The Runaway Soul [ePub]

by Harold Brodkey

Brodkey’s lifelong opus, largely forgotten for obvious reasons, is a contender for the most solipsistic, inward-looking 835pp novel since Bill Vollmann’s nine-volume Reflections on My Eyebrows. Brodkey, who published a story collection in 1958 and no books in the 60s or 70s or most-of-the-80s until Stories in an Almost Classical Mode in 1988, by remaining a New Yorker man his entire life, made himself a human dartboard by holding back this novel until 1991. Because TRS was savaged by everyone except forgotten novelist D.M. Thomas (famous for his pretentious erotica in the 80s). The novel is narrated by Brodkey stand-in Wiley and dwells largely on his adolescence in the Midwestern region and his monstrous and marvellous sister Nonie.

My position is that I simultaneously loathe and adore this novel, usually within the same sentence, and my assumption is that Brodkey knew his prose would meet with outright hostility, but forged ahead in his artistic vision to create a work replete with such a painstaking and psychopathically obsessive Proust-in-therapy micro-dissection of his childhood, no one could deny, nor appreciate, his particular brand of sectionable genius. The opening parts of TRS are the most arresting—the beautiful rhythms of the lightning storm scene with Nonie, and the writing on this character in general, are positively Gassian—but the prose falls into a strange discursive mode, stripped of musicality and liveliness, lapsing into dense thickets of dashes and ellipses and fragmented phrases, almost as if the narrator is speaking aloud to his snoozing therapist on the page. This becomes the default mode for TRS, and I spent over a month desperate to recapture the amazement of the first 200pp, but the amazement eluded me.

Simply, I agree with some of Brodkey’s nemeses who accused TRS of arrogance, pretentiousness, repetition and self-obsession. It drips from almost every page, but that doesn’t cancel out the moments of thunderous intelligence, the tantric eroticism (one sex scene lasts over 80pp and one canoodling scene 50pp), the fabulously vivid family descriptions, and the scenes with brattish babe Nonie, equal only to Cora in Janice Galloway’s All Made Up in the evil sister stakes. And the style, once tolerated, does contain moments of illumination and beauty beneath the babbling indulgence. As unsatisfying as it is on the whole, TRS does capture the particulars of (an) adolescence with a meticulous psychological insight and heavyhearted attention to detail. At times, it feels like writing this physically pains Brodkey, and that melancholy lifts up and weighs down his ill-fated opus.

HB discusses TRS in two parts with MS on Bookworm.



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