Bruce Jay Friedman Essay - Friedman, Bruce Jay (Vol. 3)

Friedman, Bruce Jay (Vol. 3)

Friedman, Bruce Jay 1930–

Friedman is an American black-humour novelist and short story writer whose work deals with the urban Jewish bourgeois. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

These tales ["Far From the City of Class" And Other Stories], which are for the most part upbeat moral sensibility studies in the manner of a down-to-earth Henry James, and "representative anecdotes" (in Kenneth Burke's phrase), combine Friedman's weird ironic satire with his finely-developed theatre-of-the-absurd humor and brilliantly insipid dialogue. A man of many strange fixations (ulcer patients, an obscenely dominating mother, Vic Tanny appurtenances, etc.), Friedman is at his most offbeat in his grotesque blends of necromancy, diabolism, and corporate power-structure politics….

A satirical master of speech cadences and monotonies, an astute characterologist, an "imaginer of disaster" (in the Jamesian mode), Bruce Jay Friedman is probably one of the few genuinely promising younger writers around. Many of his short story ideas—to say nothing of his short novel Stern—might well have been developed into a broad-canvas work of art. Perhaps that is what we'll someday have from him.

Samuel I. Bellman, in Studies in Short Fiction, Winter, 1964, pp. 167-69.

Friedman is the most unselfconscious Freudian novelist I have ever read, and his appearance may finally herald a literary generation that can make full imaginative use of psychoanalytic insight.

Friedman's other important ancestor is Joyce, and Stern frequently suggests Leopold Bloom, without suffering in the comparison. In its lightning tempo and garish exaggeration, Stern will probably remind readers of Joseph Heller's Catch-22…. Stern is a boldly symbolist, even allegorical, book: Stern's ulcer is rotten Jewishness, eating away at his insides; it ate away the other half of the half man; it will eat up any neurotic Jew who makes it a negative identity and uses it self-destructively…. Friedman's style is uneven, and some things miss fire. I am not sure that the ending comes off, although I cannot invent any better ending. But these are minor flaws in a great success. Friedman has written a superbly funny novel about suffering and misery, somehow augmenting rather than diminishing our capacity to be moved by it. He has plunged deep into weakness and neurosis, and come up with something strong and sane. He is greatly gifted, fiercely honest, and very welcome news indeed.

Stanley Edgar Hyman, "An Exceptional First Novel," in his Standards: A Chronicle of Books for Our Time (© 1966; reprinted by permission of the publisher, Horizon Press, New York), Horizon, 1966, pp. 98-102.

Bruce Jay Friedman, who either coined the term "black humor" or at least holds the American rights [to] it, is [clever] … and … consciously cheap…. Friedman is a cynical pro. His idiom is a contemptuous wise-cracking patter. He snows the marks, who don't realize that the contempt includes them. He is slick, slick, slick….

[There] is very good fast wacky talk [in Black Angels]. It doesn't pretend to be anything else. Friedman doesn't aim high. He fully achieves his low ambition. He isn't satirizing the medical profession or anything else, he's just being generally contemptuous.

J. Mitchell Morse, in The Hudson Review, (copyright © 1967 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XIX, No. 4, Winter, 1966–67, pp. 677-78.

Even when his power supply is shut off, as happens now and then in the sixteen stories in this volume [Black Angels: Stories], Bruce Jay Friedman is still one of the most unusual distant-drum-responding fiction writers around. His special mana has been picked up by a number of ambitious young satirists, Stanley Elkin for example, but like the critics' Hemingway, Friedman remains the old pro, the once and future Champ. Intoning a line of show-business patter or chanting a Madison Avenue song of spring, Friedman nimbly conjures up a dark world of supernatural "deals," fixes, and forbidden allurements, as if to bring long-overdue glad tidings to his readers: "Man need not live by boredom and sameness alone." And, Friedman achieves his effects almost inadvertently, as if he didn't know what either hand was doing….

At bottom, Friedman's view of man owes much to the Hebrew Bible, the news and entertainment media, "camp" culture, and "pop psych." The individual is manipulated by Higher Forces. This powerful source, not of Creation but of Regulation, establishes through its agents a covenant with man on a quid pro quo basis. No Abraham, not even a Faust, the Party of the Second Part gets delightful short-range benefits, pays heavily for the privilege, and sometimes sees the whole business blow up in his face. He is basically worried and insecure, bent on compensating himself somehow for his insults and injuries, and consequently full of hostility. But he tries harder and has more of a chance, than the "superfluous men" of other writers' fictions, to get out of second place.

Samuel I. Bellman, "Old Pro," in Congress Bi-Weekly, May 8, 1967, p. 19.

What was so interesting in Friedman's first two novels, Stern and A Mother's Kisses—a wildly imaginative gift for characters with unique personality quirks—seems a gimmick in this unsolid novel [The Dick]. The characters come through, not as participants in a black comedy but as inventions, each with shtick attached. There is something outlandish about everyone; they are characters not in a novel, but in search of one.

In short, The Dick is composed of quirky types, inventive incidents, well-written scenes, but nothing that adds up to a meaningful whole. If it is not too farfetched an allusion, think of all of the ornaments used at Christmas. Without a tree to hang them on, the display is colorful but meaningless.

Haskel Frankel, in Saturday Review (copyright © 1970 by Saturday Review/World, Inc.; reprinted with permission), September 19, 1970, p. 46.

Myth is an essential part of literature, but in modern literature we often confront our inability to believe in the validity of the myths. The frequent result is a diminution of the myth and the myth hero…. The reader thus becomes aware not only of the myth but of an ironic disparity between the eternal truths represented by the myth and the fragmented state of modern society. Perhaps nowhere is this irony more pronounced than in the fiction of Bruce Jay Friedman, whose stories juxtapose the world of nature myths with our modern technological society through a veiled use of myths associated with vegetation rites. The result of this juxtaposition is a realization of how we have become alienated from our affinity with the cycle of nature.

Friedman's use of myth is especially notable in "The Investor." A man is hospitalized with a mysterious disease that causes his temperature to rise and fall inexplicably, until a specialist called into the case makes a remarkable discovery—the man's temperature is always the same as the market value of Plimpton Rocket Fuels. Despite the best efforts of medical science, the man dies when a stock split causes his temperature to plummet. As a final touch, the doctor marries the man's widow and discovers that the number of times they make love daily is determined by the value of another stock, Electronic Lunch.

Readers familiar with Frazer's The Golden Bough may recognize in this story a reflection of the concept of the "external soul," the belief that a man's soul could reside in some object other than his own body and that his life and well-being would thus be dependent upon the survival of that object. This idea forms the basis of O. Henry's "The Last Leaf," a story about a young girl who believes that she will die when the last leaf falls from the ivy vine outside of her window. As in this case, the external soul generally can be found in some natural object, such as a tree. Friedman's substitution of the stock market—especially stocks related to electronics—suggests that the rhythms of our lives are no longer in harmony with nature; instead, we live and die by the economic system that we ourselves have invented. "We did everything we could," the doctor explains, "but you can't tamper with the economy. It's too powerful."

A similar juxtaposition of myth and technology can be found in "For Your Viewing Entertainment." Mr. Ordz discovers that whenever he turns on the television he is confronted by a diabolical "master of ceremonies" whose goal is to kill him through harrassment over the air waves. Unable to endure the tension, Ordz smashes the television with his fist, bleeds to death, and then discovers that he has replaced the M.C. and must destroy a new victim.

This story appears to be Friedman's version of the myth of the "dying god" and related rituals that may be found in various societies. Frazer reports many incidents in which a king or priest (or a mock ruler), often a personification of a god, would be slaughtered after a fixed term, sometimes a week or less, as part of a religious ceremony. Such customs were related to vegetation myths. For example, the priest of Diana was the King of the Wood, "a personification of the oak-spirit." The death of the god/king might be necessary to insure good crops in the year ahead. This body of myth and ritual is reflected in Friedman's story. The weeklong tenure of the master of ceremonies parallels that of the god/king. His victim then insures the continuity of the tradition by taking his place, in a reversal of the usual pattern. But the original purpose of the slaughter is gone.

The "entertainment" portion of the television program suggests a ritual, perhaps vegetation rites…. As in "The Investor," the use of technology—in this case, television—points out how we have become alienated from the natural world even in our rituals….

In his three novels, Friedman has developed the theme of man's alienation from society. In these short stories he has gone a step further, suggesting that man is alienated not only from his neighbors but from nature itself. Behind all this there is the disturbing implication that modern man will never be right with himself as long as his gods are found only on late-night television and the cycles of his life are regulated by the fluctuations of "Electronic Lunch."

Stuart Lewis, "Myth and Ritual in the Short Fiction of Bruce Jay Friedman," in Studies in Short Fiction, Fall, 1973, pp. 415-16.