Almost every culture has its myth of decline, of civilization's slow erosion from a golden age to one more base. Reading Max Phillips's much-praised first novel, Snakebite Sonnet (Little, Brown), I felt I was witnessing something of the kind--The Decline of the American Novel. It's not that this is an awful book. To the contrary, it's exceptionally well written; the prose is shapely and the characterizations, amusing and deft. Yet it also seems like more evidence to support my feeling that the age of committed fiction is behind us. Like Roman knock-offs of classical Greek statuary, Snakebite Sonnet's beauty is slightly repellent; its surface is too smooth, too pretty, and the flaws and unevenness that come of conviction and passion have been buffed away.
The story, which recounts Nick Wertheim's 30-year obsession with the rich and elusive Julia May Terrell, is divided into 14 chapters, corresponding to the 14 lines of the book's eponymous sonnet--a kind of inventive unpacking of dense poetry into narrative. From the outset, the love-slain protagonist is bent on seduction (the reader's as much as Julia's): "The first time I saw Julia, I wanted to lie down with her, though I was ten years old and had no idea why I wanted to lie down with her, or what I might do about it once I had. Julia, on the other hand, was well versed in the matter of what you did with people once you'd lain down with them. She was nineteen, home from Bennington for the summer, and liked to say, I'm pursuing my destiny as a poet and a slut. She was still young enough to find glamour in those appelations."
True to the nature of obsession, the novel takes shape around Julia. From their first meeting in Silver Creek, New Jersey, where Julia is summering with her 38-year-old boyfriend after having given her vacationing parents the slip in Crete, desire is twined with pain. Nick takes Julia to visit a lake at a gravel pit, where she is bitten by a snake and scarred by the effort to extract the poison. Nick is scarred, too--by desire.
The book follows, over the next three decades, their chance encounters. Nick goes through the mill of adolescent sex, college at Cornell (where, thwarted by Julia, he takes to wearing black and quoting Rimbaud), the angst of artistic ambition, then a stint in the East Village. Handsome and smart, he's not at a loss for women, but his relationships are all poisoned by his longing for Julia, which turns to misogyny and eventually violence (the portrayal of the self-absorption and powerlessness that fuel domestic violence is the book's great strength).
Phillips also brings his sensibilities as a poet to this novel's exacting prose: "Outside, a jet passed over with a noise like a vast ball bearing rolling on glass," he writes. Elsewhere, Nick laments, "Everything seemed loose, wobbly, up for grabs. Everyone seemed perilously imaginative." It's hard not to admire a novel so charmingly written, but in the end I did not. I am in the minority, however; praise from other quarters has been lavish. Phillips has been compared to Philip Roth, and Charles Baxter has called it "one of the most beautifully composed first novels I've read in years."
It's not simply that the narrative trajectory takes us from Nick's obsessive desire and artistic ambition to an ultimately conservative refuge from these--a wife, kids, and a small shop--and treats this as a happy conclusion. At numerous points throughout Snakebite Sonnet, I kept thinking that I'd read all this before. The tough-guy accounts of sex, for instance, recall Henry Miller and Norman Mailer (there is, on average, one erection per chapter), though often the prose seems more comic than erotic: "...I pressed my shaft against her slickened vulva and slid it back and forth, as one checks the bolt of a rifle." One girlfriend's genitals are compared to a Doberman's lips; of another, Nick says, "Her wet mouth was criminal."
Oddly enough, other scenes and characters seem lifted from the pages of Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited, a book whose popularity, amplified by the PBS series, seems to have inspired a number of first-time American novelists to create Anglophonic characters. One of Snakebite's minor characters, introduced at a party, is a dead ringer for Waugh's Anthony Blanche sans stutter. Elsewhere, at age 13, Nick tells Julia about his drawings, "'Frankly, I have, as yet, no technique. The thing about being thirteen is,' I sighed, 'you're such a terribly rough sketch.'" This is New Jersey?
Of course, all great art is an imitation of great art, as John Gardner argues. The trouble with Phillips is that he only imitates the gestures. Waugh was writing about the circuitous route to redemption, and Miller and Mailer were out for sexual supremacy. Phillips, it seems, is merely out to charm. He cops a feel of serious literature, but offers none of the weight of its conviction.
Salman Rushdie, in a recent issue of The New Yorker, argued that we are witnessing in American fiction not so much the death of the novel as "the bewilderment of the reader"--a confusion due, at least in part, to "the debased language of hyperbole with which every book is garlanded." But the problem is not simply the inflated promotion departments of the big publishers; it's the overproduction of literature itself. More than 5,000 new novels were published in America last year, Rushdie noted, adding that "It would be a miracle if five hundred publishable novels had been written in a year. It would be extraordinary if fifty of them were good...[or] if five of them--if one of them--were great."
What disheartens is not a plethora of terrible books, but the host of elegant, insignificant ones. In literature, as in politics, rhetoric has outstripped content. Like Nick, we are in danger of being poisoned by beauty. And like its elusive subject Julia, Snakebite Sonnet is--alas--a lovely book.