Charles Newman

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Newman, Charles (Vol. 8)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2208

Newman, Charles 1938–

Newman is an American novelist. On the basis of his first two novels, New Axis and The Promisekeeper, he has earned the reputation of being a brilliant, original, and exciting writer. His latest enterprise is to examine various conflicts of contemporary life in different literary styles. Of the twelve projected novellas, three have been published and collected in a volume entitled There Must Be More to Love than Death. (See also CLC, Vol. 2, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-24, rev. ed.)

Read as an intellectual's misadventures in the dimension of the historical, A Child's History is fascinating.

Yet it is writing "without genre," as Newman states. And it will probably be misunderstood. For, like Newman's elegant and difficult prose fiction (New Axis, The Promisekeeper), it is an attempt to fuse what might be called the "inner" and the "historical" worlds, to present an egoless self that, being both private and cultural, may speak for a good many people without surrendering its aesthetic commitment to what is extraordinary, unique, unrepeatable. Most young American writers who acknowledge their indebtedness to Nabokov, Borges, Beckett and others in that tradition, have totally rejected what Newman seems to be insisting is the central function of literature: a moral, impersonal transmission of the accumulated wisdom of one individual's life in the form of literature that addresses itself to a specific historical, geographical condition—one's homeland. So the book's true, secret title must be The Education of Charles Newman, Vol. I, and its philosophical-poetic monologues on the nature of one's relationship to politics, specifically to revolutions of various types, seem to me without precedence in our literature. For if we are to have any philosophy at all in America, it must have the appearance of being something—anything—else….

So the journal is valuable as history, and even more valuable as the first volume in a work of art "without genre." An extraordinary work, which no review could adequately suggest.

Joyce Carol Oates, in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), October 28, 1973, p. 10.

Charles Newman is one of the most interesting, intelligent, and, I suspect, secretly optimistic prophets of doom now writing fiction. One has the feeling as one reads that, like all prophets, he speaks more darkly than he means, in the almost but not quite forlorn hope that the sinful may even now repent in time. Whatever this may mean for the future of humanity, it produces pure and magnificently beautiful art. The prophetic warning—against our greed and selfishness, callous indifference and arrogance, our willingness to sink without a whimper into the barbarism of governmental, commercial, and spiritual fascism—comes through as a direct and open warning yet has in it no trace of dogmatism because it's firmly grounded in the feelings and experiences of characters. Sometimes the character's cry has the ring of propaganda at its best; in fact, in isolation from the character's reason for crying out it would be propaganda….

But the charged language, the orator's rhythms, the irony and mockery are always set as art, too complex for mere slogan, too firmly tied to life's ordinary joys and griefs.

There Must be More to Love than Death … presents the first three novellas of a projected 12-novella series, each novella examining a conflict of contemporary life in a different literary style. The first novella here, the title work, tells the story—partly in traditional narrative, partly by court-martial documents—of a morphine addicted soldier who has learned that his mother's advice is obsolete: "You've a chance to go to hell but you have no right to be bored."… It's a quiet story—deadly quiet, as the theme demands. It would be crushing and black-hearted except for Newman's gentle wisdom, his occasional touches of startling but authentic humor, and his brilliant metaphors. (No one can spring metaphors more cunningly or naturally, transforming the mundane into poetry.) The central idea—that in the modern world, where impersonal system rules our lives, boredom may be the only option available—is an idea we've heard before many times; but Newman's careful and compassionate scrutiny of characters, and his remarkable knowledge of places and occupations—a striking feature of all his work—gives the idea dramatic force….

In the second novella, The Five-thousandth Baritone, Newman stands the idea on its head. Gerald Fox is an excellent young baritone in a world where there are always five thousand excellent young baritones. If he's ambitious and dedicated, so are they; and even when he discovers that he has one unique talent, the ability to produce two tones at the same time, his gift proves no advantage: the music world wants what it's used to. So he gives singing recitals that don't mean very much, and he supports himself by selling door-to-door for a huge, indifferent company (one more heartless "system").

These could be the materials of a Newman tragedy, but here they're turned to glorious farce….

The novella is shot through with a love of life and art, a delight even in meaningless system, since it's by the company's system (tapes which teach the salesman to crack his customer) that the hero falls into the lives of the Baginskis and gets the surprising and touching reward life's mundane old values can sometimes give….

The third novella, A Dolphin in the Forest, A Wild Board on the Waves, is poetically and philosophically the most impressive of the three, a story set in the mind of a sensitive, brilliant boy with a photographic memory, a boy who claims "I never made up a thing in my life!" but whose idea of reality is a strange blend of fact and imagination, the material and the spiritual. His whole labor is to apprehend and record only what is real, but what is real turns out to be, for him as perhaps for all of us, highly mysterious: brute fact is shot through with the leftover emotions of the Christmas season no one believes in anymore….

Newman has always been a writer's writer, a poet-philosopher who never forgets that poetry and philosophy are pointless except when their concern is with people. That, as much as the beauty of his prose, is the reason his books work. He has never written better than in these three novellas.

John Gardner, "Optimistic Prophet of Doom," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), October 31, 1976, p. F3.

[The three novellas in There Must Be More to Love Than Death] are serious, ambitious pieces: nonconformist, they are unwilling to let themselves be limited either in meaning or in scope simply for the conventional reason that they happen to be pieces of short fiction…. Their major characteristic is that they continually strive outward; they remain ambitious, extend beyond themselves. At their best, which is most of the time, they take us straight to the heart of the matter.

For what they are really about—beyond their immediate subject matter—is, quite simply, the likelihood of our survival. They are stories woven consciously out of the ominously suspended historical moment in which we happen now to find ourselves not just living but waiting. Newman himself … has commented on this sense of waiting as a general characteristic in American writing…. "As Whitman had it, echoing Matthew Arnold, 'society waits unform'd, and is for a while between things ended and things begun,' which is, after all, the quintessential American sense of history … and our dubious gift to the devolution of Western thought."

It is an old theme, it may be a dubious gift, and Western thought may or may not be devolving. But certainly these three novellas have precisely these things as their themes—anxiety, waiting, dread, a simultaneous fear of what may happen and a Beckett-like fear that nothing may happen. (pp. 471-72)

The theme can be seen most easily in the initial piece, the novella from which the book as a whole takes its title. Its materials are familiar ones, but they are wrought so skillfully as to provide a good deal more than would readily be expected of them. The piece is about Vietnam. More precisely, it is about characters on their way to Vietnam who are never permitted quite to get there. The appropriateness of this is clear. The war for these characters (as it was for the nation as a whole) remains something incessantly to fear and dread, something abstract, menacing, guilt-evoking, and terrifying, but not something they are ever permitted actually to see and to know and therefore, just possibly, to understand and conquer. The war becomes thus the metaphor solely of dread, fear and threat; never is it made understandable, even ironically, in terms of cause, purpose or perceptible meaning. It becomes the gradually intensifying cause of individual self-destruction, of insanity….

[It] is upon his often brilliant use of language that the quality of Newman's achievement finally depends. It is no accident that language itself becomes a central part of his theme: just as in the writing of so many of the "anti-realists" (with whom Newman, as critic and editor, is deeply familiar), Newman's own writing also comes to be about writing, his language about language….

The final novella ["A Dolphin in the Forest, a Wild Boar on the Waves"] carries the theme [farthest]; for though we may be doomed already to massive self-destruction, a good part of the cause will be our failed reverence for the humble and invaluable truth of language well respected. Our most valuable possession, after all, is the one we treat most crudely. Nor is this merely the hobbyhorse of the teacher of English: for the truth is that only through language does experience gain meaning; and meaning—I meet all arguments to the contrary—is made meaningful to us only through language. Without language, Newman tells us—able language—we are all the more assuredly doomed.

The third novella is in some ways the weakest of the three, perhaps precisely because its aim is the highest, the most elusive. In it there is the strongest element of what may as well be called science fiction, for the piece is set after the atomic holocaust—or some equivalent—has occurred….

Here we find the narrator mistaking video tapes of Jane and Tarzan for "history"; imagining that tapes entitled Mac-Arthur Returns are "a family series probably"; and observing that "the government had built amphitheatres" around old missile silos, "declaring them national monuments…." This is the stuff of minor science fiction indeed, and, though it both jars and intrudes, one forgives it in light of Newman's real aim: to create a metaphor for the implicit destructive potential of America's cultural failures. (p. 472)

[Like] the others, [the final novella] is a story that lives primarily in its language. One of its major themes, as well, is once again language—more specifically, the phenomenon of language, through abuse, neglect, or design, becoming isolated from meaning…. Language gives no meaning to experience; it does not translate experience into meaning.

Once language fails in this way, we effectively lose whatever control of our world we might previously have had. Unrooted from meaningful language, experience itself becomes random and gratuitous. The world is no longer directed or shaped: it merely happens, and we, helpless, are cut adrift in it, confused and without direction (notice the odd inversion of the novella's title). The radical premise upon which the truth of the Orwellian nightmare is based becomes conceivable: one thing is not more meaningful than another. (p. 473)

And thus we come around to the essence of it: as writers, we must struggle to create meaning out of materials provided us by a world in which "everything seems to smell the same." It is the writer's task, like the thinker's, to make distinctions between things, to evaluate, to study and reveal the differing and related meanings of differing and related experiences. The difficulty of doing this is increased almost insuperably in a world that strives to negate such distinctions, eliminate the relativity of meanings, and that values as one of its primary devices a language increasingly designed to serve, through powerlessness, its ends.

This book, Newman's fourth, will almost undoubtedly be classified by many—even in their praise—as esoteric, unconventional, even abstruse. But it may be that it has never been more difficult to write significantly than it is now—the questions are so big, the available materials within which to approach them so exhausted…. [Newman] suggests the nature of the dilemma: the writer's material, the fictional possibilities of his world, are "drained," yet the importance of writing seriously about them is perhaps greater than ever. For our world is one of enervated banality and at the same time one of immense, even unimaginable, dangers and risks. The difficulties are evident, the dangers those of defeat or hysteria. Charles Newman is one of the writers, whatever his weaknesses, who at least shows us a way, in the face of these paralyzing contrasts, neither to go mad nor to give up entirely. In this richly controlled book, he does not resort merely to screams, yet he shows us how not to remain entirely silent. (pp. 473-74)

Eric Larsen, "Language and the Apocalypse," in The Nation (copyright 1976 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), November 6, 1976, pp. 471-74.

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Newman, Charles (Vol. 2)