Friday Book: A stylist in search of style

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The Independent Culture
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 Two years later, his mother died and he became withdrawn and mute, emerging from a long period of silence as a prodigy.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.