Chandler Brossard: Off-Beat

by dollydelightly

One hopes that there will always be a publisher willing to take a chance on the underdog, the underdog often being a writer who will most likely yield little commercial success. Such a publisher is not only commendable but also courageous. Allen Berlinski is just such a man, without whom Chandler Brossard’s collected shorts may have never made it into print. Over The Rainbow? Hardly (2004) failed to make publication on two separate occasions, until Berlinski accepted it for his Sun Dog Press. The introduction, written by the book’s editor Steven Moore, is studious and sympathetic, offering invaluable insight into both Brossard’s life and his work.

Chandler Brossard was born in 1922 in Idaho. He dropped out of school aged 11, and by the age of 18 was working in Washington as a reporter. Eventually, he moved to New York City and found employment with a number of prominent publications, including The New Yorker, American Mercury, Time, and Look magazine, where he remained from 1956-67. He later took to travelling around Europe, teaching there as well as in the US, while also writing fiction. Brossard was largely self-educated, and is now mostly remembered as the overlooked Beat, an appellation he vehemently rejected. This wholly unsolicited link was a result of his first book, Who Walk In Darkness (1952), which contained all the nascent elements that later came to define beatnik literature. The novel, set in Greenwich Village, was a phantasmagorical evocation of subterranean culture and life, temulent revelries, sex, psychedelics and the search for creative liberation. Asked about the Beat connection in 1979 Brossard said the critics who had made it were “not very thoughtful people” and had missed the point of the book.

Brossard believed the only correlation between himself and his Beat successors, who came 10 years later, was the fact that Who Walk in Darkness was set in the same bohemian environs of the Village, while everything else – style, syntax, subject – was at contrastive odds. In fact, much of Brossard’s work – especially in Over The Rainbow? Hardly – is irreconcilable with that of his contemporaries or precursors, as it “magically combines, orders, and dramatizes realities”, but not realities as we know them. This is in part due to Brossard’s sui generis prose-style, which shuns traditional narrative structure and literary etiquette in favour of the curious and the avant-garde. Over The Rainbow? Hardly consists of seven independent chapters, which range from venerean pastiches of popular fairy-tales to meditations on etymology and epistemology, poetry and everything in between. In Postcards: You Don’t Wish You Were Here, for example, Brossard offers literary snaps of various cities across the US by way of wry and acidulous narratives.  Each place is defined by an exaggeration of its perceived, or perhaps, more accurately, imagined, idiosyncrasies. In Lying Low, Virginia, for instance, “apples torture Newton by falling diagonally”. In Right As Rain, New Mexico, “Grief [is] a condition treasured by the educated and the upper middle class” and in If Looks Could Kill, South Carolina, “back stroke is not taught in school” because it “won’t help you much if you’re going to drown”.

Brossard’s writing is wayward, unpolished, ludibund and irreverent, adjusting to his mood at any given time as he vacillates from a nihilist to a martyr, from an existentialist to an idealist, from a writer to a reader; a technique which allows him to effectively convey the multiplicity of experience and emotions. In Shifty Sacred Songs, Brossard ruminates on “sadness”, saying: “One thing you’ve got to say for sadness. You don’t have to dress for it. Never. Unlike worshiping graven images of false gods.”  And later, of the character of “loneliness” and the emotion itself, Brossard notes: “It has staying power. It doesn’t stumble at the eight. It doesn’t make dates with you, then stand you up. Nor does it solicit you. No indeed. You come into it on your own terms. With your eyes wide open. You will never, never be justified in complaining, I was talked into this…Against my better judgement…In short, loneliness is a mother to us all. Just as the crust is mother to the pie.” The thought, like most thoughts in Shifty Sacred Songs, aspires to be profound but is somewhat hindered by the writer’s postmodernist anti-aestheticism. Although that’s not to say that Brossard lacks profundity elsewhere.

In a piece called Raging Joys, Sublime Violations, Brossard offers some earnestly profound feelings about the Vietnam War by deriding the American establishment, and its vainglorious imperialist mind-set that facilitated its intervention in the military conflict. Raging Joys, Sublime Violations is rampant, ebullient, bellicose and sexually explicit, the sort of show that galls and appals Middle America and beyond. But in the subtext of the piece, Brossard very cleverly draws out “the rape metaphor inherent in imperialism” and the self-congratulatory brutish bravado of the military, its contradictions and equivocations. At one point in the piece the soldiers break into song: “Our objective in Laos is to stabilise the situation again, if possible, if possible, within the 1962 Geneva settlement,” with the others adding: “So, let us bomb them, bomb them, for democracy,” which, of course, was the intention all along. Brossard was an avid anti-war activist and helped North Vietnamese victims while working in the UK for an organisation dedicated to the cause. Thus, Raging Joys, Sublime Violations is perhaps one of the most impassioned – if subversive – pieces in the omnibus, and one which makes the reader really think. In fact, Brossard’s work demands the reader think an awful lot, as he periodically dispenses with all forms of convention, compelling one to connect the seemingly unrelated dots of his narrative – an occasionally onerous task, but also a rewarding one.

Compensation is also provided amid Brossard’s more light-hearted offerings, including the frolicsome vignettes that make up Dirty Little Books for Little Folks and A Chimney Sweep Comes Clean.  Both pornographic in nature, they read like some bizarrely hircine reveries of a stoned somnambulist. The protagonist in A Chimney Sweep Comes Clean caroms from page to page, from misadventure to misadventure, with ferocious alacrity and to great comic effect; while the tales in Dirty Little Books for Little Folks dramatise popular children’s stories, emphasising and exaggerating their innate erotic elements, and thereby offering a new dimension to the classics.  Harsher critics may grumble that Brossard’s work is often indecipherable, but I am one with E. M Forster, who said that “nonsense and beauty have close connections” – one simply has to look for them.  And looking for them in Over The Rainbow? Hardly is easy, as the collection captures perfectly Brossard’s off-Beat, “unhinged mind,” which is indeed “a thing of beauty”.