Reading at Risk to Ourselves: The Novels of Matthew Stadler

by Matthew Stadler.
Grove Press, $23.00.

Stadler’s earlier books are available in paperback — Landscape, Memory from Plume, the other two from HarperPerennial.


Some years ago, when I had come to feel that I was writing too much about authors I didn’t like and too little about authors I did, a newspaper book-review editor proposed the following solution: every month or so, after the new bound galleys of eagerly awaited novels by luminaries like John Updike and Toni Morrison had been torn from their battered jiffy bags, slipped into crisp new ones, and sent off to reviewers, she would box up all the remaining fiction galleys – the first novels and second novels and short-story collections with somewhat less familiar, or totally unfamiliar, names on their spines – and mail them to me.  I would poke through them, and write about whichever one or two or three of them I found worthy.  I agreed readily.

     It was amazing how many books those leftovers added up to.  Every month I received at least one large cardboard box crammed with printed matter, all of which took untold hours to wade through.  The experience was at once exciting and depressing: every new batch of books held out hope of a wonderful discovery, and indeed over the course of a couple of years I found, and enthusiastically reviewed, several titles that I would otherwise probably never have read.  Yet working my way through those boxes was nonetheless all too drearily reminiscent of the ordeal of paper-grading.  One reason for this was that much of the fiction in those boxes was plainly the work of sometime creative-writing students who, having been taught formulas for communicating experience and creating effects, had been satisfied not to venture far beyond them.  Some of the worst books that I read during those couple of years became bestsellers; some of the best sank nearly without a trace.

     Watching good books die while bad ones thrived was grim but instructive.  It underscored for me the fact that literary artistry, far from guaranteeing that a given novel will be published and reviewed and will find an audience, can be a liability in today’s literary marketplace, and that the most endangered species among novelists today, indeed, is the writer who, not content simply to tell an absorbing story or to practice social criticism, is compelled to explore with passionate intensity the fundamental question of what life is really all about – and who, being possessed of a vision that propels him or her outside the American realistic tradition, finds him- or herself obliged to manipulate the genre in ways that some readers may find confusing, challenging, even disturbing.

     Meet Matthew Stadler.  Born in 1959, he has just published his fourth novel, Allan Stein;  his first, Landscape: Memory (1990), was one of the books that I plucked out of those cardboard boxes and ended up reviewing enthusiastically (as did several other critics).  Stadler’s second and third novels also received some respectful critical attention, and the first three books have all gone into paperback – so one can hardly describe any of them as having sunk without a trace; yet in a time when splashy newspaper and magazine profiles of the likes of Martin Amis and Jay McInerney proliferate, Stadler, by comparison, would seem to fall under the category of well-kept secret.  This is lamentable, for he is, in my view, among the most accomplished American novelists of his generation.  Allan Stein’s narrator says of a Lorca poem that it “might appear to be unreal, but its dreamlike consistency can supplant waking reality by the force of a new coherence and logic, so that one becomes lost in it, like in fantasy or sleep, and the logical yardsticks of waking life that make its measure false are completely lost from view.”  The same holds for Stadler’s fiction.  To read his four novels in sequence is to enjoy the spectacle of a spectacularly gifted young writer growing into his art, developing his gift for “dreamlike consistency,” exploring ways of making the pieces of his vision cohere.  It is also to see certain story elements repeated – with changes rung on them, to be sure – in a way that one doesn’t often find in the work of a literary novelist of Stadler’s caliber.  Before considering Allan Stein, then, let us examine its predecessors.

     Like many first novels – in fact, like many of the other first novels that I plucked out of those cardboard boxes – Landscape: Memory is a coming-of-age story, but it is a far cry from the usual thinly disguised autobiographical account.  As rich in intelligence as in sensitivity, it takes the form of a journal by Maxwell Kosegarten, a teenager living in San Francisco during the First World War.  How to describe it?  “This is a book about memory,” Max writes, explaining that his mother has given him for his sixteenth birthday a blank book in which to record his memories.  “The mind is a template, pumpkin,” she tells him, “a template made of gold—brilliant and malleable.  The written word is fixed.”

     Thus begins a novel – and an oeuvre – concerned, in large part, with questions about experience and memory, change and fixity, and the perhaps perverse and ultimately futile compulsion to get it all down on paper.  Or, for that matter, canvas.  For Max, as it happens, is engaged not only in writing a journal but in painting a picture, the various stages of which appear throughout the book. The picture, which shows him and his friend Duncan looking out over the bay at Bolinas toward a bright sun, is an attempt to represent Max’s happiest memory.  But can memory be captured? Should it?  Max continually ponders the ability of words to conjure images (“’Cat’ is said, and what do I see?  A cat, somewhere in my head”), yet he feels that “some things words can’t hold. They’re too big or they never hold still.”  Example: Duncan, who inspires thoughts and feelings that defy full expression. Max is, in any case, uncomfortable with his compulsion “to freeze things forever, like with photographs.”  For him, a memory that’s “fixed and frozen, like a photo is, it makes me feel stuck or stifled, like I’m in a prison and the walls are straight and clean….Fear starts in me when the world is clear and fixed”; he’d prefer “a watery thought…An immense sloshing watery world.”  

     If the mind’s effort to respond to the world in words and pictures is for Max an unresolvably ambiguous undertaking that is doomed to failure, the body, by contrast, speaks a clear language: “I give him my body,” Max says of Duncan, “and only then do I feel a sense of clarity.  It is our way of speaking, the only language that can carry whatever it is we’re trying to say.”  This is an abiding theme in Stadler’s work: the inadequacy of words alongside the eloquence of the body.  Like James Purdy, the influence of whose unsettling, closure-resistant fictions is often in evidence in his novels, Stadler is haunted by the failure of language to capture experience, to convey meaning, and to comment usefully on the human condition, even as he cannot resist the compulsion to continue writing.

     If words and painting fail Max, so does family.  An only child, he is close to his parents, who have sought to introduce him to civilization’s glories.  Yet this tight-knit unit dissolves suddenly when Max’s mother announces, with callous matter-of-factness, that she is leaving her husband for Duncan’s father.  For all her supposed desire to provide her son with the best possible education, she appears to be foolishly unaware of the ways in which she is actually shaping him.  Her behavior raises questions present in all his books: What does it mean to educate a budding mind, body, soul?  Where do self-discovery and self-fulfillment end, and where does brutal, destructive selfishness begin?

     Stadler is not some polemicist who pretends that the answers to these questions are easy or that he is in possession of them.  Rather, he is an artist who accepts the world’s tensions and contradictions – who is, indeed, preoccupied with modern civilization’s moral ambiguities.  Though Max’s parents are steeped in art, music, and other civilized pleasures, this doesn’t save their family – and, ultimately, their son – from dissolution any more than civilization saves Europe from the insanity of World War I, which forms this novel’s distant backdrop.  To Max’s friend Flora, “civilization” is a dirty word: “it is the glory of children,” she maintains, “that they remain ignorant of the damning restrictions ‘civilized’ adults place on human behavior….They swim unclothed and hold and hug one another on impulse.  Theirs is a world rich in spiritual communion, unfettered by petty civilities.” Like the essays and stories of Guy Davenport – whose influence is apparent here and elsewhere in Landscape: Memory – Stadler’s novels would seem to reflect a powerful love/hate relationship with civilization, in particular with twentieth-century civilization, whose flowering in art and music and literature he plainly cherishes as much as he deplores its wars, tyrannies, and holocausts (and, one must add, the mechanical, amoral bureaucracies that make these horrors possible even as they seek to stifle day by day the possibility of artistic expression and spiritual communion).

        Although Landscape: Memory does not lie entirely outside the realistic tradition, one continually senses the author’s impatience with conventional realism.  No surprise, then, that the two novels that followed it take place in dark dreamscapes that recall Kafka and Canetti – and, yes, Purdy and Davenport – more than they do, say, Ann Beattie (to name one writer whose influence was rampant in those cardboard boxes full of books). Stadler’s second novel, The Dissolution of Nicholas Dee (1993), centers on the eponymous narrator, who is leading a solitary, uneventful existence as a history professor when he begins receiving from an unknown correspondent chapters of a book about a teenager named Oscar Vega.  The chapters turn out to have been written by his department chairman’s wife, a dwarf named Amelia Weathered, who reveals that she was the mistress of Nicholas’s late father, John – a noted historian in the shadow of whose achievements Nicholas has lived his life – and that she was the actual author of his father’s famous works.  Indeed, she tells him, the elder Dee was illiterate.  Amelia says that she wants Nicholas, who has already outlined a history of insurance, to help her finish writing a book — presumably the book about Oscar Vega, though she never explains why she must write it or why she needs his help.

     It is scarcely an accident that Nicholas, who has sought to lead a careful, risk-free life, has planned to write about insurance – a business practice invented by the Dutch, who, living largely on land reclaimed from the sea, have historically led a precarious existence, and who also, in Nicholas’s view, “have a peculiar talent for profiting from the insecurity of others.”  He sees in the Dutch invention of insurance nothing less than “the origin of the modern condition.”  This is not to say that the Netherlands are demonized here; on the country, Stadler repeatedly associates that watery country (which he has worked, in various ways, into all of his books) with physical openness as well as with the kind of “watery thought” that for Max Kosegarten characterizes intellectual and creative endeavor at its most appealing.  Contrasted sharply with the Netherlands is Nicholas’s city, which, though its setting and topography make clear that it is based on Stadler’s hometown, Seattle, is depicted as a place of dark beauty, mystery, and fear that is every bit as as venerable, stately, and resonant with history – and state terror – as any central European capital.  When the police, in the person of one Inspector Clausewitz (the reference to the author of On War is a typical Stadler joke), pressure him to buy sex and drugs in order to aid their undercover efforts to end the traffic in sex and drugs – a scheme whose logic remains as unclear as Amelia’s plans for her book – Nicholas flees the country with Amelia, Oscar, and Francis, Amelia’s twelve-year-old son by John Dee, and heads for the Netherlands to research and write his book.  

     The shift from Nicholas’s unreal city to the very real Netherlands (of which Stadler even provides a map) is accompanied by another shift: Nicholas, who until now has inhabited a cerebral, disembodied world in which even people are reduced to academic concepts, finds himself, as he puts it, “learning from the body.”  Or, more specifically, from his and Oscar’s bodies.  Like Max, he reaches a point at which he experiences feelings too big to express in any language other than the body’s: “My mind was full with both the moment and a desire to know what was in his mind as he moved over me.  What information came through his hands?….There was too much information, scattered over us; I could not read it all.  Every word was diminished or exploded….I felt a collapsing inside, as of borders or gaps, and lost every thought or word to his body and to mine.  I disappeared in the moment of our transgression.  Words could not have me, or hold me.”  Appropriately enough, while Nicholas learns from Oscar the language of the body, Oscar (who, like John Dee, is illiterate) learns from Nicholas to read and write.  Thus does Stadler introduce the topic of sexual relations between an adult and a minor – a theme that has figured more and more prominently in his work, and that has caused some reviewers to denounce him in terms that suggest an inability to distinguish between a writer and his characters and a refusal to accept such material as legitimate subject matter for a novel.

     If in Landscape Stadler shows the stages of Max’s painting, in Nicholas Dee he gives us passages from Nicholas’s book that describe the construction of a seventeenth-century Dutch opera house, as well as excerpts from Henry Purcell’s operatic setting of The Tempest.  Among other things, its alien, magical setting and its attention to the romance of parent and child makes the relevance of The Tempest here obvious.  Also, as Nicholas comes to perceive, “The body (and its humors)…were the source of The Tempest.”  Above all there is the figure of Prospero, who serves in Nicholas Dee as a potent symbol for the perilous enterprise of art.  The builder of that Dutch opera house is imagined here as wondering: “Could there ever be an art, again, conjured from the wisdom, and faith, of a magus?  An art that was wise about power and magic?…Conjurations had become entertainments.  Risk and loss were made anathema, and could now be contained.  Real power—cold, thorough, systematic power—had finally outstripped these enchantments.  Prospero was not killed, but circumstance had forever changed him.”  Thus begins modernity.  One chapter opens with an epigraph ascribed to Nicholas’s father: “Because we are incapable of watching or reading fully, generously, and at risk to ourselves, there can be no more Prosperos and no art, only entertainments.”

     Stadler’s third book was The Sex Offender (1994), in which the elements of pastiche in his two earlier, longer books give way to a tauter narrative with an even more relentless focus on the narratorial consciousness.  The book opens with the narrator – like Nicholas Dee, a young teacher in a dark, dreamlike city based on Seattle – being interrogated by “Doctor-General Nicholas Nicholas” (whose double name may recall not only Nicholas Dee but also Humbert Humbert).  The teacher has admitted having sex with a twelve-year-old boy and has accordingly been dismissed; yet he seems unable to grasp the view of his actions taken by the nation’s Criminal and Health Ministry, which has put him to work as a writer.  The difference in perspective between the teacher, who speaks of “love” and an “affair,” and Nicholas Nicholas, who speaks of “crime” and “molestation,” is rendered in a creepily comical manner that is, one might say, Stadler’s specialité de la maison.

     Here, as in Nicholas Dee, the teacher – who is also mysteriously hired to do makeup and surgical reconstruction at “The Salon,” a bizarre clinic that provides “the very best in face-lifts and prosthetics…to the [government] ministers and a handful of other dignitaries” – receives puzzling written communications that turn out to be manifestations of an intrigue into which he is being drawn.  The scheme involves the narrator’s job at “The Salon” and also involves both his country’s most celebrated drag queen, Lucrezia, who is now in exile, and its autocratic former Prime Minister, who, meeting the narrator, characterizes his tyranny as an act of love for his people: “I’ve crushed whole generations, so utter and complete was my love for them.”  Far from being appalled by this statement, the narrator – in one of a blizzard of curve balls that Stadler throws us in a book that nimbly plays with, and gives an expert workout to, the reader’s assumptions about love and power, conformity and criminality, belonging and marginality – expresses understanding and admiration.

     The Sex Offender is small gem of a book, at once funny and unsettling, about the enigmatic connections among lying, role-playing, the maintenance of a civilized society, and the enforcement of tyranny.  As ever, Stadler remains enthralled by paradox.  Pondering Lucrezia, in whose performances he says he finds “my communion, my ecstasy,” the narrator observes that when one is in drag, “The costume hides you and it exposes you to the world.  It imprisons you and it sets you free.”  He speaks, further, of his need for the “nearness and warmth of a friend” — a need that Max might have expressed in Landscape: Memory; yet if Max’s affection for Duncan seemed a thing of beauty and innocence in a world gone mad, the declaration by the narrator of The Sex Offender – who is addressed by others as “Mr. Uh, Uh” or “Mr. Sludge,” neither of which, we are told, is his real name – carries a heavy weight of moral complexity.  Where, indeed, is the line between communion and exploitation, between love and tyranny?

     To turn from The Sex Offender to Allan Stein is to be startled by Stadler’s shift to a more apparently realistic mode.  Again, the novel centers on a former teacher who lives in a city based on Seattle and who has recently been dismissed from his job on charges of seducing a student – in this case, a tenth-grader named Dogan.  The charges were false, he explains, but after the accusation had put the idea in his head, he had gone ahead and seduced the boy.  “The parents never found out (no one did).  As it turned out, sex was exactly what the boy wanted, and he became very much the happy, satisfied child they hoped he would be, where before, during the months that I was blind to him, he had been miserable and distracted (precisely the condition, noticed by his parents, that led to their accusation).”  The irony here is typical of Stadler.

     If the protagonists of Nicholas Dee and The Sex Offender are mystified by events that turn out to be part of other people’s schemes and proceed to learn startling secrets, in Allan Stein it is the protagonist who plots and keeps a secret: traveling to Paris to look into the life of Gertrude Stein’s nephew Allan – a long-dead man who may, in his childhood, have posed for Picasso’s 1906 painting Boy Leading a Horse – the protagonist of Allan Stein represents himself to everyone as being his friend Herbert, a museum curator, and as doing research for a book on Allan Stein. Staying at the house of Per and Miriam, a sophisticated, unconventional married couple not unlike Max Kosegarten’s parents, the protagonist – who finds his mask, like that of a drag queen, both imprisoning and liberating – takes a shine to the couple’s moody, intelligent teenage son, Stéphane, whom he eventually seduces and audaciously carries away to Provence, only to lose him when the boy discovers his imposture.  It is at this point that the reader learns something previously unmentioned: that the protagonist’s real name is Matthew, as in Matthew Stadler.

     Stadler is, of course, hardly the first writer to give his own name to a novel’s protagonist.  Proust did it, of course, and the Dutch author Gerard Reve also does it in De Vierde Man – another book about a gay writer who makes a journey and targets a younger man for seduction.  But for Stadler to give his name to the narrator of Allan Stein is an act of authorial bravado of rare vintage indeed.  The first novel that one thinks of in connection with Allan Stein is Lolita, the parallels with which begin as early as page four, when Stadler’s narrator, like Humbert on page one of Nabokov’s novel, lists his pet names for his beloved (“I have called him, at one time or another, noodle boy, le beau scout, Blaise, Tony, your nipples are as delicate as cherry blossoms, Miss Pants, my pal, bougie, Monsieur Steve,” etc.).  Yet Nabokov, at least, labored to put some distance between himself and his narrator.  Stadler, by contrast, not only gives his protagonist his own first name but seems intent on underscoring their similarities.  For that reason, Allan Stein may cause even more reader discomfort than Lolita.

     But then, Allan Stein is plainly intended to cause discomfort.  And readers nowadays are not accustomed to discomfort.  They resent it.  The idea is, for many of them, entirely unfamiliar. Novels are supposed to divert, not disturb.  We may think that things have changed considerably since Lolita’s original publication, but let us recall that recently the new film version of it, though well-received in Europe, failed to secure a U.S. distributor.  In America today, anyone who wishes to represent honestly and in all their intricacy the emotions and power shifts involved in intimate liaisons between adult and adolescent is asking for trouble.  Nabokov, in Lolita, did justice to the complexity of such situations; Stadler, in Allan Stein, does as well.

     Indeed, he has done more.  At a time when the Monica Lewinsky affair has reminded us daily of the huge gulf in many lives between public image and private peccadilloes, Stadler dares to give his own first name to a character who confesses that when he was fourteen, he used to “get out of bed at night, very late, and sneak through the apartment” to his mother’s bedroom doorway, where he stood naked and masturbating, all the while “banging the carpet softly with my foot, wondering what would be enough to wake her….I’d keep pulling and pounding, a little harder with each beat until the instant when the nightstand light came on and bathed me for a single pulse, and I ran, naked and almost coming, to my bed to hide.  I flourished in the moment of her regard.”  To be sure, in these times when the shades of Gordon Lish and Harold Brodkey, among others, still hover over the literary landscape, this kind of sensational confession is scarcely unfamiliar to readers of contemporary fiction.  What sets Stadler apart from the confessional pack is that he goes on as follows:

And I think it is the same for Allan, as it is for me, or for Stéphane.  It is the fate equally of the boy, the character, and the dead to blossom in the instant of our apprehension, in the moment of being seen, and in the next instant to disappear.  Pinned to this flickering edge where there is possibility neither of merging nor of giving up, we are all unreachable.  Allan, dead, begs to be watched.  He stands just out of reach, frozen at the entrance to the bedroom, unwilling to run until we wake and see him.  The house is not his.  Art or death trapped him here in a foreign architecture that has fashioned him in one position: poised.  He can neither disappear nor ever step forward to join us.  

        Stadler does not make his protagonist here, as he does in both Nicholas Dee and The Sex Offender, an almost entirely unsocialized citizen of an oppressive, manifestly anti-sex state.  Both Nicholas Dee and “Mr. Sludge” can easily be understood – and sympathized with – as confused, deprived souls who have been driven to the point of desperation; Matthew, by contrast, comes off as a seemingly casual exploiter, a privileged, socially successful young man who toys with other people’s lives for his own amusement.  Yes, the world’s attitudes toward love and sex are dishonest, but Matthew is (as he admits from the outset) duplicitous.  And the people he’s deceiving – Per and Miriam – are not prim, sex-negative types who seek to deprive their son of erotic pleasure, but are in fact quite gung-ho about the joys of the flesh and, it turns out, astonishingly un-hysterical about Matthew’s seduction of Stéphane; what they object to, Miriam says, is not the seduction but the lie.

     Matthew offers no explicit defense of his actions, though he does make a point of differentiating himself from the “romantics” who “inflict” their “idealizations” on children; in his view, plainly, he is a realist for whom, as he explains, the magic of youth lies not in its supposed purity and innocence (a fantasy cherished, as Stadler himself has argued in a 1997 article for the Seattle Stranger, both by pietistic defenders of “the family” and by NAMBLA “boy-lovers”) but in its limitless potential.  If adulthood, in other words, is a time of recognizing one’s – and life’s – limitations and learning to live with them, adolescence is a time of discovering one’s gifts and tastes and potential along with the joys of both the mind and the body.  “Boys have this power, you see,” Matthew tells an acquaintance in Paris.  “I’m fascinated that they could be Gods, which no man can be but a boy could.”  

     Yet if Matthew is a realist, he is a realist with a questionable connection to reality – one who, among other things, bookends his narrative with two contradictory versions of the same episode.  (One is reminded at times of the exquisite unreliability of Ford Madox Ford’s masterpiece The Good Soldier.)  What’s more, Matthew often appears to be idealizing Stéphane, referring to the boy (who says “I am the devil”) as a “solemn angel.”  Though he claims that he saw in Stéphane “everything I could ever love,” he depersonalizes him, saying of Stéphane’s body that “what I saw verged on abstraction.”  Indeed, Matthew recognizes that his fascination with Stéphane has less to do with the boy as such than with the memories Stéphane brings to mind.  Describing a walk with Stéphane through the streets of Paris, Matthew says that “Language was the least of our barriers.  Stéphane hovered behind a scrim, trapped inside a body whose proportions and angularity perfectly expressed something to me…. ‘becoming,’ I’d like to say, but it might have been nostalgia.  His posture… enthralled me by pointing elsewhere—away from him.”  

     Toward what?  Mainly toward Matthew’s own boyhood.  For stirred into the story of
Matthew’s seduction of Stéphane are not only anecdotes (based on archival material) about Allan Stein’s “perfect summer” in France when he was seventeen but also Matthew’s memories of his first vacation in to Paris with his mother at age fourteen, during which he had a relationship with an older man.  Yet it is Matthew’s mother, and not his long-ago older lover, who dominates his memories of that trip.  Thanks to his youthful preoccupation with his mother, Matthew testifies that “I’ve been in love with women more often than men, I think because they’re linked to boys in a way that men are not…A woman with a son is magical.”  Thus not only Stéphane but Miriam captivates Matthew, who – realizing all the while that he is alternating between being “normal” and “creepy” – climbs a tree in the family’s yard to watch her massaging oil into her son’s back.

     It is impossible to read Allan Stein as romanticizing or making a hero of its protagonist.  Even as Stadler gives the character his name, he makes him less morally sympathetic than any of his previous novels’ narrators.  Yet Matthew is, at the same time, more engaging on the level of sheer feeling than either Nicholas Dee or “Mr. Sludge,” whose hold on the reader tends to be more intellectual than emotional.  Indeed, Matthew is a supremely human creation: one does not have to be male or gay or attracted to adolescents and/or their mothers in order to identify strongly with Matthew’s easy descent into deception and his thrill over his conquest of Stéphane.  When we look at Matthew, we look into a mirror; he is appalling, and so, in our sundry ways, driven by whatever passions may possess us, are we.

     Though novel-length, Allan Stein has the elegant contours and tautness of a classic novella.  To come to the end of it after having read Stadler’s earlier books is to be in awe both of his consistent artistry and of his steady growth in authority and focus.  To be a truly serious literary artist is to accept and to plumb one’s deepest and most distinctive obsessions, and Stadler, with each book, has engaged his obsessions more and more boldly and explicitly.  And there’s the rub – for the more he has done this, the more he has been in danger of discomforting and alienating both the reading public and the critical establishment.  The question is this: can American literary culture absorb a novel that touches on themes that have been permitted to safely dead, alien, and/or ancient writers like Cavafy and Catullus?  My own view is that, in the case of a writer as extraordinary as Stadler, we should all be grateful that he has found his window on the human condition and has been brave and gifted enough to tell us what he sees through it.