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Saturday
Jul252009

1969

Steps

By Jerzy Kosinksi

Original Publisher: Random House, Inc.
Current Publisher: Grove Press

Harold Augenbraum writes:

Steps may be the perfect book for an e-reader. It doesn’t depend on pages or chapters. It lives through quite affective vignettes composed of salvos at the reader; it pours surface tension onto the page. No wonder Kosinski loved screens and abstracts, as in Cockpit, and the absence of affect, as in Being There, and a public persona that defied anything more than his control of your perception and an unwillingness to barter for intimacy. For those of us who lived through Kosinski’s career, bursting on the scene with The Painted Bird, the hawk-like presence as president of PEN and actor in the film “Reds,” the appearances on the “Tonight” show, the charges he had used co-writers for all his early books without credit, his 1991 suicide, he was sui generis, though when Steps won the National Book Award his public persona had not yet reached prominence. In Steps, the narrator bundles his experiences like fasces. Episode after episode crackles with tension: how will the narrator manipulate the people around him for his own undefined benefit? Does he derive pleasure from these manipulations? They are punctuated by italic dialogues, though these seem curiously unintimate as well. “Have you ever seen rats exterminated? Or better—do you like animals?” “Of course.” “Well, rats are animals.” “Not really. I mean they’re not domestic animals. They’re dangerous, and therefore they have to be exterminated.” “Exactly: they have to be exterminated; it’s a problem of hygiene. Rats have to be removed. We exterminate them, but this has nothing to do with our attitude toward cats, dogs, or any other animal. Rats aren’t murdered—we get rid of them; or, to use a better word, they are eliminated; this act of elimination is empty of all meaning...” And so on. Re-reading Kosinski’s work, especially the early stuff up to Cockpit, I am still mesmerized, like watching a cobra about to strike...you.

Harold Augenbraum is Executive Director of the National Book Foundation, an editor and translator.

 

ISBN: 9780802135261

Fiction Finalists that Year:

  • John Barth for Lost in the Funhouse
  • Frederick Exley for A Fan's Notes
  • Joyce Carol Oates for Expensive People
  • Thomas Rogers for The Pursuit of Happiness

Fiction Judges that Year: Irving Howe, Jerre Mangione, Wright Morris

The Year in Literature:  

  • House Made of Dawn by N. Scott Momaday won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
  • Samuel Beckett won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Other Information:

In 1975, Chuck Ross, a Los Angeles freelance writer, conducted an experiment with Steps by sending 21 pages of the book to four publishers under the pseudonym Erik Demos. The book was turned down by all of them, including Random House (the original publisher of Steps) and Houghton Mifflin (which published three of Kosinski’s other novels). Ross discussed the experiment in New West magazine four years later. His article includes Kosinski's advice that next time he should offer the entire text.

By the time he was in his late 50s, Kosinski was afflicted with an irregular heartbeat, as well as severe physical and nervous exhaustion. Kosinski committed suicide on May 3, 1991, by overdosing on barbiturates. His suicide note read: "I am going to put myself to sleep now for a bit longer than usual. Call it Eternity."

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