Friday Book: A stylist in search of style

THE WORLD IS THE HOME OF LOVE AND DEATH BY HAROLD BRODKEY, FOURTH ESTATE, pounds 12.99

AT THE end of This Wild Darkness, an account of his battle with Aids, Harold Brodkey wrote that "If I had to give up what I've written in order to be clear of this disease, I wouldn't do it". Whether this represents a declaration of faith in the value of literature or simply in his own identity as a writer is unclear. Either way, Brodkey affirmed the role of the artist in a way that has largely passed from fashion.

He was born in Illinois in 1930. Two years later, his mother died and he became withdrawn and mute, emerging from a long period of silence as a prodigy. He was brought up in Missouri and educated at Harvard before moving to New York in 1953. His early stories appeared in The New Yorker, with which he enjoyed a lifelong association, and his first collection was published in 1957. For the next three decades, he was more famous for what he had not written than for what he had. He tantalised readers with the work-in-progress that became The Runaway Soul, his attempt at the Great American Novel.

The 29 years of the book's composition made him the reported inspiration for Victor Propp in Jay McInerney's novel, Brightness Falls, whose "reputation grew with each book he failed to publish". When it finally appeared in 1990, it proved a huge disappointment, self-conscious in style and self- obsessed in subject. One critic opined that "Death would have been a smarter career move". Neither his second, shorter novel, Profane Friendship, nor This Wild Darkness succeeded in silencing the doubters. So a great deal hangs on this final return to the form in which his reputation was made.

With the single exception of "What I Do For Money", which concerns a redundant executive suffering from a brain tumour, all 11 stories in this posthumous collection involve characters and conflicts from The Runaway Soul - so much so that they start to seem like offcuts from that novel. In two of them, "Spring Fugue" and "Religion", the narrator is not named but, in both, he is recognisable as Wiley, Brodkey's fictional alter-ego, the mid-Western Jewish boy turned New York writer.

In the other stories, the links are more direct as Wiley is reunited with his mismatched adoptive parents, Lila and SL, his disturbed elder sister, Nonie, and his Wasp girlfriend, Ora. The order is loosely chronological, starting with the infant Wiley's observation of the battle of wills that passes for affection between his mother and a woman friend ("The Bullies"), continuing through the tortured relationships suffered by the Silenowicz family and ending with two stories ("Dumbness is Everything" and "A Guest in the Universe") that show the older Wiley as a party animal.

The key to Brodkey's fictional world is found in This Wild Darkness, where he asserts that "I think of childhood and adolescence as sexual, as filled with the sexual intrusion of others". This is a world where no one respects anyone's boundaries and people are subject to constant assaults, emotional and physical. Adults use sexuality as a means of power over both themselves and their children. There is no innocence in Wiley's upbringing. Lila flirts with him as she washes him ("Do you love me? I'm a charmer"); Uncle Simon gropes him while assessing his muscular development; and the dying SL propositions him more directly, kissing the 14-year-old boy on the lips and following him into the lavatory ("You don't know the meaning of co-operate").

The explanation for the vast gulf between Brodkey's ambition and achievement can be discovered in the final story, set among Manhattan's "Upper Bohemians", where he writes that "Proust, in this set, was supposedly the best novelist ever". That pre-eminence may be justified, but the master's influence on Brodkey was disastrous. While Proust's genius lies in the balance he maintains between the interior and exterior life, Brodkey destroys that balance in favour of the former. His monomania is monumental. His reflection on Ora that "I never liked the way she kissed unless I directed her" seems indicative of his feelings towards the world. He does not appear to write in order to share experience so much as to own it.

This is most apparent in his style, where the attempt to put consciousness into words flounders as the words overwhelm consciousness. However worthy the endless worrying at detail may be, the reader begins to wish that Brodkey would not agonise so laboriously in public but settle for an adjective beforehand. His model may be French, but he resembles less an American Proust than a literary equivalent of the Pompidou Centre, highlighting those elements that other writers keep out of sight.

Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Arts and Entertainment
The audience aimed thousands of Apple’s product units at Taylor Swift throughout the show
musicReview: On stage her manner is natural, her command of space masterful
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Channel 4 is reviving its Chris Evans-hosted Nineties hit TFI Friday

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford plays Indiana Jones in The Last Crusade (1989)

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
A Glastonbury reveller hides under an umbrella at the festival last year

Glastonbury
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miles Morales is to replace Peter Parker as the new Spider-Man

comics
Arts and Entertainment
The sequel to 1993's Jurassic Park, Jurassic World, has stormed into the global record books to score the highest worldwide opening weekend in history.

film
Arts and Entertainment
Odi (Will Tudor)
tvReview: Humans, episode 2
Arts and Entertainment
Can't cope with a Port-A-loo? We've got the solution for you

FestivalsFive ways to avoid the portable toilets

Arts and Entertainment
Some zookeepers have been braver than others in the #jurassiczoo trend

Jurassic WorldThe results are completely brilliant

Arts and Entertainment
An original Miffy illustration
art
Arts and Entertainment
Man of mystery: Ian McKellen as an ageing Sherlock Holmes
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Kitchen set: Yvette Fielding, Patricia Potter, Chesney Hawkes, Sarah Harding and Sheree Murphy
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Chris Evans has been confirmed as the new host of Top Gear
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Top of the class: Iggy Azalea and the catchy ‘Fancy’
music
Arts and Entertainment
Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters performs at Suncorp Stadium on February 24, 2015 in Brisbane, Australia.

music
Arts and Entertainment
Chris Evans had initially distanced himself from the possibility of taking the job

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
British author Matt Haig

books
Arts and Entertainment
Homeland star Damian Lewis is to play a British Secret Service agent in Susanna White's film adaptation of John le Carre's Our Kind of Traitor

Film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth: Would people co-operate to face down a global peril?

    How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth

    Would people cooperate to face a global peril?
    Just one day to find €1.6bn: Greece edges nearer euro exit

    One day to find €1.6bn

    Greece is edging inexorably towards an exit from the euro
    New 'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could help surgeons and firefighters, say scientists

    'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could become reality

    Holographic projections would provide extra information on objects in a person's visual field in real time
    Sugary drinks 'are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year'

    Sugary drinks are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year

    The drinks that should be eliminated from people's diets
    Pride of Place: Historians map out untold LGBT histories of locations throughout UK

    Historians map out untold LGBT histories

    Public are being asked to help improve the map
    Lionel, Patti, Burt and The Who rock Glasto

    Lionel, Patti, Burt and The Who rock Glasto

    This was the year of 24-carat Golden Oldies
    Paris Fashion Week

    Paris Fashion Week

    Thom Browne's scarecrows offer a rare beacon in commercial offerings
    A year of the caliphate:

    Isis, a year of the caliphate

    Who can defeat the so-called 'Islamic State' – and how?
    Marks and Spencer: Can a new team of designers put the spark back into the high-street brand?

    Marks and Spencer

    Can a new team of designers put the spark back into the high-street brand?
    'We haven't invaded France': Italy's Prime Minister 'reclaims' Europe's highest peak

    'We haven't invaded France'

    Italy's Prime Minister 'reclaims' Europe's highest peak
    Isis in Kobani: Why we ignore the worst of the massacres

    Why do we ignore the worst of the massacres?

    The West’s determination not to offend its Sunni allies helps Isis and puts us all at risk, says Patrick Cockburn
    7/7 bombings 10 years on: Four emergency workers who saved lives recall the shocking day that 52 people were killed

    Remembering 7/7 ten years on

    Four emergency workers recall their memories of that day – and reveal how it's affected them ever since
    Humans: Are the scientists developing robots in danger of replicating the hit Channel 4 drama?

    They’re here to help

    We want robots to do our drudge work, and to look enough like us for comfort. But are the scientists developing artificial intelligence in danger of replicating the TV drama Humans?
    Time to lay these myths about the Deep South to rest

    Time to lay these myths about the Deep South to rest

    'Heritage' is a loaded word in the Dixie, but the Charleston killings show how dangerous it is to cling to a deadly past, says Rupert Cornwell
    What exactly does 'one' mean? Court of Appeal passes judgement on thorny mathematical issue

    What exactly does 'one' mean?

    Court of Appeal passes judgement on thorny mathematical issue