R(ichard) H(enry) W(ilde) Dillard Essay - Critical Essays

Dillard, R(ichard) H(enry) W(ilde)

Dillard, R(ichard) H(enry) W(ilde) 1937–

A poet, novelist, critic, and short story writer of the American South, Dillard, compared with Borges, Nabokov, and Robbe-Grillet, constructs his own reality. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-22.)

"The Book of Changes" is a great Chinese box of a novel, strewn with conundrums, masks, misleading clues, disintegrating landscapes, false starts, fake quotations, magicians, werewolves, bumbling detectives, severed hands and heads, and a sinister German dwarf who bumps from scene to scene in various disguises, sexes and shapes. Nothing remains intact for long: Men become women or change into screaming wolves; women appear in men's boxer shorts; suburban folk under the names of Herbert Hoover, Oscar Wilde and the brothers Marx drift in and out of the novel; even that ingenious puppet-maker and puller of strings, Vladimir Nabokov, shows up briefly. The very title of the novel shifts to "The Book of Dillards by R. H. W. Change" on a laundryman's list. Behind these transmogrifications is a world in which the skin "begins to flake away revealing nothing but scaling bone and mold, gray, puffed and swollen, living, dead, decay."

Mr. Dillard leads us gently out of this stale heart of darkness, providing a theory for his elaborate fictioneering. The "post-Einsteinian" novel, he tells us, one demonstrating the intricacies of time and space, "would be concerned with eveñts rather than with characters in the usual sense, would be particulate (composed of small, apparently discrete particles or fragments), would be composed of a number of different but simultaneous time movements, and would finally reveal itself to be formally unified. A modern book of changes."…

The problem with all this is that the novel is a more curious beast than the author is willing to allow. The contrivances may fit some rigged time scheme, but they do not shape and gouge the reader's imagination. Mr. Dillard is similar to that Mexican magician in his own book, "complete with brocaded sombrero, up on a low stage squeezing eggs out of his nose with an expression on his face like he had bad sinus trouble." The structure of the novel is transparent, like mad electrical wiring, so that the whole thing becomes a mystery book with only a vague sense of terror: we admire the conundrums but never feel the teeth.

Still, the book does have its pull, mainly because the writer has a marvelous ear for words. It is the small details that keep the book alive: the detective with "his nose veined pale blue with the cold"; the layers of dust that "fur" a room; the octopus in West Berlin's aquarium, eating itself to death at the rate of "half an inch" of tentacle per day.

In "The Book of Changes" Mr. Dillard practices a risky kind of magic: he remains a gifted writer with an obsessive love of conjuring that narrows him and imposes a brittle sense of form upon his book. (p. 4)

Jerome Charyn, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), August 25, 1974.

The Book of Changes is, quite simply, a brain-teaser, labyrinthine and layered. By creation, by imitation, or by grave-raiding, Dillard brings his cast to life and sets them to motion in an involved progression of ciphers and enigmas. They are shadowed by the spirits of Borges, Nabokov, and H. P. Lovecraft (among others), who spring up as passage-markers in the maze.

The characters inhabit four different "time zones," four different fragments of time and experience that seem isolated and unrelated to each other. Longinus, for example, lives perpetually in "winter," the paperboy in constant summer; Pudd's world lasts but three days. What they have in common, aside from being pretty odd, are objects—a coin, a talisman, a scrapbook, a mask, a purloined diamond—objects that retain their integrity and tangibility in the blur of lifetimes that revolve around them, objects that instigate actions and ignite passions in their energetic pursuers. These physical bodies act like magnets in the center of the maze, drawing the characters toward a confluence in time.

The movement is part of Dillard's "post-Einsteinian" novel where "we must concern ourselves with events and not stable bodies," where "time like physical matter is particulate … capable of dilation."…

This pitch seems a bit too sober and squeaky in the big-top arena of the book. But it enlists Dillard among those writers who view the novel as a separate and more rarefied reality, where the author enacts his own rules, where he plays whatever games he wishes with the reader, and where he ministrates a universe of characters and predicaments and ideas that are alive and moving, but still maintained in a rigorous orbit. The novelist as juggler, tongue firmly placed against cheek.

Dillard does manage to keep things up in the air. Matters begin to spiral toward resolution only in the final chapter. It is a pasticcio of epigrams and explications, the syllabus of Dillard's large and resourceful mythology, and it ties a neat ribbon around the proceedings.

Dillard's prose is a delightful excursion into parody and linguistic pranksterism. The lampoon of the detective genre, from the stodgy Victorianism of Arthur Conan Doyle to the blunt, no-nonsense "dicktion" of Dashiell Hammett, is teeming with cleverness and humor, and in the character of Fitz-Hyffen, Dillard sires a mutant alter-ego to Holmes who is too funny and too valuable to meet even a fictional death. Add to this the clutter of puns, anagrams, puzzles, and literary allusions, and you have a novel that is teasing and knotty, but happily not Gordian.

Some people prefer to read about detectives. Others relish the opportunity to be literary Sherlocks themselves, to enter the landscape of fiction, carrying greatcoat and glass, and stalk the demons of imagination. The Book of Changes accommodates both types of reader. R. H. W. Dillard writes like a criminal who subconsciously wants to be caught, and the clues are plentifully strewn throughout his novel. It is well worth the chase. (pp. 2-3)

Stephen Hall, "In Juggler Vein," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), November 3, 1974, pp. 2-3.