Michael Brodsky: Writing as Exposure

Vincent Van Gogh, Self Portrait with Palette, 1889

The individual who has not risked his life may well be recognized as a person, but he has not attained to the truth of this recognition as an independent self-consciousness.

…. if you go on struggling to name…. you come up with all sorts of ingenious explanations for why you cannot nor ever will get the hang of the naming game. And through the deployment of those explanations you begin to name yourself—to find a name for yourself—the only name worth knowing.

The only real promise of reward issues from a state of affairs that offers no promise….
—Michael Brodsky, Lurianics, p 33-4 & 347**

I hesitated before using the phrase, “writing as exposure” for fear of appearing heavy-handed, something Brodsky deftly avoids. He does deploy big themes but he never loses sight of the worm squirming inside them. But then in trying to write about Lurianics, his most recent novel, I found myself briefly chased into The Phenomenology of Spirit, about the heaviest thing I can think of reading. And I had to remind myself of the obvious: he is not writing this, I am. Somehow I have to get past my awe of his power. Since the death of John Ashbery last year, Michael Brodsky is the living writer in my native language I most admire.

It’s hard to characterize his work. You might get a glimpse of its flavor if you tried to imagine a mind meld between Proust and Kierkegaard with some Beckettian wit sprinkled in. But there’s nothing, anytime anywhere, like it. Above all his writing is a triumph of style, the most powerful and unmistakable style I’ve seen since Kurt Vonnegut. Pick a book, any book. In the first few sentences you know you’re reading Brodsky. It couldn’t be anyone else. And once you’re into the middle of it it’s as massive and unstoppable as the Mississippi.

The paradox is that there is nothing small about this master of termite art.

Fuck it, let’s bring in the big guns. Kafka said a book should be the ax that splits into one’s frozen sea. I wonder why he didn’t say a torch to melt it. Anyway, how many books do you read that fit that description? Writers, how many submissions guidelines come anywhere near asking for such a thing? Rather than expose the mind to risk, creative writing so often does the opposite, it massages the mind to sleep. Should you pick up one of Brodsky’s novels, however, don’t expect to get any rest.

Michael Brodsky is clearly a man who knows things. His knowledge is acute on every page. But you don’t read him to fill up on facts as in a classical transfer of knowledge. Instead, the reader’s orientation to language is destabilized, requiring that he or she become involved in the creative process. After a certain amount of preparation, that is. For each of his novels is so carefully built, word after word, that the reader must consider each step—and no shortcuts—to get any sense of it before traveling around at will. It can feel well nigh impossible to write about this unique reading experience afterwards without taking the same steps again, using any words other than Brodsky’s own, but to imitate him is to misunderstand him.

Let me try another approach, try and cut to the chase, as they say (who says?) and say that Lurianics, like his other novels, is about the difficulty of living the life of an artist. It’s not just a matter of creating a “room of one’s own” but of getting to the mental space that will enable one to work in that room. In what ways do economic and domestic life constrict the art life? But more than that it is a question of authenticity. What does it mean to be a human being with some measure of independence, some sense of creative integrity? Such questions go beyond that of how to be an artist in this fucked up world to how to be an authentic person at all. For we all create each other together. We all experience the push and pull of these forces and pressures of creation and we are made just as we make ourselves. The question is to what degree we are aware of it and how involved we are, on a conscious level, with self-creation. If Brodsky’s novels are anything, they are hyper-conscious. That’s why if I had to compare them to anything it would be Proust and Kierkegaard, two of the most self-aware writers I can think of.

One might wonder why, if Brodsky’s novels involve the question of how the individual and society create one another, he writes in a modern manner rather than a classical one. Why not create a world à la Tolstoy? —I mean other than because it’s already been done that way? From a stylistic point of view, Brodsky’s characters aren’t characters at all. They all speak in the same voice. It’s as if they’re all clamoring inside a single speaker’s head. Perhaps that’s the key to understanding the connection between Brodsky’s themes and his style: we are witnessing the great struggle to be an authentic person, we are taken into the very cauldron of that struggle, the struggle of an individual human consciousness. We get inside that struggle when we sidestep the styles of other people/characters by translating them into the protagonist’s style. How much more insidious, how much more powerful the Authority/Father is when he takes on our own manner of speech, when he gets inside our own head. Like the endless wheels of self-consciousness, a protagonist in one of Brodsky’s novels can’t turn it off. It’s not just as though, as Foucault said, we live in a world in which things have been said by others, but those things have penetrated our own skull and they churn in there, threatening to do our own speaking and therefore thinking for us.

…. the words rushed in and began to use his feelings as engine and podium—to make them the driver of their own feelings, which were very different from his except in some rare cases. Most of the time words were birds of prey feeding on the carrion of his always too available anguish—using it to fuel their own language…. [46]

Or we could chalk it up to taste, if we can equate Brodsky’s with that of his protagonist in Lurianics, Isaac Luria, who says at the beginning:

I don’t want the true work reduced to the common denominator of a leisurely unfolding in time with its inherent need to come to an end through beginning and middle…. It’s not for me. Let’s get that straight here and now. [12]

But now, once they’ve gotten in there (the thoughts, the words, the discourses of others—inside your head), hasn’t the battle—nay the war—already been lost? Aren’t we already in the realm of madness? If so then in Brodsky’s world it’s a Blakean madness, the madness of art. For those with the strength it’s a folly worth persisting in, for a time, before the alarm beckons. However, lest we forget, the voices are already there and it’s best to remember that fact whenever we open our mouth to speak or pick up a pen to write. Unless, that is, we’ve given up our end of the effort and allowed the world to have it all and are just rolling along letting others live our lives for us. Or unless we prefer the illusions of an art that tells us it ain’t so and that feed us a neatly contrived conflict that rounds out to a comforting closure. You won’t find any of that in Michael Brodsky’s work.

…. closure (the most detestable word in the dictionary) [252]

Contrary to one of the most persistent pet structures of literary studies—the spotlighted conflict, it’s moment of crisis and resolution—there are no “privileged” moments [233] in a Brodsky novel.

…. utterance is possible, then, only as a defiance of all of being…. For it is all of being which agitates incessantly for accuracy, for a faithful rendering of its contours. [247]

“Utterance”—any utterance, and that includes any writing—is incapable of capturing a totality. Slice and dice it up any way you want, all of the moments (his term is better: thought packets) in a Brodsky novel are of equal value. It’s true. I don’t feel that I’m further ahead in understanding on page 300 than I was at page 10. But only after reading it all and marking the passages that, for whatever reason, I liked, and then skimming back and forth and all over endlessly rereading, do I have a sense of the experience of reading a Brodsky novel. Brodsky makes no claims for realism, obviously, but once you’ve experienced his work you understand better than before how brittely artificial the constructions of so-called realistic art are.

Michael Brodsky’s literary references, when they are named, are usually sobriquets of his own devising: Steph Mallomar, Charley Purse, Sir Soren O’Grady Kierk, Jack LaCanne, to name a few. There are three important exceptions to this in Lurianics. First of course is in the name of its protagonist: Isaac Luria. One can read here a brief overview of the historical Isaac Luria. I’m not sure it’s necessary to know more than this to read the novel; at least it didn’t stop me. Adam Kadmon—central figure in the Lurianic Kabbalah—is the second name. And the third name, of all people, is Poe. The name of Poe appears throughout the novel, often in conjunction with that of Adam Kadmon and that fact alone tells us something about how the name of Poe is being used. On first sight he would seem to be a counterweight to Kadmon: contemporary man in his fallen state, sorely in need of redemption. If only it were that easy.

Poe makes his first appearance as a passing stranger in a woolen overcoat. Here and throughout Poe is, among other things, a sign for discursive pressures that press on the “true work” (one cannot avoid using some of Brodsky’s nomenclature, especially this term, which I’m going to allow to speak for itself). Whenever Poe is mentioned a rhetorical threat is suggested—some figure of speech or stylism (that’s right, I said stylism, don’t bother to look it up) that threatens to bend or shape the true work to its own ends, something that might result in a “wordflow” (another of Brodsky’s terms) that directs all authentic effort into a predetermined channel, a “typedness” (Brodsky’s term) or at least a channel determined by someone other than the artist (“artist” is my term; Brodsky never uses it). He begins—the man in the overcoat—as a mere distraction, a McGuffin with no bearing on the true work. But he keeps coming back like an itch that won’t go away.

Poe is the Great Writer, the Maker, the Master Craftsman. He takes his place in the chorus of voices inside Luria’s head, not as a voice per se but as a name, a cipher, a warning of the one who threatens to divert the work into rhetorical or merely stylistic distractions that could lead to typedness. At his worst he threatens to take over the work, as in his disturbing appearance on page 123. I could be horribly wrong, but here Poe seems to be a stand-in for the author and his great style. Style can be used as an escape like any other, after all, just as sarcasm can be used merely as a way to avoid the pain of the deadly serious. The passage is too long to quote in full and it’s difficult to parse, but I see no reason why Brodsky would ignore one of the greatest risks of his endeavor: a great style can take on its own life, running away from its maker. He’s determined not to let that happen.

Which brings me to the humor in Brodsky’s work. Poe began as a McGuffin that was supposed to function as literary levity to a relentless style. He quickly became the most insidious danger to the true work itself of trying to be an authentic human being, attacking that very style. But Brodsky has another weapon at his disposal: the grace of humor.

Oh, it’s a very particular kind of humor, still smarting from the birth of its pain (that’s what I said, the birth of its pain). Boris Luria (love the name), Isaac’s father, is a beast of a man, a “towering monolith” [192] who reminds me of Hermann Kafka—the dreaded, ominous, looming Hermann Kafka. “There was no way to diagnose Boris, forever crouched to spring (hammertoes or not)” [298]. That Boris could be so low and so high is a truth too painful to bear without laughter. Those hammertoes remind me of the kind of humor Gombrowicz routinely used.

Sometimes it’s the humor of wordplay, such as

—he would have soon come to his senses and realized that whatever he did he was always a participant, a flagrant participant. Even on the fringe he was flagrant. Flagrant on the Fringe: A Memoir. [299]


He clenched his fists and strove to keep himself on the margin of anything that might fix—spay—geld—his vulnerable self. A robbed baron of the gelded age was what he was. [282]

Sometimes it’s a gallows humor: “I’m always detesting somebody, Boris—Isaac—thought—the way other people are always chasing rainbows….” [326] Hatred and Rainbows—that could be the name of a pop band.

Sometimes he’s just plain funny. Like his description on page 217 of the contents of a typical bookstore (you’ll have to look that one up yourself).

Other times you have to be there to get it. The novel prepares you for the parenthetical remark on page 329: “(but from whose POV? you mean the POV’s gone unclaimed? disgraceful!)” Someone call the National Guard!

Above all he makes fun of himself. We’ve seen what he thinks of being (it is an agitation for accuracy). So we can appreciate his, “running after being (with a bedpan but always arriving too late), panting to keep up.” [243] And from there it’s but the tiniest of hops to, “A firm commitment to the true work as the only conceivable conduit outside of being required a commensurately firm commitment to shoveling the shit of being and professing to relish the stench and consistency.” [226] Please notice, if you will, that these insights appear in reverse chronological order: page 247, page 243, page 226.

As a final example of Brodsky’s humor I’d like to point out the way he chides the reader throughout Lurianics. I happen to love to look words up, especially words I think I know. It’s pretty much my favorite thing to do. So when he challenges me to look up a word or inserts parenthetical comments on some of his word choices, I’m game. It’s a running joke throughout the novel. How Brodsky manages to keep the humor in this without being annoying is a feat of magic I don’t claim to understand (although that hasn’t stopped me from trying to do it myself). I mean, writers are supposed to be polite to readers, aren’t they? Maybe, but maybe it’s just that I don’t feel the need to have my ass kissed. Hmm, in real life I don’t like it when people call me “chief” or “boss” but I laugh when Brodsky calls me “bub”—maybe there’s a connection, or I just need therapy. My favorite instance of the joke is when he invokes the spirit of Judy Holliday’s Billie Dawn. The kind of smarts we most need aren’t to be found in the dictionary but that’s no excuse not to read one.

I’d like to wrap this up but I don’t know how to make a bow. Worse, I haven’t even scratched the surface of the riches inside Lurianics. Well, I haven’t even tried, for example, to show how exposure to risk in the making of oneself has reminded me repeatedly of Judith Butler’s Undoing Gender. And I haven’t tried to broach the subject of the pet theory I’ve been toying with—that style or even a particular aesthetic chosen by an artist can in some instances go beyond matters of fashion or taste and become an ethical matter. The world has recently lost in Cecil Taylor an artist of the highest caliber. He found his mode of working early and he stuck to it for decades, regardless of how he was paid. In my mind there has been no better example of purity and integrity in the arts. And Michael Brodsky is such an artist, still, thankfully, living among us. If you wanted to play with Cecil you had to learn the material. That meant untold hours of playing—in private, away from an audience. Only after the material was fully absorbed by the ensemble could they go onstage and “create”, to use Taylor’s term, which meant improvising and to the casual listener sounded totally free and unplanned. I think something like this is required of Brodsky’s readers. You take your time with his work, and then you begin to understand that to be yourself, to be an authentic person is an improvisation, a creative evolution based on knowledge and study and discipline—the hardest work in the world.

I think of the contents of Brodsky’s books as one vast work: it’s always that unmistakable style carrying through along with the recurring theme of the true work—the creative evolution of the self, the ongoing improvisation of becoming a person, never settling for what others make of you or even of what you’ve made of yourself in the past. You could start anywhere. His books are equally rewarding, but I have found some of them harder going than others. I got off to a rough start with Lurianics. At times it felt like climbing a mountain. But after a little while it felt like a discipline, like a food I wanted every day. But I don’t know if it’s the best entry point. I might recommend Southernmost or Xman (right, after writing all day long about Lurianics!). Southernmost is a collection of stories and novellas and is good if you’d like to sample and compare smaller pieces. If you’d like a bigger meal you might want to try Xman. It’s full of baroque language with jagged flourishes, blunt punches and sparkling dark humor. Xman should have a companion volume of equal size with readers’ responses. Some day it will. Michael Brodsky’s time has only just begun.

** Unless otherwise noted, all quotations from Lurianics by Michael Brodsky, Gray Oak Books, 2013.

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