by Perry Meisel
In addition to its already traditional role of providing a public forum for younger and relatively unknown writers who publish their work in the little magazines, the now-annual Pushcart Prize anthology also provides one of the best opportunities we have for assessing the state of North American writing at large on a regular basis. The major thrust of the third and newest volume is to confirm the growing but still unpopular belief that anti-realism is no longer the only virtuous method for fiction to follow or criticism to endorse. True to the links Bill Henderson's introduction drew between the Pushcart project as it began in 1976 and the little-magazine activity of the Paris of Pound and Joyce, the primary burden of the first Pushcart anthology three years ago was the "modernism" that had belatedly invaded American letters in the 1960's, an invasion that intrigued Morris Dickstein in the volume's representative critical essay, and a critical concern mirrored in the abundance of experimental writing in the volume's fiction. If the 1977 anthology suggested a partial move away from the experimentalism dominant in 1976, the 1978 entry makes that move relatively complete. Today experimentalism for its own sake has been severely curtailed; black humor indulged only incidentally; and straightforward referential writing restored to health and veracity.
What Mark Strand has called "difficult love" is the concern that unifies the volume's decidedly realist enterprise and that distinguishes its very best fiction and poetry. The traditional theme is hardly what it used to be, though, since the clarification we demand today of the muddle we are in in love means new notions about the very nature of human relationships, especially marriage. Ten years ago stories like Andre Dubus's "The Fat Girl" and James Crumley's "Whores" would've been called immoral for their refusal to celebrate communion, but today they simply mark the distance we have come from thematic modernism, too, particularly Lawrence's enthusiasm for meaning and fulfillment through the embrace. For women writers in particular, love is no longer a search for union with an other but a means of defining and strengthening the self. Hence Lynne Sharon Schwartz's "Rough Strife," a close examination of pregnancy and the male's utter alienation from it, celebrates not so much a marriage renewed by childbirth as the power of a woman to express a common private experience in the public terms of prose. In Margaret Atwood's "The Man from Mars" and Mary Peterson's "To Dance," even the figure of the lover is no longer sought as a double or sharer (indeed, Atwood's suitor is manifestly disagreeable and motivates the story for that very reason), but as what Atwood calls an "interpreter." Instead of the means to an end to "modernist" isolation, here (as in "The Fat Girl") the lover becomes merely the circuit through which a woman learns to read herself.
The anthology's verse is best, too, when thickened by the particularity of experience rather than when its language is emptied out or whitened by the lingering pressure of its own anti-representational imperatives. Though experimentation lives on in the poems more than in the fiction, those poems that are anchored to something more than the page recommend themselves to something more than theoretical meaning. "It isn't such a bad thing / To live in one world forever," writes James Galvin in "Everyone Knows Whom the Saved Envy," a reinvestment of the quotidian whose transcendence is mocked by the poem's very title. Hence too Robert Burlingame's anatomy of the specific in "Some Recognition of the Joshua Lizard," where the claim that what is "catalogued" is what is real also keeps the poet's faith in language as honest as - and as identical with - his faith in nature itself. Indeed, the volume's best poem, Michael Dennis Browne's " 'Talk to Me, Baby,' " maintains its faith in both the quotidian and the linguistic at once by refusing to lament the withdrawal of the divine from human life (the occasion is a fish that refuses to become the transcendent Symbol it was for "young Willie Yeats"), filling the void instead with Browne's attempted triumph over Yeats within the medium of poetry itself.
Not so Pinchas Sadeh, however, the Israeli writer whose search for the real Moses in a story/essay from Tri/Quarterly constitutes a regressive quest for the divine as such, a quest made doubly ironic by his obvious delight in the indeterminacies of the Biblical interpretations of which his own text is composed. Such a style of delight is what Alvin Rosenfeld describes as the Kabbalistic aspect of Jewish tradition in an excellent essay here on Harold Bloom, a tradition that forecloses the presence of what even the sacred letter refers to in favor of a reduction of the divine to a metaphor for what always escapes the desire for a messianic ending to interpretation. Sadeh's failure to recognize this means that he has not yet substituted the literary for the theological, believing like a Christian that language can uncover more than just a name.
Such imaginative failure would seem on the face of it symptomatic of the problem of the volume's realist enterprise as a whole. For even if Sadeh is not himself a realist in the traditional sense, his assumptions about language as a transparent instrument to the divine - to something outside the literary game that would explain it - mean that he shares conventional realist assumptions about language as a mere window on the world.
Ironically, though, the volume's best realists, like its best poets, share no such assumptions, nor is their work to be identified with the intentional critical innocence of an essay like John Gardner's "Moral Fiction," the most well-known piece in the volume as well as the only one that endorses without scrutiny the instrumental view of language practiced by Sadeh. Gardner's insistence that a linguistically-oriented criticism or fiction like William Gass's is utterly at odds with a healthy realism may be true of his and Gass's own antithetical notions about language, although both are surely more narrow-minded than they have to be, especially in light of the academic skirmishes over structuralism that lie behind their own more public debate.
Indeed, the best essays in the volume show by their very practice why it is that realism and formalism can and ought to be continuous. Adrienne Rich's stunning essay on Emily Dickinson not only rescues the poet from patriarchal myths of neurosis by accenting her power and self-possession, but also concludes that her poems are a "poet's poems" and so reach "beyond mere self-expression." Similarly, Robert Hass's otherwise psychological essay on Robert Lowell claims that the "Quaker Graveyard" is "not a place in time . . . but a place in imagination," while the interview with Ralph Ellison toward the volume's close shows us an exemplary artist whose grounding in social reality is nonetheless consistent with his renewed assertion here that "novels are made from other novels."
After all, to say that "novels are made from other novels" is by no means the exclusively formalist claim it may seem to be. For to say that novels are about novels and poetry about poetry is only to say that the artist's work, like everyone else's, is interpretative rather than expressive. Thus the anthology addresses its chief thematic issues, notably "difficult love," by finding the terms of its appeal in a notion of experience itself as a set of common texts. Though the old modernist myths teach us to think that we live and love alone, we do so according to common patterns every bit as learned as the poems of Yeats or the novels of Joyce. There is as much hope in such a claim as there may be despair, since even the most agonizing loneliness is thereby effected through circuits of reference and meaning common to us all. Much as the poet writes from poems and the novelist from novels, so our personal lives are lived and measured in terms of the accommodations each of us makes with a general and common reality. Like Ellison's vision of American life as the web of its discourses, the anthology's best work figures manners, morals, even desire, as discourses, too: the "bestsellers" in Walter Abish's "Parting Shot" that have already inscribed the lives whose "texts" he narrates; the manifest codes of desire that structure Louise's struggle with obesity in "The Fat Girl" ("Will he like me?"); or the notes and photographs in "The Man from Mars" that redouble the story as it describes them. And what appears to be no more than a formalist's technical sensitivity to language and its mobile articulation becomes an illuminating interpretation of the indeterminate structure of love itself in the Ascher/Straus Collective's "Even After a Machine is Dismantled, It Continues to Operate, With or Without Purpose."
In such cases what we call realism and experimental formalism converge in a double capability that exploits the linguistic fund of experience itself the way the experimentalist exploits the fund of language proper. Experimentalism for its own sake obscures the possibility of these salutary alliances and even has the ironic effect of reconstituting the realist illusion as it tries to shatter it - the illusion that there is a world independent of language from which language might wish to flee. The richest writing, as the Victorians knew, plays both games at once, recognizing that each one requires the other. Pushcart III's best work exemplifies the combination, and the sign of its success is the apparent artlessness, the apparent innocence, of stories plainly told.
Originally published in The Ontario Review, Spring-Summer 1979