9.03.2010

These Disturbing Steps of Jerzy Kosinski




Did this, whatever this -- Steps -- is, truly win the National Book Award in 1969? Amazingly ... yes. Is it truly darker than his debut controversial classic, the allegedly autobiographical novel (or pure fiction, depending on whom you believe), The Painted Bird, that painted quite the icky horrific portrait of Kosinski's childhood, assuming it's true? Yes. Steps is even more absurdly dark than its more famous, if less award winning, predecessor.  Was Jerzy Kosinski the Twentieth Century's Marquis de Sade? Albeit a far less sexually explicit, but no less sadistic, de Sade?Reading Steps certainly makes me wonder -- and that's a compliment to Kosinski's skills at creating discomfort in his readers, at least his readers with "typical" moral sensibilities.  Who is this twisted first person narrator guiding us through this sordid collection of demented anecdotes and mostly vile (if not violent) vignettes, in Steps? Is it Kosinski himself? Is it us?  Steps is not a novel per se, but at 146 pages I wouldn't call it a novella, either. Short story collection? Not by a long shot. So, what is it then?

Steps is loosely connected, piecemealed, malevolent, merciless episodes following the (s)exploits of one twisted (and normally I wouldn't say "twisted" twice in the same review, but that's how twisted Steps is), wicked man, hell bent on punishing his persecutors. Whether they've indeed persecuted him is beside the point. He'll persecute even if it means tricking his persecutor's children into swallowing fishhook-embedded balls of bread dough whole, so that they'll gag on their own gore, and die excruciatingly slow, agonizing bloody deaths ... days later ...

God forgive me for loving this book! Am I (are you?) Marquis de Sade?


Kosinski seemed to delight in torturing his readers (and not just his child characters) too, by evoking in us (or by at least attempting to evoke) pleasurable reactions from reading about some sick and perverted scenarios which, if maybe we weren't so twisted ourselves already, would shock us into enough moral outrage to put the damn book down. But Kosinski knows the vignettes will make us only cringe or mildly, temporarily wince (it's just a story, a fiction, after all, right?) and that we'll keep reading no matter what, wanting more, always more (give us more gore, Kosinski!) like we're Nero's Romans being entertained by mass murder, enraptured in near orgasmic ecstasy witnessing the cruel extended executions of early Christians eaten alive by lions. Reading Steps just may make one a bit of a barbarian!

In essence, Kosinski tricks us (manipulates us) to keep reading (knowing as readers we'll think there's some "payoff" of "righteous revenge" for the evils perpetrated by our nasty, nihilistic narrator), but the only payoff belongs to Kosinski, and not to us, his willingly abused readers. Kosinski, I'd argue, delighted, was gleeful, denying his readers the justice they were expecting; depriving us, while at the same time, judging us, his amoral, if not evil, audience. Judging us for continuing to read his wicked (and wickedly good) book, Steps. And when we reach that last gruesome page, we are indicted and sentenced for our depraved indifference as readers -- and as a culture -- ten times over. Suddenly, we see that the sick joke of Steps is on us; on a decaying world society that could have allowed Kosinski to suffer the heinous childhood abuses, horrifically documented (if we'll only believe him) in The Painted Bird, and which undoubtedly informed its mesmerizing follow up, Steps.


Steps also skewers an American culture so easily amused and entertained by atrocities: gang rapes, beheadings, untold degradations of women, and exploitations of the mentally ill and developmentally disabled. Consider the television images of the Vietnam War transmitted nightly to Americans at the time of Steps publication under the acceptable moniker, "nightly news". Kosinski gets us good, and we're found guilty (no, we're condemned and then damned) right down to that last destitute image.

Steps takes us step by step, evil by evil, deeper, with every volitional turn of the page, into the depravity residing inside us. And it doesn't hurt Kosinski's cause that while venturing into some taboo terrain, he can take what's potentially degrading and make it art. Listen to one of his female characters as she delicately describes her experience and thoughts about ...

"I'd be embarrassed to say I've actually ... you know, it's a weird sensation having it in one's mouth. It's as if the entire body of the man, everything, had suddenly shrunk into this one thing. And then it grows and fills the mouth. It becomes forceful, but at the same time remains frail and vulnerable. It could choke me -- or I might bite it off. And as it grows, it is I who give it life; my breathing sustains it, and it uncoils like an enormous tongue."

Notice how the unnamed woman recognizes the power she possesses over the man (though the man thinks he possesses her) during the experience, without once, Kosinski's prose, ever slipping into some distasteful, locker-room jocularity.

Not an always comfortable, or pleasant, Sunday stroll through Central Park with the children, Steps. Though forty-one years removed from first publication, these disturbing Steps of Jerzy Kosinski's, I'd say, are still steps -- difficult, sometimes depraved steps into darkness -- worth taking.

2 comments:

Rebecca Glenn said...

Haven't read a single Kosinski yet. Guess I'd better. Sigh.

EnriqueFreeque said...

Maybe you should start with Passion Play, eh? I saw you grab it at Acres! I actually sampled the first ten pages last night, and it's grim and gorgeous Kosinski per usual...