Sukenick, Ronald (Vol. 4)

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Sukenick, Ronald 1932–

Sukenick is an American experimental novelist and short story writer. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 25-28.)

Since 1968, when John Barth declared that literature was "exhausted" and Leslie Fiedler, Susan Sontag, Norman Mailer, and other critics cheered along that the novel at least was dead, Ronald Sukenick has been proving that there is a great deal of life to be rediscovered in the form. His first novel, Up …, followed Barth with a generous indulgence in aesthetic allegory, but instead of painting itself into a corner or disappearing up its own fundament, Up pointed a way out….

Ronald Sukenick would revalidate our imaginations so that we can look at our environment in a real way. For [Carlos Castaneda's] Don Juan, it's a question of two distinct manners of perceiving. "'Looking' referred to the ordinary way in which we are accustomed to perceive the world, while 'seeing' entailed a very complex process by virtue of which a man of knowledge allegedly perceives the 'essence' of the things of the world." For fiction, it is the ability to transcend a mere describing of life (always a danger in this most mimetic of forms) to a revelation of the truth of experience, which may be at odds with the popular consensus. To stop the world—to call a halt to having one's personal, provisional view of things as absolute—may be a key to the cultural turnabout so apparent around us, reflected in Sukenick's new style of fiction, Castaneda's great popularity, and the appeal environmentalist Aldo Leopold has for such a broad intellectual audience….

To arrive at "seeing," Castaneda learned in Ixtlan, one must stop the world. "'Stopping the world' was indeed an appropriate rendition of certain states of awareness in which the reality of everyday life is altered because the flow of interpretation, which ordinarily runs uninterruptedly, has been stopped by a set of circumstances alien to that flow." Don Juan's task, as exercised in A Separate Reality, "was to disarrange a particular certainty which I shared with everyone else, the certainty that our 'commonsense' views of the world are final." The imagination, Sukenick has said, makes reality seem more real—and Don Juan's methods are a paradigm for liberating oneself from the obstructed, unimaginative view. "'The little smoke removes the body and one is free, like the wind'" and the metaphor of bodily flight becomes "the sorcerer's capacity to move through nonordinary reality and then to return at will to ordinary reality." The fullest possibilities of vision—not just the documentary records of what historically occurred—are what Sukenick wants for his fiction, and Don Juan is the master who can show how "'There are worlds upon worlds, right here in front of us'."…

Fiction plays its tricks, but in his own Village Voice essay on Castaneda's work Sukenick insists that "All art deconditions us so that we may respond more fully to experience." The wealth of that response has been his aim since Up, through the efforts to capture the truth of experience in The Death of the Novel and Other Stories … and most recently Out. While others would let fiction die, Sukenick argues that its great advantage "over history, journalism, or any other supposedly 'factual' kind of writing is that it is an expressive medium. It transmits feeling, energy, excitement. Television can give us the news, fiction can best express our response to the news…. No other medium, in other words, can so well keep track of the reality of our experience." Technically, his novel Out proves that a novel can be a concrete as well as an imaginative structure, and offers art for the eye and the page-turning hand as well as for the mind. But ultimately Sukenick's genius rests with his discovery that the reality we know is only a description, and that "The power of a sorcerer is the power of the feeling he can invest in his description so it is felt as a persuasive account of the world." This same persuasiveness is the measure of good fiction, which Ronald Sukenick brings to life, proving what an unexhausted novelist can do.

Jerome Klinkowitz, "A Persuasive Account: Working It Out With Ronald Sukenick," in North American Review, Summer, 1973, pp. 48-52.

Sukenick makes a point of (no, makes a novel of) art that does not conceal art. The scaffolding remains on the completed building….

The medievalists understood this kind of writing. See Augustine especially. Solve the conundrum whose center is divine truth. Art proposes revelation as its end. The pleasure comes through teasing the mind until it sees clearly the kernel within the husk. Whether the several apologists (Sontag, Pynchon etc.) for Sukenick's kind of writing like it or not, works such as "Out" demand an interpretation, an exegesis if you like. Despite the surface glitter we look for more because language asks us to…. Contemporary innovators reject an older tradition's view of plenitude and significance for emptiness, the void. I don't question their moral posture, but I would say that they are on a very well-worn track: the one leading through and beneath phenomena to a static truth. Old wine, new bottles.

Tim O'Hara, in Best Sellers, July 15, 1973, pp. 157-58.

Sukenick is not only an uncommonly talented writer, but a sensitive and purposeful one. "Out" is precisely what it says it is, a novel that walks right out of itself, whose central character himself rejects all possible human pathways save that of total disappearance….

[Not] only has Sukenick taken the devices of the literature of the id and turned them on their heads to produce a humanistic—and hence, intellectual—document, he has followed the whole trend to its logical conclusion. There he has discovered a brick wall, a blank page. There is no future in the id, only instinct, madness and ultimate death. The id cannot create, it can only destroy; monkeys do not build cities. Such resources as it possesses may be all very well when it comes to describing present states and moral revulsion, as Sukenick amply demonstrates, but a whole literary movement that ends screaming in a blind alley is going to do very little to increase the measure of man. And that, in the last analysis, is the only thing that art is all about.

L. J. Davis, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1973 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 21, 1973, p. 49.

Ronald Sukenick's Out reads like a bizarre fantasy of sexual brutality, violence on the streets, and fear in the guts. Here is a world where names change at the drop of an introduction, where those who are part of the plot or part of the counterplot keep talking, keep moving, although they can rarely find, identify, or understand each other….

The point of this complex onslaught is to induce the character, the writer, and the reader to abandon linear perception for the more inclusive second sight of the artist or the mystic….

Throughout the book, major incidents are portrayed at least twice—each time a combination of the real and the fantastic. They resemble the constant word plays, anagrams, and puns of the novel's language, which delight the reader…. But the incidents that follow this pattern do not delight, because while we can accept and enjoy play on words, play on experience quickly becomes threatening and frightening. The reader is threatened because traditional perceptual tools are useless when characters change names and traits irrationally, when he can only choose between equally dissatisfying combinations of reality and fantasy. The character, sharing this frustration, must be purged of the inclination to stuff all experience into the insufficient frameworks of words and incidents and "meaningful question."…

The reason for the free-form language and the peculiar physical shape of the book grows clearer as the work progresses. The traditional structure of the novel—words, sentences, paragraphs, chapters of nearly equal length—constructs experience into artificial forms from which the novel must find a way out if it is to be capable of imitating contemporary experience. Words, like characters, like incidents, have affinity groups, move sideways as well as straight ahead, and in so connecting and moving reach equally "real" ends. As the main stream of character learns that it is not necessary to keep talking, the size of Sukenick's chapters diminishes, but not in the traditional sense. The chapter numbers, running from 9 to 0, indicate the number of lines in each of the three sections clearly separated on each page. The constantly diminishing number of words on each page pulls the reader along at an ever increasing rate until, finally, only three lines per page force the eye and the mind to rush through the words and out to the blank expanse of the last chapter. The reader is thus still literally experiencing the novel after it runs out of words. Language is itself a symbol, a form into which experience is put. Experience is not less full when fewer words delineate it, nor does it cease when words stop describing it.

This not particularly new line of thought has obvious limitations: how could we have any fiction that does not codify experience, that does not substitute characters for human consciousness, words for sight and sound and movement, or a plot for real action. It does, however, allow Sukenick to give the impression of direct, amorphous experience, and in this is the book's force. This book moves the reader, producing vivid sensations of fear, lust, confusion, frustration, and, at the end, produces a flooding sensation of relief in the rapid whoosh out. Form, content, and technique are welded into a fluid whole that engages the reader in growth similar to that of the character, and gives him a glimpse of a broader mode of perception. Sukenick's elaborate code tempts the reader into critical abstraction even though Sukenick (the character) attests its futility. But the abstracted code leads away from the book, limiting perception. The reader—and the reviewer—caught, must flow with the book, or lose it….

Acceptance of the mix of life, of the asymmetry of incidents, of the unclearness of reality, of the formlessness of perception, is demanded by the dissolving and reforming skywriting that indicated the way out at the end of the novel. This does not negate meaning so much as grope toward a deeper, more inclusive, more ecstatic understanding.

And to some extent the reader can share this experience with character, responding to before quite understanding the changes he is undergoing. For Sukenick seduces the reader into a mode of perception in which characters, situations, and even words are stretched to their limits in exploitation of their latent possibilities. Out is rich with the fantasies and foibles of contemporary America—from city doors covered with locks to campers in the mountains teeming with the junk of civilization. The verbal style is rich, the erratic sentence structure congealing puns and word play from the simple to the gross. Characteristically, Sukenick twists the familiar into strangeness or absurdity. For all its richness, the novel is uneven; although he usually carries it off, Sukenick cannot always escape triteness, sometimes even foolishness. And the physical structure of the book imparts a strangeness that, although justified, threatens to obscure rather than to enrich. His ideas are not new, his incidents almost irritatingly familiar, his clichés not always renovated. But the novel overcomes these flaws, sometimes brilliantly, with overall force and wit.

Linda S. Bergmann, "Out. A Novel by Ronald Sukenick" (reprinted by permission of Chicago Review; copyright © 1974 by Chicago Review), in Chicago Review, Vol. 25, No. 3, 1974, pp. 9-12.


Sukenick, Ronald (Vol. 3)


Sukenick, Ronald (Vol. 6)