Rosalyn Drexler

Perhaps it is because her most lasting accomplishment may turn out to be her paintings that Rosalyn Drexler is now so very little known as a writer of fiction. Although she did attract attention with her novels in the 1970s, and her plays gained notice for their association with the "theater of the ridiculous," a kind of variation on theater of the absurd, it seems safe to say that for most current readers and critics Rosalyn Drexler has almost no name recognition. Perhaps the novels to an extent seem dated, their cultural references and lingo too stuck in the 60s and 70s (although ultimately they are not at all trying to "capture" their era in any direct way). Or perhaps Drexler has simply been overshadowed by the already established experimental writers of her time, most of whom are male, even at a time when efforts are regularly made, by academics and publishers, to maintain attention on neglected women writers.

Still, that little effort has been made to refocus our attention on the fiction of Rosalyn Drexler remains rather surprising, for her novels are indeed singular achievements, adventurous works that are entirely worthy of comparison with the other heterodox writing of the period that has persisted in the cultural memory. Moreover, while Drexler's work is not feminist in a directly political way, it most assuredly does provide a representation of women and their circumstances that feminist critics ought to find deeply resonant (something that could be said about Drexler's paintings as well). And if many of the novels do indeed reflect the social and cultural tendencies of their time, they also use those tendencies to render more broadly and enduringly relevant accounts of women freely expressing their own versions of their lived experience and in the process freeing themselves of the versions imposed by others.

Certainly those expressions are unconventional and often extreme. Drexler's narratives have been described as "grotesque," but they might simply be called "weird," which more appropriately evokes their antic, less terror-fraught character. Her first novel, I Am the Beautiful Stranger (1966), is perhaps the least strange but also most disturbing, at once both extreme and recognizable in the means by which it provokes an uneasy response. Upon the novel's publication, comparisons were made to Catcher in the Rye, but while it is not preposterous to regard the narrator of I Am the Beautiful Stranger, Selma, as analogous to Holden Caulfield, at least insofar as each of them is an impulsive adolescent encountering the corruptions of the adult world, it is misleading to the extent it suggests that Selma is mostly disgusted by this world, that her primary objective is to escape such corruption. What makes this novel disquieting--which its contemporaneous readers surely found it--is that its protagonist often seems as eager to cultivate the wickedness she recounts as evade it.

In this way I Am the Beautiful Stranger seems less an episodic coming-of-age story in the manner of Catcher in the Rye than a purposeful reconfiguration of the form into one that can accommodate an adolescent girls' emotional confusion, which, at least as depicted in this novel, is no less strong than the adolescent boy's (and vice versa) but also more capacious, more subject to conflicting impulses. If Selma is less quick than Holden Caulfield to pronounce adults to be "phony," perhaps this is because she is more ambivalent about her own relation to the adult world, not as unwilling as Holden to sully herself in its imperfections. At the same time she is fully aware of the debased behavior to which she is frequently subjected, she also affirms the authentic sexual and emotional needs that are awakened in her as well. Sharing a room with cousins on their wedding night, she hears them having sex: "Becoming another white nun of solitude. I crossed myself in mock Catholic, fingered my beads of sweat, confessed confusion, and tried to sleep by practicing a sin that is not a sin in my religion. It isn't even mentioned except about men, and they're not supposed to spill their seed upon the ground. I'm safe, I don't spill, and if I did I wouldn't cry."

Selma's progress toward self-awareness is not without its psychological toll, however:

Wow, was I sad and bad and mad! I slashed the outside of my hands with a razor. I made deep criss-crosses in the flesh. A rehearsal of self-destruction? There wasn't much blood because the lines were so fine. I scarred my hands. It was easy to do because it didn't hurt. Even my brain was numb. Afterwards I bought pancake makeup to cover the cuts.

Although many of Selma's relationships with other people--specifically men—are purely exploitive--with Uncle Mort, for example, who, while dancing with her at the cousin's wedding, inserts his tongue in Selma's mouth and "slid it around"—and clearly enough might send her on a course of self-destruction, she does manage to achieve healthier connections with some. At the novel's conclusion, Selma has a boyfriend, Paul, and they are contemplating living together (even at Selma's young age). It seems to be a "normal" relationship, yet it is finally difficult to tell whether Selma's final words signal she is emerging into self-possessed maturity or is still captive to the damaging influences precipitating neediness her narrative reveals: "What if I have to stay appealing every day? When my panic is over I know just what I'll do: go south and make myself a beauty. I'll return wrapped in tan like a carmallow. Then, when Paul peels my wrapper off, the sweet taste of fresh Selma should make him crave me forever."

Selma has an abundant fantasy life, to the point that the reader must be cautious in assuming that events she appears to be recounting are indeed drawn from her actual experiences rather than the product of Selma's imagining. Finally, however, it as "true" to Selma's circumstances as an adolescent American girl growing up in the environment she evokes to say her fantasies reflect the generally abusive examples set by the adults around her as that she in fact encountered a specific instance of such abuse. Something similar is true of Drexler's second novel, One or Another (1970), although here the circumstances of the protagonist have been reversed: Melissa, a 39-year-old woman who has become disillusioned with her marriage is having an affair (or imagines having an affair) with a 17-year-old high school student (her husband's student), himself a troubled boy having difficulty facing the prospect of encroaching adulthood.

If Selma is groping for her place in the adult world, at least as that place is defined for young women of her time, Melissa has her place but, to say the least, finds it wanting. One or Another was published as the women's movement was just beginning to assert its own place in the American cultural consciousness, so perhaps it is not surprising that in Drexler's novel her protagonist rebels against her circumstances by envisioning her independence as betrayal—taking his student as lover and later forming a relationship with a black student her husband has racially harassed—rather than literally leaving the marriage to pursue her own course. Indeed, Melissa lives even more resolutely inside her own head, condition she seems to affirm in the novel's final lines, than did Selma, and the novel for which she serves as narrator is even more firmly than Selma's a possibly imagined construction, not an account of her literal actions.

It would not be entirely accurate to call novels like I Am the Beautiful Stranger and One or Another metafictional, since their effect depends on the possibility we might take their actions as literal after all, that they are fictions soliciting our suspension of disbelief, a disbelief that is stretched but not ultimately broken. Even if we start asking ourselves whether these two main characters might be unreliable narrators freely engaging in fantasy and invention, that they are doing so itself provides insight about them as autonomous characters whose stories still have coherence, however discontinuous or fragmentary. Certainly Drexler's novels are formally adventurous, incorporating not just diary-like sections of direct exposition and narration (most of the novels are primarily first-person narratives), but also letters and notes, brief play-like passages of dialogue, graphic illustrations, purported newspaper articles, and, in the later novels, emails. (Art Does (Not) Exist (1996) also presents transcripts of its protagonist's experimental videos.) Still, their unorthodox methods seem intended as the appropriate artistic strategies for conveying Drexler's eccentric, if unsettling, comic vision of American life.

"Eccentric" is an admittedly vague term to use in describing the prevailingly comic tone and manner of Drexler's fiction, but its humor is not exactly easy to classify. As a playwright, Drexler was sometimes vaguely grouped with the "theater of the ridiculous" movement of the 1960s associated with the director John Vaccaro, and while her fiction may also have some affinities with the anarchic qualities of this style of theatrical comedy, it is again more singularly weird than recognizably campy. This weirdness does have a lighter touch to it that also makes Drexler's work accord uneasily with absurdism, as well as the Freudian underpinnings of surrealism, and while this apparent lightness often enough partly conceals a darker view of human behavior, Drexler's novels don't really depend on the kind of jokiness or exploded logic characteristic of black humor fiction. In her weaker books (Starburn, for example) the humor can seem too calculated, overly mannered, but as a whole her novels feature a kind of comedy that on the surface may seem blithely tongue-in-cheek but upon further contemplation begins to take on a more consequential gravity.

The same thing might be said about Drexler's visual art, arguably about pop art in general, to which Drexler's painting is most often referred. At first glance, her paintings are colorful and cartoonish, created by using pre-existing photographs—often from ads and graphic illustrations—on and around which she applied paint. And indeed any one of these paintings has an immediate sensory impact, the best ones almost mesmerizing in their ostensible simplicity. But put it among other of Drexler's canvases and the tacit, unobtrusive critique of American predispositions and attitudes (especially toward women) becomes, through implicit though indirect mockery, quite evident. Neither Drexler's paintings nor her fiction could properly be called satirical, since the impulse behind them is much more equivocal—at the same time her images and narratives highlight the tackiness of American culture, they also manage to give that tackiness an aesthetically pleasing form—than directly critical and prescriptive. The fiction, however, is more direct in presenting a broadly comic perspective that at times is deliberately outrageous.

Certainly in her fiction Drexler is just as likely to seize on images and motifs from popular culture as subjects. The best illustration of this perhaps is her third novel, To Smithereens (1972), which features a lady wrestler as protagonist and is perhaps her best known work of fiction, largely it draws on Drexler's own experience as a wrestler before she became established as an artist. As in many of the paintings, here Drexler uses the iconography associated with this figure from popular culture to evoke attitudes and beliefs about the pervasive violence of American culture and the confused state of relations between men and women. The latter is signaled in the novel's first scene, narrated by Rosa (later to be proclaimed "Rosa Carlo, the Mexican Spitfire"), who in a movie theater encounters a "creep" in the next seat rubbing his hand on her thigh. Rosa is duly annoyed, expressing her annoyance by lashing out at him, yet after the movie agrees to have coffee with him and then goes to his apartment, where soon she waits for him in the bedroom: "I took off my clothes and lay on top of the blanket, still as death, one arm dangling off the side of the mattress; I knew I looked beautiful that way; soft, receptive, passively offering my body. . . ."

The creep is (once again) named Paul, in this case an art critic, and he and Rosa are soon a couple. But while in this scene Rosa chooses to be sexually passive, throughout the novel she continues to exhibit both the aggressiveness she displayed in the movie theater (and which presumably she channels in her short career as a wrestler) and a more conventional acceptance of gendered sexual roles. (When she decides to try wrestling Rosa discovers a lesbian subculture among the women wrestlers, but she does not take part.) Still, while Paul in a sense is trying to exploit Rosa for his own enjoyment when he encourages her to try wrestling, his efforts to control her cannot succeed, as he himself acknowledges:

    Rosa did not conform to any idea I had conceived of her in advance. She related to me with the same sense of immediacy and beauty that the artist experiences in relation to her material. She was molding me on behalf of the vast world of being she existed in; while I had foolishly believed it was I who was shaping her.

The point of view in To Smithereens alternates between Paul and Rosa (with the usual additional interpolated documents), and this provides overall a somewhat more detached perspective from which the reader can contemplate the comic verbal collage Drexler has assembled, although undoubtedly Rosa emerges from the novel a character as forceful as Paul himself finds her. The novel does not really dwell much on Rosa's actual time in the wrestling ring (only one match is recounted at any length), preferring just to introduce us to the colorful characters with whom Rosa interacts and to create a female character who embodies in her life the "sense of immediacy and beauty that the artist experiences in relation to her material" but has perhaps not yet quite found the best "material" in which to express it.

 The Cosmopolitan Girl (1974) is the last of the original series of novels that made Drexler known as a writer as well as an artist. (It is available. along with I Am The Beautiful Stranger and One or Another, in a volume simply called Three Novels, published by Verbivoracious Press, the only fiction by Drexler officially in print.) This might be called Drexler's weirdest novel (an accomplishment in itself). Certainly it is the most openly surreal, featuring a protagonist with a talking dog, a dog she winds up marrying to boot. While this blending of Kafka and Helen Gurley Brown is alternately kooky and spooky, perhaps it also represents Drexler's most faithful translation of the Pop sensibility characteristic of her paintings to fiction, provoking equal parts disquiet, amusement, and something like annoyance. It can be difficult to decide whether we should find Helen Jones a sympathetic character just attempting to find happiness in the big wide world, or an appalling freak. Perhaps she is both. The media image of the Cosmo Girl becomes not exactly the object of satire, nor is it celebrated as a fabulous icon of popular culture, although certainly Drexler does occasionally have fun with it:

    At home I walk around with no clothes on at all (depending on whether the steam is up). I do not bother to pull down the shade. If someone in the building opposite wants to look, he's welcome. If someone doesn't like it, that's his problem. I do what makes me feel good. . .but not always. It's a hard rule to follow because sometimes I'm not sure what does please me.

The Cosmopolitan Girl can be regarded as the completion of an initial quartet of singular but aesthetically consistent novels that introduce both a thematically and formally complex literary practice Drexler continues to pursue in her later fiction but that probably is carried out most successfully in these four novels. Unquestionably it would be warranted to claim Drexler's project as part of post-60s feminism, but the women characters in these novels are neither unequivocal champions of equality nor emblematic figures exemplifying the inherent virtues of their gender. Ultimately each of these characters is emblematic only of herself, although together they do have enough similarities that they collectively comprise a kind of Drexlerian prototype: autonomous, but not without a lingering dependency, self-aware but also at times willfully capricious.

These qualities can certainly be seen in the protagonists of Starburn (1979), Drexler's next novel written under her own name (following on a series of "novelizations" of screenplays—most notably, Rocky—using the pen name "Julia Sorel"), as well as Art Does (Not) Exist. The first concerns the travails of Jenni Love, punk rock singer, who stands accused of murdering a music critic (she is innocent of the charge), while the second focuses on Julia Maraini, a video artist trying to revive her career. Both characters are assertive, self-directed artists who nevertheless make poor decisions and find themselves in predicaments they must scramble to overcome. Both novels as well follow The Cosmopolitan Girl in assimilating the surreal, in the case of Starburn through a sci-fi subplot involving alien abduction, and in Art Does (Not) Exist through scenes featuring talking skeletons. Of these two novels, Art Does (Not) Exist is the most successful, the closest to equaling the early novels, perhaps because the subject more strongly engages Drexler's own experiences, while Starburn seems somewhat awkwardly sensationalized.

Bad Guy (1982) and Vulgar Lives (2007) may be Drexler's least characteristic novels, although ultimately they are not necessarily less revealing of her intentions or her lasting achievements as a writer of fiction. Both novels seem more austere in subject (although not without their moments of absurdity), less formally frenetic (although by no means straightforwardly conventional). While the ostensible protagonist of each is its female narrator, the real protagonist in both might be the male figure on which the narrator's account focuses, although perhaps it is most accurate to describe both books as explorations of these women's capacity to sustain themselves in a male-centered world without losing either their dignity or literally their sanity. Bad Guy especially seems an almost sobering account of its main character—an experimental therapist—and her ultimately failed effort both to help a delinquent boy and to have her professional reputation affirmed, while Vulgar Lives addresses a more charged subject—incest—but in applying Drexler's signature fragmented collage method to its protagonist's dissociating mental state the novel actually produces a formal structure that more nearly functions as a recognizably unified objective correlative.

Nevertheless, all of Rosalyn Drexler's fiction is readily identifiable as the work of a distinctive sensibility, one that in her early fiction revealed itself as unabashed in its iconoclasm and that Drexler has maintained throughout her work as a novelist with a truly remarkable constancy, despite the fact that most of her books have been indefensibly ignored by critics (among whom I am myself until now obviously included). This neglect can't be rectified until more of her work is again in print, of course, and this would be a worthy project for any independent press willing to perform such a service for American fiction. Then the effort to properly assess Rosalyn Drexler's place in the efflorescence of innovative fiction in post-WWII American literature could begin.


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