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3030 words
SHJ Issue 10
Fall 2014

An Oxymoronic Pair: Michael Brodsky on Writing and Publication

by Dr. Stephen Graf

Michael Brodsky is a writer’s writer with whom, alas, most prominent writers—not to mention the general reading public—are likely to be unfamiliar—and content to remain so. In his dedication to his task in the face of indifference, he is reminiscent of writers from earlier eras such as Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson, and Franz Kafka—authors Brodsky references repeatedly during an interview. Brodsky’s first novel, Detour, published in 1977 by Urizen Books, received the Ernest Hemingway Citation of P.E.N. Brodsky has since published ten more books of fiction—including *** {three asterisks comprise the title of his fifth novel}, Three Goat Songs, Dyad, X in Paris, Xman, and most recently We Can Report Them (1999) and a greatly expanded version of Detour (2003)—to critical acclaim but less than inspiring sales. His most recent novel, Lurianiacs (2014) has just been released by Gray Oak Books. Now at work on his thirteenth book, Brodsky admits: “I’ve had a very checkered career. Though I find the word career repellent. You could say my difficulties with publication have the makings of a Masters’ thesis.” Yet with the unshakeable conviction in his work that marks most great artists, Brodsky abides because: “my main concern is that my books exist physically, so that when I am dead they can be resurrected. That’s my biggest concern. As we know, a place in literary history can be achieved very circuitously. It’s much nicer when Knopf knocks on the door and publishes the work. It’s so much easier. But it doesn’t always work that way.”

Born in New York City in 1948, Brodsky has spent his entire life there with the exception of a period in his twenties when he travelled to Cleveland to attend medical school. Brodsky eventually dropped out of medical school to nurse his literary obsessions and pursue his dream of becoming a published writer: goals which, he understood from the outset, are not necessarily compatible. Of that period, Brodsky says: “Medical school was (not to do PR for my own work) a detour. But detours have been my main drag over and over.” Brodsky stayed in Cleveland for nearly five years, eventually returning to New York. He has a wife, Laurence, and two adult sons, Joseph and Matthew, and recently shifted into semi-retirement—and into not-so-semi reclusiveness. It is the first time in his adult life that Brodsky has been able to focus solely on his writing and he has found the change “invigorating—no, soul-saving.”

Brodsky points to Marcel Proust, Samuel Beckett, and Franz Kafka, among others, as highly influential in his development as a writer. Of Beckett, Brodsky notes: “I was very happy when Beckett won the Nobel Prize [in 1969]. It seemed like a vindication for me of what was possible.” Echoes of Beckett can be found throughout Brodsky’s oeuvre. For instance, in Detour, the narrator references the protagonists from Waiting for Godot: “I wanted us to be Alma and Elisabeth Vogler, or Vladimir and Estragon, who were able to rend the surface they created without recourse to the past, at least most of the time” (p. 51).

Literal Latté has noted that Brodsky’s fiction “investigate[s] the philosophical experience of being.” Brodsky probes the nature of human subjectivity in all of his work. For instance, in the short story, “Vocational,” the protagonist asserts: “But I refuse, do you hear, I refuse For what is it to be but to be a speck on the margin of somebody else’s consciousness” (X in Paris 28). In Detour, the narrator observes: “I was confronted with a plethora of selves vying for my attention” (18). This ontological preoccupation is a continuation of the inquiry into human subjectivity conducted by Proust, Beckett, Kafka, and other modernist authors.

Of his own writing, Brodsky notes: “I have a hard time writing a traditional novel, not because I decided to be ‘experimental’—a term I detest: shouldn’t every enterprise, mock-artistic or otherwise, be an experiment?—but because I’m at the service of another demon. I can’t—have always been too old to—change that. There has been a progression along these lines, for better or worse, over forty years.” Brodsky is uncomfortable with the term because he feels it refers to a kind of writing that is arbitrarily, gratuitously, whimsically, different for the sake of differentness, and is “a writing that is without the driving, anguished conviction of dire necessity.” Nevertheless, to the average reader much of Brodsky’s work might merit the categorization of “experimental” because of its refusal to follow a teleological course of linearity: “It seems absurd to me that after Joyce and Beckett and Gertrude Stein you still have people saying that you have to have a straight-through story line.” This refusal to follow a bell-shaped curve of plot development (i.e.: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, conclusion) makes much of Brodsky’s work a bit challenging, “frustrating—excruciating (take your pick)” for the average reader, and, Brodsky speculates, “maybe even more so for members of the literary establishment.” As Brodsky sees it, in his work, “as in A Tale of the Tub, meaning cannot be stabilized, there’s no consistency after a certain point. There is an inability to keep a plot going smoothly. Life, after all, isn’t smooth though I don’t pretend to reproduce life. So what happens in one episode can be contradicted or superseded by what happens in another. I develop a kind of selective amnesia about what’s happened previously because I am so focused on the moment. Everything is localized, yet unlocalizable.”

The building blocks of Brodsky’s novels are what he calls “thought packets,” born from his devout resistance to conventional plot development. Brodsky insists that “without thought packets my writing doesn’t exist. The story, whatever story is there, is more-than-willingly bent out of shape by, or surrendered to, them.” The thought packets come to be because “there are certain pre-existing descriptions, breakdowns, analyses of interior states or exterior events (pre-existing in the sense that they precede the work) that need to find an outlet, and the only outlet is the work—a novel or a play, let’s say—even though deploying them in such an outlet creates a work that is not linear, not story-line-able, not character development-able, because everything gets subordinated—at least initially—to these abstract entities that are not, as it turns out, all that abstract. For the thought packets don’t get off scot-free—they do not escape deformation. In fact, and not so paradoxically, they are born posthumously through their very deformation.” Why deformation? Because, according to their “discoverer,” they must do their unfolding in the plane of language, and that unfolding cannot be planned in advance or mapped out: “once delivered up to the twists and turns of that plane they become a product of the spontaneous act of writing: a byproduct, a side effect.” Brodsky describes this as being akin to “spilling paint on a canvas and letting it sustain the ooze of its own logic—or illogic. The spill of the packets onto the canvas of syntax—of wordflow—ends up taking them in undreamt-of directions. Once the packet is introduced into the artwork, it begins to have a life of its own and you start to follow, up to a certain point, where it’s taking you. Still, the packet tries desperately (as a matter of pride)—excuse the melodramatics—to hold on to its prior identity outside the work—its identity as the commemoration of a collision between self (your self) and world—inner or outer. So it’s a tensional push and pull between the packet’s desire to remain true to its subject—its shape—out in the world—the world outside the plane of language—and its unwillingly willing submission to the story’s intrinsic wordflow and wordflow’s eddies, whirlpools, maelstroms.”

Approached from a philosophical perspective, the thought packet constitutes the deconstruction of an idea, event, or phenomenon (a la Husserl, say). Any phenomenon can trigger his “packeteering,” and in his novels Brodsky will launch into what one fan referred to as “a riff with gusto” at any time. The action of the novel, such as it is, will be suspended for pages until Brodsky has broken the phenomenon in question down to its most basic elements. While the term “thought packet” is Brodsky’s, the concept is not original to him. It was latent in those whom he deems his precursors. For example, Brodsky notes: “I think in Kafka it happens all the time. There was probably very little planning for The Trial or The Castle. One starts with a certain response to phenomenon (imported into the novel fresh from Kafka’s collision with some thing out in the world or in his inner world) and it sort of chugs along in this termite-like sort of way, and language then drags him along so that he makes distinctions and qualifications that could never have been planned out because it is at the moment of actually writing what he is writing that he is taken in different directions of qualification—a kind of endlessly repeated supersession of the moment: an impossible desire to get beyond anything and everything that can be said about a state of affairs.” There is endless qualification in his writing. The perfect example, according to Brodsky, is in what he considers his most accomplished work: ”The Burrow.”

“The thought packets should not be considered digressions, however,” Brodsky counsels, “as the story is constructed around the thought packets. Story, such as it is, and thought packets feed each other—feed off each other—deform each other to the mutual benefit of both. It is through the intrusion of the packets that one is forced to pose the following question{s}: What is a digression? What is organic to the work? What is the meaning of the work? What is the work trying to prove—or not prove? Questions asked, by the way, quite brilliantly by Sterne, by Swift, by Gogol. As I say in this book, the most interesting works are those that are not quite sure what their theme is—are the ones that, like the ‘hero’ of a film noir—are always being sidetracked.”

However, such a “method” can be a source of frustration for the typical reader—or reviewer—as Brodsky concedes with a sardonic laugh: “When Detour was released initially, one of the reviewers said ‘you reach a point where you are just aching for some action.’ I thought that was very perceptive because physical action was not something I do, or did. And then the same reviewer made a kindhearted concession to the effect that ‘Maybe when he writes his next book it will not be a novel at all.’ As if to say that this was a direction that was antipathetic to novel-writing. But, no, I think the very fact that I’m not doing what most people do is proof that a novel can be expanded, can be renewed. Why shouldn’t a book that has a tremendous resistance to sequences of physical action not be valid, and a source of real interest? I think if you read Henry James or Proust, there’s very little physical action because the only meaning, as James says, is in consciousness. In describing action you sound like everybody else describing action. Mostly, it’s a waste of time. I know I’ll be excommunicated for saying so—or maybe that’s wishful thinking.”

Humor has always infused Brodsky’s writing, but in his earlier work it tends to be very muted and understated. Brodsky sees this change as the effect of his personal situation (with regard to what he refers to ironically as the trajectory of his writing career, et al) on the development of his style because “the more desperate I have become over the years, the more humor-ridden I have become—or so I need to think. I think the comedic element gets stronger and stronger and wilder and wilder. Not wild in the sense of uncontrolled. But in the sense that everything has its comic dimensions—everything cannot be seen other than comically, in a certain sense.” The work in progress, Invidicum, contains more comic elements than most of his earlier works, albeit humor of the dark variety. The putative subject of the book is an experimental drug for “Envy Disease” and everybody connected with the clinical trial designed to determine its efficacy: participants, drug developers, psychiatrists, technicians, hangers-on, advertisers—a cast of thousands. In one section, a psychiatrist named Goldstein-Canguilhem, who is the “unabashed consultant to many of the brawniest sons of Big Pharma,” informs a group expelled from the experiment en masse because of its members’ inability to forgo their deadly sin, that: “You’ve shrunken things to the point where survival—survival as you know it—is so etiolated as to be incompatible with life, even the lowest form of life. And so, though I hate to say it, you’d all be better off dead.” The good doctor actually advises suicide to otherwise healthy people as the only remedy for stolidly intractable envy. One can only imagine what would happen to a psychiatrist who suggested such a course of action in the United States today.

Of Invidicum, Brodsky asserts: “I think this book is my ‘richest.’ It did start out (in 2001 or 02 or 03), as did Detour [ca. 1973-74], propelled by a preposterous desire to write something more accessible—to achieve a breakthrough. Detestable words, I know.” The new novel is, according to Brodsky, “a comical commentary on the outmoded myth of the ‘deep dark secret’ (as it infests/infects both the domestic scene a la Strindberg or Albee and the international one a la le Carré or Clancy). The myth of a purificatory unmasking. But there’s nothing to be unmasked any more. There are no deep dark secrets anymore: they’ve all been done to death. Although there is still plenty of room for analysis—including of why we persist in resuscitating the myth of the deep dark secret: the foul-smelling truth. Who can actually force themselves to care anymore if people are not what they seem—in a world of cheesy politicos and CEOs? I mean, if you just read the paper dutifully for, say, five days straight—or maybe even five minutes—you’re immunized pretty quickly against shock, though maybe not against outrage. The only way to handle all this, obviously or not so obviously, is comically.”

As of yet, Brodsky does not have a publisher for the work in progress. He has never had a literary agent. For his last book, a collection of short stories entitled Limit Point, published by Six Gallery Press (2007), Brodsky admits: “I did try to find an agent. I sent my work to a few agents who said they just...didn’t fall in love with it (to use the lingua franca of that time and place). Then there was one agent who said she was into it, but was getting cold feet—I could feel her extremities getting frostier and frostier the more we talked—or the more I listened. Whenever I hear ‘cold feet’ I know that’s it all over, my boy.” Despite never having secured representation, Brodsky did have the good fortune to have been supported by some of the visionaries of the late-twentieth century publishing industry. Michael Roloff of Urizen published Detour and Brodsky’s second work, a collection of novellas entitled Wedding Feast. Urizen, Brodsky asserts, was a “very ambitious publishing house. They published a lot of wonderful work—a lot of people who are very, very well-known now.” After Urizen went bankrupt (in 1981), after only six years in business, Brodsky was picked up by John G. H. Oakes, the co-founder (along with Dan Simon) of Four Walls Eight Windows press.1 Brodsky was with Oakes for fourteen years, but they eventually parted ways. [Oakes, for his part, calls Brodsky: “one of the great writers whom I’d ever encountered” adding “I still think someday he will be recognized.”]

It was through Oakes that Brodsky was introduced to publishing legend Barney Rosset, the founder of Grove Press. Brodsky produced an English translation of Samuel Beckett’s early, formative play Eleuthéria for Foxrock, Inc., a publishing collaboration between Oakes and Rosset. Brodsky describes Rosset as “a very courageous person—an unapologetic hellraiser.” Oakes, according to Brodsky, “also had a lot of guts—is very courageous and exceedingly generous. He was absolutely, absolutely crucial to my development—and well-being. He gave himself to my work completely and utterly. I don’t know if there are too many editors or publishers like that anymore. The merest handful at most, I suspect. It was a whole different world—or maybe it wasn’t. Maybe 4 Walls simply shielded me for a time from contact with a Grub Street world that hasn’t and will never change much.” Also very important to Brodsky’s writing life was Kevin Begos, of Guignol Books, and then of Begos & Rosenberg, who published Circuits (which first got Oakes interested in his work) and Project and reissued Detour: “Begos has courage, real tenacity, commitment.” In Brodsky’s view, they were/are all “rare birds.”

Brodsky looks to examples from the past in order to maintain his faith in the future. Though he concedes that this might be “a bit unhealthy.” Still: “There is a great American tradition of writers—the great ones, I mean: Melville, Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Stein, Faulkner (up to a certain point)—who were definitely unknown or had fallen into complete obscurity during their lifetimes: you could say they became self-parodies before they could become ‘themselves.’ This I consider to be the grandest of strategies. Only it isn’t a strategy: forging an identity in this way is not something you choose to do, unless you’re nuts.” Like those great writers, Brodsky ponders how to go on transmitting his “letter to the world” and acknowledges that “writing and publication are at best, strange bedfellows—an oxymoronic pair. Or am I just being quaint?”



  1. Four Walls Eight Windows was acquired by the Avalon Publishing Group in 2004. At that time, its entire list was incorporated into the Thunder’s Mouth Press imprint of Avalon.


SHJ Issue 10
Fall 2014

Dr. Stephen Graf

is a native of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He holds Masters Degrees from Duquesne University in Pittsburgh and Trinity College, Dublin, and a PhD in British Literature from the University of Newcastle in England; and he currently teaches at Robert Morris University.

Among other places, his work has appeared in: The New England Theatre Journal, The Beckett Circle, Philadelphia Stories, AIM Magazine, Cicada, The Southern Review, The Chrysalis Reader, Fiction, The Minnetonka Review, New Works Review, SNReview, The Wisconsin Review, The Willow Review, and The Black Mountain Review in Ireland. He has twice been nominated for the Pushcart Prize.

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury