Reviewed by Daniel James Sundahl
I title this review “The Overly-Stuffed Novel,” a designation that calls attention to Willa Cather’s credo stated with some punchy forcefulness in her essay “The Novel Demeuble.” The point is simple enough: Aesthetically, the novel does not merely catalog the furniture of life, physical things, processes, sensations, thoughts. She analogizes the bare stage of Greek theater for its restrained method. The same can be witnessed with language; by saying less writers can say more.
The essay appeared in 1922, a bit before the work of I. A. Richards who, in 1929, critically began an introduction to reader-response theory. The issue is simple enough: The reader is an active agent who “completes” a novel through “reading” with, one hopes, patience.
Two matters, then, at the beginning: An unfurnished novel in which a writer takes pains to conceal sophistication and the reader as an active agent. One might thus say that if a novel is overly-stuffed, the reader’s response is less than positive due to “over-enumeration” and lack of sophistication.
The issue with reader-response theory is the variations in response. Five readers may very well respond in five different ways. And so an apologetic here: Different people read differently, which is wonderfully true with that critical group of folks known as the “literary professoriate.”
Still, I mention Cather because exhaustively her notion is that “furnished” novels tend to make the reader respond as if he has wandered into a room of cheap furniture; the novel becomes a thing that “wears” poorly.
Such becomes the case with Katherine Clark’s All the Governor’s Men. The fault is a rhetorical, tautological style, repetition, superfluity, and redundancy, the fault of a satirical narrator whose omniscience delivers the novel to the reader. Narration, then, encompasses not only “who” is telling the story but also “how” the story is told, reliably or unreliably. Clark’s narrator is not a protagonist “in” the story and is not objective; neither is the narrator a vernacular narrator, albeit the voice on one or two odd occasions slips into dialect with phrases like “smack dab” or “[t]he regular folks from Prattville couldn’t see it because it was just the way things had always been, and they didn’t know no differnt [sic].”
How best to describe the narrative voice in Clark’s novel?
Well, the novel is a satirical telling or viewing of one Daniel Dobb’s experiences in Alabama politics—more or less. The narrative time, the grammatical tense, is the past, 1982 forward and backward. He’s introduced in the opening pages as a young man graduating from Harvard—”no less”—receiving a gift from his parents, a used Chevrolet Chevette and not the expected Honda Civic.
So, shallow Daniel Dobbs, from Opelika, Alabama, the son of very middle class parents, both of whom are children of Depression-Era sharecroppers toward whom the narrator looks down the bridge of a very long nose with some arrogance if not contempt. There’s humor but as for Daniel’s “parents, they had done the best they could and it wasn’t their fault that their best wasn’t very good.”
Neither is the narrator sympathetic toward Daniel, with good cause likely. There is, rather, a strong sense the narrator is high-browed, although that cultured attitude is undercut by vulgarity. A misprint advertisement for a Father’s Day gift leads to a recurring, redundant joke about how Daniel’s father could have “used a strap-on tool for Father’s Day.” The narrator reports this in a lengthy overly-furnished paragraph scene emphasizing at tautological length Daniel’s parents’ “infected . . . middle-class aspirations” which “had permanently bruised their souls . . . . As a result, they were incapable of laughter.”
Such stylistic tags like “of course” or “as a result” or “on the contrary” appear in page-length paragraphs with some frequency throughout the novel. They occupy places as rhetorical devices with the goal of encouraging or provoking the reader to respond to the narrator’s argument. As pieces of writing, however (!), they appear as little more than mental floss and fail to turn the writing into something much more memorable, more sophisticated.
As do other jokes: Daniel has always gravitated toward Wellesley girls since the Harvard joke poses the question of how many men it takes to seduce a Harvard woman. Three. One to persuade her to do the deed by discussing it beforehand to her satisfaction. One to perform the deed to her satisfaction. And, finally, one to analyze it afterward to her satisfaction.
As for that Chevrolet Chevette, his father’s rationale was that he “always prefers to buy American.”
So, a novel of mockery and ridicule exposing character Daniel’s illusions and stupidity and vices in the context of 1982 Alabama politics.
The novel’s plot, or structure, is easily summarized.
There’s the Old South and the New South. In Alabama, the Old South is characterized by the governing years of George Wallace, now wheelchair bound. The New South in Alabama will be brought into being by Attorney General Aaron Osgood, who is campaigning to become the Democratic candidate for governor if he defeats Wallace in the primary. Young Daniel Dobbs is a disciple of Aaron Osgood, he with a suggestive name.
Prior to Harvard, young Daniel was idealistically involved in Key Club, a Kiwanis International organization devoted to service and the future. Fueled by the same idealistic zeal, he returns to Alabama to join with Aaron Osgood and politically to launch Alabama into its New South future. Noble ambitions.
He arrives back in Alabama with his current girlfriend, Caroline Elmore, a first year Harvard student hailing from the affluent suburb of Mountain Brook, a few miles from Birmingham but light years from the rest of Alabama. There are other girlfriends, one Eleanor from Connecticut and Ricky Jill from high school years with whom Daniel fathers a child, an event which becomes, in the novel’s time, “news” to him. Daniel also casts his willful copulating eyes on an Alabama cheerleader during his law school career about the time he substitutes the fool’s game of politics for Alabama football, the latter “serious business.”
During the initial stages of the primary campaign, Daniel meets Helen Mendelssohn, a native of Brooklyn, and also of Harvard and Columbia School of Journalism. She’s a reporter with the Atlanta Times and arrives at the Bug Tussle Steakhouse with her notebook.
During this steakhouse meeting, the narrator reflects on how Daniel had not “known one single Jewish girl in his entire childhood.” At Harvard, he was surrounded by dozens. But unlike Southern girls, “these Jewish girls crackled with open energy. They didn’t seem to care who they offended or appealed to with their opinions or their bodies.” Daniel is “attracted,” but likely less for the Jewish girls’ opinions and more for how he “loved the way they often went bra-less in an old tee shirt” and how they could “go from zero to one hundred in less than sixty seconds, from bed dining hall . . . . and he followed them from the dining hall back to their unmade beds right after breakfast.” Straightforward and business-like, Harvard Jewish women were “insistent upon the worst kind of contraceptives” and “always had plenty of these available.”
There is in this scene at the Bug Tussle Steakhouse the all-too-human visage of Daniel Dobbs but also the all-too-human visage of the novel’s narrator. But the bruised core here is related without guilt; a Harvard Jewish girl serves, rather, “to expand [Daniel’s] horizons a great deal.”
Subjective reader-response theory does not always exist uniformly; rather, responses can be highly personal. Thus one needs to “suggest” how this lengthy scene with Daniel’s flashback to his Harvard years creates less satirical curiosity on the part of a reader responding and, instead, more grotesque distortion. Is the scene reflecting on Daniel’s belief in Harvard Jewish girls’ copulatory possibilities necessary to advance the narrative, or is it just an outlandishly bizarre aside, decorative, perhaps, but conveying a preconceived notion about Harvard Jewish girls imposed on the reader?
As for that Chevette which Daniel does replace just as he replaces his pursuit of idealistic politics: Three years of law school and the novel’s epilogue, punctuated with of course, of course. The used Chevette is replaced with a used BMW, of course, and of course the parents object. But it’s something Daniel likely needs as he walks out from the country club and waits for the valet. It’s the new image he has for himself, and with a new mother-in-law as an ally and before his marriage to Mountain Brook Caroline, on the contrary, it had become clear to shallow Daniel “that he could not do better.”
Of course, reader-response theory is just that: theory, and as such is again well aware that different readers respond differently because of individual differences. Five readers reading does not suggest a uniform response. It’s also impossible to remain immune from one’s own culture, and Clark’s novel is surely not immune to that Alabama culture; one might suspect, however, that the novel’s cultural criticism is overdone. Incidents carefully selected, rejecting sensation, and narrative restraint might have led to a better novel. As it is, well, one is reminded of Seinfeld, that ubiquitous television show about nothing.