Although I wavered at first between liking and disliking Harold Brodkey’s texts because I readily found their language to be a bit convoluted, narcissistic, and “imitative” — I think of Proust and James — I do recognize that Brodkey bravely attempts to capture the power of consciousness, or the consciousness of power. He wants to bully you intellectually — the first story in this collection seems aptly entitled The Bullies — and indeed to seduce you. And he had me.
The World is the Home of Love and Death, Brodkey’s posthumous collection of short stories, left me wondering that if the author had been a recluse, might he have been less of a pariah? It’s hard to know; his brand of truculent narcissism can make itself felt even at a reader’s distance, stifling paragraphs and choking intellectualisms.
Albeit unusual, this work is also very elaborate and tortuous, and as a short-story writer his narratives peter out. Given something he could really develop — like, in A Guest in the Universe, a Sunday brunch of sniping literati — he seems to tune in on different wavelengths, being specific without ever being vivid, getting thick without ever quite making you wish he hadn’t. He’s a gifted writer, hands down, and in these stories it’s not difficult to spot that he dealt with the claustrophobia of both urban and suburban life, but was at his best with sex, or rather what led up to it, surrounded it, served as its mythos, its rumor, its reputation — even when it never happened and expired in a cloud of anticlimax.
But as the illustrious Freudian allusions pile up, with their component parts in no inevitable order, you discover that all he wants is to write, and write further, that the act is more important than organizing or phasing, plotting or scheming. Brodkey seems to have recognized that there isn’t much thinking in American fiction and tried to depict a mind in the act of reasoning things through in what we might easily construe as a perpetual quarrel with himself. He remains one of the few — the aesthetic bailiffs — who remind you about the mind the story comes from. I think he, the proud possessor, sometimes too proud, of an intellect in a country obsessed with success and profit, felt that was enough. For the most part, to use his own words from Dumbness is Everything, ”he whisper[s] tyrannically, regally” about surprisingly banal subjects, like honking a horn, or, more promisingly, climbing into a clock. At his best, he confronts what he calls in Lila and S.L. “a sullen impetus of self-erasure, a vaguely genital impulse, perhaps toward pain.”
Brodkey has a way with picking up the atmosphere of the most mundane of topics such as cocktail conversation and creates dialogues and character responses to dialogues about the vitriol that spews forth as the alcohol level elevates as in A Guest in the Universe and also in Dumbness Is Everything. But he also is able to crawl into the mind of the near mute character lost in thought and describe the world through eyes as few have accomplished: What I Do for Money is the extended musings of an ordinary office worker who is coping with his newly diagnosed brain tumor and the manner in which he alters his view of others and of the possible roads he could take, given his diagnosis.
In each of these eleven stories Harold Brodkey manages to override the importance of the story line he is molding by treating the reader to a level of prose that is as captivating as that of any more famous author. He shapes language, dawdles with moments that deserve pause until he brings gradually emerging and diminishing light to a subject thought foreign, and allows dialogue to become as simple as the person speaking it without resorting to the all too frequent flaw of dumbing down the reader.
The gist with Brodkey is exorcism, ridding himself, beneath never mind how many masks, of just about any eligible part of him. That persona is palpably evoked in this collection; A Guest in the Universe’s Brr, “an expert in self-presentation and in enraged disguise,” is a trickster. So is the character who says, at the same brunch, “Masturbation, after all, after the first few times, is largely memory lane plus amendments.” With Harold Brodkey, he has only one topic: being Harold Brodkey, which sometimes leads him, as it must, into flamboyant (or is it flam-buoyant?) turgidity. He can come on as Heidegger trying to be the Joyce of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, as in this passage from Dumbness is Everything:
To be logical is to recognize the free symmetries, where one act is free-willed, sort of, and the other in response is not as free to be unsymmetrical, directly or in undermeanings or overtones. The curious movements of the selves are ambitious — male free-will ignores her. Female free-will drifts off into fantasy or other absence: love and flight, the Eurydice thing, not blinking, not looking back, not holding back.
The subject that seemed to tug at Brodkey constantly was the babyhood and childhood of anyone pretending to be adult. The miracle and trauma of being dandled affects him all the time; he’s always coming back to it, whatever else the subject happens to be. The story Car Buying gives a copious account of it (“Momma pretty often displayed me naked to visitors”) and in Jibber-Jabber in Little Rock, the ten-year-old “is a troll of a child, squinting, twisted, with no freckles and nothing impish about him.” He seems to indicate that the child is the father to the man, so to speak, and the parents in his work, scorchingly, trail clouds of infamy. This creates a problem, for me at least, guaranteeing the ambivalence of my response: he says so much, with and without warning, about the same subject that I can’t remember where it was, in which story, which means that I remember some stories for their least consequential material. At least, when I see a story titled Waking, I know how many meanings of the title to be ready for; it works so well on various levels.
Waking is certainly my favorite story in this collection. It is, undoubtedly, one of the best stories I’ve read in long years. It violates the norms of family life, the easy role playing we learn to survive. It uncannily demonstrates the wild darkness of Brodkey’s art. Waking is an exploration of the painful relationship of son and mother, of “slave” and “master.” It alerts you to the blurring of boundaries. It is a trance-like presentation of complicit incest. The narrator returns to the primal scene: his mother, Lila, and her inability to care for him –to clean his dirtied body. He realizes, as an adult, that he may be misreading the past. Throughout the text the pronouns are transformed: “I” turns into “he” and, without doubt, “she” (in that the transgression of “male” and “female” seems to be an obsession of Brodkey’s.) The sentences move slowly, tentatively, seductively as do the actions of infant and mother. Here is a representative sentence:
She holds me; she holds me by the shoulders and turns me and lowers me — she is going to stand me and prop me on the edge of the tub — and it is as if her arms were slow, straining wings, my wings.
The infant is shaped by his mother-lover to reach angelic bliss. Even as the adult narrator remembers the terrifying embrace of ritual, he tries to relive it again and again. But his consciousness overwhelms him:
This local reality half shared — that is to say, judged and fixed as something other than private hallucination by my mother’s being here — becomes strangely blank, elegant in a way, stripped of particularities, and close to a proud madness of making things into a theater of meaning.
The common realities — waking, washing, speaking — are the “theater of meaning.” And the theater compels the narrator to recognize that his life, his art, is perversely beautiful and painful.
Reading Harold Brodkey takes time (it took me 11 days to read this collection) — time to savor the brilliance of his gifts as a wordsmith, time to understand some of the foreign waters in which he invites you to wade. But it is a time well spent — and it is time to spend more attention to this marvelous writer.