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December 11, 1971 - Image 5

Resource type:
The Michigan Daily, 1971-12-11

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Saturday, December 11, 1971


Page Five




Oa tes:

Arti icial


Joyce Carol Oates, WONDER-
LAND, Vanguard, $7.95.
Our cells play strange tricks
on us. For reasons which re-
main obscure to those uninitiat-
ed in'the white arts of cytology,
a woman's uterus can generate
phantasmagoric' growths, trans-
forming its cell structures into
foreign tissue and shaping false
organs within itself. Paging
through medical text books, one
discovers photographs of an eye
growing from the womb. Won-
derland belongs in the category
of such abberations, springing
from a cell that, as its creater
tells us:
. Perhaps goes mad and
starts dividing, mutiplying,
blowing itself up into a bal-
loon-sized tumor.
Miss Oates has the talents to
almost persuade us that dis-
plasia, if it is large enough and
sufficiently bizarre may form a
magnum opus . . . almost.
Wonderland leads us on the
r* quest of the human soul,
through the streaming con-
sciousness of Jsse Vogel; w i t h
several lapses into the thoughts
of ladies who flow from Vog-
el's churning brain as tributar-
ies digress from the Mississippi.

We enter the "underside" of
consciousnes to gaze at reality
distorted by dreams and micro-
America, class struggles, a r t,
philosophy, the human body are
telescoped through the eye of
the novel -- shrinking, multi-
plying, diminishing and grow-
ing at preternatural speeds. No
area is left unprobed by Miss
Oates' sharp instruments. She
holds each page before us, as
an iceman holds a glittering
block that melts in our. hands,
leaving us staring at an empty
pair of tongs as we close the
novel and wonder at what we've
Events are stacked, one with-
in another, in a series of gothic
boxes that form the protagon-
ist's life. Vogel is the only sur-
vivor of a poor white family:
his father, driven berserk by
privation, shoots his pregnant
wife and her children. Only
Jesse is discovered, bleeding to
death on his neighbor's pasture.
Propelled from one environ-
ment to another, the boy is
slowly molded into an eminent:
physician by a succession of
spiritual fathers, whose form he
stimulates and then overcomes.
When he has at last emerged
from the metamorphic process
as brain surgeon and father, he

The Johnson iUL

Lyndon Baines Johnson, THE
hart & Winston, $15.00.
Lyndon Johnson's book has not
skyrocketed to the to of the
best-seller lists. It has not trig-
gered heated controversy or out-
raged denials-well only one so
far. I have not noticed any cut-
ting satire in any of the national
media. Pretty tame stuff, consid-
ering the author, and somewhat
out of character.
A glance at the book will show
why. It is very, very factual;
very, very issue-oriented; and
very, very bland. The former
President now joins a large group
of otherwise distinguished men
who have written thoroughly un-
satisfactorily material about the
Johnson years.

Later he said: "A program
for a better society can be es-
tablished and launched by any
type of government, Commun-
ist or non-Communist, dictator-
ial or democratic. But such a
program cannot be carried for-
ward for long if it is not ad-
ministered by a really demo-
cratic government, one which
is put into office by the people
themselves and which has the
confidence of the people."
The chapters on Vietnam are
full of just this type of stuff, and
Vietnam occupies the greater,
portion of the book. If the book
itself refreshes one's memory of
some major shortcomings of the
Johnson Administration, what
has been written about it helps
one to remember that criticism
of Johnson was never particular-
ly fair. or discerning. In one

finds his own child running
from him. Just as his first fath-
er stalked him with a rifle, he
hunts his lost daughter, wish-
ing to salvage this remnant of
himself that has grown wildly
beyond his control. The girl dies
as he holds her, of jaundice,
malnutrition and the afteref-
fects of drugs, in a small boat
drifting on a nameless lake.
When Miss Oates steps out of
the tangle of "dream", she dis-
plays a fine eye for small details
that evoke realities. Her render-
ing of the despair, blatant in
poverty and buried in the trap-
pings of upper middle class, is
excused with a subtle mastery
that underlies her more fan-
tastic experiments.
The supernatural emerges from
-the mouths of academic magic-
ians - mystics; scientists and
professional cynics-whose dis-
course recalls Faust's observa-
tion that:
. . . The spirit of the times,
in the end, is merely the spirit
of those gentlemen in whom
the times are mirrored.
The farther one penetrates
Wonderland, the greater t h e
temptation to trace its anteced-
ents. Here are echoes that span
world art - traces of Strind-
berg's phantom students a n d
vampirical cooks, of Iago, Can-
exciting at any point, but there
is much in it, and much worth
pondering. In particular, the
chapters on domestic problems
are sometimes stimulating. Per-
haps it is because we now live
under a President who will not
bother with anything that can't
be accomplished by Executive
Order. But, whatever the reason,
Johnson's domestic achievements
seemed at this reading to have
greater stature than when they
were in the headlines - and
they seemed major at the time.
Chapters on subjects where the
reader had some personal con-
tact-in my case, the war on
poverty-can be curiously satis-
One important fact about the
book remains to be noted; it is
expansive. Some may have reser-
vations about spending so much
for a book that conceals and con-
fuses as much as it informs, par-
ticularly when it is Lyndon John-
son you are paying for this ex-
perience. The book is worth per-
using, but I cannot in all honesty
say that money should be spent
on buying this book rather than,
say, that electric pencil sharpen-
er you've had your eye on, or a
new pair of gloves. Those wao
have an interest in reading over
portions of the'book will be hap-
pier if they borrow it from a li-
brary or a friend. I will be glad
to let people borrow my own co-
py when it is available.

dy, of Voltaire's Candide. The
parallels, while perhaps unin-
tentional. are too striking to
dismiss. And thus, against all
intention, one is drawn to first
doubts of Miss Oates', artistic
powers, questioning whether she
has animated her characters, or
whether their life relies on ar-
tificial respiration, on breath
supplied by the ghosts of litera-
ture past.
Applying the ancient art of
conjuration by distraction, Miss
Oates has dressed the bones of
her' novel in many colored tis-
sues composed of the most ab-
stractions and the concretest of
concretisms. In the more rari-
fied passages, her personages
lecture us on Fate, phisiology,
perception, art, dreams, person-
ality ad infinitum.
Frequently, she is thoughtful
enough to show her hand and
identify her sources. One of the
main themes of Wonderland,
for example, is extracted from
The Wisdom of the Body:
The living being is stable.
It: must be so in order not to
be destroyed, dissolved or dis-
integrated by the colossal
forces, often adverse which
surround it. By an apparent
contradiction it maintains its
stability only if it is excitable
and capable of modifying it-
self according to external stim-
uli and adjusting its response
to the stimulation. It is stable
because it is modifiable . . .
(Oates quoting Walter Cannon,
quoting C. Richet)

Such abstractions are balanc-
ed by an avalanche of concrete.
Among other delicacies, M i s s
Oates offers (is detailed descrip-
tions of surgical operations, mass
murder, Kennedy's assassina f
tion, and cannibalism (T. W.
monk, poet and teaching fellow
at our own good University of
Michigan, takes home a piece of
cadaver's uterus which does not
quite taste like chicken, to his
mild amazement).
Like Swift, Miss Oates mag-
nifies characters and human
functions into grotesques. This
brief extract, by way of a sam-
ple, has been removed from a
lengthy portrait of Vogel's se-
cond mother, Mrs. Pedersen. The
lady has just fainted in the
What an enormous body! .. .
her brests were swollen, yellow-
ish bulbs of flesh, the nip-
ples raw, a deep red, circled
with rows of tiny goose-pimp-
les as if she were very cold,
though the upper part of her
torso was flushed with a heat
rash and her belly and thighs
were also flushed. She breath-
ed feverishly, rapidly. Lumps
of flesh hung down from her
belly onto the floor tile. She
was like a ball of warm breath-
ing protoplasm, an air of some-
thing fruity, yeasty, sour ris-
ing from her. Jesse saw that
she had vomited onto the floor
just behind her head, and a
narrow line of stale vomit led
from her mouth down her neck
and shoulder to the floor.
Indeed the novel is highly

structured by the flowing of bil-
ious excretions and blood. In
the first fifty pages, the main
source of narrative tension is
focused on the contractions of the
protgonist's stomach: Is he go-
ing to vomit, and having vomit-
ed once, will he vomit again?
One of the reasons that the mass
murder of the Harte family is
so shocking may be explained by
the fact that in lieu of the an-
ticipated vomit, we are splat-
tered with blood.,
To counter this, Miss O a t e s
concentrates the second half of
Part I on graphic descriptions
of eating and digression on fatty
tissue, as Mrs. Pederson stuffs
her adopted son like a Proven-
cal Goose.
These initial motifs, once set,
are supplemented by morning
sickness, constipation, n o s e -
bleeds, and cameos of patients:
A huge fat man, not much
older than Jesse; billows of
flesh, flab, blubber, bare wob-
bling chest smeared with vomit
and blood-darting crazy eyes.
Oh, those eyes!
A woman who jams a fruit glass
up her womb, a man bleeding
from the groin" the testicles
slashed, hated so viciously and
slashed so viciously."
There, is no edict that com-
mands a novelist to refrain from
incorporting outside sources. Of-
ten these prove to be the most in-
teresting parts of the book. Nor
am I one of the professionally
squeamish who suggest that the
graphic depiction of atrocity
is somehow despicable or cruel,

But an author must realize that
the audience reads the same
newspapers and magazines -
that the reader has enough of a
liberal education to expect the
author, if not to camouflage,
then to integrate her components.
I hesitate to accuse Miss Oates
of inserting elements for their
own sake, but I hesitate only
because the scope of Wonder-
land is so broad that most any-
thing can be and is applied to it.
The major flaw in the novel
is, unfortunately, its style. One
can, of course, beg the question
and maintain that stream-of-con-
sciousness lays the burden of.
language on the mind of the pro-
tagonist. The kindest conclusion
would be that Miss Oates is not
to blame for Wonderland's defi-
ciencies. One has, however, only
to reread the first ten pages of
The Sound and the Fury to real-
ize that even a tale told by an
idiot can display wondrous craft
and control. Shifting chronolog-
ies, shining italics, the clutter of
detail and data can not conceal
the fact that Joyce Carol Oates
is careless with her prose.
The novel is saturated w it h
cliches, which she loves to string
about nouns in clusters: "baf-
led, blind rage," "a cold, fierce,
driving rain", "his spirit was be-
coming automated, mechanized."
One suspects that the writer is
not quite sure what she wishes
to say, throwing in overwgorked
phrases and repeating synonyms,
fearing to cross out extraneous
elements which just might turn
out to be relevant.
She has a tendency to trip over
her own feet, often by mixing
referents for no ostensible rea-
son. Her extended conceits are
weakened because she insists on
hammering the opposition of
reality and dream into the read-
er's weary mind:
The choir is singing now of
a little town that is filling up
softly with snow, its n'usic
musty and unreal; outside
there is hail, real snow,tviolent
and wild.
When she does produce a rare,
fine image, it is too frequently
buried because, in order to im-
press us with the many, many
levels of the mind, she qualifies
her sentences to render the po-
tential complexity of her observa-
tion clearer, and clearer and yet
more clear:
... He could not concentrate
because he kept thinking of
Shelley upstairs, ,or rather not
thinking of her but envisioning
her. Yet he did not really en-
vision her, not the girl Shelley.
but rather the ghostly "scan"
of his own brain, Dr. Vogel's
brain, a photograph of a grainy
oblong in which a certain area
was heavily shaded by the ra-
dioactive isotope in the form
of his daughter's face, like a
tumor . . . located in the front-
al ragion of his brain . . . a

Importance of Being Gay


Merle Miller, ON B E I N G
DIFFERENT, Random House,
A gay man who wants to
discover the sexual preference
of another person will often ask,
"What's his (or her) story?"
Behind that question may lie the
assumption that sexual prefer-
ence is the result of a long and
corplicated developmental pro-
cess, that the factors influenc-
ing sexual preference are many
and varied, and that their in-
teractions vary from person to
In On Being Different: What
It Means to Be a Homosexual
Merle Miller has given us his
story. Miller, a gay white man
of fifty, once married, now 'a
partner in a long-term gay rela-
tionship, has spoken honestly,
it seems, and painfully, it is
clear. Miller seems to view his
homosexual preference as a re-
sult of parental influence and
other societal pressures. (Miller
has not set down his opinion of
the role of body chemistry in
sexuality - a matter of current
scientific research).
That Miller wrote his book at
all is a heartening sign. His life
style (by his own statement, it

took him some forty years to
come out of the gay closet)
would in no way seem to indi-
cate that he would ever reveal
his gay feelings in a national
publication. But Miller's book is
a reworking and expansion of an
article that he prepared for the
magazine section of the Sunday
New York Times.
In 1969, as Miller states, oc-
curred the Stonewall Rebellion,
the first revolt against the
omnipresent straight (heterosex-
ual) repression of gay people.
In the wake of this New York
demonstration there followed an
outpouring of gay anger and gay
pride across the continent. Mil-
ler's reaction to these events re-
sembled my own-at first unbe-
lieving surprise, then hesitant
participation in meetings, march-
es, and confrontations of straight,
society, and finally some kind of
deep commitment to the libera-
tion of gay people.
I find Miller's statement some-
what defensive, from title ("On
Being Different") to conclusion
("If I had been given a choice
. . I would prefer to have been
straight"). I think I am angrier
than Miller, or less tired (Miller
is fifty-I am forty). But I find
myself agreeing with many of
the insights that Miller has scat-
tered throughout his book, and

wish that he had sown them more
The December issue of Play-
boy terms Miller's work digni-
fied and graceful. Dignified it is
-gentlemanly, even. But grace-
ful? Kind, perhaps. No rhetorical
display, no polemics. Low-key.
Conversational. Colloquial. Short.
Jerky. Radicals may scorn this
mild utterance of a colourless
man. Poor people will not want
to spend $4.50 for sixty-five small
pages of large type. Voyeurs will
come off unsatisfied. Yet I find
this essay of importance. We
need many personal statements
from a variety of gay people,
women and men. The gay move-
ment has published its chroni-
cles. Gay radicals have express-
ed their anger in terms so
rhetorical that the substance
a p p e a r s only fitfully through
clouds of rhetoric. Therapists
continue to issue what I can
view only as biased statements
of theory. But Miller has given
us his own story, nothing more.
From it, and from others as yet
unpublished we can deduce what
we may. For this, and for
Miller's courage, I am grateful.

posterior frontal tumor in Dr.
Vogel's brain.
He forced himself to read:
Abnormal tissues show abuorm-
al scans.,
I confess I blushed at certain
passages that reminded me of
long discarded freshman papers:
Trick, at the door, screwed
his face up and made a sudden,
almost convulsive spitting ges-
ture. 'Love! What the hell is
love?' he said.
Jesse stared.
'Good-by! Good night!' Trick
cried. He waved good-by. Es-
For a few minutes J e s s e
stood without moving, staring
at the doorway where Trick
had stood - he could see again
that screwing up of a man's
face, the puckering of the lips.
His heart pounded viciously.
He kept seeing that face, that
ugly face .
What the hell is love?
At times Wonderland becomes
a parody of itself, a clutter of
too familiar anecdotes, retold
with a jaundiced smile. M i s s
Oates seems to be telling us, like
Alas! my dear, unless you
have been raped by two Bul-
garians, stabbed twice in the
belly, have had two castles
destroyed, two fathers and
mothers murdered before 'your
eyes, and have seen two of
your lovers flogged in an auto-
da-fe, I do not see how you
can surpass me.
Because the novel has such
posibilities, one is tempted to
play at Pangloss and speculate,
all events being linked, w h a t
she could have produced: if only
she hadn't . . if only she .

The book has some features
that are of' interest. If nothing
else, it refreshes the memory as
to certain distinctive features of
the Johnson yeais. As the read-
er is told of the earnest, high-
minded exchanges that took place
between Johnson and Everett
McKinley Dirksen, for example,
he will undoubtedly feel that
maybe a little something has been
left out. On the other hand, read-
ing of Johnson's great reluctance
to run for a full term in '64, of
how a few intimates had to coax
him out of a firm decision to
withdraw, one may gain the im-
pression that something has been
put in that might be deleted at
no sacrifice to accuracy.
Additionally, events that look-
ed contrived even then are still
brought forward at face value.
Consider this description of the
Honolulu conference of 1966 at-
tended by American and Vietna-
mese leaders:
I was impressed, as I think
every American at the long
conference table in Admiral
Sharp's headquarters was, as I
listened to the Vietnamese des-
cribing their hopes for their
country and their countrymen's
hopes for themselves. Ky spoke
candidly of their problems,
their mistakes, their setbacks.
But he spoke confidently of
their plans, their goals, and
their determination to go ahead
with political development in
spite of the risks.

place, for example, it has been
correctly noted that Johnson's
tart, pithy descriptions of men
and events are too often absent.
An example of needed color is
suggested by Johnson's descrip-
tion of Robert McNamara as "the
fellow with the Stacomb on his
hair." Granted, the former Pre-
sident's memoirs are in need of
something, but they are not in
need of that..
Similarly, Johnson's c o m -
plaints of regional prejudice and
snobbery have received wide-
spread attention. John Kenneth
Gailbraith, for example, disin-
genuously offered his own back-
ground as sufficiently similar to
Johnson's to be proof that the
regional prejudice sensed by
Johnson is an illusion. Lack of
candor and introspection are not
exclusively Johnsonian traits, it
would seem.
Complaints about the Eastern
press,.,or about anything else, do
not dominate the book, however.
It is basically a massive recital
of the issues of the Johnson years
and Johnson's response. It is not

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songs by John Lennon, Randy Newman, Donovan, Alex Harvey, David Blue and Helen Reddy herself. ST.857
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Today's Writers . .
Gail Vroon is a movie review-
er for The Daily who has re-



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