Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Review: The Magic Barrel by Bernard Malamud

Bernard Malamud's first short story collection, The Magic Barrel, won the 1959 National Book Award. Does that make it a great book?

I am drawn to 20th and 21st century male writers, especially to Americans. In part, this must reflect the sexism of the publishing industry, especially early in the century. Partly, it must reflect a prejudice that I have (that most boys must have, or else why would the psuedonyms JK Rowling and SE Hinton and Franklin W. Dixon exist?).

In half-jest, when I last re-organized and pruned my books, I filled an entire bookcase with books about lonely men. Roth and Hemingway and Miller and Coetzee and Faulkner.

But I was disappointed by the lonely men populating Malamud's thirteen stories. Even those who have women in their lives don't know how to allow themselves to be helped. The women are either at home with the children ("Behold the Key"), harping about money ("The Bill"), laying in bed dying ("Angel Levine"), or prizes to be idealize, won or discarded ("The Magic Barrel," "The Lady of the Lake," and "The Girl of My Dreams," respectively).

For fun, let's apply the Bechdel Test to The Magic Barrel.
1) Are there two or more women in it that have names? Yes.
2) Do they talk to each other? No.
3) Do they talk about something other than a man? No.

I think the Bechdel test has plenty of flaws. Primarily, that the development or failure of a relationship between two people is the most ripe topic for art in human history, and for most of human history, characters in stories were limited to one of two genders. Relatedly, given the constrictions of focused story-telling (unless you're going the Ulysses route and throwing in everything), once we establish the development of a relationship as a theme, the audience expects nearly all scenes and conversations to revolve around that theme). So yes, we should expect nearly every love story to fail the test (and, in their fashion, each of Malamud's short stories is a love story).

But all the same, I was surprised by the uniformity of the characters in The Magic Barrel. Too many lonely men, going about their same old lives the same old way.

No comments:

Post a Comment