Friday, July 13, 2012

Ronald Sukenick, uP (1968)

The novel's about a guy named Ronald Sukenick (yup, it's that sort of book), who is writing this book, and freely remembering his life as a teenager, as a professor, and as a writer.  There are also various sequences dramatizing his persecution fantasies and some featuring his alter-ego-of-sorts, Strop Banally.  Passages can freely move between any of these with no warning or transition, and there are some stream-of-consciousness-y bits that go by without any of that lame bourgeois punctuation.  And there are occasional typography tricks.  You know the drill.

Now look: Sukenick is clearly writing in the same milieu as lots of postmodern writers that I've read--your Pynchons, your Barths, your Coovers, your Barthelmes, your Gasses.  That's fine, and I'm not going to sit here and tell you that reading uP was a wholly onerous experience.  Nonetheless, I have to say, the more I think about it, the more I kind of hate it in retrospect, for two reasons.

Reason one is that when people criticize postmodern writing for having no real center; for just flitting hither and yon and throwing crap together in an anyone-can-do-it sort of way, they totally have a point if they're talking about uP.  Sukenick is constantly throwing in scenes that might be interesting if they ever actually built to something, but that never do.  You may think you're getting the work of a sensitive memoirist or a wild fantasist, but there's never any damn payoff.  For all that there's a lot of energy and some of the conversations that Sukenick has with his various friends are amusing-ish, there ain't no there there.  Even if you consider the whole thing a memoir of sorts, it doesn't succeed.  It's neither fish nor fowl, and the ambiguity is not of a particularly interesting sort.  It's just postmodern for the hell of it.  Why bother?

Reason two is the treatment of women, who, apart from a few weak relatives, are purely conceptualized as fantasy objects by Ronald and his friends, and it's not just that: they, women, are constantly being put in degraded situations, and they're never given any real agency.  Ronald and his pals are absolutely obsessed with nothing else, and yeah, there's an extent to which Sukenick is satirizing his own neuroses, but you know, fuck this bullshit.  It's not insightful; Sukenick is not Updike or Roth or, for that matter, Woody Allen.  It's not so easy to be a complete narcissist and still be able to write stuff that's worth reading, and dammit, Sukenick certainly isn't.  It all just gets kinda gross after a while.  I must say, any book that I would think twice before recommending to a female friend is a book that I would to think twice before recommending to anyone.  "uP is the kind of book that any person in his right mind can enjoy," sez the cover blurb from Saturday Review, and while I assume the gender-exclusivity was not intentional, it seems appropriate.

Don't get me wrong; I would not say that Sukenick is devoid of talent or anything, and there are some sections--like one alternating between teenage Sukenick working as a hospital orderly and his interactions with his dysfunctional aunt and uncle and their kids--that are actually really good, and make me wish that he could've created a better whole.  But he didn't, dammit, and I don't really know that there's any particular purpose in anyone reading it, unless they're really obsessive about the detritus of sixties/seventies counterculture.  "When Ronald Sukenick's first novel, uP came out in 1968, post-modernism, avant-pop and autofiction hadn't been invented yet," the back cover claims.  "uP invented them."  I don't suppose there's any need for me to enumerate the ways in which this claim is complete nonsense; I can only assume it's meant as a sort of pushback against the fact that, compared to many of his contemporaries, Sukenick has decidedly fallen out of fashion*.  I don't see how that's possibly supposed to work, though; it's hard to imagine anyone picking up this book who lacked the background to realize what a line that is.  And it wouldn't anyway, 'cause it's just not good enough.  Sorry!

*and he really has--note that this, his in-theory most well-known novel, has a total of two amazon reviews, and they're not even real reviews; they're just someone copy-and-pasting material from old, contemporaneous notices.  Had you ever even heard of him before reading this blog entry?  Possible, but unlikely!  I hadn't until I looked him up after seeing his name mentioned in passing in some article I was reading about Robert Coover.


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