Madden, David (Vol. 5)
Madden, David 1933–
An American poet, novelist, playwright, and essayist, Madden is also the editor of American Dreams, American Nightmares, and Rediscoveries, two excellent critical collections. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)
David Madden wrote of Joyce Carol Oates: "She is one of the few writers today who has the vision to disturb my sleep, to frighten me when, in banal moments, I involuntarily recall a mood from one of her stories. After reading Miss Oates, one's casual moments are not one's own." Up to now Madden's own curious, lively writing has never threatened me in this way. His criticism has been sharp and far-ranging, his fiction uneven. At times he seemed to be experimenting for ways to retell the same adventures, searching as it were for the exact form to come to terms with whatever haunted him, whatever forced him to write. Finally, in Bijou, he has managed to put it all together. Two weeks after having read this deceptively quiet work I still think about it, about how, in his story of a year (1946) in the life of Lucius Hutchfield of Cherokee, Tennessee, Madden has finally managed to catch a vital part of our American experience. Bijou is an important novel.
In The Poetic Image in 6 Genres Madden discussed the two imaginative extremes of his own Tennessee childhood. One was listening to his grandmother's tales. "I sense that my grandmother was aware of the effects her storytelling had on me, and, even as a child, I was aware of another part of myself that stood at a distance, observing the dynamic interplay between teller and listener." More important in terms of Bijou was Madden's passion for the movies. "From age four until fifteen, I saw three 'shows' a week, usually twice each…. I wanted to be able to affect people the way the movies affected the spectators around me; but the only way I could deal with the magic powers of the movies was to write down my own versions …". (p. 29)
In the introduction to one of the many volumes he has edited (American Dreams, American Nightmares) Madden states that today, in our collective field of vision "in which we perceive mainly the nightmare, the idea of the 'American Dream' has become a cliché." But Madden then cites Wright Morris: "Every cliché once had its moment of truth." This truth, of course, is both factual and imaginative. Wright Morris is one of Madden's literary heroes, and in fact he wrote a full-length study of Morris' fiction. But even more interesting in light of Bijou is Madden's book on, of all people, James M. Cain. Discussing Cain and other tough guy writers Madden notes that this unusual genre has become part of our patrimony. "Their manner of dealing with the universals of sex, money, and violence presents a somewhat expressionistic picture of American society and culture in the 1930's and 1940's and provides insights into the American Dream-turned-nightmare and into the all-American boy turned tough guy." Whether or not Lucius turns sour is not the point of Bijou. Madden's novel, after all, captures only one crucial year. More Tom Sawyer than Huck Finn, Lucius is obviously doomed to a life of telling stories and reshaping his past. Whether or not anyone listens will decide his fate. (p. 30)
Charles Shapiro, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1974 by The New Republic, Inc.), March 30, 1974.
"Bijou," set in 1946 in small-town Tennessee, stars Lucius, a 13-year-old who is not only a movie freak but also an usher in one of the local theaters, where he gets to watch, over and over, the scenes he reconstructs and fantasizes about during the rest of his life. And so the real details of his days … are disguised, surrounded, submerged into Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake plots and Hedy Lamarr dreams.
The movie plots, actual and imagined, take up an embarrassingly large portion of the novel's considerable length. It's not that they're either pretentious or artificially constructed, but they are immediately and unceasingly boring, and Lucius as a character is finally overwhelmed by them….
No one would deny that Lucius, like millions of kids, used the movies to keep sane while getting through adolescence; the point is that fiction can't support a dogged, literal description of the details. (p. 35)
Sara Blackburn, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 21, 1974.
The time [of Bijou], one quickly sees, is 1946, and at one time or other we are bombarded with names of movies, songs, and best sellers, with newspaper and newsreel headlines. Lucius writes stories, dreams of being a writer, and gradually moves from stories based on movies to stories based on popular fiction to stories based on his own life, which in turn is based on that of Thomas Wolfe.
Now I am only a year older than Lucius Hutchfield, and was raised in a small city not unlike Cherokee. (p. 24)
In a sense, then, I am close to Madden's ideal reader. Yet long before I felt Bijou was terribly long, I felt first nervous and then repulsed by it, in the same way one can feel about a roman à clef when one knows who the people are behind all the characters. The nervousness arises the moment one realizes how much work one is doing for the author, how much supplying from one's own memory is going on, how blank it must all seem to an innocent reader, of a different place or time, who cannot do this work. The repulsion begins when one sees that what makes the books so static, so long, so unresponsive and even irresponsible about itself, is the use of nostalgia, pure, unruffled nostalgia, as the impulse behind the entire creation. Long before one wants to call the book bad in any sense it becomes intolerable.
Nostalgia is one of the impulses behind a great many very good works of literature…. But nostalgia, by itself, traps moments into images that are beyond intelligence and reproach, beyond the interference of the older person doing the remembering. All the movies Lucius Hutchfield saw in 1946, all the books he fondled, all the songs he heard, all the letters and stories he wrote, all the days and weeks, all are important, and equally important…. [The] naming is right and the naming is all Madden can or need do.
But the importance that nostalgia gives to names and places is precisely what deprives nostalgic creations of humanity, since all feelings are equally important and equally pleasureable. No understanding is needed, no shaping or judging can take place, in Bijou…. Madden … doesn't care who Lucius Hutchfield is, for all the attention he has apparently lavished on him. When moments are trapped in this way, they can be lovingly and precisely written and still be beyond the power of the writer to save them. (p. 25)
Roger Sale, in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1974 NYREV, Inc.), June 27, 1974.