Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Review: U.S.A., by John Dos Passos.

U.S.A. is Dos Passos' landmark trilogy, containing The 42nd Parallel, 1919, and The Big Money, and although they've been sold in omnibus editions at various points in their publication history, I bought each one separately. Now, I consider myself too old to fall for the trilogy scam: I read to slowly for one thing, and I'm just too damn judgemental to suffer an author who can't decide how to market his bloated epic. Write one book or write three, dammit. But anyway, this isn't formula fiction and U.S.A. is epic enough as it stands to bustle its way into timelessness. It feels almost like a Western War and Peace, a tale of class struggle honoring the oppressed but expressed lengthily through the intersecting lives of sympathetic middling elites, this one full of obnoxious quick-talking (quicktalking) American verve. It was, at a minimum, engaging enough to break my rule of reading the same author sequentially, which, given Dos Passos' technique of breaking the book into stylistically different sections, it half feels like I'm doing anyway, even in one book. Stupid rules.

The bulk of U.S.A. follows the characters, a rat-a-tat exercise in plotting, drawing them from childhood through their adult lives, a miniature life story pulled quickly this way and then that, actions and consequence, ongoing. What the plot narration lacks in introspection, Dos Passos brings out in a long series of highly subjective snapshot segments, "The Camera Eye," closeups of what are presumably his own experiences told in a kind of freely structured prose, heavy on perceptions. (Heavily influenced by Joyce, I understand, but can't personally assert. The Camera Eyes are not challenging to follow.) I find some resonance in this approach, it captures the dynamic of early memories, images and feelings caught in time, both lucid and dreamlike. Here and there a detail sneaks out of these restless memories into the general plot, which is interesting, but not so frequently done as to write an easy thesis about it. He reserves his more obvious social commentary for another separate section, a series of snapshots of historical figures, painted tragically, lovingly, with contempt or irony. These figures lead more stable and pointed lives than do his various characters. "Newsreel" is the fourth running segment, short sections made up of song lyrics, newspaper clippings, and headlines pasted together into bits of found art, which sometimes informs the story clearly and sometimes vaguely, and generally gives the external context of confusing stuff happening all around. I enjoyed the Newsreel segments a good deal, and they'd be a fun motif to adopt in a short format like this one (much as I try to avoid being topical), in the modern wash of low-quality information.

What the U.S.A. trilogy conspicuously lacks is a discursive narrative heavy on analysis, on interpretation, on assumed significance, on romancing the horrors and the joys of the human condition. Even the introspective sections don't appear to go after any deep parallels, and whether Dos Passos was attempting to reveal a grand arc with all of small pieces is really what kept me reading until the end. Leisurely descriptions are also missing from these novels, although short serviceable ones abound. (It's interesting to read the characters describe one another differently, for example.) There's a solid sense of place that evolves, which almost surprises me, and many places get highlighted, a good fraction of which I've visited. Dos Passos takes us through industrial Connecticut, suburban Washington DC, Seattle,* Chicago, California, Paris, Miami, Pittsburgh, and while New York City is frequently featured, it's blessedly not the center of the universe, and as a canonical experience, farm life is (thankfully enough) completely neglected. There is humor, although not much, and it's delivered in small patches like everything else. If Dos Passos' Wildean quips felt sort of tortured, he was in his amusing element when he let the plot and dialogue unwind with a quick-spoken huckster's absurdity. The sense of time is most poignant, and it wasn't lost on me that this is my great-grandparents' generation. The survivors of U.S.A. would have been checking out just as I was checking in. Tag.

Considering Dos Passos' abrupt sort of plot exposition, the length of it is impressive. Stuff happens, and then it keeps happening. I started out really digging the short-story-ness of this approach, motivation and character economically dispensed with, and then scenes unfolding and closing like a life does (and as quickly). After a few iterations, this mode of exposition gave an impression of a mixed-and-matched set of plotlines, tracking a life through a sympathetic childhood to a disagreeable adulthood, going through some benchmarks in between: young impressions, walking out on the home, making friends, drinking, having sex, business success, drinking, dealing with unwanted pregnancy and/or closeted homosexuality, and eventually getting older. When the lines start interacting with one another, it's actually surprising, it seemed till then that the intent had been to present slices of so many unrelated lives, and if that trick is bordering on tiresome by the middle of 1919 (when everyone is in Paris somehow), it grew interesting again as the third novel progressed, as if he were looking, like I said, for a broad point as similar life events got repeated under evolving circumstances.

Ultimately I see the trilogy as a critique of the times. People have similar impulses, and the scope of their consequences is directed by external stimuli, and it's the latter, the external, which Dos Passos is really commenting on here. The 42nd Parallel features bright young people making their way, following their short-term desires, and if there are ideals tied up in their motivations, they are more tied to their upbringing or their character than to any universal good. Though it's clear where the author's sympathies lie, their ups and downs aren't governed by anything more than their own shallow decisions, and for all the bad times, the trend is upward in the first third. It's weird--really weird--that we see so little of the war, but the war still feels like a turnaround. Some characters suffer more tragically (almost in a conventional literary way). History gets warped as a consequence of the conflict, and importantly to Dos Passos, the Labor movement becomes more critical and (he appears to hope) adversarial. By The Big Money, some of the big events are hitting the character's lives in an obvious fashion, there's influenza now killing people on screen, and the lives lived in the boom twenties brings are larger, the self-destruction is deeper into society and more personally deadly to the people we're supposed to relate to. We see, by the end, shots of hopeless mine-town squalor, and of idealists getting beaten down and shot. We see a movement rise, which I'll tell you, is impossible to advocate in historical hindsight. But it's a subtle picture that emerges from the whole, put together almost like a mosaic of similar pieces, and it's an epic one.

* For the first several entries, it felt like Dos Passos was following me around, and there are enough O'Higginses, Higgenbothams, and Higginses sneaking around in the margins to make me positively paranoid.


Claude Scales said...

The first Dos Passos novel I read was his last one, Midcentury (1961), back when I was in high school. It shares many of the stylistic characteristics of USA, but takes Dos Passos' disillusionment with communism, evident in The Big Money, into a foreshadowing of Limbaugh/O'Reilly style right-wing populism. As best I can recall, the central character of Midcentury is a World War Two vet who becomes a taxi driver in a big city (I can't remember if it's New York or Chicago), organizes other vets who drive cabs, and, again as I recall, runs afoul of the bosses of something similar to the Teamsters. The central theme is the betrayal of the rank and file by big unions.

The concluding segment of the novel, however, focuses on the teenaged grandson of a powerful liberal judge, who steals his grandfather's car and credit cards to go on a spree. Gore Vidal has this to say about it:

"Despite the confusion of his style, Dos Passos is plain in his indictment: doomed is pleasure-loving, scornful, empty, flabby, modern youth, product of that dread mid-century in which, thanks to the do-gooders, we have lost our ancient Catonian virtue. I found the indictment oddly disgusting. I concede that there is some truth in everything Dos Passos says. But his spirit strikes me as sour and mean and, finally, uncomprehending. To be harsh, he has mistaken the decline of his own flesh and talent for the world's decline. This is the old man's folly which a good artist or a generous man tries to avoid. Few of us can resist celebrating our own great days or finding fault in those who do not see in us now what we were or what might have been. Nor is it unnatural when contemplating extinction to to want in sudden solipsistic moments to take the light with one. But it is a sign of virtue to recognize one's own pettiness and to surrender vanity not only to the death which means to take it anyway, but with deliberate grace as exemplar to those younger on whom our race's fragile continuity, which is all there is, depends."


Artemesia said...

I agree: "But it's a subtle picture that emerges from the whole, put together almost like a mosaic of similar pieces, and it's an epic one."

Taking Dos Passos' 'USA' into the context of what was happening in 'Art' at that time..and after, collage came into play among other techniques, also take a look at the paintings of Stuart Davis.

I loved 'USA' when I read it many years ago, and still remember his memorable snap/portrait of Steinmetz:

The old saw..'Form follows function,' is also..Painting follows science and literature..and literature follows art!

Keifus said...

First, I have to say that I've been finding these tidbits of context quite valuable. Thanks, they're greatly appreciated.

Claude: You could maybe make a case that a similar indictment is at work in U.S.A. I found few of the characters to remain likeable as they crossed a certain threshold of age and success, and (nearly?) every one of them was willing to drop their loyalties for short-term desires. More success made them more monstrous, but I thought him a good enough writer to not make any one of them feel too much like an object lesson. Maybe he was looking for ideals that never were? I'd been wondering how his flirtation with Communism went.

Artemesia: had no idea that this was contemporaneous with collage as a popular art form. Neat.

Hmm, I'd been reading about the Rennaisance recently, and got the idea that science had followed art. (Was trying to work up some opinions about scientific development and private patronage--possibly you saw the comment where the idea clicked--but found it much to big to answer easily.)

Artemesia said...

I've had that idea about the art/science, science/art connection for many years. Even start with optics and Leonardo..and move on to M.C. Escher and others..and so many artists who painted, indulged in the optical illusion through the exploration of color. Let's not forget philosophy and Democritus and Seurat..What is 'Pointalism' after all!