How Does Susan Sontag’s Fiction Stack Up Against All Her Other Stuff?

Susan Sontag. Photo: Jean-Regis Roustan/Roger Viollet/Getty Images

In his introduction to the new Susan Sontag volume, Debriefing: Collected Stories, the editor Benjamin Taylor diagnoses its author with “autobiographophobia,” a term coined by Anton Chekhov. In her lifetime — Sontag died of blood cancer in 2004 at age 71 — she wasn’t a practitioner of self-exposure, either in her several books of essays or her four novels. But the picture changed with the posthumous publication of two books of journal notebooks — Reborn (2008) and As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh (2012) — that presented selections of her private writings from 1947 up to 1980. Sontag’s essays are necessary reading for an understanding of postwar American intellectual history. Seriousness always pervaded her essays, but they grew more solemn with time, as her subjects moved to illness and the representation of war, while her writing on literature shifted toward neglected works of modernism, like Leonid Tsypkin’s Summer in Baden-Baden. The journals, on the other hand, are no less serious and just as essential as the record of a writer and a woman imagining herself into being. Sontag in private is playful, vulnerable, funny, impish, dishy, voracious, self-contradictory. “I feel dumb,” she writes in 1965, already a novelist, tyro on the New York scene, and author of essays that are still required reading. “That’s how I know there’s more in the world than me.”

Her fiction has meanwhile been in a state of readerly neglect. As Taylor admits, no one at this late stage is about to confuse her fiction with her major work as an essayist, but Sontag worked under a European model that allowed a writer to write anything, and whatever of hers we choose to ignore is our loss. “Most American novelists and playwrights are really either journalists or gentlemen sociologists and psychologists. They are writing the literary equivalent of program music,” Sontag wrote in 1964 in “Against Interpretation,” and she could never be accused of writing program music. Her four novels split into two phases: a pair of experimental works of the ’60s (The Benefactor and Death Kit) more concerned with portraying consciousness than storytelling; and a couple of relatively conventional historical novels from the ’90s. The stories in Debriefing fit between these phases, and while I hesitate to call them essential, they are full of optional delights.

There are 11 pieces here, 8 of which appeared in the 1978 volume I, etcetera. The book’s most appealing quality is the absence of a uniform style. (“Style” is, of course, not a simple term when it comes to discussing the author of Against Interpretation: “It would be hard to find any reputable critic today who would care to be caught defending as an idea the old antithesis of style versus content,” she wrote in 1965.) As Taylor writes in his foreword, Sontag “was an occasional rather than a habitual writer of short stories, turning to the form as certain expressive needs arose that couldn’t otherwise be satisfied.” In Debriefing, the form proves supremely flexible: memoir, diary, allegory, documentary, and even science fiction are all present.

Startlingly, the volume begins with a work that resembles straight autobiography. “Pilgrimage,” as Sontag admitted in her 1994 interview with the Paris Review, is a lightly fictionalized account of her teenage encounter with Thomas Mann. The circumstances of the meeting are charming. The narrator (we might as well call her Susan) and her friend Merrill are both sophomores in Southern California in the late 1940s, though at different high schools. They drive in cars, attend classical-music concerts at the Hollywood Bowl, and read the same novels. Merrill, aware that Mann is living in exile in Pacific Palisades, looks him up in the phone book and receives an invitation for the pair to come around on a Sunday afternoon for tea. Against her instincts, Susan goes along. The first shock is his “uncanny” resemblance to his own author photo.

“I’d never met anyone who didn’t affect being relaxed. His resemblance to the photograph seemed like a feat, as if he were posing now. But the full-figure picture had not made me see the sparseness of the mustache, the whiteness of the skin, the mottled hands, the unpleasantly visible veins, the smallness and amber color of the eyes behind the glasses. He sat very erectly and seemed to be very, very old. He was in fact seventy-two.”

In conversation, Merrill “carried the ball,” engaging with Mann on the Faust legend, the theme of his next novel, mumbling that he’d never read Hemingway, as the author assumed all young Americans must be doing.
Susan is overcome by embarrassment, wants to be alone in the first private library she’s ever seen, afraid that she’ll eat too many cookies, ashamed when he turns the conversation to the students that he couldn’t conceive of how far away their education was from his “at the Gymnasium in his native Lübeck.” The writer in person is inevitably disappointing: “I wouldn’t have minded if he talked like a book. I wanted him to talk like a book. What I was obscurely starting to mind was that (as I couldn’t have put it back then) he talked like a book review.”

A self-portrait of the teenager as budding intellectual precedes the account of meeting Mann, and it’s as magical as you’d expect: “a demon reader from earliest childhood,” thief of books, pretend conductor of her classical records. A different sort of magic animates “Project for a Trip to China”: This is the Sontag we now recognize from her diaries, sparkling fragments that see the middle-aged intellectual (she was turning 40 when she visited China) communing in a gnomic way with her childhood self. China was where her parents conceived her and where her father, a fur trader, died in 1939, when she was 6. There’s no separating the curiosities of the young Susan from the adult’s. In the most important ways, she never got old.

Another diaristic piece, the title story, works as a collage of life in 1970s Manhattan, not unlike Renata Adler’s Speedboat, and builds to the revelation of a friend’s suicide: “That late Wednesday afternoon I told Julia how stupid it would be if she committed suicide. She agreed. I thought I was convincing. Two days later she left her apartment again and killed herself, showing me that she didn’t mind doing something stupid.” It sounds cold at first, but the story’s last page resolves into something heartbreaking: “You’re the tears in things, I’m not. You weep for me, I’ll weep for you.” Sontag’s 1986 story “The Way We Live Now” collects a chorus of voices speaking of their friends in intensive care units during the early days of the AIDS epidemic. “I was thinking, Ursula said to Quentin, that the difference between a story and a painting or a photograph is that in a story you can write, He’s still alive. But in a painting or a photo you can’t show ‘still.’ You can just show him being alive. He’s alive, Stephen said.” This is the critic stepping into the fiction with the best sort of intervention.

Several stories in Debriefing partake of the currents of experimental fiction that were going strong in the 1960s and ’70s. The strongest of these, “Old Complaints Revisited,” which relates the narrator’s uneasy feelings about her membership in an obscure organization, has been interpreted as an allegory for Judaism, but such a narrow reading discounts its playful Borgesian pleasures. Sontag was an avowed fan of Donald Barthelme, and his influence is clear, especially in “American Spirits,” a pastiche of the love life of Miss Flatface, who hears the voices of the ghosts of famous Americans. “Baby” narrates the life of a baby-boomer child in the voices of parents consulting with a doctor in the course of daily visits that accelerate years at a time. “Dummy” imagines a corporate stiff replacing himself with clones to escape “the problems of this one poor short life that was allotted me.” Any of these stories could fit neatly in anthology of the period. Without bylines, you wouldn’t necessarily peg them to Susan Sontag, but you can hear their echoes all around today, in the fiction of Lydia Davis and Lynne Tillman and Deb Olin Unferth, and they’ll keep ringing as long there are those for whom received forms and straitened ways of being a writer are never enough.

How Do Susan Sontag’s Stories Stack Up?