Toby Litt on Rudolph Wurlitzer’s Nog:
NOG IS THE KIND OF NOVEL THAT SUFFERS FROM BEING CALLED ‘EXPERIMENTAL’. Actually, it is part of a clear, established tradition. I would place it between Samuel Beckett’s trilogy (Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnameable) and Don DeLillo’s Great Jones Street—closer to Beckett in spirit, to Delillo in time.
The narrator of Nog, who may or may not be called Nog, shares with Beckett’s M-people a deep desire for inertia: ‘It is better to stay indoors and not mess around with useless experiences. A small room in a boarding house. Anonymous… Do nothing, want nothing, if you feel like walking, walk; sleeping, sleep.’ With DeLillo’s Bucky Wunderlick, he shares an absurd paranoia: ‘I have nailed the pillowcase to the wall, as a sign or a flag. I asked for and I received a hammer and nail. It’s not safe here any more. And yet I am unable to creep out and establish some new space. Something has to happen, a new noise, a sense of something impending. Is it safe to say that?’
The whole performance, rap, trip, is highly self-conscious, ‘There are times when the voice of the narrator or the presence of the narrator should almost sing out.’ But never, or very rarely, annoyingly so. The hippyisms are kept to a minimum—which for a novel set in California in 1968 is stunningly restrained.
In fact, it is the craft of the prose which redeems Nog. There is no sentence here of which Wurlitzer isn’t fully in control—he may not know exactly what its overall long-term effect will be, but this is very unwild writing.
The opening paragraph of Nog is one of the most carefully constructed I have ever read:
Yesterday afternoon a girl walked by the window and stopped for sea shells. I was wrenched out of two months of calm. Nothing more than that, certainly, nothing ecstatic or even interesting, but very silent and even, as those periods have become for me. I had been breathing in and out, out and in, calmly, grateful for once to do just that, staring at the waves plopping in, successful at thinking almost nothing, handling easily the three memories I have manufactured, when that girl stooped for sea shells. There was something about her large breasts under her faded blue tee-shirt, the quick way she bent down, her firm legs in their rolled-up white jeans, her thin ankles—it was her feet, actually; they seemed for a brief, painful moment to be elegant. It was that thin-boned brittle movement with her feet that did it, that touched some spot that I had forgotten to smother. The way those thin feet remained planted, yet shifting slightly in the sand as she bent down quickly for a clam shell, sent my heart thumping, my mouth dry, no exaggeration, there was something gay and insane about that tiny gesture because it had nothing to do with her.
It was reading this passage convinced me I needed to read this book. I was at Waterstones Deansgate, in Manchester, and had just done a reading from Beatniks. I’d browsed a few other books, but Nog was the one which had caught me. When one of the booksellers told me I could choose any book I wanted from the shop, Nog was it.
A number of things came to mind whilst reading Nog: The Monkees’ film Head, Bob Dylan’s ‘Tangled Up in Blue’, Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Pascal, Jack Kerouac’s Big Sur, Charlie Chaplin. But it is very much its own book. ‘I bought the octopus, and for a year I travelled through the country with it.’
YESTERDAY AFTERNOON A GIRL WALKED BY THE WINDOW AND stopped for sea shells. I was wrenched out of two months of calm. Nothing more than that, certainly, nothing ecstatic or even interesting, but very silent and even, as those periods have become for me. I had been breathing in and out, out and in, calmly, grateful for once to do just that, staring at the waves plopping in, successful at thinking almost nothing, handling easily the three memories I have manufactured, when that girl stooped for sea shells. There was something about her large breasts under her faded blue tee shirt, the quick way she bent down, her firm legs in their rolled-up white jeans, her thin ankles – it was her feet, actually; they seemed for a brief, painful moment to be elegant. It was that thin-boned brittle movement with her feet that did it, that touched some spot that I had forgotten to smother. The way those thin feet remained planted, yet shifting slightly in the sand as she bent down quickly for a clam shell, sent my heart thumping, my mouth dry, no exaggeration, there was something gay and insane about that tiny gesture because it had nothing to do with her.
I went to Smitty’s, a roadhouse a quarter of a mile down the beach. When I came back, she was gone. I could not sit in my room. The walls closed in on me. I could see the walls closing in on me, and my situation, if that is what it is, a situation, seemed suddenly so dull and hopeless; this cheap thrown-together guest house of imitation redwood on the California coast with its smell of mold and bad plumbing, the inane view from my window of driftwood and seaweed, flat predictable waves, corny writings in the sand, pot-bellied fishermen and bronzed godlike volleyball players. I had to pull out, I thought, I was beginning to notice things, lists were forming, comparisons were on the way. And now I don’t have the octopus. I suppose that is what there is to tell about. Then I’ll move on. Last night there was a storm, and I abandoned the octopus. I didn’t really abandon the octopus, it’s still in the bathysphere on the truck bed, and the truck bed is still up on blocks, but it’s not the same any more. I’m going to move on alone.
I have money and I can make money. I want to say that now. I’m no reprobate, nor am I a drain on anyone. My great aunt left me two thousand a year, and I have, or had, an octopus and a truck. A man sold me the octopus and truck in Oregon. I met him in a bar in one of those logging towns on the Coast where the only attractive spot is the village dump, which at least has the advantage of facing the sea. Nog, he was apparently of Finnish extraction, was one of those semi-religious lunatics you see wandering around the Sierras on bread and tea, or gulping down peyote in Nevada with the Indians. He was dressed in black motorcycle boots, jeans and an old army shirt with sergeant chevrons still on the sleeves. His face was lean and hatchet-edged, with huge fuzzy eyes sunk deep in his skull like bullet holes. He kept complaining about a yellow light that had lately been streaming out of his chest from a spot the size of a half dollar. We drank and talked about the spot and the small burning sensation it gave him early in the morning and about his octopus. He had become disillusioned about traveling with the octopus and had begun having aggressive dreams about it. He wanted to sell it. We bought a bottle and walked out beyond the town into logged-off hills that looked like old battlefields. A low mist hung over a struggling second growth of redwood and Douglas fir. The tracks of giant caterpillar tractors wound everywhere. Pits and ditches were scattered about like shell holes. Thousands of frogs croaked and salamanders hung suspended between lids of green slime and rotting logs. I felt vaguely elated, like a witness to some ancient slaughter.
Nog lived in what had once been a water tank in the middle of a rough field. The octopus was there, all right. It was sitting inside a bathysphere on a truck bed. Nog had built a mold out of plaster of Paris for the tentacles and another one for the obese body with its parrot-like beak and bulging eyes. Then he had poured liquid latex rubber into the molds. The bathysphere was carefully fashioned out of a large butane gas tank and stolen pieces of metal from a nearby bridge. There were three portholes from which you could watch the octopus move its eight tentacles around in the bubbling water. Nog had been traveling to all the state and county fairs through the West and Midwest, charging kids a dime and adults a quarter. Most people believed the octopus was real, but whenever there was a loud doubt Nog would tell them the truth. He would never give money back, and occasionally there would be fights. In Bird City, Utah, the bathysphere had been tipped over by three men who had just been on a losing softball team. He was weary of the whole thing, he kept repeating. We sat down on a bench in front of his house, and he filled me in on octopus lore. The crowd appreciated the devilfish myth the most, and it was important to tell them how dangerous octopi are and how they can drown and mangle a human or sink a small boat. One should never tell them the truth, which is that octopi are quite friendly. I refused any more information. We sat quietly and it grew dark. Finally Nog said that he had stopped knowing how to entertain himself. He said he guessed that was my trouble, too, but that I should take a chance with the octopus. He suggested I transform it into a totem that I didn’t mind seeing every day.
I bought the octopus, and for a year I traveled through the country with it.
Nog is not quite clear enough. I have to invent more. It always comes down to that. I never get a chance to rest. I have never been able, for instance, to understand the yellow light streaming from his chest. But now that the octopus has faded away, Nog might emerge into a clearer focus. Those were sentimental and fuzzy days, those trips through the West with the octopus, and sometimes I find myself wishing more of it were true. (I find, when I ruminate like this, that I invent a great deal of my memories – three now, to be exact – because otherwise I have trouble getting interested.) But I have gotten faster with myself and more even-tempered since I met Nog. Perhaps not even-tempered but certainly more dulcet. I think about trips, bits and pieces of trips, but I no longer try and put anything together (my mind has become blessedly slower), nor do I try as much to invent a suitable character who can handle the fragments. But I don’t want to get into all that. There is always the danger that I might become impressed by what once was a misplaced decision for solitude.
I’m thinking about trying the East. I will go to New York and get a small room on the top of a hotel.
When I was on the road with the octopus I did a lot of reminiscing about New York. New York was, in fact, my favorite memory for four or five months, until it got out of hand and I had to drop it. I lived in a comfortable duplex apartment on top of an old hotel overlooking a small park and harbor. I was sort of an erotic spy on myself then, but managed to survive, at least for those four or five months, by keeping an alert and fastidious watch on the terrifying view outside. I watched ships glide and push into huge docks, and far below, through silvery leaves, the quiet violence in the park. At night I stayed up with the fantastic lights of cars and subways as they flowed over the concrete ramps that weaved around the hotel. I lived precariously in the center of brutal combinations of energy, and gradually, as I closed in on myself, the bridges transformed into massive spider webs imprisoning the subways as they rumbled like mechanical snakes across the black river. The subways shot off green and yellow sparks in defense, in specific relays of time, always getting through. I had to drop that memory. But now, with more miles and memories in control, I might attempt New York.
From my window I can see the beach. An old couple digs razorbacked clams, and a small boy writes “David Salte Hates the Slug” on the sand with a large knotted stick. It has never been enough for me to have a stick and some sand to draw in. I am not indifferent enough. I am too self-engrossed to play in the sand. But yesterday afternoon I way trying to at least get ready to play, trying to find the right approach, the right kind of silence, when the girl walked by. That touch of elegance ruined my confidence. It made me dwell on the time I have spent just getting by, made me hate the octopus and the kingdom of the octopus, the small towns, the long monotonous highways, the squalid fairgrounds. It made me take a walk on the beach.
It’s a glorious beach, I suppose; usually empty, very wide and sandy. In back there are warm and green mountains, and most of the time the sea is well-behaved, although it was rough then and it had begun to rain. I began to think of beaches. I have been on eighty-seven beaches in the last fifteen years. Before that it is easier to be vague. Lately I have been reviewing each beach, although it isn’t a satisfactory way of getting through the day. Too much of my life has been spent on beaches: Cannes, Far Rockaway, Stinson Beach, one beach in Ireland, two in Crete, Lido, Curaçao, Luquillo, Curadado, Malibu, Deya, Nice, Tangiers, Cob, the Virgin Islands – to name a few. I never run into the water. I am actually afraid of moving water. Nor do I get a suntan. I lie in one place, usually on my stomach, and do nothing. For me, beaches are profane.
So there I was, reaching the end of the beach, thinking about beaches, when I saw the girl again. She was standing near a black rock, a yellow shawl wrapped around her face, staring inanely at the sea. I walked up to her, and standing a little apart and to the rear of her, I too stared at the sea. The waves were rushing in and out, quite furious now, sucking at the stones. I looked at her. She seemed not to have noticed me, and for this I was grateful. I was happy enough just to stand there, next to her, for my former feelings about her foot were quite in control. In fact, I inspected her feet and it didn’t seem possible that one of them should have acted as such a catalyst. Her feet were like her face, too broad and splotchy, rather crude and used up. Her dull features reassured me so much that I thought I might be able to stay on for another few months.
She turned toward me.
I have never been able to connect with strange women except if they are in distress or in some way hung up. She looked abysmally happy.
“You live in the boarding house, don’t you?” she asked. “Yes, I think you’re the only one who is permanent there.”
I wasn’t able to answer, a common fault of mine.
“What do you do? I mean, we’ve all been wondering what you do. You look frail and timid, like some great thinker or something. That’s what I think, anyway. My husband thinks you’re recovering from some romantic disease. Who’s right, him or me?”
She sat down on the black rock. The rain was drenching us. I was unprepared for such a downpour, being dressed in white seersucker pants, white paisley shirt and finely-woven linen shoes. I stood near her, waiting, but resolved not to give out with any information. If pressed, I might improvise on one of my memories. One should have an electric mind, I decided right there, not a tepid half-awake coping mind.
“Walk me down the beach,” the girl said. “I’m so wet. We’re both so wet. You don’t mind, do you? I’ll tell you a secret, we call you Dr. Angst because of the gloom on your face. You don’t mind, do you?”
I walked with her. I was, in fact, deeply offended, not by being called Dr. Angst but by being noticed that much. Words began to spill out of me, quite out of my control. “Why try to know anything about a place? The customs, the size, the weather, the people, the economy, the politics, the fish, the suntan techniques, the games, the swimming. It is better to stay indoors and not mess around with useless experiences. A small room in a boarding house. Anonymous. Eat each meal at a plastic counter. Smitty’s will do. Do nothing, want nothing, if you feel like walking, walk; sleeping, sleep. Do you know how hard that is? No memories; if they start to intrude, invent them. Three is sufficient. I use only three. New York for adventure, beaches for relaxation, the octopus and Nog for speculation. No connections. Narrow all possibilities. Develop and love your limitations. No one knows you. Know no one. Natural rhythms, my dear. That’s the ticket.”
She had wandered off to pick up a mussel shell. She came skipping back. “I use them for collages. I paste them in; shells, colored pieces of glass, driftwood, anything.” She giggled. “Did you know that today is the Fourth of July?”
“We’re having a party. You’re invited. Everyone is coming. Well, not everyone, but Timmons and Harry and the man who runs the gift shop and one or two others. My husband too, of course.”
I put my arm around her. Her behavior seemed to allow for such an embrace as long as nothing called her attention to it. But she stepped away, giving me a quizzical glance. I am unable to cope with quizzical glances.
“I know you,” I said decisively, trying to struggle away. “Ten years ago in New York; I don’t remember your name, but I might have even slept with you. It scares me, stumbling onto a part of my past like that. You were more emaciated then, of course, with your hair very ratty. You were carrying a sign in some kind of demonstration when I met you, that’s you, very political. Am I right?”
“I’m from Baltimore,” she said with a quick glance down at her awful feet. “I’ve never seen a demonstration of any kind. We moved out here when Ollie got a job working with an agricultural firm. They transferred him. We like it fine.”
“I won’t press,” I said. I have retained a certain amount of old-fashioned dignity. “Who you are and what you do are your problems.”
We walked on in silence. The silence, in fact, was fierce. And, I was proud to think, not one piece of information had I given away. No history, therefore no bondage. I have known myself to give out with facts, numbers, names, stories. I am that nervous sometimes. But as I said before, I am faster now. It was a joy to walk beside her with only her self-conscious distrust of me to handle. She was thinking I was only a little weird, possibly diseased; she was too simple, too nice to think anything more. And I’m too haggard to produce sexual fears; my ears are too huge and my lips too thin and uncontrolled.
We pressed on in the rain. I was all for delaying the walk as much as possible, but she was too determined to get home. Just before the house she had proudly marked as hers, we passed an old man in a First World War hat, struggling with a heavy log. He was bent and puffing as he tried to shift the log on top of a low makeshift sea wall.
I stopped. He was remarkably ugly and defiant.
“Colonel Green,” the girl said. “He lives in that big three-story house next to ours. He has a grandson in there and some kind of a woman, but they hardly ever show themselves. It’s not a good policy to talk to him. He comes out in every storm. A maniac about the sea. He must be eighty, honest, and Ollie says that all that’s keeping him alive is this crazy war he has going against the sea. Everyone thinks he’s a blight on the community.”
“Grab hold,” Colonel Green ordered. He marched up and shouted in my ear. “Goddamn water rising at three hundred miles an hour. Too dumb to see it? Flood the whole town before anyone shifts ass to do anything about it. Fact. Lift her up.”
I helped him lift the log onto the sea wall. He was dressed in a yellow mackintosh and big fishing boots. His furiously weathered face was sunk deep into his neck, and his tiny blue eyes, like two pale robin’s eggs, protruded into the night, unblinking and beautiful.
“People,” he yelled again into my ear.
I helped him with another log. We labored and swore, but the log kept slipping back onto the sand. Finally the colonel ordered a halt and sat down on the sea wall, wheezing and kicking the wet sand with his boots. I could only pick out every third or fourth word the colonel said, the wind was so strong and his voice had sunk to such a rasp. “Hear … no retreat … only … bastard sea … kicking up higher … iron woman … What …? What …? What …?”
I went up and yelled in his ear. “Right. A huge operation. Biggest operation in years. Massive. Mounting up out there. Ready to initiate general collapse. Anytime.”
We yelled back and forth. Then he punched me amiably in the stomach, and we struggled with the log. This time we made it. After another rest, we walked down to the sea for a better evaluation. “Jeep,” the colonel yelled, coming up to my ear again and grasping me by the neck so I wouldn’t turn away. He only had, after all, so many words in him. “Good thick sand tires. Drag every piece of maverick wood to the stronghold. Dig in! Protect the road!”
—from the Nog page at the great Two Dollar Radio Web site
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