- Style as Argument: Contemporary American Nonfiction, and: Mailer's America
Chris Anderson entirely and wisely sidesteps the bramble patch of thorny generic issues surrounding the narrative form called the New Journalism or "faction" in his study of contemporary American nonfiction. Rather than weighing in with contentions on such matters as the distinction between "historical fiction" and "fictional history," or whether the New Journalism is really new, he provides what he aptly calls "concrete, inductive readings" of the work of four contemporary American nonfiction writers: Tom Wolfe, Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, and Joan Didion. Working from a threshold assumption that all four "define their subjects as somehow beyond words—antiverbal or nonverbal, threatening or sublime, overpowering and intense or private and intuitive," he engages the works on their own terms, "registering first and second impressions, noting recurring strategies and images, assembling striking details and anomalies." His approach, in short, is rhetorical. He is, to my knowledge, the first critic to approach the subgenre from this perspective, and he is successful. His best chapter is his first on Wolfe; his final chapter on Didion seems less compelling, but this is probably the result of my initial excitement slowly subsiding after the novel (no pun) insights of the early chapters.
Anderson draws heavily throughout on the principles of rhetoricians from Longinus to Booth. For example, in the Wolfe chapter he examines carefully the quiver of strategies Wolfe employs to capture the exploits of Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, exploits that are so bizarre "they can't be explained, only experienced; discursive formulations or analysis miss the texture and the feel of the moment." The most important of these are techniques "for magnifying presence—repetition, alliteration, hypotyposis, amplification, enumeration."
The "rhetoric of presence" in Wolfe is paralleled by Capote's "rhetoric of silence," Mailer's "rhetoric of self-dramatization," and Didion's "rhetoric of particularity." These characterizations are sound, and, with one exception, readers are unlikely to disagree with anything but particulars here and there in all four chapters. The exception is Anderson's assumption that "Capote's omniscient narration . . . is based on extensive interviews and exhaustive review of all available transcripts from the police and the trial." Philip K. Tompkins' article "In Cold Fact" (Esquire, June 1966) reveals that Capote made up conversations and altered facts in order to generate sympathy for Perry Smith, the "changeling" murderer with whom he identified. Anderson says that Capote insists on "the inexplicability of the event" (the murders) and that "he [Capote] is not on Perry's side," claims that are exploded by Tompkins' interviews with several of the key figures in In Cold Blood. Nevertheless, Anderson's chapter on Capote is still very useful and his case for the "rhetoric of silence" convincing.
In each of his chapters Anderson uses a rhetorical strategy of his own: he first makes the case for the impossibility of the authors grasping the ungraspable, and then shows how they do it—by circumvention, transference, or other forms [End Page 688] of rhetorical sublimation. It works well. In the Didion chapter he shows how experience she calls "apocalyptic, paralyzing and finally inexplicable" is rendered not only by the "rhetoric of particularity" but also by the "rhetoric of gaps" and of "process." In Didion's writing, he says, "the general comes close to disappearing."
The Mailer chapter contains few surprises. Mailer's repertoire of roles—from Brendan Behan to Broderick Crawford, Marxian anarchist to grand conservateur —and the encyclopedic range of narrative perspectives he has used in his thirty-odd books are well known. Anderson makes little direct comment on point of view in Mailer's work (even the third-person personal in The Armies of the Night), confining himself largely to various restatements of his central observation: "In the face of an event that defies easy synthesis or final formulation, Mailer turns to recounting his own effort to understand the event." Again...