NOTES FOR A NOVEL ABOUT THE END OF THE WORLD
A SERIOUS NOVEL about the destruction of the United States and the end of the world should perform the function of prophecy in reverse. The novelist writes about the coming end in order to warn about present ills and so avert the end. Not being called by God to be a prophet, he nevertheless pretends to a certain prescience. If he did not think he saw something other people didn’t see or at least didn’t pay much attention to, he would be wasting his time writing and they reading. This does not mean that he is wiser than they. Rather might it testify to a species of affliction which sets him apart and gives him an odd point of view. The wounded man has a better view of the battle than those still shooting. The novelist is less like a prophet than he is like the canary that coal miners used to take down into the shaft to test the air. When the canary gets unhappy, utters plaintive cries, and collapses, it may be time for the miners to surface and think things over. But perhaps it is necessary first of all to define the sort of novel and the sort of novelist I have in mind. By a novel about “the end of the world, ” I am not speaking of a Wellsian fantasy or a sciencefiction film on the Late Show. Nor would such a novel presume to predict the imminent destruction of the world. It is not even interested in the present very real capacity for physical destruction: that each of the ninety-odd American nuclear submarines carries sixteen Polaris missiles, each of which in turn has the destructive capacity of all the bombs dropped in World War II. Of more concern to the novelist are other signs, which, if he reads them correctly, portend a different kind of danger. It is here that the novelist is apt to diverge from the general population. It seems fair to say that most people are optimistic with qualifications-or rather that their pessimism has specific causes. If the students and Negroes and Communists would behave, things wouldn’t be so bad. The apprehension of many novelists, on the other hand, is a more radical business and cannot be laid to particular evils such as racism, Vietnam, inflation. The question which must arise is whether most people are crazy or most serious writers are crazy. Or to phrase the alternatives more precisely: Is the secular city in great trouble or is the novelist a decadent bourgeois left over from a past age who likes to titivate himself and his readers with periodic doom-crying? The signs are ambiguous. The novelist and the general reader agree about the nuclear threat. But when the novelist begins behaving like a man teetering on the brink of the abyss here and now, or worse, like a man who is already over the brink and into the abyss, the reader often gets upset and even angry. One day an angry lady stopped me on the street and said she did not like a book I wrote but that if I lived up to the best in me I might write a good Christian novel like The Cardinal by Henry Morton Robinson or perhaps even The Foundling by Cardinal Spellman. What about the novelist himself? Let me define the sort of novelist I have in mind. I locate him not on a scale of merit-he is not necessarily a good novelist-but in terms of goals. He is, the novelist we speak of, a writer who has an explicit and ultimate concern with the nature of man and the nature of reality where man finds himself. Instead of constructing a plot and creating a cast of characters from a world familiar to everybody, he is more apt to set forth with a stranger in a strange land where the signposts are enigmatic but which he sets out to explore nevertheless. One might apply to the novelist such adjectives as “philosophical,” “metaphysical,” “prophetic,” “eschatological,” and even “religious.” I use the word “religious” in its root sense as signifying a radical bond, as the writer sees it, which connects man with reality-or the failure of such a bond-and so confers meaning to his life-or the absence of meaning. Such a class might include writers as diverse as Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Camus, Sartre, Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor. Sartre, one might object, is an atheist. He is, but his atheism is “religious” in the sense intended here: that the novelist betrays a passionate conviction about man’s nature, the world, and man’s obligation in the world. By the same token I would exclude much of the English novel-without prejudice: I am quite willing to believe that Jane Austen and Samuel Richardson are better novelists than Sartre and O’Connor. The nineteenth-century Russian novelists were haunted by God; many of the French existentialists are haunted by his absence. The English novelist is not much interested one way or another. The English novel traditionally takes place in a society as everyone sees it and takes it for granted. If there are vicars and churches prominent in the society, there will be vicars and churches in the novel . If not, not. So much for vicars and churches. What about American novelists? One would exclude, again without prejudice, social critics and cultural satirists like Steinbeck and Lewis. The Okies were too hungry to have “identity crises.” Dodsworth was too interested in Italy and dolce far niente to worry about God or the death of God. The contemporary novel deals with the sequelae. What happens to Dodsworth after he lives happily ever after in Capri? What happens to the thousand Midwesterners who settle on the Riviera? What happens to the Okie who succeeds in Pomona and now spends his time watching Art Linkletter? Is all well with them or are they in deeper trouble than they were on Main Street and in the dust bowl? If so, what is the nature of the trouble? We have a clue to the preoccupation of the American novelist in the recurring complaint of British critics. A review of a recent novel spoke of the Americans’ perennial disposition toward “philosophical megalomania.” Certainly one can agree that if British virtues lie in tidiness of style, clarity and concision, a respect for form, and a native embarrassment before “larger questions,” American failings include pretension, grandiosity, formlessness, Dionysian excess, and a kind of metaphysical omnivorousness. American novels tend to be about everything. Moreover, at the end, everything is disposed of, God, man, and the world. The most frequently used blurb on the dust jackets of the last ten thousand American novels is the sentence “This novel investigates the problem of evil and the essential loneliness of man.” A large order, that, but the American novelist usually feels up to it. This congenital hypertrophy of the novelist’s appetites no doubt makes for a great number of very bad novels, especially in times when, unlike in nineteenth-century Russia, the talent is not commensurate with the ambition.