Ronald Sukenick Sukenick, Ronald (Vol. 6) - Essay

Sukenick, Ronald (Vol. 6)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Sukenick, Ronald 1932–

Sukenick, an American novelist, critic, and short story writer, finds reality, according to Jerome Klinkowitz, "not by projecting subject ideals, but by 'discovering significant relations' with what is really out there." (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 25-28.)

Ronald Sukenick's fiction has always been concerned with the relationship of the moment of experience which is constantly receding into the past and the presentness of the creative moment. In his … novel Out, his writing emphasizes the intensity of the present by establishing a process of imaginative improvisation with experience. It sets up a flowing figure/field interaction in which figures are created, briefly sustained, then dissipate following the movement of the creative consciousness. Each moment brings into perception a field of indeterminant proportions and significance. Sukenick welcomes the flux in his effort to engage all of its elements in a creative pattern. As with Brautigan, he is aware of the sedimentation of language as an intrusive element of the past in the present. But instead of setting up satiric juxtapositions, Sukenick recognizes them all as varieties of meaning (fiction), which, once liberated from their oppressive contexts, can be happily reintegrated in his moving text. A character in the novel expresses the desire to write "a book like a cloud that changes as it goes."

The continuous presence of the writer's imagination manifests itself through this improvisation, but like the cloud, the movement of the piece is not in total control of itself. In order to bring the work totally into the present of creation, Sukenick has established an arbitrary motivating principle for the text. The 10-0 countdown of the chapters and linear format push the text on, independent of the writer, while opening up the text to greater degrees of silence. If Sukenick puts the structuring beyond him, every moment of creation is crucial. "After the first word everything follows anything follows nothing follows the world is pure invention from one minute to the next."… (pp. 355-56)

Threatened by the disparity of experience, the imagination must discover means to order or, at least, to be conscious of the creative possibilities amidst the flux. A dictum, "data accumulates obscurity persists"…, becomes "connection develops meaning falls away"…, as the narrator moves free of the paranoid compulsion to control and comprehend the totality of expression. Each moment of creation becomes a locus of imaginative fusion of past with present, the real with the imaginary, the visible with the invisible. It opens up existence centered in itself, not bearing meaning beyond the imaginative artifice of the present.

There is a basic tension in Out that brings into view the paradoxical questioning of silence in self-reflective art. The text refers primarily to the activity of the creation of the text. Its meaning in language is the self-conscious product of a play between consciousness and the world as it is manifested to consciousness. In this self-centered play, the text investigates the nature of meaning and particularly the limits of meaning as intimations of silence. But as the novel, Out, progresses, the text eliminates itself. The lines of writing become fewer on the page. The space of silence grows until by the last page the text is blank. The movement is from a threatening chaos of experience, to a recognition of the potentiality of flux, and finally to a self-sufficiency of silence. The text de-creates itself to open up a sense of belonging-to-the-world. It is a state that implies no need to be brought into form as human language and meaning. (p. 356)

Charles Russell, in Modern Fiction Studies (© 1974, by Purdue Research Foundation, West Lafayette, Indiana), Autumn, 1974.

Sukenick's new novel "98.6" is his reformulation of the Mosaic law: "the law of mosaics, a way of dealing with parts in the absence of wholes." The way is through imagination; the parts are the members of a West Coast commune. They try to form themselves into a fluid whole, but reality—their needs, their names, external circumstances—changes more quickly than their imagination. Sexual recombination, paranoia, and troubles with bikers, truckers, a floating whorehouse, with another commune called the Planet Kryton, pressure the communards into an imitative art. They covet goods, plot security and organize search and destroy missions. Parts fly apart; the whole does not hold….

The pure invention doesn't hold, but the novel that includes it succeeds. Moving from fragmentation to a volatile unity to imaginary wholeness, the book explores the needs for and possible modes of unity. At the same time it recognizes that there is no psychic 98.6—only the lows, highs and changes that mock its arbitrariness.

For the unities of realistic fiction—plot, character and causation—Sukenick substitutes the "discipline of inclusion," an unceasing energy, and a belief in the primacy of language: "sometimes it happens that first you discover the word then you discover what it means." The demands of innovative implausibility are considerable, for there's no familiar filler to give the conjurer a break offstage…. When Sukenick's wit lags and language only reports, the fragmentation, especially in part one, is merely obscure and the notions crankish. But the next minute he gives us the Ancien Caja, Bjorsq (his invented language) or the Missing Lunk (a being "intelligent enough to be free but too dumb to be unhappy")—inventions that give rather than take the true temperature of consciousness.

Sukenick's achievement is making curiosities into concepts and freaks into human figures. Because he sees life as continual invention, he can get at the imaginative bases of the alternative culture with sympathy and humor, without trapping himself in hip clichés. Aware of the possibilities it could have taken and intentionally contingent, "98.6" doesn't claim too much for itself and is therefore both amusing and interesting. Like an attractive wave it describes, the novel is part froth, part power, all process. And Sukenick is wave-maker Proteus, whose guises include Wallace Stevens, Wilhelm Reich, Erwin Schrodinger, himself and Bjorsq. Quick now, read him before he invents again. (p. 6)

Thomas LeClair, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 18, 1975.

Sukenick has always been his own most ruthless critic, a position admirably consonant with his unaffected frankness. He knows precisely what he wants to do, how he will do it, and how he will fail if he doesn't do it well. Wishing to achieve a balanced interrelation of subject and form, he develops his fiction—or super-fiction—through a series of animated fabliaux rather than through coherent action. He deliberately demolishes chronological sequences, offering time past as time present, or several times past as concurrently present. Characters dissolve into one another, and the author purposely confuses himself with, and then differentiates himself from, his characters. Pseudo-autobiography as form, collage, use of the tape recorder, and subtle variations on fiction-vérité are some of Sukenick's principal building blocks. He is also fond of spacing and page arrangement, techniques fully developed in his second novel, Out, where a loose style featuring polysyndeton, quasi-poetic typography, and under-punctuation came to represent the gradual triumph of white space on the page over the printed word.

Now and then Sukenick's fiction is haphazard and banal, the price he must pay for employing such treacherous techniques. Furthermore, in his bizarre search for normality—a psychic or spiritual 98.6 [in his novel, 98.6]—in a static, abnormal time, Sukenick displays uneasy kinship with some past and present eccentrics: Laurence Sterne, Ronald Firbank, Gertrude Stein, William Burroughs, Donald Barthelme. Usually, however, Sukenick is in full control of his art, and, at the most conspicuous level, the unity of his fiction coincides with the unity of his own consciousness. Out of broad humor and a sense of structural irony, which mitigate or transform elements of fear, numbness, disgust, disloyalty and violence, Sukenick manages to balance the sentimental, the emotional, and the pathetic with the obscene, the trivial and the absurd. (pp. 283-84)

Edward Martin Potoker, "A Connoisseur of Chaos," in The Nation (copyright 1975 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), September 27, 1975, pp. 282-84.