To propose a reality as story rather than a story as reality might at least remind you what a prior thing experience is. And how we hide it in stories. [. . .] I can see why people prefer characters to have the abstract bodies of conventional references, to be bronze in that sense, and not to be merely real and, forgive me, at sea on a lawn in the moonlight.
– From “Dumbness is Everything.”
Some observations on Harold Brodkey and his last—posthumous, in fact—collection of short stories, The World is the Home of Love and Death. [Because he is such a mindfuck that drags you through a muck of emotional stress, this shall be enumerated:]
♦♦♦ I think it’s telling how Jeffrey Eugenides, in editing his anthology My Mistress’s Sparrow is Dead: Great Love Stories from Chekhov to Munro, decided to include two of Brodkey’s stories—“First Love and Other Sorrows,” and “Innocence.” The former was my first Brodkey, and I remember thinking how it was such an oversight that it took me that long to find out about him.
♦♦♦ Harold Brodkey is dead. Here is the first paragraph of Jonathan Rosen’s 1997 review:
All books, once published, live beyond the protective reach of their creators, but there is something particularly lonely about a posthumous book, arriving in the world a true orphan. There is also something magical, for here is the voice of the author, still speaking after death, reminding us, through its odd persistence, of the mysterious nature of writing. Harold Brodkey, who died last year, was obsessed with his own orphaned state and with the haunting, multiple voices of the past. This gives his posthumously published stories an added poignancy, an otherworldly echo oddly in tune with his literary ambitions.
[For a more lucid examination of the collection, in fact, head Rosen’s way. Because the rest of this entry shall be an attempt to piece together whatever Brodkey left me with. That is, he left me a lot, and they overwhelm.]
♦♦♦ The strangest observations. In “Spring Fugue,” for example, which reads like one of those near-surreal slice-of-life stories—It is spring, and our narrator cut his hand slicing tomatoes—that story gave me this:
Tylenol is Lonely T spelled backwards.
♦♦♦ “What I Do for Money” has just asked me the million-dollar question: Is it a fate to have been happy?
My life is a mess; yet I am fairly happy. Perhaps unfairly. I can’t say I understand happiness. In my case it always has an uncaring, what-the-hell element and is a form of dizzied satisfaction that is unfeeling at its center, freed from feeling, almost a cry of enough. The sense of completion is like a satisfaction with its spine of shameful triumph… of peace and escape. It is shallow of me and in my blood—an old traditional thing—and it is the deepest and most savage emotion I ever have, it is the deepest part of me, to be happy. It is based on my ignoring an important number of things, but I have a rebellious nature of this sort. In a pagan sense it is a serious business to be happy.
♦♦♦ There’s a sliver of malevolence that runs through Brodkey’s short stories. In “Lila and S.L.,” which are our narrator’s highly dysfunctional adoptive parents, there’s a hint of not-so-good-natured competitiveness between our two characters:
People who know S.L. and Lila talk about which one is the suitor of the other. Which one is the most loved is what it comes to.
And it’s always sexual. And even that sexuality is vaguely sinister. It’s how predatory Lila and S.L. are. The story reads like a little handbook on not very likeable people and their, uh, their mating habits. Brodkey has no qualms with lingering over personality traits and hidden agenda. And the sex. He goes on and on about the sex—or the premise to the sex—all the minute details. It’s fascinating. It’s disturbing.
♦♦♦ We actually begin with “Bullies.” But I wasn’t following directions, and so I read this last. I don’t think it matters. Though interconnected, the stories carry their own weight. You still get an impression of the greater narrative arc.
Momma sighs: so much deciphering—Ida’s clothes and money and voice and the moment—and then Momma shifts her posture and suddenly “gives up,” as of with overwhelmed innocence or naïveté or arrogance: this is her most common tactic with a powerful woman, to give in, give up, and not mean it: it’s a kind of wit—a kind of sexuality. Ma’s face shows she decides to be the hostess—ordinary. There is a question whether Ida will allow it.
Brodkey-Wiley freely enters the mind of the characters around him. He analyzes. He audaciously analyzes. In doing so, the stories—the collection—read as a chronicle; they’re observations, a manual to his life growing up, his life sort-of-recently. A handbook, I’d said.
Physical desire in Ida is the trembling of nerves in a strong woman’s frequently disowned body. Ida is warm—or hot-but without dignity in physical negotiation, a rich woman. She maintains her value against Lila’s more and more immodest-seeming glamour: why is this woman still shining at the age she is? (Daddy would say Ma was on a rampage.) A wild pathos and self-pity invest Ida with an air of threat in her desirousness—she feels she deserves erotic reward. Ida’s class, her being superior to Momma in self-control and focus, her sexual abnegation at times, her hardness about defeat, and the hurt of others oppress Momma as signs or not being infatuated with her is what I think. Whereas Ida feels love is one substance throughout eternity—that it shouldn’t matter what deformities that will and privilege and folly have forced on the softer tissues of the self in the course of your living the way you live if someone loves you.
Momma feels that love is invented daily and that each person does it differently. Momma, in some wordless way, trusts herself in these matters. She is at home here.
Neither woman intends to be a fool—being a fool is something only men do.
Wasak. Aherm. See how I tried to control myself. Because there was an 800-word passage that I really wanted to share. That’s the thing with Brodkey: You need to experience him. He can’t be properly just talked about, so much gets lost. I’ll say, “The story ‘Bullies’ is two women from different classes having tea.” And I’ll pad that with, “There’s a lot of things unsaid, the repartee too, the innuendo.” And I’ll quote a line or two. But it won’t do. Brodkey needs to be read.
♦♦♦ Brodkey can be so exhausting. The language, the focus. The stubbornness to focus. This is how Brodkey-Wiley sees it. You signed up for this. Step up, and werk it, reader. Werk it. A 60-page story with prose that obviously enjoys its pure prose-ness? Suck it up, reader. Yes, the language is exhausting, at times bewildering—but ultimately rewarding.
So. Hello, Brodkey. Goodbye. Until we meet again. When I have a day slow to unfold in front of me. When I’m more patient with a single sentence that can span pages. I like you a lot, Brodkey. It was tough going—do you like your readers, I wonder?—but you really do make it worth it. Wiley said it best in “A Guest in the Universe”—
To be honest, I have a good time mostly, but life scares me.