Nabokov: a verbal knife. Precisely carved metaphor, exposition, physical observation. LAUGHTER IN THE DARK is a zany, cruel parable concerning adulterous impulse, examining the motivations of all involved with a witty impartiality. It seems to be not only a satiric riff on episodic pulp melodrama, but a sickly fascinated study of cruelty.
Nabokov is obviously fascinated by plot structure, but there's some deeper, more mysterious engagement happening here, something mirrory and cold: which is perhaps only the godlike relish of the 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 somewhat, as Emerson said of Shakespeare, "out of doors." Perhaps because his true engagement is a rather self-contained, egotistical delight in his own facility and brilliance, independent of the reader: at times offering no further purchase than one's 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, yet entirely inevitable ways. LAUGHTER IN THE DARK is tightly written, efficient not hurried, offering a 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: as a writer, what could one possibly feel other than admiration for the blazing eloquence, the sheer eerie intelligence, of that authorial voice?
We watch (with what 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, and 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 journalistic philosopher, which may explain why these characters at times seem embodiments of concept, acting as ideological chess pieces. They embody insights, understandings of tension, around race and sexuality. Amidst such sensory renderings of Harlem and Greenwich Village bohemia, the reader becomes aware of that 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 a coherent intent in the moment to moment progression of the narrative.
This is all nitpicking. Baldwin's righteous yet vulnerable angst all but physically ignites the pages of ANOTHER COUNTRY, which is as potent and immersive a time capsule as any work of literature, and completely unsparing in its examination of people's self-serving behaviors. When Baldwin does contrive, it's because he wants to make fiction do what he always did best: tell us unvarnished truth, no matter the cost.