Magnetic Field(s)

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 12)

Ron Loewinsohn has published several volumes of poetry including Watermelons (1959), L’Autre (1967), and Goat Dances (1976). Magnetic Field(s), his first novel, is a curious adventure through the minds of a young, cocky burglar, his victim, and a family friend of the victim. At first, the narrative reads like a psychological suspense story, but as the novel develops, the focus shifts from the plot itself to the unreal repetition of word, phrase, or sometimes complete scene: The real mystery of the novel is the meaning of these strange links between the three distinct sections of the narrative.

Each major character is an intruder. The most obvious example is Albert Boone, the protagonist of the novel’s first part, “Albert.” A professional burglar who has dutifully served his apprenticeship, Albert understands the code of his trade, but it is quickly apparent that he is not breaking into houses and apartments simply to steal televisions and stereos. Instead, he experiences “the thrill of being in the house. It was a place to live, and partly it was so delicious because it was so absolutely forbidden, much more forbidden than the stealing, this being where other people have their life.” This image of an outsider contemplating the life of another through that other’s house or room recurs throughout the novel.

Albert becomes so obsessed with this feeling that he eventually breaks into an apartment he knows is empty, with nothing worth stealing. He realizes that what made the other places seem so exciting was the opportunity to stand in the middle of someone else’s life. Although he tries to fit into the alien worlds of the houses he enters, if only for the thirty minutes his code allows him, he is still excluded. Once inside a house, he is isolated from the objects around him, isolated from the magnetic field of memories that embraces the space upon which he intrudes. Loewinsohn describes Albert as isolated much like a man in a space suit, able to see and touch but unable to enjoy what he sees: “He could smell his own sweat now like a zone around and surrounding him as he moved through the rooms of the apartment, through the various smells that belonged to this place.” In spite of the casual liberties Albert takes once inside a house—switching on the television, smoking a cigarette, using the bathroom—he never gets inside the feeling of the house.

The second of the novel’s three parts, “Kindertotenlieder,” is linked to the first part by the intrusion motifs. Part 1 ends with Albert leaving a house he was in the midst of robbing when the owner’s return interrupted him. The owner, with whom Albert has a brief confrontation during his escape, is the central character of the second part, which begins with a replay of the closing scene of the first part—told from the victim’s point of view.

This victim, David, an avant-garde composer, himself becomes an intruder of sorts when he and his family move into a rented house in the Hudson Valley for the summer. One of the first descriptions of David echoes a description of Albert going to the refrigerator for a beer. For Albert “to get a beer out of a fridge casually, the way people lived here did, without any haste at all . . .” was the way to enjoy the alien space he occupied. David becomes even more like Albert in that he too discovers the secrets of this alien space, the house he has rented from the Mortimer family. Whereas Albert found pornographic pictures underneath a young woman’s bed, a widow’s idiot son left alone while she went shopping, and potted marijuana in a judge’s house, David discovers the secret of the construction of the house and the story of the Mortimers’ unnamed genius son. Furthermore, just as Albert stumbled upon various secrets in the course of his work, so too does David, who is collaborating with his friend Anselm on a John Cage-like multimedia musical score.

For the musical score, David uses the sounds around him. Equipped with directional microphones, he selects sounds for a piece titled Les Champs Magnétiques, a musical piece that “you don’t just hear. . . . It’s an environment. You’ve got to get inside it and walk around.” The various sounds that David records for this composition never seem quite right to him. What he fails to recognize is that they are never quite right for the same reason that the small items of no particular value that Albert steals—an ashtray, a match holder, a toy seal—lose their attraction for him once he examines them outside the house: “They were things that had acquired a sort of magnetic charge from having been in one place, where people actually had lived, for a long time. Outside of those places...

(The entire section is 1954 words.)