restricted access Toward a New Synthesis: John Fowles, John Gardner, Norman Mailer (review)
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Reviewed by
Robert J. Begiebing. Toward a New Synthesis: John Fowles, John Gardner, Norman Mailer. Ann Arbor: UMI, 1989. 152 pp. $39.95.

One reason for the success of this study of three Anglo-American novelists is that its author has a compelling argument and supports it with careful readings of their "prototypical" novels: Fowles' The Magus (1977), Gardner's The Sunlight Dialogues (1973), and Mailer's Ancient Evenings (1983). Another reason is Begiebing's nonconfrontational tone. A third is that, although sympathetic to postmodernists like Raymond Federman, Begiebing does not agree with him that fiction is "unconcerned with the real world." Yet he is well-versed in the epistemological circularities, word-game labyrinths, and "hermetic spirit of post-modernism." [End Page 876]

Begiebing's central argument is that Fowles, Gardner, and Mailer believe that "the imagination connects the aesthetic to the historical through its power" and (quoting Robert Scholes) that "'textual power is ultimately power to change the world.'" Using only Scholes, Frank Lentricchia, Alasdair MacIntyre, Mircea Eliade, and a few other critics and artists to buttress his argument, Begiebing shows how the three novelists synthesize heroic and quest themes and symbols from earlier traditions with "some of the most productive affirmations and skepticisms of modernism and post-modernism." This is the new synthesis of his title, one that seeks a full or metaphorical vision, will restore "depth to surface, connection to discontinuity, and mystery to life." Begiebing's three writers use whatever modes and tactics that can be brought to bear in the "dialectic between vitality and entropy."

Much of the weight of Begiebing's argument rests on his demonstration of how Fowles' Maurice Conchis, Gardner's Taggert Hodge, and Mailer's Menenhetet I tease, trick, tempt, cajole, debate, conjure, and push their initiates beyond hermeticism, determinism, and quietism to a recognition that art is not separate from life. The methods of the three magi overlap, but, as the subtitles of his three chapters show, they are fundamentally different. Conchis, "The Magician as Teacher," is the most Prospero-like of the three and the most enigmatic. We never enter his consciousness, a circumstance that has encouraged contradictory interpretations of the novel. Begiebing's subtle analysis of Fowles' ambiguous ending validates Conchis' success in undercutting the forces of relativism ("Nothing is true; everything is permitted").

His chapter on Gardner, "The Magician as Fool," may be the best of the three, partly because Gardner discussed moral art so often in interviews, articles, and in several nonfiction books. Begiebing shuttles adroitly between Gardner's narrative explorations and his extranarrative probings of "ethical revelation." He also shows how Gardner uses "the classical and medieval debate or dialogue between the hero and the guide" with brilliance. Hodge lacks the magisterial presence of Conchis, and his violent acts are troubling, but his attempt to reshape the nearly calcified consciousness of the police chief, Fred Clumly, attests to the urgency of Gardner's redemptive project.

The Mailer chapter is subtitled "The Magician as tragic Hero," a mistaken appellation, but Begiebing is nevertheless equal to the task of interpreting the aspirations, venality, brilliance, and eccentricities of Menenhetet through his four lives. He understands the extent of Mailer's narrative ambitions and that Purgatorio must precede Paradiso. Furthermore, he sees the necessity of the novel's violent shifts, its passages of high excitement, and its longueurs, even its audacious ending. His chapter is a major addition to Mailer studies and certainly the most overarching and sensitive interpretation of Ancient Evenings to date, marred only by his failure to mention the exemplary work of other Mailer critics, Tony Tanner's City of Words (1971), for example. For those who believe that the debate over postmodernism is approaching a critical phase, Toward a New Synthesis will be a very important book. [End Page 877]

J. Michael Lennon
Sangamon State University