On September 11, 2001 Ronald Sukenick was in his Battery Park studio working on a novel about the American "Museum of Temporary Art" when he looked out his window and saw the first of the jets strike the World Trade Center. He then proceeded to reconceive the novel, now entitled Last Fall, having grasped that the "Museum of Temporary Art" was America itself, and its ikon the World Trade Center. In Last Fall an older generation of artists, intellectuals, and arts professionals investigate an art theft, "something missing" from the Museum, but the transience of the collections makes it impossible to identify what's gone. Recovering the work means exposing the secret of the Museum's creation, a conspiracy of the "why" chromosome transforming all the suspects into an American family.
Ronald Sukenick (1932-2004) was on the cutting edge of American fiction and publishing for four decades. Winner of an American Book Award for Lifetime Achievement and the American Academy of Arts and Letters prestigious Morton Dauwen Zabel Award, he was the author of twelve works of fiction and criticism, including 98.6 and Mosaic Man. He was founder and publisher of American Book Review. This was his last book.
"One of the funniest books of the season, a hilarious outburst of wild comedy. . . . UP is the kind of book that any person in his right mind can enjoy." —Saturday Review
"... the funniest, most successful, and most satisfying new book that I've read in a long time. . . ."—The Nation
"... a compendium of sly jokes on literature . . . a panic of assorted delicacies. . . . He (Sukenick), or do I mean the character of the same name, is an urban, literary, Jewish Don Quixote of our time." —The New York Times Book Review
"Beg it, buy it, borrow it or steal it. UP is the most serious and valid anatomy of our culture's ills this reviewer has encountered in the past year's reading." —Minneapolis Tribune
"... captivating. . . . This former New York college teacher has that rare, run-naked psyche. . . . UP may be an important work of art." —Book Week
". . . the virtuoso of the season, Ronald Sukenick, a young man who can do just about anything with words." —Irving Howe in Harper's Magazine
realtime c. 9/01/00:
It was a matter of theft, but the problem was that nobody knew what had been stolen. The museum was banking on my expertise as a professor of post-contemporary art both to identify the stolen work and, if possible, to get it back.
None of this had been made public and, in fact, even the personnel of the museum were unaware, except for a vague feeling of unease that pervaded the staff, which was itself part of the evidence. Because the feeling that something, something important, was gone was a factor. That is, how else, other than through feeling, were they to know that something was gone when they didn't know what it was?
The importance of feelings in the case, it turned out, was one of the reasons they hired me. The director of the museum, a woman, felt that a woman would be more attuned to the nuances involved. In fact, the sense of an absence was something I had been increasingly feeling within myself, and I didn't have to be a clairvoyant to suspect that something intangible but real had been stolen from me also.
Evidently, this had been an inside job, and records had been altered to obliterate any reference to the work in question. And yet, the people who worked in the museum remembered... something. I was advised to interview Brewster Fynch, who had endowed the museum, as my first step.
Fynch lived in a Tudor mansion in a wealthy suburb up the Hudson. I was surprised he was so young, correctly so, because the virile looking man with the black shadow of a beard who opened the door turned out to be staff. He looked me up-and-down with an intensity that was more than professional-- for a moment I thought he was going to frisk me, and if he had tried I don't know what I would have done, but he didn't.
Fynch, I knew, had made his money manufacturing time pieces, and in fact had a very precise manner. It was impossible to guess his age — somewhere between 60 and 90? — but he looked as tensile as bone china. I was predisposed to a kind of reverence for him on account of the spiritual reach of his project.
"We thought of calling it the museum of temporal art," he explained carefully, and paused."But that seemed elitist and pretentious. The Museum of Temporary Art brings in the effect of time anyway but that, in the sense that a temporal artwork can't be fixed, that fixed just means static, created the problem we have here."
"That if its collections are supposed to be fluid, transitory, how can we say that something which is no longer there is missing? No, Austyn, if I may use your first name, the whole damned mess is based on a paradox."
He projected the impression of someone who was endlessly caught up in the convolutions of his own mind. I gave him a somewhat evasive response, hoping to parry, playing for time.
"Well, Mr. Fynch, I find that paradox is usually the result of insufficient understanding."
"Very glad to hear you taking that tack, Austyn, because that in a way is what we're paying you for. I can tell you one more thing, that is, I felt much better about the Museum before this happened. I thought of the temporal as spiritual opportunity. I thought time underwrites change, it means there's time to change your life. As I have changed mine, as I have dematerialized my interests, so that some people think I've gone crazy, especially my family back in LaFange. That's Minnesota. Worried I suppose about being disinherited. But if the liquidity of a time-work can be stolen then time itself can be hijacked, possessed and bought and sold. While my whole conception is that time is the one element in our experience that is uncontrollable, untouchable, pure reality."
I empathized with the man, he seemed sincere, while at the same time I wasn't entirely sure what he was talking about, and even wondered whether he was a little wacky. But very quickly, he pressed a button, and the individual with the five o'clock shadow came to show me out, introducing himself as one Pyhl, Fynch's factotum. He was one of those blade thin but robust types, trying his best to seem transparent rather than devious, and I wasn't sure whether I didn't like the way he looked at me or whether I did.
He offered me a ride to the train, and ushered me into a long black chauffeur driven limo. He sat a little too close in my opinion, and on the way I was extremely aware that he took every opportunity to touch me, if politely. He also made it clear that though he was employed by Finch he was skeptical about the Museum of Temporary Art.
"It was all done already by Marcel Duchamp," he said. "Art is how you look at it, Austyn, like the famous urinal, presented as an art work, is an art work."
"The urinal," I replied, "was an art work--for five minutes. And for five minutes again for anyone seeing it the first time. The Museum of Temporary Art is Duchamp plus time."
But as I said this so glibly I realized I had no idea what time is and actually had a tiny moment of panic, one of her fits of nothingness as she calls them, as if the ground underneath suddenly disintegrates language breaks up...the Incident...memory vortex...arrested by syncopating recollection, Kenny Clarke, the jazz drummer, playing in a club in some way transmuting stream of pure time to now, a rhythm that seems to surf on time itself dreamy, floaty, blissed, blessed ... like Miles Davis at his best, or Charlie Parker any time...