Guaranteed Nothingness

Pieces of Life by Mark Schorer Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 173 pp., $8.95

ACCORDING TO THE STATISTICS of the College, business at the UHS mental health facilities has been booming recently, library circulation of books has doubled, and the number of pre-meds and pre-laws among us is rising to frightening proportions. Supposedly, these trends among students signal a change from romantic, carefree idealists to competitive, narrow-minded pre-professionals. But for many, or even most of us, career-planning, just like taking a leave of absence, may be no more than a response to indecision, uncertainty, or lack of fulfillment. The more we worry about the meaning of our future, the more ambitious we seem.

In Pieces of Life, a book that alternates short stories with autobiographical essays, Mark Schorer attacks the scramble for a guaranteed future, but with arguments we have heard before. Cautiously, each character in the short stories plans a neat life for himself, one which will allow him to live in as irresponsible and "dignified" a fashion as possible. For Schorer, the order and self-centeredness of wealthy middle class life makes it so impersonal and unrewrading by denying man's basic need for communication.

Unfortunately, Schorer's criticism of cocktail society has few new or daring approaches. He pictures half a dozen hypocritical, middle-aged couples whose blandness is compounded by their own inability to realize how empty their lives are. Neatly dressed wives play the roles of busy do-gooders or plan out their husbands' careers, while their victimized spouses cling to a sense of intellectual superiority as their only source of satisfaction.

SCHORER'S DESCRIPTIONS are just a little outdated, as is his style, refined but worn-out like the typical New Yorker story of the past two decades:

She lay back and began to cry. With a certain luxury, she felt the tears push up through her locked lids and run down and over her cheeks... She said, "At last. I knew it would come sometime--it had to--and now it has... Now at last you're using your position that until now you've hardly ever admitted...


While lacking Schorer's degree of sophistication, even soap operas long ago picked up the theme of nonexistent communication between husband and wife, which leads them to seek compensation in adultery, to reconstruct the past in nostalgic memories.

Only when one of Schorer's characters desperately tries to escape his all too neatly molded life in an original way does his story become interesting. In "Don't Take Me for Granted," Gilbert Miles finds a release from his dull, unaccomplished life in a wild imitation of solitary madness:

It was a wind heavy and warm with moisture, but violent, too; the limbs of trees groaned in it, ash cans banged, unhooked shed doors rattled and slammed... The wind made him feel a queer inner release, a sickening kind of happiness, and he threw back his head and yelled into the crazy wind.

The character has dared to break the rules governing his life. He pays no more attention to the obligations which bind him to the past or to the future, but experiences the pleasure of the moment for its own sake. Though Gilbert's solution may be nothing but a temporary escape from reality, the ecstatic plunge into an imaginary world is brave because it threatens to destroy his meticulously pieced-together life.

Such an ironic twist breathes fresh air into a few of the stories, especially when Schorer uses his imagery not to undercut his heroes with satire but to heighten the intensity of their momentary fulfillment:

The sun... suddenly set fire to the silly garden... she felt herself swept into this fire, free, trans figured, free of him...

AS REFRESHING as this turn-about is, typed characters stubbornly ward off any threat of intense involvement in most stories. Only the appearance of the author himself on the scene saves the reader from boredom. The unusual method of interspersing autobiographical pieces between short stories unifies the book with a chronological thread. Schorer's own life story is so much more original than that of his characters that it seems to undercut the complacent atmosphere of the short stories more effectively than the author's satire.

Schorer was born in a provincial Midwestern town where he grew up in the gloomy atmosphere of a tightly-knit German immigrant community. Memories of grisly scenes such as a hanging, or even the dying of his injured dog provide a bleak background for the short stories. Without any annoying psychoanalysis Schorer portrays his raging father and his suicidal mother. Even though his history provides him plentiful opportunities for melodrama, the adult Schorer distances himself as much as possible from his boyhood emotions. He brusquely emphasizes the disadvantaged perspective of a child whose ignorance left the most important questions about causes and relationships unasked, while often leading him to unfair judgments. Schorer tells of his exit from a stuffy, rural childhood overshadowed by his family's obsession with money without resorting to the cliches of his short stories.

IRONICALLY, the financial assistance of his grandfather allowed him to go to Harvard for a year, on the path to becoming an English professor. But the crowning irony of the book strikes us on the last page. After 40 years of a "successful" marriage, his wife shocks him with the question whether he wanted to marry her out of social convention. He, too, has been unable to communicate his love to her. "The slightly staggering dissonance" of his own real life cries out a louder, more powerful warning than the superficial falsehoods of Schorer's invented lives.