I am a (gasp) middle-aged academic/writer who makes his living at a university-teaching the novels of, among others, Jerzy Kosinski. Thus are the three titles reviewed connected for me. No doubt many of your profiles are similar. How much more, however, do you want these books woven into your reading lives? The best of the three, by far, is Safe at Last in the Middle Years. This is so despite the fact that Margaret Morganroth Gullette examines what she calls "a new kind of novel, the progress narrative of the middle years" that is, well, a safe and unpretentious one. Although it is good to know that the model of "pathetically or despicably aging" has given way, especially in the works of John Updike, Margaret Drabble, Anne Tyler, and Saul Bellow, to the feistiness of forty-year-olds (and more), the experience of one's so called midlife as a progress narrative is not the equivalent, for this reader at any rate, of more brazen or incendiary issues. Nonetheless, with large amounts of wit and scholarship, Gullette constructs an interesting genre.
Tooth decay, for instance, provides no mere academic filler. Bellow's Henderson, the reader of Safe at Last in the Middle Years is reminded, breaks one of his bridges (no metaphorical burning here) in "darkest" Africa. Drabble's Frances Wingate loses a filling, but gains a newly (in)dentured lover. Updike's [End Page 764] Piet contradicts dentist Freddy Thome's extrapolations on the sinking of one's teeth into reality: "Every meal we eat breaks down the enamel." Gullette does not merely banish cavities from her/our menopausal Edens. She cites the National Institute of Dental Research to verify that, for middle class-middle agers tooth decay is not merely being arrested but is abating: "Tooth decay won't be useful as a natural sign of aging much longer, at least in the First World; because of advances in hygiene, decay is vanishing."
Gullette, also, unearths "an erotics of teeth hidden in the midlife progress novel," putting the bite, as it were, into what for her has been post-bildungsroman stagnancy. Unwriting the narrative of decline, then, in which Gullette targets Samuel Beckett and E. M. Cioran for their assumption of a pessimistic story line, is her purpose. Although only mentioned in one tightly knit paragraph, the scope of Gullette's inquiries into "how our society came to permit the production of midlife progress narratives" is broadened. Social factors such as "the median age of the population, the number of children women have and the age at which they have them, and how free people are to change spouses or jobs or careers" are mentioned; so, too, are political factors and psychoanalytic ones. A culture's representation of those who are middle aged via jokes, media constructions, and advertising is also considered.
Aldiough the focus in the main body of the book is the revised literary representation of middle age, Gullette's introductory and concluding chapters make this something more than another blinkered close reading of a few selected contemporary American writers. If the tone of Safe at Last in the Middle Years is not as resonant as that in Ecce Homo, or How One Becomes What One Is, "Nietzsche's own fragment of midlife auto-biography," that is because Gullette's premise is of a genre whose strategies validate, among other things, patience, calmness, and ordinary unself-consciousness. Readers may still be sceptical of the genre's autonomy or its impact, but then they probably read their dental charts the way they have been taught to, as lessons not only of poor dieting and care but also of the inexorable.