(Took a long time with this one, as I explored Kosinski’s larger oeuvre; Kosinski is under my skin, and if you read him, he’ll burrow under yours, too.)
In 1969, Polish émigré turned American celebrity Jerzy Kosinski won the National Book Award for his diabolical novella of short stories, Steps.
Steps is nestled somewhere between a novel, a collection of short stories, and a prose poem. But this isn’t quite right. It feels almost like a novel, or perhaps like a collection of short stories, or just maybe a prose poem. It’s such a singular reading experience I’ve never been able to get over it, and here I am reading it again.
The spirit of Baudelaire—not really his work—stalks these pages. Steps has no plot, few characters. It’s a series of beguiling impressions, knitted together with jagged violence and a detached—and supremely disquieting—narrative voice. Here’s a taste:
Work was scarce during the war; I was too thin to work in the fields, and the peasants preferred to use their own children or relatives on the farms. As a vagrant, I was everybody’s victim. To amuse himself the farmer with whom I was finally boarded would take hold of me by my collar, drag me up close and then strike me. Sometimes he would call his brother or his friends to share in a game in which I had to stand still—staring ahead with open eyes—while they stood a few paces in front of me and spit at my face, betting on how often they could hit me in the eye.
This spitting game became very popular in the village.
The flowers of evil indeed.
This passage reveals a lot—about the narrator’s passivity in the face of suffering and humiliation—and yet very little. Where is this taking place? How old is the vagrant? And so on.
Kosinski haunts American letters with his controversies, his books both good and bad, and ultimately his absence. He was a major writer for years. He appeared on television talk shows and in films. His books won awards. He was a judge on the P.E.N. committee.
And now he is a disturbed presence on the fringe, facing the long plunge into the abyss of forgotten literature.
There are reasons. Kosinski is accused of plagiarizing books written outside the U.S., and stealing work from writers he hired to help him. Neither charge has been fully substantiated, although there’s evidence in the works themselves for both. He’s also accused of lying about his wartime suffering, exaggerating his experiences. Worst of all, he’s been accused of capitalizing on the wave of Jewish survival novels in the shadow of Dachau, Auschwitz to make a name for himself.
There are rumors. Of a bizarre sex life. Of an immense yearning for fame. Of a blank emptiness at his core.
His books are uneven. Being There is a lightweight Candide, a satirical parable of a simpleton gardener who manages, through his vague aphoristic speech, to convince others he’s a genius. Blind Dates is a dastardly novel of corporate raiding—plus incest and rape and terrorism—amidst bizarre sexual encounters; it’s intriguing trash written in polished, chilly prose.
Intriguing trash could be a good descriptor of much of Kosinski’s work. He operates in a sleazy, leering mode. And yet, there’s something wild and dashing about his books, even the bad ones, that make for fun reading. He has some of that magic many of the popular authors have. Reading his books creates and fulfills a craving, like eating popcorn. Or twizzlers. Or smoking crack.
Kosinski is the type of beguiling writer tht brought me to literature in the first place: frustrating, titillating, dark dark dark.
But Kosinski is a dark presence for other reasons, too. He committed suicide in a ghastly manner, ingesting lethal doses of booze and pills and then suffocating himself with a plastic bag. His suicide note could be a postscript to Steps: “I am going to put myself to sleep now a bit longer than usual. Call it eternity.”
How long did he think on those words before writing them down?
Back to the work at hand. Steps flows from a haunted, landless twilight world, following disembodied voices in a surreal, disturbed land.
The prose is crystalline, taut. Here’s a sample, of a narrator discovering a naked woman kept chained in a barn:
A naked woman sat behind the grating, babbling meaningless words, staring at me with wide watery eyes.
I approached her. The woman moved, but she did not seem frightened. She stared at me, then began crawling toward me, rubbing her body, scratching and spreading her legs. I noticed her pock-marked face, her gnawed fingernails, her emaciated thighs stippled with bluish bruises. It occurred to me that we were alone in the barn and that she was totally defenseless.
Sex, violation, temptation, violence, apathy—it’s all there in this passage, and throughout the book.
It might be a work of genius. It might be a work of putrid exploitation. (I think it’s a little bit of both.) Steps is undeniably fascinating and strange, exhilarating to read and deeply unsettling. I can’t find an analogue. The films of Claude Chabrol but filmed by Bela Tar? Perhaps the movies of Gasper Noe, if they were just a touch more subtle?
I can’t figure out if Kosinski is using a disturbed narrative voice to unsettle the reader, or if he is himself unhinged, and this is the book where Kosinski’s derangement is exposed. Steps is, at its core, a potent dark work animated by sexual violence and moral passivity. The narrators—except for one lone example—don’t give a shit about the horrors around them, and often take part in the mayhem.
There’s a story about a giant fat woman servicing faceless men. A retarded village woman kept in a cage. An office worker who uses his friend to screw a woman without her consent. An old man killed for no reason. Sections of it are absolutely horrifying. There’s a monstrous ego-centricism and a skewered eroticism.
The vignettes are set off by little bits of dialogue between a man and a woman. It’s never clear if the dialogue is all part of one ongoing conversation or bits of many.
How much of this is Kosinski and how much of it is fiction gives the book it’s humming energy. Here’s a passage, near the end, that might serve as a summary of his life’s work:
I envied those who lived here and seemed so free, having nothing to regret and nothing to look forward to. In the world of birth certificates, medical examinations, punch cards and computers, in the world of telephone books, passports, bank accounts, insurance plans, wills, credit cards, pensions, mortgages, and loans they lived unattached, each of them aware only of himself.
If I could magically speak their language and change the shade of my skin, the shape of my skull, the texture of my hair, I would transform myself into one of them. This way I would drive away from me the image of what I once had been and what I might become; would drive away the fear of the law which I had learned, the idea of what failure meant, the yardstick of success; would banish the dream of possession, of things to be owned, used, and consumed, and the symbols of ownership—credentials, diplomas, deeds. This change would give me no other choice but to remain alive.
Thus the world would begin and die with me.
Steps is the predecessor to Denis Johnson’s superb short story collection, Jesus’s Son, but its presence can be felt in other writers, from Roberto Bolaño’s odd, jarring violence and creepy pornography to the extreme fiction of Dennis Cooper, Michel Houellbecq (imagine being stuck in a conversation with these two at a party), even a faint trace of him in Patricia Highsmith and Joyce Carol Oates.
Welcome Kosinski into your life, and he won’t easily leave.
Steps beat out some very fine works of fiction from 1968.
Richard Brautigan continued his countercultural nonsense with In Watermelon Sugar. Gore Vidal published his soon-to-be-camp-classic Myra Breckinridge. John Updike released his spicy, erotic mini-masterpiece, Couples. Norman Mailer published his “non-fiction” novel, Armies of the Night. Frederick Exley’s fake memoir, A Fan’s Notes was released. Joyce Carol Oates, John Barth, Frederick Rogers all published novels.
And Philip K. Dick, at the time still rutting around in the world of pulp paperbacks, released his fantastic, one of the all time great novels, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. Sheep is a better novel than Steps—equally crazed, just in a religious as opposed to sexual sense—but Steps feels right for the times. A sense of disembodied violence. A portent of impending doom. An unraveling of any moral consensus, these Kosinski delivers. And in the year Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. What can literature offer, Kosinski seems to be asking, besides titillation and despair?
 This is a terrible thing to write, but reading his books, with their repeated rationalizations on sexual assault, I kept thinking, “At some point, this guy raped someone.”
 It’s fine, but it would work better as a short story.