Jerzy Kosinski's novels lie in the area between the post-war European emotional lucidity and the hip coolness of American mid-generation. His is a non-judgmental, morally permissive fiction, in which action is meant not as salvation, but as making the most of life. In Kosinski's novels, man does not have a character by which he is doomed; he adjusts himself to reality by denying his civilized self and his moral judgment. He forms a personality-free character in a personality-free world.
Kosinski's novels are agitated, ghoulish yarns, told in dispassionate, icy language. They are void of realistic linearity and of emotional temperature. The untitled "chapters" form the unconnected units of narration, space and time are fragmented, little actions follow like digressions, the plotless plot converges rather than continues; words do not burn, as in passionate texts, but are lucid and conniving.
Kosinski's characterless characters have no fixed personalities, yet they do have consistent ego. Like a Pirandellian hero (it was Pirandello who finally got rid of characters, as Joyce did away with recognizably continuous storytelling), the Kosinski protagonist exists from moment to moment. Continually creating himself anew, he never achieves a solidified, hard-core reality of a continuous hero. The story line is the unfinished and unfinishable business of life; thus, it is not accidental that every novel ends inconclusively, with the hero looking out of the window into future spaces.
The narrator/hero appears incognito, blending into other characters, playing in different episodes, enacting the roles of cool manipulators and merciless executioners. His victims are men and women who are thoughtless. Men, totally unmotivated, seek murder. Women, mostly nameless and undefinable, "characterize" themselves by the sexual features of their bodies: glimpses of bare arms, curving thighs, long necks, and sleeveless blouses. They are punished accordingly: caged, abused, raped. Group rape is a frequent device. Protagonists occupy themselves by abruptly slipping into a woman, or literally forcing her open by surprise and blackmail.
Kosinski's first novel (not counting two other works of fiction written under a different name), The Painted Bird, is a parable of a young boy's initiation into evil—he is learning the experience of violence as the all-pervading source of human energy. (pp. 13-14)
The ceaseless monologue in the boy's unaffected language underscores the gruesome, unrelieved instances of human bestiality with the naivete of non-judgmental, heightened realism. In the last section of the book, the boy learns to accept violence as rightful, and desires to identify with the executors of brute force. The Nazi officer with "the smooth, polished skin, bright golden hair and pure mental eyes" and the ballad-singing Red Army comrades become the objects of his admiration…. Having become mentally and physically strengthened by evil, the boy, who had literally lost his speech, regains it on the last page of the book. (pp. 15-16)
While "the other" in The Painted Bird presented the world of a child-victim mutely asking for compassion, Steps, Being There, The Devil Tree, and Cockpit turn to the consistent narrative told by a perpetrator of evil: an addict of violence, a picaro, a sexual outlaw, or a psychopath. In later novels, Kosinski refuses the victimology inherent in The Painted Bird—victims are as evil as criminals. The new "I" narrator is a Nietzschean sinless, aggressive man, acting out of his strangeness (not understood by society) and releasing it in violence. To him, anything is better than stillness. Instead of burying himself alive in neurosis, instead of committing a crime against himself—"a crime" of introspection or self-analysis, Kosinski's protagonist assumes the kingly glory of a criminal. Penetrating the interior from the outside, the hero/narrator merely acts. (Meursault in Camus' Stranger also saw himself only to the extent to which others saw him acting). The irony of this technique is that the "I" narrator, who has been traditionally employed in introspective and speculative texts for the purpose of self-revelation, does not reveal himself to the reader. Thus pointing out the fallacy of introspection, Kosinski demonstrates man's unfathomable, disintegrated nature. (p. 16)
Violence and vengeance, sex and death, power and submission are the essential human ties within the godless and humanless macrocosm of Steps. The neutrally human male is a vagrant, going from place to place, accidentally meeting women, having accidental affairs, and doing away with accidentally chosen victims. He acts like some kind of destructive, fallen angel, if one can conceive of any motivation. Most of the time, however, he is presented as totally impersonal, a thing acting upon a thing. (p. 17)
The acts of coercion and their motions are conveyed through verbs that Kosinski seems to have mastered nearly as well as Ernest Hemingway, but they are employed for very different effects. While Hemingway turned the action of doing ordinary things into a sacred ritual, where even the dinner table or a ship deck became an altar of sacrifice for some unseen gods, the Kosinski protagonist performs the spasms and moans of lovemaking and dying, some kind of dance macabre, a desperate effort of shouting out motion instead of creating emotion. He can never accept death as a necessary pact with nature, an exchange for the gift of life. That is why his deaths are never beautiful: they are not the ordered deaths of the hunted or the hunters, but chilly executions performed by psychopaths for whom only violence can restore their suppleness and vitality. The love acts are, accordingly, not...
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