I have known Tom Whalen for more than 40 years. He is one of our best fiction writers, poets and a perceptive and authoritative critic of both literature and movies... We both miss George Garrett and were recently exchanging notes about his work. Tom, some years ago, published this review of Garrett's last novel that was sadly not much reviewed. I hope this essay will send people to one of those important novels that can change how you think about novel writing and the act of criticism. In the novel Garrett's quotes from a Thomas McGonigle's article "A Writer's Life" that Garrett commissioned for the Dictionary of Literary Biography and which is available at the Notre Dame Review website.Whalen has written other essays on Garrett which I will hope to reprint.
Review of Double Vision by George Garrett
University of Alabama Press, 2004
By Tom Whalen (firstname.lastname@example.org
The epigraphs for George Garrett's Double Vision underscore immediately the title's implied dialectical shiftings between fact and fiction: "Anything processed by memory is fiction," says Wright Morris, to which Garrett opposes Naipaul's "I would prefer fact."
In the novel's first paragraph we encounter the author, in all but flesh, speaking to us straight up as one George Garrett, recently having undergone an MRI and suffering from myastsemia gravis, a disease characterized by "double vision, drooping eyelids, muscle weakness and fatigue, occasional problems maintaining balance"—in general the body does a sort of slow fade. Our narrator is at the kitchen window looking for a crow he has heard caw: "most likely a handsome fellow [. . .], a glossy shard of darkness, at this moment far from the fellowship of his black caucus . . ." There is the sound of the crow, its "[r]eedy, repetitive caw." There are the nutbrown facts of its location: "He is out there high and all alone in the budding branches of the sweetgum tree next door. Peter Taylor's sweetgum tree, close by the toothpick fence marking the line between his place and mine." But we can't see the crow, only hear it, "he is long gone." As is, the next paragraph tells us, Peter Taylor, to which depends the paragraph (complete): "Death is much on my mind these days."
But look again at the novel's apparent straightforwardness and casual clarity, for beneath them lie, as behind any mask, a wealth of deceptive shiftings. Double Vision is the tale of a writer/professor (retired) named George Garrett writing about, in part, his late next door neighbor, the writer Peter Taylor, their similarities and differences (that divide "between his place and mine") while at the same time in superimposition (double vision) writing about his fictional counterpart, novelist and retired professor Frank Toomer's relationship with his famous-writer neighbor Aubrey Carver. Both Garrett and Toomer have been given an assignment to write a review of a biography of their respective neighbors.
As in his Elizabethan trilogy Death of the Fox, The Succession, and Entered from the Sun and his novels set in contemporary time, most recently The King of Babylon Shall Not Come Against You, Garrett explores the relationship of truth to the "liar's craft" of fiction and the treacheries fame can effect on the self. Double Vision, besides being a testament to old age and disease ("the crummy and depressing little radiology waiting room full of sweat smell and sad humanity"), is a meditation on fame and its close cousin oblivion. In it, memory merges with fiction, fact with fantasy, and behind the elegiac tone lies a ghostly, welcoming laughter.
The novel's third epigraph comes from Schoenbaum's William Shakespeare: A Documentary Life and concerns that "Patriarch of shifters," the Elizabethan (and short-lived, 1558-92) "university wit," poet, pamphleteer, playwright, drunkard and poseur Robert Greene: "With Greene we cannot always separate fact from fiction in the fantasies he composed on autobiographical themes, or the legend made of him by his contemporaries." The crow that caws to the narrator and reader at the beginning and off and on throughout the book, besides a real crow on the page and in the air, wears the feather of allusion. The first reference to Shakespeare in print can be found in Greenes Groats-Worth of Witte (1592), when he tweaks that jack-of-all-trades, "upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers, [. . .] the onely Shake-scene in a countrey."
George Garrett's Double Vision is a brilliant, post-modern/Elizabethan marvel, a clear-eyed take on the writing life and its practitioners living and dead. It's also a tribute to Peter Taylor, a diatribe against America's historical amnesia, a self-interview, a book review ("In a larger sense, I suppose, we can therefore consider this whole piece, fact and fiction tangled together, as a kind of an extended book review."), yet another academic novel ("The 'academic novel' has been kicking around for more than half a century, a well-explored and well-exploited genre, good ones and bad ones and (surprise surprise) mostly mediocre . . ."), a sifting and sorting of the past ("Feeling stronger than I have been, feeling a little more energy, I have decided to try to straighten up my attic office, years out of control."), cultural commentary ("public events, in their edited versions and repeated images, seem to possess the demonic power to trivialize what is best about us and to bring out the worst in almost everybody."), a satire ("Consider: if Jonathan Swift was right, that happiness is 'a state of being well-deceived,' then what do you make of a whole nation and its people being dedicated to 'the pursuit of happiness'?"), a postcard to the world:
Though I have loved you and lost you, times beyond counting, still I write again upon this instant, being in receipt of all your ordinary music, to inform you that I can't live without you. I intend, by God and hell or high water, rain and sleet and snow and the wild spins of the wheel of fortune, to come back for more of the same.
Double Vision may seem to have, as Garrett says of his house in Charlottesville, Virginia, a "sense of being all casually cobbled together," but in its structure, development, doubling motifs and bright connections it is anything but casual. Double Vision gradually shifts from George Garrett reflecting on his life and the lives (and deaths) of other writers (Greene, Taylor, Larry Levis), to his fictional Frank Toomer writing about Aubrey Carver and realizing he cannot write the review of Carver's biography, but instead must think again about writing a novel on Robert Greene. Then, in a masterful dissolve, we're in the 1590's at the moment Greene is tossed out of the Fighting Cock into a muddy street of London.
Damn the rain and the mud and the coarse laughter of strangers at this antic man in his cloak of goose-turd green rising up now from the mud as if he had been buried there and were rising again from among the dead intending to frighten folks out of their wits. The cloak is all besplattered, his long hair and his pointy beard, naturally red enough to play the part of Judas Iscariot without any color or cosmetic, are covered with the mud and his face as dark as any African Moor's.
The writer puts on the mask of a writer writing about writing, but the mask finally dissolves, vanishes, and all that's left is fiction, words on the page as present as the "cloud of presences" Garrett felt around him one night. "I felt the presence and nearness of all my dead, close kinfolk and others too, friends and lovers of long ago and most mostly lost to memory by now."
Neither we nor Garrett knows what that "something" is that the crow "calls out [. . .] loud and clear." "A lone crow, a fragment of the night perched up high in a huge old tree, has called out something, a message I cannot decode or translate, and then flown away." The important thing is that it called us to the window and, though we can't see it, we know it was there.
-- Tom Whalen
First published in The Texas Review Vol. XXV, Nos. 1 & 2, Spring/Summer 2004.