Book Reviews
Sukenick’s 98.6; Two Views on Roberson’s 1998.6.

Ronald Sukenick
FC2, 1975/94, ISBN 0-914590-09-X, 188 Pages, Paperback $12.95. [Browse/Purchase]

Matthew Roberson
FC2, 2002, ISBN 1-57366-102-3, 261 Pages, Paperback $13.95. [Browse/Purchase]

Review by Bob Williams

Sukenick has made his book deliberately difficult to read by several stratagems. His first victim is punctuation: he makes light of the period, banishes the comma, and leaves the interrogation mark up to the reader’s sense of context. He attaches useless dates to most of the sections in Part One; he allows his characters in Part Two to adopt a bewildering variety of names; and in Part Three he uses methods modeled upon James Joyce’s linguistic tour de force, Finnegans Wake. But despite these difficulties, 98.6 is actually a very exciting book. Its three parts form a unit that is coherent beyond the stubborn refusal of the writer to make the book easy.
The first part, called “Frankenstein,” is a dystopian nightmare. It conjures not only the pathetic monster of the famous book, but serves as the name for a country, and stands for everything monstrous, cruel and ugly. Sukenick ranges over the cruelties of various times with significant emphasis on Maya and Aztec cultures. He focuses on individuals in contemporary Frankenstein, a sort of fictional coastal California. They are in the grip of tribal gods that drive them relentlessly. They have no self. They are victims of a hedonism gone disastrously wrong. Even sensuality, much less sexuality or love, has become a matter, along with everything else, of bestial sensation.
The second part, “Children of Frankenstein,” describes the world of communes, the attempts to break away from Frankenstein. Full of promise and glowing with color, it soon descends into disintegration and madness. The commune members change their names as their personalities dissolve, their sexual alliances creating irreconcilable tensions. The commune is already tottering when the animosity of other communes, the local town, and an unknown assailant complete its ruin.
The final part, “Palestine,” is Sukenick’s upbeat Utopia. It is a country in which Arabs and Jews recognize the bond of a common heritage and live together in amity; a world in which an unassassinated Robert Kennedy brought health to a society riddled with lies and short-sighted opportunism. It is in these closing pages that the narrative voice becomes Joycean, and Sukenick presents an astonishing example of the possibilities inherent in the techniques of Finnegans Wake. It concludes on a mixed note of the sublime and the personal, an experience both moving and chilling.
Not an easy book, and not one that every reader will respond to; but for the fearless and careful reader, 98.6 is unforgettable.

Matthew Roberson has attempted the Borgesian feat of rewriting Sukenick: great chunks of 98.6 resurface in Roberson’s 1998.6, which follows the same three-part structure. The effect is strange – to use very cautious language. Would it be possible to read 1998.6 without regard to its predecessor? If the answer is “No,” what does this say about the autonomy of 1998.6?
Roberson’s “Frankenstein” is not especially horrific, although the relationship between a man – “he” in the narrative – and “The Wife” is cruelly bleak. Although Roberson adopts Sukenick’s rules regarding punctuation, he handles text differently, generating more sentence fragments and using “but” as a terminating or a freestanding word. The text also contains sections of a dissertation on Sukenick. These are written in academic jargon, and are neither helpful nor – a cardinal sin for a writer – very interesting.
The “he” of “Frankenstein” becomes (perhaps) the “Matt” of “Children of Frankenstein.” Here he is the initiator of a communal living situation. Steeped in the work of Sukenick, Matt wants to call their home “The Monster,” but the others outvote him, choosing to refer to it as “The Mansion.” One of the occupants describes Matt’s problems in this way: “Matt’s dissertation is stalled, it’s supposed to be a critical study of Sukenick . . .Matt is writing another book. . . Matt thinks he can understand Sukenick by writing a novel recording whatever happens to their group they’re all characters in his novel including himself this is what Sukenick would say to do.” On this basis, it seems safe to assume that the Matt of 1998.6 and Matthew Roberson, its author, are much the same person.
Roberson’s “Children of Frankenstein” has three subdivisions. The first is the “novel” that Matt is writing. The second is what Matt writes for the Mansion Webcam. When this develops serious complications, Matt returns to the novel. Each time he uses a different set of names – the same names more or less that Sukenick used (there are two Matts instead of two Joans). However, in 1998.6, the names are imposed rather than chosen.
Although the inhabitants of the Mansion are menaced by those outside, the threats are less ominous than in 98.6. Dissolution arises less from external factors than from the tensions associated with the beginning of the new school term. In fact, if we did not have the example of the earlier book before us, we might not perceive that the group is, in fact, disintegrating.
Palestine” has as much of Sukenick as the rest of the book, but it is nonetheless comparatively flat – a metaphor incidentally of some value to Sukenick, where “flat” is representative of imperfection. Israel becomes – by a seriously bad choice – Televisrael. What are we to make of this? Is it simply an unfortunate and self-indulgent jest, or does it express a sense of deterioration in the years between the two books? Either answer argues a serious flaw in Roberson’s concept. There is, unlike in Sukenick’s, no redemptive intensity in Roberson’s Palestine. The work, borrowing tags and rags from 98.6, grinds to a halt.
It is scarcely necessary to point out that I found 1998.6 a disappointment. Its own parts failed to fuse, and none of it derived any great benefit from its dependence on 98.6. Certainly the book gives Roberson the space to work out an obsession; but this is an unsuitable public act. Better that he had committed 1998.6 to his drawer.

–Bob Williams
30 October 2003

Review by Steve Tomasula

Put several thousand young people together in close confines, expect them to mature physically, grow intellectually, figure out the world, learn a profession, fall in-and-out of love, indulge in a last few years of careerless, spouseless, childless, debt-free freedom; add the constraints of institutions with their own pretensions, as well as the careerism, politics, longing, and yes, even idealism, of professors; fuel it all with hallucinogenics and sexual desire.... No wonder college campuses turn up in so many novels – the places are such ready-made stages that it’s hard to not become a character just by walking onto one! One only has to think of the tradition of novels set in college to come up with examples of characters and situations that are so recognizable across the generations of college life that they seem archetypal: the Graduate in Terry Johnson’s novel getting advice to go into plastics; the old WWII history professor in The World According to Garp, repeatedly teaching the same wind-bag course, “My Part in the Pacific”; the coed in Love Story who was brilliant, beautiful, and dead by graduation; Kingsley Amis’s drunken grad student in Lucky Jim; the community college in Don DeLillo’s White Noise that has a chair in Hitler Studies; the Midwestern college in Jane Smiley’s Moo; and maybe the favorite of anyone who’s been in the adjunct trenches, Bernard Malamud’s east-coast Jew who joins an English department at a small technical college out west with a mandate to “teach the future tractor repairmen of America how to write their English compositions.”
Matthew Roberson’s novel 1998.6 extends this tradition – a view of student life that is refreshing for many reasons, particularly for its honest depiction of what it means to throw yourself into the study of language and literature at a time when the only financial pay-off might be a string of adjunct jobs at fast-food worker wages. Or as the novel puts it, quoting from the Chronicle of Higher Education – that academic newspaper whose classified ads nascent PhDs pour over with more intensity than railbirds give The Daily Racing Form – “The job market is bad, and it has been bad in literature and language since 1970. There are now 35 years of PhDs who didn’t get jobs.” This is a collegiate landscape far removed from the ivy-covered ivory towers that most authors come from and write about. That is, this is a college landscape instantly recognizable to the vast majority of liberal arts grad students: the state university grad program that many in the Ivies say should shut down in order to not glut an ever-narrowing market that their more worthy students are trying to enter. Absent are the Lord Jim variety of Oxbridge stuffed shirts and children of privilege, or the frat-boys of The Graduate, or even the students of the 60s with a foreign war and hippie concerns.
The students that share a house in 1998.6 are reflections of American culture after it has absorbed the shocks of feminism, multiculturalism, and the rest of the culture wars; it’s the moment when virtually every field of inquiry is still undergoing the revolution inspired by the literary theory they study. A time when the culture at large is beginning to exhibit markers of the changes that first swept through academia: fragmentation, canon shakeup, dispersal of origins.... The landscape of their lives features cable-TV, amateur-porn Web sites, granola, and email. It’s natural for male and female students to advertise for a roommate and move into a communal house, not thinking anything of sharing the bathroom until one of the members thinks it would be a cool idea to install Web-cams, deconstructing the life of the house online for all the world to see. In a way, the novel acts like one of those Web-cams: its main characters are all real people, Roberson as narrator included, and the sections of this mosaic-like text provide a real feel for snapshots of student life – and literature, and writing – at the turn of our century, even as it takes them apart.
Indeed, what’s most fresh about 1998.6 is its break with the very tradition of the novel that it extends. Partly it’s the working-class nature of this narrative that makes most others seem as relevant to the experience of the vast majority of college students as marble statues. Many of the novels in the “college life” tradition have the feel of having been written by professors, even those written from a student viewpoint. The mosaic writing style of 1998.6 (which conveys a sense of actual students with actual student concerns, rather than top-down management by professor-authors imagining what students are concerned about) creates a textual reality that intentionally invokes Ronald Sukenick’s very reason to write fragmented, self-referential novels: the fact that novels written in the past, especially classics, didn’t describe the world he was living in. This sentiment, and method, is at the core of Roberson’s work.
Another reason 1998.6 rings with authenticity is the preoccupying concern of the narrator: right up there with sex, love, and music is the “dis”: the dissertation. In hindsight, a reader might ask how an author of a novel about grad school can not make central the one thing that dominates a PhD student’s life for six to eight years: years that will determine the rest of their career as no other single activity can. For all but the most careerist, that is, academically minded, the dissertation is the focal point that defines its writer in the way that the poem makes the poet. Or not. And this realization takes on added urgency for Matt, the narrator, who like Sukenick before him painfully feels that the old forms of academia, of writing, of living, no longer fit his contemporary world. Along with the usual struggles of writing the dis, then, comes the added frustration of trying to figure out what a new, more relevant form of living, and writing might be.
This puzzle is the source of the novel’s multiple layers, and ultimately, its profound and poignant conclusion. After some deliberation, Matt, the main character of this self-reflexive novel, settles on writing about Ron Sukenick, the experimental writer whose seminal work 98.6 emerged from the culture of 70s communes. Part memoir, part novel (you see the parallels building), this earlier novel is like much of Sukenick’s writing, an experiment in free expression: a text that proclaims writing, as Sukenick did himself, to be a liberating impulse where spontaneity was the only rule. The irony in making a work like this the subject of an academic dissertation jumps from the page, as does the anxiety of influence associated with most educational/artistic endeavors. But Roberson pushes it even further – his own novel mirrors the stylistic devices in Sukenick’s book with its diary-like entries and its omission of punctuation. In a certain sense, it’s a parody of both Sukenick and itself: a dissertation that knows not to take itself too seriously even if Matt is deadly serious in its pursuit. It’s the sort of parody that’s also homage, and more importantly, a kind of “narralouge”: the literary form pioneered by Sukenick that is as much literary criticism as fiction, critiquing the very ideas its characters enact. The reader continually finds him or herself in the very kind of decentering moments from which both Sukenick and Roberson seem to have written. In one telling example, a page is encountered in Roberson’s book that is a reprint of a photocopy (with post-it note sticking out that says ‘Photocopy this page’) of the Sukenick novel under discussion. The moment cuts multiple ways. For one, there is the winking to the modern reader of repeating the “Make It New” philosophy Sukenick promoted in the 1970s. In this context, the page from Sukenick’s novel is a self-reflexive reminder of the accusation often aimed at academia: studying the beauty of butterflies by killing one and pinning it to a board. Roberson also plays with the issue of appropriation and representation, seeing all learning as a kind of imitation: what everyone knows about Matt’s dissertation director is that if he “is on your committee and your dissertation satisfies his demands you’re doing well and you will do well.” But beyond this, to see the very book 1998.6 mirrors depicted on the page also creates a mirror-facing-mirror effect. This is emphasized by the content of the page as well. The photocopied page from 98.6 repeats a passage encountered earlier in 1998.6 which suggests that the “extraordinary” is “the answer to The Problem.” Although The Problem is rather complex, one of its aspects involves the mediated nature of reality, or the fact that everything we know about the world comes to us in mediated form, simultaneous and decontextualized.
Matt desperately wants to believe in the Extraordinary he reads about in Sukenick’s novel. We are told in that earlier passage: “He wants to think that these powers are real that they belong to anyone who isn’t blinded by the negative hallucinations of our culture in other words not seeing things that are really there letting the ordinary blot out the extraordinary. Get it.” The problem (with getting at The Problem) is that it’s hard to get at the Extraordinary “sitting at home reading watching tv playing on the computer never going wherever outside somewhere else finding the extraordinary making it happen.” It’s this sort of double-vision/double ratcheting that propels both novels forward, and gives 1998.6 its nuanced, multi-channel effects. By the end, the novel creates a poignant depiction of what it is to be confronted by these ideas in real, concrete ways, which, for a person who thinks, are also problems of thought, which are also just as concrete. “Interruption. Discontinuity. Imperfection. It can’t be helped,” Matt the character, and Roberson the author, write near the end of the novel. “This very instant as I write [this novel] you [readers] read a hundred things. A hundred things to tangle with resolve ignore before you are together. Together for an instant and smash it’s all gone still it’s worth it. I feel.” The community formed by the students sharing the house unravels. At the same time, the culture at large is divided by the atomistic nature of the television-watching, emailing, and general mobility that also unites them. At the same time, members of the house fall in and out of relationships, and personalities change as they do in Sukenick’s commune. At the same time, the dissertation over which Matt has been struggling ends up as a collage of notes – or this novel. At the same time, he realizes that much of the world is this way: a simultaneous, ever-changing target that is continually beyond the grasp of those who want a little truth – be it in words or life, but especially in words. And yet, as the Joycean soliloquy of Sukenick’s book concludes, and as Roberson’s book implies, we feel. And feeling, being beyond words, beyond meaning, is perhaps the most profound “last word” anyone can have.

–Steve Tomasula
5 October 2005

Additional Information

FC2 Page – The homepage for Fiction Collective Two, “an author-run, not-for-profit publisher of artistically adventurous, non-traditional fiction.”


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Aleph, alpha: nought, nought, one.