Last Exit To Brooklyn
by Hubert Selby Jr.
Grove, 304 pp., $5.00
by William S. Burroughs
Grove, 187 pp., $5.00
The Invention of Morel
(and other stories from La Trama Celeste) by Adolfo Bioy Casares
University of Texas, 327 pp., $5.00
Us He Devours
by James B. Hall
New Directions-San Francisco Review, 185 pp., $2.25 (paper)
A simple question comes out of reading this miscellaneous batch of very contemporary fiction: what is a book for? This sounds like a rhetorical query preliminary to belaboring some book that doesn’t fit in with the reviewer’s notion of what a book should be; but perhaps to it can be asked for its own sake. What is a book for? To be read, of course. And by “reading” we used to mean an active process of taking apart and putting together, an exercise of imaginative sympathy and critical distance, which might go on for some time. Indeed, a book’s ability to reveal new facets and subtleties, when looked at for some time from different points of view, used to be taken as a measure of its merit. Reading involved, of necessity, re-reading and re-thinking.
Now two of the books of this batch, perhaps the best two, are quite out of the question from this point of view. It is inconceivable that anyone will read Hubert Selby Jr.’s Last Exit to Brooklyn twice over. Readers who don’t have copperlined stomachs will have trouble getting through it even once. It is rude, powerful gut-writing. There may be protest in the background, even a buried point of view, but it is submerged between waves of shockingly bestial detail. Most of the narrative elements in the stories cannot be mentioned in what one still thinks of as decent company; and as for consecutive thought and critical perspective, they are as much out of place as they would be in the presence of a skunk. The book’s major effort is clearly to nauseate—and I am not saying this to attack it. On the contrary, it is a terribly effective book, not simply because its details are thickly packed, admirably selected, and arranged with stark power to achieve its chosen effect, but also because it denies one all perspective of the apish world it presents. It is written to be held close to the nose, and read over a rising gorge. When people are beaten up, they are not only kicked to a foaming, puking, bloody pulp, but the only reaction in evidence is someone’s gloating satisfaction. When a prostitute is literally abused to death, children gather round to watch, to add their own quota of broomsticks and filth, and finally to wander away, bored. Of course, merely by the act of being a book, and appealing to that small percentage of the public that reads books, the stories can count on a reaction of protest from their readers. Or can they? A good deal of prurient fantasy seems to pass in print, these days, under the mask of rigorous honesty. Those completely frank, scientific discussions of sexual technique which draw full-page ads in The New York Times and somehow manage to sell for twice as much as any other book of equivalent size are a case in point. Are they read by or sold to scientists or …