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Interpreting Miss Sontag

Death Kit

by Susan Sontag

(Farrar, Straus & Giroux; $5.75).

One critic (R. W. Flint) called Susan Sontag's first novel, The Benefactor, "a Marius the Epicurean for the 1960's." I concur, although not for Flint's reasons. For me, the resemblance is that Miss Sontag's novel, like Marius, is a product of literary and philosophic cultivation, not of art. The Benefactor is a skillful amalgam of a number of continental sources in fiction and thought--two of the prominent ones, seemingly, are Hesse and Artaud--and it contains a good deal of well-fashioned writing. A number of its incidental reflections are stimulating; for instance, there are a couple of pages on the film that are as interesting as any film essay of Miss Sontag's that I know. What does not happen in the book is the flash of lightning that changes Frankenstein's construct into a moving creature, monstrous or otherwise, that can terrify, ravish or exhilarate us. It remains a neat knowledgeable construct, reclining on the laboratory table.

But I prefer The Benefactor to Miss Sontag's new novel Death Kit, which I think has the same central defect without the same virtues of composition. Death Kit does not try for a smooth, somnambulistic, "European" texture; it attempts--frequently in jagged fragments--to sear in and out of various levels of consciousness and reality. This second method emphasizes more heavily Miss Sontag's essential lack. Anyone who can write good expository prose and is capable of reflection (like Miss Sontag) can make some minimal effect in a fiction of measured construction. But anguish and terror in the very texture--through an associative, darting, piercing prose--these are possible only to an authentic creator (who may be--often is--weak in intellect). The simplest word denotes the complex requisite: talent. Miss Sontag knows literature but shows, so far, little creative literary talent.

Death Kit is set in New York-city and state. The protagonist is Dalton Harron, called Diddy, a divorce who, a month before we meet him, has made a suicide attempt. He works in the Manhattan office of a manufacturer of microscopes. On the way to a sales conference upstate, his train stalls in a tunnel. Diddy gets out to investigate, finds a workman clearing an obstruction on the tracks, and in a quarrel kills (or thinks he kills) the workman. He confides his deed to a blind girl (Hester) on the train, who tries to assure him that he did not leave the compartment that he and she and several others share. Partly out of compassion, she then makes love with him in a train washroom.


Hester is going to the same upstate city as Diddy--for an eye operation. Diddy visits her frequently before and after the unsuccessful operation, falls in love with her, then stays on after his conference is finished so that he can be with her until she leaves the hospital. Meanwhile he scours the newspapers for mention of the murder he believes he has committed, but he finds only an account of a workman killed accidentally in the tunnel that day. Diddy visits the man's widow. There is no mention of murder, and since the body has been cremated, Diddy cannot verify his belief.

When Hester is discharged, still blind, Diddy takes her back to New York to live with him, dallies about marrying her (as he had promised her aunt), dallies about getting another job. He has quit the microscope company so he can spend all his time with Hester; he has enough money to keep going for a while. After some weeks with her in his small apartment, he begins, like the hero of The Benefactor, to have recurrent dreams. At last he knows what he must do to clear up his life. He returns with Hester to the tunnel upstate. They walk in and find another workman, who resembles the first one, clearing another barrier. Again Diddy fights him--this time because of the man's advances toward Hester--and again murders him. Again, as after the first murder, he makes love to Hester--this time right near the dead man. Then, while Hester sleeps, Diddy climbs (naked) over the barrier and follows the tracks, which soon disappear. He enters a large building whose rooms are filled with coffins and corpses. As the book ends, he momentarily "comes to" in a hospital bed, then lapses back into his fantasy of exploring the charnel house.

The two scenes in the tunnel that bracket the book are the only fantastic episodes; the method of all the rest is largely representational, of external event and of Diddy's thought processes. This sharp disparity between fantasy and realism produces an aesthetic discomfort, not because any academic rule has been breached but because the book's first failure is in its ambition for evocative ambiguity. Partly this failure is simply one of language. Miss Sontag's prose, trying to pierce or illuminate, is often dull.

     Diddy, not really alive, had a life. Hardly the same. Some people are
     their lives. Others, like Diddy, merely inhabit their lives.

     One is dead. Therefore, one wants to die. Equally one wants to be born.

Trying to be rich, the prose is often merely gassy. Commenting on the shabby upstate railroad station:

     Isn't there a good deal to be said for keeping a doomed place clean and
     in decent repair? . . . Especially since nemesis is proving to be somewhat
     dilatory in paying its anticipated call.

And part of the failure in ambiguity comes from the very barrage of devices portentously intended to create that ambiguity. The hero's nickname is Diddy-(i.e. Did he?). The word "now" always appears in parentheses, and numerous passages throughout the book are indented. These inducements to believe in the novel's complexity only emphasize its inertness as an imaginative experience.

In characterization the book is trite or wooden. Only the minor characters, like the workman's widow and Hester's aunt, have credibility--the easy credibility of stereotypes. The characterizations of Diddy and Hester, on which much time is spent, are never vitalized. Often their dialogue has echoes of Nichols and May:

     'We were talking about you, Hester. What about your destructive needs?'
     ... 'My destructive needs? ... Believe me, Dalton, 1 don't want to evade
     your question. It's just that it's hard to answer, since I'm not sure I've even
     begun to express those needs'.

We arrive at a peculiar paradox. Poetic ambiguity is beyond this novel's competence. Its prose as such numbs a purely sensory response, Its characterization is uncompelling. Yet, admittedly, one keeps reading the book--in a kind of suspense. And what is the essence of that suspense? For one reader, at least, it is the very matter that Miss Sontag, as a critic, most strongly deplores: one expects the novel to mean something. All the while that her sensory evocations falter, that her drama limps, that her half-world is revealing its mechanical rivets and girders, she is also building a system of symbols, and it is the hope of some revelation through those symbols that keeps one reading.

In her essay "Against Interpretation" Miss Sontag says:

     Directed to art, interpretation means plucking a set of elements
     (the X, the Y, the Z, and so forth) from the whole work. The task
     of interpretation is virtually one of translation. The interpreter says.
     Look, don't you see that X is really--or, really means-A? That Y is
     really B? That 2 is really C?

But what if, as seems to me the case with Death Kit, the work consists of little more than "a set of elements"? What if the flesh of the work is so scrappy that one clearly sees the bones X, Y, Z? And further, what if those bones are virtually labeled "X--A"; "Y = B"; "Z = C"? (At one point near the end, as if to help us more than himself, Diddy actually thinks in equations: Death = an encyclopedia of life . . . Life = the world. Death=being completely inside one's own head.") I have indicated why I think the flesh is scrappy. Here are some reasons why I think that what we are principally asked to do in this book is to solve its equations:

     The tunnel; the obstructions in the tunnel; the two murders of,
     figuratively, the same victim in the tunnel. (These are such
     facile Freudian symbols that they almost seem spoofs of facile
     literary Freudianism, but to believe that they are spoofs is to
     believe that the whole book is a put-on.)

     Diddy's train is called the Privateer. This combines the sound of
     "privates" (it stalls in the tunnel!) and the sound of "privacy"
     with the literal meaning of a private marauder.

     Diddy works for a manufacturer of microscopes--instruments for
     seeing, for peering into tiny privacies.

     Yet the girl he falls in love with cannot see at all.

     Yet, in some ways, she "sees" more than he does.

     The charnel house has a varied assortment of corpses from
     different periods of history.

The list could be extended. Fundamentally the book consists of the list distended. It is a list of rib-nudging clues. To look for meaning in such modern writers as Burroughs or Beckett or Pinter is (as Sontag the critic rightly maintains) to read the wrong language. They work beyond the categories of reason, and we are misled to look for neatly extractable meanings in them simply because they use the same instruments--words--that are used to explicate meanings. Their "meaning" is their effect. But Miss Sontag's novel does not produce such an effect; instead it presents a conventional symbological system, and it is this trail that we follow.

Eventually, however, the symbology is as disappointing as the book's other elements. What, at last, does it convey? There is a generous supply of themes along the way (for instance, the perception, through suffering, of one's in- adequate perception), but the main current in the book is an expedition into madness, then into relative sanity, then irrevocably back into madness--with reverse values attached to each state. The first tunnel episode is the first occasion when the "lifeless" Diddy lives close to emotional heat; the second tunnel episode is where he touches that heat again and where he achieves order and peace. In the real world he is worried and dull; in madness he is relatively extroverted and powerful. In the real world he is either unsexed or stupidly sexed (an encounter with a whore); in madness he is fully male. It is only as he is sliding back into madness, when Hester is living with him, that his sex life regains vigor; it is only when he is stripped of the world (naked) and completely mad that he enters a structured cosmos. (The charnel house. The last sentence of the book, in the charnel house, is, "Diddy has perceived the order of the world.")

Now these are intriguing themes, potentially moving if well rendered, but here they are not rendered well. For chief example, the first symbolic murder is supposed to motivate Diddy through the rest of the book, to expose his nerve-ends, and at last to drive him again to the tunnel for the second murder. But Miss Sontag takes him back to New York with Hester, puts him through a series of routinely written quarrels and reunions with Hester, makes him suspect that he is asking Hester to destroy him, drops that theme when it suits her, and then revives the haunting by the first murder--which, by that time, we have forgotten. There is no opportunity for us either to become involved with Diddy as an agent or to see, in any kind of distorting mirror, some truths about ourselves. The effect is not of an urgency for which symbols are the best medium but of a pro forma literary exercise.

This, at the last, is the effect of the whole book. Obeisance is made to a number of respectable literary gods--among them ambiguity and symbol--but it all remains a knowledgeable act of literary protocol. D. H. Lawrence once wrote to a poet: "I can see all the poetry at the back of your verse-but there isn't much inside the lines."

Stanley Kauffmann is the film critic for The New Republic.

By Stanley Kauffmann