A Book Review by
On the black footstool with Native American designs in symmetrical lines of gold and red the novel Out by Ronald Sukenick enters the range of visibility with its blue cover featuring the illustration of a road with white clouds of skywriting above, published by Swallow Press, the same press who published Cities of the Interior by Anais Nin. I am reading Out again, after what seems many years, having bought a copy in Berkeley years ago when I was working at a bookstore across from the campus, and the novel had just been published with fresh copies appearing on the used bookshelf. Those were the days of well designed book covers in special editions from small press and New York publishers which brought dignity, and a sense of excitement, to the new fiction being published.
Reading Out (1973) by Ronald Sukenick in my living room brings back the memories, and I recall that when the protests over American foreign policy in Viet Nam began in the 1970's the innovative novel was at the vanguard of the movement in social consciousness. From the first pages it seems that the characters of Out are involved in a counter offensive where they have reached an extreme political position by carrying sticks of dynamite.
It all comes together. Don't fall. Each of us carries a stick of dynamite. Concealed on his person. This does several things. One it forms a bond. Two it makes you feel special. Three it's mute articulation of the conditions we live in today I mean not only us but everybody the zeitgeist you might say if not the human condition itself and keeps you in touch with reality.
If zeitgeist means the spirit of the times, then Out shows a sense of loyalty and teamwork from the beginning of the novel with the dramatization of political and sociological events used as a narrative conceit, similar to improvisational drama where an actor, or actress, portrays a dramatic situation as a form of expressionistic spontaneity. Ronald Sukenick has a flare for improv, which he calls slapstick, and uses this technique throughout the novel to create a sequence of fictional scenes.
As a reader one might think that we can't allow those who are disenchanted with society to disrupt our young good looking population with explosives. In Out a stick of dynamite is a visual metaphor for the structure of the novel, where 1/0 = 0 is transformed into decreasing blocks of writing, from nine lines to one line for the final chapter, and where the white space of the page produces the esthetic qualities of visuality, contrast, and asymmetry. Out is written as if the novel were a fuse ready to ignite, but instead is a way out of the urban nightmare that the narrator is experiencing in the Lower East Side of New York.
Everyone is yelling. It sounds like someone has just hit a homer. Nightsticks flash up and down. One or two bottles smash. Several bricks fly into the air. Stones tin cans garbage. Two black teenagers holding up signs toward the wedge the lid of a trash can sails towards the helmets. An explosion resonates through the square. Another. Five or six more. The man running in front of Carl stumbles over a girl lying on the pavement swivels sidesteps the pileup bulling full speed past anyone on his way. Gas rises in slow creamy clouds jagged cumuli tumuli spreading along the ground. Carl rips around the corner slows to a walk. He has a sore throat. Sirens are coming from everywhere. At the next corner he stops to buy a paper. The headline says CROWD GASSED IN SQUARE FLEES.
There is some justification to the radical position of those who were carrying sticks of dynamite at the beginning of the novel, yet we hope to see a more reasonable response to political injustice than what we see with Carl and his team of rebels.
Ronald Sukenick studied at Cornell, a scenic university in Ithaca, New York, which includes alumni Thomas Pynchon, Richard Farina, and William H. Gass. The Cornell school of literature showed promise with V. (1963) by Thomas Pynchon, a monumental first novel written from an informed perspective in a casual style of objective prose which influenced Ronald Sukenick and other writers at the time. Richard Farina was the next to follow with a masterful novel Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me (1966) written in a more subjective style, with poetic prose and imaginative dialogue, which continues the theme of campus life. Leading the Cornell avant garde with a modern masterwork William H. Gass published Willie Master's Lonesome Wife (1968) which features innovative typographic design with an erotic theme, once again a work which is a celebration of the academic lifestyle. The same year Ronald Sukenick published his first novel Up (1968) which continues the trend of realistic autobiographical fiction written in an objective style, similar to V. by Thomas Pynchon, yet the scene of writing has moved to the city where the charming professor is beginning his literary career.
After the critical success of Up (1968) where the New York neighborhood was beginning to show signs of crime, Out (1973) by Ronald Sukenick reads like a political and sociological nightmare in which things have gone from bad to worse. The events are written as examples of the dangers of the 70s lifestyle, and like the narrator, Gnossos, of Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me, Carl is an unreliable narrator, who is constantly changing his identity throughout the novel, as he morphs into new splinter identities, or alter egos. Carl experiences a series of hallucinatory visions involving violence and inner city crime from the Lower East Side of New York, and what disturbs some readers, is that he is on the verge of violent psychosis for most of the novel. This is similar to the character Square in Steve Tomasula's novel VAS: An Opera in Flatland (2002) where scientific information has fallen into the hands of a madman.
The conflict with Jojo should have been resolved by giving him a dollar or two, so that he could improve security as a chancer on the streets of New York, rather than letting it become a problem when he is following him home. A chancer is someone who helps compatible people get together as a form of synchronicity in an urban environment. Learning the wisdom of the streets could have helped protect Carl from experiencing not only an arbitrary arrest, a theme mentioned in the first pages of Up, but death in a hallucinatory scene with a Frankenstein type doctor waking him up from a table. Out is not an easy reading experience, but for those who can make it through a series of violent scenes which represent a celebration of organized crime, enlightenment is finally achieved when Carl leaves New York, and begins hitch hiking across America where he meets the sexy Ova, who wears a see through blouse, and her companion driving a camper, a little further up a woman in Minnesota, and finally the Native American visionary Empty Fox in South Dakota.
here we are in the middle of our book speeding along on the breaking crest of the present toward god knows what destination after the first word everything follows anything follows nothing follows the world is pure invention from one minute to the next
The narrator, Carl, who changes his name as he travels, experiences a conversion halfway through the novel when he finds someone, the reader, who appreciates his efforts to regain his sanity. I am a novelist writing in a different style than Out, having followed the esthetic theory of Surrealism in which poetic prose is more relevant than realistic descriptions of reality. The evolution of Surrealism towards the abstraction of modern art is what interests me, having studied art on a daily basis for years, the intersecting of two parallel lines of thought occurs in my reading of Out which produces a synthesis of new esthetic theory.
Of course but there are many disciplines you practice a discipline of abstraction I practice a discipline of inclusion. You practice a discipline of reduction I of addition. You pursue essentials I ride with the random. You cultivate separation I union. You struggle towards stillness I rest in movement.
Now watching the 1974 interview with Ronald Sukenick and Charles Russell at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee I notice the calm literary rationale that is similar to my own esthetic theory, with an understanding of the techniques of fiction writing, that lead to innovative concepts in structure and characterization. Ronald Sukenick wears his characteristic vest with a moderately cool appearance, and charming smile, a look that will appeal to the audience of moderately cool readers, who are looking for fiction that portrays the events of the 70s from a sympathetic perspective.
Out is written as simple fiction in short sentences which bring out the conceptuality of the plot with short compelling propositions, while featuring a lack of punctuation, that is a form of literary abstraction itself. The sentences are abstracted into simple phrases, and by taking the trend of abstraction one step further we can go from the popular trend of simple fiction to Ultra Simple Fiction, which is a form of literary minimalism. Out is written with a simple narrative logic in the casual language of the common people, as if the narrator is trying to appeal to a popular audience which he may envision after the success of his first novel Up (1968). This appeal to the common reader is similar to the Pop Art trend that was exemplified by Andy Warhol, author of A (1968), who favors images taken from popular culture that are often found in the American novel of the late 60s. The narrator states that he is not interested in abstraction as an esthetic theory, and prefers to make things real with an emphasis on humanistic values.
Ronald Sukenick has favored realism in his fiction with a self-awareness of narrative technique that verges on abstraction, yet his style is that of a precise psychological realism, where the narrator expresses the truth of reality in a careful analytic of plot, with a theory of personality involving motivation, formulaic rationales, and the effect on ego. Living not far from Ithaca, Jack Kerouac developed psychological realism in his novels, including Big Sur (1962) which represents a transition from the Beat Generation of the 50s to the Hippie generation of the 70s. Jack Kerouac portrays couples with a sense of inner truth that often comes from drinking wine while socializing with the literary west coast. Pablo Picasso also chose psychological realism as an esthetic theory in his paintings which often portray characters with a humorous precision of detail, creating painterly characterizations that express an emotional theme, abstracting forms which represent facial features, and using intense color to portray the individuation of the psyche, as Carl Jung would describe personality development.
Along with the Cornell school, Ronald Sukenick developed a style of characterization similar to the archetypal bohemian Benny Profane of V. (1963) with his Adventures of Strop Banally. The 60s occasionally feature the profanity of the common man written in a simple dialogue that is an appeal to a popular audience, and Out is the transition from satire to a literary novel which could be respected by the critics. The contemporary innovative novel has moved towards abstraction of character name and scene with the awareness of a more sophisticated audience. The Surrealists abandoned realism in favor of metaphor, the surreality of poetic prose, and painterly abstraction based on the esthetic theories of modern art. I have chose abstraction in my own novels, and rather than an abandonment of human experience, I consider it a more sophisticated approach to representation with characterizations that can be envisioned as abstract images from oil paintings, time lapse photography, and pastel drawings.
The narrator of Out understands the reader's situation, and has been won over by writing which shows similarities to his own fictional work. From blonde appreciation, to the soft cell, the mutual regard for a fellow writer creates the foundation for success.
Empty Fox wants to write a book.
I want to write a book like a cloud that changes as it goes.
I want to erase all books. My ambition is to unlearn everything I can't read or write that's a start. I want to unlearn till I get to the place where the ocean of the unknown begins, here my fathers live.
This is a translation in Lakota it's much better says Empty Fox he recites in a slow practical chant.
Without the wind
the kite is dead
everything is possible.
"To write a book like a cloud that changes as it goes" is how the Native American visionary Empty Fox states his esthetic goal, and this is the sentence that I always remember from Out. Standing beneath cloud banks in my front yard, I watch them resolve into a series of art images, becoming a shared experience which represents characters from ancient history. The meeting with Empty Fox in the middle section of the novel makes Out worth reading, and with the wisdom of the Native American perspective, South Dakota becomes the discovery of the historicity of America, where the narrator reveals a prophetic vision which looks forward to the next epoch.
Everything will wash away
It is good
A new race is coming
and the fire sings
Everything will burn to ash
It is good
A new nation is rising
and the wind sings
Everything will sweep away
It is good
Looking ahead to the next decade, Empty Fox prophesizes that a new civilization will begin in America, and this may occur after an ice age in which new species of animals will appear. In a vision quest for wisdom, The Native American may study the ancient past, and even the future, and with the new epoch we may see the new human with a sublime complexion, and even some of the exoticism of the future primitive. We celebrate the future now by hearing some of its music, as we envision the gradual continental drift which signifies the triumph of civilization.
Hash good we smoke. I get it ready he takes out a small pipe of blood red clay.
Use my pipe he says. It's special.
We pass the pipe back and forth after a while Empty Fox says now you are my friend Ron you are connected to me I am connected to you both of us connected to this place he smokes a while more the rest is postcards he says.
As America progresses the law progresses with it, so that now marijuana is being legalized in several states, and along with it a new esthetic theory of appreciating literature with the heightened consciousness of marijuana. The smoking of the peace pipe is a way of creating friendship between people, and can help form an affinity group that becomes a way of life.
The coherence of Out is a question of interpreting a multiplicity of scenes which may have been inspired by historical research, so that the reader is given the raw materials for the novelistic scenes which is similar in theory to Art Brut, or art in its unrefined state.
Both Up and Out were landmark novels in that they revitalized the rival tradition in literature, an historical brand of storytelling that highlights its deliberate refusal to render itself coherent and accessible while foregrounding a formally (read: politically) conscious narrative strategy reminiscent of Sterne's Tristram Shandy.
in Ronald Sukenick's
98.6., Doggy Bag, and
Out (1973) by Ronald Sukenick is a difficult novel to read, yet the main subject of the novel is the narrator's meeting with the Native American visionary Empty Fox. The middle section of the novel is a portrait of a relationship which expresses a profound wisdom with prophecies that envision America as a great nation evolving towards the future. With its decreasing lines of type Out is meant to be an esthetically pleasing experience, and sets the trend for innovative fiction that is structurally sophisticated while exploring the way out of the intense urban lifestyle.
The entire novel Out (1973) by Ronald Sukenick is online at:
David Detrich lives in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan where he has just completed The Convergence of Two Narrative Lines Ascending, an ultramodern Surrealist novel written in minimal squares. He is working on Dream the Presence of the Circular Breast Starfish Topography, a monumental Surrealist novel written with innovative typographical design. His first novel Big Sur Marvels & Wondrous Delights (2001) is available from Amazon. He edits Innovative Fiction Magazine, and Surrealist Star Clustered Illuminations.