Nabokov: a verbal knife: carving precisely honed metaphors, exposition, and evocative details. LAUGHTER IN THE DARK is a zany, cruel parable examining adulterous impulse, primarily that of the protagonist Albinus, but exploring the motivations of all involved with amused impartiality. It seems to be not only a satire of domestic pulp drama, but a darkly fascinated study of cruelty.
As a writer, Nabokov is obviously engaged by plot structure, but there's some deeper, more mysterious compulsion here, something mirrory and cold: which is perhaps only the godlike relish of an omnipotent puppeteer.
"Once upon a time there lived in Berlin, Germany, a man called Albinus. He was rich, respectable, happy; one day he abandoned his wife for the sake of a youthful mistress; he loved; was not loved; and his life ended in disaster. This is the whole of the story and we might have left it at that had there not been profit and pleasure in the telling; and although there is plenty of space on a gravestone to contain, bound in moss, the abridged version of a man's life, detail is always welcome."
One can often discern an author's fundamental engagement, but with Nabokov one is kept rather, as Emerson said of Shakespeare, "out of doors." Perhaps because his truest engagement is a self-contained ego-delight in his own brilliance and facility, independent of the reader: at times offering said reader no further purchase than an admiration of technique. But admiration the reader will feel, as Nabokov vividly renders entire personalities with just a few eccentric details, and horror too, as the protagonist's circumstances grow worse in unforeseen, entirely inevitable ways. As a narrative, LAUGHTER IN THE DARK is efficient but unhurried, offering scenery both stark and colorful on its walk along that precarious ledge between humor and pathos - on one or other side of which, the most adept walker finally falls.
This second, for me, of Baldwin's novels (the first being GIOVANNI'S ROOM) seems to affirm those reasons Baldwin's nonfiction is often more familiar to us than his imaginative storytelling (or his poetry, Poet being another hat he wore with inimitable style). This novel too is brilliant, yet flawed. I say this as a reader, not as a writer: for as a writer, what could one possibly feel other than admiration for the blazing eloquence, the sheer preternatural intelligence, of this authorial voice?
We watch, with palpable readerly helplessness, as troubled jazz drummer Rufus Scott has a tragic dalliance with Leona, a white woman from the South and a fellow lost soul. We then follow his sister Ida, his friend the struggling novelist Vivaldo, the more successful older writer Richard, Richard's wife Cass, the apparently bisexual actor Eric, and Eric's lover Yves, as they support or disrupt one another's artistic, social, and sexual routines.
Baldwin was at heart a philosophical journalist, which may explain why these characters at times seem embodiments of concept, acting as ideological chess pieces--they embody insights, tensions, to do with race and sexuality. Amidst sensory renderings of Harlem and Greenwich Village bohemia, the reader becomes aware of the omnipotent hand, with its formidable consideration and skill, maneuvering these pieces in the service of the larger intellectual design. This is particularly true of Rufus, around whose tragedy this narrative unfolds. Wikipedia notes: "Baldwin called Rufus "the black corpse floating in the national psyche", as well as a Christ figure ... Baldwin later said that he developed the character of Rufus to complement and explain Ida."
This makes sense, as Rufus's tragedy feels more contrived than organic. Here, as so often, I reference Toni Morrison, not just as a favorite living novelist, but one managing ideological arrangements to impressively organic effect. In Morrison, when that strong sense of ideological design emerges, it seems to do so through selection, rather than through determined fabrication. One feels Morrison's characters have their own eccentric life force, whose gestures are selectively presented for the thematic purpose, versus manufactured. Paradoxically, the sense of artistic control comes through in Morrison's grasp of plot, whereas in Baldwin, one is not always entirely sure of his intent in the moment-to-moment progression of the narrative.
This is all nitpicking. Baldwin's existential angst, fiery yet tender, all but ignites the pages of ANOTHER COUNTRY, as immersive a time capsule as any found in literature, and utterly unsparing in its depictions of human self-interest. And when Baldwin does contrive, it's because he wants to make fiction do what he always did best: present unvarnished truth, no matter the cost.