Introduction

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Wurlitzer, Rudolph 1938–

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An American novelist and screenwriter, Wurlitzer has written three experimental and controversial novels. Flats and Quake comment on the vacuity of American society by examining violent post-apocalyptic urban landscapes, while Nog (published in England as The Octopus) has an alienated and disoriented protagonist. (See also CLC, Vols. 2, 4, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 85-88.)

Edwin Morgan

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The Octopus has an intense, hallucinatory quality that is impressive, but at the same time I would regard it as a less original and less startling achievement than [Robert] Creeley claims. 'The first decisive writing,' he says, 'to make adamantly clear what present experience of "people and places" is really all about.' More modestly, the book describes a fairly familiar sort of alienation and disturbance of mind, in a vivid American context certainly, but in style and method strongly reminiscent of both Beckett and Golding, to say nothing of lesser writers who have already explored similar territory. The hero—perhaps recovering from some mental illness (as is suggested by a nurse figure at one point), perhaps simply plagued by an acute identity-and-communication problem which makes him behave oddly, collect fact-catalogues and feel hunted—wanders about America…. He would like to find a place where he would fit and be, but has to roam restlessly through the open spaces of his country: space versus place, disoriented freedom versus womb-like protection and control. His latex octopus, shown at fairs, deceives through art. Life itself deceives him, without art.

Edwin Morgan, "Violent Fruit," in The Listener (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1970; reprinted by permission of Edwin Morgan), Vol. 83, No. 2129, January 15, 1970. p. 93.∗

Clarence Major

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In one sense [Quake is] really an old fashioned adventure story where you see the hero—narrator—going through many changes, though without being changed; except in the end he loses touch even with language. We are brought into the company of an assortment of people in Los Angeles at the Tropicana Motel, who are either in shock or hysterical because suddenly the earth is falling to pieces. If this represents the collapse of anything, let's hope it also represents the collapse of the more artificial aspects of the conventional novel. By artificial, I mean such things as sentimental character development or the innocent but silly attempt to imitate Life as We Know It. No such thing is possible and Wurlitzer knows it…. In Quake we get, not a novel of distinct characters, but one made up of human images put together in a collage nightmare, nonentities, who, at some level, I feel sure, represent the author's chilly need to invent workable puzzles. You can see this even better in Flats, where clearly the subject matter is the language and finally the book and how it is made. Flats is Wurlitzer's best yet.

In Nog he had not got beyond a concern for a struggle with making a new experience out of the rubbish of conventional subject matter. He did it well but in Flats the reader is not even asked to consider such dreariness. We're taken directly into the thing itself. Strangely, with Quake, Wurlitzer returns to the struggle with traditional concepts of subject matter though he does not handle the problem in a traditional way. Like Brautigan, in his novel The Hawkline Monster, Wurlitzer attempts to ram a sharp set of horns directly into the flesh of a literary notion of capturing Experience as We Know It.

Clarence Major, "Open Letters," in The American Poetry Review (copyright © 1975 by Clarence Major; reprinted by permission of Clarence Major), Vol. 4, No. 1, January-February, 1975, p. 29.∗

Douglass Bolling

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In Nog (1969) and Flats (1970) Wurlitzer demonstrated a remarkable ability to penetrate to the controlling forms and feelings at work below the surface of a profoundly confused, anarchical, and vacuous American society and mentality. His incisiveness together with fusions of the ironic, the grotesque, and the comic, the deployment of a relatively cool or detached first-person narrator, and a deceptively unassuming style is found again in his third novel, Quake (1972). Wurlitzer draws upon the strengths of his earlier fictions in a way which gives Quake a freshness and validity of its own. Like Flats the most recent novel explores the apocalyptic vein but in a manner more nearly that of Nog; the handling of characterization, setting, and imagery reminds one particularly of the latter. Where Flats probes the no-man's land separating "meaning" and absurdity in the manner of Beckett. Quake typically gives greater emphasis to the ironies and confusions underlying social behavior and cliche-ridden notions of personal identity. The catastrophic situation in Quake (the earthquake precipitated by the San Andreas Fault) is employed chiefly as a device for dramatizing and laying bare the pre-existent, "normal" derangements and vacuities of our society and its collective psyche. (pp. 70-1)

In some ways the conclusion of Quake is more pessimistic than the endings of Nog and Flats. At the end of Nog the narrator has managed to "save" himself by withdrawal from an insane society and by defining himself in terms of a shallow notion of personal identity; such a salvation is too dearly bought to be humanly worthy or holistic, but at least a remnant of the narrator's humanity remains intact. By the end of Flats the narrator has moved beyond any faith in the verbal and conceptual as well as the societal ("that strategy toward the collective voice is only another shuck") and attempts to open himself to whatever efficacy the mysterious yellow light offers. But at the end of Quake the narrator can only turn in defeat and exhaustion to the dubious and hostile collectivity embodied in the builders of the wall. No more than his fellows does he really know what is being walled in and what walled out. The description of the dark, narrow street, the fire, and the wall suggests in part an ironic refaction of Plato's allegory of the cave.

Additionally, the ending hints at what may be called a post existential direction. The vitiated narrator is unable to impose his own "meaning" on the chaos and absurdity everywhere about him…. (pp. 71-2)

Wurlitzer sustains the sense of spiritual impoverishment and inanition in American life in several ways. Perhaps most importantly, he demonstrates the inadequacy of language either to negotiate the discontinuities and opacities of the external world or to shape and illumine the amorphous and shadowy pressures of the inner one. The figures who populate Quake speak for the most part in language marked by cliche and non sequitur, the truncated and the spuriously referential. As in Flats the figures seem to exchange sounds in a manner which implicitly challenges the whole notion of semiosis; and perhaps as much as the traumatized characters, the reader begins to doubt the logic which binds sound and signification. Words characteristically seem to float up out of some vast alienation, some vast paranoia. (p. 73)

Perhaps no contemporary American novelist has given us a more concise and unsparing picture of our failing moral imagination than Wurlitzer has in his three short novels. (p. 74)

Quake sustains the impressive levels achieved in Nog and Flats and justifies faith in Wurlitzer's talent. In the widening spectrum of contemporary fiction Wurlitzer's work stands in conception and technique somewhere near the novels of Barth and Pynchon. Flats has affinities with the fiction of "opacity" and one can find agreements between Quake and experimental work, such as Eugene Wildman's Nuclear Love. Thus far, Wurlitzer has not moved quite to the outer reaches of the spectrum, and to locate his first three fictions there would be a mistake. Finally, the cinematic quality of Quake is inescapable (Wurlitzer's screenplay for Two-Lane Blacktop is relevant); a powerful film could be made rather directly from the text as it stands—without, of course, any prejudice to his novel as novel. (p. 80)

Douglass Bolling, "The Waking Nightmare: American Society in Rudolph Wurlitzer's 'Quake'," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction (copyright © by James Dean Young 1975), Vol. XVI, No. 3, 1975, pp. 70-80.

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Wurlitzer, Rudolph (Vol. 2)