BOYLE'S "GREASY LAKE" AND THE MORAL FAILURE OF POSTMODERNISM
In her essay, "Notes Toward a Dreampolitik," Joan Didion describes the
funeral of a motorcycle outlaw portrayed in The Wild Angels, the 1966
"classic exploitation bike movie" starring Peter Fonda. After the gang
has raped and murdered while destroying a small town, "they stand at the
grave, and, uncertain how to mark the moment, Peter Fonda shrugs.
'Nothing to say,' he says" (99). Didion finds in this remark the
existential myth of the outlaw embracing man's fate, a myth that suits
both the motorcycle gang and the film's teenage audience. The adult
audience, including Didion herself, sees in this remark the moral
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From Robbe-Grillet to Roseanne,
the wink into the mirror has become habitual, almost a nervous tic. But
while the conservative art forms that practice this "hey, ma, no hands"
approach to post-modernity hold fast to some sort of "family values,"
the avant-garde of postmodern fiction, because it is in the grip of a
self-image that transcends anything so banal as beliefs, is necessarily
limited to parody. It attempts satire, but because it lacks any moral
standards, its exaggeration and self-absorption can only serve as
frenetic substitutes for a moral point of view.
Before postmodernism and its resulting habits put a stranglehold on
fiction, one of the most common practices of the twentieth-century short
story was presenting the sudden insight of a character under pressure.
Any number of stories that make up the core of a traditional course in
short fiction--and that make up most anthologies--could serve as
examples: "The Death of Ivan Ilyich," "A & P," "Araby," "The Jilting of
Granny Weatherall." At the moment of emotional climax, the usually
unwilling protagonist encounters a sudden Joycean epiphany, a new
awareness of the reality of human existence. The titles I cited, of
course, are good examples of this practice; like any facet of fiction,
revelation can be handled well or ill and we are all familiar with
stories that have banal or stupid morals tacked on willy-nilly.
Contemporary fiction has, to a great degree, avoided this last problem
by avoiding revelation altogether. In these worlds of fiction, there is
nothing to be learned, nothing to be revealed; there is only the endless
circuit of plot and character, the zanier, the more discordant, the more
violent the better. Boyle's fiction, though, goes further to parody the
revelatory nature of fiction itself. Characters in Boyle's first two
collections, Descent of Man and Greasy Lake & Other Stories, are
frequently put in a position to understand the world around them and
then to act according to this new understanding; but each time they
ignore the knowledge, fumble the opportunity, or avoid the entire
situation. This is not noticeable in Boyle's first collection, Descent
of Man, because the stories tend toward farce, or the medieval genre
fabliau. They are divorced from revelation not only by their lack of
morality but also by their lack of realism. They read as if one of
Boyle's major influences were Woody Allen's early essays. The work of
his second collection, though, and the third, If the River Was Whiskey,
strikes an uneasy balance; it is as though Boyle desperately wants to
become a writer of realistic fiction with all it entails, but can't
bring himself to do it.
"Greasy Lake" is an excellent example of a story that includes many
conventions of the revelatory tale but draws back at every opportunity
of displaying any true revelation in the characters in such a way that
the story, parodies the belief in revelation itself. The story...