Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4817
In The Poetic Image in Six Genres, David Madden acknowledges two principal influences on his work—his grandmother’s storytelling and Hollywood films—both explored in the autobiographical novel Bijou . He considers both to be “extremes.” Nevertheless, from his grandmother he learned the impact of the storyteller on his or her...
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- Critical Essays
In The Poetic Image in Six Genres, David Madden acknowledges two principal influences on his work—his grandmother’s storytelling and Hollywood films—both explored in the autobiographical novel Bijou. He considers both to be “extremes.” Nevertheless, from his grandmother he learned the impact of the storyteller on his or her listeners and from motion pictures he learned the techniques for making his own “stories more vivid, the action more immediate.” These two extremes or opposite forces—the oral storytelling tradition in the South and the visual realm of popular-culture films—combine in Madden’s novels to produce an abiding fascination with the role of the narrator-performer and the contrast between the life of action, that of the speaker or storyteller, and the life of the imagination, that of the listener or audience. To some extent, most of Madden’s novels explore this duality while also drawing on a nostalgia for old films and film heroes.
Because he comes out of the southern oral storytelling tradition, Madden, like William Faulkner, relies heavily on a fairly fixed source of raw material that he reworks in various forms. Thus, characters from one novel may reappear, sometimes under different names; situations may recur as well, in stories retold from a different point of view or stitched into a novel. All of Brothers in Confidence, for example, reappears as part of Pleasure-Dome, a much later work, with changes in the principal characters’ names. Most notably, Hollis Weaver, the narrator in Brothers in Confidence, is replaced by Lucius Hutchfield, who narrates both Pleasure-Dome and the earlier work, Bijou. Retelling the material from Brothers in Confidence allows Madden to reshape this material into a sequel for Bijou. On the Big Wind, which appeared in 1980, combines stories appearing in magazines as early as 1966, including “The Singer,” a variation on the Cassandra Singing material that Madden reworked for fourteen years.
Madden’s justification for this reworking of material rests in his interest in the storytelling tradition, where repetition of a favorite story only enhances the storyteller-listener relationship, and in his interest in experimenting with point of view. “In this shifting from one perspective to another on the same material,” he comments in The Poetic Image in Six Genres, “I have learned more aboutmy own interests, and about the teller-listener relationship.”
One corollary of this fascination with the teller-listener relationship is Madden’s concept of the artist-storyteller as “con man,” an idea the novelist claims to have borrowed from Thomas Mann. In his 1980 essay “Let Me Tell You the Story,” Madden speaks of this metaphor as one way of focusing his interest. “The relationship between the storyteller and the listener,” he adds, is like that between the con man and his mark, who charge each other through phantom circuits of the imagination; the storyteller uses many of the same techniques for capturing attention, holding it, and projecting the reader into a totally different world from the one he is living in.
Such creation Madden calls the “pleasure-dome,” the concept explored in his sixth novel.
Not surprisingly, most of Madden’s novels involve some form of storytelling by central characters with listeners swayed or held captive by the magical words of the speakers. Often it is the con man, such as Travern Weaver in Brothers in Confidence or Lucius Hutchfield’s corrupt older brother, Earl, who weaves these tales; often it is the artist-hero himself, Lucius in Pleasure-Dome or Hollis Weaver in Brothers in Confidence. Even a minor work such as “Hair of the Dog,” a detective story showing the influence of the “tough-guy” writers of the 1930’s on Madden’s fiction, involves a story told in prison, as do Brothers in Confidence and Pleasure-Dome.
The two novels that do not explicitly explore this teller-listener relationship are The Beautiful Greed and The Suicide’s Wife. Although both employ storytelling in at least one episode as a means of revealing character, even to some extent altering a relationship between the speaker and the listener, in neither novel is storytelling the focus of the book. Alvin Henderlight in The Beautiful Greed has shared a cabin for months with the mysterious Franco before Franco tells his story; in The Suicide’s Wife, Ann Harrington’s lack of inhibition in bed with her husband’s colleague serves as a device for altering her life, not that of the listener.
Of these two novels, only The Suicide’s Wife is not autobiographical. While it grew from a dramatic monologue concerning a suicide that happened on “the periphery” of Madden’s life, it does not concern the writer or a writer-hero, the autobiographical hero in most of Madden’s novels. Incidents from The Beautiful Greed, perhaps because they are largely autobiographical, do appear elsewhere, notably in Lucius’s artist-con man scheme in Pleasure-Dome. Only The Suicide’s Wife remains outside this storytelling context, unique also in its treatment of the duality of passivity and action within one central character, Ann Harrington, the suicide’s wife.
The Beautiful Greed
Madden’s first novel, The Beautiful Greed, was published by Random House in 1961 as part of the publisher’s First Novel series. The book was Madden’s master of arts thesis project at San Francisco State and drew heavily on his stint as a crewman aboard a Merchant Marine ship scheduled for Brazil but, in the novel at least, destined for Taltal, Chile, on a mercy mission to aid Chilean earthquake victims. The novel’sprotagonist, Alvin Henderlight, is clearly autobiographical. Aside from sharing with the novelist his Merchant Marine experience, Alvin is also from Knoxville, has motion-picture ideas about going to sea, reads voraciously (particularly Joseph Conrad and Herman Melville), and bears a physical resemblance to the novelist with his short stature and balding head. He also has a family much like Madden’s own and that of other autobiographical heroes in Madden’s novels: a father who drinks; a mother who works, most often as a maid or in a factory; and two vagabond brothers.
The Beautiful Greed is also a very conscious literary work strongly influenced by Conrad’s sea fiction. The title comes from a passage from Lord Jim (1900) referring to the insatiable hunger of the seaman for experience and adventure, a passage that serves as the epigraph for Madden’s book. Like Conrad’s novel, The Beautiful Greed takes illusion and reality as its central theme, particularly Alvin’s gradual disillusionment. As the novel progresses, so does Alvin’s awakening to the brute reality of life. His spiritual and psychological journey parallels the ship’s slow progress south, through the Panama Canal and eventually on to Chile and, for Alvin, to true knowledge and experience.
The ship is another conscious literary device, a microcosm of the world’s society. Young, old, bestial, intelligent, all different nationalities and human types are represented on board. Using these varieties of human beings, Madden explores the conflict between intellect—Alvin is dubbed the “professor” for his reading habits—and brute, insensitive action. Alvin and his cabin mate—the mysterious, remote Franco—are pitted against a crew of men whose brutal jokes include pitilessly trapping a sea bird and mercilessly using Franco as a scapegoat. For the most part, the novel follows the pattern of the bildungsroman, but its message is clearly existential. When the enigmatic, falsely dignified Franco reveals the truth about himself in a compelling story, he also leaves Alvin to face the consequences of his choices and actions aboard ship. Once committed to staying on board the Polestar, Alvin must face the brutish men whom Franco escapes by returning to his home in Taltal. Alvin has passed the opportunity to leave with Franco; his change of mind comes too late to alter the implied course of events with which the novel ends: Alvin’s own torture at the hands of the crew. While relying excessively on conscious literary devices and on the author’s own experiences, The Beautiful Greed is nevertheless noteworthy as a first novel for the author’s attempt to deal with important issues about people’s relationship with themselves and others and the meaning of their actions.
In Cassandra Singing, Madden turned away from predominantly autobiographical material to work with a story originating in a conversation with a messman aboard the novelist’s Merchant Marine ship—a tale of a girl who joined a motorcycle gang after “her brother was killed in a smashup.” Analogies exist in several forms, including various play versions and at least two short stories, “The Singer” and “Lone Riding.” Madden acknowledges being obsessed with the story for more than fourteen years.
Set in eastern Kentucky rather than the Knoxville of the novelist’s childhood, the story revolves around what Madden has described in The Poetic Image in Six Genres as “the strange relationship between a motorcyclist named Lone and his invalid sister Cassie.” Besides this nearly incestuous relationship, Madden also attempts to capture the life of the mountain people and the threat to their folk existence posed by progress represented in the novel by the steady encroachment of bulldozers that will raze Lone and Cassie’s home. His efforts are successful, for he is able to depict in detail the violence and deceptive simplicity of the mountain people, particularly through their dialect and mannerisms.
Perhaps because the story existed in dramatic form first, the novel relies heavily on dialogue, making immediate the conflict between Lone, who represents action, and Cassie, who represents imagination. Through Lone’s vivid retelling of his motorcycle adventures with his companion Boyd, Cassie, bedridden for years with rheumatic fever, is able to envision the life of action she has longed for but never had. Thus, she becomes one of the earliest of Madden’s characters enchanted by the storyteller’s art and imaginatively transported into a “pleasure-dome” of his own making. Lone likewise becomes one of the first of Madden’s storytellers to dramatize the oral storytelling tradition prevalent among mountain and southern people.
Despite its successes, Cassandra Singing moves too slowly at times. It represents a testament to Madden’s love of words, an essential trait in any writer, and his skill in capturing the speech of mountain people, yet the conversations become too repetitious, the action too prolonged. Like The Beautiful Greed, moreover, the novel draws heavily on other literary works and motifs. Cassie and Lone’s relationship, as Madden has acknowledged in The Poetic Image in Six Genres, is “partly inspired” by the “brother-sister relationship in the Oresteia [458 b.c.e.], Eugene O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra , Jean-Paul Sartre’s The Flies , and Jean Cocteau’s Les Enfants terribles ,” and Cassie herself by Frankie in Carson McCullers’s The Member of the Wedding (1950) and Cassandra, “the Greek prophetess of doom, who was condemned never to be believed.” Coupled with the biblical allusions that accompany Boyd’s attempted crucifixion and threatened castration of Lone near the end of the novel, these powerful literary antecedents overtake the meaning of Madden’s tale, leaving it wanting for power and impact.
Brothers in Confidence
Brothers in Confidence, which appeared in part in the Southern Review four years before its publication as an Avon paperback, returns to largely autobiographical material. It is also one of the most playful and humorous of Madden’s novels and the first to explore in depth the concept of the artist as con man. The first-person narrator, Hollis Weaver, is that artist.
Hollis’s goal is to save his younger brother, Cody, from serving a sentence on a chain gang for forgery. Like his brothers—Cody and the older Travern, also a criminal and forger—Hollis, though a writer and teacher by profession, must act the con man to persuade several good citizens of east Tennessee to accept a token payment as promise that Cody will make retribution and to agree to drop all charges against him. To do this, Hollis must travel the countryside weaving tales of Cody’s neglected childhood—his parents resemble Lone and Cassie’s as well as Lucius Hutchfield’s—and ensnaring his audience with his storytelling art. His success depends on his skill in playacting, manipulating his audience, and vividly dramatizing Cody’s life in order to win pity—all talents that the oral storyteller must possess. Only Travern’s pose as a fancy lawyer, Mr. French, outshines Hollis’s art. Travern, a genuine rogue since his youth and a thief who steals from his own family, goes directly to the judge and, by using a soapy story about holding the judge’s only son as he dies in combat, convinces the old man to release Cody and accept several bogus checks as payment for court costs and ready cash so the Weaver brothers can leave town.
Brothers in Confidence is a lively, quick-paced, humorous portrait of three witty con artists caught in the act of writing bad checks and weaving outrageous tales. Like Madden, they delight in holding their audiences, both listeners and readers, with the magic of their stories. Episodic in structure, the novel follows the exploits of the narrator-hero as he travels the countryside, attempting to stay out of jail while trying also to free his brother. In these two respects, Brothers in Confidence is a picaresque novel, though sexual adventures are noticeably absent, having been saved for abundant use in Bijou. Also noteworthy is Madden’s reliance on Hollis’s storytelling to handleexposition and family history—a dramatic device from oral storytelling—and his use of motion pictures as a means of enhancing action and character. Hollis, like the later Madden hero Lucius Hutchfield and the novelist himself, has worked as an usher in a film theater and served with the Merchant Marine. He envisions himself a romantic hero, an Alan Ladd figure acting out various roles assigned to him. Like Madden, he also has two brothers who have served time in prison.
In 1969, Madden received a Rockefeller grant in fiction to work on his fourth novel, Bijou. He wrote part of the novel in Yugoslavia, part in Venice—an “ideal place,” he told Ruth Laney in an interview for the Southern Review. “When I got the grant,” Madden continued, “I thought the best place to go to begin the book would be to a city that paralleled the exotic quality of the Bijou, both in the movies and in real life.” In effect, through its focus on the aging theater at which its hero works, the novel duplicates the author’s own nostalgia for the past. Its purpose is to capture the “seediness” of that theater, once a site for legitimate stage productions, now a place where pornographic films are shown.
Set in Cherokee, Tennessee, Bijou is another largely autobiographical bildungsroman, tracing the life and adventures of thirteen-year-old Lucius Hutchfield during one turbulent and painful year. The period is immediately after World War II, and the romantic Lucius is infatuated with film stars and the memorable and not-so-memorable motion pictures of Hollywood’s so-called golden era. Like Madden, Lucius grows as an artist through two principal sources, both dramatized in the novel: his grandmother’s storytelling and films.
Because the novel has little plot other than Lucius’s growth over one year and his emergence as a young writer, it is highly episodic. Bijou, one critic complained, is “so long” (five hundred pages), “so unresponsive, and even irresponsible about itself” that the reader becomes bored and repulsed. Madden records virtually every intimate detail and every event, including bowel movements, every day of Lucius’s life for a year. Some of the details are successful in capturing the formative factors in Lucius’s growth; others are not. There is humor but also vulgarity and tedium.
Defending the novel, Madden told Laney that he had wanted “a concentration of effect, a sort of captivity in the Bijou” paralleling the enchantment the storyteller weaves through words and movements, here created by a place. The problem is that the book lacks the “unity of place [that] would have enabled [the author] to shorten the novel and to realize [his] original purpose.” To accomplish his task, Madden dramatizes his own adolescence and growth as a writer, filtering every detail through Lucius’s consciousness, yet Lucius is incapable of distinguishing the valuable from the useless in his experience.
Madden also experiments with severalnarrative patterns. Some work, others do not. Film sequences and bits of motion-picture dialogue blend with Lucius’s thoughts and imaginings, successfully dramatizing the creative process and the impact of what Madden calls the “charged image” on the creative consciousness. Segments of night reveries in which Lucius nostalgically reviews his life, sections of the hero’s diary, letters between him and his girlfriend, Raine—including one borrowed from a Joseph Cotton film—even whole stories written by the young Lucius appear as sections of narrative. Many of these bog down, particularly Lucius’s and Raine’s letters, which are often adolescent professions of love. The stories, though demonstrating the hero’s early attempts at fiction writing, mirror the artist’s growth only part of the time. Finally, Bijou is not a successful novel; Madden’s long autobiographical piece testifies, as does Cassandra Singing, to his love of literature, but it is also an instance of the novelist’s having been caught in his own storytelling trance and nostalgia for the past.
The Suicide’s Wife
The Suicide’s Wife, which was made into a television film for which Madden wrote the script, is in many ways the novelist’s most unusual—some might say successful and original—novel. It is unusual among his novels in focusing solely on a female character—Cassandra Singing does so only partially. Aside from a dramatic monologue by the wife, the novel has no predecessors in Madden’s oeuvre, an unusual feature. It is also, in Madden’s own words, “a very short novel inspired by something that happened” not in his own life but “on the periphery, a suicide.” The novel is also unique in that it does not dramatize the oral storytelling tradition, as do Madden’s other works, and is crisp and Hemingwayesque in style.
Filtered through the intelligence of the suicide’s wife, Ann Harrington, the wife of an English teacher at a West Virginia university, the novel studies the struggle of “the wife” to acquire an identity of her own following her husband’s apparent suicide. Her lack of knowledge about her husband and about herself is her source of motivation after her husband’s death thrusts her into a world she is unprepared to confront. Set against the backdrop of the student riots and Civil Rights movement of the late 1960’s, Ann’s story becomes a parable for the women’s movement, a tale of progression from passivity and emptiness toward action and self-fulfillment.
At the outset of the novel, Ann defines herself almost solely in terms of her vagina, an emptiness to be filled by her husband. Madden skillfully does not give his heroine a name in this opening section. Her identity is not yet established, either with the reader, or, more important, with herself. As the book progresses, however, Ann’s painful growth is recorded increasingly in terms of herself, with the narrative moving in and out of her thoughts, at times allowing Ann to think in the first person as she develops some identity through action. The wife who is “still a wife” at the beginning of the novel “even though she doesn’t have a husband” eventually realizes that the man to whom she felt inferior for years was in fact a nobody, as vague as she, as passive and purposeless and lost.
With Pleasure-Dome, Madden returned to the comic tone and first-person narrative voice he used in Brothers in Confidence, part of which is reworked here with Travern, Hollis, and Cody becoming Lucius Hutchfield of Bijou and his two brothers, Earl and Bucky. Like that earlier work, the novel is autobiographical and retells stories found in other forms and books. Pleasure-Dome is also a sequel to Bijou, with Lucius seven years older and experienced through travel and through time with the Merchant Marine. At twenty, Lucius is also seeking more than his own past, though he must deal with his troublesome family members who are frequently in trouble with the law.
Pleasure-Dome is an interesting novel for what James Park Sloan in The New York Times Book Review cited as its combination of “profligate storytelling with reflections on the storytelling process.” The narrator’s consciousness—seen to a lesser degree but very evident nevertheless in Brothers in Confidence—emerges on the first page when he invites the reader into his tale with the traditional storyteller’s line, “Did I ever tell you about the time?” In this first half of the novel, Lucius adopts what he calls his Mark Twain persona, retelling, as he must to save Bucky, sad stories about his childhood in Tennessee, while at the same time he is reporting to the reader-listener the chronicle of his adventures in conning those citizens pressing charges against Bucky.
Pleasure-Dome also moves beyond Brothers in Confidence and Bijou by adding a segment on Lucius’s quest for a past other than his own, that of the legendary Jesse and Frank James. His search involves the attempt to learn the tale of Zara Ransom, an old woman who reportedly had a brief romance with Jesse James when she was a girl. To get her story, Lucius must once again successfully con his audience, here by using Zara herself; one of the fascinating complications is that it is Zara who enchants Lucius by telling her own story. Pleasure-Dome then contains two or more stories: the autobiographical one concerning the Hutchfields, and another, a second tale, of Zara Ransom and her relationship with a figure from America’s legendary past. Both stories concern the past; both are narrated by oral storytellers. Both create a pleasure-dome for the reader-listener.
Pleasure-Dome is clearly a more sophisticated work than Madden’s earlier novels that experimented with point of view and narrative art. By adding Zara Ransom’s story and having her tell that story as Lucius writes it, Madden captures the storytelling process and the transmission of a dying art to the writer. As in Cassandra Singing, progress in the form of razing bulldozers is threatening the folkways of which the oral storytelling tradition is a part. Without Lucius’s written record of Zara’s story, handled with what he calls his Henry James persona, and his interpretation of the ending, the tale would be lost. Zara may or may not have been Jesse James’s lover, but she is a legend that reminds people, Lucius thinks, “that those who do not remember the past are doomed never to relive it in the imagination.” Significantly, at the end of the novel, Zara is destroyed, and Lucius is moved to guilt and deep feelings of “somethingfor the first time besides nostalgia.”
On the Big Wind
With Pleasure-Dome, On the Big Wind dramatizes more successfully than any other Madden novel what the writer has described in The Poetic Image in Six Genres as “the teller’s compulsion to tell a story,” “the oral tradition” and the process by which it depicts, renders, and stimulates the art of oral storytelling. The book consists of seven episodes, most of which were originally published as short stories in a variety of magazines. The tone is clearly comic, as indicated by the subtitle “Seven Comic Episodes in the Fitful Life of Big Bob Travis.” What is especially fascinating here is that each episode explores a different dramatic relationship between the storyteller and his audience. Thus, Madden’s major theme of the power of storytelling gains power itself through the variety of ways in which the narrative voice of radio announcer Big Bob manipulates his audience. As the novel’s epigraph, taken from Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847), observes, “The eagerness of a listener quickens the tongue of a narrator.”
In the opening episode, Big Bob is a night-owl country music disc jockey in Nashville given to having affairs with the women who call him. The “magic” in his voice enthralls countless women, but Big Bob, married to a meek housewife, is honest enough to have only one affair at a time. Problems occur when his wife, Laura, masks her voice and calls and seduces him as the deep-throated Morina. When Bob cannot resist a rendezvous with the mythical Morina, the result of the confrontation is divorce.
In later episodes, Big Bob’s status in the radio business declines, then rises again. In each episode he plays a different role, sometimes with a different professional name, including a Jewish one. As David Epstein, he becomes a spokesperson for environmental and social causes. As a rock-music disc jockey, he must fend off the attack of a menacing motorcycle gang by telling a story that mesmerizes the group. In another episode, he draws a huge crowd of people to a sleazy mobile-home sales park by narrating the activities of a van of hippies. In that scene, Big Bob, in the tradition of the oral storyteller, both creates and “narrates the news.”
As in his other novels, Madden’s concern in On the Big Wind is with narrative techniques more than with originality in character creation or invention in plot. Like the oral storyteller who draws on a seldom-changed repertoire, Madden is content to repeat a story if the retelling draws another member of the audience into his pleasure-dome.
Madden’s storyteller-listener theme and allegiance to the southern oral tradition extend to his novel Sharpshooter, a fictional memoir of an American Civil War soldier, Willis Carr, who, at the age of thirteen, leaves his Tennessee home to accompany his father and brothers on a Union raid into Confederate territory. Captured, he agrees to join the rebel army rather than face execution. Soon, he becomes a sharpshooter while serving under General Longstreet during several major battles against Union forces. Eventually, he deserts but is recaptured by Confederate troops and ends up as a guard at the infamous Andersonville prison, where he is taught by a slave to read and write.
In recounting the experiences of the war through the eyes of the young Willis, Madden concentrates on a recurring theme: What is fact and what is fiction? Buffeted throughout the war by events he does not entirely understand, Willis comes to realize that his personal recollections are clouded, leaving him to contemplate at war’s end not only the disconcerting effects of battle but also the meaning of his own participation. Troubled by his memories and the belief he may have missed something, he decides to put his experiences in writing. In so doing, he chooses to revisit the battlefields, examine photographs and memoirs, and listen to other veterans, as well as civilians, as they relate their experiences. However, he finds he is not alone in his difficulty in recalling events. Only a moment of intense personal recollection that brings everything into focus allows him to connect with what is essential to his imaginative and intellectual welfare.
In retracing his steps, Willis demonstrates another of Madden’s favorite themes, that of a central character separated from the past, either mentally or physically, who as a consequence suffers from a loss of identity. It is only when Willis sees the war through the emotions, intellects, and imaginations of others that he is able to view it with a sense of completion. Yet, as he observes, the truth is never complete. He points to the legend-making inclinations of people to select actual incidents from the past and color them with imagined constructions. The retelling of tales by participants carries risks, because accounts can conflict, having been subjected to a variety of historical processes, some more reliable than others. While Willis’s vantage point as a sharpshooter permitted him to see more than the infantryman, his mission was also single-minded, and no event played out on the battlefields, he concludes, could be solitary. There are other vantage points and other views that may or may not conflict but nevertheless must be considered if the past is to be interconnected. By connecting one experience with the other, especially the opposites, the participant integrates the pieces into a recognition and finally into a comprehension of the past. At this stage, Madden’s storyteller operates in the realm of the impersonal with an omniscience that is able to accommodate simultaneous events, both real and imagined.
Unlike Bijou, Madden’s Sharpshooter does not get bogged down in repetitive detail or gratuitous sentiments. Instead, it maintains an undercurrent of subdued thought and emotion that steadily steers the reader to the story’s final moments of revelation. It is thus not surprising that, highly acclaimed by critics, the novel was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.