A portrayal of men and women both aroused and desensitized by an environment that disdains the individual and seeks control over the imagination. ... Read more
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A Review by Dr. Joseph Suglia
Jerzy Kosinski did not write his books alone. His authorship has long since been discredited as fraudulent; all of the writings to which he gave his signature have been dismissed as the trickery of a con artist. Indeed, this very signature preempts any of "Kosinski's books" from being taken seriously. What Kosinski once fobbed off as his own creation is now surrounded by an embarrassed silence. One smirks bemusedly at these works as the artifacts of an interesting life.
What is one to make of the fact, then, that Steps, a novel that bears Kosinski's name and yet was not composed in his own language, is one of the most intensely powerful novels of the twentieth century?
The subject of Steps undergoes a continual metamorphosis throughout its pages. At the beginning of each of the forty-six episodes into which the book is divided, an "older" self is negated (not cancelled out entirely, but preserved in the memory of the work) and a "new" one forms and takes its place. Each self belongs to a "present" instant that is disconnected from the series of instants that precede it, each of which is itself displaced from history. If a unified authorial consciousness embraces each transformation, holding together the death and reformation of the subject in each instance, this can only be discerned in the articulation of the individual episodes. And if a link binds the episodes together (the "steps" of the title), it is the guiding thread of submission and domination, the only two forms of relationship of which the subject is capable. The author, Jerzy Kosinski was surely mistaken (or was otherwise disingenuous and willfully misleading) when he claimed in an interview that the book progresses from "the formed mind of the protagonist (in the beginning of the novel) when he sees himself as a unique manipulator of others, to the stage (at the novel's end) when he realizes that he is nothing but a composite of various steps of culture." To speak of a "progression" in any strict sense would be inaccurate. It is the case that the narrator manipulates a young girl who is dazzled by the narrator's credit cards at the very beginning, but there are no traces of a gradual progression from the mind of a sovereign subject who deploys a dominant culture for his own purposes to one who recognizes his subjection to that culture. On many occasions throughout the work long before its denouement, he is a plaything given over to powers that infinitely surpass his own, exposed to the whims of the uncontrollable, without a barrier to shield him from the forces that invade him.
The seductiveness of Steps resides in its power to lead the reader astray, away from the world to which s/he has grown accustomed and into a fictional space from which there is no easy escape. However oppressive its horror becomes, it is difficult to tear one's eyes from this book. Literary analysis may engage with the book's meaning, but will necessarily fail to adequate the spell that it casts over the reader. Each "step" is macabre and unsettling in its violence. In one episode, the subject is a farm hand at the mercy of peasants who spit on him for their amusement [II, 2]. He seeks revenge by inserting discarded fishhooks into morsels of bread, which he feeds to the children of those who torture him. The only way to invert the existing hierarchy, he seems to feel, is to become an oppressor oneself: oppression generates oppression in the way that fire generates fire. A group of peasants, in another "step," gapes at a performance in which a young girl is violated by an animal [I, 4]. It is uncertain, the narrator tells us dryly, whether her screams indicate that she is actually suffering or whether she is merely playing to the audience. The extent to which the girl is a victim or a manipulator remains undetermined. In another episode, a nurse passively endures the amorous advances of the narrator, now a photographer, who longs for sexual contact with her in order to distinguish himself as much as possible from the seemingly non-human inmates of a senior citizen's home whom he has been photographing [III, 1]. When the narrator enters uninvited into the nurse's apartment, he finds her coupling with a simian creature who, ambiguously, is later described as "human." The narrator, in another episode, is an office worker whose lover is unaware that she is his lover [V, 5]. The narrator plots with a friend to take possession of her. The woman submits entirely to the friend's will and agrees to allow herself to be possessed by a stranger while blindfolded. Now the narrator can dispose of her sightless body as he wishes: a relationship that is emblematic of all of the relationships portrayed in Steps. Despite her complete availability, his desire remains frustrated. Nothing about her is concealed, but her nudity is itself a form of concealment. At another moment, narrator is on a jury [V 3]. The defendant explains his deed in the most ordinary terms without ever attempting to justify his behavior. A fictive identification is afforded between the members of the jury and the "executioner": they visualize themselves in the act of killing, but cannot project themselves into the mind of the victim who is in the act of being killed. The agony of the victim is lost to vision altogether. The narrator, in another episode, becomes the powerless spectator of his girlfriend's rape [III, 3]. Afterward, their relationship changes. He can now only represent her to himself as one who has been violated and who is worthy of violation: her rape comes to define her. He visualizes her as a kind of crustacean or mollusk emerging from her shell. The conclusion of the episode follows an implacable logic: under false pretenses, the narrator offers his girlfriend to the rowdy guests at a party, who proceed to have their way with her. Her pearl necklace, a gift from the narrator, scatters to the floor like so many iridescent seeds (a somberly beautiful passage that gives the lie to Kosinski's own self-interpretive remark that Steps eschews figurative language). The architect of an orchestrated violation, the narrator departs without witnessing the inescapable result of his designs. Such a summary can only imperfectly approximate the grotesque horror of this book.
One may wonder whether there is a point to such an uninterrupted current of phantasmagoric images. The reader may be invited to take delight in the extremity of its descriptions: such would nurture one's suspicion that Steps is a purely nihilistic work. What we find in each instance is a relationship between one who terrorizes and oppresses or who sympathizes with terror and oppression (this is often, but not always, the narrator) and one who surrenders, voluntarily or otherwise, to the will of the oppressor. By describing such scenes of exploitation and persecution in a neutral manner, the book seems to offer no moral transcendence. Such an interpretation, however, would ignore the book's moral center.
The book's ethical dimension first becomes apparent in an italicized transitional episode in which the protagonist tells his lover of an architect who designed plans for a concentration camp, the main purpose of which, the narrator explains, was "hygiene" [IV, 1]. Genocide was for those responsible indistinguishable from the extermination of vermin: "Rats have to be removed. We exterminate them, but this has nothing to do with our attitudes toward cats, dogs, or any other animal. Rats aren't murdered-we get rid of them; or, to use a better word, they are eliminated; this act of elimination is empty of all meaning." This passage in particular casts light on the "theme" of dehumanization that runs pervasively throughout the book. In Steps, the other person is reduced to the status of a thing. To make of the other human being a thing: such is sadism. Only by representing those to be murdered as vermin (as things to be exterminated) is mass murder possible. It is no accident, from this perspective, that the narrator imagines himself felling trees when he obeys an order to slit his victim's throat toward the end of the book: it is the only way that he can suppress the nausea that wells up within him [VIII, 3]. Each human being is irreplaceable, and the death of a person is, therefore, an irrecoverable loss. By forgetting this, by turning the other human being into a mere object, one is able to dutifully "obey orders" to kill without the intrusion of moral consciousness. Steps aims at disgusting the reader by showing him/her the obscene consequences of objectification. From this perspective, Steps is a profoundly moral book.
The center of Steps may serve as a counter-balance to the parade of scenes of horror and degradation that constitute it. However, this center does not govern the totality of its operations. A tonality of evil informs these poisonous pages; in terms of its sheer cruelty, the work could only be compared to the writings of Lautréamont and Sade. Although one can point to its moral character from the passages cited above, the book could also be determined as a willfully perverse affirmation of simulation, falsehood, and metamorphosis that suspends the dimension of the ethical altogether. The subject ceaselessly yearns to exteriorize himself, to become part of an exterior space in which he would become entirely other-than-himself. It is a space in which he would be unencumbered by all forms of ethical responsibility: "If I could become one of them, if I could only part with my language, my manner, my belongings" [VII, 1].
Dr. Joseph Suglia
The Id You Just Can't Shake
This book is a masterpiece in the weighted sense of the word. Notice the two reviews on the main page which were negative:
"just a bit too much for me"
"Some imaginations are almost too much, even for me"
You two, my friends, are not the sort who should be reading great literature, and I don't know how you stumbled upon it. If this book is too much, then the world is too much, and reading real books is not the domain for the shy and weary. Kosinski's understanding of the world reveals a side many people, especially those whose idea of "what the world is like" is as cushioned as it is for most of us in America, wish did not exist. The book is really about power. It is present literally everywhere, it cannot be ignored, and in each power equation there is someone on both sides. But I am wrong to say that it cannot be ignored, and a great many modern lives are focused on doing just that. Nevertheless, this doesn't mean we should not understand it and see it in glorious action.
These things happen everyday in the world. They happened to happen to this narrator. And this narrator happened to write his experience down into a solipsistic fragmentary masterpiece which portrays his battle with being a single human, a solipsistic human, in a world of other solipsists.
What I haven't mentioned so far is that this 149 page book is the most exciting and fun read I've had in a long, long time, and someone craving a taste of what the world is like should grab it right now. It is pure fun. You won't be able to put it down. And its crowning prose achievement is the outrageously pregnant concision, like Kafka's work, but in a way that seems even less possible to replicate. I wish I knew how he did it.
My agent, Ned Hamson, knowing I was writing an unconventional novel of my experience in South Africa as a young American executive (GREEN ISLAND IN A BLACK SEA) during apartheid, suggested I read STEPS.
Kosinski and I were born in the same year at opposite ends of the bloody Second World War.He never had time for innocence while I was an American boy held safely in her bosom in Middle America.All that was shattered for me when I went to South Africa as a young executive to form a new chemical company in 1968, the year before Kosinski won the National Book Award for STEPS.
I not only read this novel and his other works of fiction, but also James Park Sloan's biography, JERZY KOSINSKI.
STEPS and other Kosinski fiction demonstrate a mind that has been shattered by people he admires and people he finds out to be both brutal and brutish.THE PAINTED BIRD is an unexpurgated version of reality as a bookend to Alan Paton's TOO LATE THE PHALAROPE.Both authors deal with the inhumanity of man to man, but Kosinski chooses to walk the tightrope of despair and psychosexual fantasy.
Kosinski and I are both trained social scientists and published authors in that discipline.He went to one of the most prestigious universities in the country (Columbia) and had difficulty with his faculty advisers and never acquired his Ph.D.I had similar problems only I found my way from land grant institutions (Iowa, and University of South Florida) to safe haven in the university system of the future, writing my dissertation and defense for Walden University, a fully accredited university but not yet prestigious in the same sense as the Ivy League.
STEPS is a triumph of mind over matter and soul over eternity, a book that will stay with you the way Sherwood Anderson's WINESBURG, OHIO does which was written for an earlier generation.Kosinski saw life naked, undisguised, and as Joseph Campbell might add, a time that never rose above its sexual organs or its lust for power and pleasure.
STEPS is concise, anecdotal and experimental the way James Joyce's ULYSSES was.The anecdotes are connected by style, mood, and tone that bite the psyche as if it had teeth.You know the work is art because the fragments hold together like an illuminating collage.
STEPS shows an intensely grim world characterized by brutality, exploitation, and calloused indifference.The impact is like a nightmare where violence breeds only more violence, and the protagonist is lost in the maze of emotion with no way out.
Many of the incidents in STEPS depict sexual exploitation.It is the predator-prey dance where the narrator exploits a woman, but he himself becomes the victim.In one instance, the narrator, an archeological student stranded without money on an island, collapses from hunger.Two fat old women feed him and then assault him sexually.
Among the scenes of perversion, many include accounts of sexual pleasure being derived from inflicting or witnessing pain.Sociological studies of Theodore Adorno (Authoritarian Personality) and Erich Fromm (The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness) come to mind to confirm Kosinski's thesis.
STEPS captures the whirling dervish of postmodern society with no leavening with virtue.Most of the episodes present actions of lust, greed, brutality, and corruption without mitigating circumstances, a little like watching the nightly news on television.
STEPS could be viewed as a series of 'dirty' anecdotes.The reality it portrays is the vicious and perverted side of life debased from human nature.
STEPS suggest narcissistic disassociation of a single person, or perhaps a series of people.That is the subtle strength of its fragmentation and a narrator who is never identified, leaving open the possibility that different narrators are functioning in the various episodes.In any case, regardless of the reader's reaction, the concrete style and raw intensity of the actions are not likely to be quickly dismissed from the mind of the reader.
To give you a sense of the fickle nature of publishing, 21-pages of STEPS was sent to its original publisher and several others six years after it had won the National Book Award.All turned it down.In 1981, the entire text of STEPS was sent to several literary agents and was turned down again by everyone.Kosinski committed suicide in 1991 at the age of 57, hounded by detractors, none of whom recognized his genius.If you are a writer, take note and persist.
a dull recitation
This unstructured novel filled with graphic violence and sex, for all its salacious material, does little to either titillate or instruct the reader with any moral or aesthetic lesson.Quite the opposite, Steps is wholly amoral.This would be fine, if the writing had some scintillating quality; if the characters were richly drawn; if the flow of the narrative was swift, effective, tense.But this novel has none of these things.It seems difficult to believe, based on Steps, the Kosinski was once the flavor of the month, and a National Book Award winner.
Admit it:you're filthy, too
Riveting, gripping, amazing.If art is, in part, the dance between artist and audience, then Steps is art in its highest form.I found myself dancing & reacting in ways I wish I hadn't; found myself physically aroused by portions of the text that I found intellectually / psychologically repugnant.That's a neat trick, Kosinski.
In spare prose, the author takes his breathless reader (think of how your oxygen intake changed while watching 'Panic Room') on a "depraved" journey into the mind / experiences of his protagonist.The scenes that are depicted would be described by a good buddy of mind as "filthy" -- and that they are.Bestiality, rape, exploitation, and beyond.What I found most intriguing about this text, from a historical / sociological / anthropological perspective is that it was written decades ago.Far from the busy streets of NYC where the tranny hos walk amongst us, far from the prevalent teenage-flesh-peddling of 2005.The fact that humans are humans are humans are animals, in all of our glorious base desires and yes, just plain filth, was the most satisfying revelation of all.
It is an excellent piece of art, and I can't believe I let it sit untouched on my bookshelf for six years after picking it up from a used bookstore in New Haven.This is one book I won't be selling used on Amazon.com; it's staying in my collection for at least four decades.WOW.
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