Long-Awaited Novel Flatly Fails to Deliver
THE RUNAWAY SOUL By Harold Bradley, Farrar Straus Giroux 835 pp., $30REVIEWERS seem to have been sharpening their knives in anticipation of the almost comically long-delayed debut of Harold Brodkey's first novel, which has finally been published after nearly 30 years of writing and revising. Brodkey was accorded the status of being an important writer working on a major novel for some three decades, with only two collections of short stories (one published in 1958, the other in 1988) to his credit. In a world where so many talented and productive writers have to struggle for recognition - or, in some cases, to be published at all - Brodkey's position as one of the anointed seemed to typify everything wrong with the New York literary establishment: its insularity, its complacency, its endless capacity for self-promotion masked as reverence for literature. Overlong, shapeless, and unwieldy, "The Runaway Soul" turns out to be as bad as the most pessimistic critic might have predicted. The story begins with the birth of its hero-narrator - Wiley Silenowicz, a Midwestern Jewish-American boy of the same vintage as the author - then leapfrogs to various significant (to him, anyway) moments in his development. Everything that happens - a ride on his father's shoulders as a baby, a swim in the Mississippi, the minute details of lovemaking - is recounted in a kin d of slow motion, the tiniest actions surrounded by evermore obfuscatory attempts at analysis and explanation: philosophical, moral, and psychological. Not surprisingly, some critics have accused Brodkey of being mired in psychoanalysis and see his novel as the tired relic of an era (the 1950s and early 1960s) when no self-respecting New York intellectual had not put in time on the analyst's couch. But, while his intense self-scrutiny certainly reeks of the process Freud called "analysis interminable," Wiley's long ramblings utterly lack the concision of Freudian theory. Brodkey seems incapable of writing a simple statement without burdening it with sco res of qualifiers, hedges, half-retractions, and second guesses. It is easy to criticize this novel as a monument to self-absorption. But, when it comes to establishing the artistic legitimacy of focusing intently and exclusively on one's own consciousness and experience, Brodkey can rightly point to the honorable examples of Proust, Joyce, Wordsworth, Emerson, Walt Whitman, Virginia Woolf, Emily Dickinson, and Wallace Stevens. Memory, consciousness, and self-consciousness are prime areas for any artist to explore, and what Brodkey is trying to do is, potentially, qui te interesting. He is trying to recapture the raw quality of experience - of consciousness itself - at the stage before it is shaped by the preconceived categories we learn from our families, our schools, past literature, and language itself. The approach he uses is reminiscent of the stream-of-consciousness technique pioneered by Joyce. It could be argued, of course, that Joyce took this technique about as far as it could go. But the problem with "The Runaway Soul" is not simply that it comes too late in literary history. The problem is how flabby and lifeless its use of language is. Brodkey's quest - and the trouble he has in accomplishing it - are exemplified in Wiley's explanation of his discomfort in the writing he does at school: "When my parents talk they believe themselves that way for a while. And the real scene waits behind.... If I keep a real memory alive the whole time I'm thinking about what I'm writing, I can't write or talk at all, and then I am truly miserable.... Lost.... My inner speech, which seems honest to me some of the time, well, when I look at it, it seems li ke an intense and compressed jumble, really...." Jumble, indeed. Most of the novel reads like this, or worse. I think we may assume that the original impetus behind this novel was an attempt to get at the heart of things: of family and sexual feelings, of the consciousness of self, nature, culture, and other people. There are some moments of insight. In a novel this expansive, it would be strange if there were not. But occasional insights are hardly enough to justify an enterprise that is otherwise so tedious, trite, and murky. As Wiley himself expostulates at one point, "I can't make it clear. You have to guess at it - from your own experience." This is sound advice and an all-too-appropriate epitaph for a novel that dismally fails to communicate, clarify, or illuminate its own subject matter.