be "constructed" to hold meaning.

We do not see Phil returning to his task—unless the entire novel is his?—but we read the words of his dead infant. We are back at the beginning; we have completed, however, a significant cycle. The last words (within the infant's narrative) are "We'll live." They are spoken by Anne. There is no gloss upon them; they are empty and strangely hopeful….

Manual Labor is a novel about marriage—it affirms the tense vitality of relationships and, by doing so, it exorcises past ghosts. It is, at the same time, a remarkable union of philosophy and manual labor. It is, therefore, an artistic design. (p. 87)

Irving Malin, in Commonweal (copyright © 1975 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), April 25, 1975.