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Let the Unknown Be X : XMAN by Michael Brodsky (Four Walls Eight Windows: $14.95; 448 pp.)

November 22, 1987|Stewart Lindh | Lindh received his doctorate in semiology at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes, where his research director was the late Roland Barthes

The long white page of modern literature is sprinkled with the dark statues of characters who cannot get over being. The Underground Man appears first, followed by Oblomov, the Superfluous Man. Later, K. arrives, forever trying to penetrate the doorless castle; then others: the sad triumvirate of Molloy, Malone and Murphy, trailed by Meursault and Roquentin. This motionless caravan of the lost is now joined by another figure: Xman.

The bare bones of the novel are these--an unemployed man, with no history or backstory, comes to New York to find "real work." His journeys in and out of disheartening interviews, frustrating double-bind dialogues with his wife and a job convincing sick people they are well, end when he is run over by a truck and, in the hospital, is confronted by terrorists who recognize that, for all his passivity, Xman is ready to bomb. Xman becomes a terrorist; then, disillusioned with that role, he explodes in a paroxysm of violence, bringing death to the terrorists and himself.

The author, Michael Brodsky, is a postmodernist; he eschews plot and character development and provides only minimal dramatic content. Through page-long paragraphs of abstract prose, his protagonist embarks on an epistomological quest for absolute meaning--in the very act of undermining it. Brodsky abandons traditional narrative, to run words in and out of their meanings until, exhausted, they can no longer perform their function and are exposed for what they are--empty signs.

Xman has fallen between the cracks of modern life. Reduced to a cipher, Xman decides to become just that: a nothing that perceives.

As he has no history, neither does his New York present any depth. No memories, either of person or place, inhabit the tale. All is told in a simultaneous recollection--as though Xman were remembering parallel portions of the present.

Xman decides, "This is what it means to be poor: to have no context." He must reinvent himself on every occasion, "starting from scratch, zero point, nowhere."

He is a penniless, errant philosopher whose Cogito is not Descartes': "I think, therefore I am," but Kafka's: "It thinks, therefore I am not."

Through encounters with such Pynchonesque-named characters as Perlmutter, Rose B. Handled, von der Schumucke, Sir Soren O'Grady-Kierk, Xman moves--like an empty bottle down an assembly line--inexorably toward his fate.

Xman is the grand inquisitor of meaning. He is also its chief victim. He cannot get past phatic language, the human glue we use to hold the world together " . . . have a nice day emerging from their multiple mouth had been at once an empty pleasantry and a savage and delicious transcendence of all that pleasantry suggested of envy held in check."

Xman wants to impersonate being in order to make his way through it; however, he wants to play the game by not playing the game while playing the game. Dead end.

Readers who look to find their way through conventional descriptions of characters, adjectives building up a sense of place and adverbs to convey the slow freight of atmosphere, will be thwarted. Xman's trek is through a forest of urban symbols, and the only way out--aside from slamming the cover and retreating into the sky above the tangled passages--is to stay to the end. It is not easy going:

"Xman looked out the window. He could not decide whether he was not in fact MAKING A PRETENSE of looking out the window, merely impersonating somebody with a need to look out the window or rather somebody who looks out the window without any need to look out the window."

Xman has closed his eyes once too often. He has forgotten the word he stares at is the wor(l)d.

At the novel's end, Xman contemplates a dead man's face, "he looked as if about to be born as everything he had in vain striven to be." When the landscape beyond the senses is contaminated with language and "landscape" itself is worn and lifeless--only one place is left of Xman. He turns to the true unknown factor: death.

Certainly, on this planet, in a garret, a lone man or woman is writing the history of the word The. But when it is completed, will anyone, aside from the author, have the tenacity to read it?

Good luck to Brodsky--a writer who is writing not so much for himself or for readers, but for whoever he is down there--in that galaxy of words. Like Mallarme, he exists to end up inside a book with book written inside.

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