Raymond Sokolov Essay - Critical Essays

Sokolov, Raymond

Sokolov, Raymond 1941–

Sokolov is an American novelist and a journalist with a diversity of specialties. Native Intelligence is his first novel.

The ideas [in "Native Intelligence"] sparkle and zip around at the speed of light, but the action can't keep pace with the author's imagination, and sometimes seems arbitrary and unconvincing.

This is not to say "Native Intelligence" isn't entertaining and frequently funny. Much as one wishes Raymond Sokolov had integrated his insights with the rest of the material, the book is an appealing parody of a certain jejune liberalism and a barbed perception of our national naiveté. (p. 45)

Michael Mewshaw, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 11, 1975.

The tragicomic hero of "Native Intelligence" is a linguistic genius, Harvard '63, who volunteers for the Peace Corps and is shipped to Qatab, the least-populated nation in Latin America. There he voyages up the Mashmish River to improve sanitation among the Stone Age Xixi tribe. Alan Casper is romantic and idealistic; his government is more practical….

Raymond Sokolov's spry and elegant first novel is filled with put-ons—including a mind-crunching crossword puzzle of his brainy hero's devising and an arresting view of the televised mourning for John F. Kennedy as a tribal rite. With a happy excess of imaginative energy—like a medieval craftsman carving gargoyles his fellow-townsmen at ground level will never notice—Sokolov has invented not only a complex matrilinear social structure for his Xixis but a mythology, a grammar and a 500-word vocabulary, which does not fail to contain the Xixi terms for "threaten to cloud over," "wink or blink frequently" and "bird louse."

I particularly admire the offhand poise with which Sokolov invites us to zip through his book as a colonial farce à la Waugh, an exotic Rider Haggard adventure tale (there is a dazzling jaguar hunt, with blowguns for weapons) or as a do-it-yourself novel kit….

If you care to listen more closely, this journey of a super-literate into a preliterate world is a meditation on the failure of tongues. In delirium, veering between English and Xixi toward the end of the book, Alan puts it thus: "The point … is not culture versus nature but culture versus culture…. They both have their own culture, but they have no common language, and so they misunderstand each other." Sokolov's word games, leg-pulls and exuberantly detailed fantasies turn gravely affecting.

Walter Clemons, "Up the Mashmish," in Newsweek (copyright Newsweek, Inc., 1975; reprinted by permission), May 12, 1975, p. 94.

What carries the narrative along and gives [Native Intelligence] its remarkable buoyancy, is Sokolov's ability to parody almost everything that falls within his sight: modern-day anthropology, official government documents, linguistic studies of obscure languages, traditional folk tales of exotic people, even gourmet recipes. Lest readers think that I am making all of this up, it should be clarified that Sokolov has been a foreign correspondent, a journalist, a writer of food columns for The New York Times. All of his previous interests have spilled into his novel—a kind of parodic collage of Sokolov's earlier writing. There is throughout the story, for example, the ubiquitous presence of mouth-watering, yet anachronistic, meals served in the strangest places; and a crossword puzzle strategically placed at the middle of the narrative, intended for the reader to complete….

The craziest thing in Native Intelligence, however, is Sokolov's put-down of anthropology-cum-structural-linguistics-a-la-Levi Strauss. In the longest section of the novel, called "Totemism Today," there is an absolutely uproarious account of tribal initiation rites—an obvious parody of Tristes Tropiques with some Carlos Castaneda thrown in. There is also a several-thousand word glossary of supposed Xixi words appended to the back of the book, as well as journals, letters, newspaper clippings, poems, folktales and government directives. Fortunately most of this works, though there are times when the writing is acutely self-conscious.

As for the Peace Corps itself? No one has as yet written a serious novel about the Peace Corps; no ex-volunteer has written an account of what by now must be the shared experience of nearly 100,000 Americans overseas. Why is this so? Perhaps, like John Kennedy's Camelot, the Peace Corps was a phenomenon that never really was. (p. 26)

Charles R. Larson, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1975 by The New Republic, Inc.), June 28, 1975.

["Native Intelligence," an] ironic parable of a pilgrim's progress, from the deserts of Flint and Cambridge to a Peace Corp's green hell that becomes the lugubrious Arcadia of the protagonist's baneful dreams, is one of that breed of fabulistic novels that try to be cosmically satirical but which all too often are merely self-consciously smug. However, Sokolov's writing is so elegantly smooth, ingratiatingly clever, and flamboyantly imaginative that it is easy to forgive his occasional lapses into gratuitous and heavy-handed social relevance. The end result is a rich comic tale whose quiet, sensitive tone is, like a still, small voice, both captivating and affecting. (p. cxi)

Virginia Quarterly Review (copyright, 1975, by the Virginia Quarterly Review, The University of Virginia), Vol. 51, No. 3 (Summer, 1975).

Between football games a few Sundays ago, I chanced upon a commercial that really, as they say, took me back. Opening shot: Harvard Yard, looking wintry and impressive. Students are hurrying to class (well, not hurrying—striding), but one of them, it seems, wants to talk with us. He is about 25, very well dressed, serious but friendly. He's done some thinking; he's made some choices. And he wants us to make a choice.

He wants us to join the Peace Corps.

Now, I am normally credulous, but not that credulous. I know this ad was there only to score public service points with the FCC: just something they had lying around in the files they dug out to fill a hole. I know there's no such thing as the Peace Corps anymore. That was all a long time ago.

Long enough, though, for a wonderful novel to come out of it: Raymond Sokolov's Native Intelligence … one of those unusual books that captures a time with nerve and precision, with neither condescension nor nostalgia.

Native Intelligence (which begins with quotes from Ishmael, Queequeg and Wittgenstein, and which was, according to the author, written while the Senate Watergate Committee was on its lunch breaks) is the story of one Alan Casper. He is a genius, Harvard '63, able to speak more languages than anyone else can name, his story is assembled by a friend ("Really, I never liked him," he writes) from Alan's diary, correspondence and attendant documents. The book is first of all very funny: Sokolov has endowed his hero with a gift for self-deprecatory deadpan humor exceeded only by his talent for linguistics. I don't believe Alan's literary executor/narrator didn't like him; Alan Casper is impossible to dislike.

Alan takes his Peace Corps training and soon reaches Qatab, the least civilized country in Latin America. He has joined the Peace Corps for no real reason, but for reasons too good to disclose here, he is sent deep into the interior to work with an almost unknown Stone Age tribe called the Xixi—which is fine with Alan, because they speak a language no one else has ever learned. His assignment: teach the natives "how to lead productive lives" (which means instruction in not dumping shit in their wells) and, just incidentally, check out the uranium deposits the Xixi happen to live on.

Alan is interested in the joke he has played on himself—because of a meaningless decision he wakes up in another world—and he is determined to come up with the punch line, regardless of what he has to do to find it. Quickly, he learns Xixi. Alan attempts to combine his native intelligence with that of his tribe, and he succeeds. The book is among other things about a mind working; almost every page conveys Alan's delight in the novelty he is discovering both in a new world and in his mind itself. Soon defeated in his ingenious efforts to teach the Xixi anything, he decides to join them, at least for the duration. "The days are calm," he writes, "and I learn to be a frog."

Frog is his clan within the tribe; Alan observes all customs as he learns them. He is good at this and, finally, he faces initiation. "If my civilized half is worth holding onto, it will survive a Xixi initiation. If not, the hell with it."

And so a certain suspense builds up. Alan is taking chances, getting a feel for what he has to lose. What would it mean for the smartest kid in America to trade his intelligence for that of a wholly different kind? Could he? Would he lose his sense of humor along with his past? Alan is interested in this too.

He passes the initiation and, certified, marries an Xixi girl, half certain it will be fair to leave her for his girl back in Boston (the Xixi practice polyandry anyway; his new wife will get another husband whether he leaves or not). And so he begins to live, almost fully now, as an Xixi. He still gets the joke, but not the punch line, and there are the beginnings of panic at his growing inability to think in English, or to think abstractly. So he teaches his wife to speak English and to read and write, and then he takes sick and dies.

I give away the ending because it is implicit in the book; at any rate it is not the punch line. In the epilogue, nine years later, the narrator arrives at the site of the Xixi village (long since destroyed by the uranium miners Alan tried to warn his tribe against), seeking the details of Alan's story. And there, he sees a native woman, with a little boy, who looks so much like Alan….

Jesus, I thought, how corny. What a miserable ending to such an inventive, convincing book—a book more fun than any I'd read in ages, so full of ideas and yet saved from strain at every turn by its humor. But then came the punch line. It nearly broke my heart, and as I read it again I grinned at it. And that I won't give away.

If you want to read Native Intelligence you will likely have to order it; it was published last spring, almost but not quite sold out its first printing, so it will have disappeared from most bookstores. What is worse—what is imbecilic—it will not, as of now, be coming out in paper. Which means we will have to go through the hoary Nathanael West rite—waiting for the book to go out of print, to become a word-of-mouth classic and to be rediscovered and reprinted years from now when half the people who would enjoy it most are dead. Which is ridiculous. This is the sort of book one forces on friends, wild-eyed.

Greil Marcus, "Down in Jungleland," in Rolling Stone (© 1976 by Rolling Stone Magazine; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), February 12, 1976, p. 97.