Rudolph Wurlitzer Wurlitzer, Rudolph (Vol. 2) - Essay

Wurlitzer, Rudolph (Vol. 2)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Wurlitzer, Rudolph 1938(?)–

American novelist, author of Nog and Flats.

Of "Nog"—a marvy new experimental novel—it can be said, I think, that it is beyond interpretation. Its intention is to be boring and it succeeds mightily. Not every first novel sets about so knowingly to be so uniformly tendentious, tangential and tedious, I think, consisting as it does for the most part of a series of unexplored anecdotes, trips leading nowhere, and lots of second-rate prose….

Of "Nog" it can be said that it contains approximately 1,500 more or less first-person sentences which describe a lesser number of actions unreliably. Very artful of this young talent, don't you think?…

]Quite] tentatively, I would say that the name Rudolf Wurlitzer is some kind of intricate structuralist acronym for Poirier-Sontag-Robbe-Grillet. Or perhaps it isn't. Perhaps there really is a Rudolf Wurlitzer living—as his blurb writers put it so coyly—"nowhere in particular," who can be reached "in care of his publisher." It is certainly the case that one can reach authors through Random House; I once got a letter forwarded from a cousin in Memphis. But one wonders who would care to make such an effort after confronting Wurlitzer through his naked prose. One imagines him to be a bright-enough young fellow, quite into such things as drugs, alienation and the new novel, a kind of fop of despair, but not so despairing that he wouldn't like to see his sham of a "Nog" elevate him to the pantheon of pedants of the new novel.

Richard M. Elman, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1969 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 16, 1969, pp. 50-1.

[The] work of Rudolph Wurlitzer, which includes a still more brilliant first novel of two years ago called "Nog," ought to bewilder you as it bewilders me. Not merely because his books ["Nog" and "Flats"] are strange, but because you, that is we, including Wurlitzer, are more strangely located in the world than we normally dare imagine. Wurlitzer's writing, if only in its incessant ruptures of tone, alerts the reader to the weirdness, the disguised anguish, the ridiculous comic presumption about spatial presence lurking in the ordinary language by which we try to locate ourselves. His books are a reminder that we live in a hallucination of space; that, like it or not, each of us is forever on a trip; and that by the time our language catches up with us the trip is over or we are off on quite a different one.

Wurlitzer writes in the classic American tradition of tripping out to nowhere, of exploring the great space for which there is no comforting name or verifiable dimension, where one invents worlds and fragments of worlds in order to erase the anguished memories of old ones and alleviate the threat of chaos, and where the energies created by invention make us at once dissatisfied with its results.

Not everyone wants to bother his head with these matters, and those who don't won't get much out of "Flats." Its mystifications are the realities of our situation, and that's a discomforting proposition. Many items in his books make no sense in terms of structures and assumptions which, having been at best only momentary stays against confusion, have been mistaken for the very substance of reality. His writing therefore means very little to those who want to translate it into what they have already decided is meaningfully real. While "Flats," by initially seeming so eccentric, excites the desire to make such translations, it finally forestalls them by earning in the reader's mind a stark and disturbing centrality.

Perhaps it shouldn't be read as a novel at all, but as a new kind of geography, a word that literally means "to write about the earth." Even more than "Nog," this is a book about writing within a space as well as about living within it. And because these preoccupations are scrupulously uncontaminated by psychology (which I rather miss) or by the kind of novelistic situations that encourage psychological inferences, "Flats," like "Nog," will probably be met with a lot of abusive misunderstanding….

Wurlitzer betrays almost no nostalgia for traditional principles of explanation. Unlike some of his contemporaries, he doesn't even bother to make fun of them…. For Wurlitzer, all occupancy of space is problematic, and since the forces of gravity will in time remove literary and intellectual, not to mention physical, clutter Wurlitzer, unlike other writers, won't even mess with it….

Eventually, ["Flats"] wins not only admiration but affection. To read it at all demands a considerable investment in what it is trying to do, a complicity in its urgencies about the shapes it might take. And that shaping reaches out fallibly and grumpily to all of us in all those cities, to all those cities that are in us, to America. The book exudes a familial despair about the civilizations personified by the various cities. And yet in the very acts of its composition it also promotes some hope that the despair can be transcended by bringing it at last into the light…. The cinematic quality of the book, in such specific features as having the narrator-director occasionally surrender the scene to others who chance by or to fragments and shards that catch his attention, is much indebted to the films of Godard. So, too, is the desire simply to do what Godard likes to think of doing: to throw light on the world, to bring reality to light.

Richard Poirier, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1970 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 20, 1970, pp. 5, 49.

Nog (1969), Wurlitzer's first novel, was a journey to the end of America—literally to the Pacific, seen as a last boundary, and to the limits of an idea. If America for Fitzgerald was a willingness of the heart, for Wurlitzer it is a dream of movement linked to a faith in an infinite environment: there will always be somewhere to go. Except that there won't be. Both novels are about what happens when you realize that there is nowhere to go, although Nog is about reaching that realization. The new novel, Flats, is about living with it.

Minor landscapes in Nog, scenes of ravage and ruin, have taken over in Flats. There is gunfire, a smell of burning rubber. There has been a battle, or a holocaust, some calamitous occasion timidly referred to as a "small disaster," a "separation," a "transgression," a "fabulous mistake." The scene is the flats, "west of the city." A spectral Beckettian narrator meets equally spectral figures, groping among the debris of a modern civilization: oil pumps, egg shells, dumped cars, paper plates, ice boxes, a smashed statue, an abandoned factory. There is a road, a swamp, a field, a creature in orange socks in a broken armchair.

The narrator struggles to set up connections, to make a camp, a community, shifts his identities like a sequence of masks….

Like Beckett, Wurlitzer is often darkly funny about his images of despair—"I don't like the way things are going," the narrator says when a turtle arbitrarily appears in the text—and my only real quarrel with his book is with its tendency at times to explain too much, to slip too easily into abstraction and analysis. "Omaha is as afraid of expansion as much as he is of contraction." "It's as if this localized hysteria results from not managing the space behind me and not transcending the one in front of me." The flatness and stiffness of the vocabulary are intentional, of course, an irony, a reflection of the helplessness that is the novel's subject—words miss reality just as the characters miss each other in the darkness.

But sentences like the ones I have quoted—and there are more—are finally too flat. They try to evoke dullness by being dull. Flats is a book which relies heavily on strong but oblique suggestions—on its being set, for example, in the aftermath of what could equally well have been a bad trip, a nuclear war, a nervous breakdown, or the last paralysis of the modern city. This means that it will stand only so much explicitness, and although the occasional failures of the novel's language don't damage it seriously, they do threaten it, and Wurlitzer's success becomes more fragile, less immediately convincing than it might have been.

Michael Wood, "End of the Line," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; © 1971 by NYREV, Inc.), March 11, 1971, pp. 41-4.

Flats is just baffling. My attitude towards it is rather like my attitude to certain pieces of contemporary music—by Stockhausen say, or Boulez. They are baffling, unfamiliar, must be studied—but it is impossible to reject them because, quite clearly there is a focus and an intellectual strength there. Rudolph Wurlitzer's novel possibly owes a debt to Beckett; in it people meet and converse in a wasteland somewhere in America. I am not sure whether there are many characters or just two, one of whom continually changes his name. The conversations spurt and die, circle endlessly around problems of delimiting space, of building barriers between people, of meeting or parting…. There is inertia, a desire for, an unwillingness to undertake, movement. A strange work, tough going.

Roger Baker, in Books and Bookmen, January, 1972, pp. 59-60.

Rudolph Wurlitzer is a writer whose work gets very close to the quality that I have in mind when I speak of opacity. His novels have the interesting effect of passing through your mind the way ice cream passes over your tongue—you get the taste and that's it. The experience exists in and for itself. It is opaque the way that abstract painting is opaque in that it cannot be explained as representing some other kind of experience. You cannot look through it to reality—it is the reality in question and if you don't see it you don't see anything at all.

Ronald Sukenick, "Arguments: The New Tradition," in Partisan Review (copyright © 1972 by Partisan Review, Inc.), Fall, 1972, pp. 580-88.

[Rudolph Wurlitzer] is one of the most highly praised of the virtuosos who emerged in the free-for-all literary climate of the late sixties, in whose work books like [Pynchon's] "V." have found their problematic echo and succession. In four years he has published three short but substantial novels, "Nog" (1969), "Flats" (1970) and now "Quake," all startlingly different in everything but length. Wurlitzer has not simply survived or persisted but has already created a difficult body of work informed by a distinct view of experience. It deserves to be treated seriously whatever judgment we finally make.

"Nog" and "Flats" were typical of recent experimental fiction in largely eliminating plot, causality, milieu, psychology—indeed, any sort of significant action. But where other writers then invest their energy in self-conscious verbal ingenuity, Wurlitzer avoids such precious gamesmanship. No serious writer in recent memory has cultivated a style so clipped and flat, so pristine in its subject-verb-object matter-of-factness (even when there are no recognizable "facts"). In "Nog," a comparatively ingratiating book, a rare metaphor or rhetorical cadence slips through. In "Flats" all eloquence is ruthlessly censored: "That's too poetic, too fragmented. I'm not in touch with any of that."

"Not in touch": Wurlitzer's main subject is the loss of affect or connection of any sort, an experience that is at the core of his abandonment of the traditional novel. The structured narrative, the adventure, the measured unfolding of man and motive—these do not speak to his sense of reality, much as he might wish they did….

At the center of each of Wurlitzer's three novels is a nameless narrator who can scarcely express an emotion more complex than a twitch, or have a memory more shaped than a list or a log. Heavily indebted to Beckett, the books have a drab poignant dead-end quality, a cultural and personal amnesia that vaunts its refusal of all traditional "shucks" and cozy directions—indeed, of all direction, period.

Wurlitzer never makes clear whether the catatonic types who people his world are sad cases, the expectable debris of a culture without meaning or satisfaction, or modest heroes who have seen through the sham of personal relations and purposive actions. They are undoubtedly both, but the author mainly identifies with them, which helps explain the attraction he holds for alienated counterculture kids not usually interested in arcane literary experiment. In Wurlitzer's world there are no families, jobs or traditional relationships. His people are always floating loose, rubbing up against each other, or getting into binds that may destroy them but at least free them from the remnants of personal identity.

What really engages his imagination is not the individual and his problems but a ruder stratum of behavior and sensation, a kind of primal slime that precedes individuation….

In "Flats" the very idea of character is abandoned, or rather broken down into rudimentary traits…. "Flats" is Wurlitzer's most uncompromising work, a true American nouveau roman, but it's more a stew of quasi-novelistic ingredients than novel. Even as we yield to the distinct shape of his imagination, the impulse to go on reading ebbs. Once we've gotten any of it we have all of it. Any 20 pages will do. The book is boring, repetitive, shapeless; its language (to quote Wurlitzer himself) is "self-involved, whispering, frozen." What life it contains is disembodied, a drifting series of voices, a late-night radio band somewhere beyond the fringe. Drifting in fact is the key image of the book, as it is of all three novels, which is why, we are told, there are no women in it….

This is where "Quake" comes in, supplying the apocalyptic dimension only hinted at in the world-denying outlook of the earlier books. Where "Nog" and "Flats" were inversions of the American road novel, substituting passivity and inertia for purposeful movement and change, "Quake" is a California novel drenched in the facile paranoia and apocalypticism that seem endemic there….

In technique at least "Quake" is a striking departure for Wurlitzer. Despite a portentous vagueness around the edges, it is his most realistic and conventional novel, his first with genuine narrative thrust. Gone are the bizarre transitions and alienation effects that made his earlier books seem four times longer than they were. Gone, too, alas, is the imaginative complexity that often justified those hardships.

Morris Dickstein, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1972 by the New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 22, 1972, pp. 4, 16, 18.