Friday, May. 06, 1966
The Beat Generation of writing is forget it. Some curly new hair is coming up in Beardsville. The new boys still haven't found a name—The Camp Crowd? The Hallucinogeneration?—but they have brattishly proclaimed their principal preoccupations: LSD, pot, the Spirit of Berkeley, californication, and not fighting in Viet Nam. While there are only a few of them, they have begun to produce a noisy literature that confesses its mongrel origin in the cult of hip, the theater of the absurd, the works of Jack Kerouac, the pop art movement and some of the more deplorable traditions of the college humor magazine.
The masterpiece of the new manner, a book called simply V. (TIME, March 15, 1963), is an epic of planned irrelevance that Joyce would surely have respected. Unhappily, its successors have contributed little more than absurdity to the novel of the absurd. Constructed on the principle of free dissociation, they occasionally come off as hip happenings. More often, as lamentably illustrated in three novels published last week, they simply degenerate into glossolaliac gibberish.
BEEN DOWN SO LONG IT LOOKS LIKE UP TO ME, by Richard Fariña (Random House; 329 pages; $5.95), is a pot-and-peyote boiler about a supercooled campus hippie named Gnossos Pappadopoulis. Written by the brother-in-law of Folk Singer Joan Baez, the book is fashionably half-coherent, a collection of Kerouacky kinks. Gnossos turns on four times a day, calls girls "man," says "dig" a great deal, makes like the Green Hornet with cringing officials at Mentor University, rucksacks triumphantly to Mexico, Las Vegas and Cuba, knows how to hot-wire a car, plays Corelli on his phonograph, and even wins acceptance as an equal by Negro bartenders. Most readers will be more discriminating. Kerouac had a likable knack for making his zaps and zowies add up, against all probability, to a goofy, over-the-wall-and-gone exuberance. Fariña creates nothing more than a pot mood: airless self-satisfaction. He writes like a campus popoff who read a book about Zen but got most of his education from Playboy.
BEAUTIFUL LOSERS, by Leonard Cohen (Viking; 243 pages; $5.75), is jacket-blurbed by its proud publishers as "a tasteless affront." They also call it "a religious epic of incomparable beauty," but they were right the first time. At its best, Losers is a sluggish, stream-of-concupiscence exposition of what Sartre called nausea. The flipster fictioneers have treated this theme so often that the method has become standardized: spit in their shoe, serve it to you. Novelist Cohen is all spit and no polish. His anti-hero is a Canadian writer who has had a homosexual affair with a Member of Parliament, who himself slept with the writer's wife. Both politician and wife are now dead, he of syphilis and she of the results of crawling into the bottom of an elevator shaft and waiting for someone to press the down button. The antihero, left alone with his nausea, distracts himself by recreating the career of a Mohawk Indian saint named Catherine Tekakwitha. "Catherine Tekakwitha," he maunders, "who are you? Are you (1656-1680)? Is that enough? Are you the Iroquois Virgin? Can I love you in my own way? I am better-looking now than when I was young. That's what sitting on your does to your face." And that's what not sitting on it does to your prose.
THE CRYING OF LOT 49, by Thomas Pynchon (Lippincott; 183 pages; $3.95), the author of V, is a metaphysical thriller in the form of a pornographic comic strip. The heroine, a girl named Oedipa Maas, one day finds her "Chevy parked at the center of an odd, religious instant. A revelation trembled just past the threshold of her understanding, a hieroglyphic sense of concealed meanings, of an intent to communicate." She pursues the revelation, and finds herself involved with a mysterious organization named Tristero. She pursues the secret of Tristero, and finds herself involved with such improbable characters as Stanley Koteks, Bloody Chiclitz and Genghis Cohen. At one point she experiences carnal congress in a closet; at another she watches an acid head freaking freely; at still another she gravely. observes a "nosepicking contest"—a term, come to think of it, that pretty well describes all these books.
Why was it written? What is the meaning of the gibberish literature that is currently being published as fast as it can be gibbered? Author Pynchon thinks he knows. It provides, in his allegorical explanation, "a real alternative to the exitlessness, to the absence of surprise to life, that harrows the head of everybody American you know, and you too, sweetie." Literature will probably survive, but for the next couple of years a lot of sweeties will probably have their heads harrowed.