If Only Nothing Would Grow

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 It isn’t lyrical, it isn’t fun, it isn’t a spectacle, it doesn’t beg for your attention—Nog honestly considers the absurdity and sadness of everyday life.

It’s enough to put most people off: A self-described cult classic and symbol of the 1960s counterculture, full of echoes from Beckett, shamelessly horny, periodically misogynistic, and set in a strange man’s mind—Rudolph Wurlitzer’s Nog is no airport novel.

Republished this year by the admirable independents at Two Dollar Radio, Nog has many of the usual features of the dreaded Experimental Fiction. Nog contains multitudes, it jumps in time and space, is stylistically unusual, insists on mixing fantasy and reality, and is utterly unsentimental. It also got a good review from Thomas Pynchon.

But in what sense is all this experimental? Pynchon’s much-quoted announcement that with Nog “the Novel of Bullshit is dead” gives the misleading impression that Nog is somehow sui generis, as though Wurlitzer came out of nowhere, as though his book singlehandedly changed the way we write. Nog, of course, did no such thing; and despite reviewers’ claims that this is a “singular” book, there is no page of Nog in which one isn’t reminded of the voices of Samuel Beckett’s Watt and Murphy. Far from coming out of nowhere, Nog is very much of the tradition—even the genre—of post-war avant-garde aesthetics.

Pynchon is right, though: It is surely not a bullshit novel. The multi-voiced narrator, whose name may or may not be Nog, completely rejects middle-class society and its values; Wurlitzer’s exploration of his unsound mind is careful and extensive. Early on, Nog (as we may as well call him) is invited by his neighbors to a party. Their nickname for him is “Dr Angst.” It’s raining, and he is soaked through by the time he arrives, so the host leads him away to dry off. Left unsupervised, Nog strips down before a random dinner guest and throws all the household medication into the bathtub before hopping into bed for a snooze. Later, tormented by the usual dinner-party insincerities—“What do you do?” “Having fun?”—he walks back into the storm to help an old maniac arrange driftwood and junk against the rising ocean.

Nog’s great dream is to control the content of his mind; and his tragedy is that “Memories crouch inside me, ready to spring.” Like Beckett’s Watt, he has a habit of listing objects in the world, in order to simplify and control it. But these simple, often childish descriptions are poor barriers against the persistent interruptions of other times, other places, other desires, and other voices. The interruptions are the usual interruptions of everyday life—but Nog wants nothing of everyday life. He wants to sit in a room and slowly construct his world: “If only nothing would grow, nothing change, nothing take hold and join where things take hold and join.”

Rudolph Wurlitzer

Rudolph Wurlitzer

Because of this, Nog is a novel full of “I” sentences, simple statements of intent and feeling. But in the end, there is no “I” to Nog. He has no control. He can’t even manage Beckett’s great existential decision: “I am not thinking about going on and not going on,” he says. Nog’s voices and thoughts wander away from their source, refusing to come together and make sense. There’s nothing certain to Nog, nothing solid, no definite structures, no identity.

Wurlitzer’s aim, one can safely assume, is to undermine the great myths of rational, self-sufficient, economic Man, and to expose the suffering such myths produce. But what about rational, self-sufficient Woman? The novel begins with Nog enjoying the “thin ankles” of a girl walking on the beach, “her large breasts under her faded blue tee-shirt, the quick way she bent down, her firm legs…” Oh boy. As with Pynchon, Wurlitzer has a habit of using female characters to make theoretical points about male desire and the limits of male rationality. So, we have Meredith, the principle female character, who is always fucking, or naked, or getting naked on film. “I like it when someone just takes me,” another female character confesses. There’s no female character who isn’t described as attractive, whose ankles don’t inspire the narrator’s lust, who doesn’t end up fucking, or sucking, or talking about fucking and sucking.

These fantasies, like the fantasies of Pynchon’s Tyrone Slothrop, with their obvious debts to popular psychoanalysis, seem to me more out-of-date than misogynistic (note also the continual references to caves and slits and cupboards). For all its apparent counter-cultural chops, the core of Nog isn’t the endless fucking, the pill-popping, the communal living, or road-tripping. All this problematic plotting seems incidental to the simple and terrible drama of a man trying to live in his own mind.

Like Gravity’s Rainbow, Wurlitzer’s novel might be read for its place within the mythology of the American counter-culture, for its generic avant-gardisms; but that’s not why Nog is worth reading. It isn’t lyrical, it isn’t fun, it isn’t a spectacle, it doesn’t beg for your attention. Instead, it honestly considers the absurdity and sadness of everyday life: “There’s an emptiness, but then there’s always an emptiness.” Nog is a subtle and nomadic book, a great counterforce to the loud, sentimental, novels of bullshit that take up so much space in today’s literary landscape.

Still, like many of the great novels of its era—novels which explicitly confront or challenge hegemonic power and the limits of experience—Nog is spectacularly unable to imagine the lives of women outside of the porno-norms enforced by the heterosexual male voyeur.

Matt McGregor is from New Zealand, and is currently working, reading and writing in Albany, New York. More from this author →