'The Runaway Soul': Poetic majesty compensates for its real frustrations

November 10, 1991|By Dan Vitale

THE RUNAWAY SOUL. Harold Brodkey. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 825 pages. $30. The publication of Harold Brodkey's magnum opus brings to a conclusion its 30-year status as the American literary world's most famous work in progress. He began the novel in 1959, and portions of the manuscript have been appearing in such magazines as the New Yorker, Esquire and American Review since the early 1970s.

His project now stands as the representation of the birth and development of a single human consciousness, an ambitious attempt to distinguish the act of perception from whatever reality may inhere in the world itself. "Memories afterward change stuff," he writes. "Books really are mostly about memories afterward and not about what happened so much -- they just pretend to that -- but they are made of events changed for the sake of the convenience of someone now. . . It takes nerve to go near real moments."

In keeping with his goal of avoiding the artifices of straightforward storytelling, Mr. Brodkey gives us a narrative in which events are not depicted so much as subjected to intense philosophical and psychological scrutiny. Sometimes he risks losing the reader in the process. For example, here is his narrator as an adolescent, reflecting on his budding sexual attractiveness:

"One keeps one's nerve and begins to practice the various, very odd, very hurtful disciplines of the unbearably complicated thing of the rumored or momentarily granted responsibility of the possession of a not entirely androgynous, no-longer-childhood ability to arouse, or be the cause of, feeling: it is a kind of beauty."

Faced with this circuitous prose style, the reader must labor to extract a coherent story from the book, but it is there. The narrator, Wiley Silenowicz, is born in 1930 to poor parents. At age 2, he is given up for adoption to a more financially stable couple, Lila and S. L. Silenowicz of Alton, Ill., and later St. Louis.

Lila and S. L. also have a daughter of their own. Nonie, 11 years older than Wiley, is given to temper tantrums and a voracious selfishness that allows her continually to protest her own innocence even as she damages the lives of those around her. Her behavior earns Wiley's eternal scorn and distrust; he considers his half-sister "my prime knowledge of evil."

In the early sections of the book, Mr. Brodkey establishes Nonie as a heartbreaking, tragic figure. "Watching children play, she'd twitch, she'd do what the children she was watching were doing: the whole game, all-out, but alone and strangely." But Nonie also has a destructive streak. She injures friends, beats a dog to death and even, according to Lila, is somehow responsible for the deaths of her two infant brothers, on separate occasions when Nonie is alone with them. She also tortures Wiley.

Perhaps in deliberate contrast, Wiley is a well-behaved child, and later an excellent student. After finishing high school, Nonie works as a secretary before moving to North Carolina to live with relatives and join the war effort. Wiley, meanwhile, is "nationally smart," a straight-A student headed for Harvard at age 16. "My life became," Wiley says, "a systematic and emotional and a spiritual attempt not to be Nonie's brother."

Although he survives Nonie's influence, Wiley is saddened, distant, an incomplete person. He is confused by the conflicting feelings his half-sister has inspired in him: hatred as well as pity, embarrassment as well as love, anger as well as tolerance. His task in life seems to be to come to terms with the true degree of her "evil," and to search in himself for some measure of forgiveness. In the book's final chapter, 700 pages after we are introduced to Nonie, Wiley confronts his feelings about his sister in some of the most intensely beautiful writing ever committed to print.

But before we arrive at this epiphany, we must traverse a rocky terrain of chapters whose connection to Wiley's dilemma often is tenuous and abstract. We witness, out of chronology, Wiley at various moments from his adolescence and young adulthood: at age 13, nursing S. L. after a series of strokes; with the Silenowiczes' North Carolina relatives, shortly after S. L.'s death, as Wiley contemplates seducing his 29-year-old male half-cousin; about a year later, in a tryst with a female friend of Nonie's; arguing politics and exploring homosexuality with his high school chum, Remsen; home from college to stand at Lila's deathbed, and, in one of the novel's more curious detours, at 26 making love with his wife, Ora.

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