Michael Brodsky

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Daphne Merkin

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Michael Brodsky's first novel, Detour, is remarkable precisely because it explores the condition of its own involution—an "I" constantly threatened by its potential for extinction in the face of other, competing "I"s—with an arrogant disregard for anything but the entanglements of that condition…. Perhaps the novel's acute, chronic disengagement is characteristic of the 70s, but it is hard to see where Detour is "about" anything other than its own meticulous, privileged sensibility…. [Brodsky] writes brilliantly, assuredly, but that brilliance cannot be said to have solidified into a style, because it is concerned with something more elementary, with that which predates style: identity. (pp. 453-54)

Detour has to be acknowledged, critically speaking, less for the ways in which it approximates other novels than for the ways in which it departs from them, even fraudulently. Brodsky has unlearned all the age-old, circumscribing rules of storytelling: he shows nothing and narrates everything. The idea of "character" falls hopelessly by the wayside, although there are several differently-named speakers who hold forth in similarly congested, intermittently fascinating monologues. "Anne," for instance, is a former heroin addict whom the unnamed, first-person narrator meets at the Thalia movie theater….

Eventually, after several lengthy soliloquies in which Anne has proven herself to be the narrator's equal in maladaptive tendencies, she accompanies him to Cleveland, where he is to begin medical school. (p. 454)

The narrator abortively attends classes, abortively makes love to Anne, takes a part-time job teaching in a language school from which he is fired. He has, it appears, not yet been fully born…. Even the language he uses with such fierce skill is not his birthright: "'Cut it,' I said. I never use that expression. From whom was I borrowing it. One wintry night he would bang at my door and demand payment for unauthorized use of phrase and inflection."… He goes to the movies, which, throughout the novel, feature as his great passion—allowing him to escape from his relentlessly, derisively observing conscious self into "the sacred time of celluloid," where he floats peaceably among borrowed, star-touched selves…. The novel closes on a resigned sentiment, expressed straight-facedly by an unironic personality but which resonates with an almost noble irony within the context of Detour because it is a long-deferred concession to the public domain, the first chink of daylight to penetrate a womb-like atmosphere: "For a change Ed had the last word. 'You do what you have to do.'"

It is hardly surprising that Brodsky's narrator, like Alexander Portnoy, is fixated on bowel movements, especially paternal ones; he can, indeed, be seen as an attenuated, less earthy version of that earlier Jewish Son—swamped in the same anguished self-consciousness, a terror of being-in-the-flesh so extreme that it traverses the neurotic into the painfully, tellingly absurd. But most unlike Roth, Brodsky has dallied in the recent literary pyrotechnics of the academy, with rather unfortunate results: his efforts to ease the pressure of literary depiction by translating human conflict into semantic tension ring false: "It is a terrible concession to make the crossover of the white space beloved of Mallarmé." Such derring-do, like his fondness for obscurantist lingua franca—"telos," "reification," "plenum"—and his overuse of the absence-presence dialectic—"I know the difficulty of being another's imminence"—so dear to structuralists, shows up what could be Brodsky's most potentially grievous flaw: his precocity. Detour reeks of its own talent; it is uneasily ahead of itself, racked by an off-putting discrepancy between intellectual savviness and emotional naiveté. Too often Brodsky's precocity fails to rise to the occasion it sets for itself and totters into mere showing off; see how many books...

(This entire section contains 731 words.)

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I've read, movies I've seen, paintings I've studied, records I've carefully listened to. One pays attention at such moments the way one would to a feverish, brainy child—wearily indulgent of its assumption thatevery permutation of thought, every vacillation of emotion is of supreme concern. (pp. 455-56)

Detour is, finally, pathological in its lordly detachment, its shimmering isolation; it is comprehensible without being altogether accessible. But if the novel doesn't quite "rend the tissue of solipsism," it has taken a compelling, valiant stab at liberation. Michael Brodsky has written a heady, compelling account of those interior lower depths in which normative, unspoken boundaries have collapsed. (p. 456)

Daphne Merkin, "Interiors," in Partisan Review (copyright © 1979 by Partisan Review, Inc.), Vol. XLVI, No. 3, 1979, pp. 453-56.


The Virginia Quarterly Review