Late 1857. George Eliot prepares her assault on the novel. The form is mature, and she
is mature—approaching forty. The pen feels as natural in her hand as a fork, yet, despite
the power and the pleasure she draws from wielding it, this supreme literary form is forbidding. An intellectual, unquestionably, but an artist? George Henry Lewes, the man with whom she shares her life (and whose undivorced status has caused much of society to close its doors to the couple—doors that will swing open again when she is famous), is encouraging her: The three increasingly ambitious stories she has turned out as Scenes of Clerical Life have stilled any doubts as to her flair for drama and dialogue. A delighted public is snapping up the book. Dickens has written to the mysterious author: "The exquisite truth and delicacy, both of the humour and the pathos of those stories, I have never seen the like of"; as for her pseudonym, "I should have been strongly disposed, if I had been left to my own devices, to address the said writer as a woman." Clever man. Now, she tells her publisher, she seeks a "large canvas." She has in mind an incident her Methodist aunt recounted to her two decades earlier, of "how she had visited a condemned criminal,—a very ignorant girl, who had murdered her child and refused to confess; how she had stayed with her praying through the night, and how the poor creature at last broke out into tears, and confessed her crime." She sets the action at the turn of the century, in the north central England of her pious girlhood, researching the customs, the agriculture, the botany of the region; she reads Robert Southey's The Life of Wesley, taking diligent notes on Methodism. Then she writes rapidly and confidently—the greatest and most harrowing section, as she will later relate, goes even faster than the rest—finishing the book in just over a year. Adam Bede goes on sale in February 1859 and is not only a tremendous success (the most popular of Eliot's novels during her lifetime) but something more, something every first novelist aspires to (preposterously, crazily, but why else break your heart locking yourself away for years on such a dubious labor?): one of the glories of the form.

Some novelists are prudently modest on their first forays, but the length and intensity of Adam Bede don't suggest any lack of hubris—though hubris is a difficult word to affix to Eliot's serene and amiable narrative voice. She's so deceptively good-humored toward her cast of bumpkins that the grim theme she is nourishing seems for much of the book like a subdued off-note amid the sunny scenes of country comedy. You can't fail to see the crisis coming, yet when it does you may be blindsided anyway. Adam Bede is a book without a villain, without real wickedness: Where, you may wonder, did this lacerating pity and terror come from?

First novels draw of necessity on their writers' experience, and it can't be coincidence that a writer who was ostracized for entering into a sexual relationship outside marriage should have chosen as the crux of her plot illicit sex. Nor is it easy to dismiss a suspicion of malice in Eliot's depiction of Hetty Sorrel: a woman undone by her beauty at the hands of a woman who, famously, had none—though I can feel as I write those words the coarse injustice to Eliot's sympathy. Hetty and her lover, Arthur Donnithorne, a rich good ol' boy who really means no harm, are two shallow pools waiting to destroy each other. In her day, Eliot carried the prestige of being a thinker among novelists, and in Adam Bede, the failure to think deeply is harshly punished. But this punishment is also, ultimately, a reward:

It would be a poor result of all our anguish and our wrestling, if we won nothing but our old selves at the end of it—if we could return to the same blind loves, the same self-confident blame, the same light thoughts of human suffering, the same frivolous gossip over blighted human lives, the same feeble sense of that Unknown towards which we have sent forth irrepressible cries in our loneliness. Let us rather be thankful that our sorrow lives in us as an indestructible force, only changing its form, as forces do, and passing from pain into sympathy—the one poor word which includes all our best insight and our best love.

That's Eliot at her most hortatory and her corniest, and if you can't love this Eliot there's no reason to read her. Henry James noted with horror a journal entry of hers from 1859: "We have just finished reading aloud Père Goriot, a hateful book." ("That Balzac's masterpiece would have elicited from her only this remark . . .") Of course, Eliot would have found Balzac disgusting, as he would have found her, yet her sentimentality doesn't strike me as blinkered—or at least as any more blinkered than his cynicism. There's nothing lightweight about a belief in human goodness shored up by so much suffering.

Still, there's a lot of human goodness to wade through in Adam Bede. So it's surprising and gratifying that Adam, the virtuous carpenter who loves the doomed Hetty, and Dinah Morris, the (if possible) even more virtuous evangelist who tries to guide her, don't wither on the page. Adam and Dinah's late-blossoming romance made James cringe; the novel, he thought, would have been far more powerful "if Adam had been left to his grief, and Dinah Morris to the enjoyment of that distinguished celibacy for which she was so well suited." And it would have. Eliot was acting on Lewes's advice (which wasn't always unsound); in her artistic maturity, she would bring Daniel Deronda to a more acrid—a more Jamesian—close. But Eliot isn't James, and it would be dishonest of me to deny the pleasure I get from the coupling of two people who stand so much taller than everyone else in the book that they seem to catch sight of each other over a sea of heads.

Adam Bede has also been criticized for the intrusiveness of its gabby author-narrator, who is far more prone here than in Eliot's later masterpieces to tell rather than to show. This defect is once again the result of inexperience, but for the postmodern reader it may not register as a defect at all. The greatest pleasure of Adam Bede, and maybe of most novels, is the excellent company of the author. Our novelists become our friends, and we put up with their foibles because we like them. (And since novelists don't change any more fundamentally than the rest of us do, we can usually figure out whether we like them—if not whether we respect them—early on in their career.) Eliot's presence lends her diction-mangling bucolics far more interest than they have in themselves. The capaciousness of the form allows her to move fluidly between reflection and drama, action and mind; the naturalism she champions answers every one of her demands, so that she slips into this supreme form like a swimmer entering the water, and like the water it buoys her. She doesn't question the form—there are no questions to ask, beyond the initial one of whether she can master it. Her questions lie elsewhere, and she's using the novel to address them.

Over the next century or so, this commodiousness would disintegrate. Across the channel from Eliot's England, Édouard Manet was introducing innovations in painting that would lead, in time, to the elimination of the figure and, eventually, of the canvas itself. Sensibilities were changing (as they always are), and the novel was on the verge of its own upheavals. The history of those changes is written in first novels: Far more than later ones, they exude the spirit of their age, because first novelists are seldom conscious of the zeitgeist they're inhaling—they're too busy just trying to get the words down on the page.

"She had dragged a heavy gun to the front; she determined to fire her shot." The woman in question is a wealthy widow who's been spoiling for an argument when—unexpectedly, disappointingly—her adversary backs down. The improbability of the image, slightly absurd in its ponderousness, marks its provenance instantly: This could be a sentence from The Golden Bowl. It comes, in fact, from Watch and Ward, written in 1870, serialized in the Atlantic Monthly the following year, revised and published between hard covers in 1878, and then forgotten; and it's a delight to find that on his first foray, at the age of twenty-seven, Henry James is already so thoroughly Henry James. Watch and Ward is an unassuming book, the opposite of Adam Bede in ambition and scope. But its felicities are many and its flaws are few.

Not the least of its pleasures is the opportunity to watch a process getting under way that will lead to the magisterial weirdness of The Ambassadors and The Wings of the Dove. Here already, themes that will root masterpieces are sending up shoots. (In what is essentially an aside, a youthful divine cautions a young woman about to leave Boston on her first trip abroad, "For a young girl it's by no means pure gain, going to Europe. She comes into a very pretty heritage of prohibitions. You have no idea of the number of improper things a young girl can do. You are walking on the edge of a precipice." James's celebrated novella Daisy Miller appeared in the Cornhill Magazine in 1878, the same year Watch and Ward arrived on bookstore shelves.) The novel is written with delicacy, wit, and—until its final pages—the consistent control we expect of James. For his first venture into wider waters, he's careful not to leave the sight of land too far behind. In another author, such frank modesty might betoken a fatal lack of ambition, but not in James, who communicates something appealingly self-deprecating even in his most dazzling books. And so it's particularly endearing to find in the hero of Watch and Ward such a modest and fastidious young man. Roger Lawrence's face, we're informed on the first page, "told clearly of youth and kindness and sanity, but it had little other beauty"; his fresh complexion is marked "by a too early baldness," he is "extremely short-sighted," and, "owing to an incurable personal shyness, he had a good deal of awkwardness of movement." He couldn't be less Byronic. I doubt that James intended a self-portrait (for one thing, Roger has "but a small literary appetite"), but Roger affects us much as his creator does in his goodness and his pathos. In the very first chapter, we see him crushed by a final rejection from the woman he adores: "I cannot love you, Mr. Lawrence! I must repeat it again to-night, but with a better reason than before. I love another man; I am engaged." Do these hard words ring—or do we only imagine they do?—with early reverberations of James's long loneliness?

In any case, the kindly young man adopts a poor abandoned girl, nurturing and guiding her, and as he grows increasingly fond of her he hatches a plan: When she reaches majority, he'll make her his wife. Ick.
The May-December coupling would remain a Jamesian preoccupation, reaching its finest expression in The Awkward Age, but this early instance is creepy and incestuous. Roger keeps his plan a secret from Nora, playing the generous father until she's grown—until the very moment he pops the question. And then her revulsion is all too predictable:

The whole face of things was hideously altered; a sudden horror had sprung up in her innocent past. . . . That Roger, whom all these years she had fancied as simple as charity, should have been as double as interest, should have played a part and laid a train, that she had been living in darkness, on illusion and lies, all this was an intolerable thing.

Nora is the heroine James would promote for the rest of his career, an Übermensch in crinolines whose surpassing virtue radiates from an unwavering conscience. She's very conscious of her debt to the friend who has purchased the wings that hold her aloft, and she faults him not for his conjugal dream but for not having let her in on it: "Why had he never told her that she wore a chain! Why, when he took her, had he not drawn up his terms and made his bargain? She would have kept the bargain to the letter; she would have taught herself to be his wife." For Nora, the attraction she doesn't feel wouldn't have entered into the question if Roger had simply pressed her obligation. But decent Roger wants her to choose him freely, which she can't do. She can choose him willingly, but not freely.

James has painted his protagonists into a corner, as he would come to show a genius for doing. Soon he would learn to work out his Gordian knots to the satisfaction of everyone but his characters, but at this point in his career his powers of penetration outstrip his skill as a dramatist, and he wrenches the plot clumsily back on track because he doesn't know where else to let it go. Roger's rivals for Nora's affections must be made to demonstrate they're cads; Nora must be cowed into understanding she has no alternative to Roger, which is hardly the same thing as accepting him freely. Already, James's world turns—it grinds—on the double axes of money and sex. The question is frankly one of a fair trade, but James recoils, as he wouldn't later, before a nakedness that no amount of splendid writing can cloak. He fakes his way out. The manipulating hand of the author becomes apparent, and the novel collapses.

* * *

Now comes the Great Impatience: a century of putting the novel to uses—sometimes ingenious uses—that had never been envisioned for it, like a pharmaceutical developed to deal with one malady that turns out to have surprising applications in the treatment of another. Eliot and James, poised before the novel at the outset of their careers, are like Mozart and Beethoven before the symphony: The form is ideally suited to what they have to say, and what they have to say is all they really have to think about. Eventually, James, like Beethoven, realizes that what he has to say is about the form. By the new century, novelists have begun striking the novel at odd angles to elicit new sounds, ringing ever-stranger notes from it. They are grappling with the form, and the form is either bending to their vision or stiffening, intransigent.

Virginia Woolf began The Voyage Out when she was twenty-five and finished it when she was thirty-one; it came out two years later, in 1915. Reading this rambling, seemingly inconsequential, sporadically illuminated first book, it's clear that she's trying to make the novel do something it can do but doesn't really want to—not yet, anyway. The Voyage Out starts with a literal voyage, by a small group on a commercial freighter, from England down the coast of the Continent and across the sea to South America. Rachel Vinrace, a rather unformed twenty-four-year-old, makes the trip with her father, who owns the ship, and her aunt and uncle, who invite her to pass the summer at their coastal villa as her father continues up the Amazon. Nearby is a resort hotel peopled by a large, voluble group of English tourists—a lot of people with a lot of voices—including two young men just down from Cambridge, Terence Hewet and St. John Hirst. In time, Rachel and Terence become engaged; much reflection and discussion ensue on the relations between the sexes and the nature of marriage. Near the end of the book, a serious illness takes over the plot. Once again, the fledgling novelist's personal experience forms the backstory. On a family trip to Greece in 1906, Virginia's sister, Vanessa, and a friend had fallen violently ill. On their return, as the two women recovered, Virginia and Vanessa's older brother, Thoby, developed a high fever and other symptoms of typhoid; he died before the end of the year.

The Voyage Out is so busy with its crowd of consciousnesses that for a long while it's hard to tell who the central figures are. Woolf is already on her way to becoming a master arranger of choral voices; she's less sure with the soloists. Rachel and Terence are never very vivid, despite the many pages we spend in their company and in their heads. Because St. John is conceited and rather dour—and ugly—he has an astringency that sets him off from the rest, but he's an exception. Two further exceptions are a glamorous couple ("he was once a member of Parliament, and his wife's the daughter of a peer") who board the ship unexpectedly at Lisbon and get off, just as abruptly, before it turns toward the open sea (with another three hundred pages to go). Their names are Richard and Clarissa Dalloway, and for a moment they bring some shimmer to the dull freighter. Though they're full of themselves and not altogether likable, Rachel and the others can't help falling a little in love with them (Richard makes a pass at her, and she's unprepared for the intensity of her pleasure); judging by the fact that later they got their own book, neither could Woolf.

But most of the characters sound the same, and so do their thoughts. Woolf flies hungrily, almost indiscriminately, from consciousness to consciousness, like a bee making the rounds of a summer garden, but a garden with only one kind of flower. Generally, we get to know characters through their actions; if there's no action—if they don't do anything—then the novelist has to come up with another tactic. Woolf is already moving toward hers: abstraction, the radical undifferentiation of voice that will reach its climax in The Waves. "What I wanted to do was to give the feeling of a vast tumult of life, as various & disorderly as possible," she told Lytton Strachey the year after The Waves was published. "The whole was to have a sort of pattern and be somehow controlled." She had already arrived at her aesthetic: Those words apply as justly—more justly—to Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse.

In The Voyage Out, most of the plot lies at the outer edges, which sandwich a long, meandering middle. At times, the novel seems like nothing but chatter. The villa and the hotel are full of unexceptional people engaged in trifling pursuits; even the finest characters are bland on the surface. Though Woolf draws some Forsterish comedy from the provincialism of the English abroad, her purpose isn't really to satirize her crusty dowagers and her academic spinsters and her vapid and aggressive young moderns. Nor is it, exactly, to celebrate them; it's to celebrate the vibrancy of the life force they incarnate. Out of the trivial, she senses, profundity emerges. Even when her characters are at their shallowest, reacting to a death in their ranks with stock phrases of sorrow, Woolf is so undamning that it would be an exaggeration to say she forgives them: Confronted with the chaotic, ridiculous, untamable pageant they embody—the pageant of life—there's nothing to forgive.

In the eccentricities of this novel (its elisions, its protractions, its strange way of magnifying the trivial and amplifying the vague), we are witnessing the birth pangs of modernism. It isn't an easy birth. You can't tell which of Woolf's quirks are the result of conscious artistry and which ones indicate a lack of control. She hasn't yet figured out how to mine the everyday for the ore it conceals. The mundane is ineffably resplendent in To the Lighthouse. Here it's just starting to sparkle.

* * *

Both as a cartographer of consciousness and as a demented stylist, William Faulkner is the heir of James, so it's disheartening to find him in his first novel putting down a character with the crack that "like Henry James, he attained verisimilitude by means of tediousness." Maybe they were so different that the contempt was inevitable, but still. Soldiers' Pay (1926) is an ambitious and foolhardy book, pitifully devoid of the control that's so impressive in Watch and Ward and everywhere else in James. Everywhere in Faulkner, the writer is on the verge of losing control (when he's not out of control). I'm not talking about risk. But it's hard to imagine James, say, behaving like a boor or falling down drunk. James is in love with the language. Faulkner is intoxicated with it.

The first seventy pages or so of Soldiers' Pay are ostentatiously modernist—allusive, elliptical, and dense, with an antiquated colloquialism familiar from early talkies. The book begins with some drunken soldiers returning from the Great War aboard a train. Prohibition must have lent the scene a certain daring—throughout the book, you're conscious of the young writer's eagerness to shock. (And he did shock the people of Oxford, Mississippi.) At first, he trowels facetiousness over layers of wistfulness and cynicism. He calms down a bit as the story unfolds in a small Georgia town, in and around the parsonage of the Reverend Joseph Mahon, the father of Donald Mahon, a flying ace who has come home with his mind and part of his forehead destroyed by a head wound. With him are two compassionate strangers, a soldier named Joe Gilligan and Margaret Powers, a young war widow.

But the story doesn't unfold far. Having assembled his cast—which also includes Donald's fiancée, Cecily Saunders; Emmy, the country girl who loves him; and the obnoxious and loquacious Januarius Jones, whom by the tenth reference to his yellow goatlike eyes we understand to be a satyr (this was the era of The Golden Bough's sway)—Faulkner has no idea what to do with them. There's not much conflict. Joe and Margaret, whose noble gazes meet, like Adam's and Dinah's, over the heads of everyone else, are the only ones to divine the truth about Donald: "If I ever seen death in a man's face," Joe announces doomily (and you can practically feel the author shudder with pleasure), "it's in his." For no good reason, they feel bound to deceive the lumbering reverend with false hopes and to force the corrupt and capricious Cecily, who's nauseated by the wound on Donald's forehead, to honor her engagement. Donald has no idea who she is, but no one other than Joe and Margaret seems to notice his insensibility. He is an early embodiment of the oblivion that frightened and appalled Faulkner above all else: "It's his apathy, his detachment that's so terrible," Margaret says, anticipating The Wild Palms' famous "Between grief and nothing I will take grief."

As the book trails off into subplots (about a desperate suitor of Cecily's, and Jones's pursuit of Cecily and Emmy), Joe and Margaret suffer and part, again for no good reason—or, rather, for a reason that has more to do with the era than with the plot. Soldiers' Pay is Faulkner's Lost Generation novel, a still-callow young man's wallow in the disillusion and loss that pervaded the Jazz Age air. Margaret Powers can't marry Joe Gilligan for the same reason Lady Brett Ashley, in The Sun Also Rises (which was published the same year), can't marry Jake Barnes—only Hemingway came up with a better motive.

But if Faulkner hasn't yet mastered some of the novelist's basic tools (like plot), he has a very clear idea of the feeling he's after:

Do you know how falcons make love? They embrace at an enormous height and fall locked, beak to beak, plunging: an unbearable ecstasy. While we have got to assume all sorts of ludicrous postures, knowing our own sweat. The falcon breaks his clasp and swoops away swift and proud and lonely, while a man must rise and take his hat and walk out.

That's both ridiculous (as Faulkner must have realized, since he gave the speech to Januarius Jones) and fine. He's already an exquisite nature writer:

The sun was almost down. Only the tips of trees were yet dipped in fading light and where they sat the shadow became a violet substance in which the thrush sang and then fell still.

That presages the beauty of "The Bear." And there's a secret prize if you stick around till the end. On the next-to-last page, the bereft Reverend Mahon offers the bereft Joe this wan consolation:

You are suffering from disappointment. But this will pass away. The saddest thing about love, Joe, is that not only the love cannot last forever, but even the heartbreak is soon forgotten. . . . I know that is an unbearable belief, but all truth is unbearable.

Any Faulkner lover will recognize these words at once as the embryo of one of his great passages, Mr. Compson's counsel to Quentin in The Sound and the Fury.

But these small rewards don't make for much of a book. I first read Soldiers' Pay on a Faulkner binge twenty years ago, and when I opened it again I found that I didn't remember a single word. I did, however, remember very vividly this brief passage from Joseph Blotner's biography of Faulkner, which I read at around the same time:

Now approaching twenty, Bill was only five feet five and a half inches tall. . . . In a splurge of dandyism he used his bookkeeper's salary to buy elegant shoes and a good lounge suit. But not even a twenty-five-dollar "Styleplus" suit of tails could make him look taller. They could earn for him from some town wit the sobriquet of "The Count."

Soldiers' Pay, written nine years later, is the prose equivalent of that "Styleplus" suit, a romantic young poseur's idea of classy writing. That's not such a terrible thing. The work of most artists, and certainly most young artists, gives off odors of hubris. This one is a good lesson for anyone who, like me, sometimes reviews first novels. You laugh at Faulkner at your own risk. Three years after Soldiers' Pay, he published The Sound and the Fury.

* * *

William S. Burroughs does a lot better in Junky (initially published as Junkie). One reason is maturity: In 1953, when Ace Books brought out this memoir-novel as a paperback potboiler by "William Lee," Burroughs was in his late thirties—about the age Eliot was when she wrote Adam Bede. No doubt it was the most distinguished piece of literature Ace had up to then published, but Ace didn't see it that way, binding it back-to-back ("69'd so to speak," Allen Ginsberg wrote in an introduction many years later) with an admonitory tract by a former narcotics agent and seeing to it that (Ginsberg again) "crucial medico-political statements of fact or opinion by Wm. Lee were on the spot (in parentheses) disclaimed (by Ed.)." Paperbacks were then a popular novelty, and Burroughs's sold more than 113,000 copies in its first six months. The author supervised its de-expurgation in 1977.

The deadpan tone of mild disgust with which William Lee recounts his crummy life of drugs, crime, and sex with young men is still shocking—more shocking than the material, which is disreputable enough. He seems to have contempt for everybody, for those who use and for those who don't. The Burroughs persona has already crystallized, though he isn't as funny or cracked here as he is later on; his riffing isn't yet up to speed (it would be in a year or so, by his next book, Queer), and only a few passages are hallucinatory. The style is Hammett-and-Chandler-hardboiled, on the way to parody but not there yet:

Roy was giving himself a long shore leave. He located a doctor in Brooklyn who was a writing fool. This croaker would go three scripts a day for as high as thirty tablets a script. Every now and then he would get dubious on the deal, but the sight of money always straightened him out.

Compare this hipster jargon with the servicemen's palaver at the opening of Soldiers' Pay and you're struck by more than the passing of three decades. This isn't a young posturer trying out voices. This is a voice. Although the cut-ups and other experiments lie in the future, at one point a deftly executed collage in a rehab facility—

"Sweet oil and tincture. The oil floats to the top and you can draw it off with a dropper. Cooks up black as tar."
"So I hit Philly sick as a sonofabitch."
"Well, the croaker says ‘Okay, how much do you use?'"
"Ever use powdered Dilaudid? Lots of guys killed themselves with it. About as much as you can put on the end of a toothpick. The big end, that is, no more."
"Cook it up and shoot it."
"On the nod."
"Loaded."

—suggests that Burroughs is looking for a way out of the novel's formal constraints. In fact, he's already found it. Junky is a curt screw-you to the psychological novel—and the novel, as two centuries of practice had defined it, was the psychological novel. Where lack of motive is evidence of amateurishness in Soldiers' Pay, in Junky it's the threshold of a breakthrough. Nothing is explained; you get the feeling Burroughs thinks nothing is worth explaining or, perhaps, that anybody who needs things explained wouldn't get it anyway. On heroin use, this is the best he's willing to offer: "The kick of junk is that you have to have it. Junkies run on junk time and junk metabolism. They are subject to junk climate. They are warmed and chilled by junk. The kick of junk is living under junk conditions." Burroughs, at least, would have a leg to stand on if he jeered at Henry James.

A little more than halfway through, Lee lands in trouble with the New Orleans police. "We're going out and search your house," a cop tells him. "If we find anything, your wife will be put in jail, too." Since this is the first mention of any wife, the reader assumes—or at least I did—that the cop is just concocting threats to scare him. Two pages later, they're on their way to Lee's house: "We came to the door, and the guy with the pipe showed my wife his hunk of tin and opened the door." Imagine my surprise. Thereafter, the wife drifts in and out, not much more than a shadow. One could attribute this weird lapse to carelessness if Junky were any less scrupulously written. It begins to make sense when you think of Burroughs as a defier of convention. (It also makes sense as a reflection of Burroughs's vacillating commitment to his common-law wife, Joan Vollmer.)

The novel is, almost by definition, an ethical form, each new volume posing the question "What is right action?" Burroughs's work seems at first to challenge this notion, but only at first. As you read further in Junky, you recognize that the book has an ethical logic of its own. It lies in how little the author tries to please, to be nice, to conform to social or literary norms. But he has a code. "To score for a stool pigeon," Burroughs writes, "is definitely not ethical. Often a man goes on from scoring for pigeons to become a pigeon himself." There's no irony in these words. Late in the book, Lee learns that Roy (of the croaker quote) has hanged himself in the Tombs after betraying "an old-time pusher" who trusted him. (Like most of Junky, this really happened.) "Roy had always taken an intolerant and puritanical view of pigeons. ‘I don't see how a pigeon can live with himself,' he said to me once." Burroughs's morality is puritanical, too. It's nourished by outrage at middle-class hypocrisy, and this outrage—which for him takes the form of detachment and disdain—makes him a classic Beat writer (though he was never comfortable with the label); Junky is his Howl. The heroin detachment—captured in Avedon's 1975 portrait, where Burroughs seems to be fading out of the frame—is no pose. But it isn't apathy. Like other writers who have more than dabbled in drugs, Burroughs is a truth seeker. He cares deeply—excruciatingly.

And so, as indifferently structured and amorally propelled as Junky may seem, it's a work of genuine integrity, in both senses of the term. It's of a piece; it requires no further refinement; it's mature Burroughs, minus the experimentalism and the Eros. The Woolf of The Voyage Out has yet to become Woolf, though the elements are there. The Burroughs of Junky is seductively, appallingly Burroughs.

* * *

An office worker goes to CVS on his lunch hour to buy shoelaces. That's the plot, pretty much in its entirety, of Nicholson Baker's first novel, The Mezzanine, published in 1988. The inanity of the action may bring to mind the record of Leopold Bloom's June 16, but this isn't a mock-heroic journey with resonances that reach to the beginnings of literature and the depths of consciousness. It would be exaggerating even to call it antiheroic. It's just a guy buying shoelaces and lunch. The audacious silliness of The Mezzanine is more Tristram Shandy than Ulysses; the only end Baker seems to have in view is to demonstrate that it's possible to write superbly about anything, or nothing. His narrator, Howie (who appears to be Baker in all but name), contemplates, with the aid of footnotes so luxuriant they sometimes threaten to swamp the main text, such unremarkable phenomena as the tendency of plastic straws to float in soda and the evolution of vending-machine styles. There is a lot of discussion of the factors that could lead a shoelace to snap. This is Woolf's poetry of the mundane drained of the poetry. From the Romantic symphony, we've arrived at the chamber composition of doorbells and traffic noises.

Celebrating Jiffy Pop, fast-food chains, the "life-enhancing . . . greatness" of paper-napkin dispensers, Baker pushes his (or Howie's) nerdiness a little hard for my taste, but he is, in fact, the anti-Burroughs in all but his first-novelist's reliance on personal experience. I wasn't surprised to learn that one of his early jobs was writing user's manuals for data-communication networks; The Mezzanine reads like a technical manual written with divine inspiration. Except that as a manual it's useless, since it's stuffed with virtuoso descriptions of things that, while they're really hard to describe (like the classic example, tying one's shoes), don't need describing. Certainly, Oscar Wilde would applaud this uselessness, and the writing itself requires no defense. For example, Howie remembers seeing his first milk carton at the age of five or six (heralding the end of the bottled-milk era) and having "an awe" of

the radiant idea that you tore apart one of the triangular eaves of the carton, pushing its wing flaps back, using the stiffness of its own glued seam against itself, forcing the seal inside out, without ever having to touch it, into a diamond-shaped opening which became an ideal pourer, a better pourer than a circular bottle opening or a pitcher's mouth because you could create a very fine stream of milk very simply, letting it bend over the leading corner, something I appreciated as I was perfecting my ability to pour my own glass of milk.

I cite this passage partly because it's so compact—most of Baker's disquisitions, on escalators, the layout of drugstores, and paper towels versus hot-air blowers, are far more opulent. There's a speed-freak glory to this dementia that reminds me of the work of Tom Friedman, the artist who has carved his self-portrait in an aspirin and inlaid a bar of soap with delicate circles of pubic hair and created a starburst sculpture by gluing together thirty thousand toothpicks. Something about this lavish expenditure of labor on the measly is really funny. At the same time, in Baker's case, it's sad, because even as he's cracking me up I'm aware of The Mezzanine's place—and I think it does have a place—in the history of the novel. In the nineteenth century, the novel was the principal way a literary artist thought out loud. The purpose of the narrative is immediately clear in Eliot and James: You never ask yourself, "Why are they writing this? What are they driving at?" and neither did they. James complicated the novelist's job (as others were doing in other languages) by consciously applying greater formal rigor to his works, and if his aim was to make the novel an art form, the aim of those who followed has been to keep it one. Beginning with Woolf, you feel a new kind of uncertainty in first novels, as though the writer is clarifying her purposes not only to the reader but also to herself. (Junky is excused from this discussion, but not later Burroughs.) This is one reason I feel more kindly toward Baker than I used to, even though The Mezzanine still strikes me, as it did when I first read it, as self-consciously weird, the work of a writer more out to make a splash than to express something he has to. Today, Baker and his fellow novelists face a question that hardly occurred to Eliot and James, which is: Why this form instead of another one? Baker's greatest flaw as a writer—his desperation for novelty—is thus as much a reflection of the age as it is of his own peculiar personality. (I think it's safe to say that in his subsequent work he's proved he's a genuine eccentric.) If there's no heroism or glamour in The Mezzanine, it's because there's no heroism or glamour in the age—and not the age alone. It may be that heroism and glamour have seeped out of the genre itself. You can sense in Baker's desperation that he's writing in the era of the novel's impending dotage, that he realizes how little remains to be done with the form‚ that time is running out—and you can almost feel the sweat trickling down his back. In the past couple of decades, more and more first-time writers have found that nonfiction, especially memoir, offers them the opportunity to say what they need to say, as plainly or as inventively as they want, without the killing pressure to reinvent the form. Which is exactly what the novel offered George Eliot and the young Henry James.

* * *

Some of us change a lot as we grow older, and some of us look not all that different from the way we did in high school. So it is with style. When we read first novels, we're moved by some of the same things that move us when we see photographs of friends in their youth; the pictures of those who haven't changed much are as fascinating as the ones of those who have. Our pleasure in these early books may be partly academic, but if it is it's academic in the best sense of that much-abused word. We read Watch and Ward with a tingle for the miraculous career that's about to unfold; in The Voyage Out, we spot the seeds of Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse; we smile at Soldiers' Pay because its swagger is just a growth spurt away from greatness; we know that under the surface of Junky simmers the scabrous erotic poetry of The Wild Boys: A Book of the Dead (1971) and Port of Saints (1973). You can't expect most first novels to come up to the level of The Mezzanine, much less Adam Bede. But we don't read in a vacuum, and, however exacting our critical faculties, we don't read the first novels of the writers we care about for their merits alone. There's also the pleasure—one part malice, nine parts love—of seeing our gorgeous friends in their gawky adolescence.


Craig Seligman is the author of Sontag & Kael: Opposites Attract Me (Counterpoint, 2004).

 
     
     
 
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John Banville It seems anachronistic to refer to A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man as a first novel, just as it seems anachronistic to think of Joyce as a novelist, in the sense in which we usually understand the term. And indeed, one might say that his first first novel was the ur-Portrait, abandoned by him and published posthumously as Stephen Hero. However, Stephen is a fragment, and Joyce, even late in life, when he gave the manuscript to Sylvia Beach, considered it badly written. Certainly, it has none of the sheen and gleam of Portrait.

Among the great st novels of the early twentieth century, Portrait's only rival surely is Thomas Mann's Buddenbrooks. Even a cursory comparison between the two works is instructive. Joyce from the start was an innovator, while Mann was firmly in the tradition of the nineteenth-century bildungsroman, and more of an Ibsenite than Joyce, even though Joyce's idol at the time of Portrait was the Norwegian master builder. Buddenbrooks, however, leads smoothly to The Magic Mountain and Doctor Faustus, with no modernist pyrotechnics along the way to surprise us, while no one reading Portrait on first publication could have been expected to foresee the fireworks display that would be Ulysses.


John Banville's most recent novel, The Sea (Knopf, 2005), won the Man Booker Prize.



William H. Gass One's first novel is not like one's first kiss—over after an instant of fearful bliss. Although an early volume of verse may have taken years, usually no single poem did, nor musical piece nor painting either; hence none of these things merits the kind of attention that the fledgling novel receives. Critics are surprised it flies at all. They wonder whether the author took out a learner's permit. They are also reading its leaves, because they love precocity more than mastery. Mastery suggests that all suspense is over, and worse, that no one was watching when it was acquired. Critics want to salute and follow the new star, gift with their words the babe in its manger; and of course the hay there will be beyond straw. The first novel will be daring, dazzling, the latest fresh thing, but also rough, awkward, naive, hayseedy in a charming way.

That first novel will be like a rock in Virginia Woolf's pocket. Unless it is very bad, the author will never write anything as good again—it will be said. Critics who complained of the first novel will wish the writer would write another like it in order to complain (by comparison) of the sixth.

Though Ulysses is a first novel, it is not a first novel. Musil's Young Törless is not a first either, or Mann's Buddenbrooks, or The Last Puritan, also Santayana's last (wise man), or Canetti's Auto-da-Fé, or Porter's Ship of Fools. There is also the matter of definition. Is The Leaf Storm Gabriel García Marquez's first novel or just a long story? In which case, is One Hundred Years of Solitude yet another first that is not a first?

Next question. How many unpublished manuscripts preceded the published first? If any, do they count? Of course, the first publication (not the first novel) introduces a new writer to the public, and it naturally, like a new neighbor, draws that sort of attention.

If she is pretty, if she is rich, if she belongs to a strange race, she may be welcomed or scorned on that account. Writers interested in money or renown don't want to divvy. Those above that fray will patronize the familiar and vilify the innovative. But there must always be a new face, and the glamorously coiffed will be featured on their dust jackets. This picture will limp through five books before it gets changed, though no one will any longer notice.

The first novel alerts us. We shall be ready for the second, and its author shall not again surprise our minds or eyes or please our palate.

William H. Gass is the author, most recently, of A Temple of Texts (Knopf, 2006).


Rebecca Goldstein My first novel was called The Mind-Body Problem. Writing it felt like playing hooky, which was an activity I excelled at in high school. I was an assistant professor of philosophy at Barnard College when I wrote the book, and I was supposed to be doing everything I possibly could to get tenure. Instead I made two serious tenure-averse moves: I had a child and I wrote a novel. Were my colleagues amused? They were not.

That novel was the most commercially successful of all my books, and I resent it for that. I resent it when people say it's their favorite, or when it's the only one they've heard of. I'm not ready to completely disown it. It can always come home and take a bath. I'd bail it out of a jam. But its success, however mild, distances it from me. My brood of commercial underachievers, on the other hand, is lavished with my love and respect.

My experience has made me rather suspicious of the special attention paid to first novels. Unless novel writing is the one intellectual and artistic endeavor on which practice and knowledge have an adverse effect, you have to figure that a first novel is, at least in general, going to be exceeded by an author's later work. So the fact that its "firstness" is regarded as a virtue, garnering special excitement and attention, is paradoxical. Surely the special virtue of the first novel isn't literary. Surely its special virtue, whatever it is, has much less to do with the intrinsic qualities of the book than with extrinsic considerations about the author. That's the object—the author, not the book—that the fact of a novel's being the first is a fact about. Our extra interest in it is therefore extraliterary. It has more in common with gossip than with criticism.

The first novel is dangerous for an author. It readies the little cubicle for all her future work to be crammed into. It would be so much better if she could just skip the first and go straight to publishing her second novel. Or, better still, each of her novels should be published as her first novel, for no other reason than that it always is.


Rebecca Goldstein is a MacArthur-winning philosopher and novelist and the author of eight books, most recently Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity (Schocken, 2006).


Jonathan Lethem When I was fifteen, I spent my summer vacation teaching myself to type on a small manual typewriter by writing a 125-page fiction. Influenced in equal parts by Arthur C. Clarke and Richard Brautigan, this "novel" was called Heroes, after the David Bowie song. I've still got the pages, Courier font carved in torn-out notebook sheets in varying shades of gray, depending on whether I cranked the ribbon or not, and with revisions indicated by a line of x's over the regretted words or sentences. Sometime a year or two later, I began a nameless manuscript—the only novel I've ever begun without completing it—the main character of which is a boy who enters the studio of his painter father to alter, and possibly mutilate, a painting in progress. The effort trailed off after two chapters but haunted my imagination for decades and became, in a sense, the very first glimmer of my sixth published novel, The Fortress of Solitude. Just before my nineteenth birthday, I began a book called Apes in the Plan, a heedless attempt to splice J. P. Donleavy to Philip K. Dick and Devo (whose song "Jocko Homo" was the source of the title). I wrestled with this manuscript for more than three years, an effort that superseded my career as a college student, becoming an autodidact's (or dropout's) self-assigned thesis work. Apes wasn't any good, but by the end I'd learned something, and my next writing, a series of short stories, was better. Some were eventually published. A few, written between the ages of twenty-one and twenty-four, became the first four chapters of Amnesia Moon, later my second published novel. Next, at twenty-four, I began Gun, with Occasional Music, which, six years later, would be my first published novel. Before completing the as-published version of Gun, however, I finished two more novels: Amnesia Moon and As She Climbed Across the Table. All three (Moon, Table, Gun) were, in early versions, circulated simultaneously by a literary agent; As She Climbed Across the Table came within a hair's breadth of being published in its nascent form by Bantam Books, and would therefore have become my first published book. No dice, so a much-rewritten Gun had the privilege instead. Years later, my fifth published novel, Motherless Brooklyn, found wide success, and I came to understand that for many critics, booksellers, and readers it had functioned as my debut; indeed, in the period following that book's success I faced many guileless, well-intentioned questions about whether I was finding it difficult facing "second-novel syndrome."

What's a first novel?

As a reader I've indulged the conceit as often as anyone, fetishizing what I perceive as a certain "first-novelishness" about first published books by writers I cherish. In some cases, those books seem both more tender and more quintessential (quintessential not being the same as "best") than the author's subsequent books (I think of Don DeLillo's Americana, Joseph McElroy's A Smuggler's Bible, Iris Murdoch's Under the Net); in some cases, they seem also to be written before the development of a signature voice, with a freedom from authorial tics that invites the impression that the book is more "of its time" than "of its author" (Walker Percy's The Moviegoer, Kurt Vonnegut's Player Piano, Philip Roth's Letting Go). Such books can seem, somehow, to belong particularly to their readers: Their authors have outgrown them. Yet I trust, by my own experience, that the "first novel" is largely a conceit: a critic's or reader's convenience; a chimera.


Jonathan Lethem's most recent books are Men and Cartoons (2004) and The Disappointment Artist (2005), both from Doubleday.