Ronald Sukenick Essay - Critical Essays

Sukenick, Ronald (Vol. 3)

Sukenick, Ronald 1932–

Sukenick is an American novelist, short story writer, and critic. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 25-28.)

In more ways than one the times are bad, and here is Ronald Sukenick, a good novelist for our times. His own life is an index to modern anti-heroics: a bright boy from Brooklyn who is the only one in his crowd to miss a ticket to Princeton, Columbia, or Yale; a Brandeis Ph.D. who scuffles from job to job, whose scholarly magnum opus, Wallace Stevens: Musing the Obscure …, is sneered away by American Literature as having "almost nothing to commend it to anyone in the least acquainted with Stevens." And who, if his fictions are as autobiographical as he claims, has one hell of a time even making it with girls. How, in such circumstances, does one survive? That is the question central to all of Sukenick's work, which makes him a significant novelist….

His hero [in Up], named "Ronald Sukenick," is a walking casebook on American Fiction since the War, having the intellect of a Glass child, the paranoia of an Alexander Portnoy, the academic hassles of an S. Levin, and all the self-apparent persecution of a Wallant or Bellow hero as he tries, moreover, to make it from Brooklyn to Manhattan. Sukenick also goes to the roots, using Orwell … and Kafka … as examples of outdated creativity, mere fantasy reactions to a world demanding a new approach. War movies, television adventure, even the sexploitation book written by his own character are insufficient responses to the real world at hand. The new novel must do something else.

Up recounts the fictive progress of "Ronald Sukenick" toward a supreme fiction which adequately handles the real…. In Up, Ronald Sukenick has written a novel which is relevant, both in theme and technique, to our times. The Death of the Novel and Other Stories (… 1969), however, finds him refining his techniques and extending his themes toward not just the creation of reality, but the communication of it. Technically more diffuse and inventive, Death of the Novel is an exceptionally well-structured collection, recalling William Faulkner's dictum that such a volume should have the "form and integration" of a novel, being "an entity of its own, single, set for one pitch, contrapuntal in integration, toward one end, one finale."…

Were not the term abused beyond any form of recognition, one might term Ronald Sukenick a "Realist." The heart of the battle in the last century was where one found reality, on the photographic surface or in the psychological depths below, or whether one went all the way into boundless Romanticism. Sukenick finds reality not by projecting subject ideals, but by "discovering significant relations" with what is really out there…. For Sukenick as realist, the function of the imagination is not fabricating, or even in the closest sense "creating"…. Its purpose is epistemological, to help man know—and to "know" in the sense of conviction, not rational proof…. The proper Realist does not want ideas about life; for experimental times, he seeks the experience itself, and prefers to live in agreement with existence rather than counterposed to it. That's real.

Jerome Klinkowitz, "Getting Real: Making It (Up) With Ronald Sukenick," in Chicago Review, Winter, 1972, pp. 73-82.

[In his novel Out, Sukenick's] rueful dramatization of people's fears that their experiences are repetitious, or insignificant, extends the familiar fiction of fragmented sensations outward in some amusing new ways. Sukenick's resource is a freshly imagined tension, between the novelist's habit of making order, and the contemporary psyche's desperation to escape the "conspiracies" that hedge it in.

Out begins with curious people defensively carrying dynamite sticks—also, undecipherable "messages." They're seeking "authority" figures, or unspoiled alternatives to urbanization—"getting simpler"—achieving, or staging, "withdrawal to inner understanding"—journeying (not incidentally) westward. Neither plot, nor the (unstable, interchangeable) characters are as important as the novel's overall drift toward chaos, rendered as the victory of blank space over typographic groupings of words. Some eccentric narrative insets support this movement, as does a series of teasing linguistic-numerical puzzles ("How many times can one go into nothing?"). The chapters are ordered in a countdown—heading toward Zero….

Where next? Well, after Up, and Out, perhaps Sukenick—a verbal black magician, if not perhaps the Columbus of literary form—will have more to say in Away.

The Antioch Review (© 1973 by The Antioch Review, Inc.; first published in The Antioch Review, Vol. 32, No. 4; reprinted by permission of the editors), Vol. 32, No. 4, 1973, p. 698.