Wurlitzer's Literary Water Torture


Wurlitzer's Literary Water Torture Flats By Rudolph Wurlitzer Dutton 159 pp $4 95 Reviewed by Ronald De Feo Contributor, "Massachusetts Review," "Transatlantic Review" The greatest virtue of...

...Wurlitzer's Literary Water Torture Flats By Rudolph Wurlitzer Dutton 159 pp $4 95 Reviewed by Ronald De Feo Contributor, "Massachusetts Review," "Transatlantic Review" The greatest virtue of Rudolph Wurlitzer's second novel, Flats, is that it is five pages shorter than his first novel, Nog Another redeeming feature is the nice, big, refreshing space between each of the frequent paragraphs If these seem rather cruel or facile observations, I challenge any sane reader (and the ranks appear to be dwindling) to peruse Flats and not feel that he is undergoing a literary variety of the Chinese water torture Wurlitzer is not without his fans, though, as we discover from the dust jacket of Flats Donald Barthelme credits Nog with eliminating all the "dreck" from The Novel, while Thomas Pynchon applauds its renunciation of the traditional "Novel of Bullshit" For those unacquainted with the object of their praise, there is little to give in the way of description The narrator of Nog wanders through a dream landscape, where he meets a number of beings as vapid and boring as himself He recalls and participates in elliptical conversations He nods off He randomly fornicates, masturbates and speculates And from beginning to end he is obsessed with the notion that he must occupy space--settle it, possess it, call it his very own "I'm tired of running in and out of rooms and finding the space taken," he laments In Flats Wurlitzer is again preoccupied with spatial problems, both physical and psychic The dislocated, disoriented and, for all the reader knows or likely cares, stoned narrator is perhaps attempting to (1) tell a story, (2) define himself, (3) finally settle down m space, (4) get his mind in order Your guess is as good as mine, since Wurlitzer gives not the slightest clue to what, if anything, he is trying to convey Either imagining himself wandering or m fact wandering around a flat of land, the narrator often stumbles upon remnants of civilization (a refrigerator here, a smashed statue there) While an engine throbs and blue lights blink overhead--omnipresent symbols of technology--the bulk of the "action" proceeds within the 40-foot square of space The "characters" m this micro-drama are named after North American cities, but the personification gimmick doesn't work If, for example, you were to tell a citizen of Omaha that his city "can't handle particulars" and "is unable altogether to expound a given context," or if you were to explain to a native of Memphis that his city "is straight about" its "own fallibility," you would rightly be dismissed as a crackpot In Flats a character/city makes the scene, attempts to organize the other dislocated character/ cities, fails because of limitations in his/its nature, and is promptly discarded Thus the figures come and go, and the narrator, novel and reader get nowhere Here is a sample of the dialogue heard amid the traffic (in this particular case echoing Pinter) "I'm passing through "I know you're passing through "How do you know I'm passing through' I might want to stay on" "You're passing through because you let the fire die And because you said you were passing through" Here is a sample of the action (this time reminiscent of Beckett) "Omaha drew a line with a knife, toward the smashed statue Then he joined the line to the line Memphis had created He stood up and smoothed out his jacket He licked his upper and lower hp Then he stepped backward ten feet, keeping his eyes on Flagstaff's galoshes It was a slow retreat, taking nearly forty minutes after all the pauses were accounted for" Now, out of context these passages may not seem unusually repulsive But as you read page after page and begin to suspect that no relief from this exhilarating prose is forthcoming, you begin to feel horribly restless When your suspicions are ultimately confirmed, your reaction is one of anger and disgust For you just know that the book is going to be hailed as a breakthrough in form, an expansion of the poor dying novel's possibilities And then, alas, you read the rave review Writing m the New York Times Book Review, Richard Poirier--who not surprisingly praised Nog--admitted being bewildered by Flats This, however, did not deter him from commending it His analysis is a classic example of how a self-indulgent, pretentious, unreadable piece of pseudo-art can elicit a self-indulgent, pretentious, unreadable response In one of his more lucid moments, Poirier tells us that Wurlitzer's books "are a reminder that we live in a hallucination of space " I, for one, have not experienced this hallucination If Professor Poirier's odd problem persists, he might do well to consult a reputable analyst In evaluating so consciously "experimental" an effort as Flats, though, one inevitably finds oneself wondering why a Beckett succeeds and a Wurlitzer does not Beckett, like Wurlitzer, employs abstract narrators who are rooted in the present, who seemingly possess no past or only vague recollections of it At times they are merely voices, talking from beds or urns or jars, lacking even the limited mobility of a Wurlitzer character/city A large part of the answer, I think, is Beckett's language There is a beautiful rhythm and movement to his prose Even when his voices only ask questions--making no logical or linear advancements, either physically or mentally--then words still carry the reader forward Beckett has the ability, the art to make us suffer as he guides us through the void, he constantly reminds us of our mortality, of our absurd journey Behind Beckett's prose, in short, we sense a profoundly dedicated, intelligent artist Behind Wurlitzer's work--thin, incoherent, tedious--we sense only a dabbler...

Vol. 53 • December 1970 • No. 25

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