An I for an I : THE RUNAWAY SOUL, <i> By Harold Brodkey (Farrar, Straus & Giroux: $30; 833 pp.)</i>
“To see her in sunlight is to see Marxism die.” This metaphor from Harold Brodkey’s story “Innocence,” published in 1973 in the American Review, evoked high praise from the editor, who disclosed that “Innocence” would be incorporated into Brodkey’s novel “The Animal Corner,” to be published that same year. “The Animal Corner” was in fact never published. Nor was “The Party of Animals,” Brodkey’s subsequent title for his frequently postponed, much-whispered-about novel.
Whispered about by whom? Presumably by the select cadre of readers, editors and critics familiar with Brodkey’s modest output. He had after all published only a single volume, “First Love and Other Stories,” in 1958, composed of stories originally published in high-tone journals.
For the record:
12:00 a.m. Nov. 17, 1991 FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Sunday November 17, 1991 Home Edition Book Review Page 15 Book Review Desk 1 inches; 24 words Type of Material: Correction
In the Nov. 10 issue, the title of Harold Brodkey’s first book is “First Love and Other Sorrows”; the author of “Final Cut” (in the review of “Devil’s Candy”) is Steven Bach.
“Innocence” recounts the frenzied sexual relationship of an odd-couple of Harvard classmates: well-bred Ora Perkins and Brodkey’s upstart Jewish alter ego, Wiley Cohn. Briefly put: Ora is non-orgasmic and Wiley, after hours of compulsive, jackhammer sex, liberates her decisively. Wiley Cohn, conquering hero.
Given our current climate of gender equality and “political correctness,” the subject of “Innocence” would not seem a promising one for contemporary readers. Never mind. In 1988, it was reprinted in Brodkey’s second collection, “Stories in an Almost Classical Mode.” And now nearly 20 years after the first publication of “Innocence,” the ample, autobiographical novel, called “The Runaway Soul,” has arrived at last. As promised, Ora, who has lost a consonant, and Wiley, whose surname is now Silenowicz, are sexually grappling all over again. Brodkey even resuscitates the flashy metaphor, which in the novel reads: “To see her at the dinner table was to see Marxism die.”
Though orgasm is no longer a problem for Ora, the sexuality is still compulsive rather than erotic, several hundred pages worth; while Wiley’s voluminous, minute recording of it is all-consuming, obsessive. But why aren’t any of these pages erotic? Mostly because Wiley’s niggling, hyperactive brain will not let him alone. After one typical sexual session, Wiley, exasperated, muses: “Let me say something, let me feel something, utterly and singly and simply true.”
There is another reason for the singular lack of pleasure in these encounters, which is that Wiley’s deepest carnal impulses appear homosexual. At numerous junctures in the novel, Wiley refers to young men with whom he’s had affairs, and two of these are conveyed: the first with Wiley’s older cousin by adoption, the second with a teenage friend. The oddity is that rather than detailing the, for Wiley, pleasurable sexuality, Brodkey expends nearly all of his prose on the coy preliminaries: flirtatious patter, horseplay.
Why would Wiley’s otherwise ravenous memory be skittish about recounting one of the rare exchanges where he experiences pleasure without the meddling of his mind? Certainly it goes against the inclusive narrative logic of the novel. It could be that Wiley’s creator, Brodkey, did not want to seem to validate homosexuality in our time of AIDS and uncharitable social attitudes toward male homosexuality.
“My mind, besides remembering itself, remembers other minds and bans the world.”
Like his avowed model Proust, anything that skirts his consciousness, no matter how trivial-seeming, is fair game for Brodkey. Hence the plot, such as it is, of “The Runaway Soul” reprises data from “Stories in an Almost Classical Mode,” adding here, subtracting there. Adopted as an infant by Missouri relatives of his dead parents, Wiley recounts his poisonous relationship with his adopted sister Nonie, his bisexuality, his years at Harvard, his sexual relationship with Ora, whom he subsequently marries, and his questing after literary fame.
These narrative data are not presented chronologically. Rather Brodkey’s style is a kind of careering lyricism, prose coursing downstream, accumulating scree, sediment, changing direction, doubling back on itself. Constantly doubling back on itself, because Brodkey’s very large book is unapologetically a poetics of narcissism.
It is instructive to compare Brodkey with some other recent, notable obsessives: Salinger, Beckett, William Burroughs. Like Brodkey, Salinger’s considerable reputation was disproportionate to his slender output. The crucial difference is that “The Catcher in the Rye” was an enormous popular success and readers nationwide waited with bated breath for more about Holden Caulfield and, later, the Glass family.
Salinger’s overweening attention to Seymour Glass was criticized in some circles, but Salinger intended poor, fated Seymour to have some figurative value, to represent visionary human potential in a world that has forfeited its innocence.
Beckett, especially in his last years, conveyed the impression in his unrelenting, arid prose of Everyman/woman in grievous consultation with a malignant universe.
Burroughs’ prose is idiosyncratic and often cryptic, but it is studded with phantasmogoric scenes and images, at least partially intended to point outside their own moorings to a last-ditch utopian option for deluded earthlings.
The “Runaway Soul” makes no pretensions to worlds or emblems beyond Wiley’s narcissistic convex mirror. Brodkey’s high-strung, inordinately nuanced prose can be read as a delirious “inscape,” Gerard Manley Hopkins’ term for infinite particularity. For Hopkins, unreproducible particularity in even the smallest of living things signaled God as prime creator. For Brodkey, nothing precedes Wiley Silenowicz.
“The body remembers pain . . . One’s own pain. Someone else’s. I’m not sure what difference someone else’s pain ought to make in the moral scales of determining what you do.”
Wiley’s adopted family is a shambles. His parents despise each other, and both despise Nonie, their natural daughter and Wiley’s older sister. Nonie, in Wiley’s rendering, is a species of monster, who among other outrages, sexually assaults Wiley when he is an infant. S. L., the father, is embittered and clinically depressed; he dies miserably when Wiley is an adolescent. Lila, the mother, is chronically unstable; she becomes psychotic and dies of cancer when Wiley is 17.
A house freighted with agony, yet young Wiley, though not inattentive to his parents, is always cool, seemingly untouched by their torment. His own pain is of course another matter, especially as inflicted by the hideous Nonie; he never forgives, even to the point of exulting in her terrible death by fire many years later when she and he are middle-aged.
Wiley (and Brodkey) were born in 1930, so both experienced World War II as adolescents in the Midwest. The pages on the war are among the most successful in the novel. They are precociously cynical (“The side that blunders least wins.”); they are nervously focused on the Nazi death camps; and, though naturally mediated through Wiley’s consciousness, these pages are not so stubbornly narcissistic as the rest of the novel.
Brodkey is sometimes portrayed as an avant-garde, or innovative, writer. Actually he is not. His mind is informed by the high-modernist masters: late Henry James, Joyce and especially Proust. There is no indication that Brodkey has been touched by the extremely influential poststructuralist discourse of the last 25 years.
Closing metaphor: To read “The Runaway Soul” is to uncover a tome authored by a refugee from some now-obscure devastation, who survived in his wilderness of place and mind by writing to himself about himself: deliriously, brilliantly, ceaselessly.