Novel by Jerzy Kosinski, 1968
Jerzy Kosinski's eagerly awaited second novel, Steps (1968), received the National Book Award in 1969, perhaps in belated acknowledgment of The Painted Bird (1965). Steps shares several structural similarities with its disturbing predecessor. Although much shorter, it is also highly episodic, consisting of more than 50 separate sections narrated in the first person by a dispassionate voice that sounds like a grown-up version of the boy in The Painted Bird. Each section contains a complete story, really a vignette, and the whole is held together by the nameless narrator. None of the sections in roman type contains dialogue; all conversation is summarized by the narrative voice. Interspersed among these episodes are about a dozen sections printed in italics, totally in dialogue. Italicized speech is occasionally mixed into one of the other episodes. The taut narrative presents the brutal material in a matter-of-fact manner in both styles.
The narrative voice recalls a young Kosinski, with stories taking place in a postwar Poland as well as in a technologically advanced country like the United States, where Kosinski had migrated in 1957. In the countryside many gruesome episodes occur. In one a demented woman lives naked in a cage in a barn where village men use her sexually. The farmer who keeps her (it may be his daughter) profits from these visits. When the narrator reports the man to the police, they take away the woman. The narrator then accuses the village priest of knowing about the situation and protecting his congregants through the sanctity of the confessional.
In a few scenes Kosinski uses his own work experiences as a New York parking lot attendant to tie together episodes in which the narrator also does such work. Perhaps half the episodes are sexual, including some from the narrator's student days and some from his countryside experiences. In one, in which he gets lost on an archeological expedition, the narrator is saved from starvation by two enormously fat women who use him sexually in exchange for food. In most cases, however, the narrator victimizes women. For instance, he induces one of his lovers to sleep with another man to prove her devotion to him. In another he becomes that other man himself when a friend makes the same demand on his own lover. In yet another episode the narrator's girlfriend endures a gang rape when a group of men overpower him and attack her. This changes their relationship, so that by the end of the tale he has created a situation at a party in which—while he flees—she is about to be taken by another group of men.
The effect of the narrative is continually jarring. Violence and abuse occur so continuously that without a mitigating presentation we grow numb to what is going on. This is truly a post-Holocaust, Nietzschean world, in which "God is dead" and everything is permitted. Only a few sections toward the middle of the book refer specifically to the Holocaust. In one episode the extermination of rats is compared to the execution of prisoners in concentration camps. In another a professional boxer is brought to a camp to fight with a prisoner who is destined for the gas chambers. But the professional refuses to fight because of the prisoner's racial inferiority.
Readers of The Painted Bird will see other parallels between the two books. The emphasis on gaining revenge pervades both, and there are episodes in which the narrator perpetrates an almost gratuitous level of violent revenge. In addition, Kosinski once again makes an issue of silence. In some of the final episodes, for instance, the narrator of Steps pretends to be a deaf-mute, reminding us of how the boy in The Painted Bird was struck dumb. Students of Kosinski will notice how often suicide occurs, is contemplated, or is justified in Steps. The final vignette shows a woman stripping off her clothes before entering the ocean, much as Edna Pontellier does at the end of Kate Chopin's The Awakening and with the same ambiguous outcome. "A small rotten brown leaf brushed against her lips," Kosinski says, writing now in the third person. The woman's shadow crosses the ocean floor as she dives deep, and the "tiny leaf" appears above her. Does the fallen leaf represent death? Kosinski never tells us because this is where the narrative ends.
As he did with The Painted Bird, Kosinski wrote and published himself a long essay about Steps shortly after the book appeared. The title is "Art of the Self: Essays á Propos Steps " (1969), and readers can find it in Passing By: Selected Essays, 1962-1991 , edited posthumously by Kosinski's widow. In the essay Kosinski identifies his primary narrative structure as montage, a key mode of both modernism and postmodernism, and he talks in particular about the active role the reader must play in relation to the work. The major themes Kosinski lays out in the essay are metamorphosis, domination, revenge, cruelty, and obsession. The list will work just as well with all of Kosinski's novels.