Thomas Berger Essay - Critical Essays

Thomas Berger American Literature Analysis

While his novels have been generally well-received by reviewers, and while he is regarded by his colleagues as a writer’s writer, Berger’s overall critical reputation has suffered somewhat because of the difficulty of categorizing his work, which does not fit into any standard literary movement or school. Critics often misunderstand Berger’s intentions or lazily lump him into a misleading category. Because of the humor, violence, and absurdity in most of his novels, he has sometimes been grouped with the black humorists, yet his fiction lacks the anger and delight in the grotesque associated with black humor. While there are strong satirical elements in his novels, Berger similarly rejects the label of satirist. He has little interest in overtly criticizing society; he is too pessimistic to believe it can change its ways.

Because several of his novels exploit the conventions of fictional genres, Berger has also been called a parodist—yet in these books, he is not making light of genres but lovingly paying homage to their conventions. Little Big Man is a Western; the futuristic Regiment of Women (1973) has science-fiction elements; Who Is Teddy Villanova? (1977) is a detective novel; Arthur Rex (1978) is an Arthurian romance; Nowhere (1985) resembles a spy thriller; Being Invisible (1987) is an antiutopian novel; Orrie’s Story (1990) retells the Orestes legend, updating Greek tragedy to small-town America at the end of World War II; Robert Crews (1994) is a survival tale in the tradition of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719); and Adventures of the Artificial Woman (2004) revisits the Frankenstein myth. In interviews, Berger has expressed his disgust at reviewers’ labeling of these works as parodies. His goal has been, rather, to celebrate these genres by identifying and applauding their characteristic plots, protagonists, themes, and other devices.

Although Berger is also uncomfortable with being called a comic novelist, he is clearly a comic writer in the tradition of Charles Dickens (a major influence on his work), Mark Twain, and Franz Kafka. Lacking the moral fervor of the true satirist, Berger exposes his characters’ foibles with compassion. He stands out from other American novelists of his time by writing about ordinary people with acceptance of their deficiencies and without condescension. Despite the almost complete absence of sentimentality in his fiction and despite his constant illustration of negative aspects of his characters’ behavior, Berger displays an unusual tolerance for human weaknesses. Nevertheless, his characters are presented with strong irony. Their interpretations of the reality they encounter are never entirely accurate or reliable.

Resisting both idealism and despair, Berger is among the least didactic of novelists. He apparently agrees with Dr. Otto Knebel in Crazy in Berlin, who says, “If you think I shall tell you what is right or wrong, my friend, you are mistaken. That is your own affair. I care only for practical matters.” While his characters may believe in causes, they learn, often painfully, that such beliefs are not beneficial to their individuality, as with the devotion of the knights to the chivalric code in Arthur Rex.

Despite his claim that his fiction is not thematic, Berger’s novels do say something about the problem of identity, the uncertainty of human relationships, the prevalence of violence in all societies, and the elusiveness of truth and happiness. Still, readers will best appreciate his work if they heed his warning to approach it “without the luggage of received ideas, a priori assumptions, sociopolitical axes to grind, or feeble moralities in search of support.”

While a major subject in Berger’s fiction is victimization, his characters are enslaved primarily by perceptions bounded by language. His books are about the characters’ efforts to free themselves from someone else’s definition of reality, a necessarily verbal definition. In Killing Time (1967), Berger shows how perceptions of violent crime are influenced by the language used to describe it, whether journalistic, legalistic (varying from police to lawyers), or sensationalistic, as in the tabloid press. Killing Time’s Joe Detweiler, a murderer, says, “The act is the truth, really. Everything else is language.” By cutting himself off from language, Detweiler loses touch with reality.

Berger shows how language can be a weapon with varying degrees of effectiveness. In Neighbors (1980), Earl Keese foolishly attempts to protect himself from the assaults of his obnoxious neighbors, Harry and Ramona, with conventionally polite phrases and clichés. Rejecting the apparent advances of the seductive Ramona, Earl conducts a conversation through a keyhole: “If you’d act right for once, then maybe I could perform as a decent neighbor. My intent is good—in fact it has been since the first—but you and Harry have always succeeded in alienating me, I don’t know why.” Ramona replies, “Have you got gonorrhea or something?” After Earl expresses outrage at this suggestion and Ramona fails to respond, he modifies his position: “But maybe I didn’t hear you correctly, so skip my criticism. I really would like to begin with a clean slate.” Ramona unsettles this conventional man by saying the unexpected, and Earl’s inherent decency, which is not being mocked, makes him think he may be the one in the wrong. Such failures to communicate are central to Berger’s humor.

In Who Is Teddy Villanova?, detective Russel Wren constructs plausible theories to explain everything that transpires in the novel, only to have the theories finally explain nothing. Berger overturns the expectations of the typical reader of mysteries who expects logical explanations for everything by offering another set of explanations to offset those imagined by Wren. Berger illustrates how many human problems result from errors in communication and from confusion created by the inexact use of language, showing how, in a world of words, language determines the quality of experience.

Crazy in Berlin

First published: 1958

Type of work: Novel

A naïve, somewhat idealistic young American soldier in post-World War II Berlin is initiated into the moral ambiguity and violence of life.

Crazy in Berlin, which opens on Carlo Reinhart’s twenty-first birthday, is Berger’s only remotely autobiographical novel, a coming-of-age tale in which his protagonist learns something about the complexities of the modern world. As an Army medic in Berlin following the end of World War II, Reinhart meets a wide variety of Americans, Germans, and Russians who introduce him to love, chaos, and madness. He spends much of the novel wandering from one lying or misinformed person to another as he acquires some sense of his identity.

The other characters include the idealistic Lieutenant Schild, a Jewish communist who leaks military secrets to the Russians; Lichenko, a Red Army deserter and would-be capitalist harbored temporarily by Schild; Bach, a giant, philosophical invalid who presents a case for anti-Semitism even though he hid his Jewish wife from the Nazis for four years; Dr. Otto Knebel, a former communist, tortured and blinded in a Russian concentration camp, who becomes a fascist after the fall of the Nazis; and Schatzi, a former supporter of Adolf Hitler imprisoned in Auschwitz for his criminal activities and now a cynical Soviet agent. Then there are the three women in Reinhart’s life: Lori, Bach’s wife and Knebel’s twin sister, who represents for Reinhart an unattainable romantic ideal; Trudschen, Lori’s whorish, masochistic, sixteen-year-old cousin, who appeals to Reinhart’s irrational side; and Veronica Leary, a flirtatious, buxom Army nurse, who represents vulgar American normality.

After Schild, betrayed by Schatzi, is abducted by two communist agents, Reinhart attempts to rescue him. He kills one of the abductors, but Schild is murdered by the other. Reinhart, who receives a serious head wound, undergoes six months of therapy in a psychiatric ward. He obtains revenge for Schild by betraying the treacherous Schatzi.

Reinhart tells his psychiatrist that Schild was insane for believing in the King Arthur stories he read as a boy and that he is himself crazy for sharing Schild’s romantic idealism. Reinhart senses that traditional values are without philosophical justification, yet he remains loyal to them in the name of decency and civilized behavior. Constantly musing on what it means to be Jewish, consumed by guilt over his German ancestry, aware of his potential for evil, Reinhart sees all sides to every argument and feels responsible for any injustice. He is on a seemingly endless quest to understand what cannot be understood.

Reinhart’s often comic quest continues in Reinhart in Love, in which he returns to what passes for normality in the United States, finishes college, and marries a shrew; Vital Parts (1970), in which he has become a middle-aged failure at marriage, fatherhood, and business; and Reinhart’s Women (1981), in which he keeps house for his daughter, a successful model, becomes a gourmet cook, and finally loses his grand expectations for himself, shedding his guilt and self-pity in the process. Reinhart has been called one of the most original heroes in American fiction because he embodies so many aspects of the American character in his journey through confusion and despair and because he maintains his integrity and humanity in an increasingly materialistic, nihilistic world. A good-hearted man in a corrupt society, he is a victim of his virtues.

Little Big Man

First published: 1964

Type of work: Novel

A white man is adopted by Indians but eventually fits into neither white nor Indian societies.

Little Big Man is 111-year-old Jack Crabb’s account of his life from 1852, when he is ten and most of his family is killed by drunken Indians, to 1876, when he becomes the only white survivor of the Battle of the Little Bighorn. During these twenty-four years, Jack is adopted first by Old Lodge Skins, chief of a small band of Northern Cheyenne, and later by the Reverend Mr. Pendrake and his beautiful, unfaithful young wife. Leaving the Pendrakes, Jack alternates between white and Indian societies, never fitting in comfortably with either. He longs for middle-class comforts, but...

(The entire section is 4360 words.)