Joel Lieber Essay - Critical Essays

Lieber, Joel

Lieber, Joel 1936–1971

Lieber was an American novelist, critic, and screenwriter. (See also Contemporary Authors, obituary, Vols. 29-32.)

Prepare yourself for a brusque encounter. Joel Lieber can't help unsettling people—he's that talented.

Whether concerned with the fears of a dog-walking writer (Move!) or the plight of a dentist suspected of rape (The Chair), Mr. Lieber writes a flushed, funny, troubling prose in which dreams have their own reality and waking up is often a nightmare. As his victimized heroes bravely tackle real and imagined enemies, they confront a host of commonplace terrors: ominous phone calls, bizarre subway rides, bumps in the night against strangely impalpable objects. They try to make sense out of their misadventures, only to find that schemes for interpreting or mastering life are doomed. If they're lucky, they learn that a man's worst Gorgon may be himself….

[The Circle Game] scrambles chronology, garbles syntax, and sounds solemn when it's most outrageous in ways that will attract admirers of Borges, Barthelme, Burroughs, and Barth. (Keep off this grass if you like God Is an Englishman). But readers who ride literary currents are in for a surprise: Mr. Lieber is his own man, and he invests Hugo's [the protagonist's] journey into himself with details so concrete and objective that it becomes increasingly difficult to say when Hugo is dreaming, waking, or making direct contact with his freaked-out friends.

That's as it should be. Since Mr. Lieber wrote his first novel, How the Fishes Live, he's developed a style that vividly suggests the vagrant and volatile texture of modern life. He's also developed a mouth that may offend people. Hugo's trip from pot to paternity involves some rough and blistering sexual satire….

Fortunately, most readers will be stunned for the right reasons, for Mr. Lieber has composed a series of beautifully honed and accurate images….

Joel Lieber survives. When he's around, Henry James's famous metaphor for the novel—a "house" with a "million" windows—receives new impact. For Mr. Lieber is a marvelous young hand at banging doors, rattling blinds, and keeping his guests up all night. Maybe that's one reason the fictional "house" still stands: we keep revisiting it when exciting writers live there. (p. 36)

Joseph Catinella, in Saturday Review (copyright © 1970 by Saturday Review, Inc.; reprinted with permission), December 12, 1970.

Had Joel Lieber been a major literary figure, it might seem crucially important for one to determine whether his fifth and last novel, Two-Way Traffic, should be considered as autobiography or as fiction. Arranged as a diary or notebook, it records the suicidal crisis of a writer whose life is an undisguised echo of Joel Lieber's own. Since Lieber committed suicide immediately after finishing this book, the autobiographical suggestion can become an overpowering distraction and no doubt Two-Way Traffic will arouse greater interest because of this extra dimension. Yet the fact that Lieber was, after all, a novelist allows us to approach Two-Way Traffic as fiction or, more precisely, as a kind of fictionalized memoir.

Books of this sort—one thinks of Frederick Exley's A Fan's Notes and Frank Conroy's Stop-time—are apt to be compulsively honest, and Lieber's diary format, the ultimate confessional device, provides constant occasion for emotional nudism. Stripping down stylistically as well, Lieber's alter ego convinces himself that writing is a purely private exercise and adopts a shorthand version of Lieber's better previous work. The prose, reduced to an essential grammar of motives, jumps tensely through dozens of encounters and perceptions. A skilled craftsman, Lieber can compress an hour with an analyst into three telling sentences and convey in a page the most agonizing confrontation with his estranged wife or the difficult emotions of a weekend spent with his two children on loan from her. Seldom fully developing a scene, the author depends instead on a conglomeration of well-chosen clues to give his self-portrait depth. (p. 68)

[Looming] out of this book's rich disarray is an intellectual flabbiness that flaws both [the protagonist's] life and this account of a critical period in it. This first shows up in Jesse's disingenuous rationale of why his marriage went wrong, and it culminates in a jarringly oversimplified glorification of life itself. The difficulty of coping with life provided the dominant theme for all of Joel Lieber's novels. But to see Jesse reveling at last in his adolescent illusions amounts to a copout. The traffic here is all one way—away from the vision of Lieber's more forceful work. (p. 69)

Larry Duberstein, in Saturday Review (copyright © 1972 by Saturday Review/World, Inc.; reprinted with permission), January 22, 1975.