There is an American literature that is anti-intellectual, apolitical and anti-social. It’s not taught in universities (I hope) and cannot be abstracted from the conditions of its production; it is reactionary, in that it opposes the move towards an increasing complexity in linguistic relations and denies the connection between social structure and linguistic structure which justifies that complexity. It is based, beyond language, in the attempt to retrieve reality through the personal struggle of the writer, holding together the sliding surfaces of Self and World through the act of writing itself. It demands total commitment and absolute integrity. Charles Bukowski is its major contemporary exponent.
‘WHEN YOU LEAVE YOUR TYPEWRITER YOU LEAVE YOUR MACHINE GUN AND THE RATS COME POURING THROUGH.’ For Bukowski writing is a last ditch stand: the writer isn’t observer or commentator but urban guerrilla involved in a war of words:
‘. . . advertisers be damned, he might only be able to write one column but that one column might get a million readers thinking – for a change – and nobody could tell what might happen then.’ (This written in Open City, the alternative to the alternative LA. Free Press.) Bukowski sees a revolution taking place through the very media which control America: he wants to turn upside down a structure where words and images flow from the top down, where the consumer is exploited through a language which replaces the world, with the vast fiction of America.
The problems of writing fiction where everything is fiction, and where the fiction of the writing must organize itself around a reality which subverts the fiction are central to Bukowski’s work. He concentrates the desperate energy of his writing into pulling the metaphorical structure of reality apart. His short stories continually employ the device of introducing the miraculous in order to illuminate the unreal: somebody wakes up covered in green and yellow polka dots, goes out with a shotgun and causes a freeway pile-up before discovering, too late, that his colour is normal white; a losing baseball team is rescued by a boy with wings (‘they couldn’t hit anything out of our infield and everything in the outfield was a sure out’) who has his wings cut off by a betting operator before the last, crucial game of the season; an enchantress shrinks her lover down to pocket-size and uses him as a human dildo. Each is a collapsible structure designed to bring down the unspoken and spoken values which it employs. Meaning is a two way process: not just the creation of a language to make sense of the world, but it’s periodic destruction in order to recreate the world. And as a writer courageous enough to jeopardize his own integrity for the sake of his writing, Bukowski deserves reading.
Illustration by Bridget Stevens