In 1978 Passing for Human was published.
Also published that year was Natural Shocks by Richard Stern.
Jody died at the age of 84. Richard Stern died at the age of 84 a few years later.
Stern was called by the New Republic, "the best American author of whom you have never heard." Jody was called by the magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction "The best unknown science fiction writer."
Random, insignificant coincidences to be sure, and interesting only because in 1978 Jody was also writing reviews of books and one of the books she reviewed was Natural Shocks.
Her career as a book reviewer was short-lived. She kept telling the truth about what she perceived as slice-em-off schlock being foisted upon the reading public by publishers and the toadying literary press. But as various book review editors kept trying to explain to Jody before firing her, 'our function is to sell books.'
Here is Jody's review of Natural Shocks by Richard Stern:
"Celebrity," writes Richard Stern, "is the vengeance of the unfamous. They turn the famous into stage settings. It's a way of paralyzing them."
Maybe this is what happened to Stern himself. He has been supported by Guggenheims and Rockefellers, has been gorged with plums and approval. His dustjacket fluoresces with praise from Bellow, Burgess, Richler, Roth, the roster of men who, because there are no Fitzgeralds or Steinbecks around today, are at the top of the American heap.
Did any of them really read this book? Roth tells us that Stern exhibits "a sweet purity of felling." I'd say he has about as much feeling as a piece of Portnoy liver. the only time the hero Wursup feels anything much, is when he discovers that his dying girlfriend's hair has all fallen out after her hospital treatment. What he "feels" then is a semi-prurient survivory thrill.
And Stern is no Camus delineating "lack of feeling" with a powerful grace; he's just another drudge mastering a few dull routines and repeating them for audiences who don't demand any better. His skill in developing a character runs to, "Dolly was a woman of rough intelligence, but the intelligence produced nothing but malice, like a machine which undoes at one end what it assembled at another."
Here is Stern describing a character he really loves, a rancidly "brainy" lecturer at Columbia: "There was Benny, in his party outfit, his great persimmon head coming from a steak-colored turtleneck... Benny had been chewing a salami; there were meat flecks on his large lips, and he exhaled spicy aromas."
Stern's male characters are blubbery fatcats, his women are wind-up dolls. ("Perfect little teeth spread in her wonderful cheeks, gleaming amidst the small lights hopping off her desk.") A good novel should enhance life (even if by satirizing it mercilessly as a Burroughs does) but for me, Stern and his admirers have the whole thing reversed: they strip the life from life and leave a slimy coldness that reeks of emptiness.
I contend that this honors-encrusted tribe of mendicants has been over-pampered for years. They are accepting the gravy without doing the honest work. Natural Shocks is a thoroughly rotten novel. It is a Book of the Month Club Alternate selection. This may say something about the state of "letters" in our country today.
the blog of Jody Scott
For more by and about Jody, from her spouse and literary executor, including announcements, never-before-published stories, free novels, and always exclusive content not available anywhere else in the known universe, subscribe to our mailing list.
Get blog via email or reader: