Vincent Canby Daphne Merkin - Essay

Daphne Merkin

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Unnatural Scenery] whirrs with rapid, centrifugal force, yet gives little indication of the generative impulse behind all the noise—other than possibly an interest in the geographical lore of the state of Virginia.

Marshall Lewis Henderson, the narrator, is one of those larger-than-life figures who is, at best, representative of the world around him and, at worst, an oafish presence. His childhood is depicted from a bewildering variety of angles, featuring elements of gentility and reclusiveness that usually characterize WASP boyhoods; alongside these are contrasting elements of dissipation and familial violence that typify novels dealing with the Southern gentry….

Unnatural Scenery is "antic," which means that believability is sacrificed in the interests of diversity. Canby orchestrates his novel like a ringmaster at a three-ring circus, constantly sparking the flagging attention of his audience with new acts and daredevil performers. The book is admittedly entertaining in parts, yet only because it is so furiously au courant. The humor seldom penetrates…. [For] all its efforts Unnatural Scenery palls frequently, mainly because Canby supplies us with heaps of information in place of characterization. Marshall remains a distant curiosity rather than the touching survivor he is meant to be. The reader, meanwhile, remains very much on the outside, wondering what all the damned fuss is about. (p. 15)

Daphne Merkin, in The New Leader (© 1979 by the American Labor Conference on International Affairs, Inc.), January 29, 1979.