Essentially a lyric poet operating as a fellow traveler in fiction, John Hawkes writes novels that are finely honed and superbly crafted, whose meaning and coherence arise largely from recurring patterns of imagery, autotelic thematic concerns, and highly unusual and largely unreliable narrative voices. Although the basic unit in the triad of the 1970’s (The Blood Oranges; Death, Sleep, and the Traveler; and Travesty) was the relatively short scene arranged in a more or less nonsequential format, Hawkes’s novels The Passion Artist and Virginie represent a return to more linear scenic development, albeit still employing nonsequential flashbacks. Indeed, Hawkes told John Barth in 1979 that he no longer subscribed to his earlier, oft-quoted statement that “plot, character, setting, and theme” are the “true enemies” of his fiction, a remark made, he said, when he was very young. Rather, Hawkes’s later work combines these linear patterns of development with comically grotesque narrators whose innocence in the face of a horrifying universe only magnifies the tension associated with that horror and with a mode ofexposition that relies less heavily on unusual metaphoric connections and more on directed statement; in fact, Hawkes at times quite explicitly and directly tells readers what they are to understand. Nevertheless, even these directed statements are not ordinary referrals to the real world but are, rather, references one can only understand by looking forward or back to something else in Hawkes’s mental Yoknapatawpha County.
By creating such unusual and self-contained fictional worlds, Hawkes draws the reader into some rather extraordinary literary experiences: ordinary fragments of conversation refer to highly stylized portrayals of bizarre activities and images of reality that take on nightmarish, hallucinogenic qualities. Explicit literary allusions, when followed up, only point to their own idiosyncratic employment. Narrators tell stories that, from a realistic perspective, could not possibly be told. For example, if there is a car crash in Travesty, who tells Papa’s story? Similarly, how does one know Virginie’s impossible story if she, herself, is an impossible child? The genius of Hawkes’s writing is that all the possibilities—and perhaps none of them—may be true. One opens each new novel with the expectation of joining the author in creating a fictional world unlike any before known. Straining to make even elementary sense of what is being read, the “ideal” reader finds him- or herself forced to discard most of the more familiar relationships between fictional and real worlds.
As Hawkes himself has reiterated several times, his major themes and interests include the imagination, consciousness, and the nature of women. In the later 1970’s and early 1980’s, he started discounting—perhaps better stated, demystifying—his interest in women as a crucial subject. For Hawkes, “we live by our imaginations and a sense of strangeness,” imaginations that are always “trying to create something from nothing.” In addition, paradox is “the second word, after imagination that’s most important to [Hawkes], andthe word, dignity.” Add to these preoccupations an obsession “with such things as horses, dogs, birds, sexual destructiveness, lyricisms, [and] children.” All the children in Hawkes’s fictions are “maimed, injured, harmed, killed, punished in one way or another because [they]represent the writer himself.” Although these sufferings by children and animals may seem cruel, such cruelty “helps to produce a lot of the power of the language.”
This cruelty and power, coupled with Hawkes’s insistence on the separation of author and narrator, allow him to organize his prose objectively, obtaining the greatest possible tonal dissonance for superb aesthetic effects. Such detachment has led critics to question Hawkes’s apparent lack of ethical responsibility. These questions, confusing mimetic and aesthetic ends, are, perhaps, inevitable about someone who says, “I want fiction always to situate us in the psychic and literal spot where life is most difficult, most dangerous, most beautiful.”
Hawkes’s best-known early work is The Cannibal, a novel that, as Albert Guerard has pointed out, tiptoes on a fine line between the creation of a new universe and the fantastical exploration of the present one. The war-ravaged, degenerating town of Spitzen-on-the-Dein becomes the allegorical microcosmic version of Germany, pre- and postwar, during the twentieth century. Although parts I and II focus on the events of 1945 and following, and part II centers on the militaristic Germany prior to the outbreak of war, the thrust of the novel points toward a time in the future when Teutonic Germany will, for the third time in the twentieth century, rise again from the ashes of total defeat. By extension, such a renewal of nationalistic fervor makes a stable, peaceful world all but impossible.
Zizendorf, the narrator of parts I and III, wants to restore order to the German town (and, by analogy, to the nation). He is convinced that the first step involves killing the Allied representative, the overseer on motorcycle who patrols one-third of the occupied country. Part II details, in both complementary and contrapuntal imagery to the first and last section of the novel, the love affair and subsequent marriage of Madame Stella Snow and her husband, Ernst, which occurs prior to and during World War I. The imagery patterns in all three sections demonstrate how Germany’s martial atmosphere made a century of warfare virtually inevitable as the casual, surrealistic horror of life in Spitzen-on-the-Dein suffuses everything, even the newspaper, which is called, comically, the Crooked Zeitung.
Stella’s sister, Jutta, for example, an innocent girl during World War I, marries and bears two children between the wars, and, after her husband is captured in Russia, she must turn to prostitution to stay alive. One child, a girl, barely tolerated by Zizendorf, sees in the war-torn town a kind of beauty in the fires. Another child, a boy, is chased throughout the novel by a mad duke, who eventually kills, fillets, and cooks the “small fox” in what has to be Hawkes’s masterpiece of sustained metaphoric terror. The duke’s arrogance and bearing impresses Zizendorf, who thinks of staffing the offices of the new nation with his friends and acquaintances; indeed, thinks Zizendorf, the mad duke “would perhaps make a good Chancellor.”
By the end of the novel, the overseer has been killed, the people are informed that once again Germany is “free,” and Zizendorf gives one of his first orders to Jutta’s child, whom the Commander believes “will have to go” eventually. As many of the citizens of Spitzen-on-the-Dein line up to return to the insane asylum, the girl does “as she was told.”
Mere plot summary, however, captures little of the essence of Hawkes’s novel; only the experience of reading can fully impart the flavor of the work. In the chase of Jutta’s boy by the mad duke, for example, the reader first feels puzzled; he or she marvels how Hawkes has so easily and so well employed the metaphor of the fox hunt yet is vaguely unsettled by the juxtaposition of the hunt and the impact of the novel’s title. When Stella’s son comes upon them accidentally, one first tends to anticipate some sort of sexual child abuse signified through the chasing of the fox. Most readers, lulled by the son’s “uncommon pleasure in the visit of the Duke,” are stunned when they realize just how literal the fox hunt has been, as the duke cuts, slices, and finally skins his little “furry animal.”
The objectivity and the detachment of thenarrative surrounding the boy’s dismemberment and the boy’s role at the duke’s dinner party combine forcefully to demonstrate how skillfully Hawkes is able to write about the most horrible scenes, employing an almost schizophrenic split between description and valuation, between perception and cognition. This ability gives the average reader an experience in what Hawkes calls “true fictive sympathy.”
The Blood Oranges
The problems of consciousness, ethics, the imagination, and sexual love get extensive and unusual treatment in The Blood Oranges, a novel set in the mythical kingdom of Illyria, where Cyril and Fiona, a couple who practice sexual extension and multiplicity, meet a second couple, Hugh and Catherine (and their three children), the former a puritanical voyeuristic photographer, the latter a housewife seeking adventure. As Cyril and Fiona encourage Hugh and Catherine to join them in their tapestry of love, momentary acquiescence becomes wholehearted acceptance by Catherine; Hugh cannot purge himself of his former demons and accidentally hangs himself.
For the initial reviewers, the most important question in The Blood Oranges seemed to be an ethical one. Many equated the central character, Cyril, “with a studied, self-conscious, and all-pervading aestheticism” that can coldly watch the perpetration of the “greatest of evils,” that of a person’s apparent suicide. Following this understanding of the plot, critics would then go on to picture Cyril as a latter-day Oscar Wilde, a moral monster whose creator was guilty of either a bankrupt moral vision or a “self-conscious artificiality” so brittle and corrupt that “people have stopped mattering.” Later, as the novel went past its sixth printing, various readers came to understand that its lyrical qualities made any naïvely realistic reading of the novel distorted. The reader is not supposed to see the characters as only separate individuals. Instead, in almost Dickensian fashion, the reader must understand that each character represents only part of the issues being raised.
Indeed, The Blood Oranges is a wonderfully lyrical and highly moral work of fiction that was...
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