Gilbert Rogin L. E. Sissman

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L. E. Sissman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The odd thing about "What Happens Next?" is that it's almost not a novel at all…. [The chapters of the novel, first published as a series of stories,] still retain a shade of the disjunctiveness of individual stories, the more so since they vary widely in form and experimental technique. But the intensity of Rogin's central vision and the virtuosity of his prose are such that they cohere and build more surely, perhaps, than a formal, one-piece novel could have done….

[The first chapter] seems to contain echoes of Salinger (New York apartment-dwellers' family life), Bellow (the decedent melancholy of Verdi Square), Roth (the loneliness of the long-distance loser), and especially Perelman (surreal, hilarious conversations among television types). But in the second chapter, a blow-by-verbal-blow description of Singer's strangled relations with his second wife, the book begins to become something far richer and stranger than any mere comic account of city life….

[Tours] de force of technique conjure up the cast of characters not in one but in many incarnations. People who first appear as near stereotypes, though brilliantly rendered ones, like Singer's parents (his mother, by a feat of perfect pitch, stands revealed by her conversation as the spokesman of her pompous, comfortable, sure generation), mutate under shifting circumstances and viewpoints into the unassailable mysteries all people really are. Characters like Singer's wife, Daisy, grow in reality as they diminish in predictability, advancing to and receding from the central figure, coolly joking and hotly weeping in a constant, thwarted bid for notice.

Even the more minor characters, like the alcoholic first husband, whose moral capital fluctuates constantly around zero, possess such ineffable dignity that Singer's attempts to write them off result in a drop of his own quotation on the interpersonal market. (p. 6)

Though [the novel] proceeds with great verve and energy to create a certain kind of New York family and its relatives and friends, it is simultaneously creating something more; the universal character of Julian Singer, who, in his lostness, transcends origin and place and becomes some kind of archetypical American man. Every scrap, every line, every joke is in the service of this artfully lifelike portrait of ourselves. Julian's isolation, his anxieties, his guilt, his fumbling uncertainties, his comical losses, his failure to establish belief in himself, are at once existential, contemporary ailments and part of the timeless human estate.

This book, so dense in detail that it seems to build a whole forest of circumstance out of hundreds of tiny, individual trees, could be forgiven for lacking a climax beyond the weight of the sum of its parts. Yet it has one, and a dazzling one at that. (pp. 6, 22)

L. E. Sissman, "Six Years of 'Short Takes' in the Life of Julian Singer," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1971 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 31, 1971, pp. 6, 22.