Steps is a National Book Award winner, a glowingly reviewed best seller – and a completely forgettable book by an author who may or may not be one of literary fiction’s greatest charlatans…
The name Jerzy Kosinski conjures varying reactions among readers and critics and writers of serious fiction. An infamous 1982 exposé in the Village Voice accused him of – well, faking his literary career and may have, at least in part, contributed to his suicide at 57.
The Kosinski literary reputation was/is based primarily on his first three novels: The Painted Bird, a harrowing depiction of childhood (Kosinski claimed it was his, though there are doubts) during the Holocaust, Being There, a novel about the confusing and vulgarizing influences of media on even the most serious minds, and Steps, a rambling, episodic depiction of bad romances, life under totalitarian rule, and sexual and other forms of depravity that won the National Book Award in 1969.
Steps is, then, a fair book by which to evaluate Kosinski and determine whether his meteoric rise and equally meteoric fall as a major literary figure of the later 20th century is justified.
Kosinski’s writing style is, at least in Steps, an amalgam of hip European writers – he imitates what the cool kids do. It owes a little to Kundera, a little to Handke, a lot to Kafka. Such a style, composed as it is of what the author knew literary cognoscenti of 1969 would esteem, feels, in 2015, calculated. There’s nothing wrong with calculated – in 2015 when imitation is considered not the sincerest form of flattery but originality. In 1969, though, people still labored under the delusion that artists and authors ought to be original, and Kosinski’s faux Kafka/Kundera/Handke shtick should have rung hollow with knowledgeable readers.
There’s a plausible explanation for why they ignored this limitation of Steps, it seems. Numerous sources claim that the awarding of the National Book Award to Steps was, to put the action in sports terms, a “make up call” for the NBA committee’s failure to give the award to Kosinski’s first novel, the controversial and disputed The Painted Bird. That harrowing book, whether Kosinski’s or not, deserves its accolades – and probably the NBA.
Steps? Not so much.
The episodic, proto-flash fiction constructed narrative of Steps has to be Gestalted for the reader to understand Kosinski’s “narrative” – and for the reader to buy into all that Kosinski claims is going on in the novel. The disjointed pieces that jump about in time, in place, in point of view create, certainly, a feeling of dislocation that I’m sure Kosinski would readily claim he was going for. It is, one supposes, possibly what he says it is – the story of a lost young man, his lover, and his decision to flee his old life in the Eastern Bloc for a new one in America. And that main character (Why is it so hard for litfic writers of a certain style to give characters names?) offers perhaps the novel’s best moment when he describes the main character’s ambivalence leaving all he has known for an unknown future, albeit in a place where a future is possible:
Had it been possible for me to fix the plane permanently in the sky, to defy the winds and clouds and all the forces pushing it upward and pulling it earthward, I would have willingly done so. I would have stayed in my seat with my eyes closed, all strength and passion gone, my mind as quiescent as a coat rack under a forgotten hat, and I would have remained there, timeless, unmeasured, unjudged, bothering no one, suspended forever between my past and my future.
The shame is that, fixated as he is on describing scenes of violent brutality and sexual depravity (and often combining the two in the same scene), we don’t get enough of this sort of reflective, bittersweet rumination. Once in a while, though, even in one of his scenes recounting the “horror of love,” as Kosinski might denominate it, he gives the reader a wonderful shot upside the head:
Lovers are not snails; they don’t have to protrude from their shells and meet each other halfway. Meet me within your own self.
If only there were more of this. Instead there are beatings, threats, abuses, and manipulations. It’s swift reading and bewitching in its way, but ultimately reading Steps is also sort of like eating a certain cuisine whose reputation is now the stuff of cliche. It can be delicious (in a sort of NSFW way), but an hour later you’re hungry for something more substantial.
Will Kosinski, once seemingly certain to be a major literary figure, survive? Probably not. Literary history is strewn with figures like him – figures who seemed certain to be permanent all-time greats but who are now barely read and usually only in literature seminars. If he’s remembered at all, it may be as an afterthought in conversations about great writers who descended into celebrity and never were able to climb back out.
The more on point question, of course, is should he be? See that answer above….Or maybe, as Mick and Keith once proclaimed, it may be the singer and not the song that so enthralled everyone…