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
emptiness of these fallen angels; for them, there is nothing to be
learned from human experience; there is nothing to say: The film bothers
to say this: art, even schlock, has the habit of revealing something
about the essence of human life, bad or good.
When we look around at contemporary fiction, though, we notice that this
habit of revelation is missing. Because T. Coraghessan Boyle's story
"Greasy Lake" has recently been presented in X. J. Kennedy's fifth
edition of his literature anthology, Literature (along with stories by
John Updike, James Joyce, and Katherine Anne Porter), comparisons are
bound to occur. Although this is not the place for a survey of Boyle's
work, a brief overview of "Greasy Lake" may serve as an introduction to
his short fiction and to a major theme in it: the failure of moral nerve
that has become a commonplace in contemporary fiction.
If postmodern means anything (and there is increasing evidence that,
like political, it doesn't), it refers not only to the oft-noted element
of self-consciousness or "intertextuality," but more importantly to a
Fonda-like shrug and the admission, "nothing to say." We are all
accustomed to the ubiquitous breaking of the proscenium that is the
hallmark of "clever" mass-produced art. From...