[The following is a submission from David Winters, a literary critic who writes for the Times Literary Supplement, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and various other publications. He is a co-editor at 3:AM Magazine. His twitter handle is @davidcwinters, and links to his work are collected at his website, www.whynotburnbooks.com.]
Heywood Orren (or “Hob”) Broun (1950-1987) published three books in his brief lifetime, none of which are widely known today. But Broun’s intense, eccentric fictions ought to be more than a mere footnote to modern American literary history.
His first book, Odditorium (Harper & Row, 1983) could ostensibly be called a “novel,” although it digressively destabilises “character,” “story,” and almost all other hallmarks of the form. A seedy, pulpy pinball game of botched drug deals and bungling gunplay, the book’s pleasure lies in its unpredictability; to read it is to watch it run off the rails.
Broun’s next text, Inner Tube (Knopf, 1985), was acquired by legendary editor Gordon Lish, whose stylistic influence can be felt throughout Broun’s subsequent work. By now Broun had become—a little like Barry Hannah, another author from Lish’s stable—a writer less of conventional “sentences” than of freewheeling, aphoristic riffs. But beyond this, Inner Tube displays a brilliant strain of misanthropy that is all Broun’s own. The book begins with the narrator’s mother committing suicide by putting her head through a TV screen. Compelled to escape this constitutive trauma (plus his incestuous lust for his sister), he flees into an increasingly fractured, ersatz social world. Along the way, man is revealed as merely
an over-evolved creature whose most dangerous enemies come from within… Imagine the first useless panic, the first nightmare, the first crushing turn of anomie. Ten thousand generations later, all we can do is palliate. Misery abhors a vacuum, and history is a list of sedatives.
Eventually Broun’s narrator escapes from this failed civilization, leaving to live alone in the desert. Inner Tube’s plot provides no palliation; instead it presents a pessimistic awareness that “we are animals. All the consoling fabrications must be waived.”
Six chapters into writing Inner Tube, Broun underwent emergency surgery to remove a tumour surrounding his spine. He lived, but was left paralysed from the neck down. As he said to his agent at the time, the surgeons had “snipped every God-damn wire.” From now on, Broun’s very breath was brought about by a respirator. His deep depression during this period is perhaps easy to appreciate. What is remarkable, however, is the way in which he overcame it—willing himself, against all odds, to go on writing.
Broun finished Inner Tube, and wrote the stories collected in Cardinal Numbers (Knopf, 1988) by means of a mechanical prosthesis: an oral catheter (known as a “sip-and-puff device”) connected to a Franklin Ace 2000 computer, running a customised word processer triggered by Broun’s breath whenever a letter flashed on the screen.
It’s worth remembering how much he resented this set-up: had he “had hands,” as he put it, he would rather have written on a 1948 Remington, a picture of which he kept pinned to his wall. Nonetheless, this method suggests a rich metaphor for the role of “technique” in recent American writing. Academics like Mark McGurl have remarked on an implicit “technicity”—a technological turn of the imagination—in the way certain writers conceive of their craft. Ben Marcus, for instance, describes writing as “a delivery-system for feeling,” a machine that mediates emotion using rhetorical mechanisms. This terminology is echoed in the title of the course he teaches at Columbia: “Technologies of Heartbreak.” In a sense, Broun presents an extreme (and, of course, tragically enforced) example of this emphasis on taut, fraught, high-stakes execution.
In Marcus’s formulation, the flipside of technique, or technicity, is raw emotional urgency. And this, above all, is what matters most about Broun. Among more well-known writers, his linguistic manoeuvres most closely resemble those of Sam Lipsyte—another author profoundly shaped by Lish’s painstaking approach to sentence construction. Each writer, in his way, illustrates the Lishian dictum that “every morpheme, every phoneme counts.” The point, though, is that such stylistic exactitude mustn’t be misread as emotionless. Observing my interest in what could crudely be called the “Lish line” of fiction, a friend of mine once claimed that he couldn’t see any “angst” beneath the pyrotechnics; any “existential” pressure. Broun’s prose provides powerful proof of why this is wrong. Without doubt, here was a writer, as Lipsyte has said of him, for whom “every word was hard won.”
Broun’s best book by far is his last, the story collection Cardinal Numbers. Written in clipped, compressed sentences, these stories share a surface similarity that some might mislabel as “minimalism.” But Broun was only a minimalist in the simple, quantitative sense of being able to squeeze nineteen stories into 150 pages. The fact is that Cardinal Numbers gleefully runs the gamut of literary forms, from fabulism to free association. The standout story, “Highspeed Linear Main St.,” is a shifting, swerving improvisation about modern art and sensory overload. At one point its manic narrator pauses for breath and announces: “modus operandi: montage, collage, bricolage.”
As with other books on his list at Knopf, Lish himself wrote the jacket copy for Cardinal Numbers. In 2013, it’s hard to imagine any commercially-minded publisher countenancing the ecstatic rant that graces this book’s flaps. As is made abundantly clear here, Broun’s stories arose from
a tension quite special to those whose lives must be lived in the face of calamitously punishing circumstances. Such conditions of existence produced in Hob Broun a living instance of the Beckettian principle I can’t go on; I must go on, and accordingly made of his fiction a kind of literary embodiment of these opposing statements. To be sure, it is this very irony that suffuses the stories in this book, and that imparts to them the heartaching air of hope struggling between moments of its being successively suffocated and set aflame. These entries should be read as a map of the will of their author to keep on.
This will is what’s behind the lasting value of Broun at his best. Stymied by life, he brought life to his words; the writing of fiction was, he once said, “the focus of what I’m surviving for.” To pour all of oneself into writing; this is the challenge his stories set for any would-be author who reads them. And it’s why they still stand, decades later, as urgent, ultimately exuberant examples of how writing can address what Lish has called “the problem of being alive.” In its audacious inventiveness, Cardinal Numbers measures itself against the life its author could not live. Any paralysis, it seems to say, can be briefly escaped in feats of verbal velocity; in fiction’s reach for freedom.
The papers record that Hob Broun died in 1987, accidentally asphyxiated when his respirator broke down. He was 37 years old. “Ice Water,” the opening story of Cardinal Numbers, was recently reprinted in New York Tyrant, one of America’s leading literary magazines. At the time of his death, Broun had begun work on a third novel, reportedly called Wild Coast, Wild Coast, which, to our loss, no one will ever read.
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