The dust-jacket blurb written by Thomas Berger for Who Is Teddy Villanova? reviews the general scheme of his career, pointing out that each of his novels “celebrates another classic genre of fiction: the western [Little Big Man], the childhood memoir [Sneaky People], the anatomical romance [Regiment of Women], the true-crime documentary [Killing Time], and the Reinhart books [Crazy in Berlin, Reinhart in Love, and Vital Parts] together form a sociological epic.” Who Is Teddy Villanova? extended this pattern to the classic American hard-boiled detective story, Arthur Rex extended it to Arthurian romance, Neighbors traces its lineage most directly to Franz Kafka, and Reinhart’s Women continues the Reinhart series. In similar fashion, The Feud offers Dreiserian slice-of-life naturalism, Nowhere celebrates the utopian fantasy, Being Invisible acknowledges its precursors in the invisibility narratives of both H. G. Wells and Ralph Ellison, The Houseguest revisits the banal menace of Neighbors, presenting a self-made hollow man in the tradition of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925), and Changing the Past shares assumptions with Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) and with the “three wishes” narrative tradition.
In Orrie’s Story, Berger “reinvents” the Greek tragedy of the Oresteia, setting it in postwar America. Robert Crews is obviously Berger’s take on Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719), and Meeting Evil moves from the Kafkaesque presentation of the banality of evil to the moral imperative of responding to evil that is deadly. Suspects renews Berger’s fascination with the interplay of law enforcement with criminals in general and with police procedurals in particular. The Return of Little Big Man goes back to the world and time of Little Big Man, updating Jack Crabb’s adventures through the final vanishing of the Old West as it is replaced by the simulations of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. Best Friends is a more gentle and hopeful take on the doubling of “kicker and kickee” that has long been one of Berger’s central concerns. Adventures of the Artificial Woman, which Berger considers a “literary conceit” rather than a true novel, blends themes from Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) with themes from George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion (pb. 1912). The mistaken notion that these “celebrations” of classic novel forms are really parodies has dogged Berger’s career, but unlike parodies, his novels start from rather than aim toward literary traditions; Berger achieves a testing and broadening of possibilities rather than a burlesquing of limitations. If anything, his celebrations serve as kinds of “deparodizations,” twisting genres already self-conscious to the point of parody in ways that radically defamiliarize them. The variety of Berger’s novels, a range with perhaps no equal in contemporary American literature, underlines the precision of his craft while distracting readers from the steadiness and the seriousness of his purpose.
Most critics have failed to consider that Berger’s manipulations of novel forms are ultimately self-exploring and reflexive literary experiments. He tries to make of each novel an “independent existence,” an alternative verbal reality that he hopes the reader will approach “without the luggage of received ideas, a priori assumptions, sociopolitical axes to grind, or feeble moralities in search of support.” This verbal world both owes its existence to a number of traditional and arbitrary literaryconventions of representation and seeks to remind the reader that the working of those conventions is of interest and significance in itself—not only as a means to the representation of reality.
Failing to appreciate the independent existence of Berger’s fictional...
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- Critical Essays