REVIEWSrnIrnOnan Agonistesrnby ].0. Tatern’ve been trying to fignre out whatrnsomebody could do with the thirtyrnbucks (plus tax) that they’re asking forrnHarold Brodkey’s word-processing product.rnMy copy was no bargain for free.rnYou could buy two pizzas and two sixpacksrnand have quite a party for that sum.rnYou could wire your sweetie pie a nicernbouquet by FfD. If movies were worthrnseeing, you could buy five tickets. Therernare all kinds of things you could do withrnthe money, but the big loss is in time andrnenergv —time that might have beenrnspent on subgingival curettage or rootrncanal work or study of feminist theory orrnwhate’er. Perhaps a mercifully brief descriptionrnof T/ie Runaway Soul will showjustrnwhv its perusal would seem fitting forrnfew others besides Harold Bloom, GordonrnLish, Keith Mano, and those whornhave puffed Harold Brodkey’s “genius.”rnThere are tvvo elements of the novel thatrnI can bring myself to comment on. Thernfirst is substance; the second, stle.rnThe Runaway Soul is a highly subjectivernKilnstlerroman freighted with anrnelaborate psychological apparatus, arnFreudian family romance, and a concentrationrnof the hero-narrator’s “growth,”rn”genius,” consciousness, and masturbaton,’rnsex life. The orphan Wiley Silenowicz,rnwhose adoptive name suggests bothrnwiliness and Silenus, relates somehowrnthe tangled bafflements (he does not orrncannot “tell a stor”) concerning his secondrnfamily: his father, S.L.; his mother,rnLila; and his older sister, Nonie. Theserncharacters each have their moments,rntheir presences in Wiley’s life and consciousness;rnof the three, one inspired inrnme a flicker of interest —Nonie, whornseems to be pathologically wicked airdrnhates Wiley, and who appears to havernkilled tvvo other siblings. My own hope—rnthat she would terminate Wiley’s interminablern”narrative” by stabbing him torndeath with a sharp instrument, by killingrnhim with a revolver or with a sporting riflernor shotgun or semiautomatic or fullyrnautomatic weapon, by setting him on firernwith gasoline, or by squashing him torndeath with a laundromat—was not fulfilled.rnOther characters in the novel includerna lover of Wiley’s later years, Orarn(a.k.a. Orra), whom I took to be femalerneven though at least one of Wiley’s sexualrnencounters with her/liim seemed tornend —if that is the right word —in yet anotherrnof his physical and literary masturbations.rnAiryway, Wiley’s homosexualrnepisodes with Remsen and Daniel andrnothers are entirely suited to his character,rnbeing either literally or essentially masturbatoryrnin those same senses of thatrnword by now extrenrely familiar to bothrnthe reader and the explicator oiThe RunawayrnSoul.rnReading between the lines that arernthemselves unreadable, we may discernrnthe elements of a novel that somehow escapedrnthe master’s grasp. There arc evenrnbrief glimpses of daylight and of the outof-rndoors, as well as of social life, which inrnother hands would have constituted arnnarrative; though even here, we wouldrnhave had to admit that touches like Ora’srnfather, the literary scene as embodied inrnNew York cocktail parties, and a few others,rnconstitute material that has alreadyrnbeen treated adequately by NormanrnMailer.rnEven granting the genius his donnee,rnthere may yet be some slight reserx’ationrnabout a prose sty’le that would gag a buzzard.rnThe trouble with Wiley-as-narratorrnis that he writes like Harold Brodkey on arngood day. He seems to have an ungift, anrnineptitude with language that he inflictsrnunsparingly on his audience: He goes forrnthe off-putting word —even the wrongrnsound, not to mention the unwelcomernthought—unerringly. As Wiley lovablyrnsays, “But, for me, isn’t it self-love thatrnstarts the progress towards orgasm?” Hernknows himself: “I sort of gawp—inwardly.”rnAin’t it the truth.rnThe following lines, chosen by a soritesrnBrodeyanae, represent the ineffable stylernof the revered master: “I don’t know ofrnwhat elements my heterosexualit}’ consists.rnOr my androgy’uy.” And this paragraph:rnIt wasn’t that I was so grand sexually.rnI am acceptable sexually (whichrnis actually quite a lot), but I make arnpoint of it, of being that, and thatrndoubles the acceptability for somernpeople, that it is something known,rnand that one tries to be it. Often,rnthen, I am a little bored sexually—rnthat redoubles it. . . Only a littlernbored . .. “You are the handsomestrnman in the world”—she says that; itrnis a metaphor of a kind. She wasrncollecting herself, finding herself,rnin an inconsecutive way, amongrnthe consecuhons of our invenhonrnof our sexual tone back and forth,rnand in the faith that in the sequencernof moments somethingrnmight happen and all the momentsrn(all our monrents) were unbetrayedrnso far and would be unbetrayed stillrnat the end, sort ofrnThe combination of substance (masturbationrnand genius) conveyed by st}’lern(noisome droning—the Brodkey touch)rnis one that leaves something, anything,rnand everything to be desired. Reflectionrnsuggests that The Runaway Soul, besidesrnnot having any soul, didn’t run away farrnenough, and that if there had been anyrnKiinst, then diere might have also beenrnsome Roman. As it is, this thing ranks notrnonly with the worst novels I have readrnin the last 35 years but with the mostrnunpleasant experiences I have ever endmed.rnTo listen to Wiley Silenowiczrnrelate the uncanny growfli of his narcissisticrnmind, only to wind up with yet anotherrntenderly rendered masturbationrnscene after some 700 pages, is enough tornconfirm thoughts about the New York literar)’rnscene that I have long entertained.rnConsidering with how much breathlessrnexpectancy fliis book was anticipatedrn(for 27 years), we may well wonder aboutrnthe competence of those who touted thernauthor for a generahon. And when wernconsider the price that is asked not sornmuch in money as in exasperation andrndegradation, we may also wonder aboutrnthe state of culture in a nafion with suchrnan inverted sense of art.rn].0. Tate is a professor of English atrnDowling College on Ij^ng Island. Thisrnarticle first appeared in the July 1992rnissue.rnM O V I N G ?rnlend cnanHc( )f addressrnCHROMCLKS Subscri]5tion Dcpt.rnP.O. Bi)SO(). 1 ,rnJULY 2001/31rnrnrn