Copyright (c) 1999 First Things 91 (March 1999): 13-14.
What went wrong with Alice Walker’s new book, her first novel in six years? By the Light of My Father’s Smile (Random House) should have been well–received by our literary elite. For one thing, it celebrates liberated female sexuality, especially lesbian sexuality. And it is multiracial to boot, taking place among the Mundo, a new–sprung tribe created when escaped black slaves commingled with native Indians in the Sierras.
Yet it wasn’t well–received, to say the least. Francine Prose wrote in the New York Times Book Review that Walker’s book was "deeply mired in New Age hocus–pocus and goddess religion baloney. . . . What’s so dismaying, finally, about By the Light of My Father’s Smile is Alice Walker’s apparent assumption that her only job is to serve as a cheerleader for Eros, to exhort her audience to love and respect their bodies." Richard Bernstein was even more devastating, declaring that "Ms. Walker seems to have substituted the heartfelt concerns that motivated The Color Purple for a mediocre sort of spiritualist philosophizing that is both cloying and predictable."
Yet, there are bookshelves full of mediocre spiritualist philosophies out there, and it doesn’t usually bother our intellectuals this much. Alice Walker’s flounder must have been something worse than mere predictability.
Walker is, of course, the author of The Color Purple, which won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award in 1983. At first, By the Light of My Father’s Smile seems vintage Walker. A husband–and–wife team of Christian missionaries live among the Mundo people. The father, being "sucked into the black cloth" of Christianity, feels threatened by the Mundos’ free and easy ways. Years earlier, as Walker reminds us, the nakedness of the native tribes drove "the sexually repressed Europeans to heights of cruelty as they vainly sought to deny their lust." And so it is with the father of this story. The confusing narrative divagates through several different voices, but the central event of the book, to which all voices vertiginously return, is the father beating his adolescent daughter Magdalena for carrying on with a young Mundo boy.
But instead of controlling her, guess what ends up happening? That’s right, he succeeds only in alienating himself from her all the more. Her younger sister, Susannah, takes her side and both decide that their father is hopelessly gauche. For most of the book Susannah and Magdalena’s father also happens to be dead, but happily this doesn’t interfere with the story in the slightest, since it turns out that he has become a sort of angel who can peer at his daughters from above. Hung–up Dad is contrite now, being dead and all, and naturally he wants to make amends for failing to appreciate his daughters’ sexuality when he was alive.
One of the first scenes in By the Light of My Father’s Smile depicts the lovemaking of Susannah and her partner, Pauline, all reported in excruciating detail by our recently deceased and formerly repressed father. The book is generously sprinkled with such lines as, "She permits my daughter free–roaming access to her heavy breasts, hot to the touch" and "The woman rolls over and is suddenly the aggressor, on top of my daughter, straddling her. My daughter has wanted this. . . ." Later, he is glad to see his daughter’s lover resting "on her knees, her hand busy between my daughter’s legs . . . in truth, she can barely believe she has restrained herself for so long, and denied herself the taste of my daughter’s [the rest is censored]." And these are the tamer passages.
The problem here is not necessarily the explicitness, but something much more fundamental. There are many acceptable voices with which to narrate a woman’s discovery of sex; the voice of the woman’s dead father hovering over her while she is doing it, though, is generally not the one that immediately springs to mind. For a very good reason.
It is odd that Walker, who writes so much about sexual abuse of women, should be so insensitive to the incest taboo in By the Light of My Father’s Smile. Just what exactly is Walker’s father supposed to be smiling about, anyway? It’s decidedly unerotic, not to mention creepy, to have a father closely observing and cheerfully "celebrating" his daughter’s sexuality in such detail.
And it gets worse. Later, whenever the daughters hesitate in matters sexual, their father is there to beg them for more entertainment. For instance, "Susannah is writing a novel that explores the relationship she had with a man after her marriage to the Greek. But she is having difficulties. She cannot write in any sex. Write it in, I screech from the celestial sidelines. Put the sex right on up in there! Even if it’s nothing but the copulating dogs you saw from your window as a five–year–old when we lived in Mexico. . . . Or think [of when] your lover . . . shocked and stirred you and entered [censored]. It is not so big a deal! I want her to know. . . ."
If you want a nonfiction account of what happens when fathers encourage daughters to get "in touch" with their sexuality because "it is not so big a deal," read Hustled: My Journey From Fear to Faith (Westminster/John Knox), Tonya Flynt–Vega’s sad tale of what it was like growing up as Larry Flynt’s daughter. Flynt was extremely interested in introducing his daughter—now thirty–three—to the pornographic wonders depicted in his magazine, Hustler, and to that end molested her on several occasions when she was young. Needless to say, she did not thrive as a result. Larry Flynt and Alice Walker both want to smooth over our taboos, the better to display—as Walker puts it in her flap copy—"a celebration of sexuality." So why, one might ask, should the incest taboo be any exception?
The artistic failure of By the Light of My Father’s Smile proves that we need these taboos in order for sex to be interesting. Walker advocates a sexuality purged of every last human convention, but humans tend to find it hard to relate to a narrative so devoid of anything like shame, dignity, or even privacy. As one reader posted on the on–line bookstore, Amazon.com, "Ms. Walker is truly one of the most daring writers of the twentieth century . . . [but] I found the details of the lesbian lovemaking to be more than I ever wanted to know about lesbian relationships—and the assumption that my dead relatives spy on me in my bed quite revolting. The story was unique but never ‘captured’ me."
So maybe morality has a place in discussions of art, after all. It is interesting to note that when a literary conceit is as tasteless as the one in By the Light of My Father’s Smile, it is difficult to attain the suspension of disbelief necessary to lose oneself in the story. On a purely aesthetic level, it just doesn’t "capture." Contrast this with Nabokov: Even if he did claim that "aesthetic bliss" was his only goal, he was a great writer precisely because he was able to convey all the ambivalence and guilt humans usually feel when they do something morally questionable. At the end of Lolita, Humbert Humbert hears the laughter of children playing and says, "Then I knew that the hopelessly poignant thing was not Lolita’s absence from my side, but the absence of her voice from that concord"—that is, her absence from the world of children. He knows that he plotted for that absence, sees that what he stole from her can never be regained, and at last is sickened by it. With Alice Walker, there is never any such ambivalence. It is always, the more orgasms, the merrier. Is anyone actually like this in real life—other than, perhaps, Larry Flynt?
Alice Walker’s blunder is interesting because it marks a kind of end point in the swinging of our cultural pendulum. We have now thoroughly tasted the taboo–less waters, and boy, are they boring.
Wendy Shalit is a Contributing Editor of City Journal and author of A Return to Modesty, just published by Free Press.