Manuel Puig Long Fiction Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4139

Although Manuel Puig took pains to introduce new variants on his favored thematic issues and to seek new solutions to the formal problems of organizing a novel, he has tended to remain identified in many minds with his first work. The highly memorable title of this novel would seem to make actor Rita Hayworth a character in the plot, and, indeed, this implication is in a sense accurate, though the action takes place far from Hollywood.

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Betrayed by Rita Hayworth

In Betrayed by Rita Hayworth, Hayworth and other luminaries of the late 1930’s and early 1940’s figure as vivid presences in the decidedly unglamorous lives of a group of small-town Argentine children growing into a troubled adolescence, continually turning to the films to supply satisfactions that are missing in their existence.

Betrayed by Rita Hayworth also introduced a type of character common throughout Puig’s writings: the young person confused about sex. Here, the protagonist Toto is particularly prominent in this role. Toto’s early stream-of-consciousness narratives reveal his inability to make the standard distinction between male and female; he identifies himself with Shirley Temple and his unreliable father with the treacherous Rita Hayworth. As is evident from the beginning, his uncertain notions about sexuality and sex roles are entwined with his popular-culture fantasy vision of life. The two themes come together in Toto’s essay about the 1938 film The Great Waltz. Attempting to convey the film’s ambience of a rapturous, waltz-mad Old Vienna, Toto inadvertently signals his conflict-filled view of sex. Among other things, he expresses the idea that heterosexual sex, even in the form of simple embracing and kissing, is physically harmful to women; he inserts his own element of voyeurism not found in the original film; and he dwells on the theme of insecurity about one’s sexual attractiveness.

Betrayed by Rita Hayworth shows with extraordinary vividness the ability of a popular medium to bedazzle and distract consumers, particularly when audience members lack other sources of stimulation. The novel, however, does not constitute simply a lovingly nostalgic evocation of a filmgoer’s paradise, for Puig also offers a critique of popular culture. It becomes clear that his characters are suffering the effects of the acritical and unquestioning consumption of a mass-culture product.

As well as including material on the sexual lives of very young characters (both real and imaginary), this first novel was unusual enough in its approach to appear risky to publishers. The small, daring Buenos Aires firm of Jorge Álvarez launched the work but then was forced to close. Later, a more prestigious house, Editorial Sudamericana, reprinted it, but only after the publication of Puig’s second novel, the playfully nostalgic appeal of which convinced the public that Puig was readable. Although Betrayed by Rita Hayworth subsequently became a best seller, it remains a difficult work to assess and to characterize. Perhaps most difficult of all the issues involved is that of establishing the work’s relation to the phenomenon of popular culture.

Sudamericana’s publicity for Betrayed by Rita Hayworth characterized the text as a “pop novel,” certainly an attractive and catchy phrase. Along with the merrily kitsch cover, which showed a tawdry Art Deco fantasy vision of Hollywood-style glamour, the publicity surrounding the work suggested that Puig had produced either an item of pop culture or a denunciatory satire of the Hollywood culture. As Puig noted, these two options seem to account for most of the readings of his works, although neither is especially accurate. Betrayed by Rita Hayworth, for example, cannot be critically restricted to a mere part of pop culture, for the simple reason that it evinces complex new structures characteristic of the twentieth century novel. The narration is not undertaken by a recognizable and reliable narrative voice, as it typically is in the easy-to-read formula best seller; rather, one must discover what is happening to the characters by extracting information from a variety of types of narration. These include a babble of neighborhood voices discussing the hero’s birth and his mother’s situation, extracts from a young girl’s diary, diverse forms of stream-of-consciousness writing, a prizewinning school essay by the protagonist, letters, and other modes, all designed to look like transcriptions from the flow of thought and language. Because the novel is so strikingly anomalous, with its paradoxical joining of sophisticated novelistic form and popular culture, it conveys the impression of a somewhat uneasy synthesis.

Heartbreak Tango

Heartbreak Tango is much easier to read than its predecessor. It was an immediate best seller when it appeared and, in effect, served to draw readers to Puig’s more complex early novel. Heartbreak Tango takes the form of an old-fashioned installment novel, with each chapter revealing a new, tantalizing glimpse of a fairly intricate but banal plot. The reader is drawn along by two major lines of development: how a wondrously handsome young man of fairly good family came to an impoverished, tubercular end, and how the tense relations between a housemaid and her upwardly mobile seducer culminated in the latter’s murder. Further interest comes from following the fates of three other young women: the handsome young rake’s scheming sister; a local cattle baron’s daughter, who rendezvouses with the rake while waiting to marry into the landed aristocracy; and another of the hero’s conquests, an ambitious blond who can never manage to rise above the lower middle class.

The characters, however sympathetic they may be at moments, are satirized for their obsession with status and standing. Puig warned against placing too great an emphasis on the satiric element. While well-educated urban readers might see the book as turning the members of the provincial middle class into figures of fun, such a reading fails to take into account the great amount of material dedicated to the exploration of Puig’s twin themes of popular culture and concepts of sexuality.

One of the most telling indicators of the extent to which the media have saturated the culture is the language used by the characters to speak of their own lives. So enthralled are they by the commercially standardized language of sentimental and romantic films, advertising copy charged with mass-appeal allure, and other popular subgenres (song lyrics, sportscasting, “tearjerker” novels, and so on) that this language becomes second nature to them. The problem is the lack of correlation between their own existence and the rapturous, adventurous, or “macho” language they employ. The incongruity is especially acute in the area of courtship mores. The reader sees a small society in which both marriage and informal liaisons are heavily governed by questions of prestige and economic power, while the characters see love and sexuality through a haze of dreamily romantic or aggressively Don Juanesque phrases.

The presentation of popular culture in Heartbreak Tango is much more diverse than it is in Betrayed by Rita Hayworth. The characters, no longer children growing into adolescence, are young adults moving toward an early, disaffected middle age. Their patterns of pop-culture consumption reflect this shift. They have lost the child’s ability to be enraptured by a film, and they turn to the cinema house as a meeting place, a distraction in which they indulge by ingrained habit. Concerned with presenting themselves impressively, they rely on advertising and magazine materials in order to master style. The artifacts of mass culture—photo albums, commercial art, decorative product packaging, dance-hall decor, and household bric-a-brac—surround them. They are living in the “golden age” of radio, and the airwaves are full of gimmicky programs, including variety shows, serial dramas, and musicals.

On one hand, the young people present the classic picture of “junk-culture addicts”; they show many signs of a virtual dependence on their pop culture. (One young woman, for example, cannot forgo her daily radio soap opera, even when a long-absent friend shows up at her house.) Despite this constant consumption of media, however, their satisfaction with it lessens. The rakish hero reports attending the cinema without feeling any interest in the film shown, while an observant heroine notices that her town is being shipped films that are too out-of-date to screen elsewhere. These expressions of ennui with the homogeneous mass media do not, however, entail a critical questioning of mass culture. The young people are not moved by their boredom and dissatisfaction with certain pop-culture artifacts to ask whether the massive standardization of this culture might be unwarranted and intellectually unhealthy, nor do they attempt to find alternative forms of diversion. The young men and women remain fixed in their accustomed patterns.

The focus on sexuality is less concerned with individual cases than it is with the social codes that govern the expression of sexual feelings. The small-town young people try to satisfy various conflicting sets of standards. On the surface, the unmarried women are expected to remain chaste, while men are given more leeway, although they are required to satisfy conditions of respectability. Overlapping this Victorian standard, and at times in conflict with it, is the code of machismo, which demands of the young men a constant effort to conquer numbers of women, to cultivate a swaggering style, and to appear unconcerned with their own well-being. An additional set of factors has to do with the intense and widespread desire for upward mobility.

Apart from the inherent passion between the sexes, the desire for prestige is the most powerful force in determining the characters’ involvements with one another. The Don Juanesque hero’s sister continually schemes to link him with the cattleman’s daughter and to steer him away from the blond social climber, while the stockbroker seeks to guide his daughter toward a landowning customer. Meanwhile, the blond attempts to minimize a loss of status incurred by an earlier seduction, hoping to charm her Casanova-lover into marriage. In a subplot, the hero masterminds the amorous life of a lower-class friend. Under this tutelage, the aspiring policeman seduces a servant, avoiding any lasting commitment that might impede his rise in society.

Of the various liaisons contracted during the novel, all are somehow colored by the dream of acquiring an advantageous match in marriage. The schemes uniformly come to nothing, for the hero dies without marrying any of his lovers; the wealthy landowner rejects the stockbroker’s daughter, along with a shipment of diseased cattle; the policeman’s brief enjoyment of middle-class status is ended by his spurned girlfriend’s violence. In an ironic turnabout, the vision is realized only by the servant girl, who stands at the very bottom of this hierarchy. After being seduced, impregnated, and abandoned—even after murdering her lover—she somehow succeeds in obtaining for herself a stable and provident mate.

Puig is unmistakably critical of this scenario, in which sex and courtship are made part of the politics of class standing. He offers a condemnatory portrait of this system, making his attitude clear by portraying popular culture as stressing the acquisition of an impressive lover or spouse. (At the height of the cross-class tangle of sexual alliances, the local movie theater is running a Hollywood film centered entirely on the concept of marrying for wealth and security.) The criticism is clear, but Puig has not begun to look at alternative arrangements that would remove sexuality from this very politicized framework. This missing factor does, however, appear in Puig’s later work, when he turns to utopian speculations about the future of sex.

The Buenos Aires Affair

If Puig’s first novel was substantially patterned on the modern “serious” novel and his second novel derived playfully from the serialized soap opera, his third work, The Buenos Aires Affair, offered a renovated version of the detective novel. Puig remained manifestly faithful to the idea of simplifying his novelistic form enough to allow easy reading, although this accessibility did not preclude subtlety and complexity.

The novel was confiscated in Buenos Aires and deemed obscene, although it contains little in the way of overwhelming erotic content. The Buenos Aires Affair would seem to have hit a sensitive spot because the pair of lovers, an art critic and an aspiring sculptress, clearly form a sadomasochistic team, and the man bears the burden of a very troubled homosexual past. In short, the theme of nonstandard sexuality, indirectly alluded to in the confusion of Toto in Betrayed by Rita Hayworth, now emerges as an overt theme.

The “affair” of the title refers to both a police case, in the sense of a mysterious set of circumstances requiring investigation, and a liaison between the protagonists. The two meanings of the word coalesce, for the police are called in to resolve an out-of-control situation between the lovers. The man, having lost his ability to keep his sexual expression from interfering with society, has kidnapped his girlfriend and is holding her in bondage. This disruptive act, reported at the very beginning of the novel, eventually turns out to be merely the culmination of a torturous relationship that came to have such a grip on the hero that he was no longer able to refrain from destructive and self-destructive actions. The novel reconstructs the pressures that led this man, an educated and influential member of the arts community, to burst out in reckless, antisocial behavior. Intertwined is the story of the sculptress. The woman’s history is less dramatic, for she does not succumb to any wild outbreak of deranged behavior; rather, she has gradually reached a point where she finds any purposeful action difficult to plan or execute, so that even her sculpting is largely the passive activity of presenting and “conceptualizing” found objects. A third direction in the novel’s development is the unfolding of the events caused by the kidnapping. The police, far from solving the tangle of disturbing evidence, essentially go through various standard procedures until the hero brings the matter to an end by destroying himself in his panic; the ever-passive heroine is befriended by a sane, motherly neighbor woman. In effect, the total contribution of the authorities is to report as properly as possible on a set of circumstances that they can neither influence nor understand. If any detective work is accomplished, it is that performed by the reader in attempting to obtain some degree of insight into this disordered tale of unhappy sexual alliances and cultural fashions.

To provide an understanding of the protagonists’ problems, Puig employs a number of narrative procedures that tend to place the characters on the psychiatric couch. Transcriptions of the hero’s exchanges with his psychotherapist are included, as well as “case histories” of both the man and the woman. The histories of both characters’ troubles are couched in a language of pseudoscientific objectivity, again evoking concepts of psychiatric investigation of the past.

In utilizing these “psychoanalytical” narratives, Puig would seem to be lampooning classical psychotherapy yet making use of its theories. The man’s psychiatrist is, in effect, as confused and helpless as any layperson as he watches his patient display increasingly muddled thinking and erratic behavior. The woman, though not undergoing any type of psychiatric treatment that is directly presented to the reader, has recently fallen into the hands of the medical establishment as a result of her sudden inability to function, with similarly unhelpful results. It is worth remarking that the two people in the novel who are best able to counsel and soothe the frantic protagonists are simply laypersons who have a calm and stable outlook. The hero enters into a series of telephone exchanges with an older, tradition-steeped sculptress who, unlike the classically trained psychiatrist, is willing to speak to the disturbed man in commonsense terms. Her ability to carry on a sensible, reasonable conversation with the man stands out in a novel full of fatuous, jargon-filled talk. Reinforcing this theme that steady, ordinary people can function successfully as therapists is the appearance of the neighbor woman who, at the end, cares for the heroine. This neighbor, a young woman clearly satisfied with her husband and baby, asks the heroine as little as possible about the circumstances leading to her current beleaguered state, instead concentrating on getting her to rest and feel comfortable.

While the novel shows professional therapists being outdone by concerned laypersons, it is essentially favorable to the notion, heavily associated with psychiatry, that early-childhood experiences may underlie troubles faced in adulthood. At the same time, Puig is concerned with expanding the narrowly psychological and individualistic view of childhood development. He moves beyond the particular—the workings of the child’s family—to look at factors that potentially affect all children reared in a particular society. The effects of mass media and culture are, once more, subjected to detailed scrutiny. The heroine, for example, carries a permanent sense of unease as a result of constantly being compared with the media-propagated images of perfect womanhood.

Her case history dwells on her father’s attempts to remake his daughter into a conventionally attractive, vivacious young woman and her resulting unhappiness over her failure to match this standard. The father’s favored reading matter, the popular 1940’s magazine Rico tipo (fancy guy), is singled out for particular denunciation for its tendency to promote a single image of acceptable femininity and to deride women who fail to adhere to this highly conventional pattern of attractiveness. Another spotlighted aspect of popular culture is the system of recreational clubs for young women. In The Buenos Aires Affair, these social organizations are seen as essentially concerned with questions of prestige and “connections.” The heroine’s childhood is further marred by her ambitious mother’s attempts to attain upward mobility through this supposedly leisure-providing system.

In The Buenos Aires Affair, Puig is most critical of the distortion of artistic activity that allows conformity to the capitalist society’s patterns of “product marketing.” For example, although the hero is well read in the field of art criticism, he is seldom observed analyzing artistic work. His essential function is that of a publicist and impresario. His friends, with their incessant festival-going, see themselves as marketable commodities that must be kept in the art public’s eye. In this unattractive panorama of self-packagers and self-promoters, only one exception stands out: the extraordinarily sane older woman who is able to counsel the troubled hero. All evidence points to her conscientious and principled practice of assemblage art; her steadfast and workmanlike approach strikes the art critic in his professional conscience. It is his realization that he has awarded a prize to his heavily “hyped,” but inconsequential, sculptress-lover, rejecting the well-conceived work of the older woman, that precipitates his final round of deranged behavior.

Culture consumption as a search for prestige is another of the novel’s motifs. An amusing example occurs on the night of the heroine’s conception. Her parents have just seen a performance of a play by Eugene O’Neill that affords them theatergoing satisfaction, but they are inhibited in their later discussion of it by their extreme desire not to be “one-upped” by each other. Within the dynamics of this marriage, the wife can lay claim to some degree of superiority to her husband; while he tends to favor “easy reading” material, she has the time to maintain at least a superficial knowledge of the arts. The daughter continues this pattern of competence in the arts as a way of maintaining status. In addition, Puig points to the fact that the characters live in a mass-media culture by using excerpts from old Hollywood melodramas as epigraphs to the chapters. These film dialogues do not comment directly on the issue treated in the chapter, but rather suggest a world in which the hyperbolic “Hollywoodization” of life situations has altered people’s expectations about the drama, suspense, and romance they should find in their own lives.

The Buenos Aires Affair thus continues the examination of mass culture, but it is also a study in the attitudes and actions of fine-arts consumers. In earlier Puig novels, the characters can be seen as suffering from cultural deprivation, because of their lack of education, their isolation, or both. The Buenos Aires Affair presents characters who are of a cultural level comparable to that of an educated reader of novels; Puig thereby holds up a mirror to his reader that reflects criticism of the characters onto the reader himself. The heroine, Gladys, reads fashionable serious authors and spends time as a prizewinning, if docile and eager-to-please, art student. Her choices as a consumer of culture are typically those of a trend-conscious, informed viewer or reader, from a preference for starkly functional decor to her favorite television fare, relatively “classy” examples of Hollywood cinema. The hero is an influential art critic. What is amiss is their approach to culture. The heroine’s artistic career offers an extreme example of a creator so uncertain of her own expression that she depends slavishly on the academic standards of competence that will win praise and awards for her. Leaving the structured world of the art school, she is unable to produce and becomes so distraught over her relation to art that even going to museums becomes unbearably painful.

If Gladys represents the constraints of academically institutionalized art, her lover reveals the same pattern in antiestablishment art. He is a leading figure on the experimentalist scene. His favored artists use approaches originally designed to defy and astound the art orthodoxy—found objects, assemblages, works with a strong random element, and so on. The creators of this work, however, are not rebels but dedicated careerists, obsessed with the notion of making a name for themselves. Among the ridiculous, petty actions attributed to this cliquish group, the worst is its treatment of Gladys. The woman is clearly going through a period of instability, but the avant-garde group chooses to perceive her as wildly innovative rather than unbalanced. Her debris sculptures, more pathological indications than works of art, are gaudily exploited as the last word in assemblage art. The group’s disregard for the well-being of the disoriented woman at the center of all this promotional hoopla is the surest indictment of a type of high culture wholly dominated by the need to market and sell novelties to a jaded public.

The overall effect is to bring home the problem of passive cultural consumption and production by featuring characters and settings not likely to be far removed from the readers’ own set of experiences. Particularly in Gladys, the bright, industrious young person who finds both modern culture and sex perpetually mind-boggling, Puig has created a figure capable of reflecting the reader’s and the author’s own difficulties amid the confusions of the current cultural scene.

The transition from the early, literarily complex Puig to the more accessible author of the later novels is not even. Betrayed by Rita Hayworth is set apart from the subsequent novels by its structural complexity and the amount of work the reader must perform to extract a sense of what is going on in the work. Heartbreak Tango was deliberately written for a broad audience, and Puig has expressed disappointment that the novel did not reach a wider public than it did. While the work does not require laborious reading, its commentary on the phenomenon of mass culture is by no means simplistic. The Buenos Aires Affair, relatively accessible despite a degree of narrative experimentation, introduced a new set of issues as Puig turned his critical scrutiny to the fine-arts culture, its consumers and practitioners, and the author’s concern with nonstandard forms of sexuality.

Kiss of the Spider Woman

Kiss of the Spider Woman, although a fascinating work in many respects, marks a certain repetition of themes and structures already familiar to Puig’s readers. Without denigrating this work, one may describe it as lending itself less to critical consideration than do others of Puig’s works, for it appears designed for readers who are not literary analysts. To give only one example of this phenomenon, long citations from essays on homosexuality are included as footnotes, an inclusion having very little to do with the literary texture of the work and a great deal to do with Puig’s desire to convey to lay readers a consciousness of this misunderstood phenomenon. The same process of “laicization”—of writing more and more for the reader who is not a literary specialist—was the most notable aspect of the evolution of Puig’s writing after that time.

Puig accepted the courtship of such determinedly “lay” reader groups as science-fiction aficionados and cultural workers concerned with the presentation of alternatives in sexuality; at the same time, many academic readers were baffled by the evolution of Puig’s work. It has yet to be determined whether Puig actually moved away from the typical high-culture, “literary” reader or whether this variety of reader simply learned new reading strategies to follow Puig.

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