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The Dylanist

by Brian Morton (Berkley, 1991, 2000)

Brian Morton's first novel, The Dylanist, is a romantic Bildungsroman. A young woman grows up learning about love, much as a young man might grow up learning about political action. The point is not that a woman would naturally be more interested in love than in political action, but rather the contrary, for Sally Burke is skeptical about love, and The Dylanist shows us how and why. Beneath the wry comedy of its surface, the novel flouts expectations to the point of inviting misreading: the how and the why have not been borrowed from a movie of the week. Sally is not skeptical about love because her parents have had a bad marriage, or for any dark reason. Her parents are good parents. Both are political activists, more or less: her father is an ardent union organizer (and diehard Leninist!), while her mother is a progressive school teacher. What Sally doesn't share with them is their ability — their willingness, or even eagerness — to believe in the possibility of making the world a better place.

What Sally believes in is the primacy of her own feelings. That might look like the fatal flaw of a terminally unengaging literary heroine. Certainly if Sally knew what her feelings were, she would be open to the charge. But that's just it: Sally does not know what her own feelings are. She thinks she does, of course; one naturally does. But she mistakes reactions for emotions; she takes the confusion that actually afflicts her for a kind of sophisticated curiosity. Like many highly intelligent young people, she would rather be interestingly elusive than emotionally straightforward. Maybe someday she will learn what love is! Meanwhile, she'll settle for tenderness — at least until she can't. It would be humorless to accuse Sally of bad faith; The Dylanist is a genuine comedy of well-intentioned ignorance. But she does suffer from an egoism that only pain and loss can shatter. And when the egoism ends, so does the comedy. The closing pages of The Dylanist are suffused with a bittersweet serenity so warm that, with a gun to our heads, we should have to call the ending a happy one. What really happens, however, is that we're told the same life story twice, first with a smiling leisure and then with grief-stricken urgency. The difference between the two stories is that the second one, quick as it is, ends, as all happy endings do, with a new beginning. The comedy that precedes it ceases to be funny quite a while before it is brought to an end by a death in the family.

The Dylanist shows one or two few signs of a first novel. The opening part of the book is palpably autobiographical (even though the hero is a woman) and the book ends with an intense and prolonged expression of mourning that is almost too keen to be fiction. The chapters in between are brief, as if the author were observing a rigorous tact; and yet there is slightly more detail than is strictly necessary. None of this signifies any kind of flaw in the novelist's execution; to see the traces a maiden voyage in the writing, one must have read the novels that Mr Morton wrote afterward.

What is a "Dylanist"? There is no need to guess. In the middle of the book, Sally bumps into an interesting guy at a party.

"Are you an old Socialist?"
"Me?" She took a half-step backward.
"Or course not. How foolish of me. You're a Dylanist."
"You don't believe in causes. You only believe in feelings. Am I right?"
Sally was grinning with pleasure.

A host of implications flurries behind this passage, and that is where the author is careful to leave them. Having thought about the book, however, we're at liberty to tease them out. First: the suggestion that old Socialists have principles instead of feelings. Sally would probably assent to this proposition. Second: an unexpressed opposition of emotional and ideological convictions. Ever since ideology was invented, it has sustained a dream that properly-indoctrinated people might be automatically right-minded. Political ideology, especially when invested in any kind of economic theory, has tended to be extremely reluctant to abandon the hope that human beings might be made to be as reliable as machines. But this fantasy of feeling automatons is no more than a cultural side-effect of the Industrial Revolution and the railway timetables that it made possible.  Sally Burke, like the famous singer from whom the novel takes its name, is hyperallergic to the blandishments of mechanization. If she can't commit, as we say, it's because she understands that commitment is really just a promise never to think again.

Sally is a baby-boomer — a child of prosperity (even her leftist parents are materially comfortable) and a witness to events that, while dramatic, have had little impact on the texture of her everyday life. The three political assassinations of the Sixties may have demoralized countless young people, but none of them went hungry, or missed a semester of college, as a result. Television made children intimately familiar with disaster, but at a passive remove. At the same time, Sally's unusual background has foreclosed the standard growth pattern: she could not protest her parents' social insensitivity. On the contrary, their very activism seems to have paralyzed her by shutting down the belief that she might be better than they are.

Having arrived at the aforementioned party, overhearing the snippet of conversation quoted above, the reader immediately recognizes that the distinction between feelings and causes has been central to the novel all along. While still a little girl, Sally wonders if she would vote, as her parents righteously do, for LBJ, or if, as she is tempted to think, she might vote for Barry Goldwater.

She lay in bed, wondering if she agreed with Goldwater instead of her parents. It was true that there was a place inside her that felt no loyalty to anyone ... She tried to imagine what life would be like if her parents and [her brother] Daniel died. She didn't think it would be that different.
She searched her heart, but in vain.

By the time Sally grows up and goes to college (Sarah Lawrence, the author's alma mater), the duties and obligations that bound men and the women in the past have dissolved, in the atmosphere of postwar affluence (itself not a merely economic matter), into choices, and the choices arrange themselves beneath the antagonistic rubrics that Ben, the guy at the party, proposes to Sally. There are causes, which derive their authenticity from ideology, and feelings, which are self-validating. Ideology is easy to learn and difficult to put into practice; the opposite seems to be true of feelings.

She wondered if she was still what Ben would call a Dylanist. She probably was, and she'd probably always be one: restless; not really political, yet edgily intent against selling out; putting her feelings first. Dylan himself, with his restless honesty, would probably always mean a lot to her. But lately, when she'd looked at his records, she could never find anything she wanted to hear. His concerns weren't her concerns. His work contained nothing about loss; nothing about aging — his own, or that of the people he loved; nothing about being a father, or being a son. Nothing about the complexities of relationships that last.

It must not be imagined that Sally is a solipsist, narcissistically determined to register her emotional state at every moment of the day. Although the feelings that govern her affections can sweep out of nowhere, they are not whims. Sally is neither a sybarite nor a sensualist. Her life, even when it is going nowhere, is a serious one. Actually, her seriousness is like her attachment to her father, somehow beyond her choice. Feelings are complicated for Sally precisely because she does not make a habit of tending them. And she is more generous than she can afford to be. Here is how her relationship with Owen, her first real boyfriend, gets going:

This touched her; it seemed a grand romantic gesture, when the age of grand romantic gestures had passed, and she only wished that there were someone more appropriate for him to bestow it on. She hardly felt she was there at all. It was the kind of day when, even when you try to feel everything as sharply as possible, try to brand the sensations into your mind, you know that you're not capturing it all fully, you're not all there. She'd wished she could keep this all in her mind, the battering wind, the low clouds, the harsh gray of the river, with here and there a thick white crust of ice. Yes. I wish I could keep all this in my mind, for this is the beginning of love, isn't it, the grand romantic gesture — she simply didn't have the heart to let this grand romantic gesture. She took his hand and brought it to her lips.

Over time, however, it becomes clear that Owen is not the kind of man that Burke has taught Sally to demand; he is not a man at all. Owen is an "uncombed" dreamer, too sweet for work. That's all right for a while, because the pallor of Sally's love is eclipsed by the force of her tenderness. Tenderness makes it permissible for her to conduct much of her life with Owen in baby-talk. The lack of love is also compensated for by the glamour of seeing her life as already ruined:

She would walk the streets, thinking: Is this what I want? She felt trapped, and astonished that she felt trapped. Astonished to be old enough to feel this. The kind of relationship you read about it old books, books so old you got a slight headache reading them, from the strain of casting yourself into all those outmoded assumptions. "I'm trapped in a loveless marriage," she said to herself, walking down the street, and she felt like a clich้ from an old movie, and she was astonished by this. There was even a measure of satisfaction in the sheer weirdness of it. She thought of the person she'd once believed herself to be, the true child of the sixties, the child of spontaneity, who followed her instincts, who couldn't promise 'bout tomorrow, man, 'cause who knows how I'll beel by then.... how had that girl turned into this woman?

(Note the being-seen publicity of thinking herself to be trapped while in fact she is walking down the street, and feeling like a clich้ from a movie.)

Ben, whom she meets while she's living in Boston with Owen, and whom she runs into after she moves to New York, is more a man in her father's mold. Also a union organizer — he's amazed and delighted to find out who her father is — Ben is nonetheless perhaps too good.

He came out of the bathroom with a towel wrapped around his waist. She liked his body. She liked his casual strength — she liked the fact that his strength wasn't something he cultivated or even thought about. And she liked the slight friction, the slight tension between them now. She wanted him to come over to the bed and pin her down.

He didn't do that. He was standing in front of her, holding the towel around his waist like a skirt, pressing his other hand against his chest that would have been theatrical if it weren't so obviously deeply felt. "Sally, you can be jealous if you want to be jealous. It's true that I thought about what it would be like to sleep with that person. If I never thought about that sort of thing, I wouldn't be human. But the fact is that I'm your man. I'm not just thinking about anyone else. It amazes me that you don't see that."

He was near-naked, he was painfully sincere. He had his hand on his chest, his white chest. No escape from love: this phrase went through her head.

Or perhaps Sally has fallen for a different glamour: she wants a little trouble in her erotic life. She wants Ben to make her feel jealous; she wants him to pull her hair. And she breaks up with Ben for something like the reason behind the breakup up with Owen: he is too good and rational to assure her that he can protect her. This is really nothing but Sally's way of manifesting her belief in the protection assured by her father.

Nothing prepares for the shattering tone of the fourth and final part of The Dylanist, but it  turns out to require no preparation, establishing itself absolutely at the very beginning, with the precisely registered ringing of a telephone in the early morning.

It took her about five seconds to get on the phone. In those five seconds, she was able to look at the clock and see that it was 7:15; to wonder why anyone would call so early; to be afraid that something had happened to her father; and to look forward to the mixed relief and irritation that would come when she'd find that it was just a wrong number, just a rude friend. "Hello?"

But it is not a wrong number or a rude friend; it is the call that Sally was dreading before she picked up the receiver. In the fifty pages that follow, we accompany Sally through the physical stations of loss and grief, from the cab ride "home," the gathering of family friends, to the terrible ritual of identifying Burke's body so that it can be cremated —

Sally, Daniel and Hannah were howling. They were making terrible animal noises.

— and the memorial service with a clenched attention to detail that leaves no room for reflection. But Burke's death, a terrible gift, is the solvent that loosens Sally's paralysis.

All her life she had wished that she could live in the moment. It was an ideology of the age: the belief that few of us are ever fully awake. Be here now.

Now she was living in the moment, as she never had before. The past did not exist. The future was unfathomable: she had no idea even of what the next hour would bring. She was fully awake now.

The brutal suddenness of Burke's death (however dreaded) rouses Sally once and for all: she knows her feelings now. Her relationship to an adored father is neither a feeling nor a commitment, but quite literally an attachment; and his departure frees her for other attachments, which burgeon as the novel comes to an end. Feelings and commitment turn out to have been lapsarian categories; Sally could not step up to the puzzlement that they presented while Burke was around to support (however passively) her idea of herself. Getting from shock to growth takes the form of a kind of grief diary, in which events, painfully contiguous at first, are ever more widely spaced. Ben reappears, but must be transformed from "a better daughter to Hannah than Sally was" to the man whose waiting for her fills Sally with pride. Mr Morton executes the transition from death back to life with stunning concision: when Sally finally stands on a cliff overlooking New York, "Burke's city," and greets her future, we feel that we ourselves have been wearing mourning. (May 2009)

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