Film and the flattening of Jewish-American fiction: Bernard Malamud, Woody Allen and Spike Lee in the city.
Bernard Malamud, The Tenants
Late-twentieth-century Jewish art has seen a quickening interest in what Primo Levi defended in The Periodic Table as art's salutary impurity With integral genre under pressure, and the interdisciplinary replacing the notion of the sealed-off field, artists working in diverse media now try on and out each other's techniques, finding in the very limitations of one genre the inception of another. One might call Claude Lanzmann's monumental Shoah a work of such "impurity." Lanzmann circumvented the impasse any film on its subject would face--aestheticizing the Holocaust--by renouncing that protein of the film, the visual image. At the same time, he contravened film's narrative mandate. In place of image Lanzmann substituted testimony, voiced documentation of things an image could only traduce, and in place of developing plot he gave us a thrumming repetition that taxed and finally exhausted the yen for catharsis. An invaluable archival contribution, yes, but also a great self-reflexive work of art, Shoah offered commentary on the limits of the film image only intelligible in film.
To pick a less weighty but also more broadly revealing case for my purposes here, Woody Allen has for many years acted as a cross-genre runner on the border between film and the novel. The first-person talkiness of Interiors, the in-depth studies of character in Hannah and Her Sisters, and the nearly Tolstoyan thematics of Crimes and Misdemeanors belong less to the film than to narrative traditions that once interested Allen only as backboards for spoofing. In the early seventies Allen mined War and Peace, Gogol, and Dostoyevsky for lumps of narrative stiffness--even pedantry--that film's power to literalize made ridiculous. Now, Allen's highly literary imagination deploys visual elements in interrogations of the visual itself, revealing in The Purple Rose of Cairo, for example, just how literally enticing are film illusions, and in Crimes and Misdemeanors how shallow is the eye that sees only what it wants to see. Allen's penchant for the novelistic is eminently humane, and it has everything to do, one may hazard, with the satisfaction his films bring. And yet the broad-minded view is sometimes the most astigmatic as well, eclipsing the world under one's nose. Allen's cinematic critiques of the visual make narrative distance a corrective to merely superficial seeing. But on the other hand, this narrative distance is gained at the cost of contemporaneity, by holding at bay the shocking incursions of that visualism that is the defining mark of the culture of the day.
Reflect on Allen's favorite round-the-dinner-table mise en scene, his use of scores from the swing era of the forties and fifties, his affection for a quaint, sometimes self-consciously archaic narrative omniscience, his devotion to a New York burnished with what the fifties called glamour--and one quickly comes to realize that it is a mid-century, as opposed to a late-century, moment that is Allen's home. In middle age himself, and making films of men in middle age (albeit men seeking the jump-start of a nymphet), Allen remains a literate Jewish artist from the heyday of literate Jewishness, that ripe moment of the late fifties and early sixties when Saul Bellow and Bernard Malamud were writing novels of well-launched careers and Philip Roth and Joseph Heller--and Allen too--were just coming into view. Allen's brainy urbanity and comic self-deprecation are characteristic of that era's overall confidence in the perspective that an ironic and subtle cosmopolitanism can bring. Allen's conviction, moreover, that some rounded, true, and civilizing take on human relationships can yet be found (technically dramatized, in recent years anyway, by his signature use of a camera on a slowly revolving dolly) makes him--paradoxically--the most classically novelistic of the Sputnik-era artists who are his peers. More than any of the above group, it is Allen who has remained truest to narrative and to an art of gently graduated depths. Indeed, while he has become increasingly novelistic, the work of his novelistic peers has become more cinematic, as the liberal possibilities of depth itself have come to seem less and less compelling to those writers who now, by and large, toil in vineyards first cultivated by the chronologically most senior but artistically youngest, or most contemporary, member of the original fifties group--Malamud, who died in 1986.
If it is Malamud's searing work of the early seventies that will occupy me here, that is because it was Malamud more than any other Jewish writer who opened the novel to emerging forms of representation and did so precisely by narrowing novelistic scope. As Allen moves steadily toward the year 2000 making movies with the engrossing human interest of Victorian three-deckers, Malamud crossed the lines of his genre twenty years ago to write a book with what Walter Benjamin called the "surgical' immediacy of film.(1) This book traded the edifying moral persuasion that had been Malamud's earlier specialty for simple, often bluntly violent force--the same force we now associate with rap videos, or with Spike Lee joint productions. Spike Lee thus enters this discussion as Allen's foil and as the most inventive contemporary innovator in, and purveyor of, the aesthetic of urban flatness that Malamud vernacularized for Jewish-American fiction. Lee's role in the present essay is as sponsor of a particular strain of filmic urbanism that has taken hold in that fiction, while Allen's more classic urbanism is preserved in an increasingly retrospective and elegiac, if also irresistibly tender and profound, oeuvre. More specifically then, my concern here is in locating a watershed moment when the tendency to a particular "impurity" in Jewish art became a defining feature--that moment, to delimit my subject even further, when a subgenre of deep perspective began to admit flatness as an advanced faculty of fictional talent.
At the risk of overschematizing, let me suggest that what Malamud devises in The Tenants is the uneasy, and painfully literal, cohabitation of two mutually attracted yet also mutually repellent traditions of urban representation: one developed among Jewish writers since 1900, the other developing contemporaneously among African-American artists. One tradition of urban representation sees the city as spatialization of meditative activity, or simulacrum of mental inquiry itself. The other, by contrast, uses a vivid and theatrical flatness to convey the particular feel of city encounters, their transcendent possibility as well as the enervating toll they exact.
It is by now a truism in criticism of Jewish-American literature that the city has a role outstripping that of any mere "setting." The transplanted genius in New York makes the city his Talmud, and the intricacy once the signal province of the Book is now deprovincialized in the polyglot metropolis whose mastery this genius makes the most personal of aims. For the Jewish artist in the decades before the sixties, the urban space was a leaf on which to write the self, a daf for the play of mind, and the narrative of Jews in the city--at its best-what Murray Baumgarten has eloquently called a "city scripture."(2) Henry Roth, Saul Bellow, and the young Philip Roth all follow the pattern Alfred Kazin set down when he made his Walker in the City a story of intellectual as much as spatial circumnavigation. The walker who crosses the arc of the Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan is crossing into the complex and fretted terrain of mind itself, the mind where one crosses--again and again--out of the father's parochial borough. The city's cryptic dialects, its neighborhoods sprawling like commentaries, its architectural heights and flats and descents all become figures for the developing mind of the wandering thinker as, in addition, they serve to figure the multifarious, digressive, prehensile, and lurching development of a book not a Book but a novel, individuated to express what the father's Books did not account for: New York, Newark, Chicago. The reader, holding that book, holds the city and the mind that grew to compass it; the hero and the circumstances that made him; the finished work between covers and the interior habit of endless divagation that makes covers ultimately superfluous. The Jewish city novel--an intellectual adventure," or "walk," or "unbinding"--exceeds itself.
By contrast, the city that Spike Lee's films represent, a city sharing features with the cities of Amiri Baraka, Ann Petry, Claude McKay, and Langston Hughes, is a dramatic and communal, as opposed to intellectual and interiorized, space. An intense and arresting chamber of the present, this city is organized not by developments but by contacts. Likely influenced, as Henry Louis Gates, Jr., has speculated, by African traditions of "masking," African-American city spectacles converge on moments of collective and performative revelation rather than on moments of individual discernment, with the "mask in the drama invok[ing] and evok[ing] a habit of mind": "the mask is a vehicle for the primary evocation of a complete hermetic universe. . . . [whose] internal cogency makes it impervious to the accident of place or time" (Gates, Figures 169, 168).3 In his city pageants, Lee avails himself of this ethos of the richly centripetal present, as he makes fashion, dialect, dance, and gesture--all modes of masking--his characters' means of seizing ontological primacy. At the same time, though, Lee's masking--like McKay's, like Baraka's--acknowledges the exile from an erstwhile integrity that the city setting must inevitably represent. The bombed-out storefronts of Lee's Bed-Stuy may be reclaimed for urban performance flats, and yet the sheer desolation of the space must dampen, or at least alter, performative buoyancy. The city compels vigilance and guardedness; it drains off energy as much as routing and transmitting it. Hence if the performative resource has sacralizing potential, still, the elasticity of performance is sometimes--often--hobbled by the city's stiffer, habituating rhythms. Then spirited masking can rigidify into attitudinizing, or self-caricature, or the reifications of pose, reflex, cliche. The accelerated time of the city occludes choice; its narrow curbs and storefronts can limit mobility while accentuating mere display.
Let us say then, to summarize, that the classic Jewish hero's most vital engagement with the city comes when scholarly deliberation retrains itself as canny metropolitanism. For the African-American hero, vital engagement comes when performance regathers the scattered community in a strong moment of present experience. The nearest analogue in the African-American work to the interior epiphany of the Jewish hero is the collective instant of choral solidarity or wisdom, with this last only ephemerally achievable, finally more effective as an absence than a presence. In Lee's Bed-Stuy, deliberation, rumination, and memory hardly register except in evasions, in wisdom usually coming too late, or in lament. Thus the meditations from Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X trailing the last violent scene from Do the Right Thing are jettisoned from the action, as are the film's three street-corner savants, as is the choral wail of "No . . . ooo . . . ooo!" that ends the film. Comment goes on outside the flow of urban action, with narrative perspective exiled from an erstwhile narrative form.
This occlusion of narrative, so striking in Lee's best work and a characteristic motif in the Jewish urban fiction of the postsixties period, is the most striking and influential innovation of Malamud's rending novel of 1971, The Tenants. For it was that book that crystallized and made articulate the resolve of Jewish writers to open a dialectical, allusive, cerebral, interiorized, and erudite strain of urban writing--the Jewish novel of the fifties and early sixties--to another urbanism, that of the street. The urbanism of the earlier, more culturally homogeneous Jewish writing needed memory and mind, meditation and rumination. Only in Augie March's recollections does Chicago take shape. In the precincts of the newer urbanism, memory swiftly superannuates, and the nice distinctions of the ruminant hero are simply lost to the clangor of present contacts. The experience of urban shock at the center of such works of the seventies and eighties as Bellow's Humboldt's Gift (1975), Heller's Something Happened (1974), Roth's Zuckerman Unbound (1981), and, in its own way, Cynthia Ozick's Puttermesser and Xanthippe (1982) is fundamentally new. In this later, postsixties work, the reimagining of the city as a space, pre-eminently, of action rather than meditation bespeaks the Jewish artist's recognition of a new city ethos, an ethos exacting a different kind of attention than cerebral drive, or even of liberal solicitude or ethical dismay. The new urbanism would be urbanism, like it or not, in your face.
Not that Jewish writing had really ever been sealed off from the city or from mass forms of culture. The incursions of mass culture had always been a topic of interest to the Jewish writer and had left their mark on all the classic works. One sees the earliest traces of it in such writers as Abraham Cahan, in Delmore Schwartz and in Nathanael West, who explored the sometimes galvanizing but more often corrosive influence of mass forms on language itself.4 Further, Schwartz and West understood their own artistic industries as perhaps fertilized, but also threatened, by those products of "the Industry" supervised by its Mayers and Selznicks. For both Jewish and non-Jewish fiction of the late twentieth century, the drift toward minimalism owes as much, I think, to the technique of the film as to Ernest Hemingway, who generally gets the credit. From film the writer learned to see art as a kind of cutting which, when effective, leaves simple columns of dialogue inside the narrowest edge of authorial direction.
Joseph Heller, for instance, whose best book, Catch-22, was made into an even better movie (and whose longtime pal and adviser is Mel Brooks), had by the mid-seventies largely given up narrative. In Malamud's stead, Heller now practiced a mixed, spliced, and impure kind of writing which reduced exposition to a matter of script and setting. Heller's God Knows, a protracted shtick spoken by King David amid a court of movie types (Solomon a nerdy M.B.A., Bathsheba a whore with a heart of gold), was a movie constrained by paper covers, for it renounced the depth of narrative in favor of exposition pushed up on a surface.
To collapse depth, though, is not necessarily to court superficiality. Filmic flattening can force a kind of understanding that narrative's long views defer. It can show us what we think before we think about it; what we see, in other words, before second sight intervenes. In a cinematic bit from Heller's 1976 novel, Good as Gold, the relationship between a father and son is cropped and caught in a shuttle of ripostes that is completely self-explanatory. Unable to decide amicably on the simple matter of an eating spot, Heller's father and son spar:
"Lets go to Lundy's," he suggested. "It's right here. We'll have a good
piece of fish."
"What's so good about it?" said his father.
"So"--gold declined to argue--"it won't be so good."
"Why are you getting me fish that's no good?"
"Black," said Gold.
"White," said his father.
"White," said Gold.
"Black," said his father.
"I'm glad," said Gold, "you remember your game."
"Who says it's a game?"
(94) All explanation clipped away, what remains in the passage above is the simple symbiotic geometry of the father-son contest. This spurt of sallies, to which the novelist's "he saids" cling as mere vestiges, reveals a relationship so unvaryingly black and white that only stylization can convey its static quality. The cinematic technique this passage borrows pre-empts any temporizing on the part of the narrator or indeed the narrative, and for a reason. No matter what the "extenuating circumstances," no matter what the family history that prompts this duel, there is no way out of the hard-shelled antipathy that the scene dramatizes. The withdrawal of an outside, or a novelist's, perspective enhances our sense of how little these characters see. That is because all we see is what they see.
Heller's Good as Gold is very much a postsixties work--the villainous father has an evil double in (who else?) Henry Kissinger--and so is Bernard Malamud's work The Tenants, to which I will now devote my attention. Both of these books of the aftermath record a growing sense that the massive transformations that the era wrought would not be likely to leave the future of representation untouched. In the fiction of Heller and Malamud, the weakened wall between the strictly novelistic and the self-consciously documentary or filmic marks the novelist's new doubt about whether certain conditions of social and interpersonal extremity can find representation anymore in fictional forms. Having seen the barricades fall and the demolition of any number of inviolable institutions--by war, by political turpitude, but especially by urban riots--the Jewish writer had to be reminded of how his own success in America had always been tied to his interest in and embrace of metamorphosis, or change. Whether this artist saw himself as partisan reviewer (Trilling), avant-gardist (Stein), apocalyptic prophet (West), or, that happiest of variants on the type, adventurer (Bellow), the vitality of the Jewish artist inhered, as Mark Shechner has shown, in his or her appetite for revolution--big R or small, if not Marx's, then Freud's, if not Igor Stravinsky's, then Bob Dylan's, who as "freewheeling" troubadour was the apotheosis of the type.5 The Jewish writer who had learned in the fifties to regard the intellectual novel as the consummate form of social promise, as well as proof of the Jew's final patriation in America, now had to take the measure of the complacency such confidence might cover. The novel might not be a promised end at all, but rather a kind of night school where the newly denaturalized American, made a greenhorn by the sea change of the sixties, would learn the lingo of a new art form, a form savvier than that old pedagogue, the novel.
Malamud's story of statutory tenant Harry Lesser functions as this kind of night school. In addition to offering a cruelly acute analysis of the vexed relationship to the American city of both blacks and Jews, and in addition to probing their insecure place in American intellectual life, The Tenants is also a novel showing its very subject to be a kind of statutory tenant in the house of fiction. All over the text there are clues that the only renewal possible for the black or Jewish urban writer--the writer literally ghettoized in fiction--is the rehab of film. First, then, to the purely stylistic clues.
The book's setting is a crumbling building in an abandoned "lot," and it ends with its two protagonists recovering each other's discarded manuscript pages from a "can." While this "can," as one of the novels most potent symbols, is both a waste receptacle and a toilet, it also functions--is reutilized, as Jurgen Habermas might say--as a kind of ghetto cache, or buried archive, from which the final revelatory scenes of the novel are, like film, spooled. These two puns--"lot" and "can"--come to seem a good deal less tenuous in the context of the book: indeed, as the promise of novelistic form disintegrates in images of trashed manuscripts smelling of farts or worse, the promise of cinematic art quickens or, if you will, develops out of hints in the story line, technique, and even typography. For The Tenants features a man of flagging fictional talent now living on royalties earned from a movie sale. It is written, from the first page, in a style that seems impatient with the old amenities of exposition. Moreover, it deploys an austere lexicon of black and white that works in two ways: first, to indicate the intransigent gridlock of race upon which all other social questions devolve; and second, to introduce the stark form best placed to reveal, if not unclench, this gridlock. The black and white of this new form now screens--in the sense of exposing, making public, airing--what was hitherto "screened" in the sense of privatized, overdetermined, or concealed. The very ungainliness of this novel, its occasionally contrived feel, is owing then to the imperative of a generic evacuation under which it labors.
But to understand the destitution to which fiction comes in this novel, one must understand the black and Jewish artists who cower within that destitution and, accordingly, the historically resonant metaphor of the "tenement" they squat in. Not a resident of the grim building he inhabits, Harry Lesser, the Jew, is, rather, its sole statutory tenant, unwilling to leave despite the pleadings, imprecations, and finally bribes of Levenspiel, the owner, who wants to junk and rebuild on it. Lesser will not leave before his book, ten years in the making and still not finished, is done. The other tenant, Willie Spearmint, is a trespasser, unprotected by statute, and a black man, pecking out with two fingers his first novel in an unheated room. One trying to end a novel, the other trying to begin, neither of the novelists is able to actually dwell in the fiction he writes. Henry James's own House of Fiction, alluded to in the early pages of the novel, is here a shell, and the two writers' common incapacity either to flourish in or leave this house is linked to a whole history of maladaptations their novels come to emblemize rather than transcend.(6)
That Lesser is Jewish and Willie Spearmint is black is crucial to this tale of the art form at an impasse, for both writers are stymied rather than energized by who they are. Not only are they both paralyzed by the self-identification "writer," but both similarly exemplify how ethnic "identity" incompletely understood can become first a means of separatism and then of self-stereotyping--first a way of denying the other's complexity, then a means of abandoning one's own. Indeed, both Lesser and Spearmint manage to turn what might be an energizing attachment to their individual cultural histories into pathology. In both cases, heritage is a soul-shrinking, atavistic influence.
For instance, one discerns right away in Lesser's obsession with form, with closure, with ends a hypertrophied but still recognizable version of a Jewish messianism. Lesser calls his book "The Promised End," imputing its source to King Lear. But "Promised End" is a title also resonant with echoes of the covenant and the world to come--with promised land, with end of days. If, in certain ways, Lesser's assiduous habits recall those of the Talmudist whose study is interrupted for no one; if, like that older bibliophile, there is for him nothing outside of the text; if the very time in which he writes is the storyteller's or mystic's time--dislocated from the world's commerce, from the contingent, always launched toward a telos--nevertheless, the drastic sublimation Lesser practices is nearly indistinguishable from sterility. Accordingly, Lesser's watchful, even voyeuristic routines of writing and editing--each afternoon he peeps on the morning's thrills--are counterpointed in his essentially pornographic sexual tastes. No wonder Lesser cannot get inside his fiction, no wonder that as self-critic he cannot do much beyond spy at his own performances. As sexual agent he is also a watcher, relentlessly spying on women, cataloging them as to breast size and color of tights, sniffing their perfume, getting their back views--all for later. Even when he falls in love with Willie's girlfriend Irene, and she falls in love with him too, he neglects his beloved, putting off their marriage until after the completion of his book. Lesser's eroticization of distance gains particular poignancy when we learn that that very book, "The Promised End," is itself about love and a writer who, not being able to love, invents a fantasy proxy to give love for him. Writing has no end when detached from human affect and urgency: this is the obvious lesson Lesser's own book should teach him. But its title, which makes love a prize rather than a life practice, believes the text to be a redemptive end in itself. Thus while nothing gets a rise out of Lesser's penis like the morning's pages before him, his book is nine and a half years in the making--an overdue child, doomed to be stillborn.
Irene Bell, whose very name means the music his text lacks, is not the only one from whom Lesser insulates his writing. He is indifferent to his ailing landlord Levenspiel, to his aging parents, to a crippled dog whimpering at his door. He eats little but bread and apples, and he works amid the fecal stench of bums' leavings and abandoned plumbing, his sense of smell, his nose for waste, deadened by the very heap of waste in which his own nose, as it were, is always buried. The Jewish habit of textual immersion amounts in Lesser's case to an infantile and regressive anal eroticism: he cannot see beyond his own pile. This "pile" has still further implications. The historic building turned literal shithole where Lesser lives is only one among many in the decaying urban neighborhood. The city falls around Lesser, but he does not notice, with the only one to remind him of its decimation his landlord, Levenspiel, whose own pecuniary interest in the building, combined with his disdain for the neighborhood, makes him another instance of Jewish desertion of the city itself. Like the grocery clerk in Malamud's earlier The Assistant, Lesser and Levenspiel stand for a certain tenacity of Jewish urban investment not to be confused with love of neighborhood. Theirs is the narrowness of interest to be ultimately turned against Jews in stereotypes: Jew landlord, Jew pawnbroker. Finally, Lesser should be understood not only to abjure a Jew's responsibility for the city that welcomed the immigrant, but also the Jew's responsibility--after the Holocaust--to himself, to smell change in the wind. On the. walls of his neighbor's apartment Nazi slogans sprout, but Lesser does not notice, and by not noticing he abets the pogrom that finally consumes him.
Willie Spearmint is the mirror image or, more accurately, the filmic negative of Lesser. Willie's very names, to begin with, make him as much Lesser's completing half as his nemesis. As Bill or Will or Willie Spear (diminutive William Shakespeare or rhyming brother of Lear), Willie has knowledge of human suffering--of grinding homelessness as opposed to artistic slumming--the indifference to which makes Lesser a "lesser" writer. On the other hand, Willie's scorn for the craft Lesser would associate with Shakespeare is liable to reduce him to a simple "spear," his pen a raw tool of aggression, an unsheathed knife or penis, or both.(7) Human, yes, but all too human, too; if Lesser is pathologically detached, Willie's trouble is that he cannot detach at all. Late in the novel, his person and his gift collapse together in one word pounded in capitals on a white page, the word black black black black black. But earlier, the signs of this lazy essentialism are abundantly manifest. When Lesser, on reading Willie's manuscript, assumes that it is autobiography (and implicitly the only genre a black man can command), Willie is smart enough to recognize a species of white patronage that will ultimately limit him. He knows in his gut what Ralph Ellison argued to Irving Howe--that a demand for "authenticity" in black fiction ultimately consigns the black artist to rehashing circular sociological cliches.(8) The high premium placed on the victimspiel as the black artist's own "promised end" is finally an investment in the black artist's ghettoization, if not his chains. Ironically, Willie has--but cannot use--this knowledge. Willie's intellectual understanding of art's necessary distances--his understanding that artistic freedom is the freedom to make things up--is as theoretical as Lesser's knowledge of love in the here and now. Willie may despise Lesser for assuming, like Howe, that in order to be Richard Wright he must in some way also be Bigger Thomas, yet when he is confronted with his own artistic immaturity, he falls back on just such biological special pleading as he despises Lesser for expecting. He says: "I am art. Willie Spearmint, black man. My form is myself . . . How can you understand, Lesser, if your brain is white?" (75). Willie's incapacity to get any textual distance also has sexual ramifications. Willie's book is not finally a book, not a "representation" at all. It is not by but rather of him, like a limb or phallic member, his means of "making it." Before it is even written, Willie equates the book with cash or sperm, virtual substance of his manly worth: "I'm gon win the fuckn Noble Prize," he tells Lesser, "they gon gimme a million bucks of cash" (49). And then: "I want money to stuff up my black ass and white bitch's cunt" (50). As reader, too, Willie is incapable of making elemental distinctions between literary and actual characters. When Willie reads Lesser's first book, he reports wanting to "lay some pipe in [the] pants" (80) of a female character in that book. Willie's habitual obscenity points up a certain fastidiousness in Lesser that keeps him from finding the love in his book. But it is also the argot of a reductive sensibility.
Of course, Lesser and Willie are not only personal foils one for the other. They are silhouettes of the black and the Jewish artist, each historically seeking his writer's homeland in America, his writer's Promised Land. Early on, Lesser compares himself to an explorer and his writing engine, as it were, to a steamboat. He broods: "Or maybe Mississippi Steamboat with booming, splashing paddle-wheel, heartrending foghorn, and other marvelous inventions. Not a bad metaphor, boat. Lesser in short-masted bark with a puff of wind in its sail on the Galilean Lake" (15). Projecting himself as freebooting American discoverer, a Huck or Ishmael, or that most universal of Jews, Christ, Lesser travels with purloined papers, laying claim to a Manifest Destiny only historical myopia would read as the Jewish artist's birthright. As heir to those who sought in America a deliverance from the pogrom's lynch mobs and from institutionalized economic disadvantage, Lesser's natural raft mate is not Huck but Jim, not Natty but Chingachgook, his destiny not manifest at all but hard won--and against the current. Lesser's confidence that he is not a Jew but a writer, described less by what he is than what he does, depends on the convenient invisibility of the black man whose more conspicuous ethnicity points up his own. This selective identification may give Lesser mainstream--that is, "steamboat"--credentials, but just beneath the surface of Lesser's romanticizations is a telltale paranoia. Hearing Willie type for the first time, Lesser wonders if his neighbor is a CIA agent, "tuning in on Harry Lesser engaged in writing a subversive novel" (27). Lesser's strategy for exempting himself from the ranks of the blacklisted, from the ranks of Jewish Jims, is to play patron: Irving Howe to Willie's Richard Wright, Carl Van Vechten to his Langston Hughes, or Julius Rosenwald to his Booker T. Washington. What's more, if Willie serves Lesser's ego as the ethnic, particularist double he can literally kill with kindness, he serves his id as well. Willie's funky looks, his Harlem milieu with its jazz and sex and social color gratify monklike Lesser's now inverted taste for the taboo. As in Woody Allen's sketch of the Hasidic rabbi who craves beating by a blond woman eating pork, Lesser's eroticization of Willie and his life is tied to his ultimately racist sense of Willie's taint.
Predictably, Lesser's noblesse oblige finds its echo in Willie's exploitative rage. Willie's ego strength is perversely nourished by his sense of himself as victim, or helpless avenger. To be sure, Lesser's exaggerated magnanimity recalls that of, say, the Northern abolitionists whose virtuous deeds helped them buy and bank moral capital. Yet beyond despising Lesser for giving him help hardly disinterested, Willie shapes a moral program of disimprovement calculated to reveal, more than meliorate, the distorting effects of racism. In other words, he seeks relationships where his rage and impotence are fueled by exploitative dependence. For her financial support of him, Irene gets Willie's "meat," his potency enhanced by a certain alienated self-disgust at the fleshy yen that rules him. In this, Willie's exaggerated double is Sam, a black man who gets off by watching through keyholes as his girlfriend is seduced but not pleasured by white men. That the white is ritually beaten after the episode cements the connection between masochism and energy. Willie's stories gain their own force from the brutal victimization of their heroes. His strongest is a tale of a small boy forced to perform fellatio on his mother's white sugar daddy, and, just so, Willie's relationship with Lesser, his artistic sugar daddy and hated Charlie, repeats the same pattern. After requesting that Lesser read and criticize his fiction, Willie turns Lesser's quite guarded criticism into an act of persecution. The perceived slight in turn fuels his own creativity, as Lesser becomes for him Lester (Lester Maddox, one supposes) and finally, in the last terrible chapters of the book, the Jew landlord his manically energized pages kill and kill.
In the course of the novel, all of this complexity of cause, all this entangled history, becomes finally too much. Each chafed by the other's (often just) counterclaims, Willie and Lesser fall out over the relatively simple matter of a woman with whom neither lives but both--hidebound "tenants"--shack up. Their collapse into cliched sexual competition is hardly inexplicable: it is, rather, predictable. Neither is elastic enough (as who would be) to sustain and present without rupture the whole history of his people. Failing as representatives of depths probably not individually compassable, Willie and Lesser resort to the representativeness of the sandwich board, each becoming a placard of his people's claims. The process of flattening that finally makes Lesser and Spearmint each nothing but a dichotomous reaction to the other, homeless but for their symbiotic tenanting of the other, adds up, over the course of the novel, to Malamud's tentative exploration of stereotype's etiology--and narrative's limits. When characters of mixed motive, confused intent, and substantial historical complexity come to see each other as they do--as simply "Bloodsuckin Jew Niggerhater" and "Anti-Semitic Ape"--then we have reached a representational impasse. With Willie and Lesser trading epithets so potent that they arrest contemplation--and immobilize history--no wonder, then, that as writers they die. Each forgets that the other thinks, remembering only that the other stinks. By the last pages, Lesser is writing schlocky fantasies of interracial marriage, his airbrushed naivete chilling for its detachment from the real, from the racial experiment in cohabitation he actually lives. Willie, on the other hand, writes anti-Semitic diatribes of ritual murder and revenge. Both have descended to the lowest kind of literary
production. Everything they write is shit, a stink in the can.
As something other than writing, however, as film, say, these out-takes from the can have another function. I'm saying, in other words, that Malamud's ambition goes beyond showing that a writer's consciousness is killed by stereotype. Malamud would investigate as well the new kind of consciousness stereotype is, and so follow its eviction from the novel, a form to which it cannot anymore go home. Steadily, Malamud's own novel begins to unwrite itself as narrative. If Lesser cannot finish his book, it is not because there are no endings to be had, but because they are not to be had by him, a novelist, or by the novel itself, the form he never doubts, though he ought to.
From Malamud's opening sentences one senses the novel itself under stress. Earlier on I alluded to the hurried quality of Malamud's narrative, the way that narrative conventions are stretched to their limit. Here is a typical early passage:
On the roof was once an attractive small garden where the writer liked to
sit after a day's work, breathing, he hoped, as he watched the soiled sky--the
moving clouds, and thought of Wm. Wordsworth. . . . Gone garden,
all gone, disassembled, kidnapped, stolen--the potted flowering plants,
window boxes of pansies and geraniums, wicker chairs, even the white
six-inch picket fence a civilized tenant had imaginatively put up for those
like him who enjoyed a moment's repose this high up in the country. Mr
Holzheimer, a German-born gentleman, originally from Karlsruhe, among
those requested to move in the recent past, his six-room apartment next
to Lesser's three, desecrated now, the bedroom walls defaced, torn by
graffiti, bespattered with beer, wine, varnish, nameless stains, blots.
These distended (but also truncated) sentences--with their omitted articles, abbreviations, spasmodic syntax--have lost the give and ease of perspective narrative can offer. Nor, despite a certain underground-man feel, is it precisely accurate to call these sentences of internal monologue. Lesser's consciousness here is less important than the littered settings his mind sweeps. What we see is what he sees, and yet the indirect discourse functions to forestall our calling this passage really reflective of some interior space, really someone's first-person point of view. Robert Richardson, writing of Alain Robbe-Grillet's experiments with filmic narrative, called such prose an example of "drifting cinemism" (88). In this prose passage, Lesser is not the center so much as voice-over tracking the visual detail, as though the brain from which first-person narration once issued were gone, replaced by a simple lens. Through this lens, quick impression stands in for consciousness, and the rush of detail for reflection. Wordsworth thought that writing offered "emotions recollected in tranquility"; the sensibility that abbreviates even Wordsworth's name no longer lingers in art's old tranquil garden: in place of recollection or reflection it cultivates jumpy reflexes.
Perhaps that is why The Tenants has three separate endings, each a shot at recovering a closure, an end-of-day view-from-above-it-all that would give sense to such decontextualized scenes as the above. That is how we presume they would function were they truly Lesser's endings. These particular three endings, however, finally confute Lesser's purposes; they aggravate rather than correct the cause of decontextualization inasmuch as they push up on a flattened plane the visual, highly dramatic, and even staged gestures of an urban weltanschauung that the novelistic consciousness has evacuated. If two of these endings hardly seem to belong to the novel at all, it is because they don't--they belong in the film the novel of urban life is learning to be, a film such as Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing.
In that film, the understanding of surfaces that Malamud arrives at in The Tenants finds its natural realization in Lee's technique. Lee's best achievements, from the beginning, have flowed from his understanding of the power of the surface, as look and metaphor.(9) She's Gotta Have It, School Daze, and Do the Right Thing are all studies of how abrasive--literally skin-deep--interactions can act to shear off the symptoms of deeper complaints as well as to scar and so thicken the barriers between us and the more complex causes for those complaints. The languorous shots of skin on skin in She's Gotta Have It and the edgy shoving matches and dance dialectics between light- and dark-skinned blacks in School Daze are warm-ups to Lee's use of surface in Do the Right Thing. There, the smoking stoops and streets--the skin of the city broiling in a New York heat wave--are where the culture of Bed-Stuy--multilayered, generationally as well as ethnically diverse--simplifies itself, frees itself from ills resisting easy solution. All over the neighborhood is dispute and irritation, frustration and cyclic bickering. Between rival gangs. Between men and women. Between parents and children. Between gentrifiers and stoop-sitters. Siblings, competitors, partners, kids. Every conflict is overdetermined. Is a neighborhood institution--say a pizza shop--"owned" by the one who holds the lease on the pizza (but lives elsewhere) or those who eat the pizza (and give him his livelihood)? Whose culture should such institutions express? Can women expect men to respect them from supine positions of dependence? Can men exact loving support from women they neglect? Is work in a racist economy the mark of submission--emasculation--or of pragmatic dissent--virility? Is the immigrant's success the black's reminder of his own opportunity or emblem of the closed door of race? Probing yields no clarity, only more irritation, while attempts at persuasive expression are no more successful for being earsplitting. The Spanish spoken by the mother of Mookie's lover has a choral quality: its querulous cadences distill all the untranslatability and failed understanding characteristic of the neighborhood. When engagement yields nothing but twisted guts and jangled eardrums, and when intimacy is claustrophobic, then relief is found in surfaces--in hard talk, in bright clothes, and in versions of the self as style.
The most inflammatory character in the film is self-named "Buggin Out." The sweating pizza-shop owner Sal in his eye-catching tropical shirts proclaims his cultural identity with glossy pictures of Italian Americans on a wall of fame. His nemesis, a brass-knuckled, huge-chested black man named Raheem, carries a monstrous radio that plays over and over the Public Enemy tune "Fight the Power." Such oversized gestures of self-definition are the norm. In order to be visible, the residents of Bed-Stuy make posters of themselves, their hyped tricks of self-presentation like the flamboyant signatures of urban graffiti that tattoo the city.(10)
The scene in which Lee drives this home is the finest of the film. In this short sequence, reflexive antipathy and self-stereotyping collude to describe an urban consciousness less a matter of divergent "points of view" than of flexed "attitudes." In a round robin of epithets, the neighborhood strikes its various but ultimately repetitive poses, as five of its characters--a black deliveryman, his Italian employer's son, a Hispanic gang leader, a New York cop, a Korean greengrocer--each step before a depthless background to spit out a string of vituperations. Mookie, the deliveryman, expectorates his anti-Italian rage in the string "Dago wop guinea garlic breath pizza slingin' spaghetti slurpin', Perry Como, Luciano Pavarotti, sola mia Mario Lanza mother fucker," while the Korean fumes at the Jewish establishment with "It's cheap. I got good police for you. Mayor Koch 'How'm I Doing?' chocolate egg cream drinking bagel and lox B'nai Brith Jew asshole," as he himself was excoriated by the Hispanic, who sneered "Little slant-eyed me-no-speak-American own every fruit and vegetable stand in New York bullshit Reverend Sun Young Moon some Olympic idiot kick boxin' son of a bitch." Presented full face, each presents not at all a face so much as a twisted mask of passion. But he who deprives the other of specificity cedes his own. The flatness of stereotype--its indifference to the tangle of circumstance--is choreographed in Do the Right Thing as a mode of staginess: passionate and absurd, cut off from the real and cutting off the real. Lee understands just how film makes itself hospitable to such representation. Its croppable frames, its vocabulary of close-up and distorting angle, its very constitutive phenomenology of depth and depthlessness--all these give it ways narrative does not have to represent the facile immediacies of stereotypes.
Malamud, the novelist, is an autodidact of this same cinematic wisdom of surfaces. In the three endings Lesser writes--not one of which is precisely the denouement or redemption he seeks--Malamud signals to us the limits of the novel itself, as genre and as expressive or progressive urban form. The last of these endings, coming on the last page of the novel, dramatizes the mutually secured end of the novelists and of the writing careers each pursues, by transposing a fictive into a cinematic ending. Neither novelist has the last word. Rather, the scene recording their end does:
One night Willie and Lesser met in a grassy clearing in the bush. The
night was moonless above the moss-dripping, rope-entwined trees. Neither
of them could see the other but sensed where he stood. Each heard
himself scarcely breathing.
"Bloodsuckin Jew Niggerhater."
Their metal glinted in hidden light, perhaps starlight filtering greenly
though dense trees. Willie's eyeglass frames momentarily gleamed. They
aimed at each other accurate blows. Lesser felt his jagged ax sink through
bone and brain as the groaning black's razor-sharp saber, in a single
boiling stabbing slash, cut the white's balls from the rest of him.
Each, thought the writer, feels the anguish of the other.
There is, of course, no writer left to know this last, for by now Lesser and Willie are both beyond such reflections. Their hatred has reduced each to a flat image in the eyeball of the other, each to the sole tenant, or character, in the other's now inhuman and thus artless world. Just after this passage Malamud affixes the words The End, only to interrupt, or rather accompany, this ending with a trailing block of words: "mercy mercy mercy mercy" repeated 115 times down the page. Like a strain of thematic music muting the abrupt end of a film, or like, in fact, the agonized, plangent string of no's following the last, apocalyptic scene in Do the Right Thing, the awkwardness of this choral block of mercy's as narrative is about exactly equal to its effectiveness as filmic device. As narrative this scene of mutual homicide seems contrived: static in the manner of a tableau vivant; tired in its jungle metaphor; too reticent about its opponents' final thoughts; too concerned with the blocking of motion and not enough with the tracing of cause. And yet visceral racial hatred of this kind comes down, finally, to a repertoire of reflexive moves: thrust and parry, tit and tat, each movement met by its symmetrical fellow. Such hatred can be blocked, set, choreographed, and shot, but it cannot be lent perspective and still retain its power. No one must be thinking. There must be no time but this time. There must be no one, as William Carlos Williams put it in his poem "For Elsie," to witness and reflect.
The murderous scene described above is the third "ending" supplied in The Tenants. The second, as utopian as the third is apocalyptic, is nonetheless equally telling. In this version of his book's end, Lesser dreams of a double marriage. At a wedding presided over by a predictably rumpled rabbi and a predictably windy African chief, the white Lesser marries a black woman, the black Willie a white Irene. If the murderous ending I just discussed shows the thoughtlessness of stereotype--its unreflective appeal to instinct--the ponderous ceremony of this scene reveals as equally depthless an uncritical injunction to love despite difference.
Again, as narrative, the sequence makes one wince. Its setting is a kitsch jungle island and the wedding it depicts a callow Peace Corps fantasy, with chief and rabbi expounding platitudes as obvious as their giveaway costumes from central casting. On the one hand, beads, gourds, drums, and calabashes of yam stew. On the other, silk huppah, Magen David wine, one father in a nursing-home issue wheelchair, the other in a bourgeois's opulent silk suit. The chief, in character, speaks lines recycled out of Hollywood's "Africa and Africans" file: "I am old man of many weathers and you be young. You know more book but I be wiser. I have lived my long life and know what did happen" (211). The rabbi, likewise obeying the obligatory cadences of rabbi-speak, drones: "Willie and Irene, listen to me. Oh, what a hard thing is marriage in the best of circumstances" (215).
Our only real glimpse into Lesser's imagination, the scene is unnerving. It reveals, first of all, how detachment's austerity must holiday on escapism. No accident, then, that its Sunday matinee sensibility recognizes no call to wrest social intelligence out of the cultural conflicts married here; indeed, it delivers us out of such necessity. As wedlock in B romances is not a form that negotiates difference, but rather form that escapes difference, wedlock here is not a metaphor for antagonisms bravely fronted but rather a panacea for those antagonisms. Insofar as such marriage signals the end of distinction between people, as an institution of symbiosis it anticipates the murderous fusion Lesser and Willie achieve on the last page of the novel.
Now, when we recall that Lesser's second book, like this second ending, was a commercial success that he sold to the movies and has lived on since and, moreover, that he has produced, in lieu of a novelistic ending to a book about a man who cannot love, this National Geographic version of the Philadelphia Story, we may wonder if film finished him as a novelist, was his Promised End, his Manifest Destiny. The point is hardly that Lesser sold out his talent to a cheaper medium, a lower art form.
Rather, this film fantasy, as Malamud screens it here, is an archive of Lesser's artistic accountability. The sequence projects--here, now, finished or unfinished--the quality of fantasy that Lesser has hoarded, piling it in the closet or stuffing it in his shorts. As document, the film shows a lesser Lesser than Lesser's novelistic ambitions would secure, a Lesser who cannot consummate his novel in any way but in the stiff and contrived way that his two couples marry. Why? Because he does not know them except as blocked images or, let us say, unfleshed roles. Willie has meat; Lesser has, alas, only ceaseless motion, and his characters are moving pictures, animated stiffs or cutouts overdirected. Projecting as film what Lesser safe-deposits as carbon, Malamud uses this fantasy to reckon up the novelist who would defer such exposure indefinitely.
Lesser's best shot at an end is, it turns out, his first. The first ending he writes is tagged not just "The End" but "End of Novel," and so it is the end of the novel--both his own novel's only end and the Novel constituted as a form sealed off from history.
The writer stands on the roof in the midst of winter. Around Manhattan
flows a stream of white water. Maybe it is snowing. A tug hoots on the
East River. Levenspiel, resembling mysterious stranger if not heart of
darkness, starts this tiny fire in a pile of wood shavings in the cellar. Up
goes the place in roaring flames. The furnace explodes not once but twice,
celebrating both generations of its existence. The building shudders but
Harry, at his desk and writing well, figures it's construction in the neighborhood
and carries on as the whining fire and boiling shadows rush up
the smelly stairs. Within the walls lit cockroaches fly up, each minutely
screaming. Nobody says no, so the fire surges its inevitable way upwards
and with a convulsive roar flings open Lesser's door.
Notice that this ending has what the other two lacked: narrative perspective. As an ending to Harry Lesser's novel of art shutting out all exigencies--art for art's sake--it assures us that history eventually unseals all doors, awakening even the most disaffected to what's outside: not "construction in the neighborhood" but the world around demolished by justice, and vengeance exacted in proportion as its claims were ignored. It is, then, of crucial significance that this end to the novel, this "END OF NOVEL," appears on page 23, while it is only on page 24 that Willie Spearmint enters the novel. By the time that Willie appears, Malamud has already purged his novel of the novel: narrative cannot root itself where people are flat forms. Thus in the pages that follow, the writers who would handle form are rather handled by it, revealed for statutory tenants, or blocked characters, in a house they do not know. The going "construction in the neighborhood" is a novel like a film, a novel like Malamud's The Tenants, made out of bad ends or spliced out of knowledge that to do the right thing one must first see how right the wrong thing can look. Affording this right view of the wrong thing, film's stylizations can familiarize the older genre of interiority and reflection--the novel--not only with how urban people look, but with their looking, with the habits of thin sight and instant-take we live by until some slower meditation edits what we saw. As Malamud understood in The Tenants, the novel unable to meditate on flatness, to see what the lens sees, is a form like an abandoned roof garden, a desert island, or a jungle--its overgrowth sterile, its promise over-cultivated, yet sheltering nothing human. University of Pennsylvania (1.) In a much-quoted passage from "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," Benjamin distinguishes the method, and effect, of the painting from that of the film by -recourse to an analogy with surgical operation. . . . The magician heals a sick person with the laying on of hands; the surgeon cuts into the patient's body. . . Magician and surgeon compare to painter and cameraman. The painter maintains in his work a natural distance from reality, the cameraman penetrates deeply into its web" (231-32). See also Moving Pictures, Anne Hollander's recent excellent study of the tension between motion and narrative, film and painting. (2.) For the most sophisticated critical discussion to date of the city in Jewish-American literature see Murray Baumgarten's City Scriptures, as well as Alfred Kazin's classic Walker in the City. (3.) Gates's influential arguments about masking are distributed all over his work. A particularly rich vein of this discussion is found in his chapter entitled," |Dis and |Dat" in Figures in Black: Words, Signs, and the Racial Self See also Gates's groundbreaking discussions of performance in The Signifying Monkey. My understanding of African-American modes of performance is also informed by Kimberly Benston's paper from a work in progress, "Building One's Own Fire: Vernacular as Paradigm and/or Performance," and especially by conversations with Herman Beavers. (4.) See my "Reconsidering Delmore Schwartz" for a discussion of Schwartz and mass culture and, in particular, for parallels between Schwartz's critique of mass culture and Walter Benjamin's. See also Rita Barnard's forthcoming book The Great Depression and the Culture of Abundance for a treatment of West's Benjaminian critique of the same. (5.) See Mark Shechner's superb study After the Revolution for an account across the decades of the Jewish artist's receptivity to, and internalization of, the spirit of change. (6.) See especially Alvin Kernan's discussion of The Tenants as meditation on the crisis of modern art.
An earlier version of this paper was given at the Jews in Film conference at the Museum of the University at Stoneybrook in 1991. I am grateful to E. Ann Kaplan for inviting it as well as for her thoughtful comments. A larger debt is to my colleague, Herman Beavers, with whom I co-taught in the spring of 1991, as well as to the Lilly Foundation for funding our experimental undergraduate course "Exodus and Memory: The Literature of African and Jewish Americans."
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Title Annotation:||Contemporary American Jewish Literature|
|Date:||Sep 22, 1993|
|Previous Article:||Urban rites and civic premises in the fiction of Saul Bellow, Grace Paley, and Sandra Schor.|
|Next Article:||Assimilation in recent American Jewish autobiographies.|