rudy wurlitzer’s nog as california cult classic

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.

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