[Playground] is a novel about man and nature. The man is pretty close to nobody in particular—which by the logic of some novels is supposed to make us see ourselves in him—and the nature, though a carefully identified segment of primeval Canada, is really any old conveniently featureless wilderness of water and trees.
The human half of this well-worn dialectic is Spence Morrison, who [crash-lands in the wilderness and] … spends most of the novel alone with his descriptive powers.
Well, not quite alone. To guide him there emerges from his subconscious a know-it-all inner voice that sounds like an impeccably starched straightman talking his way toward a pie in the face. Unfortunately, it's supposed to be the whisper of latent resourcefulness. The voice helps him dry his clothes, and later look for food, and in general is as helpful as Robinson Crusoe's Friday and also eats less and doesn't want to beat him at checkers.
He survives nature for three weeks, tells himself he's learned something, and then is rescued just in time, when Playground has stumbled through as many ironic permutations of his two lives as it can conceive….
Playground is a dutiful novel in a fussy way, and gives the impression that it's recording what it has to more than what it wants to…. Writer and reader seem locked in some obligatory dance that neither of them can lead.
Buell's prose accomplishes the difficult task of being businesslike and flaccid at the same time. In its runny fashion it just wants to get on with things. No spaces for our response are granted or required…. Buell excells in anticlimatic explanations of the obvious that I probably shouldn't criticize but just send in to The New Yorker, followed by a little "oh," for the bottoms of their columns.
The reader can find for himself such delights as booby-prize chapter beginnings that reward us with heavy underlinings of what we've just had to plod through in the last chapter, the use of "yeah" to indicate manly perception, and such similes as "contradictions tugged at him like turbulence."
Although he tries hard to make it all mean something, Buell ends up describing events for their own sake, not as pressures on the consciousness of his hero. The novel is filled with physical actions that never become experiences.
What's missing, among other things, is the alchemical magic of sensuousness….
Buell's hero … unfortunately brings to the woods the sensory sweep of a kitchen sink.
Buell drops plenty of hopeful suggestions about the meaning of his novel. They're grand but inchoate, and seem randomly placed, difficult to relate to anything we've read. Of course when you haven't made anything happen, the trick is to pretend something really big has happened. "I've come to know … things. I'll tell you about it when I'm ready. If I ever can." (p. 28)
Ira Hauptman, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1976 by The New Republic, Inc.), July 3 & 10, 1976.