Berger, Thomas (Vol. 11)
Berger, Thomas 1924–
An American novelist, short story writer, playwright, and editor, Berger is best known for his satiric caricatures of American life. He deals often with paradox, exploring man's struggle with absurdity, America's myths, and the deceptiveness of modern society. Fantasy, hyperbole, attention to detail, and a love of language are important elements in Berger's style. Little Big Man is generally considered his best work. (See also CLC, Vols. 3, 5, 8, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)
Thomas Berger's fifth novel ["Who Is Teddy Villanova?"] is mainly a parody of detective thrillers; his well-known "Little Big Man" was a parody of Westerns. According to the jacket copy, in "Who Is Teddy Villanova?" we will recognize the familiar "seedy office," "down-at-the-heels shamus," "procession of sinister, chicane, or merely brutal men and scheming, vicious, but lovely women" and a "sequence of savage beatings." All this is true. The novel contains much that is conventional in detective thrillers. Still, one needn't know the books of Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler in order to appreciate Berger's witty burlesque of their characters and situations.
Berger's style, which is one of the great pleasures of the book, is something like S. J. Perelman's—educated, complicated, graceful, silly, destructive in spirit, and brilliant—and it is also something like Mad Comics—densely, sensuously detailed, unpredictable, packed with gags. Beyond all this, it makes an impression of scholarship—that is, Berger seems really to know what he jokes about. This includes not only Hammett and Chandler, but also Racine, Goethe, Ruskin, Elias Canetti, New York and the way its residents behave. Essentially, then, Berger's style is like itself insofar as it is like other styles. And his whole novel—in its wide ranging reference to cultural forms both high and pop—is like a huge verbal mirror. Its reflections are similar to what we see in...
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For a thousand years the Arthurian legends have endured undiminished by progress or pessimism, and in this triumphant comic reaffirmation by Thomas Berger, they will continue to enthrall readers….
Of course, to portray a mortal man in a mythic situation is to invite comedy. And as John Barth did in Chimera, Berger [in Arthur Rex] exploits the humorous human potential to the fullest, but without compromising the integrity of the original legends—Gawaine and the Green Knight, or the tryst of Tristram and Isolde.
Instead, Berger enriches the texture of the tradition by speculating on the background of each knight—Percival's upbringing as a sissy in girls' clothes, Gawaine's fantastic carnal appetites, Launcelot's ascetic monasticism….
The familiar tales are told in a style as deliberately atavistic as that employed by the translators of the King James Bible in 1611, and to the same purpose: to give the whole a venerable aura and impact. Berger's 15th-century syntax, although inconsistently sustained, succeeds in giving the book both a self-mocking playfulness and a seeming gravity, according to his needs.
But even an imaginative retelling in antique language is less than Berger intends….
Berger's world of the Round Table and its comic-heroic exploits is more obstinately complex, less susceptible to moral redaction [than the earlier versions of...
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Thomas Berger might be called the Green Knight of American fiction: a mysterious, protean outsider whose pose of destructiveness masks a fierce reverence for form and meaning….
Arthur Rex, a massive retelling of the Camelot legend, may be Berger's most ambitious book, at least in size and literary scale…. [Despite his] careful scholarship, despite a prose style which borders on genius, despite many funny moments and a few painfully sad ones, Arthur Rex, in the end, remains less than the sum of its parts. (p. 34)
Arthur Rex is not a spoof. Much of its narrative—the adulterous love of Launcelot and Guinevere, the parallel tragedy of Tristram, Isold, and Mark, Sir Gawaine's rise from lechery and fall into vengeance—is seriously intended and often quite moving. The central tragedy in the book is that of Arthur, who attempts to found his table on pure virtue. The book's subtitle is "A Legendary Novel"; taking this term in its oldest meaning, we might consider it as the life story not primarily of a King, but of a saint. For all Arthur's goofiness, his ability to take a pratfall when the author requires it, I think Berger may intend to show Arthur as exactly that: a man who aspires to Godliness with his whole being, a seeker of selflessness who suffers the defeat of those who try for perfection.
Berger ascribes a larger role in the story to God than did the reverent but...
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Thomas Berger belongs, with Mark Twain and Mencken and Philip Roth, among our first-rate literary wiseguys. Savvy and skeptical, equipped with a natural eloquence and a knack for parody, he has been expertly flinging mud at the more solemn and self-important national myths for 20 years…. Mr. Berger's method … is to set [down his mythical landscapes] in his droll, relentlessly straight-faced prose, so as to empty them of romance, and let the brutal/crummy facts stare out. His pages swarm with bawdy puns and slapstick and bookish in-jokes; but even at his most absurd, his intrinsic tone is that of a hard-nosed realist who won't let the myths distort his essentially grouchy idea of the way things really are….
Doing good in a world that is mostly bad can have bizarre or disastrous consequences. This wry paradox is at the heart of Mr. Berger's interest in Good King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, and in their incorrigibly noble chivalric code. "Arthur Rex," Mr. Berger's newest novel, is his splendid, satiric retelling of the legend of Camelot. (p. 3)
Mr. Berger's masterpiece, it may be, is his treatment of Sir Launcelot, who unwittingly destroys the Round Table by his affair with Arthur's Queen Guinevere; and it's there, too, that Mr. Berger's command of the complex and contradictory traditions of these stories is most evident…. In older versions—the Arthur legend first turns up in a 12th-century...
(The entire section is 459 words.)