Thomas Berger Berger, Thomas (Vol. 3) - Essay

Berger, Thomas (Vol. 3)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Berger, Thomas 1924–

Berger is an American novelist, best known for Little Big Man. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

Berger's books—Crazy in Berlin, Reinhart in Love, Little Big Man—are wild comedy, but they are not the facile, anything-goes surrealism of the black humorists. Neither are they satires, or polemics, or politically motivated gripes. They are funny in the way Don Quixote or Rabelais is funny—the laughter of a wise humanist, experiencing the world in all its absurdity; tolerant, pleased, saddened—and involved. The glory of Little Big Man lies in the way Berger imposes his comic view of life on a deadly accurate portrait of the Old West. I know from conversations with him that he researched the period as thoroughly as any historian, that his outlandish Cheyennes and their hilarious locutions are based on actual recorded testimony of Indian warriors. It is the truest kind of humor, a humor that derives from real situations and real people. Who can resist Berger's Cheyennes, who refer to themselves haughtily as "The Human Beings"? Or his description of the way an Indian camp smells? Or the Indians' disdain for time, schedules, anything continuous—a trait which causes them to hate the railroad?

Gerald Green, "Back to Bigger," in Proletarian Writers of the Thirties, edited by David Madden (© 1968 by Southern Illinois University Press; reprinted by permission of Southern Illinois University Press), Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1968, pp. 26-45.

Berger's settings and characters in all his novels are plausible rather than apocalyptic. His satire refuses to make an alliance between reader and author against an oppressive, ugly "them." Paul Krassner once wrote that "the ultimate object of satire is its own audience," and Berger's integrity arranges that no reader—male chauvinist, militant feminist or in between—can emerge from "Regiment of Women" unscathed. All of Berger's main characters … are moved more by circumstances than by some passionate belief or lack of belief. Berger's clearest outrage is reserved for anyone who presumes to sit in moral judgment on another, and his central characters are all slammed about by beings more certain than they about the location of truth….

Like all great literary satirists, whose art gets at the root of imperception and self-delusion, Berger is concerned with the way language can falsify reality. ("I was never an aggressive boy," says Georgie. "I certainly don't think I could be called effeminate.") By disorienting us through its language, "Regiment of Women" indicts the society that uses language as a tool of oppression, making purely verbal differences into codes and categories—rhetoric asserting and experiencing itself as truth.

Berger's own style, with its tendency to absorb the speech rhythms of his characters and its unwillingness to stand apart from them, is especially suited for such themes. Since "Little Big Man," especially, he has concentrated on exploring the possibilities and revealing the secrets of everyday language with a deep wit and feeling that transforms our awareness of the language we really use much more than does the flamboyance of a writer bent on asserting his personal style. "Killing Time" may be Berger's most brilliant effort to engage in this most truly poetic task of renovating the language we speak. But "Regiment of Women" is a brilliant flame from the same sources of energy….

"Regiment of Women" is a brilliant accomplishment by one of our best novelists. "Little Big Man," and perhaps "Killing Time" and "Vital Parts," are among the best novels of the past 10 years. Next to these larger achievements, "Regiment of Women," may be more a fable, a deceptively simple romp through current prejudices. It isn't great in the way greatness has been defined by the novel since Joyce: each one a block-buster containing, as far as possible, all knowledge and experience. None of Berger's works is suitable for taking to the moon with matching toothbrush. They are novels that help you maintain a fresh response to the world around you.

With Heller and Kesey seemingly stilled—and Richard Condon plunged into self-parody—Vonnegut may be closest to Berger in style if not sensibility; but Vonnegut lacks the edge of Berger's wit and the variety of his insights. Each of Berger's novels is an expression of an esthetic presence that continues to grow in strength and importance. "Regiment of Women," for all its exaggeration and grotesque parody, has been imagined with such ferocity and glee that we assent to it almost in spite of ourselves, celebrating with Berger that anarchic individuality that outlasts all the forms that language and society attempt to impose upon it.

Leo Braudy, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1973 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 13, 1973, pp. 6-7.

The women's liberation movement is the direct occasion for Regiment of Women, a fantastic novel by the American Thomas Berger, which is short on inspiration but makes economical use of what it has. The basic concept is simple. The time is the century after ours, and women have the upper hand. But instead of creating a good, peaceful society, as they have been saying they shall, they have just turned things around, so that the worst experiences and most fantastic fears women are supposed to be suffering at the hands of men are instead being visited on men….

Especially in the first half of the book, this reversal of sexual roles is often close to collapsing into a poor joke, a gimmick. Moreover, the invention of anti-utopias is such a hoary literary activity that any new try must, unless it is a remarkable work of genius, painfully imitate classics of the genre. Regiment of Women is not nearly so thin and unrewarding as it initially threatens to be; yet it is finally not all that remarkable, either. Berger's debt to Orwell, Burgess, and Huxley, among others, is large and substantially damaging to his cause: Technological totalitarianism, test-tube babies, brainwashing, and the hopeless revolt of just one man—or at the most, one man with one woman, making love in the old, forbidden fashion—against the system, has long since become a literary formula, unpromising territory except for the hack or the pornographic science fictioneer.

Although Berger has a cruel imagination where sex is concerned and his novel is generously supplied with scenes that sadists and sufferers from nightmares should find exciting, Regiment of Women is no potboiler; and if it is pornographic, it is not so exclusively for purposes of titillation and exploitation. Berger means to make a sufficiently serious point: "Everyone," he writes, "was a monomaniac of some sort, working compulsively to affect someone else: to alter their personality, change their mind, catch them out, set them straight. Everybody else always knew better about sex, society, history, you name it—but always in a general way, with absolutely no acknowledgement of one single, particular, individual human being." This indictment goes for everyone in the anti-utopian society (and by evident implication, in ours)….

If the reader patiently stays with Regiment of Women, some of Berger's detestation of ideology and his sinister mirth, which is at the expense of both men and women, begins to come across. The novel seems at times a comic strip, a morality tale, and even a love story….

The trouble with Regiment of Women is not that it is ultimately an unabashed apology for a male-chauvinist-pig world view but that Berger has not infused his morality tale and love story with the power of language, psychological insight, and credible characterization necessary to save the fantasy from invidious comparisons with Brave New World, 1984, and A Clockwork Orange. Nevertheless, as a sexy, brutal adventure story, Regiment of Women succeeds; no doubt it will make a colorful, maddening, ultraviolent movie.

Edward Grossman, "Women, Kindly and Unkindly," in Saturday Review/World (copyright © 1973 by Saturday Review/World, Inc.; reprinted with permission), July 31, 1973, pp. 34-5.

Although [Regiment of Women] is not nearly so rich a novel as his Little Big Man (with which it shares some devices), it is subtle and comic….

When you begin this novel it seems highly improbable that Berger can sustain what appears to be a single joke. But he does, because the joke is more complicated than it looks at first. On one level, the book spoofs radical feminists by imitating and hyperbolizing their vision of society, with reversed roles….

But the humor always cuts two ways. Helped along, no doubt, by the reader's natural distaste for transvestitism, Berger plays upon the American male's current anxieties about his role.

I'd recommend this book—in preference to the Piercy novel [Small Changes], or the work of such feminists as Germaine Greer or Michael Korda—to readers who would contemplate sexism. The nicely ambiguous close of the novel suggests that in the society of liberated men, man may yet again live to be called the oppressor….

Regiment of Women is a playful book, a useful corrective to single-mindedness. Berger himself shuns the last word, which he gives to Nietzsche: "Woman was God's second mistake."

Richard Todd, "God's First Mistakes," in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1973 by the. Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), September, 1973, pp. 104-08.

One problem with Regiment of Women is that it is based on little more than the idea of reversal. There is something initially obvious in all satire, and therefore to be successful a unique tension must be developed between the theoretical and the concrete, the idea proposed and the life created within it. The effect of comic disproportion should be like that of a magnifying glass that focuses our attention more clearly on particular vagaries of human nature that might otherwise have been taken for granted.

Although there are glimmerings of insight into the factitiousness of outward sexual postures in Berger's futuristic fantasy, the reader is never allowed to penetrate behind the masks the author fashions. Georgie Cornell remains little more than an abstract expression of sexual opposites—passive and submissive at the beginning in women's clothes, dominant and powerful when he removes the make-up.

To a certain extent Berger's failure to go beyond clichés may stem from an unresolved question of ultimate intention. For despite its predictability, an underlying inconsistency runs throughout the work….

One simply is not sure what Berger is up to in this burlesque. Is his purpose to poke fun at present sociosexual trends (as in the beginning of the novel), to warn that what he envisions is in a very real sense inevitable unless mankind returns to its natural instincts, or merely to lampoon the typical escape-and-romance ending of some paperback novels?…

The conflict between conditioned roles and innate inclinations, between choice and impulse, is a genuine problem for sexuality in the modern consciousness. And no doubt it is necessary at least to start, as Berger has, with commonly held assumptions and stereotypes. Yet unfortunately, instead of opening up new areas of inquiry with its satirical treatment, the book's meticulously executed pattern serves rather to divert the author from the very questions he raises. One must be able to ascertain what are the masks and what aren't. Reading Regiment of Women one never quite knows.

Francis Levy, "Reversing Roles," in New Leader, November 12, 1973, p. 20.