While his novels have been generally well-received by reviewers, and while he is regarded by his colleagues as a writer’s writer, Berger’s overall critical reputation has suffered somewhat because of the difficulty of categorizing his work, which does not fit into any standard literary movement or school. Critics often misunderstand Berger’s intentions or lazily lump him into a misleading category. Because of the humor, violence, and absurdity in most of his novels, he has sometimes been grouped with the black humorists, yet his fiction lacks the anger and delight in the grotesque associated with black humor. While there are strong satirical elements in his novels, Berger similarly rejects the label of satirist. He has little interest in overtly criticizing society; he is too pessimistic to believe it can change its ways.
Because several of his novels exploit the conventions of fictional genres, Berger has also been called a parodist—yet in these books, he is not making light of genres but lovingly paying homage to their conventions. Little Big Man is a Western; the futuristic Regiment of Women (1973) has science-fiction elements; Who Is Teddy Villanova? (1977) is a detective novel; Arthur Rex (1978) is an Arthurian romance; Nowhere (1985) resembles a spy thriller; Being Invisible (1987) is an antiutopian novel; Orrie’s Story (1990) retells the Orestes legend, updating Greek tragedy to small-town America at the end of World War II; Robert Crews (1994) is a survival tale in the tradition of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719); and Adventures of the Artificial Woman (2004) revisits the Frankenstein myth. In interviews, Berger has expressed his disgust at reviewers’ labeling of these works as parodies. His goal has been, rather, to celebrate these genres by identifying and applauding their characteristic plots, protagonists, themes, and other devices.
Although Berger is also uncomfortable with being called a comic novelist, he is clearly a comic writer in the tradition of Charles Dickens (a major influence on his work), Mark Twain, and Franz Kafka. Lacking the moral fervor of the true satirist, Berger exposes his characters’ foibles with compassion. He stands out from other American novelists of his time by writing about ordinary people with acceptance of their deficiencies and without condescension. Despite the almost complete absence of sentimentality in his fiction and despite his constant illustration of negative aspects of his characters’ behavior, Berger displays an unusual tolerance for human weaknesses. Nevertheless, his characters are presented with strong irony. Their interpretations of the reality they encounter are never entirely accurate or reliable.
Resisting both idealism and despair, Berger is among the least didactic of novelists. He apparently agrees with Dr. Otto Knebel in Crazy in Berlin, who says, “If you think I shall tell you what is right or wrong, my friend, you are mistaken. That is your own affair. I care only for practical matters.” While his characters may believe in causes, they learn, often painfully, that such beliefs are not beneficial to their individuality, as with the devotion of the knights to the chivalric code in Arthur Rex.
Despite his claim that his fiction is not thematic, Berger’s novels do say something about the problem of identity, the uncertainty of human relationships, the prevalence of violence in all societies, and the elusiveness of truth and happiness. Still, readers will best appreciate his work if they heed his warning to approach it “without the luggage of received ideas, a priori assumptions, sociopolitical axes to grind, or feeble moralities in search of support.”
While a major subject in Berger’s fiction is victimization, his characters are enslaved primarily by perceptions bounded by language. His books are about the characters’ efforts to...
(The entire section contains 4360 words.)
Unlock This Study Guide Now
Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this Thomas Berger study guide. You'll get access to all of the Thomas Berger content, as well as access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.
- Critical Essays