Thursday, December 4, 2008

Rose-coloured Reviews "Bookkeeping" by Harold Brodkey

This story is glittering, minute, precisely accurate, and very amusingly devastating. Can you say words like "amusing" and "glittering" about a story that concerns the psychological scars and ethnic alienation wrought by the legacy of World War II? Probably; in 2008, you can say most anything.

In 1968, when Harold Brodkey fisrt published this story in The New Yorker it might have been harder to have been so damn funny about anti-Semitism and LSD, not to mention terror-bombing. But then again, those things would also have been closer, more intimately relatable issues than in our own time; the story feels both dated and shocking in it's head-on address of "drugs, Jews, and Germans"--the three search terms the *New Yorker* uses for it in it's archive.

So let us lay out the Germans, the Jews and the drug-users: Avram is having his old, rich and generous friend, Louise, over for cocktails in order to meet her new husband, Ulrich. Avram is Jewish, Ulrich is German, Louise is midwestern and huffy. Early in the evening, another friend of Avram's (unknown to the other two) named Annetje, calls: she is having a bad LSD trip, scared she will throw herself out a window, and Dutch. She wants Avram to come over and comfort her, but Avram is afraid Louise will feel "slighted" (this word comes up over and over) if he leaves her. He compromises by inviting Annetje to join the party and, when she balks, offering to walk the two blocks to her place and escort her back.

"Bookkeeping" is the third story in Brokey's massive midcareer collection, Stories in an Almost Classical Mode. The first two are also about Americans who are perilously over-weighted with European history, but unlike the first two, this one isn't set there, and thus there is (in my opinion) less paralysis, more action, and more relatability for a modern reader who finds herself curiously *un*freighted by European history.

Annetje endured terrible suffering in the Netherlands and then Italy during the Second World War, and since her post-war immigration, been a "temperamental coward," at least in Avram's eyes. Terribly beautiful, she can capture any man's attention, but she wants only someone who will make her feel save and taken care of, without any risk.

The irony of the story is the "bookkeeping" of the title, the system of ethical deposits and withdrawals that Avram keeps with the universe: will he debit compassion or gratitude, choose Annetje's terrible vulnerability or Louise's polite tunnel-vision? Does Avram the American owe Annetje his time because she suffered in Europe, or does he owe Louise because she has leant him money? How immoral is it for him to try to have his cake and eat it too, to bring both women together for the benefit of (mainly) only himself?

We all do this in weak moments (at least, I hope we do): calculate who we can afford not to talk, to pay attention to, to be kind to. But Annetje's suffering has both a social aspect, since she speaks out of bounds in this firmly repressed environment, and a historical one, since her Dutch suffering points up Ulrich's German complicity and Louise's American isolation...and Avram's Jewish guilt.

Or does it? The story's brilliance lies not in one-to-one correspondences of metaphor, but it complicated and disrupted metaphors, paradigms of national identity that may prove to be faulty, or ridiculous. Does the fact that Ulrich is an officious jerk have anything to do with his being German? Wouldn't Louise still be alcholic and judgemental if she were born in Paraguay? Or do their environments strengthen the inborn characteristics? Or what?

Big questions, the lot of them, and a lot of ground covered for 20something pages (which qualifies for "long short-story" status, but is by no means one of Brodkey's longer works). It's an intense piece, but not a heavy one because, unlike the others mentioned here, there's tonnes of dialogue, rapier-thin and rapier-sharp, to aerate all the soul-searching. I've actually never seen anything like this:

....[Avram] pointed his finger savagely. "What are you afraid of? Why are you jealous of Annetje experimenting with self-illumination?"

"I am not jealous."

"Oh, you do not want this experience," Annetje said vaguely. "It is terrible. My teeth burn like little fires."

"I am not jealous or defensive. I am protesting this trampling on what it means to be a responsible human being."

"Except when drunk," Avram said, slyly relentless.

"Except what when drunk, please?" Ulrich asked. Annetje was staring into space.

"Responsible, darling," Louise said to him.

"Yes, I believe in that," Ulrich said.

"Even for crimes during the war?" Avram demanded, turning on him.

"And what of Vietnam?" Ulrich replied instantly.

"You can compare Vietname, deplorable as it is, to the camps?"

"The camps?" said Annetje, terrified.

"I am sick of the camps," Lousie said.

"Bad conscience," Avram said. "If I had any backbone, I would refuse to speak to you ever."

"You do not look Jewish," Ulrich said.

What a really inglorious evening, Avram thought. He said, "Isn't that wonderful? But you can tell I'm Jewish because I'm so brilliant."

"Oh, yes," Ulrich said agreeably.


There are four people in this room and everyone's talking, everyone's alive and miserable and full of their own personal histories and hates. It's wretched and it's funny, and the way these characters only believe in the realities they can cope with makes me wonder about the nature of human morality.

Which every story doesn't accomplish, I don't think.

This story is dated, certainly, but because the emotional sleight-of-hand is so carefully nuanced, and the dialogue so sharp, both still ring true. And with those paths into the story, we can begin to understand these characters and their milieu, to learn both how far we've come since then, and how far we haven't.

Yeah you gotta help me out / don't you put me on the back burner


writer_guy said...

Any story that has the word "loco" (a word I've been known to use at least once a day) in its first sentence demands to be read. Great recommendation.

Interesting that you mention a story being "dated" yet still relevant. I've been thinking a lot about that in terms of some of the contemporary stuff I've been reading of late - about whether the cultural references (particularly in our seemingly disposable ephemeral society) will hamper a story/novel's permanence. I guess some timeless themes will always have traction.

Rebecca Rosenblum said...

I think great writers don't try to get out of their time, they try to get into their present (or the past or the future, if that's the subject) so thoroughly that it translates to any reader, any time. A tough gig, but worth striving for!