The Curmudgeon


Friday, March 25, 2005

Part 2

by R J Winger

(New York: Random House, 1989)

Reviewed by Samuel Grimsnipe

Here we have possibly the quintessential American novel - from the country and the age of the sequel and the gimmick, there comes a gimmicked sequel - and from a man who was almost certainly the quintessential American writer: a Henry Ford of popular literature. Ten years after the author's death, the publication of Winger's last novel marks the culmination and the end of a remarkable, if not entirely commendable, episode in the history of United States literature, and displays some suitably splendid ironies.

Winger was the epitome of the novelist as businessman. He made no secret of writing for money, and frequently expressed the opinion that anyone who said they couldn't was a fool, and anyone who said they didn't try was a liar. He produced, during a career which spanned almost thirty years, no less than sixty-three novels in ten distinct genres; like Henry Ford, he was a mass-producer wherever the market was most lucrative. Like Ford, too, the quality of what he turned out was dependable, never falling below the mediocre lest he lose those readers who made his name respectable, and never rising towards the excellent lest he lose the ones who made it profitable. And, again like Ford, his books were any kind you liked, but always the same.

Winger wrote in some of the perennially popular genres, like detective and romantic fiction, all his life; he began by writing westerns in the days when cowboy films were still top of the box-office hit parade, and switched to science fiction on the heels of the Hollywood special-effects boom. All his books, of whatever type, give the impression of having been written to a mathematical formula, a formula drawn up as the conclusion of exhaustive research into what precisely it is that makes a book sell. Seeing Winger's face on the jacket of this novel, one can imagine the economist's brain behind those businessman's features picking out a random sample of other people's novels from the bestseller lists, and then distilling their most profitable points into a bestseller of his own which, if it never quite manages to top the lists, will nevertheless probably hit the seventh- or eighth-place mark for a couple of weeks.

This is not a feature merely of his efforts in types of story which are overtly formulaic, such as the western, or its modern counterpart, the sword-and-sorcery fantasy; every one of Winger's novels has a similar appearance of having been mechanically assembled on some cerebral production-line, each worker adding a single specific feature - the introduction of a particular kind of character, the depiction of a violent episode, the description of some multiple event like a battle or a wedding party - with their positions along the line being varied a bit according to the type of novel required at the end. Reading Winger's complete output in a given genre, one is left with the uncomfortable feeling that even those variations that do exist have been put there only as essential for public relations purposes; reading his output as a whole, one begins to wonder if the photograph on the jacket is not in fact the likeness of some commercially-inclined computer expert, who when he wishes to produce a love story, feeds in a few volumes of his better-selling predecessors, asks the machine to compute numerical values for the various elements involved (length of time between plot developments; length, frequency and degrees Celsius of the more passionate intervals, etc.), and then instructs it to design a plotline according to the averages it has just calculated. Winger would probably have been content to produce the same book over and over again at six-monthly intervals, identical down to the last twist of plot and name of character, if only he could have persuaded people to buy it. The quintessential American novelist: producing, from commercially successful novels of others, novels for no other purpose than commercial success.

Once more, the quintessential American novelist: just under a decade after Winger's death, no-one has ever heard of him. Those same science fiction fans who only ten years ago were writing in his obituaries, "perhaps the best the field has seen since Heinlein" (while Winger, of course, was Heinlein, and Asimov, and Clarke, and no doubt one or two others besides), now see his name once more upon the shelves, and think "oh, is he still around?" - or wonder, perhaps, if this could be the same R J Winger. And perhaps they go home and dust off the book that brought him such acclaim a few years back, and wonder what they ever saw in it, since it contains nothing whatever beyond whatever judicious combination of sex, violence, speculation and sentiment happened to be earning the most money during the year, the month, the week when it was issued. And the same applies to Winger's historical novels and his adventure novels, his detective thrillers and spy thrillers, his romances and his horror stories, not one of which has outlived by more than a few months the fashionable trend which spawned it in the first place.

And now here is Part 2; perhaps it had to happen eventually. The book introduction and the book review have both recently been freed from the tyrannising necessity of books to refer to; now the sequel has been similarly liberated, for Part 2 is a sequel with nothing to follow on from.

The introduction, by a friend of Winger's appointed by the author as his executor, relates how this interesting phenomenon came about. Part 2 was found among some of Winger's older papers, a finished manuscript of which the title page bore something scribbled through so thoroughly as to be unintelligible, and below it, also crossed out but still legible, "Part 2". "Despite the fact that the book is obviously not complete in itself," Winger's friend continues naively, "it was decided that publication should go ahead as a final tribute to one of the most successful authors of our time". Irony, though both appropriate and apparent in these prefatory remarks, does not appear to be intended. The equation of successful with great, or anyway with worthy of tribute, is a fallacy so common that it is now common sense; but it does give a better insight into the genesis of the book than the elegaic couchings to which the remainder of the introduction is devoted.

Winger, for reasons outlined above, was certainly a successful writer, at least as far as large financial returns are to be considered a measure of success; and this success, such as it was, hinged entirely on his knowledge of what kind of writing the market was most interested in. Part 2 is evidently the result of some miscalculation, when Winger overestimated the appeal of one particular genre and decided to produce a follow-up to one of his previous works of that type, only to abandon publication at the last moment. Why the manuscript was preserved (no others were found in anything approaching Part 2's state of completion) is a mystery which will probably never be satisfactorily solved. Possibly Winger foresaw the present situation, and in it the hope of gaining the best of both worlds: riches while in this one, and recognition while in the next. His real motives, however, were probably rather more crass even than this. It is extremely doubtful that, as some romantics have been inclined to speculate, he intended all along that the book be published posthumously as Part 2; it is far likelier that he kept the manuscript simply in the hope of some resurgence in the popularity of the type it represents. Otherwise Winger would have to have lived out his entire working life as merely the prelude to a hoax: a hoax of which he knew all along that he would not witness the climax. A hoax which reaches those sort of proportions loses most of its efficacy, because doubts begin to arise as to who should be considered the victim.

But, no matter what Winger's real intentions may have been (and I for one am of the definite opinion that they were firmly restricted to this side of eternity and how to make it as comfortable as possible), the ironies involved are undeniable and numerous. To begin with, it is impossible to tell from Part 2 which story it is supposed to be the continuation of. It is certainly a sequel to one of the romantic novels; but as Winger wrote fourteen of these, nine of them with storylines corresponding more or less to that of Part 2, it is difficult to say for certain which. In light of Winger's habit of destroying all but the most basic of his working notes (probably to avoid charges of plagiarism), and his new-found obscurity, with all his other books out of print and unlikely to be reissued, or even sold second-hand with any great degree of alacrity, even such obvious clues as the names of the protagonists may continue to elude us, and a definite answer may remain impossible to give, for some time to come.

Unlike most puzzles of this nature, though, neither the absence of a definite answer nor the possibility that such an answer may someday become available diminishes the pleasure of the game. If the title of Part 2's predecessor were known, a copy would be so hard to find, and of so little merit when found, as not to be worth the bother; even if it were reprinted, it would probably not be very widely read; and even those who did read it would probably manage quite comfortably to ignore it, and to come back to Part 2 reasonably unprejudiced by the experience of Part 1.

Part 2 should be read exclusively for itself, taken entirely on its own terms; for despite the superficialities about incompleteness expressed in the introduction, this is easily the best of Winger's books - and not in spite of, but because of, its odd status as the first ever liberated sequel. In a sense, although it was written more than halfway through his literary career, Part 2 is actually Winger's first novel. Everything else he produced, before and afterwards, originated with someone else; Winger's only contribution to his other sixty-two books was the rearrangement of the component parts. But Part 2, the sequel to one of these others, is far enough removed from the victims of Winger's vampirism for their work to be thought of as constituting a legitimate influence upon, rather than the entire substance of, Winger's book.

The appeal of Part 2 is that, unlike anything else its author produced, it provides the reader with a measure of intellectual exercise. Like all sequels, it carries within itself the elements of its predecessor; but unlike most sequels, it is not marred by the defects of that predecessor, or by the tedium of repetition. The plot, though in itself fairly trite and unremarkable, fascinates because of its dependence on another plot, namely that of the earlier book to which Part 2 is the intended successor: a story the events of which are never outlined at length in the new book, but must be pieced together from cryptic hints which were intended by the author as explicit references. Part 2 exudes an exhilarating air of mystery regarding the past: a mystery which the audience feels may be probed, and probed again, with something new always to be found, and yet never anything which would wrap up the question once and for all. The characters' past lives and the development of their relationships to one another, explored in detail in the lost predecessor, in Part 2 take on such a subtle and intriguing aspect that the same predecessor, read after Part 2, would probably appear the work of an inferior imitator, attempting to cash in on the success of Part 2 by offering a solution to the questions it poses.

To the true artist, this must be a mortifying state of affairs. To have produced something like Part 2 intentionally would have been extremely difficult; to have produced it accidentally, to have produced it with the sole intention of making fast money, and to have produced it, moreover, in the form of a sequel to a successful original - possibly the most pernicious literary form now in existence - is perhaps an even more unforgivable sin on Winger's part than all his potboilers put together. They, after all, have already been forgotten, while Part 2 will stand the test of time. And the only retribution that can be exacted is this: that while the potboilers are all forgotten, this book will immortalise, under Winger's name, all that Winger was not. Because of this novel, the only one of Winger's with an identity of its own, Winger's own identity will be, not merely erased, but reversed - turned into something contradictory to what it actually was. And this novel owes what identity it has to a different novel which, having no identity, far better reflected Winger's than this one, and is now forever forgotten.


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