Innocence – Harold Brodkey

Oh hay! I figured it couldn’t hurt for me to do a reader response too, so here goes…

This is the most perfect story I’ve ever read. It’s not the first time I’ve read it (the first was a couple years ago), but it’s only gotten better as I’ve gotten older. It’s not even that Brodkey seems to know everything exactly about not just sex, but love – but it is that, and that he captures the awkwardness and scrambling and determination that goes into every motion, every thought; it’s that he knows somehow what it’s like to be a woman (“There’s a kind of strain or intensity women are bred for…They need death and nobility near.”) and what it’s like to be a child and an adult; it’s that all of his descriptions are dead on and his words are perfect – luminous, incandescent. I find it wonderful, too, that he’s stretched out for thirty-some pages what is, for the most part, a single act, all one day – the Romantics (Melville, Hawthorne, Shelley, etc.) did this, but without nearly his style. He’s deconstructed one of the most momentous actions of youth into its component parts, thoughts and movements…it’s incredible. And it’s incredible to read his voice, the matter-of-fact but touchingly tender twenty-one-year-old (or older? how old is the narrator when he tells the story; how long past Orra?) who thinks far too much (or just the right amount) – analyzes the act of sex as if it’s literature, and refers to it as such, in that frame of reference (all the talk of fictional frames and feminizing and interpretation of events that may or may not be accurate; really he’s got it down to symbolic sex, where the sex is symbolic of the relationship). He’s (the narrator is) so painstakingly sensitive to Orra and who she is – and that’s also a big part of the story – it’s Orra reaching human completion, I think, through sexual completion (orgasm). For so long she had defined herself in terms of what she perceived others to think of her, made herself the trophy and the Nike and the drama queen and the sexual tigress without really understanding what those meant or truly inhabiting those roles. But Wiley sees her, recognizes her as “a mildly terrific college girl, nothing more, yet,” and that knowledge enables him to draw out feelings in her that she’s never had, and she comes to the realization, at the end, that she’d “always known there was nothing wrong with [her]”…

And the theme, too, of sex-as-children: innocence: perfect. Perfect perfect perfect, because the sort of love they’re making, or that Wiley’s making to Orra, is the most selfless, pure – innocent – sort of love; much as he says he can’t love her and have her, in the end he has both, I think – despite the fact that “throwing a fuck” the way he has to isn’t really his style, he still inhabits it, commits to it fully, gets joy from it in Orra’s joy. And it’s beautiful.

But the most beautiful part of the whole story – the whole shebang – is the description of Orra’s orgasm(s) from 534-535. It’d been set up nicely with the bit about six pairs of wings beating under her, and then – her transformation into the “amnesiac angel,” the “scrambling seraph…brilliant as a beautiful insect infinitely enlarged and irrevocably foreign.” Just. Perfection. I can’t even stand it. I think I could reread those pages forever and never grow tired of them, never stop marveling. He really does make sex innocent and holy, something sacramental, beautiful. Yes. Beautiful.


1 Comment

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One response to “Innocence – Harold Brodkey

  1. You’re really smart.


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