The novel is decaying into news of narcissism American fiction: family, sexual betrayal, the ethnic riff are all obscuring the search for meaning.


From the cascade of trivial works published this month, it seems that the novel has gone into a very deep sleep. Like America itself, the world of fiction has been splintered into cultural sects, each novel deliberately appealing only to members of a single ethnic group.

Latino, Chinese-American, and Filipino novels are now pushing aside for attention the African-American writing influenced by such novelists as Toni Morrison, the late Toni Cade Bambara and Gloria Naylor which, however specific its settings, sturdily appealed to the general reader.

Out of a certain defeatism publishers are contenting themselves with small markets in which to peddle such wares, as if their financial fate actually rested with authors with defiantly limited appeal.

Superb literary fiction, of course, continues to appear. As long as GabrielGarcia Marquez, Michael Ondaatje, Robert Coover, George Garrett - and Milan Kundera (see May fiction column on page 4f) continue to write, there is no cause for despair. Yet the overwhelming majority of new novels seem so narrowly focused as to engage only those belonging to the ethnic group of the main character.

Burrowed deeply in foxholes of nationalism, these authors, usually young and female, and often greatly talented, dream too little.

They compound their insularity by being narrowly focused on personal lives. The universe they depict rarely reaches beyond the family. The characters in their novels, inevitably consumed by self, live outside history. Like their myopic authors, voices of Generation X, they fear the future and so ignore the past.

Seldom are there large issues in these books (the future of a society, an alternative social order or politics, the way history shapes an individual). Instead they wallow in a dead-end of questions of ethnic identity and sexual betrayal, and a timid reliance on the suffocatingly personal, as if the experience of the individual, in or out of a family, were the entire canvas available to the novelist. Their version of the news is the news of narcissism.

Unaware that, as Shakespeare's Coriolanus put it, "there is a world elsewhere," these young novelists have yet to discover the history in which they themselves are, nonetheless, participants.

Garcia Marquez's short story "Maria Dos Prazeres," with its aged Barcelona prostitute, through whose consciousness echo the winds of the Spanish Civil War fifty years alive in her memory, contains more richly evocative a perception of the meaning of life than all the dozens of novels printed in the month of May alone.

Far and away the most prevalent theme in novel after novel is ethnicity, the ethnic riff. Publishers seem to have tripped over each other to discover the new and latest ethnic heroine. Maxine Hong Kingston was followed by Amy Tan, and now the floodgates have opened. If you want to be published, be an ethnic-American (being an actual Pole, or Chinese or Filipino is much less salable).

Gish Jen is the latest Amy Tan look-alike as in "Mona In The Promised Land" (Knopf. 304 pages. $24) she presents Mona as a Chinese girl deciding to become Jewish. Changing ethnicity in this land of diversity is the reverse coin, of course, of defining oneself by ethnicity.

The inadvertently sane character in the novel is Sherman Matsumoto, who scornfully tells Mona she will "never be Japanese." Jen gets him off the stage - fast. When Jen can treat ethnicity as absurd, as she does at the beginning with Mona taste-testing Jewish versions of Chinese cookery and lying to the chefs, she's at her best. But before long she loses heart.

"Hoopi Shoopi Donna" by Susan Strempek Shea (Pocket Books. 332 pages $22), will be "targeted to Polish media." "The Last Time I Saw Mother" by Arlene J. Chai, (Faucett. 432 pages, $21) is the Filipino version. "Divine Secets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood," by Rebecca Wells (HarperCollins. 356 pages. $24) finds ethnicity in the American South, in Louisiana. "America's Dream" by Esmeralda Santiago,(HarperCollins. 336 pages. $23) discovers its ethnicity in an island off Puerto Rico and again in Westchester County, N.Y. Here ethnicity meets the battered woman syndrome, with someone dying (offstage) of AIDS. What's disturbing is that America is a charming character and "America's Dream" a gracefully written novel.

Since we have a political theme in these novels - my groupism; I am defined by the particularities of my family's national origin - often a character will move to the center of the stage to speak the book's message. So much for craft. Finally these novels are content with being topically trendy, even as they are often cloyingly attached to the first person singular.

After ethnicity, the other major theme is sex, although in the work of these baby-novelists the sex is pre-erotic.

Either the authors are too young or it's just too difficult and takes too long to discover a fresh way to describe the finite varieties of sexual congress. But experimentalist Diane Williams does put a male sexual organ on page one of "The Stupefaction" (Knopf. 176 pages $21). Sex of some kind is mandatory because these novelists want to be in print without wading through years of apprenticeship. Sheneska Jackson, age 26, calls herself a Terry McMillan wannabe in the Simon and Schuster press handout for "Caught Up In The Rapture," (271 pages. $21).

The other big topic of these novels is childhood sexual abuse and/or rape. These have become as obligatory a theme as sweaty sex used to be. If child abuse can be combined with the appearance of a gay character who dies of AIDS, as in Hilary Norman's "The Key to Susanna" (Dutton 357 pages. $23.95), so much the better. As for originality, Norman's heroine is a model whose eyes feature "dark-rimmed deep blue irises"; her hair is the color of, what else, gold!

Family, disease, accident, adultery - with a gay person somewhere on the scene, as in Margaret Erhart's elegantly written "Old Love," (Steerfrorth Press, Vermont. 246 pages. $24) are the themes of choice. The lively "Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood" sentimentalizes the mother-daughter connection, although it too needs a child abuse motif to keep the story moving. Even Henry Denker, no child-novelist himself, can come up with nothing more dramatic in "To Marcy, With Love," (William Morrow. 320 pages. $24) than the old chestnut of an alcoholic father and quarterback son wounded in, what else but a car accident! The anachronism of looking inward returns writers to very tired cliches.

These novelists often write very well indeed. Realists or experimentalists, they exhibit a certain command of form. Yet since form cannot be divorced from substance, they turn out not to be so well-written as they at first appear. With movie deals twinkling in their eyes, these young novelists are secretly writing for the movies. The craft of fiction is an encumbrance they cannot afford.

Knowing that they can make their fortunes only by way of Hollywood, and this generation is nothing if not savvy, they overload their books with dialogue and movement, if not action, and are short on narrative.

Endless description beckons the screenwriters; it can be converted into setting. The pace in novel after novel is also excruciatingly slow, for where have either author or characters to go? With little appreciation of life's urgencies, they write as if they have all the time in the world.

I doubt whether most of these novels will be reviewed; I doubt whether most will sell even five thousand copies, although many are being highly marketed with author tours. It's also no wonder that so many grown-ups have chosen no longer to sample new fiction, opting instead either for novelists of proven merit or - for non-fiction.

Joan Mellen, a professor in the English Department at Temple University, has authored 13 books. Among the, are a nove, "Natural Tendencies," seven books on modern culture and several biographies, the latest of which, "Hellman and Hammett," will be published by HarperCollins in June.

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