Legends of the Fall brings to mind an introduction which Tom Wolfe wrote several years ago for a collection of “New Fiction” which had been published in Esquire magazine. After noting the pervasive nihilistic tone of the collection, Wolfe observed that nihilism is now an accepted literary convention, “and conventions in literature are like conventions anywhere else: they are marks of grace and propriety, not wounds of the soul.” The writers of these dark fables, he guesses, are young, “in good animal health,” and “have kept their credit rating up. . . .” The three novellas collected in Legends of the Fall are full of spectacular violence, sickening cruelty, and unredeemed suffering. The author’s long view of the human condition is neatly summarized by an epitaph in the title story:
SAMUEL DANT LUDLOW 1897-1915WE WILL NOT SEE HIMBUT WE SHALL JOIN HIM
Yet Legends of the Fall is no encounter with demons; it is a very entertaining book. Much of the pleasure derives from Jim Harrison’s mastery of various literary conventions, as deft and as openly artificial as any sonneteer’s. This is not fiction which aims to make you forget that you are holding a book in your hands. His novellas are rich in lore—detailed and zestful accounts of meals, reminiscent of Dead Souls; names of firearms, never merely an anonymous rifle or shotgun but a Ruger 30.06; and all kinds of odd detail such as one finds in the digressions of Melville or Gogol. There is even a fine description of David Thompson executing a 360-degree slam dunk. The conflict between Harrison’s literary manners and his nihilism creates tension for the reader who does not take nihilism with his tea, who finds Harrison’s sense of human existence ultimately dark and horrifying.
“Nihilism” is perhaps a worn-out word, like “existentialism,” but the belief which it names is quite real. Nihilism is not a belief in something; it is a negation. Introducing his recent translations from the Bible with an essay on the origins of narrative, the novelist Reynolds Price says that men “crave nothing less than the perfect story . . . we are satisfied only by the one short tale we feel to be true: History is the will of a just god who knows us.” Nihilism denies the truth of that tale: it denies the existence of any “plot” in the history of man or in our individual lives, any great story in which our lives finally have their meaning revealed.
A nihilistic artist pursues the consequences of this denial; he is an artist precisely because he is not content to shrug the question off, preoccupied with “practical” concerns. Thus a century after Nietzsche many artists still explicitly deny the existence of God (implicitly denying life any ultimate meaning), or even curse God. While it is true that nihilism has become a literary convention and that many men today are themselves casual nihilists, these explicit denials and blasphemies still have great power. The artist is saying what few men would openly say, whatever their inward convictions or half-formed notions. One can feel this power in the cinema as well as in literature: no image can substitute for the words of Marlon Brando cursing God in Last Tango in Paris, or Woody Allen in Sleeper—in a tone closer to Jim Harrison’s—answering the question of just what he does believe in: “Sex and death.” Thus when the hero of Harrison’s title story, “Legends of the Fall,” twice curses God, it is as a matter of principle. It is not enough for Harrison to imply it: it must be said, as one takes an oath.
Harrison’s novellas, then, share the perplexing quality of much contemporary fiction: a nihilism without evident despair. The detached, almost playful tone can in part be attritubed to his use of that supposedly discredited convention, the “intrusive” narrator, who interrupts the action, comments on it, and even offers Tolstoyan generalizations. It has been the first commandment of most fiction since Flaubert that the narrative should speak for itself, but Harrison, like many of his contemporaries, has found energy in the convention of the intrusive narrator, just as a contemporary poet might find energy in rhyme. Harrison’s use of dialogue—which grew increasingly important in modern fiction with the disappearance of the author—is accordingly spare; in the title story, there is virtually no dialogue, and even that is in indirect discourse. It should be noted that in these novellas, there is no distinction implied between narrator and author.
The authorial voice is least intrusive...
(The entire section is 1970 words.)