Art by Paige ImantaniMODERNISM HAS ALWAYS BEEN CAST AS, ESSENtially, a European tradition, one developed in reaction to the weight of history — “a nightmare,” James Joyce wrote in an early chapter of Ulysses, “from which I am trying to awake.” Yet America too, for all its relative newness, has provoked its own strand of modernism, homegrown and accessible, in which the language of popular culture merges with the textures of surrealism to create a hybrid all its own. From the early novels of Nathanael West, through the black-humor fantasies of Terry Southern and even the lyrics of the Blonde on Blondeera Bob Dylan, up to the fiction of T. Coraghessan Boyle and David Foster Wallace, this strand operates as a kind of shadow narrative of American history, in which the most mundane situations give way to outrageousness, and language itself moves fluidly between the ridiculous and the profound.
Among the clearest examples of this is Kenneth Patchen's novel Memoirs of a Shy Pornographer, originally published in 1945 and newly reissued after many years out of print. Presently, Patchen is best remembered, if at all, as an influence on Beat writers Allen Ginsberg and Michael McClure, and as a peripheral figure of the San Francisco Poetry Renaissance whose collection Poems of Humor & Protest was the third book chosen by Lawrence Ferlinghetti for the City Lights Pocket Poets series in 1956. Yet, as Memoirs of a Shy Pornographer reminds us, Patchen was on the scene long before the era of Beat notoriety, relying on his own mix of absurdity and social conscience to identify, and often eviscerate, the sacred cows of American culture, from the prurient puritanism of our sexual ethics to the hypocrisies and self-delusions of democracy itself.
Patchen makes these intentions clear from the novel's title, for Memoirs of a Shy Pornographer is hardly a story about pornography, nor even a “memoir,” fictional or otherwise, on the terms we might expect. What plot there is involves a naif named Albert Budd, who achieves a kind of instant infamy when his love story The Spool of Destiny is transformed into the erotic classic Spill of Desire by a less-than-scrupulous publisher who removes key words and replaces them with asterisks. For Budd, the experience is eye-opening, although not because of his publisher's betrayal. “I was unhappy at first having so many words left out,” he muses, “but after [a] while it seemed like all the words I'd had there were there anyway.” Rather, with his success, the inadvertent pornographer finds himself adrift in an increasingly bizarre universe of con men, agents, deviants and other misfits, among whom he remains the most innocent personality — a not-so-subtle statement about perception and reality, the way our insistence on labels can cloud our ability to see the world. That's an idea Patchen makes explicit from the outset of the novel, when, at his very first cocktail party, Budd meets a woman who says of the other partygoers, with disgust, “Jesus! [A]ren't they pretty! . . . Doesn't it make you proud? This is what all the books I've read and all the paintings I've looked at and all the music I've listened to means. Is that it? Is that really it? Does it all add up to this?”
There's nothing particularly radical about these questions; nearly everyone who has ever been in a similar situation has probably uttered them at some time. Patchen's treatment, however, is distinguished by his good humor, the gentle way his subversive posture reveals itself in jokes and puns as much as in strenuous social critique. Throughout the novel, he uses this to vivid effect, especially in his sex scenes, which are equally transgressive and hilarious, combining suggestive language and omitted phrases to mirror the experience of reading Spill of Desire even as they expose the fallacy of censorship by pushing our imaginations to increasingly graphic extremes. Partly, Patchen's approach has to do with the era in which Memoirs of a Shy Pornographer was published; in the 1940s, books like this had to be written in a kind of shorthand, after all. But what gives the novel staying power is the author's gleeful willingness to take on all sides of the cultural conversation, skewering targets from the mainstream to the avant-garde. Patchen mocks us for our fascination with Hollywood, then sends up literary culture by introducing an inventor who has created not only a machine that writes books, but another that reviews them for The New York Times. At one point, Patchen even takes on his own reputation, in a scene where a cluster of poets discuss the state of American letters like school kids gossiping behind the gym. “Oh, Patchen — nobody takes him seriously,” one opines, to the general agreement of the group. “Patchen missed the boat,” another adds. “He made the mistake of thinking a poem was a sort of garbage pail you could throw anything into and a lot of the time he certainly went beyond the pale altogether.”
Patchen's tongue-in-cheek assessment of his literary standing is among the most fascinating discursions here, if only because it's not wholly inaccurate — when it comes to this novel, at least. Memoirs of a Shy Pornographer, in fact, belongs very much to the garbage-pail school of literature, full of odd, random moments juxtaposed without any obvious purpose, or, more accurately, with the pointed aimlessness of a dream. In one instance, Patchen gives us, out of the blue, a list of essential jazz recordings, mixing the real and the fictional with willful abandon; in another, he takes 160 pages to play out a delightfully dumb joke about Budd's hat. At times, this can be frustrating, especially when Patchen changes narrative direction midscene, as happens repeatedly, or yields to his more eccentric impulses and lets the illusion of rationality slip completely, pushing his situations into the surreal. Ultimately, though, there is method to the author's madness, for in framing his book as serendipitous, silly even, Patchen lulls us into letting our guard down, which only heightens the shock of recognition when he reveals the social insights at the novel's heart. Of these, none are more important than his thoughts on love and pacifism, presented without apparent filter, almost as if he is preaching the faith. “Wars and the plague-sores left by wars,” Budd declares, “shall not be ended until mankind turns from the murder which is practiced every day by everyone . . .
“Let me tell you that it exceeds the wildest insanity to accept some of the things which the world takes for granted —
“That men should starve each other.
“That men should hate one another because their skins are of a different color.
“That men should hate one another because their races are not the same.
“That men should kill one another!”
It's in passages like this that Memoirs of a Shy Pornographer effectively shatters our expectations, elevating us to a higher plane. At such moments, we are left alone, without artifice, to confront the world we live in, a place as nonsensical as anything Patchen might dream up. This, too, is not dissimilar from the work of, say, Terry Southern, who, like Patchen, uses exaggeration to evoke the extremes of daily living, masking his seriousness with outlandish humor until it comes time to say what's on his mind. These days, that aesthetic doesn't figure into much avant-garde literature, which tends to stand apart from social concerns in the name of keeping itself pure. But if Patchen's strange modernist experiment has anything to tell us, it may be that even absurdity can't help but come with an agenda — which, in the end, could be the most important insight of all.
MEMOIRS OF A SHY PORNOGRAPHER: AN AMUSEMENT By KENNETH PATCHEN | Introduction by Jonathan Williams
A New Directions Classic | 242 pages | $14 paperbackv