An American Genius

Patrick Parrinder

  • The Runaway Soul by Harold Brodkey
    Cape, 835 pp, £15.99, November 1991, ISBN 0 224 03001 9

‘This man has been called America’s greatest writer,’ boasts Cape’s press release. ‘On the evidence of two collections of short stories, he has been compared to Proust, Wordsworth and Milton.’ After more than twenty-five years’ labour, he has finally published ‘the most eagerly awaited first novel of all time’. Sadly, The Runaway Soul is only the most overweight first novel of all time. A sort of Midwestern version of Whitman’s ‘Song of Myself’, its 800 pages of first-person narrative are formless, plotless and graceless. Harold Brodkey, who began his career in the New Yorker in the Fifties, has been slowly maturing not a well-tempered masterpiece but the garrulous, profligate self-celebrations of a precocious adolescent who never grew up. It is not even clear why the novel ends where it does, since ‘let us pause’ is all the narrator says in the middle of his last paragraph. Few of those lulled by the publicity into buying this book are likely to get that far.

As entertainment The Runaway Soul is a non-starter, but as a supposedly major contribution to mainstream American fiction it is conclusive evidence of the decadence of the form. Brodkey is not a Post-Modernist, and he has evidently learnt nothing from recent European and Latin American novelists. Though not quite a contemporary of Bellow and Mailer, he is old enough to have served his literary apprenticeship at a time when talk of the Great American Novel was still fashionable. The Great American Novel, it was believed, had still to be written. Neither Melville, Twain, Faulkner nor Hemingway had quite managed it, and Henry James had defected to England. From Henry Miller to J.D. Salinger, any aspiring genius who did not have a shot at it was not doing his duty by Uncle Sam. The truth is, of course, that the GAN had long been written – for what is Moby Dick if not the Great White Whale as put down on paper by the Great White Male? But it suited everyone to disregard this fact.

Today, with the dubious and decadent exception of Thomas Pynchon, there are no longer any white male novelists of the highest class below pensionable age in the United States. This gap may be amply filled by genre fiction, by female, ethnic and minority-group writers – not to mention the novelists of the rest of the American continent – but the desire to announce some hitherto unknown contender to the world is readily understandable. What is obvious, however, is that Harold Brodkey is not the great missing genius. If anything, he wrote rather better in the days before some people began to mistake him for one.

Back in the Fifties he published a raw but oddly memorable short story called ‘Sentimental Education’, which I have recently re read. The story is more or less a Chekhovian pastiche, an earnestly naturalistic bittersweet account of a love affair between two Harvard students with the antiseptically Wasp names of Elgin Smith and Caroline Hedges. Brodkey means to suggest the discrepancy between his characters’ sexual appetites and then emotional needs, but the story suffers from the fact that he feels obliged to break off the narrative each time they start undressing. He has made up for this rather too amply since. ‘Innocence’ (1973), another Harvard story, introduces a Radcliffe beauty called Orra Perkins (‘To see her in sunlight was to see Marxism die’) who is bedded by the unambiguously Jewish narrator, Wiley Silenowicz, who has now reappeared as the narrator of The Runaway Soul. Orra confesses to Wiley that she has never had an orgasm. Brodkey’s account of Wiley’s finally successful attempts to make her come takes up no less than twenty excruciating and, I would say, offensive pages.

Orra presumably found Wiley irresistible as a result of this episode, since in The Runaway Soul (where her name is spelt Ora) we find the couple, several years later, making love on the window ledge of a New York apartment. To see Ora ‘at the dinner table’, we are now told, is to see Marxism die. But we see her exclusively in the bedroom, where she and Wiley copulate and talk during a single night which Brodkey spins out for nearly a hundred and fifty highly cerebral pages. In this version their relationship is not as crudely sexual as it was in ‘Innocence’, if that is any comfort. Much later, Wiley informs us, Ora committed suicide – this would have been in 1987 or so – while dying of cancer in late middle age.

‘Innocence’ appears in The Abundant Dreamer, Harold Brodkey’s second collection of stories, together with an autobiographical piece still closer to the material of The Runaway Soul. Here the 13-year-old narrator’s name is Harold Brodkey, but the setting is University City, a suburb of St Louis, where Wiley also grows up. Since Harold and Wiley are both adopted, and since the given name of each was Aaron, it seems they are more or less interchangeable protagonists. Harold recalls the emotional turmoil of his early adolescence when both of his adoptive parents were terminally ill, the estranged father in hospital, and the mother at home feeding off her son’s life like an emotional vampire. The impact of Doris Brodkey’s accusing, self-pitying monologues is disturbingly vivid, and the story concludes with a harrowing deathbed scene. The mother’s monologue and her dying instructions to her adopted son recur, much altered, in the novel published nearly twenty years after this story first appeared.

‘After a while, I got over it,’ says Harold of his mother’s death. Wiley in The Runaway Soul never gets over anything, which is partly why the novel is so long, and may also account for his curious remark, after 731 pages, that ‘you probably wouldn’t like me it you knew me closely.’ How true this must be. Yet Wiley gives inordinately detailed accounts of his relations with two girlfriends, Ora and Leonie, and two boyfriends, Daniel and Remsen (the novel is staunchly bisexual), who obviously do like him, and frequently tell him so, no matter how boorishly and obnoxiously he behaves toward them. Nor is he any slouch at self-love, for he is both a compulsive masturbator and an epic narcissist. The novel presents his ‘inner-scape’: it is a monologue in which he confesses all, or, in his own words, an ‘intense and compressed jumble’, ‘a jumbled lunatic Allness, echo-y, knotted, private, snotty’.

Wiley claims, unconvincingly, that he is ‘also interested in the world behind the not entirely glass bell of my existence’, but The Runaway Soul resembles nothing so much as an airless bell-jar. A recent essay by a younger Midwestern writer, Scott Russell Sanders, deplores the virtual absence of any thorough-going representation of the non-human world – of nature and the cosmos – in contemporary American fiction. The first, and the least typical, episode of The Runaway Soul describes a 40-mile bike ride that Wiley takes, immediately after the death of his father, from University City to the deserted banks of the Missouri River. As he peers out at the brown flood from among the overgrown reeds, Wiley slips in some thoughts about the river of life, the nature of consciousness, and so on. But then he opens his flies and attends to his erection: the innerscape blotting out the riverscape.

Virtually everything after that takes place behind closed doors. Wiley is so far from being a Huck Finn that he has no real desire to leave University City at all (and when he does so, he goes to Harvard). The greater part of The Runaway Soul traces and retraces his sentimental education at the hands of his adopted family. He is a child prodigy, destined to become a writer, and his (and presumably Brodkey’s) wish is to recapture the ‘real moments’ of the past, before they became subject to the re-editing of memory. In an older and more dated idiom we might say that he has ‘total recall’, though the currently accepted critical view would stigmatise his ambition as impossible. Wiley, however, represents himself as a virtuoso, a wonderfully alert and sensitive mind, but one who can never break out of the confines of cerebralism and self-obsession. The only ‘real moments’ here are moments as he claims to have experienced them.

To a solipsist like Wiley the only external thing possessing undoubted reality is that which can be made to figure as a symbolic Other – that is, a negative projection or anti-self. His stepsister Nonie fills this role. The father and mother are significant characters mainly because they tried to mediate and intervene in his life-and-death, love-hate struggle with Nonie. She is presented as an embodiment of evil, a vicious and demonic young girl who is suspected of having killed her two infant brothers. One day when they are shut up at home in a closet she does her best to strangle her third baby brother, but Wiley survives in some kind of symbiotic relation to his psychopathic sister. As an adult narrator, he reports with ghoulish satisfaction that she has died a violent death. That, presumably, is what has set him free to write his novel.

One sees what is intended here: Wiley and Nonie are the Huck and Jim, the Paleface and Redskin, of the runaway soul’s journey. The fact that Wiley has tried, at times, to love his sister means that his conscience is clear even though he returns obsessively to the theme of their mutual hatred. As a writer, he tells us, he can make his characters come alive only if they have Nonie’s shadow in them. His long confession becomes a kind of memorial to his difficult sister, whom, Heathcliff-like, he thinks he might meet in Hell. Behind all the moralising, the metaphysical posturing, the frantic self-scrutiny of this narrative there are some very conventional fictional ideas. If poor Nonie was the ultimate source of Wiley’s inspiration, then she has wrought her revenge on the reader as well.