Rage, however, does not bring out the best in Wolff. Too many of these new stories score obvious points about the causes of American decline, rather than perform the scalpel-sharp dissections of conflicted, shifting consciousness that Wolff has shown himself capable of. Wolff's characters, at their most opalescent, don't just lie to others; they lie to themselves. Then, suddenly, they achieve self-knowledge. Then, suddenly, they betray the people they love most in the world. Betrayal, as it happens, is another of Wolff's obsessions: Just as his characters lie to express themselves, they betray to discover who they are. You never know when or how the young Wolff of This Boy's Life will let his mother down next, despite being deeply connected to her and aware of her struggle to do right by him. But you do know that he has to disappoint her. He has to preserve his childishness in the face of her tacit plea that he understand too much and forgive too readily.
The young Wolff, it must be said, is the writer's greatest character. It is as if Wolff needed the mess of real life to achieve the inexhaustible freedom of superb mimesis. Few protagonists in fiction have managed to combine lying, candor, sweetness, cruelty, loyalty, treachery, and pure adolescent contrariness into as thrillingly unpredictable a package.
Of the protagonists in the recent stories, only the lawyer in "The Deposition" and the father in "Nightingale" shed layers with the jarring speed of the earlier characters. In "Nightingale," the father, Dr. Booth, gets lost in backwoods while driving his son to a military academy he has forced the boy to enroll in. In the first third of the story, he anxiously rehearses the reasons for his decision: the boy's laziness and lack of initiative, especially when compared with himself at that age. In the second third of the story, he drops the boy off at school, and it quickly becomes clear that the school is a sadistic boot camp, a strangely empty nightmare of a place. Dr. Booth registers the creepiness, yet, as if in a dream—and here the story moves out of realism and into absurdity—he can't act on his perceptions. He asks to see the headmaster, the headmaster refuses to see him, and Dr. Booth drives away meekly, leaving his son behind. In the last third of the story, he gets lost again, stops the car, and is flooded with a horrifying realization: The lies he has told himself about himself have caused him to steal from his son what is rightfully his—the dreamy unproductiveness of childhood. These lies, beaten into Dr. Booth by a brutal father, amount to a hatred of himself as a child, of his own child, of childhood itself. There's nothing novel about a father reproducing the abuse he suffered as a child, but Wolff turns a stale situation into a fresh study of self-betrayal, and how it passes from generation to generation.
Fiction lies, Frank Kermode has written, because it ends. Wolff's more memorable stories, as well as his remarkable memoirs, thwart that sense of closure. They spin the illusion of open possibility. Kermode quotes the philosopher Ortega y Gasset, "Whether he be original or plagiarist, man is the novelist of himself. … To be free means to be lacking in constitutive identity, not to have subscribed to a determined being, to be able to be other than what one was." It does not seem coincidental that Wolff's most protean narratives draw heavily upon his autobiographical experiences. Wolff, at his best, is truly a novelist of himself. His feats of self-invention offer a compelling rebuttal both to the fabulists whose stories fall so short of reality that they have to borrow the truth guarantee of memoir—if the lies rang truer, they could be published as fiction—and to those who denounce the faking of memoir as some sort of heinous crime, rather than the failed act of literature it is.
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Welcome to 13th Grade!
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The Actual World
“Mount Thoreau” and the naming of things in the wilderness.