Increasingly, American novelists seem to be ignoring the literary ground broken in the 1950’s and 1960’s by such writers as Vladimir Nabokov, John Hawkes, Flannery O’Connor, Thomas Berger, Joseph Heller, Robert Coover, and, especially, John Barth and Thomas Pynchon. Black humor and other such labels emphasizing the absurd and experimental nature of their works are insufficient to describe the aesthetic vitality, intellectual stimulation, sheer joy, and newness of these writers’ approach to fiction, yet few first, second, or third novelists of the late 1970’s or early 1980’s have followed their lead. Instead, there has been a plethora of humorlessly realistic explorations of the banalities of urban and suburban American life. T. Coraghessan Boyle’s Water Music (1981) and John Calvin Batchelor’s The Birth of the People’s Republic of Antarctica (1983) are among the rare exceptions to this trend; Kathryn Kramer’s first novel, A Handbook for Visitors from Outer Space, is another. Like her less conventional predecessors, Kramer relies on humor, irony, and imagination to propel her vision of man’s inhumanity to himself. Her book is also notable for avoiding the obviously autobiographical material of most first novelists and the overtly feminist material of many recent women novelists.
A Handbook for Visitors from Outer Space tells several related or tangentially related stories, the main one of which focuses on Cyrus Quince’s road to adulthood, his loves and disillusionments. Cyrus grows up happily in Arborville, somewhere in idealized (by Arborvilleans) Middle America with his parents, Harold and Rose, his sister, Betsy, his younger brother, Lark, and his grandfather, Charles Street, a retired general. There are two strains on this idyllic existence: Harold, the epitome of the hardworking, good-natured breadwinner, is jealous of the hold his father-in-law has on the children, and Lark, the most lovable boy imaginable, is slowly dying of a congenital disease. When Harold decides to send Lark to an institution and Charles goes to an old generals’ home, the resentful Cyrus leaves for Fifield Academy in New England. He becomes best friends with Billy Daphne but never tells Billy about Lark and misleads him about other important parts of his life. When Lark dies in an absurd accident, Cyrus runs away.
Cyrus goes to Winston City to stay with Sophie, the grandmother he has heard about all of his life but has never met. Her history, like that of all of the novel’s characters, is tangled. Sophie Marie Laroux met then-Lieutenant Charles Street in Paris in 1933 and married him a month later, a condition of their marriage being that she must agree to remain in ignorance concerning his past. By World War II, Charles was a general, deeply involved with military intelligence, and Sophie, finally fed up with his secretiveness, walked out on him and their daughter, Rose. Charles’s secret is central to the novel.
General Charles Street is born Dagobert (Tad) Ludwicker and grows up with his sisters, Xilipheupia (Xy) and Constantina (Sammy), and brother, Sigismund (George), in a huge monstrosity of a mansion in New Jersey. They are the grandchildren of a woman who called herself the Crown Princess Theobalda and are...
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