Brodsky, Michael 1948-
BRODSKY, Michael 1948-
(Michael Mark Brodsky)
PERSONAL: Born August 2, 1948, in New York, NY; son of Martin (a businessman) and Marian (a clerical worker; maiden name, Simon) Brodsky; married Laurence Lacoste, November 28, 1976; children: Joseph Matthew, Matthew Daniel. Education: Columbia College, Columbia University, B.A., 1969; attended School of Medicine, Case Western Reserve University, 1970–72.
ADDRESSES: Home—625 Main St. #536, New York, NY 10044.
CAREER: Teacher of mathematics and science in New York, NY, 1969–70; teacher of French and English in Cleveland, OH, 1972–75; Institute for Research on Rheumatic Diseases, New York, NY, editor of arthritis newsletter, 1976–85; College Board, editor, 1985; Springer-Verlag Publishers, New York, NY, editor, 1985–1991; United Nations, New York, NY, editor, 1991–.
AWARDS, HONORS: Citation, Ernest Hemingway Foundation of PEN, 1979, for Detour.
Detour (novel), Urizen (New York, NY), 1977, expanded edition, Scrivenery Press (Houston, TX), 2001, Del Sol Press (Washington, DC), 2003.
Wedding Feast and Two Novellas, Urizen (New York, NY), 1980.
Project and Other Short Pieces, with thirteen drawings by Michael Hafftka (contains "Envelope of the Given," also see below), Guignol (Tivoli, NY), 1980, revised edition published as Project: Stories and Plays, Begos & Rosenberg (Annandale-on-Hudson, NY), 1991.
The Envelope of the Given, Suhrkamp Verlag (Berlin, Germany), 1982.
Circuits (novel), Guignol (Rhinebeck, NY), 1985.
Xman (novel), Four Walls Eight Windows (New York, NY), 1987.
X in Paris (short fiction), Four Walls Eight Windows (New York, NY), 1988.
Dyad (novel), Four Walls Eight Windows (New York, NY), 1989.
Three Goat Songs (short fiction), Four Walls Eight Windows (New York, NY), 1991.
∗∗∗ (novel), Four Walls Eight Windows (New York, NY), 1994.
(Translator) Samuel Beckett, Eleutheria, Foxrock/Four Walls Eight Windows (New York, NY), 1995.
Southernmost and Other Stories (story collection), Four Walls Eight Windows (New York, NY), 1996.
We Can Report Them, Four Walls Eight Windows (New York, NY), 1999.
Terrible Sunlight (four acts), produced in New York, NY, at South Street Theater, 1980.
Dose Center, produced in New York, NY, at Theater for the New City, 1990.
Night of the Chair, produced in New York, NY, at Theater Club Funambules, 1990.
Six Scenes, produced in New York, NY, at Ontological-St. Mark's by Target Margin Theater, May, 1994.
The Anti-Muse, staged reading in New York, NY, at Ontological-St. Mark's by Target Margin Theater, March, 1996.
Contributor to periodicals and newspapers, including Partisan Review, Journal of Existential Psychology and Psychiatry, and Santa Monica Review.
SIDELIGHTS: "Michael Brodsky is prolifically uninclined to modify the idiosyncratic brilliance of his prose to mollify the hankerings of any of several literary trends," stated Judith Upjohn, a contributor to the American Book Review. Brodsky's disinclination to "mollify" his audience with more traditional narrative strategies has brought strong reactions from those who review his works. Some critics view what they consider to be the oblique prose and disjointed or irrelevant plots of his novels, short stories, and plays with distaste, even anger. Readers more inclined to enjoy extended wordplay and high-culture intertextual references, mixed with generous scatological asides, find it difficult to dismiss Brodsky's works so easily.
Brodsky's "brilliant but grotesque first effort," the novel Detour, "reveals a very real talent and a very real commitment to experimental writing," asserted a critic for Virginia Quarterly Review. In that work, an anxiety-ridden protagonist, whom critics likened to Philip Roth's in Portnoy's Complaint, describes his existence in circuitous language, borrowing heavily from such writers as Shakespeare and Henry James and alluding to films by such directors as Michaelangelo Antonioni, Luis Bunuel, and Alfred Hitchcock. "Detour is relentlessly allusive, and (up to a point) one can enjoy the virtuosity with which Brodsky loads every rift with borrowed ore," remarked Robert Towers in the New York Review of Books. But this mode "becomes ultimately tiresome, a mere tic or fashionable reflex," Towers continued. While Daphne Merkin, who reviewed Detour for the Partisan Review, likewise found the narrator's ramblings wearying, she nonetheless concluded: "If the novel doesn't quite 'rend the tissue of solipsism,' it has taken a compelling, valiant stab at liberation. Michael Brodsky has written a heady, compelling account of those interior lower depths in which normative, unspoken boundaries have collapsed." Indeed, despite his criticisms, Towers characterized the book as "an extremely dense, ambitious, and stylistically accomplished first novel."
Brodsky's Xman, published in 1987, received similar reviews. The story of an unemployed man newly arrived in New York City, Xman concerns the protagonist's efforts to be unique as well as employed. An Everyman character, Xman struggles through one job interview after another until he is hit by a truck and hospitalized. In the hospital he meets and joins a group of terrorists, then, as disillusion overwhelms him, he ends both his own life and that of his fellow terrorists. "Xman is the grand inquisitor of meaning. He is also its chief victim," commented Stewart Lindh in the Los Angeles Times Book Review. Like other reviewers sympathetic to Brodsky's aims, Harry Marten in the New York Times Book Review noted a higher purpose behind the author's non-traditional narrative, concluding that "at its best, Xman brings the reader to reflect anew on ways of knowing and truths of being in an uncertain world." John Mutter in Publishers Weekly, however, pointed out that few readers are likely to take this view: "Although most readers' eyes are likely to glaze over early on, those devoted to serious writing will find many rewards."
Brodsky's avowed stance on literature encompasses the seriousness of purpose some critics find in the author's unusual writing style. Brodsky once told CA: "I want it to be known for the record that I have devoted myself totally and absolutely to literature. Not just literature, but film, philosophy, psychology, art history, philosophy of science and math—anything that can enrich my writing. I am always trying to break new ground, NOT to be different for the sake of being different but because my vision of the world demands such a path, often without signposts."
Critics noted that Brodsky's 1994 novel, ∗∗∗, displays the author's continued striving to "break new ground" in terms of narrative innovation. As in his earlier works, the ostensible plot of ∗∗∗, which concerns the career of Stu Pott, who goes to work for an asterisk factory, was deemed of slight significance by several reviewers. The book becomes "a sort of anti-detective novel," according to Brian Evenson writing in the Review of Contemporary Fiction, when Dov Grey, Stu's boss, is murdered, and Stu begins to investigate the crime only to find that he himself is the prime suspect. "The primary interest of ∗∗∗ lies not in the plot but in the interaction of plot chapters and secondary chapters," Evenson continued. "The latter comment on the story, give alternate stories, and offer seeming irrelevancies." The result is a book that some critics found maddening. "From its title of three asterisks one can tell that the master of the oblique is out to make life miserable for those who dare to try to make sense of his purposefully impenetrable novel," wrote a reviewer for Kirkus Reviews. Others, such as Upjohn, found in ∗∗∗ more evidence of Brodsky's humor and brilliance. "∗∗∗ is a complex, lucid book, fitted with a full Brodskyan array of displacements, lists, intrusions, philosophical references, and energetic dialectics," Upjohn contended.
"For Brodsky, narrative exists primarily as something on which to hang his various experiments with language," remarked Lawrence Rungren in a review of ∗∗∗ in the Library Journal. This tendency to sacrifice the traditional accoutrements of the realistic novel to sophisticated wordplay yields works that some reviewers find disappointingly lacking in structure, characterization, or indeed, in plot. Others view Brodsky's novels as experiments in new ways to get at the heart of such pivotal concepts as identity and truth in a postmodern era. "Brodsky's … works of fiction … are critically important," wrote Upjohn, "both for the standards of twentieth-century literature and for the individual act of reading: we learn the rewards of reading in a state of strenuous ambivalence. And we come away feeling finely tuned, reached."
Southernmost and Other Stories features the title novella, which conjures up a fictional meeting between authors Hart Crane and Wallace Stevens, in Key West. Brodsky visualizes these two influential writers as being in many ways opposed, with Crane believing in transforming power of poetry and Stevens using it as a hideaway. Thomas Lecky, a writer for Review of Contemporary Fiction, found the "perceived gulf" between the two writers to be "most disturbing" and perhaps unjustified. He allowed, however, that in "Southernmost" and the other stories collected in this book, Brodsky proves himself to be "an immensely talented writer" whose "words somehow become the imaginary line connecting the poles."
Brodsky continued to extend his literary experimentation in his tenth book, We Can Report Them. This book has more narrative structure than ∗∗∗, making it better able to support the author's stylistic flourishes, in the opinion of the Review of Contemporary Fiction contributor Alan Tinkler. The central character is Bert, a director of television commercials. The filming of one of these is at the heart of the book, but this thirty-second advertisement seems to require as much rehearsal and preparation as a full-blown dramatic production. The advertisement also displays Bert's conviction that the public is mesmerized by serial killers. Another plot thread involves Bert's mother-in-law, who is slowly dying of cancer. Bert also has strange interactions with Gift, the actor who portrays a serial killer in the advertisement; Gift relentlessly ridicules Bert. Much of the narrative is formed from Bert's thoughts, in which he obsessively "stews over the motives and philosophy of the serial killer and ponders larger quandaries involving Heidegger, Pierce and mathematical theory," stated a Publishers Weekly reviewer. Brodsky's elaborate stylistic flights are "both the strength and weakness of the novel," mused Tinkler. "At their best, they inform the text by providing a narrative layering; at their worst, they are superfluous and showy." A Library Journal contributor, Jim Dwyer, was less positive, calling We Can Report Them a "depressing miasma." A Publishers Weekly critic took the middle road. Noting that Brodsky has been read both as "a brilliant prose stylist and an off-putting obscurantist," Dwyer noted that in We Can Report Them, the author's writing at times "thickens into unintelligibility," but noted that it also "yields some stunning verbal pyrotechnics."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 19, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1981.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 244: American Short-Story Writers since World War II, Fourth Series, Gale (Detroit, MI), 2001.
American Book Review, July, 1990, p. 21; December, 1994, p. 12.
Booklist, May 15, 1991, p. 1779.
Choice, July, 1990, p. 1823.
Kirkus Reviews, October 1, 1988, p. 1420; September 15, 1989, p. 1346; April 1, 1994, p. 412.
Library Journal, October 1, 1977; December, 1988, p. 130; November 15, 1989, p. 105; May 1, 1991, p. 104; June 1, 1994, p. 154; November 1, 1999, Jim Dwyer, review of We Can Report Them, p. 122.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, November 22, 1987, p. 10.
New York Review of Books, June 15, 1978, pp. 29-30.
New York Times Book Review, September 14, 1986, p. 30; November 15, 1987, p. 31; February 12, 1989, p. 18; December 24, 1989, p. 8; January 26, 1992, p. 20; June 25, 1995, p. 9; March 9, 1997, Charles Salzberg, review of Southernmost and Other Stories, p. 19; October 10, 1999, Kristin Eliasberg, review of We Can Report Them.
Observer (London, England), August 4, 1991, p. 51.
Partisan Review, Volume 46, number 3, 1979, pp. 453-456.
Publishers Weekly, September 11, 1987, p. 83; October 7, 1988, p. 110; October 20, 1989, p. 50; March 22, 1991, p. 75; April 18, 1994, p. 59; August 30, 1999, review of We Can Report Them, p. 54.
Review of Contemporary Fiction, fall, 1994, p. 208; spring, 1997, Thomas Lecky, review of Southernmost and Other Stories, p. 188; summer, 2000, Alan Tinkler, review of We Can Report Them, p. 182.
Small Press Review, June, 1989, p. 38.
Virginia Quarterly Review, spring, 1979, p. 59.