The Runaway Soul
Judging by the number of ”talented and gifted” programs in American schools, the nation is just about overrun with young geniuses. Day-care centers and kindergartens are literally crawling with the precocious little nippers. So maybe it’s a blessing that the prestige of imaginative literature is currently at a low ebb. With any luck, the anointed ones will busy themselves with imaginative Wall Street swindles and leave novel writing to their less brilliant classmates.
The occasion of these dark musings is, of course, the long-awaited publication of Harold Brodkey’s 835-page novel, The Runaway Soul. Among the bookish, the actual manifestation of Brodkey’s opus has been heralded as a once-in-a-lifetime event on the order of the Chicago Cubs winning the World Series. For Brodkey himself, whose previous book, First Love and Other Stories, generated enthusiasm in literary circles during the second Eisenhower administration, the experience of at last turning loose his masterwork — it was actually announced, then withdrawn 14 years ago — must be roughly akin to fathering quintuplets at the age of 60.
Sadly enough, he ought to have left it in the closet. Brodkey’s title, which sounds like a Marvin Gaye album, should fool nobody. A Polymorphously Perverse Portrait of the Young Genius in a Hall of Mirrors would be more like it. For the movie version, The Ego That Ate St. Louis, Boston, and Manhattan will do nicely, as well as providing readers with geographical references badly lacking in a stream-of-consciousness narrative as murky and featureless as the Sargasso Sea.
The sheer, stifling impenetrability of Brodkey’s prose is difficult to overstate. At best, he sounds like a drunken Saul Bellow; at worst, like Marcel Proust on Thorazine. Here, for example, is the novel’s narrator and hero — a brilliant, sensitive, sexually alluring, if rather morbid young man with a biography exactly like Brodkey’s — describing himself in an act of what old-fashioned moralists called self-abuse. ”The alluring, imaginarily dimensioned dementia of meaning tucked into the animal bribe with its hint of favorable apocalypse: I have to fight it off, this sense that the conclusion is ALL. Masturbation is nutty with idealism, with hallucinations, with self-induced finalities.” Got that? Well, here’s the clarification: ”The not- stayingness of pleasure hurts oracularly — and intimately.”
These are not isolated examples. The Runaway Soul has literally hundreds of pages of such gibberish. The novel’s plot, if that’s what it can be called, makes Tristram Shandy seem like a Dick Francis thriller. Basically, protagonist Wiley Silenowicz maunders on about his miserable childhood, his obsessive hatred of his adoptive sister, Nonie, and his status as a world-class literary genius and as an androgynous sexual prodigy. Only lesbians, poor Wiley complains, can keep their hands off him. ”Everyone has fallen in love with me,” he moans. ”The agony of such imposture is like being locked in a barrel — the stiffness of crouching. And the oddity: it is all grotesque.”
Actually it’s a lot worse than that. There are 30-page descriptions of sexual intercourse in this novel that couldn’t get a rise out of Jimmy Swaggart. Evidently Brodkey had no friends brave enough to tell him the truth about his work. Either that or he simply wouldn’t listen. It’s really very sad. If books this long, this highly touted, and this unreadable came along much more often than once in a generation, they’d have to pass out lottery numbers and hire book reviewers by government draft. F