My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I know Hannah is a beloved figure (there are lavish blurbs on this edition from Philip Roth, Cynthia Ozick, Alfred Kazin, James Dickey), but this doesn’t do anything for me. Ray is a miscellany of edgy zaniness that we’re apparently supposed to accept quite soberly as a literary correlate of “the American confusion.” Narrated Beckett-style from a hospital bed by Dr. Ray of Tuscaloosa after he has some kind of alcoholic crack-up, it meanders through tales of the town’s eccentrics and through Ray’s memories of Vietnam and the Civil War (“I live in so many centuries. Everybody is still alive.”). There are some nice lyrical passages, mainly about the beautiful women Ray has loved, and some of the theater-of-the-absurd stuff is funny when it isn’t trying too hard to shock with racial slurs and punny sex farce (“Afterward I ate her slowly. I hadn’t eaten much all day.”).
The elephant in the room here is the notorious Gordon Lish, who apparently edited Ray extensively, to Hannah’s satisfaction according to this researcher. The text is full of Lish-like sentences and paragraphs that allow themselves to be led down cul-de-sacs by their own sounds and rhythms:
She ate me, just like another delicious thing on her menu. I felt rotten, cool, and unfaithful, yet I came with an enormous lashing of sperm, which made her writhe and lick.
(I noticed this passage because “writhe and lick” recalls a passage in friend-of-Lish DeLillo in which a woman’s breasts “jump and hum,” a phrase James Wood made righteous fun of back in the day.)
None of this would bother me if Lish/Hannah didn’t expect me to take it all as a serious statement on America and how violent and crazy it is. Not that America isn’t, necessarily, but a novel has to earn its themes, not just gesture toward them in a way that flatters the right-thinking audience. Zany, vulgar comedy can be its own reward, and I would have accepted this as a distant ancestor of Family Guy; considered as a sociopolitical novel, though, it just doesn’t exist. Why, you ask, would I even want to consider it as a sociopolitical novel? Probably because of the obviously Lish-authored and just-this-side-of-meaningless jacket copy on the first-edition hardcover I have out of the library:
The case for Ray is the case for the dogged citizen, the last warrior in the American epoch. He is the fool in flight from the safety of falling out of time and away from complication. He is, instead, the intrepid witness, willfully and disastrously present for the felonious spectacle of family, community, and nation.
Notice the unworkable combination of a sentence constructed out of its own echoing parts—all the consonance and assonance, words chosen primarily for sound and shape—with a grandiose thesis statement. This kind of writing is all over the book, and it just doesn’t work. It represents the neoclassicalizing of modernism. Yes, Faulkner, Woolf, and Lawrence wrote sentences that had the inevitability and solidity of poetry, but they did so not for kicks but rather under the pressure of their themes, to which they abandoned themselves totally. Ray, on the other hand, reads like a collection of carefully-constructed sentences in search of a theme, sliding from nihilistic farce to outright sentimentality without modulation. And the sentimentality is the most convincing part! Hannah seems, like the similarly Lish-addled Raymond Carver before him, to have been a kind of instinctive if disappointed humanist, somebody who might have gone in a more Dreiserian direction if Captain Fiction hadn’t intervened (this is in contrast to somebody like DeLillo, whose stylizations feel holistic, the emanation of a genuine worldview, not something imposed from above).
To end on a more positive note, I liked this passage; it has a quietness in it that more of the novel could have been built on, instead of pursuing Civil War fantasies and tall tales from Southern living, so I’ll end here:
I’m dreaming of the day when the Big C will be blown away. I’m dreaming of a world where men and women have stopped the war and where we will stroll as naked as excellent couples under the eye of the sweet Lord again. I’m dreaming of the children whom I have hurt from being hurt and the hurt they learn, the cynicism, the precocious wit, the poo-poo, the slanted mouth, the supercilious eyebrow.
Then I wake up and I’m smiling. Westy asks me what’s wrong.
“Christ, darling, I just had a good dream, is all.”
“I’ll bet it was some patient you screwed. You rotten bastard.”
She hits me over the head with a pillow.
Some days, even a cup of coffee is violence.
When I can find my peace, I take a ladder to the hot attic and get out the whole plays of Shakespeare.
Okay, old boy. Let’s hear it again. Sweat’s popping out of my eyes, forehead.
Let’s hear it again. Between the lines I’m looking for the cure for cancer.