Nog, Rudolph Wurlitzer. Two Dollar Radio. 168pp, $15.50.
Although Nog has never been entirely forgotten since its first publication in 1968, it has never fully emerged from cult-classic status; as Erik Davis observes in the introduction to the recent Two Dollar Radio edition, it has been “attracting passionate fans over forty years of slipping in and out of print.” It’s easy to see how it managed to stay alive during those decades despite critical neglect: it’s a successful and haunting piece of experimental fiction, and a reader who has enjoyed it will press it upon others.
Its neglect is a little trickier to explain; perhaps it’s as simple as the fact that many contemporary reviewers pegged the novel as being a record of a drug trip (based upon no evidence other than sales copy) and that the most superficial reading of the book would likely focus on the vaguely hippie-like characters and their pastimes of popping pills and having casual sex. And many of the contemporary blurbs on the book, including the much-reproduced remarks of Thomas Pynchon, amount to little more than “wow, what a trip, man.” It’s easy to dismiss a book if it’s merely a document of the times.
But Nog is more than simply a document of the 1960s counterculture; indeed, it’s hardly even that. It is primarily an experiment in building a novel around a hollow core, a novel whose plot is about the annihilation of plot—featuring characters whose identities are ultimately erased—in settings that erode from view almost as quickly as they are glimpsed. And the experiment is remarkably successful, given these evident aims, particularly for a first novel.
It begins on a note of frustration and grievance. The narrator has been contemplating the Pacific Ocean from inside a bungalow when a young woman with “large breasts under her faded blue tee shirt” and “firm legs” walks by the window and stoops to gather some sea shells: “I was wrenched out of two months of calm,” our narrator complains. He has not fallen in love; he has been thrown into an existential panic of a different order. There’s something unexpectedly elegant about the way she stoops, and a “thin-boned brittle movement with her feet” startles him: “it touched some spot that I had forgotten to smother.” He claims to have been living in meditative isolation:
I had been breathing in and out, out and in, calmly, grateful for once to do just that, staring at the waves plopping in, successful at thinking almost nothing, handling easily the three memories I have manufactured, when that girl stooped for sea shells.
It’s a first page that prefigures the book to come: the strong whiff of Beckett, the isolation of this voice, the theme of manufactured memories, the sense of a consciousness determined to erase its own traces, a fixation on women’s bodies, and the West as both a setting and a concept. These are the themes and predilections that will be explored ingeniously over the following 140 pages, in particular the theme of self-erasure.
After the narrator flees his encounter with the woman, he describes the life that led him here: in Oregon, he met a man named Nog and bought a sideshow attraction from him, a plaster octopus in a bathysphere made from a “large butane gas tank” on a truck trailer. Nog had been taking it around the country and “charging kids a dime and adults a quarter” to see it. The narrator took up Nog’s lifestyle along with the octopus, and in due course he had ended up in a “cheap thrown-together guest house of imitation redwood on the California coast with its smell of mold and bad plumbing.”
But then Wurlitzer begins decentering things:
Those were sentimental and fuzzy days, those trips through the West with the octopus, and sometimes I find myself wishing more of it were true. (I find, when I ruminate like this, that I invent a great deal of my memories—three now, to be exact—because otherwise I have trouble getting interested.)
These two small lines would appear to signal an unreliable narrator, but they actually seem planted there to throw the reader off the true scent for a while. Those who take the bait and try to separate fact from those three memories the narrator admits are manufactured might miss it when Wurlitzer gets underway with the real project: the repeated creation and subsequent annihilation of narrative, character, and setting. For as the book develops, as the narrator abandons the beach and heads deep into a Wild West of ghost towns, arroyos, and gunfights (a world akin to what a William Burroughs/Sergio Leone collaboration might have produced), memories first labeled as “fact” inexorably get relabeled as “invention.” It becomes clear that this narrator is neither unreliable nor reliable—that actually he bears no clear relation to any system of facts one might be able to discern from the text, and thus the question of fidelity to them is irrelevant. Everything is ultimately thrown into question; the only possible guide we have as to what might “really” be happening are the other characters, and all of them appear to be either inventions of or surrogates for the narrator.
These surrogates are an important feature of the book, and the novel’s deepest plot can be found in the narrator’s changing relation to them. Nog first appears as a clearly separate character, a person from whom the narrator has purchased a weird “totem,” as he describes the octopus. But as observed above, the octopus is also a way of life: Nog’s way of life. By the time we know him, the narrator has also traveled around the country with the octopus in a bathysphere, charging admission, and as he relates these stories he quickly seems to get confused about the exact difference between himself and Nog. He begins to ascribe to himself characteristics previously associated with Nog, beginning with the octopus, as if “being Nog” were a condition of its purchase.
The process of identification-with-Nog gets very advanced but is never quite completed, and the exact degree of identification fluctuates over the course of the book: at times he alludes to “memories” that were previously given as a part of Nog’s experience, but at other times it’s clear that he views Nog as a separate, and even a malevolent, presence.
It gets more complex when a third male figure, Lockett, is introduced. The closest thing to a villain this book has, Lockett is a sort of cowboy pimp who exerts control over a woman named Meridith (sic), whom the men come to fight over. About two-thirds of the way through the book, the narrator stops associating Nog’s attributes with himself and begins associating them with Lockett, eventually shooting Lockett through the chest in the course of a suitably anti-climactic climax. The process is momentarily complete: Nog had earlier complained of light streaming from his chest, and now that Lockett has a literal hole in his chest Nog and Lockett are synonymous.
But almost immediately, Wurlitzer completely disrupts this tidy identification. After Lockett/Nog dies (though Nog proper doesn’t quite go away, just yet), Meridith begins calling the narrator Lockett. Just as the octopus provided an opportunity to become Nog, Meridith provides an opportunity to become Lockett, and as the narrator takes on Lockett’s qualities he discards Nog entirely (as indeed he does Meridith). In the novel’s final pages, he dissociates enough from Lockett that the narrator is able to fill the same position that Nog did at the beginning—an alternate other to be invented and inhabited at will.
What Wurlitzer applies to character he applies to plot and setting as well; one is always just certain enough of what is going on, where it’s happening, and who’s involved to stay oriented from page to page, but that certainty is subject to continual disruption. There may be philosophical underpinnings to this. Wurlitzer is a Buddhist—he’s written a nonfiction book on the subject, and his most recent novel was described by David Ulin as “a Buddhist Western”—so this deliberate confusion of the differences between characters, and the destabilization of narrative and setting, has been read as an expression of Buddhist principles: change is the only constant, and the self is an illusion. But I sense a more Western flavor of nihilism at the root of Nog: “Something happened, or at least was noted,” the narrator says during the second chapter, and that line might well serve as an epigraph for a entire novel in which nothing really seems to happen, apart from the endless notating of a perverse mind that would, if it could, dispense with the world entirely.
Jeremy Hatch is a book reviewer for various websites and a member of the National Book Critics Circle. You can find him blogging on arts and literature at JeremyHatch.com and writing for The Rumpus.
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