From apocalyptic novels to `beige' notes. Here Monitor columnist Melvin Maddocks, book editor Thomas D'Evelyn, and Home Forum editor Maggie Lewis join feature editor Roderick Nordell for an informal discussion of today's literary arts -- from apocalyptic novels to the humor in the word ``beige.'' Their conversation in the series ``State of the arts'' appears on page 16.

Maddocks: There's an apocalyptic character to some fiction today. We go through the worst scenario you can imagine, almost the worst. And then you see what comes out. And [Bernard] Malamud did that in writing an end-time fantasy in his last novel, ``God's Grace,'' didn't he? D'Evelyn: That's probably a good way of talking about it. I think what we're getting is serious literary people who are trying to really push back our imaginations into something that is almost impossible to imagine. Yet that's what they've always tried to do in some way.

Whether or not we find that heartening or uplifting is another thing. But it's certainly artistically understandable in terms of the craft.

Nordell: What are a couple of examples of what you're talking about now?

Maddocks: Paul Theroux's ``O-Zone'' and Margaret Atwood's ``The Handmaiden's Tale.'' And almost all of the novels Doris Lessing has written of late. And these novels, in a sense, run on a very lean mixture. It's kind of a trick to see how little hope you can get in and still come up at the end without total despair.

D'Evelyn: That goes back to Horace's principle: It must please. That's the challenge. Keep the reader reading, but don't buy any false hopes.

Maddocks: That's right. They're determined to have no false hope. Because when you get to apocalypse, it's too late to pretend. So it's a very spare thing.

D'Evelyn: And it's also the Armageddon phase of apocalyptic thinking that is becoming an actual motivating force in our political culture. So when you're dealing with the apocalyptic theme, you're dealing with something that people actually think about in concrete terms now.

Maddocks: It's funny. The writers kind of reverse things and say, if there's no reason for living, then there's no reason for writing, and I want to write.

Nordell: These novels are dystopias, did you say?

D'Evelyn: We've had utopias, which present an ideal that is no place but still active in our consciousness. Now a dystopia is no place but active in our consciousness as a negative future.

Maddocks: And it's mixed with some science-fiction influences. I think it's based on some sense that you can't -- I think this was in Atwood, certainly -- that you can't make vivid the predicament we're in now unless you project it into the future.

D'Evelyn: Following it out to its conclusions.

Maddocks: Yes. Then you can see what the dangers are now. And in that sense, I guess, if you want to use the word moral, you could say it's presenting you with whatever choices are before you.

D'Evelyn: I think it's challenging us to be responsible for the directions that our imagination is taking. It's like being responsible for the logic of some of the things that you're implicitly believing. That's certainly how ``The Handmaiden's Tale'' works.

Nordell: I believe Orwell intended to give ``1984'' the title``1948'' when it was published. Because he saw it as a kind of exaggeration of existing elements. Are these books that you're talking about grim satires of the way things are now or warnings that we'd better not continue the way we are going?

Maddocks: I think they're saying these are the tendencies, and if they aren't identified then they will become just a gross caricature of what they are now.

Lewis: The book ``Blow Your House Down'' is something that starts right now, with probably the most horrible situation one can imagine. A homeless woman is being murdered, and then you realize that she's a prostitute. She has all these friends who are prostitutes, and you get to know these people. They're living in a terrible, blighted part of Northern England where just about the only other job is dismembering chickens in a factory. It sounds so horrible, but this author, Pat Barker, has gotten so close to her characters that she really has them speaking. You can feel the rhythms of their speech, and you can understand how they must feel. It's this sense of discovery, that these are human beings, too. I might never talk with these people in my life, but I really feel I'm seeing how life is for them.

Then there is a kind of salvation at the end, and that is just so heartening to have that happen. It's not the apocalypse, but it's what's going on right now. It's not blow the world up, but blow your house down.

Nordell: So writers are helping us to understand our present world and trying to prepare us for encountering the future. Is that right?

D'Evelyn: Yes. This is fiction, but it's truer than the headlines, in some sense. The science-fiction element in some of these -- you don't need to fight it or disguise it or overwhelm it with suspense, or something. A lot of the ``deconstruction'' and so forth in avante-garde criticism has loosened up the literary craft. And the so-called well-made novel may not be the cutting edge, because it's not dealing with something more real than what simply can be mirrored. A lot of people are unhappy with minimalist, so-called realist fiction. They want something richer, and they're getting ``O-Zone'' and things that may be unrealistic but more real than a slice of life out of the Midwest.

Nordell: But there is room for simple delight and fun and enjoyment in language. Maggie, you are in touch with many young writers as well as more established writers who are sending in essays and poetry. Do you feel there is a realm of discussion here that we haven't touched on?

Lewis: Sure. We have writers who are having a good time with their writing. Writing funny things, and they're just there to amuse. I think of Richard Sorenson who is a very funny deadpan writer. Once he wrote an essay about the color beige, about how his wife wanted to redecorate -- it sounds very mundane, but he did it in a wonderful way. Whoever thinks about that color? Just the fact that he was thinking about it and handling it so gracefully. His style you could almost describe as beige because it's so neutral, but it's full of little zingers.

Humor isn't just lightweight. There's a lot behind it.

Maddocks: The fiction writer who writes fairly serious fiction is now in the situation that the poet was a while ago in terms of being kind of highbrow. Also the serious playwrights. They're no longer popular in the marketplace in the same way they were. Being a minority gives you a slightly firmer sense than being a popular majority. Elias Canetti came out with a book called ``The Conscience of Words.'' That's the phrase of a minority, taking responsibility.

So if you began the century with the comparison that everybody made on the basis of James Joyce, etc., that the artist was the priest, the writer's function is now thought of as sort of the monk in the Dark Ages who will keep the flame. After all the cameras and mikes stop going, the word will somehow be the repository.

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