R. V. Cassill Cassill, R(onald) V(erlin) - Essay

Cassill, R(onald) V(erlin)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Cassill, R(onald) V(erlin) 1919–

Cassill, an American novelist, short story writer, and essayist, is best known for his fictional studies of the American Midwest. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

Cassill's most insightful and esthetically complete accomplishments to date have been in his short stories; his novels, despite their considerable merit and consistently similar thematic concerns, do not manage to present that essence of embodied vision necessary to the finest artistic performance. Paradoxically, the novels may be seen to attach themselves as tangential illuminations in the over-all expression which finds its artistic keystone in the faceted, mosaic structure of a whole conglomeration of autonomous and independent shorter works….

"This Hand, These Talons" is not an early story in the sense that it confronts us with an immature theme or imperfect mastery of techniques; it is early only in the sense that it states a major concern of Cassill's fiction with as much clarity as its ironic and understated conventions will allow. The story falls short of that ultimate clarity of vision which relinquishes the felicities of ambiguity in favor of that more willful explicitness which must be termed prophetic, however; and in view of his further attempts, that is the gambit which Cassill has accepted. It is a sign of his insight and tenacity and his rockbound humanistic bias that in his subsequent fiction he has forged beyond such grim realities and found an affirmation of the heart's plight—at the end of its tether, the mind must turn back and recreate its willful illusions, and those illusions may be annealed once again into functional ideals.

"And in My Heart," a story of very different substance from the earlier "This Hand, These Talons," similarly confronts us with the individual's dilemma within the voiding forces of circumstance and the inadequate alternatives open to action, but ultimately affirms the struggle because that struggle itself can seek its completion in the form of art….

In the stories as a whole, one finds several signal threads by which the thematic development here polarized might be traced; in addition, of course, these threads may very well be viewed from nonthematic perspectives. One finds, for instance, a repeated portrayal of abnormal mental states in Cassill's characters, salient enough that one might well construct a thesis to the effect that in his works the psychic disorders which are ordinarily judged as failures of the individual to come to terms with the milieu in which he lives, are in fact the tragic means of evaluation and insight into a world which has lost its traditional moorings. Such stories as "The Outer Island," "The Puzzle Factory," and "The Father," in addition to "This Hand, These Talons," might profitably be examined from such a normative psychoanalytic point of view….

In a different vein, a number of Cassill's stories may be seen as comprising one of the most dexterous efforts among contemporary writers at creating new forms for fiction. The scholarly narrator of Clem Anderson, Cassill's most satisfying novel, says of a group of writers of whom Clem was one: "Some years ago [they] had shared with Clem an enthusiasm for 'the new short story.' The story was to be a consolidation of the gains made by Joyce, Crane, Porter, Hemingway and Faulkner. As I recollect the eager theorizing, the new story was to be as compact as poetry…. It was to keep the suppleness and repertorial virtues of traditional fiction while it added a range of subtleties unknown before the twentieth century." I submit that the production of such a story has been an effort and aim of a not inconsiderable number of writers since 1940, and that a portion of Cassill's work fits this category exemplarily….

One has, finally, the possibility of considering the whole body of Cassill's stories in the light of their consciously-wrought function of describing individual experience as a measure for the archetypal experience of man as it is reenacted in our time.

David Roberts, "The Short Fiction of R. V. Cassill," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, Vol. IX, No. 1, 1966, pp. 56-70.

Second—but still troubled—thoughts have persuaded us to give mention to [Doctor Cobb's Game, an] outrageous but nonetheless unforgettable novel. Can R. V. Cassill be right, can the 1963 Profumo scandal in the higher echelons of the British power-structure somehow be fictively if not otherwise believably "explained"? Can such a novel work? The answer has to be "yes" to both questions. For the real source of power is the sexual drive, and if by Svengali-like string-pulling and brainwashing a cynical and sinister mesmerizer like Dr. Michael Cobb gains dominance, the ruinous "game" can be destructively won. Cassill's game is won as well. He has control and in many passages of bravura writing is most exciting; there is talent here that is superbly sure of itself. A repugnant reading experience—so be it. Evil is evil and must be nothing less than frightening.

The Antioch Review (© 1970 by The Antioch Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission of the editors), Vol. XXX, Nos. 3 & 4, 1970, pp. 459-60.

Perfectly at home in the New York art world in which it's set, R. V. Cassill's new novel ["The Goss Women"] is also heavy with device and bloated with a portentous, idealized sexuality that is its undoing. Dean Goss, nearing 70, is America's acknowledged old master of modern painting, a giant of continuing accomplishment, "protean." Goss's life and work is being recorded and celebrated in a book by Susan, a novelist whose teenaged daughter is having an ecstatic, mystical affair with Goss's youngest son, Jason….

Cassill has novelistic gifts that place him well above the usual constructers of plots like this, and it's sad to see him in the company of such stuff. In addition, I'm constantly surprised at how many of the no-longer-young attribute gargantuan sexual appetites—and activities—to young people, and how often hippie-hating and hippie-revering seem to share this common source. For Cassill, sex and sensuality are the property of the very young and of the Creative. Artist, and the novel, dangling its secondhand mystical-occult apparatus, pumps toward the eventual coupling of these featured characters with a vengeance that's faintly unpleasant.

Plot devices included (the only up-to-the-minute one that's missing here is an exorcism), this is a remarkably old-fashioned novel that creaks with its stale assumptions about youth, art, sensuality. It would be unfair not to mention that Fay Weldon's thoroughly original and neglected 1972 novel, "Down Among the Women," is, almost line-by-line, a witty antidote to all the myths of this book—especially the one about the artist's appetite.

Sara Blackburn, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 21, 1974, pp. 36-7.