Reading: The Runaway Ego | Essay | Chicago Reader

Reading: The Runaway Ego 

For almost 30 years the literary world has tittered and buzzed over rumors of Harold Brodkey's first novel. So now we have it, an encyclopedia of literary pretensions.

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An ambitious book is a presumptuous book; it aims at a certain bull's-eye. Then there's another sort of great book--the kind that grows to such proportions out of the nature of the material or the artist's own curiosity. Don Quixote is an example of this second type. But the ambitious writer assumes he knows what greatness is and sets out to achieve it. And perhaps this presumption actually causes books like these to fall short of their goals. Could it be that the Aeneid matters less to us than the Iliad in part because the former had a model and the latter didn't?

No one can accuse Harold Brodkey's The Runaway Soul of a lack of ambition. For almost 30 years the literary world has tittered and buzzed over rumors of the novel's appearance. For those unacquainted with Brodkey's history, this fire storm of expectation may seem hard to fathom. What, exactly, has transformed another first novel into the first novel? Back in 1958, Brodkey published a modest collection of nine stories called First Love and Other Sorrows, which a few reviewers greeted with immoderate praise. These reviewers seemed to feel that Brodkey "smelled of museums," as Gertrude Stein said archly of Ernest Hemingway; he was stylish in a self-conscious way, serious (in those days a writer was considered serious if he wrote about either sex or the war), and modest in his oeuvre (critics are less generous with a proven talent). Brodkey immediately announced plans for a monumentally ambitious work, but for the next 30 years he published only small sections of it. Perhaps the very scarcity of the work enhanced its value. Those with the patience to track the pieces down were unwilling to disparage their own quest. Just as Woody Allen's ostentatious breast beating over his artistic insecurities has produced the desired critical indulgence, Brodkey had hit on a ploy that has transformed natural adversaries into cooing grandparents holding out sugar cubes. In 1987 Douglas Seibold climbed on the bandwagon in the Reader: "Judging from the bits and pieces he's published so far," he wrote, "Harold Brodkey's A Party of Animals [the working title at the time] will be one of the most important books of our time--if he ever finishes it."

To predict such grandeur from the meager evidence then at hand is similar to visualizing the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel from a handful of paint chips. People don't produce poetic epics just because they're good at haiku. While a stylish sprint can be enough to carry a short story, only substance can sustain length. Brodkey claimed he avoided giving the public the long work not out of self-doubt but because he was disinclined to deal with the burden of international celebrity. He told one interviewer, "If some of the people who talk to me are right, well, to be possibly not only the best living writer in English but someone who could be the rough equivalent of a Wordsworth or a Milton is not a role that a halfway educated Jew from Saint Louis with two sets of parents and a junkman father is prepared to play." Farrar Straus Giroux finally brought out the 835-page tome, at the end of last year, so the rest of us could decide. Wordsworth and Milton are safe.

The book is a mess, but an instructive mess. It can be taken as an encyclopedia of literary pretensions, a survey of all the trappings of "serious" fiction. Like most first novels, Brodkey's book has only one subject: himself. The author seems to feel that his self-absorption creates some kinship with Proust: Proust's name crops up occasionally in the novel and Brodkey commandeers much of Proust's basic approach, particularly the in-depth analysis of every detail and the cyclical structure that "explains" the character by returning to a childhood trauma.

But Proust is tough to counterfeit. Like Alice, he was able to pass through his mirror into a vast, unexplored world; most writers who try to follow suit merely run into their own reflections. The difference with Proust was that he used the particulars of his life as the means to a larger end: exploring the nature of memory. Brodkey has no larger end. All the Proustian gestures end up being nothing more than gestures. Brodkey is like "the French Beethoven," Saint-Saens: what you got wasn't a composer of Beethoven's stature but a composer rife with Beethovenian mannerisms. Mere imitators rarely catch their prey because they start with the person they're imitating instead of going back to the artists their idol was imitating. In this case, Brodkey might have obtained a more organic Proustian feel by going back to Proust's sources, Wagner and Ruskin. But there are no leitmotivs to pull The Runaway Soul into emotional coherence. Like Ruskin's, Proust's analysis is magical because it's lucid and systematic, but Brodkey's is elusive to say the least.

If Proust supplies The Runaway Soul's superstructure, the other great 20th-century literary figure, Joyce, supplies its idiom. Brodkey's book is full of Joycean word jazz: there's the obligatory punning and invention of awkward polyglot words like "echo-yness," "eyeliddedness," and "boardlikeness." All this leaves the reader with the conviction that poetic prose should be restricted to poets. Brodkey is forever toying with his typography, inserting hyphens and ellipses, putting some words in italics and others IN CAPITAL LETTERS. Brodkey has a weakness for big, meaning-laden words that seem strangely void of meaning, like the "soul" mentioned in the title and the heavens, hells, devils, and original sins scattered throughout. As if to balance this pretension, he also uses a lot of slang and popular cliches. Brodkey has an exaggerated regard for the potential of words like "nutty" and "stuff." "Kazowie" even makes several appearances.

All this arch attention to surface only distracts from the longer Proustian lines Brodkey tries to achieve. You can't be Proust and Joyce at the same time; the two styles clash. The modernist's bristling detail and displacement are incompatible with 19th-century systematic discourse. Brodkey merely muddles the two literary personalities to produce a bastard genre: stream of self-consciousness.

Despite its length, The Runaway Soul tells us very little about its main character. The book mainly dwells on a few fucks and near fucks, both homo and hetero, that are recorded in such elephantine detail that they make Norman Mailer's "The Time of Her Time" seem like premature ejaculation. Like most egotists, Brodkey thinks he's being dangerous when he's merely being clinical. There is a lot of Nichols and May gassing about love ("Are you a realist, Ora?" "Men are fools"); and at the very end of the book Brodkey scrambles after the concept of love as if that had been his goal all along.

But love is the last thing you get any sense of in The Runaway Soul--unless it's self-love. The author's narcissism is a constant embarrassment because it's so clumsily insistent. All one gets for the first hundred pages is what a gorgeous baby the narrator was. He repeatedly tells the reader that all old women had crushes on him, that everyone loves his writing, that people compliment him on his chest muscles and women tell him how beautiful he is, that teachers say he's a genius (he claims to have learned to read in half an hour at age five), that a lot of people do double takes when they see him. "Very few people--perhaps only lesbians--leave me alone as a rule." He even has to inform the reader that his gay cousin thought he had a "cute pecker."

This book might have been a devastating portrait of an egomaniac if it had had some inkling of a critical or objective intent, but the preening is all too pervasive and unexamined, even compulsive. The pursuit of love may be the "official" theme, but what this book is really about is narcissism. And 835 pages is hardly long enough to accommodate Brodkey's self-absorption. The strategies of Proust and Joyce are not even appropriated for effect, but as an outward sign of the league the author fancies himself to be playing in. Brodkey makes a weak attempt at self-disguise when he gives his narrator the name Wiley Silenowicz. But all the landmark details of Brodkey's life are there, from being adopted to living in Saint Louis and going to Harvard. He even leaves the year of his birth the same. But his literary shadow resembles him nowhere more than in his garish vanity. For 30 years Brodkey has made statements like "I'm one of the people that people fight over" and "It's just possible I am the voice of the coming age." Someone who talks like that about himself is an idiot. And though some idiots do produce great art, The Runaway Soul makes it clear Brodkey is not one of them.

The Runaway Soul by Harold Brodkey, Farrar Straus Giroux, $30.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/David K. nelson.

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