rev. of Separate Flights by Andre Dubus

Issue #9
Spring 1976

There are some dazzling innovators in fiction these days. The 1970s have been electrically charged with Barth's succession of fun houses, barthelme's mosaics, Marquez's dream epics, Borges' magic boxes, Gaddis' unending tape recorder, and Calvino's invisible voyages. Midst these splendors, is there room for an author who plays no tricks whatever?

Andre Dubus'
Separate Flights poses the question not merely because he lacks stylistic innovation in an innovative decade, but because in addition he writes so well, so convincingly, so movingly.

The case against him is best described by quoting John Barth's central argument in "The Literature of Exhaustion":

. . . to be technically out of date is likely to be a genuine defect; Beethoven's Sixth Symphony or the Charters Cathedral if executed today would be merely embarrassing.

Dubus' fiction is neither symphonic nor gothic, but it is a development of something almost as familiar. His is a sharpness, a clarity, and an attention to photographic and auditory detail which is as old as Dreiser and as new as early Updike. He is an Andrew Wyeth competing with the circus performers of the New York art world. Should we applaud?

First, a quick look at what he has done. The collection consists of a novella and seven short stories. With two exceptions, his characters are middle class and articulate students, young college instructors, suburban housewives. They speak the same language.

The title is unusually apt for a collection: five out of the seven deal with couples who find it very difficult to live together. In various ways, they are all on separate flights. In the novella, "We Don't Live Here Anymore," two young married couples, harried by children, the cost of living, and marriages which have become threadbare, slip step by step into mutual infidelity. It is a sad story, treated sparsely yet with genuine compassion. Even when their interlocking complexities are over, the marriages to which they return are battered. Although the echoes of Updike's
Couples are strong both in style and situation it stands on its own and is devastatingly effective.

In "Over the Hill," Dubus turns his attention to a less articulate protagonist: a Marine in Japan who must deal with the random, restless infidelities of a young wife back home. His torment leads him AWOL and eventually to a military prison. Unsuccessful at life, unsuccessful at suicide, he marches toward his sentence in the brig with pathetic resignation. "He figured that it was at least better than nothing."

Dubus is pessimistic about men and women living together for long. He is also disillusioned with liberal and understanding parents. In "Miranda Over the Valley," a college girl finds herself pregnant and plans to marry her man. The two of them are genuinely in love and marriage seems like an exciting challenge to them both. But her most up-to-date and compassionate parents gently persuade her to have an abortion. To demonstrate their liberality, they offer the young lovers a vacation in Mexico. Then both of them can go back to school.

"`We don't object to you having a lover'," the father says. "What scares us, though, is your being unhappy.'"

Miranda has her abortion, but she and her man never get back together. Not only has the relationship been shattered, so has her youth and her optimism. With extraordinary subtlety, Dubus allows us to see a girl for whom all personal relationships have turned sterile. She has become "adult" in the worst sense.

There is a similar pattern in "Separate Flights" When a mother who is beginning to understand the vacuity of her own marriage discovers her teenage daughter copulating in the living room. In a great act of liberality, she retreats long enough to let the young man dress and leave. Then she has a beer with her daughter. She agrees to keep the affair a secret from her husband and the next day she arranges to have her daughter go on the pill.

For a while, mother and daughter are pals, sharing a secret from the conservative, insensitive husband. But in the end, the daughter's affair falls apart and she turns on her mother for her liberality. " `I wish you had taken me away,' " she says, breaking the bond they had shared.

All this, incidentally, is contained in a sub-plot in a story which is essentially about the mother: a woman at 49 discovering that not only is her marriage a shell but that her relationships with her children are empty and that there is little reason to stop drinking and smoking, knowing that both will shorten her life.

Pessimistic as the story is, it never for an instant becomes maudlin. Dubus maintains a clarity which is his safeguard against sentimentality and a sense of compassion which is his bulwark against cynicism. A rare combination, that.

But is it enough? Barth, Barthelme, Marquez, Borges, Gaddis, and Calvino would doubtless say No. And so would a host of lesser gymnasts for whom fiction without daring stylistic tricks is like a high-wire act performed on the ground.

Not once does Dubus allow his narrative to stray from directly linear chronology. His plots are tidy, orderly. Not once does he risk an unusual means of perception such as in Barth's "Night Sea Journey" (a sperm) or Calvino's historical figure (Marco Polo), or a disembodied tape recorder (as in Gaddis'
JR). Not once does he leave his own decade in the manner of Doctorow, Fowles, or Marquez. He is not interested in speculating on the nature of art as are Barth, Borges, and Calvino nor in making the reader really work for coherence as do Pynchon and Gaddis.

These are real limitations. But there is a danger in establishing stylistic innovation as the
prime criterion for excellence in new fiction. The closer we come to
requiring continual change, unending variation, dazzling departures, the closer the literary scene will come to that snake pit of writhing motion called the New York art world. It would be a sad end to this decade if every new work of fiction is required to be different in style from those which appeared two months before.

Such servitude to innovation leads inevitably to amateurish execution. When form changes too rapidly for any one artist to perfect it, the results will tend to be less skillful. This will be a grim outlook for those who agree with Barth about the enjoyment of literary quality. Again from "The Literature of Exhaustion":

I'm inclined to prefer the kind of art that not many people can
do: the kind that requires expertise and artistry as well as bright aesthetic ideas and/or inspiration.

There will be no time to develop expertise if change in form becomes the primary goal.

In addition, such headlong, breakneck concern for innovation leads directly to what William Gass has referred to as "fear of feeling". This charge has already been leveled at some of our finest innovators. It could become the dominant characteristic of fiction by the end of this decade if we demand nothing but perpetual transformations in style.

Dubus is a good writer. He has not only technical skill but he writes with controlled compassion. He is also a conservative stylist. He cannot be described with George Garrett's phrase (in the "Realism" issue of
Ploughshares) as "one of the true magicians".

Dubus' caution is for me a limitation. I would like to think that at some point in his career he would take greater risks. Still, innovation is only one route to excellence. Dubus has the others.