DeLillo once claimed that Thomas Pynchon raised the bar for his whole generation, and one understands why. While it took a world-class novelist like Bellow years to find his voice, Pynchon was one of those writers — like Thomas Mann in Buddenbrooks, or the James Jones of From Here to Eternity — who seemingly emerged from the womb full-blown. Published when he was only 26, V. remains an astonishing book whose virtues — historical sweep, merry hopscotching between high and low style, and emphasis on paranoid narcissism — became the template for decades of subsequent novelists. In a way, the book was almost too dazzling. Where countless first novels are cursed by an unruly outpouring of emotion that must be suppressed, then channeled, Pynchon spent 40 years struggling to fill his dazzling conceptions with feeling — and succeeded. Mason & Dixon is his most touching book.
Writing such a big book the first time out takes more than talent — it demands the headlong audacity of one who refuses to make the slow, conventional careerist climb to the pantheon but wants to strap on a jet pack and zoom to the top right away. And the ordinary careerists know it. It’s no accident that the Massachusetts politician John Updike has spent decades badmouthing Günter Grass. They both published their first novels in 1959, but where Updike’s The Poorhouse Fair was a pointedly “poetic” little novel about old people — the sort of academic tour de force you’d expect of a recent Harvard grad who’d put in a few years burnishing his prose style at The New Yorker — Grass brought out The Tin Drum. Over the decades, this great leviathan of a novel about sex and eels, Nazis and post-war Germany, has inspired countless other novels from Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children and Ben Okri’s The Famished Road (both won the Booker Prize) to David Grossman’s The Book of Intimate Grammar. No wonder Updike can’t stand Grass: He leapt while Updike looked for the safety net.
Rushdie once described the key lessons he’d absorbed from Grass: “Go for broke. Always try and do too much . . . When you’ve done it once, start all over again and do it better.” Grass did precisely that with Dog Years, but naturally, such advice is easier to dispense than to obey. For every fiction writer like Mann, Grass or Pynchon, who seems to skip from one ambitious work to the next, the literary world is stocked with those who were paralyzed, if not silenced by their first books’ success. Margaret Mitchell never wrote a book after Gone with the Wind; Jay McInerney got abused for not living up to the promise of Bright Lights, Big City (he’s an F. Scott Fitzgerald who never wrote The Great Gatsby or Tender Is the Night). Just last year, Mark Moskowitz devoted an entire documentary, The Stone Reader, to the story of Dow Mossman, who vanished from the scene after the critical acclaim for his sub-Faulknerian 1972 novel The Stones of Summer. In that film, the legendary critic Leslie Fiedler pointed out that Mossman’s literary silence was far from bizarre. “It’ s more typical for a writer to write one book and stop.”
Nobody felt the weight of his first book more publicly than Ralph Ellison whose 1952 Invisible Man may well be the greatest American novel of the last half century — a masterpiece of almost hallucinatory precision about race, alienation, identity, politics, identity politics and literature itself, whose riffs come steeped in Kafka, T.S. Eliot and the blues. To have written such a novel is achievement enough for anyone’s lifetime, yet despite its almost extraterrestrial excellence — it almost seemed to drop from the sky like one of the monoliths in 2001 — Invisible Man proved something of a millstone around its creator’s neck. Ironically, the book’s commercial and critical success made Ellison an all-too-visible novelist. He felt he had to live up to himself — while the whole world watched.
Still, it’s hard to imagine first-time fiction writers treating Ellison’s strange, accomplished, frustrating career as a cautionary tale. “I should be so lucky,” you can hear them thinking, as they dangle in literary limbo awaiting the verdicts of editors, critics and the book-buying public. And they’re right to think so. For even in these days when hardback novels have the same shelf life as fresh shellfish, writing fiction remains an act of enormous courage and vanity. And every first book still comes wrapped in an aura of promise: For the reader, the chance to glimpse a new vision of the world; for the author, a stab at greatness, which is both the tantalizing fruit of all literary achievement and, as Dangling Man’s Joseph so accurately notes, “the rock our hearts are abraded on.”