John P. Marquand
Here's the formula. Amusingly, it comes from Wickford Point, which isn't about this kind of stuff at all:
There was something which they did not see, an inexorable sort of gentleness, a vanity of effort, a sadness of predestined failure.
The narrator's talking about New England, and how nobody really ever gets it right, and how this was the "truth" of the countryside. Wickford is a very autobiographical novel and I'm pretty sure this is Marquand addressing us directly. Like a lot of writers, Marquand couldn't resist romanticizing himself even as he downplays himself: although his protagonist feels that a "serious novel" built around that idea would always be beyond him, Marquand built his "legitimate" career around essentially this very idea. He improved as he went along, mostly by incorporating the better lessons of his pulp and slick past.
The worst of the batch is The Late George Apley, which of course garners all the praise and the rewards. There are a fat quintillion reasons why books are inexorably overpraised: I'm not sure why it was so back then, but am convinced now it's a simple matter of laziness. People praise Apley out of pure received wisdom -- it's not like anyone really reads it anymore.
Apley is that tiresome thing, a fable. It’s a high modernist piece – it might not be immediately evident as that, but that’s the foundation – where Marquand is carefully climbing up on his high horse in order to tell us something. And what he wants to tell us is the unexciting news that you can gain the world but lose your soul, a notion that was cutting-edge around Jesus’s time, maybe. He also wants to tell us a little bit of what’s up top there, the notion that there’s something oddly heroic about people giving in to sterile conformity and the deadening of their dreams. But that’s not true. “Tragedy” in the classic sense described the notion of great men being ultimately undone by intrinsic flaws in the forces that made them great in the first place. There’s nothing “tragic” here because there’s nothing “great” here. You can pity men like Apley, but that’s about as far as it goes. And that doesn’t make for much emotional engagement.
Why is this book so lauded? Who knows. One might speculate that originally everyone jumped on something that could knock capitalism but good. Nowadays it’s probably a matter of upper class WASP types who hate their lot and are looking for rationales to assert that somehow all the pointlessness was worth it, somehow. Apley is as directed a message along those lines as you’re going to find.
Somewhat better is Pulham, which consciously, I think, tries to put the Marquand “message” in a more naturalistic context. It’s basically the same message: guy is born into a certain New England class, just a little more aware than other members of his class, flirts with rebellion, understands that he can’t really break his chains, and then looks back on his past with a kind of sadness mixed with regretful acceptance. It’s just put into a context that at least seems identifiable as a naturalistic recreation of the world. Marquand’s real gifts as a writer had nothing to do with his “ideas”, which frankly are silly when they aren’t clichéd. His gifts are all related to other factors: his smoothly flowing style, which is a positive joy to read, and his really fine sense of place. Nobody can really build a sense of place like Marquand.
The problem with Pulham is that the story values, the things that make Marquand interesting as a writer, cut against the dynamics of his argument. Another way to say it is that the better he tells a story, the less interesting and persuasive he makes his argument. And vice versa. This is the central problem with “idea” fiction: except at the very highest levels the story values tend to cut against the idea values, and vice versa.
Point of No Return is the best of the three, because here the story values predominate. Unlike in the other books, for example, the protagonist is active, not just a victim of circumstance. Point has something of a hopeful ending, at least for Marquand, which puts it heads and tails above the sad sighs which end books like Pulham. Most interestingly, Marquand is actually treating his formula as stuff to be molded, as artistic material. And it pays dividends: Point is easily his most readable book in this style. Marquand even expands his ideas outward: this is the only novel of his I know of which suggests that there is no “escape”, at least not in the rather naïve way he seemed to frame the issue earlier. His protagonist leaves his earlier cage for only another, more sophisticated one, and Marquand seems to understand that’s what passes for a “happy” ending.
But the book still seems forced to me, still hobbled by Marquand’s hobby horse. Actually I think Marquand’s best non-Moto book – certainly my favorite of his – is Wickford Point, which has nothing to do with his big message at all.
Well, unless you want to look at it like the dynamic’s reversed. If his other books are all about compromises with conformity, here the novel’s “about”, to the extent that it’s about anything, the need to compromise, the need to fit into society on some level. But that sells it short, kind of, its real pleasure lie in the style, and the setting, and the personality. It’s the most autobiographical thing of his that I know of, and could probably be faulted for that, but I found the ride fairly worthwhile. Wickford is a loose grabbag of impressions, speeches, ruminations, various vivid characters bouncing off each other, and a warm portrayal of a setting that obviously meant something to Marquand personally. Odd that his best book is “non-directed”, more about the trip than the destination, but then life’s funny that way.