By Kevin Rabalais
And then there are those novelists whose esteem grows with each book they fail to publish. Rumors and expectations mount. When—if—it finally appears, the book will change the way we read and write. These writers are, if you buy into such things, consummate artists. Harold Brodkey, one of the most notorious of them all, garnered more celebrity each year, indeed each decade, that he missed deadlines for his long-awaited novel. Party of Animals, some said, was already more than two thousand pages. But Brodkey believed that publishing the unfinished novel “would interfere with working on it.”
While readers waited for the masterpiece to appear, Brodkey published fragments in magazines such as The New Yorker, Esquire and American Review. Fans who had cherished First Love and Other Sorrows, the volume of short stories that appeared in 1958 when the author was twenty-eight years old, found themselves photocopying each new story. They compiled their own anthologies of this work-in-progress. Much of this work followed recurring characters, including the autobiographical Wiley Silenowicz, the figure (rumors had it) at the center of Party of Animals.
Harold Bloom called him “an American Proust.” Cynthia Ozick deemed him “a true artist.” Don DeLillo declared that “For some years now, Harold Brodkey has been making one of the great brave journeys of American literature.” Gordon Lish said that Party of Animals, when it finally arrived, would be “the one necessary American work of this century.”
Yet readers had little tangible evidence of the author’s genius. Brodkey continued to miss deadlines. He renegotiated contracts (“interest and paperclips,” he wrote of one of these instances). He changed publishers. He received advances from at least five of them. By the late 1970s, the story about his missed deadlines had become such literary gossip that The New York Times ran an article with the headline “Brodkey Delivers.” Even that, however, proved to be false. The long-awaited novel finally appeared in 1991 as The Runaway Soul. It received mixed, even indifferent, reviews.
In Brightness Falls, the first volume of his guilty-pleasure trilogy (the latest, Bright, Precious Days, has just been released) about living, loving and publishing in New York from the 1980s through the first decade of the new century, Jay McInerney includes an unforgettable character based on Brodkey. Early in the novel, Victor Propp meets his editor, Russell Calloway, for lunch. Calloway arrives, aware that Propp wants to increase his literary stature by appearing on talk shows and, in the process, increasing the value of his unpublished manuscript.
“Did you see that piece on Roth in the TransAtlantic?” Propp asks. “A very snide reference to me—‘unlike those rococo goldsmiths who worry the surfaces of their bibelot sentences…’”
“Victor, I don’t necessarily read that as a reference to you,” Calloway says.
“Russell, my dear boy, every literary intellectual in America scans that sentence and says, ‘For “rococo goldsmiths,” read ‘Victor Propp.’”
Brodkey had attained such a status in the literary world by 1992, the year that Brightness Falls appeared, that there was no confusion over who McInerney was writing about. Later in the book, Propp tells Calloway about the burden and responsibility of being the only American writer of his generation with the capability to reinvent the novel.
That may be true of Brodkey and The Runaway Soul, but, unfortunately, the rococo nature of the book prevented many readers from understanding the stir that had surrounded this book more than thirty years in the making. That’s one reason Brodkey’s story collections, First Love and Other Sorrows and, especially, Stories in an Almost Classical Mode, remain the best place to discover and revisit him. Many of the eighteen stories in the latter contain the compression and breadth of short novels. They reveal ample reason for those decades of readers’ expectations.
Read the first in the collection, “The Abundant Dreamer,” which follows a film director at work in Rome when he receives news that his grandmother has died, and you immediately get a sense of DeLillo’s testament of Brodkey’s “brave journey.” You also feel that you’re reading a story that, though originally published in The New Yorker in 1963, could appear—and startle us—just as easily in next week’s issue. Brodkey made few concessions to his reader. He respects us. He trusts us to follow through the intricacies of structure. “The Abundant Dreamer,” for instance, strides two time frames, alternating between past and present from paragraph to paragraph as it shifts in tense, setting and chronology. Yet we never find ourselves adrift, only convinced that this is the only logical way for this story to unfold.
Alongside the rococo prose, there’s also a startling intellect at play in Brodkey’s short fiction. Consider “Innocence,” one of his most-anthologized stories. Here is the opening, in full:
Orra Perkins was a senior. Her looks were like a force that struck you. Truly, people on first meeting her often involuntarily lifted their arms as if about to fend off the brightness of the apparition. She was a somewhat scrawny, tuliplike girl of middling height. To see here in sunlight was to see Marxism die. I’m not the only one who said that. It was because seeing someone in actuality who had such a high immediate worth meant you had to decide whether such personal distinction had a right to exist or if she belonged to the state and ought to be shadowed in, reduced in scale, made lesser, laughed at.
“Innocence” chronicles Wiley’s obsession with and seduction of Orra. Much of the story concerns his desire to awaken her sexually, or, as Brodkey tells us in Wiley’s voice, “to raise her from the dead.” As in much of his work, Brodkey litters this story with theories about narration. Early in the story, he writes:
I distrust summaries, any kind of gliding through time, any too great a claim that one is in control of what one recounts; I think someone who claims to understand but who is obviously calm, someone who claims to write with emotion recollected in tranquility, is a fool and a liar. To understand is to tremble. To recollect is to reenter and be riven… I admire the authority of being on one’s knees in front of the event.
Nearly thirty years after it appeared in book form, Stories in an Almost Classical Mode retains the ability to make us tremble. It’s a high-wire act, at times exhausting and infuriating, nearly always invigorating.