Michael Brodsky

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Robert Towers

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Detour is an extremely dense, ambitious, and stylistically accomplished first novel by a young intellectual who has written on Svevo and who (on the evidence of this book) enjoys an intimate, frame-by-frame knowledge of every film made by Antonioni, Bergman, Bresson, Buñuel, Chabrol, Fellini, Godard, Hitchcock, Ophuls, Truffaut, Von Sternberg, and Welles. The novel, told in the first person by an unnamed young man, consists of extremely long paragraphs in which a brief sentence or so of inconsequential narration … introduces often more than a thousand words devoted to the analysis, or, more properly, deconstruction, of some impression, thought, or gesture before the leap to the next paragraph….

The insubstantiality of the "I"—of the narrator's self—provides the main psychological (and philosophic) interest of this curious novel. Though he exists and does things in the world, is the son of middle-class Jewish parents who bicker with each other and burden him with obligations, his existence is entirely problematic, always on the point of dissolution or total depletion. To validate his existence, he gnaws on the inside of his lip until it bleeds or bites his forefinger until it too bleeds. He is almost as preoccupied with masturbation as Alexander Portnoy, but the act, often stemming from the anxiety produced by a girl's presence, has little association with pleasure…. Although the novel's dust jacket refers to the narrator's maturation, I can see no evidence of such a transformation. He seems as disoriented, as fragmented, at the end as in the opening pages. The detours, which have formed the substance as well as the method of the novel, have led nowhere. Process is all….

A number of the paragraphs of analysis and deconstruction afford pleasure in their minute discrimination of phenomena…. Furthermore, the sentences of which these paragraphs are composed are stylistically impressive, demonstrating a masterly control of diction and rhythm, an often startling metaphoric gift, and a range of effects extending from Swiftian bluntness to Proustian elaboration. (p. 29)

Detour is relentlessly allusive, and (up to a point) one can enjoy the virtuosity with which Brodsky loads every rift with borrowed ore. The cinematic references are the most obvious, occurring as they do on nearly every page, but the novel also abounds in quotations, semi-quotations, paraphrases, and echoes from Shakespeare, James,… and dozens of other writers…. But the pleasures of recognition pall, and what had once been welcomed as an enlivening device becomes ultimately tiresome, a mere tic or fashionable reflex. Brodsky too often seems less a novelist than the brightest graduate student in the room.

Is Detour worth the forced march that its reading involves? Not for me, despite the virtuosities displayed along the way…. I find it difficult to imagine that a writer as verbally skilled and erudite as he will not eventually produce an important book—though it may not be a work of fiction at all. (p. 30)

Robert Towers, "Forced Marches," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1978 Nyrev, Inc.), Vol. 25, No. 10, June 15, 1978, pp. 29-30.∗

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The Virginia Quarterly Review