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 potential scientists? Somehow it seems doubtful. I have no reason to doubt that the author of Last Exit to Brooklyn is, as the dust-jacket assures me, a fierce moralist; so was Swift, who also wrote some fairly revolting pornography. (Somehow it seems comfortable to have it both ways: free indulgence in filth, salved with the reflection that it shows what a clean-minded fellow one is.) But public morals, if any, aren’t the issue, simply this book’s tendency to undermine an old and deteriorating concept of a book. In the old days, we had a distinction between pornography (kinetic in effect, either emetic or aphrodisiac) and literature (static in effect, aiming at esthetic distance). As that distinction goes under (and already it seems nineteenth-century), some other is going to be needed between, let us call it, impact-writing and writing for reflection. Grant that it won’t be clear-cut that many books will make both appeals, yet it will point up a difference in mode and perhaps in standards of judgment, as well as a trend whose term it is impossible to foresee. No categorical judgment is intended between the two species, though one can hardly help seeing shock as a limited response to a book. Just for that reason it may be useful to put the shock-books together and perhaps try to develop some shock-experts who will be able to distinguish Mere Shock from Shock for the Sake of Something Larger. For so important an issue, this decision seems often to be grounded on evanescent shadings of evidence (cases of Baudelaire and de Sade); perhaps a second book, if anyone can bear it, will tell us more about Hubert Selby, Jr. At any rate, for the moment, Mr. Selby has written a sickeningly good book, from which I am happy to have escaped.
There are elements of art in the stories, too; the last one, “Landsend,” weaves a kind of Dos Passos pattern out of existence in a horrible housing project; there is counterpoint, there are choral effects, there are subtleties to be appreciated in some, though not all, of the stories. But, given the basic impact and direction of the material, to appreciate the work for this reason seems like admiring a cathedral for the carvings on the under-side of the choirstalls. That is, it takes a deliberate act of selection, perspective and distancing; and, to gain what is sometimes no more than an appreciation of technical skill, one must fight against the whole texture of the stories, the overwhelming weight of their emotional impact.
Nova Express by William Burroughs also sacrifices the reflective values for a swift series of impressions. It is not a shock book, however—as Naked Lunch was not, either. It is a sequence of hallucinatory images, succeeding one another at high speed. Through a good deal of the book, this technique demands the sacrifice, not only of sequential narrative and recognizable characters, but of regular sentence structure as well. For extended periods, we do without verbs altogether, and sometimes without subjects as well. The effect is cinematic; one rides the crest of an image, which need not and often does not develop out of what went before. Once again, I am describing neither an achievement nor a deficiency, but a deliberate fictional method. The book concentrates on the intimate texture of successive images; it does not try to tell a story or mount a demonstration, and discontinuity is its essence. Indeed, if there is any beginning, middle, or end to the process, as revealed in Nova Express, I must confess to having missed it. One could start just as well anywhere, and read in any order, any direction, as much or as little as one chose, leaving out alternate pages or alternate paragraphs, without missing any necessary element.
Under these circumstances a reviewer has some trouble satisfying those who want to know what a given book is “about.” Nova Express seems to draw much of its imagery from the notion of a war-of-the-worlds, which is also a war between drug addicts and ex-addicts. Readers of Naked Lunch will recall Mr. Burroughs’ earnest recommadeoitnns Burroughs’ earnest recommendations of apomorphine as a way of kicking the drug habit; many of the mysterious mobilizations and counter-mobilizations of Nova Express seem to pit squads of apomorphine-mobile insurrectionaries against organized forces of Nova-fuzz—or it just may be the other way around. In some of the passages, dialects of Buck Rogers and Clark Kent mingle to hilarious effect with hip-talk; in others, fantastic structures of practical-joking interplanetary power are built up and torn down in a minute, and fleeting glimpses are offered down awesome chasms of intrigue. These passages suggest interesting parallels with the prose of De Quincey, above all in their alternate use of flat-static-explanatory and gorgeous-mobile-panoramic styles, and in a curious heightened sense of the wrinkles of experience. Thus, for all the things one can’t say about it as a story, a scenario, Nova Express does achieve interesting effects—macabre, funny, reverberant, grotesque—as it passes under one’s eyes. Mr. Burroughs evidently has a flair for language; but he concentrates on an impressionistic, associative use of it, to such effect that many passages are—in the homely sense of the word—incomprehensible. I quote a passage at random:
Electric defense frequently determined the whole civilization and proceedings—Especially when a case fear desperate position and advantage suddenly taken out of their hands—The case had simply reached incredible life forms—Even the accused was beyond altered pressure—The very top operation—The client of mucous and urine said the man was an alien—Unusual mucous coughing enemy “oxygen” up from the stairway—Speed up movie made such forms by overwhelming gravity supply—
This passage is not without charm, like an elaborate technical discussion, fragments of which are overheard through a haze of noise. But most readers, I suspect, will start to feel after fifty pages or so that something is missing.
What is missing is a framework explicit or tacit which will enable the novel to exist in one’s mind as a unit and not as a process. Because it lacks such a framework, the prose is notably free and inventive; for the same reason, it is notably unmemorable. Apparently it was written as improvisation, its spontaneity heightened by an unknown number of arbitrary cut-ups and transpositions. The form of a book limits those freedoms; it seems to me likely that Nova Express would be more in its element as a set of magnetic tapes which one might play simultaneously, feeding them in and out at random, than as a square, consecutive, five-dollar, Grove Press novel.
So we have here two troubling, talented, inventive off-books, to contrast with a couple of limited, perfectly respectable, but less exciting books. The Invention of Morel and other stories by Adolfo Bioy Casares comes to us nearly a quarter of a century late (it won a Buenos Aires award in 1941), and in the wake of Jorge Luis Borges, compatriot and collaborator, who supplies its generous, yet characteristically discreet Introduction. Unlike Borges, whom he superficially resembles, Bioy Casares does not seem to have a sense of evil, so that his stories yield one a sense of ingenuity, rather than lucidity. There is, in each story, a progression of someone’s mind toward the understanding of a situation. But some of the “plants” work out a little too cleverly, and most of the characters are a little too ordinary, to convince us that more is at stake than the functioning of a very clever machine. It is handy to have Señor Bioy Casares’s volume on the shelves because its limitations make clear the peculiar dry poetry of Borges—a poetry without which his fables would cut as shallow a furrow as do some of these. That is, perhaps, unfair, as close comparisons tend to be. By ordinary standards, Bioy Casares is ingenious in contriving an intellectual action; his prose as translated is strict, sinewy, and allusive, and he will certainly exercise and entertain the reader who is willing to play his special game. In spite of the superficial resemblances to Borges—the concern with projections from one consciousness into another, multiple identical universes, stunts of consciousness—Bioy Casares does not have Borges’s sense of evil; his stories yield one a sense of two-dimensional ingenuity rather than three-dimensional lucidity.
Finally, James B. Hall’s collection of fourteen short stories, called Us He Devours, has a rather miscellaneous look. There are academic satires, frank fantasies, episodic narrations, ventures into the grotesque, allegories, and exercises in pathos. More distressingly, some of the stories look like mere rhetorical exercises; the academic satires, for example, seemed to this reader simple foolery, and mechanical foolery at that. Much better, though still not of major dimensions, are stories like “The Freezer Bandit” and “The Eye of the Storm,” which present an inarticulate, anxious, contaminated way of life, visibly symbolized by piles of junked cars, meaningless frozen-food plans, and credit-servicing agencies built out of clichés and human fatuity. Mr. Hall has a way of seeing his seedy, queer characters from the inside and at the same time from a very long perspective outside; this gives a special macabre color to the dishonored American landscape. The prose, is more often flat than contoured; its merits are pace, efficiency, and proportion, rather than poetry or complexity. Once again, it is a matter of dimension rather than of taste or skill. Mr. Hall’s stories do almost everything he asks of them; if one has a demurrer, it is only that most of the demands he makes of his art are smaller and easier than those of other men.
December 3, 1964