Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon
Yellow Flowers in the Antipodean Room
Jerzy Kosinski’s collection of painful scenes is compared by his publishers with a set of Goya etchings: certainly the subject matter is comparable, in the cruelty of the events represented, but Goya used to add comments—reprimands, prayers, and curses. There is not much of this kind of feeling in Steps. On the dust jacket is quoted a 100-word extract of, no doubt, widespread appeal: it describes a naked woman imprisoned in a cage suspended from a ceiling. There are also rapes, persecutions, cruel revenges, and unjust executions. In its determination to avoid shallow feeling, Kosinski’s chill prose recalls Thom Gunn’s verse and similarly reflects the imagination of a postwar adolescence. (Kosinski was born in Poland in 1933.) “After the history has been made,” begins Gunn’s poem, Adolescence, which concludes:
When the lean creatures crawl out of
camps and in silence try to live,
I pass foundations of houses,
walking through the wet spring, my knees
drenched from high grass charged with water,
and am part, still, of the done war.
Kosinski’s cruel sketches do not specify a particular place or time: they lay claim to no roots, they are stranger’s tales. In the nightmare landscape of British fantasy, whether the Gothic arches harbor a hanging judge or Jack the Ripper, a ghost or a boarding-school, the frightened man knows where he is and looks around for friends. Kosinski’s surreal landscape combines aspects of Central Europe and the United States, impersonal countryside and ungoverned cities where strangers may gang up on you.
Turn, for a moment, to Up, a very different kind of book but containing comparable fantasies. Ronald Sukenick is more shy in his handling: he treats his bad dreams as grotesque and guilty porn, laughs them off in parody—while hinting at tearfulness. Up is surrealist, in a sense, being less a novel than a book about writing one, with the author and his characters defending or apologizing for it, discussing the next scene and celebrating its conclusion. There is little plot: what there is of it is cheerfully inconsistent and even self-contradictory. (In his own tough-talking version of Forster’s murmur against the tyranny of “story,” Sukenick remarks: “What the fuck I’m not writing a timetable.”) He regularly interrupts or stimulates his flow with dreams and anecdotes about cruel deeds—generally sexual atrocities which seem to relate to impressions of racial persecution by sadistic rednecks or blackshirts. A bar-room liar says: “That old sheriff made me strip naked and we had a little conversation with his hunting knife right under my balls. She was watching. Sure, they made her watch.” A few pages before, the narrator has dreamed of himself as a Super-Jew, disguised as a Nazi, rescuing a tear-stained nude whom the Germans have tied to a table. He whips out his circumcised penis and shoots the Nazis down: this fantasy may be taken as a salute to Norman Mailer.
The word “sadistic” has crept in. But, like …