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reviews 145 "Congratulations," Kate said. (15) And yet the triumph of Madame Gutowski's stance is never again so complete anywhere in this volume; for the full thematic Baxter's best fiction works out of and towards is a moral-aesthetic landscape which is more complex yet. That landscape forms a curious complement to Goodman's realm ofblazing resentment, of underlying brilliance; for Baxter's concerns begin with the very animal she most loves and hates, the bland "white-bread" American soul, so narrowly decent, so brightly crippled in incapacity to know suffering or imagine joy. Inflict pain, inject confusion, grief and suffering into such lives, and they run offas newdisciples ofa Manson clone, as in "Xavier Speaking " or become fanatics of one stripe or another themselves, like the unemployed bodybuilder in "Weights." But the saddest fate is reserved for those who, like the narrator of "Harmony of the World," seek to live in Madame Gutowski's realm of greatness and suffering, but know they will always, always fall "one inch short." All of us whose literary indoctrination at college involved an immersion in the classics of high modernism will recognize echoes ofthe Tonio Kroger syndrome here, in the division ofthe social world into thosedamaged intogreatness vs. the sane stupid lot. Such adivision still underwrites and enables most of Harmonyofthe World—and it is a division, both within Mann or Joyce and here, whose importance, dramaticand explanatory power we might well want to question. Are there not, after all, other inequities, disparities, and power dynamics more significant—and more real—than the dialectic between the neurotic genius and the dull healthy rabble? Are the conditions for the creations ofgreat ofgreat arttruly as personallydamaging, and as socially undemocratic as all that? Still, I was pleased by and grateful to Harmony ofthe World for the particular, and particularly American, ways Baxter complicates this thematic material by adding the figures ofthe near-artist and the fanatic, reminding us of the possibilities of "grief without torment" (134) and torment which merely twists; and by employing mainly a narrative voice which can speak with startling straightforwardness about the substance of its dramatic content while remaining tonally too plain ever to sound like it is siding with genius. Two of Baxter's stories, in fact, "Xavier Speaking" and "A Short Course ofNietzschéen Ethics," are narrated by plain sensible men who clearly indicate in their stories' closings their willingness to turn torment away if and when it shows up promising wisdom at their doors. The angels Baxter is wrestling may finally be aestheticist ones, their field of operation firmly within the domain of creative writing institutions and formalist ideology; if the c.w. workshops Baxter teaches in Detroit, for example, are like the ones I work at Oregon State, I think I know something about where the figure ofthe technically competent and terribly willing but "one inch short" artist orerstwhilegeniuscomes from, and how it is Baxterentertains such complicated , ambivalent feelings about him/her. But it may also be thatthere is no way to write "quality" short storiestoday which are not finally, centrally aestheticist; thateven the much touted—and exaggerated —"resurgence" of the short story collection, and accompanying canonization of Ray Carver, Ann Beanie, and a whole new generation of the elect, signals merely the reaching of a certain critical mass, i e., the passage ofa sufficient number of students through our workshops to regard and consume stories in this new aestheticist way. If so, the chief merit ofBaxter's collection mightbe said tolie in theextent towhichthe author recognizes and socializes his necessary subject, as well as in the directness and thoughtfulness of his reproduction of it on the American social plane, where too many people have shitty jobs or none, where the odds for misery, loneliness and nonredemptive suffering are always too high. "What good are insights?" said Ray Carver in a recent interview. "They only make things worse." One has only to think of the aestheticist implications of such a comment, as well as (given Carver's own paradigmatica]Iy wretched workingclass past) the everyday misery that lies behind it, to appreciate how very good Baxter's collection is, within the present-day limitations ofthe...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2157-4189
Print ISSN
0026-5667
Pages
pp. 145-149
Launched on MUSE
2011-07-06
Open Access
No
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