Last Updated on June 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4293
Hawkes, John 1925–
An American experimental novelist of the grotesque and unearthly, Hawkes has written seven fine novels, including The Lime Twig, The Cannibal, Second Skin, and The Blood Oranges, as well as several short plays. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)
[Hawkes'] style naturally underwent some changes between The Cannibal of 1948 and The Lime Twig of 1961, as Hawkes became more conscious of his art and vision. The movement has been from murky, groping, brilliant, eccentric expression to deliberate rhetorical manipulation of the reader's anxieties and sympathies. Hawkes, a most gifted critic and teacher, could hardly fail to examine his own procedures. In the change there has been some loss of obsessive visionary power, but there has also been much gain….
At his best John Hawkes is a master of rich syntax and of the punctuated pause. There is ironic and nervous pleasure in a carefully-paced, orderly, understated recitation of horror….
Every good writer has his particular voice, which will be heard at least faintly in everything he writes. In Hawkes as in many modern writers there is interplay—alternation, conflict, or rich ironic juxtaposition—between the elevated prose of an "implied author" and the more relaxed colloquialism of a personalized narrator….
John Hawkes' … achievement rests on something more than startling originality of vision. It rests above all, it may be, on his power to render so much uncensored revery, so much significant and violent fantasy, so much of the pullulant underground life, with so much stylistic control.
Albert J. Guerard, "The Prose Style of John Hawkes," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, Vol. VI, No. 2, 1963, pp. 19-29.
If the reader comes away from a novel by John Hawkes with the bemused sense of having himself experienced at some previous time all of the gruesome and fantastic happenings which Hawkes has his characters undergo, he need not look far for the source of his sense of déjà vu. The world of a Hawkes novel is our own inner world, and the nightmare landscapes, the sense of arrested flight, the pleasureless sexuality, the disjunction of time are familiar to us from our own nightmares. Hawkes has mastered the art of recreating the dream experience and its terrible reality….
The [French] Symbolists, too, were fascinated with the nightmare realms of experience—as in, for example, Baudelaire's "Cauchemar." Although their nightmare visions were presented with passion bordering on frenzy, or at least a thoroughgoing delight, Hawkes maintains a cool detachment whether he is describing the plucking of a chicken or the dismemberment of a small boy….
[The] essence of Hawkes' technique is to destroy the conventional linkages and unifying forces of narrative…. For Hawkes, the destruction of the unity of perception is a particularization of that greater sense of destruction, deracination, decomposition, and dissolution which modern man feels when confronted with all those former sources of meaning: church, state, science, art, in short, all human institutions, ideals, and ideologies. The reader of Hawkes faces the abyss indeed, but it is the abyss which he must face every day….
Religion in Hawkes is neither sentimentalized or vilified, it is merely subjected to this cool objectivity which characterizes the author's view of the world, and if it seems to emerge as just another of the fallible institutions of mankind, capable of as much harm and destruction as good and creativity, we must acknowledge the power of the vision even if we question the validity of the methods by which it is attained….
[Despite] all of [the] degradation, Hawkes would, it seems, consider himself a humorist…. [A] mixed "feeling of pleasure and pain" would seem to be the essence of humor for Hawkes, and, indeed, psychology—referring to the traditional fat man slipping on the banana peel, or Don Quixote being clouted by the windmill—would tend to back him up….
[Particularly in The Lime Twig,] Hawkes' irony is clear and sharp, and if this is humor, it is gallows humor, a humor of violence, which fits quite well with our idea of him as the possessor of a singularly destructive and pessimistic way of viewing things….
Perhaps Hawkes, with his cold, ironic detachment from this decaying world, with his willingness to look on death and destruction through the devil's eyes, is the final product of our age of violence, just as Cervantes was the final product of the declining age of chivalry. Whether there is a new age in the borning, or no age at all, we cannot tell. But the vision of John Hawkes must be taken seriously, and his faults should not obscure our view of his merits. He is, too often, pretentiously symbolic and verbose, he rarely produces characters about whose destiny we can be seriously concerned, he seems to strive too hard for his effects at times. But determination can win rewards for the reader. The Cannibal and The Lime Twig will survive as long as there are readers willing to plunge into themselves and to remind themselves of the tenuousness and ephemerality of both the world and their experience of it.
Charles Matthews, "The Destructive Vision of John Hawkes," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, Vol. VI, No. 2, 1963, pp. 38-52.
The writer, since Kafka, who most purely offers a "distortion of real experience in the manner of dreams"—our basic definition of anti-realism—is the young American John Hawkes. He has written five short nightmare-novels: The Cannibal (1949), The Beetle Leg (1951), The Owl and The Goose on the Grave (1954), and The Lime Twig (1961). The first, which appeared when Hawkes was only twenty-four, I still find the freest, the most hallucinatory, the most intense, and in many respects the best. The next three seem to me an unfortunate decline. In The Lime Twig, Hawkes returns with full force to the nightmare-tone of The Cannibal, increasing the content of sheer personal torment, omitting the mytho-historical basis, and consciously using, for the first time, the shadow of a crafted, realistic plot.
The novels of John Hawkes not only defy any neat pattern of literary development, they have a way of defying criticism and evaluation altogether. Of the power and intensity of The Cannibal and The Lime Twig, there can be no question. Hawkes has no equal for the communication of revolting, inescapable terror. He is also skilled at the writing of a highly sensuous realism, shot here and there with gleamings from some kind of evil beneath. He has at times, particularly in The Cannibal, written with a language rich and incandescent, suggesting some of the wonder of Nightwood, Djuna Barnes's poetic masterpiece of the 1930's.
But much of the horror seems only willed, unnatural sadism; and Hawkes's hypersensitivity to ugliness, deformity, and decay may prove, I fear, an insurmountable block to otherwise willing and appreciative readers….
Hawkes's uncomfortable fictions may perhaps be defended by their mastery of anti-realistic techniques, if not for the general reader, at least for the novelist and student of fiction. I can think of no better case-book in the re-creation of vivid and effective nightmare. Hawkes seems to know precisely what overlay of disease and sexuality, what strange dislocations of structure, what vague omissions, what tiny twists in the otherwise real, what imagery, what language, what tone can most effectively engage the root terrors of the deeper unconscious. More judiciously, sparingly used, and used to more thoughtful and consistent purpose, these elements may yet combine to make a novel not only of force but of lasting consequence.
David Littlejohn (1963), in his Interruptions (copyright © 1970 by David Littlejohn; reprinted by permission of Grossman Publishers), Grossman, 1970, pp. 24-6.
Hawkes's world is intensely personal; it is also aseptically objective. Clean-scraped and alive under the nerves of his peculiar vision, it is a surgical world. The skin has been peeled back and the veins and arteries pulse in blood-hued tracks, precisely tuned to the master rhythm of a vast traffic of insane order and deranged regularity. Each revealed organ—scene, gesture, shrieking image—glows beneath the glareless light of his prose, and as the eye and outraged mind of the reader pass slow before the revelation, the violence and cumulative horrors of the vision erupt from context and threaten to usurp the regularities of ordered existence. Hawkes's fictions are controlled assaults against his readers, like the dreams which disengage themselves from the waking moments of the day to belie the assumed serenities and securities of the real fictions within which we are swaddled against the darkness that is ourselves. The art lies in Hawkes's control, in the restraint of his assaults. For these are neither articulated dreams nor the freely associated phantasmagoria of neurosis. They are constructs of sensuous stimuli which engage, sensitize, paralyze and release with a renewed vitality the slumbering energies of the human spirit….
The smooth sureties of cause and effect, characterization and behavior, logos and the subordinate phenomena of the world's ways are rejected so unobtrusively that the reader is not given a chance to rebel or protest. Rationality is neither discredited nor ridiculed; it is merely non-existent. But it is not the reader's logical sense which is outraged; our outrage stems from our inability to control our emotional responses to the kinetic images which Hawkes presents. The reader is deeply violated, and aware, at the same time, that it is only through an unwilled but willing want of himself that the violation takes place.
This point is important to an understanding of one of the major effects of Hawkes's art. Although the plots of his novels are casually unattentive to the ledger-book balances of commonplace reality, they are yet coherent in a profoundly satisfying way. Since Hawkes is not involved in the rich modern genre of the quest-narrative, a determining logic of events is an irrelevancy in his fictions. Logic has nothing to do with the unbidden response of a reader in being there…. And since Hawkes declines to lead the reader from a here to a possible there, we never question the progress or succession of events at which rationality might cavil. The fictional movement is what we might call "painterly" rather than linear; it descends deep, it radiates outward in concentric swirls of acquisition, it gathers into itself even as it descends, composing larger and larger areas of emotional swell and significance. And our response is thus both an acceptant violation and a liberating release which undercuts rationality and idea. It is only art as its most subversive and shocking and rejuvenating that can call up such a response….
[To] suggest the profound morality of Hawkes's achievement, we may view him and his work on the level of its most significant prowess: his art as a vehicle of life-affirmation and the artist as humorist. First, Hawkes's fictions are patently absurd. The laws of cause-and-effect are resolutely suspended within the legitimacies of the natural order, and the action of his novels cannot but be grotesque. Furthermore there is a pervasive irony in the working out of the dramatic destinies of the characters…. Thirdly, humor has frequently to do with the enlargement of trivia and the diminution of the grandiose…. With some suspension of disbelief … Hawkes could be regarded as a somewhat erratic cultivator in the vine-yards of satire.
However, when we recall the persistence of Hawkes's attachment to an existential perception of reality, we may be able to suggest a relationship between Hawkes and humor which is surprisingly pervasive and, perhaps, fundamental to his work…. The Hawkes who is the protagonist of all his fictions, the sacrificial Victim-Victimizer, is also the profound Kierkegaardian "exchange-center" whose creative spirit becomes the repository for all the demonic and perverse transactions of his fictions. And his stringent devices to extend perception—the use of vertical plots, the proliferation of subjective focuses, and the emotional cogencies of his style—function to expand his consciousness and multiply his personae to a point where his capacities to be an exchange-center will be as powerful as is humanly and artistically possible.
Concomitantly, the world which the total scope of Hawkes's fictions presents is in the starkest contradiction to the "God-idea" which Kierkegaard invokes. Hawkes's world is totally absurd, not only because it throws the pious patterns of cause-and-effect into derangement; it is absurd even more importantly because it runs in absolute variance with the "godly" notions of justice, mercy, and heavenly order. Lawlessness, privation, disorder—these constitute the ground on which Hawkes applies the details and pigments of his art. Or, to translate these over-large social abstractions into the personal realities of the human condition, love is deluged by fear, and the resultant response is love repressed and perverted into lust for death; love made so afraid of its own nature that it becomes its negation in order to deny itself fruition.
The agonized compassionate laughter of the Kierkegaardian humorist is barely audible, if it is audible at all. It can be felt rather than heard—felt in the over-tense restraint of the fictional structures, felt in the revelation of a notion of justice so austere and so outraged as to manifest itself only in unyielding silence. And this seems to me the primal horror of the Hawkesian vision: so thoroughly has the demonic spirit of contradiction and negation suffused the world's body that man can only record the truths of his own treacherous pulse-beats and smile bleakly at the falsehoods to which they attest. Surely it is a hideous joke, but for man standing unrelated to God, it is a real triumph that he can joke at all. And there is something more here than a negative victory—more than a stoic sardonic acceptance—in this existential stance. Even as Hawkes is the articifer of release for his readers in becoming the surrogate victim and victimizer of our fearful and distorted loves, so the felt-perceptions of the absurdities of contradiction in the human condition are themselves liberated in the free and joyful flow of energy.
Earl Rovit, "The Fiction of John Hawkes: An Introductory View," in Modern Fiction Studies (© 1964 by Purdue Research Foundation, Lafayette, Indiana), Summer, 1964, pp. 150-62.
Hawkes' novels are full of unexplained events, untold histories that leave you with questions that cannot be answered. There is no pretense to that verisimilitude which gives you a rounded, completed world; on the contrary, his are angular, elliptical, incomplete worlds which have to leave you unsatisfied if you expect answers to all questions, but which do satisfy you once you realize that there are no answers. Not that there's any coy holding back on Hawkes' part: he could not possibly explain the ritual in the cemetery or that of the iguana on Catalina Kate's back in Second Skin; or the sinister priest's ritual at the end of The Goose on the Grave; or those of Il Gufo in The Owl. Most important of all, he cannot give you the motivations, the psychology of any of his characters…. Hawkes rejects psychological analysis willfully…. Hawkes can present his comic, violent rituals and the Freudian myths that give rise to them: he cannot explain them, except as Freud would, and that's not the novelist's job, or the critic's. Finally, every one of Hawkes' characters, and every one of those incredibly imagined incidents in all his books stands like a crux in a medieval manuscript: explain as you like, the crux stands, open to innumerable other possibilities, substantial as only a word on paper can be….
Hawkes … commits himself in his fiction to "the creative pleasures of a destructive sexuality." Pleasure and Business; sex and sadism; orgasm and power; fantasy and actuality; the angelic and the devilish—these are man's best and worse, two sides of the same coin. Myths expressive of man's deepest dreams externalize themselves as gothic rituals of Satanic beauty. Hawkes' vision … is no specious cataloguing of personal abberation but a comic vision of what man's fantasies have brought into being.
Robert I. Edenbaum, "John Hawkes: The Lime Twig and Other Tenuous Horrors," in Massachusetts Review, Summer, 1966, pp. 462-75.
Feasibly our best writer, Hawkes has written six books which have gained him only a narrow readership….
Every book Hawkes has written is a work of uncommon intensity and originality, to put it mildly. Of the first six, "The Lime Twig" and "Second Skin" are the most extraordinary. "The Lime Twig" typifies Hawkes's earlier work in its psychotic and unswerving narrative. In "Second Skin," on the other hand, a certain amount of light and relief are admitted for the first time; a queer and bucolic surrealism reigns over much of the novel. Hawkes's newest book, "The Blood Oranges," is another step in the same direction. It is the most accessible novel to date of this difficult writer.
Out of a gentle recidivism, Hawkes slips the reader a dwarf from time to time; but in general, this is a different kind of book from that we had come to expect from Hawkes before "Second Skin." Impressively, "The Blood Oranges" uses a cultivated diction reminiscent of Anglo-Mediterranean literature—Norman Douglas, Gerald Brenan, E. M. Forster—in the service of a distortive vision and narrative. This time, though, the book is less about death and violence than it is about sex and love. In an atmosphere deliverately reminiscent of "Twelfth Night," Hawkes contrives a sequence of lyrical and narrative meditations on sexual multiplicity….
The book's principal attribute is its relentless originality. Hawkes's books have frequently been likened to dreams. "The Blood Oranges" is reminiscent of a daydream, full of sexual fantasizing and vaguely active intentions….
Hawkes's immediate literary antecedents are Nathanael West and Kafka. Here and there, one detects honorable echoes of his reading and admiration: Joyce, Faulkner, Djuna Barnes, Landolfi, Canetti; and in this Illyrian novel at hand, the emulsive colors of Nabokov.
It is pleasing to encounter another novel by an artist of this degree of independence, to see this kind of esthetic serenity, enclosed as we are today by the fascism of music and software, the various Führers of a virtually towering "underground" providing every last excuse for sloth and egregiousness.
Hawkes is entirely unapologetic about novels. Each of his own digs farther into the resources of the genre without distress flags of contemporary reference, social programs or life-style quotients. Perhaps he will never be widely read (it would be pretentious to ignore his difficulty); but it is no longer Hawkes who is tested.
Thomas McGuane, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1971 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 19, 1971, p. 1.
Looking at that work, we may note straight away that [Hawkes's] novels have settings as various as post-war Germany, post-war and Renaissance Italy, post-war England, the American West and islands in the Atlantic and the South Seas: at the same time each is, as Hawkes put it in an interview, 'a totally new and necessary fictional landscape.' They are like dreams, often dreams fractured by appalling violence, and it is not surprising that Hawkes names Faulkner as the American writer whom he admires, and has been influenced by, the most. The violence in his work is as vivid and inaudible as violence under glass. Such effects, and in general the baroque—mannerist is perhaps better—foregrounding of his prose, are recognizably in the Faulknerian mode….
Hawkes's careful sculpting serves to fix and hold things: one of his favourite words is 'wax', as in 'waxen tableau'. Hawkes also said that he started writing by refusing to think in terms of plot, character, setting and theme, and that, having abandoned these familiar ways of thinking about fiction, 'totality of vision or structure was really all that remained'…. As a matter of fact, the plotting of his books—which is the temporal dimension of their structure—is extremely important, and he is doubtless overstating when he gives the idea that he abandoned plot at the outset. But his comments do point to the essential endeavour in his work: to build and fix a landscape—a necessary landscape….
The majority of his novels are related to war in some way, and as a result often centre on landscapes of desolation and decline which point to the progress of entropy quite as graphically as the landscapes of Burroughs and Pynchon. Hawkes's private nightmares of violence and evil are at the same time probings of our common world. For Hawkes the purpose of the novel is 'to objectify the terrifying similarity between the unconscious desires of the solitary man and the disruptive needs of the visible world', so, in his own novels, he seeks to achieve 'a formalizing of our deepest urgencies'. One may be inclined to ask why the fictional landscape is 'necessary'; why re-rehearse in carefully arranged words the horrors of history, the terror of the mind astray in the night? And it is true that people find some of his passages hard to take—descriptions of a man cutting up a child, a thug truncheoning a girl to death, for example. Here perhaps it helps to cite his own very clear definition of his own literary lineage, which he sees as including Lautréamont, Céline, Nathanael West, Flannery O'Connor, James Purdy and Joseph Heller….
Style itself becomes the saving assertion, a notion of verbal liberation with which we are becoming familiar among contemporary American writers. Hawkes admires Nabokov greatly as a person who 'sustains' American writers, and we [cannot deny] the importance Nabokov attaches to a sort of absolute of stylistic finesse and performance. Hawkes's own style owes a lot, also, to Faulkner and Djuna Barnes….
'Luminous deteriorations' is a perfect phrase for something central to Hawkes's vision, and where these are ungainly in life they are made almost choreographically elegant in prose. The creation of fictional landscapes is necessary precisely because of the opportunity it provides to experience, and demonstrate, just such possibilities of stylistic compensation and control….
Hawkes's is indeed a death-haunted vision, with drowned corpses resurfacing, and ghosts regathering at the place of their demise like a thickening of fog, while the living commit their slow dismemberments of chicken or child, or submit quietly to a horror which is everywhere. At the same time we should recall what Hawkes affirmed about the 'saving beauties of language', the detachment with which it defines the landscape which defiles and imprisons everything except the words of the book….
The way Hawkes places his words produces the effect of stillness. At the same time there are reminders that the preserving stillness is in the art, while the actuality is a matter of violence and decay. Hawkes uses verbal contrasts to alert the reader not only to the sort of contrasts actually obtaining in the world of the book, but also to the more general paradox of still art grappling with moving life….
One further aspect of Hawkes's style, which results from the tweezer-like selection and placing of words, is a phenomenon which we may call semantic retardation. He presents us with surprisingly sustained sentences, of Faulknerish length and rhythmic complexity, which force us to pause at every word, to ponder and appreciate each 'isolate' in the 'set'. This sometimes has the effect of defeating the usual semantic impact of a sentence: we do not register a unit of sense and information but find ourselves taking the slow impress of vivid fragments, unanticipated phrases, unusual configurations. It is in such ways that Hawkes maintains 'the truth of the fractured picture' and causes the whole book to hang in our minds like a pervading atmosphere, an unforgettable hallucination. The result is, undoubtedly, the 'advent of a certain reality', if not exactly a historical reality, then unchallengeably a verbal reality of great power.
Tony Tanner, "Necessary Landscapes and Luminous Deteriorations," in his City of Words: American Fiction 1950–1970 (copyright © 1971 by Tony Tanner; reprinted by permission of Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc.), Harper, 1971, pp. 202-29.
[Hawkes has said that structure is his primary concern as a novelist.] But how many readers give any attention to this aspect of Hawkes's work? Although it may be superficially noted that he parodies various forms—the western, the mystery story—I suspect he is read almost wholly (and somewhat passively) for his marvelous compulsive scenes, and for his magnificent texture. But ignoring the structure in such a novel as Second Skin can lead to more than simply misreading the book…. It can lead to missing the real fun behind this book, for if I am right, the genre Hawkes is parodying here is none other than The Great American Novel itself. Quite simply, the reader who has not fathomed the calculated movement of the chapters, has not seen the closest relevance in the wildest allusion, has missed a great delight, and has come away without sufficient respect for the richness and control of this finest novel of our most interesting working novelist.
Norman Lavers, "The Structure of Second Skin," in Novel: A Forum on Fiction, Spring, 1972, pp. 208-14.
Long possessed of a special appeal to a coterie of fans, John Hawkes is … an outstanding example of the domination of story line by the sheer physical presence of a "dream" landscape, one distorted into surreal vividness by the emphatic use of sensual detail for tonal purposes….
[A] tapestry in which we recognize our deepest selves, our most secret selves inhibited past all expression: this is the fictional landscape of Hawkes. We tour it as our eyes scan the piece of plastic art, at apparent random; if we wish to complete the artist's aesthetic organization with our own moral judgments, that is our private privilege, but the nature of the final completion is not the responsibility of the artist. Duty, didactic purpose, relevance and social utility are all in the beholder's eye, if anywhere, in experimental fiction.
John Ditsky, "The Man on the Quaker Oats Box: Characteristics of Recent Experimental Fiction," in Georgia Review, Fall, 1972, pp. 297-313.
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