While the first three novels of Rudolph Wurlitzer certainly express the sensibility of the 1960s—specifically the late 60s, when the more insouciant rebelliousness characterizing much of the initial cultural ferment of the period began to curdle, congealing into less equivocal forms of disaffection and alienation—it is not as clear that his fiction should be identified as "postmodern," along with the first wave of postmodernists that include Donald Barthelme, John Barth, and Robert Coover. Surely Nog, Flats, and Quake are "experimental" by anyone's definition of the term as it applies to adventurous fiction, but where there is a kind of exuberance, and obvious delight in the sheer possibilities of the imagination in the work of these other writers, in Wurlitzer's books energy has been dissipated, the abundance and vitality of language we find in the earlier writers reduced to a kind of exhaustion even Barth, in his influential essay, "The Literature of Exhaustion, could not have anticipated, one that doesn't merely acknowledge the "used-upness" of fictional form but seems to question the capability of language itself to adequately communicate human experience.
Although human experience as depicted in these three novels has also been reduced to the point that there may not be much to communicate. The narrators struggle to account for their own inertia and diminished sense of identity—one could say that in both Nog and Flats we never quite know for sure who our protagonist, the "character" ostensibly attached to the first-person narrative voice, actually is (and finally neither does he)—ultimately offering us a narrative of their own psychological displacement in the guise of "events" they purport to relate. "Experience" consists of the immediate objects of the narrator's consciousness—or at least the verbal articulation of his nominal awareness—which the narrator presents to us as if attempting to stave off the complete dissolution of self, represented at least by a lingering stream of words. By the end of Nog, this is barely working:
I'm out of the bed. I put one foot in front of the other until I reached the door. I touched the knob. But I still have the bag. What I should have done was get rid of the black bag, what I am beginning to remember was that I did get rid of the black bag. I put it under the bunk. I remember something like that. There was a black bag, although I know too that nothing happened and I haven't traveled around with a black bag. I touched the knob again. There was a quickness, certainly, as if I were about to be sure of something. But it's out of my depth to know what has happened, to touch a doorknob and make a report. I'm not up to that. There have been events, of a sort, and they have occurred quickly, one after the other. . . .
The narrator's halting recital and damaged, near-catatonic condition invokes comparison to Beckett, and indeed Wurlitzer's novels, Nog and Flats especially, may be the most conspicuously influenced by Beckett in all of postwar American literature. Like Beckett, Wurlitzer places his characters in situations of extremity, both physical and metaphysical, and depicts their actions in a way that, from their perspective at least, could be regarded as "realistic," once we have conceded the incongruity of the circumstances. If we are less likely to consider the world Wurlitzer evokes as "absurd," it is because the setting, specifically the American West, retains some of its externally recognizable reality, giving Wurlitzer's fiction something of an allegorical overtone: Wurlitzer seems to be portraying not only the existential degradation of his protagonist but the historical and cultural legacy that has made this degradation not just possible but inevitable. The allegorical content is not dramatized explicitly (at least not until Wurlitzer's later novels Slow Fade and The Drop Edge of Yonder), but produced as a kind of background noise, of which the characters themselves are only faintly aware, if at all.
The wide-open spaces (and all they signal to us about the American mythos of freedom and opportunity) have for the characters in Wurlitzer's fiction become a debilitating obstacle, simply negotiating any space a source of pain and horror. The narrator of Flats makes his initial appearance by informing us of his journey ("I walked a fair piece") to the place we find him, at the end of the road, the last few miles of which he has crawled. "After this space has been crawled through," he tells us, "the fear of inhabiting an area massaged, the promise of an event removed or established. . .There is no telling. I have no intentions." Of course, in one sense, there is nothing but "telling," as this is only the first paragraph and the narrator occupies the rest of the novel relating his various attempts to "massage" his fear of venturing into unknown spaces. Nog is a more fully picaresque novel than Flats, and its protagonist therefore moves more freely from place to place (although pretty clearly prior to finding himself "in the flats, west of the city," the narrator of Flats too was mostly a wanderer), but there remains throughout his itinerant movements as well an undercurrent of menace in the landscapes he traverses, as if the promise of natural freedom implicit in the prospect of the pristine American wilderness has become a nightmare of depletion and degeneration.
This nightmarish quality is impressed more distinctly on the readers of Nog and Flats than on the characters themselves, however. Both narrators process and communicate their experiences with a radical lack of affect, even though the conditions in which they subsist are plainly aberrant and profoundly disturbing. Their response to the situation they confront is in this way analogous to Kafka, whose characters similarly act in the face of perilous and abnormal circumstances as if their strange predicament is quite normal after all, requiring the kind of earnestly rational actions those characters take. If the actions of Wurlitzer's protagonists couldn't exactly be called rational, they are nevertheless undertaken with the assumption such actions will be successful in getting them from point A to point B, at least. These characters have little sense of normal; they merely seek to survive, although they don't really stop to consider why that might be desirable to begin with. That they do survive—or at least persist—despite the apparent pointlessness of the effort, finally does confer on them a kind of admirable tenacity—perhaps they will simply outlast their trouble, for whatever that is worth.
If we can imagine both of them echoing the narrator of Beckett's The Unnamable in his declaration "I can't go on/I'll go on," the narrator of Flats is probably the most thoroughly estranged from his surroundings, most profoundly alienated from the recognition of "self" as a coherent concept. And precisely because of Wurlitzer's uncompromising evocation of the character's dissociation in the literal division of personality (the narrator claims multiple identities in the course of the narrative) and the almost complete absence of forward movement in the plot, Nog is likely instead to be the novel for which Wurlitzer will be most immediately remembered, even though it could hardly be said that this novel is a more obviously conventional reading experience, its protagonist more "likeable" (in fact, both characters might be considered "sympathetic," due to the extremity of their plights). But Nog does feature a more familiar kind of narrative structure, and the character engages in more recognizable sorts of human activities--even if the motivation for many of them often enough remain obscure (to himself especially).
Nog could be described as a picaresque road novel, although to the extent Kerouac's On the Road might be a touchstone for Wurlitzer's novel, it is as the earlier work's complete antithesis. If On the Road is spontaneous and ebullient, in Nog the travels undertaken are finally just chaotic and the character's attitude largely apathetic, as if being on the move is literally a matter of going through the motions. If the goal in On the Road is to seek enlightenment, in Nog, to the extent there is a goal it is for most of these characters one of simple self-preservation. And if we can regard Nog as a reflection of the souring of the 60s, in a larger view it could be taken as the final negation of the whole postwar countercultural ethos for which Kerouac's picaresque novel stands as the initiator and arguably most characteristic expression. Nog rejects the heady atmosphere of freedom accompanying Kerouac's loosely structured narrative, which continues to appeal to readers of On the Road, but finally there is something equally compelling in the relentless questioning of the assumptions about freedom and its possibilities in mid-twentieth century America implicit in Wurlitzer's revisionist alternative.
Yet there remains a certain kind of freedom intrinsic to Wurlitzer's use of the iconography of the road novel—and more particularly the literary/film genre of the American Western—although it is not the sort of freedom that commends itself to easy celebration. Wurlitzer has identified Louis L'Amour as a significant influence on his thinking about narrative, despite the actual quality of L'Amour's own stories (which are hackneyed and cliché-ridden). L'Amour prompted Wurlitzer to conceive of narrative as a kind of "space" that itself determines event or incident. Thus, like L'Amour's heroes, who in Wurlitzer's characterization, usually appear at the beginning of a story in a state of maximum freedom, traversing empty space, generally aimless and radically engrossed in their own immediacy, so too do the characters in Nog and Wurlitzer's other works attempt to negotiate the emptiness of their immediate space, except that, unlike in L'Amour's plots, there are no formulas or shopworn conventions to rescue the characters from the totality of that emptiness. They are instead subjected to an ineluctable contingency and the outbreak of random violence, those forces that define reality at the most fundamental level but from which we are usually able to shield ourselves with our illusions of continuity.
Certainly Wurlitzer's protagonists do not entirely welcome their freedom to confront existence at its most elemental. Nog's protagonist (who may or may not be named "Nog") simply drifts through the space into which his life has arrived, without much remaining volition, although he keeps moving, anyway. The narrator of Flats is more aware of the space he occupies as space, although he perceives it not as something through which to move but within which to place himself:
Halifax sits in an open space in an open land. He accepts neither what has come before nor what will come next. This must be my voice. The voice of Halifax. Behind me there are probably two men. We'll form a company or group and go from there. Halifax is not stagnating. He will keep the chill from his bones. He will gather together an occasion. I want to keep it open. Something always happens even if nothing happens. . . .
The narrative of Flats thus consists of the repetition of such motion through multiple episodes themselves representing the narrator's progressive detachment from a distinct sense of "self" that in other circumstances might actually indicate an attainment of something like enlightenment. At the novel's conclusion the narrator has shed his last identity ("Mobile") but does not assume a new one: "I want to say the same words over and over. I want just the sound. I want to fill up what space I am with one note. I want to follow the note beyond my own conclusion. I want a sound that is not involved with beginning or ending. I want to release my own attention to let in the light." The narrator has reached an awareness of "space" as the ground of being and the possibility of its own transcendence, but unfortunately it is likely his last conscious moment, his literal enlightenment coming only after being impelled to it by the direst circumstances imaginable.
Both Nog and Flats evoke a vaguely post-apocalyptic setting, although what makes each of them eerily powerful is that the source of the catastrophic conditions portrayed is finally not divulged. Quake, on the other hand, is an unambiguously post-apocalyptic novel, although even here the novel's effect depends to an extent on our finding the actions and characters on which it focuses to be unexplained and motiveless. Certainly the central action, which initiates the narrative—“I was thrown out of bed," the narrator announces—is comprehensible enough: a massive earthquake strikes Los Angeles, causing near-total destruction and sending most people into the streets. What issues is not so much chaos but an outbreak of ruthlessness and indifference to human suffering in attempts by armed and organized marauders to seize on catastrophe as an opportunity to assert control. Almost immediately, or so it seems, these militias begin to appear and to terrorize the quake victims, who are themselves quickly reduced to their impulses for survival.
The victims include the narrator, another of Wurlitzer's drifters, who at the novel's opening is the resident of a shabby motel and who introduces himself as someone who "had fallen in three months ago from New York and was waiting for my money to run out. Then I would either borrow more or cop some and take a ride somewhere else." Although this narrator is not as separated from the vestiges of civilization as the narrators of Nog and Flats (at least not at first), he nevertheless subsists on its margins, but in this case his wandering in the novel is involuntary, and he is joined by many others becoming aware of just how thin is the veneer of that civilization: "Thank god I no longer dream no more," he overhears someone say near the end of the novel. "I'm afraid to think on the kinks I seen today." So quickly do the streets of Los Angeles devolve into a war of all against all (with momentary alliances formed for immediate self-defense) that it would seem only a sufficiently serious disruption of fixed routine is required for the social inhibitions we are accustomed to observing to break down entirely.
The sheer abandon with which so many people shed these inhibitions and exchange them for acts of barbarism is rendered quite powerfully in Quake, but eventually the point gets overextended through its repetition, the narrative's unsparing assessment of human nature too overtly communicating an apparent polemical intent. In fact, the novel could be regarded as even more narrowly satirical, the duly elaborated illustration of the declaration a woman makes to the narrator near the beginning of the story (the scale of the devastation not yet fully clear): "This is the worst goddamn shithole place I've ever seen. You don't see it at first because of all the palm trees and orange juice bars but let something happen and then see what they do." See what they do indeed. The narrator of Quake ultimately finds himself in the same condition as the protagonists of the first two novels--reduced nearly to catatonia, barely able to crawl--but here the cause of his distress is all too obvious and loses in productive allusion and intimation what it perhaps gains in dramatic immediacy.
While both Nog and Flats clearly enough reflect an interest in the Western landscape—at least in its more primal features—Quake signals a more specific preoccupation with California, both in its geographical and its cultural character. Undoubtedly, this is partly attributable to Wurlitzer's work as a Hollywood screenwriter (most notably on the independent production Two-Lane Blacktop and on Sam Peckinpah's Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid), an influence which manifests itself directly in Wurlitzer's next novel, Slow Fade, which did not appear until more than a decade after Quake. If Quake is somewhat disappointing in that finally it is too close to being a conventional post-apocalyptic narrative (although when Wurlitzer wrote the novel, the prevailing tropes of post-apocalyptic fiction had certainly not become as familiar as they have now become, and to a significant degree Quake might be seen as one of the works that gave these stories of civilization's demise an imprimatur of experimentalism), Slow Fade, centered around an aging film director (who bears much resemblance to Peckinpah) disappoints because it is entirely recognizable as an entry in the "Hollywood novel" genre, which presents a disabused account of Hollywood as a place where human nature is displayed at its most obnoxious, unleashed by the very forces of ambition and success that make Hollywood's "dream factory" such a potent symbol of American aspiration.
Thus if Quake verges on satire (albeit of a particularly savage sort), Slow Fade certainly is satire, and while it reveals Wurlitzer's jaundiced view of his experience working in a fairly removed corner of the dream factory, it doesn't much tell us anything new or even that shocking about the movie business or the people who maneuver their way through it, nor does it expand the art of satire to any discernible degree. Anyone who reads Slow Fade without having read the earlier trilogy would no doubt judge Wurlitzer a trenchant observer of Hollywood moviemaking culture, which he treats in an episodic but not especially discontinuous narrative form that ultimately serves as the functional vehicle for the novel's caustic chronicle of Hollywood degradation and excess. The novel's portrayal of the likely end of filmmaker Wesley Hardin's career is not without a grudging respect for Hardin's stubborn commitment to his artistic vision, but his final retreat to his native Newfoundland at the novel's conclusion seems a less persuasive, if more explicit, representation of this character's release from self-deception than we find in the earlier protagonists' less voluntary self-renunciations in Nog, Flats, and Quake.
One might have given up, following Slow Fade, on Rudy Wurlitzer returning to fiction as a preferred mode of writing, as almost 25 years elapsed between Slow Fade and the publication of The Drop Edge of Yonder (2007). Moreover, since this novel is described as a "novelization" of sorts of an unpublished screenplay, readers might have expected it to be essentially a continuation of Wurlitzer's screenwriting career by other means, as was Slow Fade in its own way. But while Drop Edge of Yonder might have originated as a script (in which form it apparently acquired a semi-legendary status even in its unproduced state), the novel Wurlitzer fashioned from it shows no signs of being reassembled from another, visually-oriented, medium but firmly claims its own integrity as a work of fiction. A third-person narrative, it is perhaps the most fully rendered in setting, character, and "authentic" dialogue of Wurlitzer's novels, yet the story it tells reaffirms the episodic picaresque strategy of Nog as the most suitable representation of American experience, and, indeed, The Drop Edge of Yonder might be regarded as Wurlitzer's ultimate synthesis (although we could hope this is not necessarily his final novel) both of the literary/aesthetic assumptions he has brought to his fiction and of his depictions of the American landscape and the human behaviors it has inspired (or impaired).
The story concerns the adventures of Zebulon Shook, born in the Western mountains but in the novel wandering through most of the American West (with side trips to Mexico and Central America as well). His trek is foretold by a Shoshone Indian woman, who places a curse on him: "From now on, you will drift like a blind man between the worlds, not knowing if you're dead or alive, or if the unseen world exists, or if you're dreaming." Thus the "in-between" world Zebulon traverses is both hallucinatory and intensely corporeal (especially in its seediness and frequent mayhem). The Drop Edge of Yonder is to an extent an inverted Western in the mode of Thomas Berger's Little Big Man (or Robert Coover's more recent Huck Out West), but most of all it is a compelling illustration of Wurlitzer's conception of "space" as on the one hand inescapably physical, but on the other inherently metaphysical in its implications. Zebulon Shook encounters quite tangible obstacles to his freedom to roam (at one point being incarcerated on a prison ship for his efforts), ultimately declared an outlaw and pursued through material spaces often hostile to his presence; at the same time, Zebulon comes to even more acutely undergo a kind of disembodied expansion of presence, perhaps indeed extending to the "drop edge of yonder," over which Zebulon himself may disappear at the novel's conclusion, when he seems simply to vanish.
In considering Wurlitzer's novels collectively, it is tempting to think of them not as "postmodern" but "posthuman." They depict a world in which conventional human values seem no longer to apply, although also question the extent to which such values, originating in a belief in rationality, coherence, and ultimate purpose, ever applied in the first place. But perhaps it is more accurate to describe the sensibility at work in Wurlitzer's fiction as "postillusory," manifesting in a depiction of human society undone by its own indifference to these values, set in a boundless material environment that barely registers its presence (except to literally destroy it in Quake). The Drop Edge of Yonder contributes to this larger vision of disenchantment by adding specificity to the act of dispelling illusion in its invocation of the mythos and imagery of the American frontier. America's historical reality, as well as the inherited representations of that reality, are themselves rooted in contingency and aimless fluctuation, which Zebulon Shook experiences in the novel's authoritatively rendered particulars. As Zebulon learns (as all of Wurlitzer's protagonists learn), these conditions abide; any effort to acknowledge their dominion requires first of all facing down the terror they bring.