23 NOVEMBER 1991, Page 38

The shorter the better

James Buchan


by Harold Brodkey Cape, £15.99, pp. 835

resented with this big, solemn and industrially difficult first novel, British critics have either giggled (these Ameddicans!) or turned away in embarrassment and busied themselves with the author's biography, semi-bogus publication details, touchy interviews, far- fetched literary influences (at the back of the room, St Augustine! Augustine of Hippo, at the back!) or a kind of insane professionalism:

. Harold Brodkey also spins a family saga but lacks Miss Cookson's lightness of touch

. lovemaking at somewhat too great length . overwrought . . . judicious touch of the red pencil. Still, the characters are mostly neatly drawn, the suburban American settings are on the whole convincing and one would hope to hear from Mr Brodkey again, please, perhaps before another 60 years have passed!

American critics accept that the book is heavy sledding but seem to derive some patriotic satisfaction from the world scale of its obscurity.

In the midst of all this, I'd like to record, in sorrow and about 2000 words, the indulgence and ruin of a singular literary talent and try to carry off something from the wreck.

The Runaway Soul, like almost all of Harold Brodkey's published fiction, is about a boy growing up. He is called first Aaron and then Wiley. At the age of two, he loses his mother and is adopted into the family of Lila and S.L. Silenowicz, who already have a daughter of 12 or 13 called Nora Cynthia or Nonie. (I guess there's some game of symbolic silly buggers with the names but I'm going to leave that — and the Homeric references in the text — to the doctorands.) Wiley grows up in the suburbs of St Louis, Missouri, latterly in a mostly Jewish neighbourhood called University or U. City, amid frightening sibling hatred, peel- ing respectability, illness, family disintegra- tion and death. Through the agency of some rich North Carolina cousins, and on the basis of some homosexual bargain, Wiley is eventually translated to Harvard. At two points, we see Wiley in New York,

in or around 1956, a literary and social celebrity.

On a satisfactory understanding of this development hang Wiley's notions of his identity and of reality itself: the word 'real' occurs more often than the word cock, which is saying something. (I don't want to get into the author's biography but it occurs to me that the word 'real' has a complexity of meaning to the adopted child:

I had thought the house I lived in was differ- ent from this one. I had thought my father had a different face from this one. My errors are the shape of my name, are how I know things. My name is Wiley now and not Aaron. I have been wrong. I am often wrong. I am uncertain with each step my mind or my body takes. But I am here now.) Much of the story is familiar from Brodkey's two published collections of short stories: First Love and Other Sorrows, which appeared in 1958, and Stories in an Almost Classical Mode, which followed with indecent haste in 1989. The Runaway Soul is best understood as a sort of aerial detonation of the very dense material in the stories, which is scattered over a wide area and can only be pieced together with great effort and ingenuity: a word such as 'collegiate' (which plays an important role in A Story in an Almost Classical Mode) turns up in an altered context, barely recognisable, like half a life-jacket in a kale field.

I do not question Harold Brodkey's right to reprocess this material, which is probably of existential importance to him: he has certainly devoted his entire working life to it. The important question is whether the reader (as opposed to the writer) is better served with each item at 80 instead of eight pages.

Mostly, the reader comes away worse off. Because the novel is so diffuse, it is hard to

make a comparison in a short review: the best I can come up with is the closing section of A Story in an Almost Classical Mode: I had a nervous breakdown after she [adoptant mother] died. After a while, I got over it.

I don't know all that I gained or lost, either. I know I was never to be certain I was mascu- line to the proper degree again. I always thought I knew what women felt.

In the novel, this is inflated to: I was ill off and on for a year after her death and then I resumed my life. I experimented with homosexuality — partly because I could not bear the sadness of women or the memo- ries in trying to be strong and to be a partner, partly because I couldn't bear to saddle them with me or with my thoughts; and the silence then when I was with them suffocated me and made me cruel — and evasive . . I saw some women, though, always. Perhaps they were the main part of my life.

The novel is evidently more copious, more tentative, no more revealing, much more irritating and very slightly fishy. A better example, but far too long to give, here, is the transformation of Orra Perkins interminable orgasm in Innocence, a boast- ful and ornate story that first appeared 111 1973. It now runs to 150 pages and Will surely deter any but the professional read- er. For some reason, Brodkey fills in a social background for Ora (as she is now known): like Woody Allen in Annie Haa he likes his Episcopalians insane, dipsomaniac and deep in household dirt. The St Louis scenes are incomparably better. In His Son, in His Arms, in Light, Aloft, a boy's intense Oedipal frustrations at his father's weakness are transfigured In the blinding light of a Midwestern day: it IS a beautiful story by any standards and has been highly influential. In the novel, Brod" key dares to penetrate the great wash of emotion represented by the light and some- how wins through: The wooden house shivers with voices; and S.L. closes the screen door and we are in the rain: the coarse blond hairs of his arms that hold me grow wet and flat while above our heads a blue umbrella opens and rides all thumps, oscillant and scary; and on S.L. s eyes, on his forehead, on his hair glides the colour blue.

I'm not sure I can find praise enough for these sections in The Runaway Soul. Lila, too, who speaks entirely in catchphrases and the clichés of radio and cinema, is a marvellous, living character and an efficient commentator. But it is Nonie who carries the burden of the adopted child's fear, guilt and shame and here there are serious problems. Her attempt to torture Wiley (which appeared in The Pain Continuum) is retold at night- marish length and in the midst of 3 thunderstorm. As first one parent then the other falls ill, Nonie tries to escape, first to the North Carolina cousins and then to .a wartime air-force base. She dies in

California, drunk, in her forties, in an incident with fire.

The Nonie sections do not make sense, either generally or in terms of the novel: it is unthinkable that Lina or any woman would keep Nonie in the house after she'd killed her two brothers (as Lila thinks). At times, in the Nonie material, I felt Brodkey was talking past the reader and conducting some hellish private dialogue; whole sections are quite baffling as to meaning; the book ends in chaos and confusion but with a promise of sibling enmity for all eternity. The passages feel raw, untreated, uncomprehended. It is as if Brodkey were screaming so that somebody — in Rilke's tremendous phrase — might hear him among the angelic orders.

Few readers are angels and Brodkey doesn't make things easy. Relations of time and cause and effect are so fragmented as to be almost impossible to re-assemble. I thought briefly that sex would provide a thematic link — first half straight, second half gay — but, alas, no such luck. A jostling current of events might have shown characters and ideas at different angles, but very little happens in the book, except masturbation: when something other than masturbation happens, as when Nonie strikes a girl on a tennis court or pushes a child off a porch, the effect is electrifying. Brodkey resorts instead to assertion. The reader soldiers on through a drizzle of predicates. If, as often happens, Brodkey changes his mind about a qualifier, he doesn't cross it out, he puts its opposite. If there's one thing I can't stand, in restau- rants and literature, it's self-service:

Ora was showy, determined, and yet indeter- minative, a drinker, a pagan-feminist mistress of despair, saltily not Christian, physical as hell, suicidal and resigned, unresigned, mur- derous and nuts ... indomitable.

In his restless search for a chimerical precision, Brodkey is much impeded by a fondness for most imprecise metaphor and simile,

She is a spirit caroming like a swarm of molecules in a quickening hysteria of the application of heat,

bombast, rhetoric, assonance, occasional malapropism and civil-disobedient punctu- ation. For much of the time, Brodkey compresses so much meaning into a group of words that they read like crossword clues. (Evolving fir tree that absolutists say

is stillness' has just got to be an anagram). There are two other disabling faults of style. First, Brodkey is deeply inhibited: not about sex — the reader gropes his way forward through a dense forest of cocks — but about ideas, differences of social stand- ing, high art. Brodkey tries to sound broad- shouldered, All-American, tongue-tied. Wiley is not only nationally smart, he's good at sports; social-class thing, antique- classical stuff, so to speak. This is fraudu- lent and a handicap. When, in the North Carolina section, Brodkey attempts to go head-to-head with Proust on insomnia, he gets creamed.

Second, Wiley does almost all of the thinking and doing but it's hard to get near him because of his inflated conceit. We never stop hearing about how tall he is, his great intellect and even larger cock. Yes, yes, I know all about 'tall' American speech and literature but it's hard to approach the still essence of things if you're stopping all the time to show off your pecs. It's a weird kind of fable where even the tortoise is a braggart.

It is possible that these faults could have been edited out but I doubt it: they seem to arise from the same source as Brodkey's gift. His intelligence is adult but his brash- ness, uncertainty, intense sensitivity and physical self-absorption is adolescent. The Runaway Soul looks like a heroic literary attempt to master a crisis of adolescence. If so, this would explain the book's old- fashioned feel. It really is a creation of the 1950s, a little like one of those big New York pictures from the period: laboured and slapdash, rocky in the market, American, important, made of cheap materials, a conservation nightmare. It occurred to me, about a third of the way through the book, that Brodkey might be a victim of New York: an out-of-town boy spoiled by early literary celebrity, after Truman Capote but before Bret Ellis. But in 40 months' residence in that city, I never once met anybody who had ever read a lit- erary novel or even a piece of news- paper criticism, except head- and bylines.

- An artist in New York is wholly free to mess up his work unsupervised. I do find it perverse that a nation that has raised the

short story to a pitch of expressiveness unmatched in the world should hanker after these lumbering engines of literature. (Ah Moby Dick! All East of Eden! What tedium in the name of literary nation-building!) The collected silences of Brodkey's best stories are more expressive than the mumbles of the novel. It is not a capitulation for a critic to say some things are best left unsaid. Of all the literary ancestors dug up for Brodkey in Europe, the least plausible Is Goethe. About the autobiographical masterpiece that he called Fiction and Truth, Goethe said: 'A fact of .oUr existence is of value not in so far as it is true, but in so far as it has something to signify.'