Last Updated on May 13, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 404
“The Smiles of Konarak,” published in 1979, details a period nearly twenty years before the date of publication. The first sentence reads: “Early in the nineteen sixties a group of New York poets built a diminutive theater in a Lower East Side settlement house and proceeded to produce their own plays.” The focus narrows rapidly to one playwright, Taggart, but the ambience of the early 1960’s is itself a considerable presence in the story. Billie Holiday records play during the dance at Taggart’s celebration; Beat poets drink cappuccinos and compose lines of poetry “by the laws of chance.”
Dennison seems intent on that time when the hopes that sustained the revolutionary 1960’s, era of free and brotherly love, were at their freshest. What has happened since that time, “history,” has neither fulfilled those hopes nor definitively discredited them.
To enhance the historical feeling, Dennison leaves his characters in states of limbo, neither granting their dreams nor arguing their impotence. The success of Taggart, an isolated and definitely fortuitous fact—he is lucky enough to have a share of genius—is juxtaposed to Karla’s frustrations, and those of other characters, such as the political activist Everett and his friend Luis Fontana. The characters with the greatest enthusiasm for changing the world are frustrated, while the more detached Taggart earns nothing but praise for his writing. The plot contains no development to a climax, but is composed through a series of dramatized scenes that collectively form a sense of culmination. Dennison’s style seeks gently to embody the spectacle of life free of literary comment. One example of this is the closing scene, when Taggart and Karla attend an outdoor play in a park. Of all plays to perform, the company has picked William Shakespeare’s Coriolanus (1607-1608): “Had ever Shakespeare such an audience as this!? . . . Their speech was a babble of contending phrases.” Life is more a spectacle than literature. The comings and goings of Ukrainians, Poles, Puerto Ricans, and one particularly belligerent black woman, “with red hair and dully gleaming sores on her legs,” who stands on stage before the play shaking her fist at the audience, are, Taggart admits, more interesting than the performance of the “real” actors.
Through the story’s re-creation of an era, the reader feels both the distance of the past and its still-forceful presence, much as Taggart experiences the still-living smiles of his long gone wife, Naomi.
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