Saturday, March 8, 2014

StepsSteps by Jerzy Kosiński
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

In my late teen years a stupid drinking game was popular in my native country: one was supposed to go to a party, get very drunk, and then puke on as many walls as possible, including the ceiling. I remembered that game when I was reading the first half of Jerzy Kosinski's disjoint novella "Steps". Mr. Kosinski, my compatriot, vomits repulsive prose in every direction, spewing about ugly sex, violence, and pain. "I want to make love to you when you are menstruating" is a typical example of the novella's content. There is a young woman having sex with a "big animal". Genitals are crushed between two rocks until "the flesh became an unrecognizable pulp."

The novella is built of 48 vignettes connected mainly by their grim content, sex, and violence. There is a narrator in most vignettes, but it is only in the second half of the book that there is any conceptual continuity. The twenty-first vignette, about a concentration camp designer and about rats as animals that deserve to be exterminated is the only piece of real literature that I can find in this horrid mess, which in 1969 received the National Book Award in Fiction, the highest literary prize in the U.S.

Brutality, perversion, and sex obviously have their place in literature, for instance when they serve to amplify the writer's message. I have read painfully brutal novels that also contained kinky sex scenes (J.M. Coetzee's "Waiting for the Barbarians" comes to mind), but they might have a purifying effect and make me want to be a force for good. Reading the first half of Kosinski's novella made me feel defecated on. There is no message here; sex and violence are solely for shock value or maybe because of the author's mental health issues. The second half of the book is different; there is a message of alienation, loneliness, and control, but that message has been voiced much better by many other authors. The deep chasm between the two halves of the novella is yet another flaw of Kosinski's work.

With the somewhat redeeming second half I can no longer call "Steps" the worst book I have ever read.

One star.

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