Rousselian Cliffhangers and Other Challenges in Michael Brodsky’s ***

Michael Brodsky ***

*** is a novel by Michael Brodsky published in 1994. The title consists solely of three asterisks, making it virtually unpronounceable and unsearchable on the internet. Rather than pass over the name in silence while reading (interesting that the mind is loath to do that), I refer to it as “tri-star”.

One might ask before beginning to review such a novel what it means to entitle it this way. But the answer to that question must in a sense be the review itself. A Goodreads review of *** complained about this very difficulty, annoyed that every time the subject of “***” is brought up in the novel it is described differently. No matter that Brodsky states over and over that this is of the essence of ***. Here is a sample:

No given *** was uniquely structured, might in fact be structured alternatively, was nothing less than the limit arbitrarily set to an infinite expansibility seeded, propelled, attenuated, by an always available plethora of interchangeable, farcically fungible raws. [362]*

You can’t name the *** because the *** are not for naming…. that ends up situating you even further from what you still would like to think of as their essence. [337]

Recurring labor of transformation rather than surrender to a smooth story-line is the real subject of the work. [44]

So let’s start with the book’s dust jacket illustrated by the great Mark Beyer. We see three identical pictures suggesting visual equivalents of the three asterisks—that is, not three separate things but three identical things, or one thing repeated three times. But since they are shown in three different sizes a triad of units with a gradient order of potency or prominence is suggested, or an ostensible set which is in reality a single unit with two extensions, reflections or echoes. We shouldn’t judge the book by its cover, only pick up clues if we can, and so we cannot ignore what the repeated picture represents: strangely stylized humanoid figures seated at desks handling unusual objects apparently of both organic and manufactured origin. Meanwhile a single figure stands in the background while several others lie on the floor in pools as if dead in pools of blood. However the “blood” is not red but the same yellow (presumably sun yellow) as seen in the windows. This is by no means the only topsy-turvy element in the image. The almost childlike decorative heads of the figures is at odds with the disturbing mask-like alienness of them (as well as their formal postures) and the lines going to a vanishing point, as in a perspective diagram, belie the radical flatness of Beyer’s distinctive decorative style. These are features of Beyer’s work in general and it might appear to be a mistake to assign special significance to them in terms of Brodsky’s novel. And yet there seems to be a convenient correspondence between the two. Beyer seems to poke fun of the classical device of perspective—using it and yet, through decorative and stylistic means as well as with weird quasi-childish imagery short-circuiting the dictatorial hegemony of its point of view. Likewise Brodsky writes all about *** yet without privileging a single definition or point of view (which he considers to be death), setting up a simple narrative arc (with masters, minions, a lover, a murder and a detective) yet without any of the traditional trappings of development and denouement—through characters with silly names like Stu Pott and Sam Spermler.

As indicated by Beyer’s image, Stu Pott et al. are engaged in work involving the manipulation of real world materials. *** is both the name of the company Stu Pott works for (ostensibly headed by Dov Grey and directed behind the scenes by the women in his life) and the name(s) of the product(s) made by that company. The materials used to produce *** are referred to throughout the novel as “raws”. As stated, one never gets a clear image or description of any ***. And as for the raws, one gets the impression they could come from anywhere and are therefore potentially as open as the universe. Dov Grey and his crew of associates and minions, it would seem, can and will make *** product out of anything.

If company and product (or story/story elements) comprise one unit of the triad, then what are the other two? Second is the meta-story, for the author steps in from time to time to discuss the process of writing ***. *** becomes the company and its product, but also the novel itself and the novel’s making. Brodsky does not always make it easy to disentangle the two. In fact he seems to want to blur story and meta-story into one another so that dialogues between coworkers on the difficulties of their work seem also like commentary on the blending of these two strands of narrative. The reader often feels caught in a twilight world of indistinct lights, groping vegetation and movements of thought (called “thought packets”).

Halfway into the novel Watt by Samuel Beckett comes an exceedingly strange passage in which the narrator and the protagonist meet via adjoining gardens separated by fences. Narrator approaches Watt through a hole in his fence and Watt approaches Narrator by walking backwards through an identical hole in his fence. They meet in an area between the two fences. Narrator turns Watt around to face him. He feels as though he is looking in a mirror. They place their hands on each other’s shoulders and by moving their legs in unison amble up and down the area between the fences dividing the two gardens. A strange exhilaration overcomes the reader of this passage, as if through some kind of magic having entered a dimension not normally accessible in literature. And yet it is not magic. It is words on paper. The whole world of ***, the whole *** experience takes place in this realm. ***, the novel, is the higher mathematics of this dimension.

In at least three separate passages involving Stu Pott, Brodsky strangely shifts from the third person to the first. The shifts look peculiar until one reflects that he, Pott, is constantly cast in twilight; his position is uncertain at every turn. Inasmuch as he is struggling to find his way in the *** world he is analogue to both author writing it and reader reading it. A mere twenty-five pages from the close of the novel Stu Pott is still described in such terms as this:

A suspect between interrogations, worse, vocations, he was wedded to the moment. [341]

The reader may have anticipated the third unit of the triad: the thought world of the reader. The reader is expected to become actively engaged in the process. This challenge cannot be underestimated, for therein lies the true power of the novel.

The aim should be not to obscure the roots of the packets but to foreground their difficult transmogrification into story elements from just those roots. Such foregrounding emphasizes the disjunction between packet and placement. Recurring labor of transformation rather than surrender to a smooth story-line is the real subject of the work. Spectator/reader is himself/herself made to make the packet into a story element the best way he/she knows how. [44]

And let each reader decide if the effort of reading this novel is worth it or if he/she can only echo poor Stu Pott himself: “I look back on my work here and what do I have to show for it?” [337] Let each reader decide:

  • Whether or not Stu Pott and Dov Grey are really one person, or two halves of the same person, one secure one insecure, one mature one immature, one transforming every raw into product one ever on the lookout for the unassimilable. And if they are in a sense one person is it the author building a novel upon and against the history of the novel? Can we make an analogy to the process of novel writing (and its history) in the production of ***? in, for example, a passage such as this:

raws may very well subsist alongside the *** into which concurrently they have been integrated. [69]

  • What psycho-sociology, if any, to read into the women pulling the levers, as it were, from backstage and off camera. Are all of the men merely their stage puppets?
  • If the author really goes too far in his abhorrence of answers, or if there’s a Nietzschean dignity (not to mention project) in his:

No mitigations, no opiates, no festive disincarnations flitting through the curtains of the moment; only in some gapless incremental march towards total despair can you hope to find a solution, no matter for what, to what. But of course you have every right to ask whether this abstention from mitigation is but another—the biggest and boldest—mitigatory ploy…. [143]

By the close of the novel with Dov Grey deceased and Stu Pott installed as the head of *** he is no more secure (or mature) than when he was first introduced. There has been no character development, unless it is Stu’s ability to see what the others cannot, that the whole *** challenge means ongoing struggle with no guarantee of reward. Reflecting, against his will, on a rim of reflected light, Stu comes to know

that beyond the rim was no supernova, only a simpering filament, doomed never to shed wattage for revelation, ultimate or otherwise. [367]

I’m sad for Stu Pott’s inability to extricate himself from the *** world. Brodsky tells us that Stu recoils,

instinctively, and at first and to the last took his recoil for a gash in the repristinated world outside the big bay [window]. [366]

But then he also tells us in many ways that

***-making penetrates everywhere. [221]

And so the *** world is our human-made world after all. And unconventional as he is Stu Pott is a complex character. In (or despite) his hyperconsciousness (arguably his strength, inarguably his torment) he is able to see the repristinated world out the window. He may feel like a gash or a wound, stuck between the two worlds, good for neither, but on the one hand as long as he retains this childlike ability he will be useful to the company, always able to stir the pot of production, and on the other hand Brodsky’s narrative strategy constitutes

the way to a window on what it means to be…. other than what he/she was doomed to be, or thinks he/she was doomed to be. [346]

I am reminded, as I am when reading great philosophical works, to stay vigilant:

The bare branches outside the big brown bay were still, but their melted-ice-puddle reflection was all aquiver, like roots. [367]

This, the final sentence of ***, a novel that can never be finished (and now I wonder if it is a mistake to focus on the three, or if the series extends into infinity), is a beautiful poetic snapshot recalling the essential and perpetual challenge that such a novel confers on the reader who is willing to accept it. It’s a paradoxical image, pairing stability and instability, pointing toward the truth of lucid uncertainty. No cheap, banal closure. But the challenge of constantly renewed effort.

OK, you might be asking, the food may be good for you, but does it taste good? ***, tour de force that it is, is not as enjoyable a read as his novel Xman, for example. It’s a very difficult read. But I love Brodsky’s prose, baroque as it can be at times. He does break it up with beautiful sentences. In less capable hands his style would be a joke. But that only makes his accomplishment more impressive. Some may complain that they have to read with a dictionary on hand. I’m not. I’ve learned some good words. And just stop for a moment and consider the fine line Brodsky walks connecting the three terms of the triad, upholding Heidegger’s dictum that thinking does not lead to new knowledge, maintaining a consistent style, and ensuring—difficult, to be sure—readability. A word about that style. It holds the book together. It’s strong. And it’s unmistakable. In several passages characters espouse the view that one must pull one’s disparate selves together, present a united front and be confident. That is Michael Brodsky the writer.

But all of these complexities aside, language and narrative constructs aside, there are still unique pleasures to be found in this novel. In one of the metanarrative sections Brodsky seems to have exhausted ALL, that is he’s described everything, explained everything, so much so that all oxygen seems to be leaving the room, and Dov Grey—Master and CEO—feels as though he can’t breathe. Indeed, what can happen now? Here is a Rousselian cliffhanger, a Holy Shit! moment when I put the book down marveling that there’s a hundred pages left. What’s he going to do now?

I won’t tell you how Brodsky writes his way out of that box. You’ll have to read it for yourself.


*All quotations from *** by Michael Brodsky, Four Walls Eight Windows, 1994.

Michael Brodsky Blog

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4 Responses to Rousselian Cliffhangers and Other Challenges in Michael Brodsky’s ***

  1. Susan Scheid says:

    You write with such perspicacity about this book that it’s a pleasure to read this review just to follow your own interaction with it and the thinking you bring to bear, right from examination of the book’s title and cover (the latter of which attracted me immediately). I found this quotation striking: “Recurring labor of transformation rather than surrender to a smooth story-line is the real subject of the work.” That’s quite a tall order for the writer, let alone the reader. I’m not in the right frame of mind to tackle a work like this, so I feel almost foolish commenting, and hesitated for a while. But I thought it worthwhile to say that, were I to attempt this novel without having read what you’d written here, I’d have been skeptical, at the very least, but when I see how you’ve come at it and what you’ve come away with, it’s impossible to think that this emperor *** has no clothes.

    • I’ll never be finished reading this book which, in a way, is more like a work of philosophy than a novel, as it says something essential about the open-ended quality of great literary works (like Williams’ “Spring and All” it’s expository and poetic at the same time). Some day there will be a whole body of literature on Brodsky’s work.

  2. angela says:

    Dear Mark ~ I am not sure where to leave this comment, but i am hoping you will get a notification. I’ve been away a longtime, so long that it looks like you’ve hit your speed with brilliant, insightful posts. I cannot wait to carve out bits of time to visit your thoughts – you are the ultimate professor in my mind. I stopped by to see if you had posted about Bowie – I’m hoping there will be something to come. Until then, may the new year continue to bless you with the grace of critical thinking, poetry and prose. Peace ~ Angela

    • Thanks so much for your visit, Angela. Bowie. I’m not surprised to see it, yet I’m still overwhelmed by the immense outpouring of love for this man. I believe John Lydon once said that David Bowie was the “one thing we all agreed on.” He inspired everyone. I’m taking in all the tributes, and might write a poem, but sometimes I’m speechless.

      I hope to see some poems from you again.

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