Monday, March 30, 2009

Books: The Runaway Soul, by Harold Brodkey

Woe to the source that foisted this brick upon me—luckily for it, I have no recollection which it was. After carrying this book to and from China (where I did not so much as crack it open), I finally did start reading—more than a month ago, and though I considered giving up often, I did finish it last night. But I've gained little.

Brodkey writes like a flatulent Philip Roth with Proustian ambition. His sensual moments are stunning; few write about the men's sexual experience with such (physical) tenderness. But these passages, even though some of them are quite long, are buried in a wasted landscape of mud, arduous prose about nothing that goes nowhere, the heaps of erasure dust of bildungsromans from Roth, Updike, Bellow (The Runaway Soul makes Augie March read like Flannery O'Connor).

This could have been an unforgettable 300 page novel; Brodkey managed to keep me spellbound through the first two hundred pages (in which the narrator masturbates (once) and takes a shit (once)—that's right, nothing else happens, and it's spellbinding). Had he kept his narration to his narrator—to youth, to exploration, to sensation—rather than veering off into familial drama, an older sister's spoiled tantrums, a mother on her deathbed, a father's love of stock phrases—had he kept his focus, Brodkey could have written a modern classic. Instead, he's created one of my least favorite books containing my favorite sentences.* Quite a feat.

E.g. "Thinking is a shadow fruit, shadows and weirdness in an electric orchard, blossoming with mirage after mirage, crumblingly real, then shadow paintings, mock photographs in black-and-white, then a mere sickly sense, and exposed underpainting, the overlay lost."

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