Fiction Collective Two is an author-run, not-for-profit publisher of artistically adventurous, non-traditional fiction.

The Death of the Novel


The Death of the Novel and Other Stories
by Ronald Sukenick

Paperback
2003
Price: $17.50

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Ronald Sukenick's notorious 1969 story collection remains among the least forgettable creations of an unforgettable age. Irrepressibly experimental in both content and form, these anti-fictions set out to rescue experience from its containment within artistic convention and bourgeois morality. Equal parts high modernist aesthete and borscht belt comedian, Sukenick joins avant-garde art with street slang and cartoons, expressing his generation's anxieties by simultaneously mocking and literalizing them. These are original works by a writer who'll try absolutely anything.


"What characterizes Sukenick's fiction is its comedy, its sexual exuberance, its innovations in structure and characterization, and the accuracy of its depiction of the cultural context."—Contemporary Literature


Excerpt


THE PERMANENT CRISIS


If it was true that when last night before his desk he sat head on veiny forearms, a very young man though ordinarily as capable as most people at that moment as helpless as most people, until Honey called from the other room - the bedroom - it was the third time, Come to bed, without getting an answer for the third time, and again, Come to bed, and he raised his head, roared, NO, then lowered it onto his fist propped elbow on desk, staring at his blank page with an expression that looked like the mask of misery, saying to himself, it's like being in space so empty you don't even know whether you're there, trying to describe what was happening so it would stop happening, this paralysis, to call it a paralysis, because he would know what to think about it and more important, what to feel about it, and she came to the door of the bedroom and moaned, What are you doing? in her blue pajamas and the single long braid of thick brown hair that she slept in coming over her shoulder, falling like a brush between her breasts, sleepy, cranky, eyes half closed and cheeks flushed from the warmth of the bed, and he answered, I'm laying an egg, she opened her eyes to a wide, fuzzy, unfocused, sleepy, guileless, brown, asking, You're what?

I'm laying an EGG, and her eyes opened a little wider and she turned and fled back to the bedroom her braid trailing behind, like a chinaman, or a furry animal, but was standing in the doorway again an instant later, more angry than hurt shouting, Don't yell at me, stamping her bare foot on the floor at "yell," and when he heard the springs creak as she dived back into bed (he could imagine it exactly), he was already thinking, like the loss of ambition no, like the exhaustion of desire no, more, as if he couldn't discover the forms for desire, or as if he wanted nothing because he could find nothing to want, or - but she came to disturb his formulations again, going timidly to sit in the easy chair across from his desk but not speaking, not even looking at him, just drawing her legs onto the chair and sitting quietly with an unhappy expression and her body quivering slightly, from the tension maybe, or from fatigue, until he glared at her curled in the chair and she looked up nervously, looked down, then looked up again eyes widened unhappily asking, Is it the cat? - the cat, they had had an argument about the cat, The cat, he replied, will have to go.

You know you said before we were married that I could keep my cat.

It's not the cat.

I don't care about the cat.

Why don't you go to sleep?

I can't sleep. I'm lonely. You make me feel lonely.

Well if it was a mistake it's not too late for an annulment, he said and was sorry as soon as he looked at her, though it was in his mind and had been for quite a while, though he had never really accepted being married, never really decided to get married, but one day after he had been sleeping with her for a long time without ever having mentioned it before, without ever saying that he was in love with her or even, as far as he could remember, mentioning that he was fond of her, when he was pleased with his life and with the world he suddenly (it was a surprise to himself) said, What do you say we get married? and she without taking time to breathe or blink answered Yes, and a little stunned he asked, How come you say yes so quickly? immediately regretting he had asked but after flinching at the question she answered, Because I'm tired of saying no, so that he had to laugh and then she laughed but nevertheless since he had proposed because he felt good he was never sure it wasn't a mistake when he felt bad except that from the first time he took her to bed he never troubled much to doubt he was in whatever love was with her, so that he said to her in grudging apology, I feel bad. It has nothing to do with you.

That's why I feel lonely, she answered quickly, a just remark he felt since in the last months it had all been disappearing, his work, his degree, his career - not that they weren't still there, but that he couldn't see them, a death of interest - disappearing, disappeared, until tonight he felt he too could disappear, like a rocket to space, pushing off with rush and energy to break through and find nothing there, last seen floating in the direction of the sun, a death of interest, that was it, Is it something that happened? she asked, and he thought and tried to answer with evident sanity though if it were insane it would be better in a way because there was always the nearest analyst, something - who knows? - he might come to anyway as half of the people he knew already had, and some of the others ought to, Yes, no, yes. That is, yes, something seems to be happening. I'm failing. Everything is slipping through my fingers.

But how, failing? You're first in your school . . .

And the right job waiting for me, the one I wanted, and a wife to be envied, everything on schedule and altogether an august personage, no. Life is failure. Or if that's not true, that's the way I feel, or he wondered, did that sound hollow, what had he expected that the enlightened, liberal, upper middle class wasn't going to give him, what life freer, larger that he had sensed since long ago beyond his home, beyond the reach of his family, beyond the imagination of his father, that good man, with his store failed in Williamsburg, failed in Flatbush, failed in Bensonhurst, failing in every drab corner of Brooklyn, failed once, even, in Canarsie, and then the war when he made money, a lot of it, lost Eugene in Belguim and finally retired guilt-striken, well-off to die - what it amounted to - of confusion, what life that he had conceived, whose immense possibilities he had been led to conceive by the mouthings of the least grammar school teacher, by the large noises of an entire culture, of intelligent effort and dignified fulfillment through simple observation did not for him exist, or not as represented, that he knew he was going to hate - which he might have put up with - but that he suddenly felt as empty, as tawdry, and above all, as pointless as the succession of stores in Brooklyn only worse, because you would have to know exactly what you were doing to yourself, But why? she asked, Why?

It's like there's some kind of fraud going on, I don't know. I feel like I've been promised too much, and the hell of it is, I still expect it.

But you're not making sense. Why fraud?

Because I feel cheated.

Of what? The world is wide open. There are lots of things you can do with a law degree.

So they say, but it was more than a sense of being swindled, it was like a feeling of betraying something - but what? since there was nothing to betray in a society in whose forms and procedures he neither believed nor disbelieved but to which he would be committed above all as a lawyer, catching him in a pattern of guilt he felt working already and which he felt powerless to change, in which success would aggravate rebellion and rebellion would bring success because that was what they wanted, to be told what was wrong, to get the disease named and the guilt isolated - this gluttony for medicine that was itself a disease - a process that would take and take but never give, finally leaving him utterly to himself, as he was now, a bug caught and squirming on its own pin, I'm going to secede, I'm leaving, he told her,

To go where?

You tell me. Nowhere, leaving him utterly to himself, that was it, a self that could only analyze its own consciousness, a consciousness aware only of its own muttering, It's after three, she interrupted dolorously and he noticed that the pout around the corners of her lips had collapsed to a look of patient despair and didn't answer her until she added, Do you want to talk about it?

It's not a matter of talking about it.

You're just feeling bad.

You're a genuis. Straight to the heart of things every time.

Please tell me what I can do.

Leave me alone, he told her, and she blinked and sighed but stayed in her chair, and he thought, it's as if everything in the world looked like New Jersey;

it was also true that the cat came out of its corner and he watched it glide across the carpet, malign beast, that he had been waking up to find in the bed, on the pillow, its fur in his face, that filled the apartment with its odors, that today, last straw, had shredded his tort and apparently eaten page seven, to rub its pearl-blue back which was he had to admit beautiful against the leg of his wife's chair, that it stretched to a long arabesque, turned, curved back along the chair, looked, arched, sprang, and curled itself into the warmth of her lap, that he got up and went into the kitchen, coming back for no reason with an opened can of sardines in his hand, placed it at the foot of his wife's chair saying, Cats like sardines, and she suddenly looked up, startled, saying, Oh my god, my sardines, snatching them up just as the cat leaped down, That's my lunch, putting them on his desk, then reached out picking one from the can with her fingers saying I like sardines, eating from her hand, licked her fingers, then reached out for another, as he had done once - where was it? - when he had lived for two weeks on sardines and Wheaties until some nice girl had come along to among other things feed him, Chicago, and then some money had come, he took a sardine, ate it and discovered he was hungry, or was it L.A., the hotel permeated by the smell of urine like rotting spinach, no Chicago where he was going to college that time because L.A. was only a trip with Banally that crass son of a bitch who never believed anything and took it for granted no questions asked and who drove off and left him stranded in of all places Needles, California because he was trying to make some girl he had picked up and he got back hitchhiking to Chicago just in time to pack up and move to Boston, You want to get that bread? he asked her, to start the school year because he was following the money then and somebody was offering him more in Boston where he almost married black-eyed Lillian, it would have been easier to take rat poison, faster and less painful, she came back with the bread and a knife and they finished sardines, cutting off the bread in chucks, just before he had finished his degree when he left for New York in a bad mood that got worse for a year of nothing where tired of living on part-time jobs and his mother's money he tried law school with the idea of making a life and stuck to the grind not because he liked it but because he discovered he could do it, a life with some kind of sense to it and maybe do something of the things he liked and complain about some he didn't or at least make enough money to be left alone in some sort of as he had imagined it dignified abstention, alone at least with his own griefs, if that was possible, which it wasn't, he sliced off a piece of bread, started to eat it, and wanted a drink, probably the sardines, went to the kitchen bringing back the bourbon and a couple of glasses which he set on the desk, Just a little, she said, to keep you company, and was grinding away not thinking of anything except getting the damn thing over with when he met Roberta who he later came to call Honey - he remembered why and when - and ended up marrying her, he gulped his drink, she was sipping and playing with hers, didn't really want it, without ever deciding to get married, as if everything had added up to that and decided for him before he had known it, but going on the idea after it had happened that if nothing else you could enjoy life as his grandfather used to tell him, Live! Enjoy! giving him nickels which his mother always made him put in his little bank, that old goat-faced bastard who arrived from one of the gayer metropoli of the dolorous old country landing in the middle of the Gilded Age and going spats and cane through war, depression, and war without getting noticeably disturbed, brutally selfish, and who died no doubt without a regret having apparently consumed all the joy of his family for a generation and happened to be the only member of it who ever appealed to him, and here he was with degree, job, wife, and sad as all hell, wondering why all this was coming together now, what he had done, was doing, noticed his wife nodding in her chair, her thick lashes veiling her eyes, wondering why it was all coming together what he had done, where he had been, the people, the girls who had always sooner or later turned up, how he had been alone in cities something had always turned up, a friend or someone with a car and money always coming from somewhere and the Coast when he got sick of Chicago and New York when he got sick of Boston, how there was always some other place to go and even something else to do and misery wherever he had been whatever he had been doing always come and always gone away, how it all came together and was a life, some kind of life, he saw his wife almost asleep sprawling in her chair a little childishly and could have kissed her, probably the drink, that he never knew how he was going to feel tomorrow but tonight there were still places he wanted to see and things he wanted to find out about and work he wanted to do, wondered why he suddenly wanted to kiss her and did, saying Don't say I'm never nice to you.

No, it's not every man who gets around to kissing his wife, she answered, but was pleased, and if it's so tonight it might be so again tomorrow and if not tomorrow then the day after, and he stopped trying to figure it out, playing it by ear, listening to himself because there was nothing else to listen to and it sounded right he wondered why, as if he were some kind of artist and knew he was right but didn't know how he knew, he would have to write that down, Are you getting sleepy? she asked trying not to sound too eager,

Yeah.

Do you want to come to bed?

Yeah.

How come? she asked, surprised and he grinned, saying, Because I'm tired of saying no.

That must be the first time in a week.

What?

That you smiled at me, he wondered why because nothing had changed and he had no faith in that life he knew was going to make him betray something (but what?) he couldn't betray and leave him in the end to himself, and that he had to fail, Let's go, he said and turned out one light, that he knew he was already caught in it, born into it, he turned out the second light, and that all he could do was listen to himself and improvise, he would have to write that down on his page, like an improvisation again and again and never the same, he led her into the bedroom and yes, if he expected too much then he preferred it, if it was pointless then it was pointless, if he was disintegrated all right he was disintegrated, he turned out the last light, because he knew this was going to happen to him again and again no matter what and all he could do was try to sense what was happening and compose it like a man as he listens to his own voice composing ceaselessly, he would have to write this down all of it, within a flood which even as he embraced that warmth wondering while he still had time if he couldn't write the whole thing down to have at least the words to repeat and understand swept him beyond his words of it.