Steps, by Jerzy Kosinski

Steps

I knew very little about Steps when I picked it up. I decided to give it a shot based on praise I’d read of it by David Foster Wallace, but that hardly made it a no-brainer. I’m fascinated by Wallace the person, and I enjoy his nonfiction quite a lot, but I have mixed feelings about his fiction. So the fact that he endorsed Steps as a particularly important work of postmodern fiction made me curious about it, but also wary that it would be incomprehensible or otherwise unrewarding.

Steps is quite short, only about 150 pages, and that’s with above average size type. So if it turned out not to do much for me, at least it wouldn’t be an endurance test.

It’s definitely an odd book, and I can see why with its unconventional style it would fall into the postmodern category of literature, but I wouldn’t say it’s inaccessible or pointlessly difficult. In its peculiar way it’s mostly reasonably easy to follow.

Though “follow” is probably not the best word, as that implies that it’s all one coherent whole, that there is one story to keep up with. In fact, I don’t know that I would even call this a novel.

What Steps is is a series of vignettes, from less than a page to three or four pages, told usually from the first person or as dialogue between two people, mostly about physically or emotionally abusive sex, with a fair amount of disturbing violence and other perversity and cruelty. The protagonist of the stories is usually the perpetrator of the abuse, and less often the victim or observer. The protagonist, as well as the other characters, is left unnamed. Nor are places, times, or other aspects of the context identified other than in the most general, vague way.

The first person ones are all from the standpoint of a male, who, one can infer, is fairly young, or is recounting something that happened when he was young. It’s never stated that it’s the same person in every scene, though I think it’s natural for the reader to assume so. And then once you’re used to assuming that, I would think most people would assume the third person and dialogue pieces also are about that same man.

The final piece is an exception; it is written in the third person about a woman. (There may be one or two other exceptions, I don’t recall.) She has just broken up with someone, so maybe that person is the guy in all the other vignettes, and that’s the connection.

I’m not sure that it matters if it’s supposed to be the same guy throughout, but I’m going to continue as if it is.

I guess the other thing to speculate about is whether these pieces are all about the author Kosinski himself or whether he’s created a completely fictitious character. In barest outline they do seem to conform to Kosinski’s life—a male from Eastern Europe who was alive during World War II, lived many years behind the Iron Curtain, and then emigrated to the United States. Kosinski also had a controversial reputation of writing either semi-autobiographical books or books he invited people to assume were semi-autobiographical even though they weren’t (not to mention he was accused of plagiarizing, i.e., trying to pass off others’ work and experiences as his own), so it may be that he wanted readers to suspect these pieces were about his own experiences regardless of whether they really were.

I’ll say two things about that. One, I seriously doubt these are all about Kosinski or all about any single real person, simply because it’s hard to imagine fitting this many bizarre experiences into (part of) one lifetime. I would think the average person experiences one or two things like these in their life, whereas the average person who comes from the kind of environment Kosinski did—more on this below—maybe experiences five or ten. But this book contains several dozen.

Two, I certainly hope these aren’t actual events, since the protagonist commits murder, among other things, multiple times, including choosing to murder a child in a particularly painful way as an act of revenge against its parents in the single most disturbing scene in a book full of disturbing scenes.

There’s a sense in which the incidents do feel real. They are described so well from the inside out that you’re inclined to say that only someone who lived them could so capture them. But probably that just means Kosinski is an unusually skilled writer of this kind of material.

If I had to hazard a guess, I would say some of these are things Kosinski himself experienced, some are loosely based on things he experienced, some are real events that happened to others that he was told about, some are loosely based on real events that happened to others that he was told about, and some are purely from his imagination. It feels like the kind of book that started from experience and then was expanded well beyond that.

So what can we say about this protagonist, beyond whether he’s based on a real person, is a composite based on multiple real people, or is a hundred percent fictitious?

The majority of the time he comes across as a psychopath. There are exceptions where he seems to recognize the moral personhood of others and to be concerned about rights violations and such, but mostly he has a kind of cool, detached, hyper-intellectual style to him, and he describes human emotion and human pain as if they stimulate his intellectual curiosity and analytic mind but cause him to feel little if any empathy. He’s like some kind of scientist of the human condition, drawn especially to the fringes of human behavior, not above being a participant (providing the necessary stimuli to create a perverse situation he wants to study) or a subject (turning his analytic eye on himself and his own reactions) rather than solely an observer in his experiments.

Wallace described the vignettes as “unbelievably creepy.” I think the creepiness comes not only from the events themselves (which are indeed often quite creepy), but from this detached, analytic, detailed way of describing them. It’s like reading bureaucratic Nazi accounts of designing the most effective gas van to murder people—not sadistic, just coldly efficient. (Come to think of it, one of the incidents recounted in Steps is a conversation with an architect who designed Nazi death camps.)

Another feeling I get from the book is how important environment is in generating people like this and experiences like this. The world depicted in most of the stories is kind of a combination of Nazi or Eastern European Stalinist government influence from the top, and ignorant, rural, superstitious, borderline savage, 19th century or earlier peasants influence from the bottom, with the protagonist and his ilk being the kind of deadened, dehumanized being you get as a result of this unholy mix.

Steps is a travelogue of the bizarre, from gang rape to bestiality shows. Indeed, you could make a plausible case that some of it is just violent porn packaged as postmodern highbrow literature for people who would never admit to liking “regular” violent porn. Most of these experiences I’m glad I never had, and I have mixed feelings about even experiencing them vicariously by reading about them, but I suppose in the end I’m glad that someone as psychologically insightful and as skilled a writer as Kosinski was willing to explore rather than turn away from or deny or sugarcoat these dark, dark areas of human life, whether as a journalist or purely as a fantasist.

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