Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Review: Thaddeus Rutkowski, HAYWIRE

Haywire, a novel by Thaddeus Rutkowski
Review from uncorrected proofs
Starcherone Books
Buffalo, NY

"Composed of 49 flash stories narrated by the son of a Polish-American artist father and a Chinese mother"

Part 1

"My brother and sister and I were riding in the car while our father drove. "

Our Father...

Who drives the fragments of narrative in Rutkowski's coming of age novel, drives them like nails into the narrator's textual consciousness.

Our Father ...

Who gives incomprehensible orders out of which compulsive sexual fetishes naturally follow--natural, that is, in that they share with the Father a robust textual force while remaining themselves, opaque, inexplicable--habits acquired or inherited or inflicted, whose beginnings are sometimes noted, but whose psychic genesis is neither explored nor revealed. Yet in the aporia of the perpetually absent presence of the Father we find their hidden coordinates precisely in that state of being hidden, the unwritten text which, in another novel, a different kind of narrative, might offer clues of motive, offer possible explanations for the symptoms, for what becomes of the fetishes of sexual bondage (the dominate features of the middle sections of the book) after the narrator's marriage and the birth of his daughter. They seem to have been tied and left dangling heels over head, bent like question marks without answers.

Rutkowski likes to employ non sequiturs to move the reader forward, as in the following example. The narrator has rather confused, but persistent writerly ambitions. He attends a residential workshop or writer's retreat. He amuses himself burning pages of his bad writing. ".. I couldn't incinerate the pages in my room," he says, "So I took my embarrassing printouts down the road to a clearing, put them on the ground and touched a lit match to them. While I was burning my papers, a resident writer happened to walk by. He must have seen the smoke, but he didn’t' ask about it. All he said was, 'This road we're on in a good route for biking."

This is an effective device. Things are always just 'happening' like this. It's how his father works in the opening chapters. Keep in mind, a child doesn't experience a parent's actions as random--inexplicable, yes, but not random. The meaning must be there. Somewhere. Everything in a child's world (as in our dreams) is overdetermined. Overdetermined and utterly mysterious. I found this a strong point in Rutkowski's style. He withholds interpretation. That takes admirable disciple. Dream-like sequences are interwoven at several points in the memory narratives, also without explanation, and with no bridge, no passages of transition. The associative power of the negation is a real power, far more than any explanation, no matter how canny, how wise. We are left with a chimera of unread, and unreadable possibilities hovering over... or under, the text.

He suffers from schoolyard bullies and bigots, who single him out for his Asian features. His mother--her character, her image--is left largely undeveloped--but the roughest sketch. This is true of all the characters. We have brief encounters--the stoner brother, some of the narrator's early lovers, but only the father rises out of the text, and then--as a kind of ghost memory who he fumbles to make real for his daughter when she asks what he was like--long after his death. Fumbles and fails... summoning no story, no incident (though the first third of the book is filled with incidents that might do--but how could he? How could he impose this Father on her... whose hope resides in being free of him?) Does he realize that in declining the challenge, he is risking doing exactly that? ... by conjuring the mystery? The undeciphered parental text that is the source of all ghosts?

Haywire is written in three main parts, each consisting of short, titled chapters, some of which might stand alone as independent fragments. The prose is spare and functional, well suited to the dream-like accounts of memory and exposition. I wonder if it might gain in power by further condensation. It seemed a bit long at almost 300 pages, but I was not unhappy at having read it. While a reviewer might easily point out imperfections, I see no reason to do so, as they are of a kind that go hand in hand with testing out certain limits. What Rutkowski has attemped here is worth the risks he took. May this lead to more, and still more accomplished work in the future.

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