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Ezra Tessler reviews

The Collected Fiction of Kenneth Koch
by Kenneth Koch

408 pp. Coffee House Press. Paperback. US$18. 978156891769 paper

This review is about 8 printed pages long.

Untethered hawsers:

innovation and meaning in Kenneth Koch’s fiction

Prose is ‘nothing but the continuation of poetry by other means’, Joseph Brodsky says regarding the Russian poet Maria Tsvetaeva in his essay ‘A Poet and Prose’. The same parallel could be made between the poetic achievements and fictional aspirations of Kenneth Koch, whose prolific and varied work as New York School poet, dramatist, and pedagogue persistently sought to expand the frontiers of language and transgress the boundaries of literary genre.[1] Indeed, the writing that comprises ‘The Collected Fiction of Kenneth Koch’ is an astounding testament to this imaginative and self-reflective literary willpower. Throughout the collection—which includes the longer pieces ‘The Red Robins’ and ‘Hotel Lambosa’, as well as a smattering of shorter works that span his career — Koch’s writing is playful, exuberant, and relentlessly innovative with form and language.

Yet to what end and to what effect does Koch’s novelty strive? In ‘Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity’, the philosopher Richard Rorty explains that ‘playfulness’ can harness ‘the power of language to make new and different things possible and important’. The aim is not novelty for its own sake, but for the sake of bringing about original potential in the world. To do this, a writer must be able to make his or her imagination tangible and to nurture the reader’s own imagination. With this in mind, it is unfortunate that throughout ‘The Collected Fiction’, Koch’s wild eccentricity often seems vague and insubstantial. His inventiveness can feel like an end in itself, like a neurotic tick or a streak of adolescent rebelliousness. Regardless of such pitfalls, Koch’s frenzied experimentation at times produces poignant distillations of personal communion, natural beauty, and ironic humor. It is these moments that invigorate Koch’s literary experiment in fiction and substantiate the stories that comprise this collection.

The most striking example of Koch’s literary inventiveness is ‘The Red Robins’ (1975), the longest piece in the collection and perhaps the most well known of Koch’s relatively unacknowledged fiction. This dizzying 56 chapter, 150 page novel-like epic explodes into free-form prose, poetry, drama, and countless other incarnations of literary expression. Resiliently difficult to summarize, Koch’s hyperkinetic tale loosely follows the adventures of a group of pilots led by a morally ambiguous figure named Santa Claus as they swoop in and around Asia. The Red Robins inhabit—as if at random—jungles, cities, beaches, and clouds, while the story’s fantastical whims burst in and out of narrative, dialogue, list, rhyme, unconnected to specific time or event. There are no ‘characters’ in the traditional sense of robust personage. Instead, the reader meets a barrage of people, things, and places, some of which appear multiple times, most of which only momentarily. Together they get heaped in a spontaneous whirlwind so schizophrenic and bawdy as to rival the likes of Rabelais, Sterne, and Burroughs.

Koch’s playfulness explodes the traditional novel’s central element of scope and proportionality. His story takes on the quality of a seething circus of life, democratic in aspiration, with no entity too big or too small to qualify itself worthier of inclusion than any other. For example, one of the novel’s more coherent chapters proceeds as the middle-age parents of a Red Robin named Jill travel to Asia to convince their daughter to return home. After they speak with her and Santa, the group has lunch. Koch abruptly concludes the chapter’s drama with the following inventory (p. 80):

The Menu
Shrimp Cocktail
Assorted Hors d’oeuvre, Sydney Style
Harengs refroidis
Filets of Sole, Sydney
Roasted Fox
Pilot’s Salad
Mousse Tour Eiffel
Fruit Canopy

This list is more than a sardonic addendum. With these simple yet superlative contingencies, Koch deflates the chapter’s previous narrative conceit. The preceding human drama suddenly pales in import to the plain (albeit rarefied) facts of culinary choice. By drawing the complex generational tension to such an inconclusive and unrelated resolution, Koch undermines the very arc of drama.

Throughout his text, Koch patently refuses to make any overt sense or draw a clear narrative line, thus upending another tenet of the traditional novel. Again, in chapter 19, Koch interrupts a conversation with the following widescreen (p. 100):

The midsummer sun broke spindles in Saudi Arabia. And in the glass houses on Crete, babies were crying, till their kindly mommies in yellow frock gowns came spinning to attend to them. And the sea whistles, calling for blue, more blue, ever bluer than blue. In Ankhor Vat a child is crying too, but its delirious mommy lies broken at the bottom of a wall made of shell, and white ears point over her, a page is turned of life’s enormous book.

Suddenly zooming out, Koch’s irrelevant Atlas-like list of international images, coupled with the previous unrelated conversation, mingles the epic and the dramatic with the petty and the common. Reverberating Whitman’s multitudes, Koch punctures the concept of scope with democratizing irony. Here, as elsewhere, it is tempting to think of Auden’s lines:

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well, they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along …

While the two writers’ passages may address similar issues regarding the scope and drama of human suffering, they proceed quite differently: Auden with pace and deliberation, Koch with centrifugal impatience.

Yet as Koch’s verbal gymnastics playfully provoke the boundaries of comprehension, his literary world expands indefinitely to the point where meaning threatens to crumble altogether. One can almost select at random any page or passage to get a sense of the chaos that reigns. Although Koch’s tale shares the unending digressive nature that prevails in Proust’s Narrator’s gossip or Tyrone Slothrop’s tumultuous adventures, Koch’s version often seems directionless. As the internal world of the Robins inflates without end, Koch’s words flee their center: rather than take on new meanings, they become white noise. With this, the richness and sensuality of Koch’s texture quickly diffuses. In the end, Koch’s story loses itself to its own entropy: imagination is raised to an end in itself, and despite its plethora of details, the world of the Red Robins, even with its vague allusions to Peter Pan, has remarkably little specificity.

The collection’s opening story smacks of the same effect: despite the exuberant experimentation with literary form, ‘The Beverly Boys’ Summer Vacation’ (1958) comes off vague and unspecific. This short adventure tale follows brothers Bobby, Bill, Jim, and their Aunt Bertha Beverly on their visit to a cabin where, among other activities, they see a garter snake, eat lunch, and make a new friend. Along the way, they herald the fun-filled values of sharing, friendship, and family. Throughout his tale, Koch raises each commonplace action to the level of occasion through simple language that calls to mind the naïve enthusiasm of a children’s book.

Koch’s playful story subverts the traditional form of the novel by maintaining some of its key elements and displacing others. For example, Koch uses chapters to mark narrative breaks but miniaturizes the endeavor with a markedly abbreviated narrative tone. Small events are described with wide-eyed excitement: yet the story hops along without a moment of lingering reflection. The amnesiac-like bouncy half-narrative can be seen in the following transition between chapters. Chapter 15, entitled ‘The Carousing of Landlubbers’, proceeds (p. 9):

What good times the boys had with their new friend! They went everywhere in the wood and played many games. Ted called them ‘landlubbers,’ and they asked him what it meant. He said that it was a name given by people who live on the sea to those who live on the land. Then the boys called themselves ‘The Landlubbers,’ and played many games with this new name.

Chapter 16, entitled ‘Aunt Bertha’s Friends’, then skips immediately into the next digestible but irreverent chapter (p. 10):

One day a raccoon, a badger and a chipmunk came and sat in the clearing where the boys were eating breakfast. Aunt Bertha saw them and gave them some little pieces of bread and bacon rind. The animals ate greedily. Then every day they would come and sit in the same place, and Aunt Bertha would give them something. Jim Beverly said that they were Aunt Bertha’s ‘friends’.

As with these passages, Koch whittles the novel’s substance down to the basic action and language of youth, disregarding questions of place and time and condensing his narrative to a radical simplicity. In doing so, he also takes aim at the literary canon and ironically comments on its accessibility and prestige.

The real irony in this story, however, is that while trying to breathe excitement into the literary landscape by hybridizing literary forms — and in so doing, thumb his nose at the starched conservative, academic literary landscape of the 1950s — Koch’s experimentation with prose comes off strikingly stiff. When Koch’s child characters speak, they do so with the same naïvely reduced voice as the narrator. Evoking the nostalgic clarity of the decade’s moral and social terrain, Koch’s characters make conclusively flat assurances like ‘Gee, I’d like a drink of water’ (p. 10) before setting out on a trip, or ‘Oh, that was good!’ after eating lunch (p. 11). There are no tangible sounds or subdued silences for the imagination to take hold in this dialogue. Despite its differences with ‘The Red Robins’, this story’s peculiar attempt at playfulness combines with monotony only to give rise to a similarly detached gloss.

There are, however, moments when Koch’s childlike adventure tale sparkles. One such tangible flash takes place in chapter 11, which proceeds in its entirety as follows: ‘“Time for lunch!” called Aunt Bertha Beverly. What a fine meal! There were tomatoes and sausages and bacon and baked potatoes and apples and oranges and walnuts, along with plenty of cold milk!’ (p. 8). The passage’s exalted details are fantastical and buoyant, and its commodities have an enchanted glow like the animals one might see in Henri Rousseau’s phantasmagoric jungle scenes. Koch’s experimentation with childlike narrative and the children’s book form takes hold in the specificity of this moment and others, when Koch is able to nurture the imagination of his readers.

Despite the threatening gloss of unrelenting literary innovation, throughout the collection there are instances of striking beauty and lyricism to Koch’s writing, and these add sustenance and force to his experimentation with form. In ‘The Red Robins’, even with its beguiling scattered centrifuge of language, an occasional turn of phrase or a distillation of an image seems so unique, so powerful, that the story’s utter mayhem dissolves and the poignancy of the moment grasps the reader’s attention. These moments spark the reader’s imagination: ‘“Yes, I am Doctor Lunch,” dixit, passing now his terrifying glance from one to another young Robin. His ears were loaves of bread. His eye — a pineapple. His other eye a smoking yellow dove’ (p. 177). Playful and irreverent, Koch’s language condenses the chaos into tangible forms. Again, in chapter 37, Koch interrupts the confusion: ‘He never left her and she was sweet and pelvic, like a cleft peach, golden’ (p. 153). Although within the text the reader may have no idea who ‘he’ or ‘she’ refers to, the vagueness of the narrative context is suddenly sutured by a tactile image. Time rests in these moments and suddenly folds into itself, solid and grounded.

Throughout ‘The Red Robins’ and in other pieces in the collection, the juxtaposition of powerful images with the chaos of upended narrative time suddenly provides temporal specificity and lyrical traction. The effect is that of a eulogistic commentary on the traditional representation of time. In this playful passage from ‘The Red Robins’, one image breaks through the bewildering complexity of voices and projections (p. 159):

My daddy is back — I never was glad when he was gone!
Little baby, you aren’t even old enough to talk yet, why are you speaking?
Come, Earth, it is time to go. The lepers are covered with marks; it is five o’clock.
You must come to me in the sea! It is the ‘Balakta,’ or ‘elephant congress.’
Such were the things that were said, and such were the fears expressed by those whose good right arms had built the sailing ship Alacrusha.
Now it was darkening over the poppy-seed-filled pier where so many green-shelled clams had been, bringing terror to the people of Shangai.
A young woman in a green fur suit seals bluebells while a child watches.
Suddenly the child speaks to her, the toy words mounting to his lips with an uncommon fervor. ‘Mayannah meetah,’ the child says, ‘cownooah, gaeeyah flota!

While it is unclear who is speaking and where this scene or scenes are taking place, time slows with the emotionally saturated image of a young woman sealing bluebells. The woman’s psychological projections and the confusion caused by the baby’s simultaneously mature and infantile voices become grounded in the woman’s pathetic act of nostalgic resistance amid the countervailing vectors of time.

This hermeneutic link between image and time provides the most fertile opportunities for traction throughout the collection. Within ‘The Red Robins’’ confusion, the reader is given half-pieced clues — sudden images or words — that burp out of Koch’s logorrhea, hinting at an elusive internal mise-en-scene lying somewhere in the chaos of Koch’s imagination. Notice the temporal gurgles amid the streaming currents of the following passage, taken from chapter 24 (p. 112):

A car pulled up and the sun gets out! Dr. Sleeveless In the hospitals of time, Jill’s ‘wounded knee.’ The burns over the tiger skin. ‘Could time rush--?’ It was springtime in Honolulu. Pink Blossoms brushed the streets with faraway fantasies of a captain’s eyes. He has lived long on the boards of his boat, a boast bearer for an era. Now peonies steam into renewed vigor as monks and clouds—’You know,’ said Jill, ‘a peony-covered evening.’ The symphony concert was still. Only here and there the wing of a butterfly, tenderly and mothily white, would recall the waves hitting Venice to a retired summer poetaster who, his garterless socks gathered far below his knees, tieless and shoeless, sits dreaming at the furthest border of the Lanakai, far from the choruses of village girls, seemingly.

Who is Dr. Sleeveless? Is he the captain, the poetaster, the sun? When do these events take place, and how many events or time periods are being referenced? Despite these narrative questions, the poetic weight of certain adjectives—’mothily’, ‘garterless’, ‘peony-covered’ — become harbingers of nostalgic vulnerability, emotional remnants of the movement of time. They imbue the passage with a sense of melancholic wispiness, referenced by the memories of ‘faraway fantasies’ and the hollowed loneliness of loss in the ‘hospitals of time’ that have been ‘lived long’ by this ‘bearer for an era’. This ghostly temporal distillation, soldered by the poetic gravity of rhyme and consonance, set the passage’s sanguine tone in relief. Yes, the reader still has no idea who or what Koch is talking about. But it is these elements—highlighted by poignant lyrical qualities—that perspire like beads of sweat on Koch’s writing and give the reader glimpses into an internal world marked by particulars, whether they be emotions, or objects, or moments in time.

Similarly, in the more subdued but no less experimental ‘Hotel Lambosa’ (1993) — Koch’s collection of 85 individual short vignettes ranging from a paragraph to a few pages — there are striking autobiographical moments that bring compelling force to a swath of melancholy that otherwise feels generic and unconvincing. Amid stories of travel with lovers, friends, or colleagues, Koch’s lyrical density peaks out: for example, he explains that in an unnamed Muslim country, ‘the tea was sweet and had sprigs of mint in it. On these sprigs, as often as not, there were bugs’ (p. 294). Again, Koch’s fresh yet poetic laconism is captured in the following simple memory (p. 226):

Now, thirty years later, I think I can still see that house very clearly. I can see the kitchen window thought which she or I would sometimes (just idly) stare, because it was mostly from right there that we seemed nearest to the Italian song-singing by the housemaid next door. I most emphatically recall the gate, though what was its color—green? white?—where an ‘old man’ (he may have been sixty, sixty-five, or seventy, but he was bent over) came, saying, when I walked down to open it, ‘I am Ottavino, the peasant’.

In the same way that Koch distills a tone, a fabric of feeling in his brief image of the mint sprig, he is able to capture the striking force of a confessional nostalgia with this stark but muted recollection.

More often than not, however, Koch’s ‘Hotel Lambosa’ dawdles in surprisingly nonspecific abstractions in a neurotic need to experiment with narrative. In these moments, Koch’s attempt to create small worlds of brief encounters and fleeting melancholic lives, as in Hemingway’s ‘A Clean Well-Lighted Place’, comes up short. In many of Koch’s vignettes he repeatedly tells stories with unnamed characters, as in the following, about an encounter between lovers: ‘She looked very beautiful. He looked wrinkled but fit. He was a soldier. She lived near there’ (p. 315). In another story, called ‘The music of lives in bed’, Koch follows two unnamed characters — a ‘he’ and a ‘she’ — as they lay in bed with their minds racing into lethal thoughts of each other. What could be an insidiously powerful window into the overlap of love and hate instead becomes bland and generic. Unfortunately, Koch’s repeated use of this literary technique — whether intended to add an element of universality, eerie hollowness, or to elide the substance of character in traditional storytelling — seems more like an experimental itch than a compelling literary device.

This slackening of experimentation into imprecision undermines the literary aims Koch evokes in the collection’s second piece, ‘The Postcard Collection’ (1964). In this peculiar essay/memoir, Koch begins with a close reading of a series of 19th century French postcards and builds into a layered self-reflective discussion of the nature of art and writing. Picking up a postcard, examining its front, turning it over, trying to discern the splotched and half-legible writing, Koch probes why the sender might have bought the card, sent it, and written what he or she did. Through occasional bursts into poetry, declarations of love, and reflections on his own responses to the postcards, Koch explores the complex motives and means of communication and articulation. He concludes, paralleling his interpretation of the goal of the postcards, that ‘what I am writing, beautiful and responsive reader, is intended to enter into your soul… ’ (p. 27).

Whether he is speaking about postcards, art, or poetry, all of which he equates at varying points in ‘The Postcard Collection’, Koch reiterates this striving for the ‘penetration of souls’ (p. 36). Consider the following passage (p. 30-31):

Given the apparently necessarily defensive nature of the adult psyche (a defensiveness which may be no more protective, say, than a linen suit; but think, even there, how much a linen suit does keep off—such damaging sun ((one could die for the lack of one’s suit)), chilling rain ((only keeps off a little, then can become damaging in being rain-chill retentive)), fragments of dust continually hurled at us like postcards through the mails, but faster and with what motive? a mystery of nature), given the defensive nature of the soul, shall we not assume also that it is on its guard against whatever is too obviously directed against it with aim of penetration? and will it not be actually pierced most easily by the disguised, by the oblique? and does not, furthermore, each soul have at least an unconscious awareness of this proclivity and weakness in other souls and, therefore, select, when it wishes to effect a penetration, some weapon so subtle or self-mocking as to pass unnoticed through those fibers which, no matter how closely woven, are made of mortality and are thus bound to be open to death and thus to love, desire, hopelessness, hopefulness?

Why a person is affected by a piece of writing is a complex and subjective matter, influenced by the forces of contingency, taste, psychology, or even whim. But here Koch shows that the best way to the reader’s soul is not necessarily the most direct. Oblique and playful writing may be most powerful when it is as layered and elusive as the very human psyche that it tries to penetrate and from which it springs. He concludes: ‘there are moments, however, when these cards, through some secret and exact adjustments of their own, enter into reality with a flash and even a flame’ (p. 36). Koch believed these magical reverberations were best pursued outside of the proverbial and in the realm of the new.

This collection holds many such magical moments. For the most part, these moments find their impetus in Koch’s writing through a combination of quirky surprise and dense texture. Images become poignant and tactile distillations. Time takes on an emotional thickness through simultaneous disorder and nostalgia. And with language that is at once orgiastic and lingering, Koch explodes the boundaries of traditional literature, reconstituting how we can think about and speak about experiences, places, people, and the creative process itself.

In ‘The Art of Literature and Common Sense’, Nabokov speaks about the ‘supremacy of the detail over the general’, pointing to the tingle one feels when confronted with the infinitesimal in literature. Indeed, Koch is most radical when it comes to his minutely idiosyncratic and quixotic images, where the poet’s laconism crystallizes and provides the most fertile ground for the senses and the imagination. But these are only moments, only occasional images. More often than not, Koch’s inventiveness with language and form loses traction, burdened by a ‘Look-Mom-no-hands quality’.[2] While many writers and literary movements have taken it upon themselves to explode the stale and the worn, Koch’s efforts frequently feel cutesy, self-satisfied, and unspecific. Yet there is nothing vain, disingenuous, or saccharine about Koch’s writing. Despite its excesses, this collection is a testament to Koch’s endless and earnest enthusiasm for innovation in literature.


[1] For an account of this idea and the New York School more broadly, see David Lehman’s The Last Avant-Garde: The Making of the New York School of Poets. You can read Lehman’s Introduction in Jacket 5, and Paul Hoover’s review of the book in Jacket 6.

[2] This phrase is used in David Foster Wallace’s novella Westward The Course of Empire Takes its Way to describe a certain character’s experimentation with language.

Ezra Tessler has published on a range of topics within literature, law, and culture, both in the US and abroad. He currently lives in New York.