Everyone remembers critical works of some years ago, able and attractive books, thoughtful, learned, articulate, but not brilliant in conception or execution, not iconoclastic in any way. Many such books found an audience, and one easily recalls one's own examples, perhaps still consults them. It was not so hard then, [End Page 313] whenever, to move the republic of letters by an inch, to treat a subject with calm good sense and get a hearing. Things are different now. There are more books, a lot more books. The rhetorical claims of many of them are more strident and more absolutist, or at least more attention-getting. Although it always sounds foolish to hear oneself say it, it is true all the same that many subjects are used up, wrung out, not really available any more. And so it is that sensible books on familiar subjects get lost in such an arena.
Imagine that a writer wished to make a small canon of modernist fictions and then, with a handful of convictions about the nature of the world and a modest method, move through his canon informally, with little sense of the criticism and the vital questions with which other people have come to surround each text, seeking to define the modernness of the modern novel. Unless it were done with great rhetorical panache, who would read such a book? It sounds rather specialized for the common reader, and it sounds far too amateur for the reader who has thought long and hard about the major modernist fictions and who is likely to have read what some uncommonly penetrating minds have said about them. It is such an unpromising niche into which John Orr's The Making of the Twentieth-Century Novel falls. His premises are Marxist but largely implicit. His exemplary texts—rather few considering the fact that his subject is the twentieth-century novel—include novels by Lawrence, Joyce, Hemingway, Djuna Barnes, Faulkner, Lowry, and a small group of contemporaries. And his method is to trace the permutations of desire and absence—absence variously of community, society, the other—that characterizes the "epiphanous" novel of the twentieth century.
It is a sensible focus for such a discussion, and, although it seems procrustean at moments, it is pursued with a vigorously analytical style. The trouble is that very little follows from the method that is not a commonplace. Every critical treatment of Lawrence for fifty years has related his discontent with the easy evasions of Edwardian naturalism and his quest for a new language of the affective and instinctual self. And every critical treatment of Joyce for fifty years has related his movement beyond the received traditions of British fiction, a Catholic world view, even Freud, toward his own sense of desire, fulfillment, and vacuity in the modern world. If Orr's treatment of classic modernist fiction seems somewhat redundant and superfluous, his treatment of his choice among contemporaries seems glib and condescending. Almost any reader who would be drawn to Orr's book in the first place would be likely to have read enough Bellow, thoughtfully enough, so that two facile pages on Humboldt's Gift are not likely to tell him anything he hasn't considered.
Some years ago, a book like Orr's would have had the virtue of stitching together in a single conceptual scheme some of the classic works of modernist fiction. And it would have mattered, perhaps would have altered the way we read those fictions. But it is too late for such a book now. There are too many books that approach the same subject in comparable ways or exhaust the same exemplary figures. And—as long as the operative word is "desire"—the readers who would have longed for such a book twenty-five years ago are sated...