In a recent interview, Ben Marcus resisted being called an "experimental writer," asking rather impatiently, "Does anyone self-identify as experimental? Anyone?" Apparently Marcus is not much aware of his predecessor, John Hawkes, who once told an interviewer, "Of course I think of myself as an experimental writer," regretting only that "the term 'experimental' has been used so often by reviewers as a pejorative label intended to dismiss as eccentric or private or excessively difficult the work in question." Marcus seemed to be decrying the expectation that he should always be sufficiently experimental, but Hawkes never wavered in his determination to challenge entrenched habits and complacent practices in both the writing and reading of fiction. In the same interview, he asserted that "I began to write fiction on the assumption that the true enemies of the novel were plot, character, setting, and theme, and having once abandoned these familiar ways of thinking about fiction, totality of vision or structure was really all that remained." Hawkes endeavored throughout his career as a writer to validate this assumption, producing a series of novels that do indeed discard the "familiar ways of thinking" and attempt to substitute for them a "totality of vision or structure."
By both articulating a commitment to "experimental fiction" and putting into practice a coherent conception of what such fiction should do, John Hawkes established himself as perhaps the most essential experimental writer in the postwar period, perhaps in all of American literature. Furthermore, his novels remain as thematically provocative and aesthetically fresh as they were when published — Hawkes's first novel, The Cannibal, was published in 1949, while his final novel, Sweet William, was published in 1993, five years before his death at the age of 72. Unfortunately, these novels have largely faded from literary-cultural consciousness, as has Hawkes himself, perhaps precisely because he did make such an effort to create radically varied works, each novel taking experimental fiction in a somewhat different direction (in some cases even critiquing the previous novel) so that no one work can really be identified as a "typical" Hawkes novel — all of them are typical. While any one of the novels provides its own rich and unique experience, to "get" Hawkes might require reading all of them, and perhaps that is more effort than most readers want to make.
However, those readers who are willing to devote some time to Hawkes's work, and to judge the novels on their own terms — since Hawkes himself devoted much effort to establishing those terms — would surely find it a rewarding, if at times also rather disquieting, experience. And although appreciation of Hawkes's achievement can't finally rest in singling out his "best" or most "representative" novel, it is possible to focus first on a particularly dynamic period in Hawkes's career, a period in which Hawkes produced several novels that both illustrate his inveterate experimentation and stand on their own as satisfying works of literary art. The set of novels beginning with The Lime Twig (1961) and including Second Skin (1964), The Blood Oranges (1971), and Travesty (1976) could serve as the foundation of a revival of interest in Hawkes's fiction. Each of them succeeds in redeeming the ambitions of experimental fiction, while, together, they are as impressive a group of books as any written by a postwar writer.
Not only is The Lime Twig the first in this succession of novels, it is also probably the first more or less "accessible" novel Hawkes published. His previous books were surrealistic parables that, like all of Hawkes's fictions, feature a sharp, evocative prose emphasizing focused, vivid, visual imagery and employ an essentially poetic structure to embody the "totality of vision." These early novels, however, are especially unconcerned to resolve their images and events into a rationally linear narrative. The surrealism is startling, suggestive, and ultimately coherent to the vision presented, but readers who want this vision translated into aesthetically familiar terms will likely be (and were) disappointed by Charivari, The Cannibal, The Goose on the Grave, and The Owl. The Beetle Leg (1952), on the other hand, more directly anticipates The Lime Twig by using as its narrative scaffolding a parody of genre fiction — in this case, the Western — and by focusing on somewhat more "lifelike" characters and setting, however much both are distorted by the "vision" controlling the parody. The Beetle Leg teases us with the prospect of narrative transparency, with the possibility the novel's scenes and images will come together as part of a conventionally intelligible formal structure, but while it by no means lacks structure, it finally won't be revealed through passive reading, the expectation on the reader's part that "meaning" will be communicated by already established literary strategies.
The Lime Twig calls more on "established" strategies than The Beetle Leg, although it would still be a mistake to expect that the effect of those strategies is a reassuring return to a familiar aesthetic order. In this novel, Hawkes once again employs genre parody, this time of the crime thriller, but The Lime Twig reinforces few if any of the formal or thematic assumptions of the genre. Instead, it explodes those assumptions, turning them back on the reader. As Donald Greiner, who has perhaps offered the most insightful consideration of Hawkes's work in his book Comic Terror, puts it, "All of the violence, sadism, and general sordidness which we associate with the world of detective fiction are used and mocked" even as Hawkes further "suggests that while outwardly repelled, we subconsciously long for the thrills of violence and possible death which we normally experience vicariously while reading a detective novel." The Lime Twig offers the reader enough of the recognizable elements of character and plot associated with crime fiction to sustain the possibility it might resolve itself into a conventional "good read," but along the way it presents an even more violent and disturbing account of the criminal milieu it portrays than the typical crime novel, and ultimately provokes a kind of disgust with the notion that stories of murder and brutality would be the basis of a "good" read in the first place.
This novel prominently portrays the interaction between innocence and corruption that will also animate the series of novels to follow. It focuses on an ordinary, bored English couple who become involved with gangsters planning to steal a prize-winning racehorse. By the end of the novel, two of the main characters have been murdered, including the wife, who is savagely beaten first. Hawkes does not merely incorporate these events as plot points advancing a crime narrative, however, but dwells on them, in effect slows down the narrative to render them more starkly. The beating of Margaret Banks is particularly discomfiting:
His arm went up quivering, over his head with the truncheon falling back, and came down hard and solid as a length of cold fat stripped from a pig, and the truncheon beat into her just above the knee; then into the flesh of her mid-thigh; then on her hips; and on the tops of her legs. And each bow quicker and harder than the last, until the strokes went wild and he was aiming randomly at abdomen and loins, the thin fat and the flesh that was deeper, each time letting the rubber lie where it landed then drawing the length of it across stomach or pit of stomach or hip before raising it to the air once more and swinging it down. It made a sound like a dead bird falling to empty field. Once he stopped to increase the volume of the radio, but returned to the bedside, shuffling, squinting down at her, his mouth a separate organ paralyzed in the lower part of his face, and paused deceptively and then made a rapid swing at her, a feint and then the loudest blow of all so swiftly that she could not gasp. When he finally stopped for good she was bleeding, but not from any wound she could see.
The aftermath of the beating is prolonged over several more pages, before Margaret is finally killed by her assailant, Thick, an underling who has been assigned the task in response to her husband Michael's dalliance with the top gangster's moll, Sybilline. It is a scene like this, no doubt, that gained Hawkes some notoriety as a writer focused on sex and violence, but Hawkes's preoccupation with violence is not merely sensational. As Leslie Fiedler put it in his introduction to The Lime Twig, Hawkes "finally avoids the treacherous lucidity of the ordinary shocker, the kind of clarity intended to assure a reader that the violence he relives destroys only certain characters in a book, not the fabric of the world he inhabits. In a culture where even terror has been so vulgarized by mass entertainers that we can scarcely believe in it any longer, we hunger to be persuaded that, after all, it really counts. For unless the horror we live is real, there is no point to our lives; and it is to writers like Hawkes that we turn from the wholesale slaughter on T.V. to be convinced of the reality of what we most fear."
The innocence that Michael and Margaret Banks must lose is an innocence of the consequences of their drive for a more exciting life, consequences toward which they are perhaps willfully innocent and the reality of which they are subsequently made horribly aware. As readers, we too are deprived of our innocence in reading The Lime Twig, our own willful innocence about the reality of violence and about the implications of our fascination with it as portrayed in fictionalized forms. The death of Margaret Banks shocks us into reflecting on the attraction of violence-driven narratives — if we don't simply turn away from it as intolerably threatening to that assurance that the violence we confront "destroys only certain characters in a book, not the fabric of the world" to which we must return.
The Lime Twig features two additional structural devices that mark this novel as a significant development in Hawkes's career and specifically in his ongoing effort to overturn the "familiar ways of thinking about fiction." The novel begins with an excerpt from the racing column of "Sydney Slyter," who similarly introduces each chapter with his observations on the racing scene. In some ways his presence in the novel acts as a kind of chorus commenting on the events, while in others he seems a stand-in of sorts for the author, adding a metafictional level to the narrative design (really the only time in Hawkes's fiction that such an effect is created explicitly — Hawkes could be called "postmodern" in his assumptions about form, especially in his use of parody and other essentially comic aesthetic strategies, however mixed with horror, but he is not a metafictionist). But really the most noteworthy role Sydney Slyter plays is as a "voice" separate from the predominant third-person voice relating most of the rest of the narrative. However, immediately following this initial installment of "Sydney Slyter Says," another first-person account is presented to us, in this case the narrative of his life by William Hencher, a gangster ultimately responsible for tempting Michael and Margaret Banks into the horse theft scheme, who tells us how he found himself at the Banks's home, which happens to be the home Hencher once shared with his mother. Along with the interludes by Sydney Slyter, Hencher's introductory narrative represents Hawkes's first use of the first-person point of view, his first attempt to present character by employing the character's own narrative voice.
Trying out the possibilities of first-person narrative is a familiar enough practice among novelists. But in Hawkes's case this common literary experiment opened up avenues to further test the potential for point of view to produce the "totality of vision" he wanted his fiction to achieve. This focus on the radical implications of first-person narration brings immediately fruitful results in his next novel, Second Skin, a remarkably skillful and fully-executed first-person narrative that could be enjoyed simply as such. But the apparent accessibility of this novel is finally only a lure to readers, who, if following the narrative through both its stated and unstated contexts and connections, will find their perceptions of the narrator and his tale complicated in a way that only makes the novel more resonant as a literary creation. At the same time, these reversals of perception call into question the reader's efforts to arrive at a trustworthy interpretation of the story we are told — implicitly, all efforts to find stability of perspective in much of modern fiction.
Second Skin, The Blood Oranges, and Travesty together form perhaps the most thoroughgoing, radical experiment in unreliable narration in the history of fiction. (Another novel, Death, Sleep, and the Traveler, published in 1974 also participates in this collective experiment, but is a less compelling work.) On the one hand, Skipper, the middle-aged narrator of Second Skin, provides this novel, through the consistency of voice he brings, with a more obviously unified "vision" than in Hawkes's previous fiction. On the other, this surface unity is ultimately deceptive, since much of what we need to know about Skipper and the misfortune that assails him must be gathered by reading between and around the words he actually communicates. In an essay on Second Skin, Richard Yarborough contends that "the information the reader receives has been formed by two artistic consciousnesses. There is Hawkes, who ultimately retains control over, and responsibility for, the character 'Skipper' and Skipper's story; however, the events as the reader sees them have also been shaped and colored by the mind of the narrating character. Skipper himself is very much the creative artist, ordering and manipulating his materials" (Critical Essays on John Hawkes). This is, to an extent, undeniable, but the problem with calling Skipper a "creative artist" is that what his creation — his account of himself and his travails — reveals is that his "creativity" amounts to a deliberate strategy of avoiding the truth. The creative artist remains John Hawkes, whose creation of Skipper-as-narrator is "shaped" and "colored" by what he implies and conceals as much as by what he has that narrator express directly in his otherwise admittedly forceful narration.
That forcefulness is evident in the novel's very first paragraph:
I will tell you in a few words who I am: lover of the hummingbird that darts to the flower beyond the rotted sill where my feet are propped; lover of bright needlepoint and the bright stitching fingers of humorless old ladies bent to their sweet and infamous designs; lover of parasols made from the same puffy stuff as a young girl's underdrawers; still lover of that small naval boat which somehow survived the distressing years of my life between her decks or in her pilothouse; and also lover of poor dear black Sonny, my mess boy, fellow victim, and confidant, and of my wife and child. But most of all, lover of my harmless and sanguine self.
Nothing Skipper tells us is exactly untrue, but his rhetorical exaltation and self-reinforcement mark the source of this exuberance in the profound sadness he must feel about the course his life has taken, especially in regard to the harrowing fates suffered by almost all of his loved ones: his father a suicide, his mother gone from his life very early and her whereabouts afterward mostly unknown, his alcoholic first wife also a suicide, his son-in-law, apparently a gay man, horribly beaten to death, and finally his daughter a suicide as well, an outcome Skipper tries, and fails, to prevent. The details of all of these horrific events remain more or less undisclosed in Skipper's narrative (his daughter's suicide completely so). At most we get glimpses, as in a brief scene describing Skipper's discovery of the son-in-law's bloodied corpse, as if Skipper simply cannot acknowledge the full force of the horror he has endured, only to have the return of the repressed burst into his account nevertheless.
Under these circumstances, it is hard to accept Skipper's subsequent claim he is a "man of courage," although he must feel that indeed his good cheer and his ebullient language are themselves evidence of his bravery, of his ability to not merely survive the traumas his life has inflicted but to dismiss those traumas in triumph. But the more persistent Skipper remains in his denials, the more those denials come to seem a form of willed innocence, a refusal to countenance human violence and depravity, even though his experience has surely demonstrated they are fundamental conditions of existence. This refusal influences Skipper's narrative of ongoing events as well, since he is equally reticent to report fully on what's happening to him, leaving us frequently puzzled about the turns the narrative takes.
The narrative itself is literally bifurcated, one strand concerning Skipper's stay on an island off the coast of Maine, the other, actually the true "present" of the novel, relating his life on a tropical island to which he has fled, but the majority of the narrative relates how his experience on the first island led to his retreat to the second, which is where we find him "lover of the hummingbird that darts to the flower beyond the rotted sill where my feet are propped." The two islands are juxtaposed both climatologically (the first cold and harsh, the second warm and languid) and in circumstance (on the first island more misfortune befalls Skipper, while on the second comfort reigns — or so he reports), but beyond this thematic pairing, the trajectory by which Skipper and his daughter Cassandra find their way to the first island and subsequently by which Skipper becomes a resident of the second is only fitfully traced. The events that take place on the coastal island are also recounted in an elusive sort of way, mostly because to do otherwise would require Skipper to reveal more about the circumstances that have made Cassandra suicidal. It would force him to reveal those of his own weaknesses and evasions that help explain his behavior but that also would make the behavior of other characters toward him more comprehensible as well. Skipper's treatment at the hands of the femme fatale "Miranda," for example, would seem less unmotivated if we had a firmer sense of Skipper's habitual actions toward and behavior around women.
But then, ultimately, Hawkes wants us to find the motivations of the characters obscure if not absent. As in The Lime Twig, the violence and cruelty exhibited is all the more disturbing because motives can't be discerned and thus don't explain the outbreak and intensity of violent behavior. Hawkes's vision is of a world punctuated by violence and cruelty, and Skipper's unreliable, unforthcoming narrative is what gives this vision in Second Skin its disconcerting power. It also provides the novel Hawkes's signature merging of the appalling and the comic. Skipper's withholding of the context of events often makes his actions seem ludicrously funny. We might feel more empathy, for example, when he is enlisted in a belly-bumping contest (and actually wins it) if we could perceive more directly his discomfort with the situation, if we knew more fully why Skipper seems to invite the kind of disrespectful treatment he receives when, shortly after this event, he is pelted with snowballs in the parking lot. But instead we can only laugh at his haplessness in such episodes, a response Skipper appears unable to anticipate.
Yet the reader doesn't finally quite disrespect or dislike Skipper, however unreliable or even unfathomable he sometimes seems. Ultimately his very unreliability can prompt us to reevaluate our response to him as narrator and protagonist. It pushes us to understand his narrative as part sublimation, part wish fulfillment and as itself evidence of the serial horror he has experienced. But if Second Skin leaves us trying to sort through our judgment of Skipper and our conclusions about his story (should we be pleased he has apparently found happiness in the paradise of the Caribbean island, or is this just more denial of reality?), we don't have to resolve our ambivalence about the narrator/protagonist of Hawkes's next novel, The Blood Oranges. Ambivalence is likely to turn to outright disdain for, or even a kind of horror of our own at, the protagonist's actions—although it is possible the narrator's performance seems so adept some readers might take his ultimately deceptive account of himself and the effects of his behavior on others at face value.
This seems to be what happened to one contemporaneous reviewer of The Blood Oranges, Roger Sale, who made the now infamous accusation that "Hawkes has always seemed to me more an unadmitted voyeur of horror than its calm delineator, but in this new novel the pretense that what is being described is horrifying is dropped, and we have only the nightmare version of a narrator unable to see how awful he is." The narrator of The Blood Oranges is Cyril, who, along with his wife, Fiona, has apparently become a semi-permanent resident of the fictional country of "Illyria" (presumably located in southern Europe). Cyril and Fiona meet a vacationing couple, Hugh and Catherine, with whom they form a sexual quadrangle. Both Cyril and Fiona are sexual opportunists who apparently have an "open" marriage in which each is encouraged to take other partners. Cyril is especially aggressive in his celebration of this arrangement, becoming a philosopher of erotic entanglement (or a "sex singer," as he fancies himself). Roger Sale seemed to believe that Hawkes is encouraging identification with Cyril, that because he simply allows Cyril to expound that philosophy without some clear signal we should question it, we are somehow disarmed of a critical response to Cyril and required to passively accept his discourse on love.
But this is surely a constricted view of the purposes of fiction and an ungenerous conclusion about both the author's intentions and the reader's role in the aesthetic exchange that characterizes the reading experience. The Blood Oranges challenges us to discard our habitual, unexamined deference to the perspectival integrity of the fiction we read, our assumption that the story can be accepted as presented. It provokes us to consider Cyril's chronicle of his and Fiona's sexual idyll as at best an exercise in self-deception that unwittingly draws in Hugh and Catherine and ends in tragedy, at worst a deliberately destructive indulgence in human exploitation that leads to an inevitable outcome: Catherine is lured into a sexual affair with Cyril she knows she will regret, while Hugh is led to fall in love with Fiona, which he resists vehemently enough that, together with his jealousy toward Cyril, it drives him to hang himself.
Hawkes to be sure does not make it easy for us to see through Cyril's self-serving rhetoric, so compelling can it often be. Here, Cyril describes one of the couple's interludes, in which they have brought another young native woman into their circle:
But she would not stop, was unquenchable, even while I raised my eyebrows and smiled and demurred and Fiona, lovely tense barelegged Fiona, opened the widemouthed sack and passed around the cherries. No, hands laden with that suggestive fruit and mouth stuffed with cherries, lips pursed to spit out the stones, on she talked — singling out each one of us for analysis, glancing to the rest of us for confirmation of her judgment, her appreciation, her right to associate herself with our mystery, our beauty. She overlooked Hugh's missing arm, was simply not interested in his missing arm, but concentrated instead on Hugh's little black pointed beard, reached up and stroked it with fingers juice-stained and knowing. She had tousled with the horns of the largest goat, she knew that the affinities between certain men and certain animals were to be respected. She touched her bare foot to Fiona's bare foot, giggled when Fiona giggled, then swung about and exclaimed over Catherine's breasts and filled her wet hands with Catherine's hair. And then she turned to me.
Cyril's style is of a piece with Hawkes's prose style in general, as evidenced in his other novels. It is precise and controlled, even while individual sentences can be quite lengthy and incantatory. It is intensely visual, often accumulating images and detail, breaking into a figure only when to do so sharpens the image (the young woman's fingers are "knowing"). The atmosphere conjured in the passage above is one of comfort and contentment, and perhaps we are understandably not quick to judge someone who often evokes such scenes and who writes with such authority. But Cyril's narrative threatens to lull us into a kind of complicity with his own moral blindness if we don't remain wary of his charms.
It is as if Hawkes has found the most seamless way to integrate his suspicion of fiction as subject to overly "familiar" structures with his desire to create alternative structures that have aesthetic worth. In The Blood Oranges, he fashions a sleek, sinuous structure, one that is even attractive according to the norms of traditional fiction, only to bring that structure down, without necessarily appearing to do so. The pleasures that come from an appreciation of this observable structure, even the pleasures of Hawkes's own prose, are undermined for the sake of a more comprehensive pleasure, one that sees through all efforts to construct permanent aesthetic structures in works of fiction. The "totality of structure" in The Blood Oranges consists in part of its own negation, and what remains is the "vision" that the reader has helped to invoke.
For this reason, The Blood Oranges is Hawkes's most intricate and perhaps most important novel. It "abandons" the conventional novel by offering a simulated version of it, inviting the reader to assist in the experiment that reveals it as a façade. It provokes the reader to demand of fiction a more vibrant reading experience in general, and to recognize that all the conventions supposedly involved in writing "quality" fiction are also just façades that can easily be, in some cases might need to be, dismantled. In particular, The Blood Oranges exemplifies the subtle yet far-reaching possibilities in experiments with point of view, possibilities that, if anything, are taken even farther in Hawkes's 1976 novel, Travesty. If The Blood Oranges dramatizes the potential for a narrator's words to be deceiving, and for the "truth" to be outside of these words, Travesty raises the prospect that the narrator's words describe no "true" events at all, that the story is entirely the narrator's fantasy, even perhaps a delusion, making the question of narrative reliability almost infinitely unanswerable.
Travesty is narrated by a man who calls himself "Papa," and his narrative is implicitly enclosed within quotation marks, indicating ostensibly that we are to take his account as a spoken one, a monologue delivered in the presence of his daughter, Chantal, and her lover, Henri. Chantal and Henri are compelled to listen: they are passengers in a car that Papa is driving, and he informs them that he intends to crash the car into a wall. In the meantime, they must attend to his rambling explanation of how they have arrived at this moment. Or at least this is the situation as "Papa" informs us. The structure of the novel (which is brief, only 128 pages in the original hardbound edition) allows for no interaction with Chantal and Henri — Papa speaks for them — and once Papa's words are marked as provisional by their status as recitation, we can't simply take for granted that he is speaking to anyone, or that he is really speaking at all (who recorded this monologue?). Of course, all fiction relates events that are not "real," but the "story" Papa tells is so radically contingent it could just as easily be taken as an artifact of his troubled mind, and thus not real even within the fictive context.
What troubles Papa seems to be not just Henri's affair with Chantal but also his previous affair with Papa's wife, which Papa claims to have known about and tolerated. However, given the low regard in which Papa apparently holds Henri, it has now become only more evidence of his own lack of control, control which he is in the process of reasserting. Travesty thus parallels The Blood Oranges in its focus on a love quadrangle and the consequences of erotic adventurism, although in this novel Papa's response to the perceived harm of this adventurism is wildly excessive. The Blood Oranges depicts one man's destructive indifference to the effects of his actions when they don't conform to his grandiose notions. Travesty depicts one man's deliberate attempt to destroy those (including himself) whose actions have provoked him into formulating some pretty grandiose notions to explain his own final act.
Papa tells Chantal and Henri that he regards this act as embodying a strategy of "design and debris." The seemingly random debris that will be left by the final collision with the wall will also manifest the "design" that he has brought to the conception and carrying-out of his plan. He reflects on the scene:
Well, you understand that . . . I would prefer that the remains of our crash go undiscovered, at least initially. I would prefer that these remains be left unknown to anyone and hence unexplored, untouched. In this case we have at the outset the shattering that occurs in utter darkness, then the first sunrise in which the chaos, the physical disarray, has not yet settled — bits of metal expanding, contracting, tufts of upholstery exposed to the air, an unsocketed dial impossibly squeaking in a clump of thorns — though this same baffling tangle of springs, jagged edges of steel, curves of aluminum, has already received its first coating of white frost. In the course of the first day the gasoline evaporates, the engine oil begins to fade into the earth, the broken lens of a far-flung headlight reflects the progress of the sun from a furrow in what was once a field of corn. The birds do not sing, clouds pass, the wreckage is warmed, the human remains are integral with the remains of rubber, glass, steel. A stone has lodged in the engine block, the process of rusting has begun. And then darkness, a cold wind, a shred of clothing fluttering where it is snagged on one of the doors which, quite unscathed, lies flat in the grass. And then daylight, changing temperature, a night of cold rain, the short-lived presence of a scavenging rodent. And despite all this chemistry of time, nothing has disturbed the essential integrity of our tableau of chaos, the point being that if design inevitably surrenders to debris, debris inevitably reveals its innate design.
Papa has clearly thought through the details of his projected act (almost like an artist envisioning the completed work). In fact, so completely has he laid out the "design" that emerges from the wreckage he imagines will result from that act we might indeed conclude the real design is Papa's discourse itself, bringing order to the debris littering his unsettled mind.
Numerous commentators have singled out the notion of "design and debris" as perhaps a name for the aesthetic philosophy at work not just in this novel, and not just in Hawkes's work as a whole, but in the collective practice of "postmodern" experiment in general: the existing conventions of fiction are smashed, but this smashing is itself purposeful and amid the debris a new design can be discerned. This is a compelling enough argument, but in the case of Travesty, The Blood Oranges, and Second Skin "design and debris" could be applied even more specifically to the effect of Hawkes's experiments in point of view. Hawkes so thoroughly hollows out the presumptive authority of the first-person narrative that this mode collapses of its own weight. Yet the novels still reveal an "innate design," partly to be found in the artful way that collapse is effected, through which the dominating "vision" is expressed. And while the terms of that vision are distinctive to each individual work, it is the kind of dark vision one might expect from a writer who believed that fiction should compel readers to confront the realities of human experience, not through the formulas of "realism" but through a kind of experimental writing that doesn't allow us our own usual evasions.