Wake Up. We're Almost There, by Chandler Brossard
20€ 546 page large paperback
Zen and the Art of Buggery
by Zachary Tanner
“I’m not sure that it’s even fair to ask you to write a foreward, introduction, or whatever, because I would not want to put what I experience with Brossard into words, you know, uh (long drag of a cigarette), be like (sip of coffee), like fucking someone who’s telling you as you’re going along what you’re feeling and why.”
It is no coincidence that I share a first name with the bearded Zen master of Wake Up. We’re Almost There, as you are he, as you are me, and we are Chandler all together, constantly falling into and out of the abyss of one another’s “eternal and fathomless” human consciousness. Zachary (I, you, he, she, we, they) reminds his pupils “the mind flows out as it naturally enters into contact with any environment” and we’ve all been ruined by “Aristotelian logic…Everybody except April.” Who’s April? The most notorious vixen since Juliette for one, but, more pertinently, a single player in a bizarre troupe of Everymen conspiring over 500-some-odd pages in the grand delusion of staging reality by the magic of sensual clairvoyance and osmotic kinesics. As the novelist-within-the-novel George says “I am someone else, or several people as we go on, and boy do we go on.”
Next year will mark 50 years since the first hardcover edition of Wake Up (Richard W. Baron, 1971) and 49 years since the last paperback edition (Harrow, 1972). You may wonder: why have I never read this book? Why did it take the Great Anti-American Novel a half-century to be repatriated by an infinitesimal nonprofit press in Slovenia?
Part of it is retaliatory suppression by a gatekeeper from the New School.1 In April, 1971, Anatole Broyard, Brossard’s former friend and lifelong literary nemesis, published an obscene review of Wake Up in The New York Times titled “A truly bad book just doesn’t happen.”2 The review opens “Here’s a book so transcendently bad it makes us fear not only for the condition of the novel in this country, but for the country itself.” What a preposterous sentiment! Surely by 1971 any decent American citizen was beyond zeitgeist crisis and had personalized the horror, wondering: how-the-fuck-do-I-get-out-of-this-filthy-wasteland? The prudish review complains of the novel as “sexual circus,” of its “revolutionary rhetoric,” and “well over 500 pages of copulation, cunnilingus, and fellatio.” Call me pervy, but I’ve never read a negative review that buttered me up quite like this one. Have I been desensitized by too many dirty French books with talking cunts and naughty frontispieces? Perhaps. Later, Broyard is also quite humorously baffled by the “indiscriminate couplings” of Brossard’s prosody and gives four examples of befuddling language some of us would call poetry, the set of which Steven Moore later reclaimed as synesthetic Zen koans.3 The coup de grâce is in the penultimate paragraph when the Broyard invalidates not only himself but the entire ass-wipe publication in dismissively lumping Wake Up together with Joyce, Céline, Genet, Henry Miller, Günter Grass, Thomas Pynchon, and John Barth. A stacked roster, to be sure. Anybody whose home library contained even worn paperbacks of these works would be a fast friend of mine, but more likely a reader who has heard of any of these authors has a few HCDJs from each. How unfortunate that even in 2020 such dreamboat intellectuals are less common than flat-earthers. What is more, Broyard fails to note the Marquis de Sade (who is mentioned more than once in the text) or Marguerite Young, their Greenwich Village contemporary whose landmark Miss MacIntosh, My Darling (Scribner’s, 1965) is equally dense, phantasmagoric, and forgotten. Two years after Wake Up, when Brossard published his manifesto distinguishing “literature” from “fabulous fiction,” a public indictment of the rampant fraudulence of the mod-lit scene, he aligns himself no less with Homer, Hugo, Melville, Proust, Queneau, Jünger, Kafka, and Musil, among others.4 It also calls to my mind Nabokov’s transgressive masterpiece Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle (McGraw Hill, 1969), or the 8mm mud shark pornos and monster dicks of The Mothers’ Fillmore East – June 1971, though it seems unlikely Broyard would have been loose enough to enjoy either of those. Nor could he have known that the Nazi orgies in this transcendent doorstopper predate those in the National Book Award-winning Gravity’s Rainbow (Viking, 1973) by two years and the complex sociological motion of McElroy’s Women and Men (Knopf, 1987) by sixteen. Sadly, not everyone shares Brossard’s (and my) contempt for conventionality, and the review virtually banished the dear author to the Borgesian labyrinth of little presses.
But finally, itis coming back across the Atlantic in a paperback reproduction of the original hardcover of the first edition in all its sic glory, as if via wormhole from an alternate, utopian reality without copy editors or record company tycoons in which the Grateful Dead were actually able to title their second live double album Skull-fuck.5
But Wake Up is more than the masterpiece that the counterculture forgot. What better time than now to bathe in its “indifference to difference.” Here’s a book for anyone with a respectable amount of self-contempt. It is a tool, like the I Ching or a tarot deck, to free your mind from “the shit of the bourgeois world.” It is an escape from the cultural diarrhea of the “Zonk box” in which the reader-participant is welcomed on equal footing as an intellectual and a compassionate human being. Dream with me, Brossard screams through his characters, and together we can subvert society for its lack of love. Rim jobs can save the western world! Leave behind this “Cannibalistic inhuman culture where the kids are brought up to hustle each other and real human emotion and contact are regarded as some awful disease that must be stamped out by crash programs to develop a vaccine against it if life is to be lived to a ripe age. Even sex, that ultimate diamond, is tarnished into human commercialism and thus is turned into a crummy zircon to be worn around the ankle.” Remember the “first law of humankind…We are all each other, floating in and out of each other’s dreams and fantasies and everyday acts even the most intimate moments being crowded with dozens of others. No man is alone. If that cat only knew the half of it! I have been Hector on the Trojan barricades and will be the first woman on the moon, four months gone with a homosexual night club singer. Moonblood, moonooze. Not an artichoke here that doesn’t call me by my first name!”
Sheer need drives multiple claims of an affinity for Bosch, but here we have a book that is actually worthy of its several allusions to the infernal visionary. They may “want to obliterate your infinity,” but don’t fret, for you are “as free as your own imagination and circumstances allow you.” Refuse to be a victim “of other people’s hallucinations!” If you have sought and failed to find satori in meditation, yoga, or the controlled use of psychedelics drugs, return to this sublime penny arcade of the psychoses of western civilization, and the next time you feel inclined to fold in on yourself and spew hatred, pick up Brossard instead and learn to laugh, as Shakespeare taught you to quip, Burton to ruminate, and Proust to remember.
- To read the story as told by Brossard, see his essay “Tentative Visits to the Cemetery: Reflections on My Beat Generation” in The Review of Contemporary Fiction; Volume 7, Number 1; Spring 1987: Chandler Brossard Number. This issue also features a number of illuminating essays on the early, steal-the-bread-from-your-dinner-table Village Brossard, an interview with the author conducted by Steven Moore in the summer of 1985, and Moore’s indispensable “Chandler Brossard: An Introduction and Checklist,” required reading for future Chandler groupies that features quite possibly the only fair criticism of Wake Up ever written. For those without a university library, the essay was reprinted in My Back Pages: Reviews and Essays (Zerogram Press, 2017) and the interview is available at https://www.dalkeyarchive.com/a-conversation-with-chandler-brossard-by-steven-moore/.
- Anatole Broyard, “A truly bad book just doesn’t happen,” Review of Wake Up. We’re Almost There, by Chandler Brossard, The New York Times Print Edition (April 4, 1971): Section BR, Page 51. https://www.nytimes.com/1971/04/04/archives/wake-up-were-almost-there-by-chandler-brossard-540-pp-new-york.html
- See “Chandler Brossard: An Introduction and Checklist.”
- “Commentary (Vituperative): The Fiction Scene” Harper’s 244 (June 1972): 106-110.
- Phil Lesh, Searching for the Sound (Little Brown, 2007), 196.