Sukenick's Dying Words
R.M. Berry

    "People who grow out of the earth and never get too far away from
     it never forget they're going back into it...."

    Ronald Sukenick ö 98.6


For Ronald Sukenick, literature was always its own problem.  From his earliest writings, his intuition was of a paradoxical fatality in fiction's freedom, of invention as both the way in and way out.  The imagination's liberating power-to envision the absent, to embody possibility, to forestall disenchantment-could open the future and break the past's hold, but it also threatened to render the present elusive, impalpable.  To my mind, this paradox was never more concretely articulated than in Ron's great early novel 98.6, where the perpetual mania of America to surpass itself, that rage for speed, novelty, excitement, was imaged as "a loose flywheel spinning faster and faster till it tears the whole machine apart."  The comparison recalls a famous passage from Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations (¤270-1), where our urge to speak emptiness, to utter nonsense with impassioned conviction, was characterized as a wheel or knob disengaged from the rest of the mechanism.  For Wittgenstein, this disengagement was the source of our bewilderment: "The confusions which occupy us arise when language is like an engine idling, not when it is doing work" (¤132).  Sukenick's notion, closely related to Wittgenstein's, was that imagination's capacity for transcendance was also its capacity for self-defeat, giving rise to what Sukenick called "negative hallucination," the condition of not seeing what's really there.  When negative hallucination infected an entire culture, as in 98.6 it infects America, even fiction became fatal.  One invents one's life to avoid living it, to deny what, in order to happen at all, must happen to you.

    The power of Sukenick's last writings, especially for anyone aware of the circumstances of their composition, comes from their refusal of a certain kind of distance, a safety promised by the pastness of writing.  In Sukenick's final fiction, "Running on Empty," all the imagined or remembered versions of the narrator's life return to him "in a trance like state in scatters with no obvious relation to one another."  Each has its own beginning and middle, but "they have the same ending.  This one."  The deictic "this" creates an equivocation, implying both the third-person narrator's death and, more immediately, the act of dying that "this" text is.  The work then becomes "the end game," an attempt, as the narrator of "77" says, "to deny meaninglessness, as a cause for lament."  The idea is that, as in so much of Sukenick's best work, these final fictions both recount something-the narrator's imagined lives, his remembered "meanesses"-and also do something.  Where most powerful, this latter activity overtakes or superimposes itself onto the former, surprising us with the disclosure of what recounting is, that this is what's being done.  In "Running on Empty" and "77" the activity of recounting can be described either as living or dying.  That is, the goal of Sukenick's telling in "Running on Empty" is "exhaustion of impulse," a state in which desire can be relinquished and, instead of displacing fact with invention, the narrator can "give into it," allowing his body to be left behind: "sense degenerating into nonsense."  What makes this meaningless no cause for lament, either by the narrator or by the reader, is that the loss is no loss, is, on the contrary, the winning of his life, that is, the wager in the first sentence: "that he could live things out until he was tired of everything."  The work of imagination, "to change the impending ending," if it's not simply a "negative hallucination," must effect an absorption in the present so profound that the end, when it comes, will be other than imagined: "Nothing will turn out as foreseen." 

    During the last years of Sukenick's life, his degenerative muscular disorder made even the slightest physical acts exhausting.  To watch him lift his hand during these years was to see human gestures as though for the first time.  Most of the day he was confined to a wheelchair and could speak or write only for short periods and with heroic effort.  He told me a few months before his death that, on a good day, he managed to write a sentence or perhaps a sentence and a half, an act that regularly required all morning and half the afternoon.  His email messages became cryptic: "not yt. 2moro. r"  And his voice, which had always been soft, became plaintive, at once demanding the listener's attention and insinuating unexpected sweetness.  It was by working in such conditions that Sukenick completed his last novel, Last Fall (forthcoming, April 2005) about 9/11 and the "Museum of Temporary Art," and also the four fictions printed here.  In a quite literal way, we could say that these last works are hardly fiction at all, if that didn't seem to imply that they were autobiography.  To dispute their fictionality would mean to acknowledge our lack of a category for them, the absence of any classification for literature whose goal is to overcome itself.  What seems clear is that, in the normal sense of  "character" or "narrator," the "he" of "Running on Empty" and "77" is neither a narrator nor a character.  Partly this is due to the occasional self-referential passage in which the author calls attention to his present action, that of writing the words we're presently reading: "Words that here in the quiet of his study infer potential pleasure even from present pain...."  And partly it's because of the repeated references to events that make sense only in the context of the life of Ronald Sukenick: "Or insulting an admirer just to get rid of him."  But more fundamentally it is because the dying of the fiction's creator, of the voice and hand and pronoun from which the words come, is essential to the work's work, to what is being done.  Sukenick's words do not narrate the death of a character, not even one named Ronald Sukenick.  They are themselves that death, or more accurately, Sukenick's dying, a present event occurring before us as we read, and in this way they remain alive to the very end.