Harold Brodkey

Jonathan Baskin assesses Harold Brodkey in Bookforum. For however obscure Brodkey is now, I remember his Vintage Contemporaries paperbacks–the first collection and then the big one–as two books that were everpresent in the small fiction sections of suburban bookstores in the days before Borders and Barnes and Noble made extensive selection de rigeur. Then his mammoth The Runaway Soulcame out and Brodkey disappeared overnight, victim of universally bad reviews excoriating his self-indulgence and florid prose. Then a few years later I heard about him again, when he died of AIDS. Now his books are out of print, though readily available for pennies.

Random House and Penguin controlled much of the contemporary fiction that I read as a teenager, and so I read Brodkey with a mixed response. I never connected with his writing, and his story “Puberty” was outright disturbing, a vision of teenage sexuality foreign from anything I knew. The sex writing, which might constitute a good 50 percent of his verbiage, taught me little about either.

Baskin wonders if Brodkey will make a comeback. I don’t think he will. Far from “the American Proust,” Brodkey’s writing is strikingly bad, the sort of thing from which one can learn because its defects are so apparent. Of the passages Baskin quotes, it’s only the final one, reflecting on his imminent death, that carries the clarity and immediacy of good prose. The others avoid it with a secondhand narcissism that illustrates the most common fallacy of aspiring writers: that if the feeling accompanying the writing was sincere and intense, the writing must be instilled with that same significance. Writers learn to look back and see with a detached eye how they failed to communicate. Brodkey, it seems, took longer than most.

Consider (and I must quote from Baskin’s exemplary passages here, since my own Brodkey books are long gone), from “S.L.”:

The elephant-gray mass and rumble of the air, and the itchy, carpetlike closeness of Da’s heat. . . . My face snakily writhes against the fat, resilient bicep of Daddy’s arm. I am now largely on my belly in his arms. “From the backside you look just like everyone else, kiddo–you look like an asshole.” I hang, I arch–like a bowsprit–a branch of the rubbery, muscle-and-spine, oaken pounding-along tree of that man: this is in the state of Illinois, in the now quickening rain; he is running toward the gate of the park: I see the torn rooms of the out-of-doors. Dad says, “NO,” and refolds me in his arms, defining me as Error and A Fool and someone he wants bodily near him, someone whose bodily welfare concerns him: it’s interesting and I start to laugh.

Note how the prose acts as a damper on the emotions that are in play. The word “snakily” throws a wedge into its sentence, conjuring the wrong associations of the scene. Describing “closeness” as “carpetlike” is more confusing than it is enlightening. To “hang” and “arch” is to denote two separate images combined together without explanation. His fathers tree is overloaded as rubbery, muscle-and-spine, andoaken. Dad defines him in an unspecified manner as three divergent things in close succession. The narrator’s response is that he finds it “interesting” and then he laughs. Well, I suppose I often laugh at interesting things too.

“Yes,” comes the defense, “but he still communicatesa feeling.” I disagree and say that Brodkey throws out so many ambiguities that he tricks the reader into imposing conventions onto the scene. The sheer vagueness of the word “interesting” (which I, like you all, was banned from using in high school and which has taken on a wry, ironic cast as I’ve aged) leaves a blank space for readers to fill: they come up with how it was interesting, because Brodkey doesn’t tell them. No doubt Brodkey had a specific image and sensation in his mind, but his sheer failure to convey it is appalling. Brodkey worked with raw, universal material that was familiar to everyone who read him: childhood, love, sex, family. Had he written about something more particular or foreign, his books would have been blatant muddles of confusion. Yet because people can figure out something like what he was trying to say, they mistakenly credit him with having said it in a new way.

I don’t trash Brodkey out of spite or play, but to try to illuminate via negativa what writing must do and how it can fail, as well as how readers can compensate for it. (And more pertinently, why they compensate for it.) Consider in contrast Stephen Dixon, who has been working with similarly quotidian material for over thirty years. Yet where Brodkey is nebulous, Dixon has always been insistently specific, drawing every distinction and particular out of common experience. It’s not that this sort of concreteness is necessary or even desirable for the material, but even for its sheer lack of flash, Dixon’s writing is far more evocative than Brodkey’s. Brodkey treats himself far more seriously than he treats language. My opinion? To cross Yeats and Wittgenstein: In language begins responsibility.

One thought on “Harold Brodkey

  1. As much as I respect your literary pronouncements, I think it is too easy to dismiss Brodkey’s laborious style and self-preoccupation. One problem is that Brodkey frequently mines childhood in a cyclical way, returning to it over and over. Also, he embeds specific details of childhood in long winding prose (very Proustian of course).

    I haven’t read Runaway Soul (although I have read his collection Stories in an Almost Classical Mode), but I’ve noticed one tendency in his story construction: spend 95% of the book rambling on his inner psychological ailments, and then end on some terse/tense note where everything falls together/apart. One can’t simply call it faulty writing, but I think Brodkey (like Proust) needs to understand the burdens (and time commitment) in reading him. I’ve written elsewhere about the burden of reading big novels.

    The Dixon comparison is interesting and peculiar. I have to check my Dixon (I haven’t read much), but I think Dixon is more comfortable with smaller forms and has no problem ramping up the scale of his projects. Brodkey, on the other hand, needs a continuous sense of an ending. Perhaps his chapters/sections provide this sort of relief. I’m speculating.

    Two historical points. No discussion of Brodkey can ignore two details, his groundbreaking short story, Innocence (about Oral Sex). And the fact that New Yorker was one of his main champions. With connections like that, he didn’t need to worry so much about attracting readers.

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