WILLIAM STYRON looks at you from the back of the book jacket, a little mean perhaps, a little puffy from too much hard living, but secure, very secure, the security of reputation and seven-figure movie rights for Sophie's Choice. It is the Big Book, over 500 pages and therefore serious, Styron's first novel since he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1967 for The Confessions of Nat Turner. Everyone wants to write a Big Book. Ask Norman Mailer.
Styron tells his story through Stingo, an aspiring Tidewater writer who has come to New York in search of literary fame and fortune. He settles in a boarding house in Brooklyn, where he meets Nathan and Sophie, obsessive lovers, Olympic sexual athletes, and partners in mental disease. In its particulars, Sophie's Choice evokes Styron's own experience as a young writer struggling with hisfirst novel; in its overall scheme, it is Stingo's Bildungsroman, the story of a young man travelling north and discovering the nature of evil.
His guide on this metaphysical journey is Sophie, a veteran of Auschwitz and therefore a firsthand expert on evil. Sophie relates the grotesqueries of the "Final solution," the ovens and boxcars and the unspeakably pervasive smell of burning Jews. And she personifies the onerous guilt that the survivors were left with:
'So there is one thing that is still a mystery to me. And that is why, since I know all this and I know the Nazis turned me into a sick animal like all the rest, I should feel so much guilt over all the things I done there. And over just being alive. This guilt is something I cannot get rid of and I think I never will.'
Sophie, you see, had to sell her soul to stay alive--she made some "choices," one choice in particular, and they fester in her memory.
Few have ever admired Styron's technique, and all the tedious overwriting remains intact, the words like "thaumaturges" and "matutinal," the heavy-handed imagery: "A truck's wheel striking a pothole on the street made a clamor like the slamming of the gates of hell." These characters talk a lot, long bloated monologues that go on for pages. And there's at least one passage that has no place in a hardcover of any kind, much less a major novel:
She wiggled toward me, a wanton nymph with moist and parted mouth, and now bending down over my bare belly, crooning her glorious obscenities, prepared to take between those lips unkissed by my own the bare-rigid stalk of my passion.
Said stalk is the cynosure of his existence--he refers to it every three pages, usually by way of some juvenile periphrasis: "doughty love-muscle," or "priapism," or "stallionoid condition." "My membrum," he writes, "betrousered, is truly rampant." Stingo gets drunk on two beers, runs from any sort of danger or disturbance, ejaculates prematurely--he is, in short, what the Jews he loves to stereotype would call a nebbish, the kind of person who, when he enters a room, gives the impression that seven people just left.
There is nothing wrong in general with the nebbish-as-protagonist, as Joyce amply demonstrated in The Dubliners. But when the author relies on us to see the staggering evil of the holocaust through his eyes, he needs to give the protagonist some kind of stature; Stingo crumbles under the weight of the apocalypse.
One might go further and say, as Roger Rosenblatt has suggested, that the book is hollow because Styron doesn't understand evil. Certainly, Styron wanted to write a book about evil; the ambition is palpable in the novel's heft. But I suspect it was an intellectual desire, not a visceral one, that it did not spring from a central concern in Styron's life. What kind of evil, after all, do you find on Martha's Vineyard? There are long sections of secondary history, and extensive quotations from people like Hannah Arendt, passages that seem tacked-on, contrived. The characters fail to come to life, being in effect tools of a superimposed authorial purpose. The only realization of evil comes through the author's ventriloquism: "I began to see how, among its other attributes, absolute evil paralyzes absolutely."
That's why the novel fails. The immediate temptation is to compare Styron to Conrad; Sophie is Polish, and there are even references, late in the novel, to Conrad's Lord Jim. Styron searches for good and evil, for the vestigia that demons leave, just as Conrad did; he may even be answering Saul Bellow's Nobel Laureate call for a return to Conrad, for a return to what Conrad called the "permanent, enduring, essential" in human existence. But Styron doesn't know "the horror." These are small shoes in the footprints of sasquatch.