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Story Review: Dumbness Is Everything by Harold Brodkey

Dumbness is Everything by Harold Brodkey

Dumbness Is Everything is … wait. Let me just say that this piece may contain explicit language. So keep reading! With that out of the way, this story is about a couple having sex on the grass under the moonlight interspersed with running commentaries and side philosophies not necessarily on sex but on various big issues triggered by the various acts of sex that Wiley and Ora perform. No, the sex isn’t a performance even though they’re doing it out there in the open air. It is not supposed to be erotic but readers must not be judged if they get aroused at a white snake entering a nest of little snakes, or rather being gripped by an inner snake, or at a woman appraising the king’s prick, at entering and being helped to enter, et cetera, et cetera.

Well yes, you get all these similes pertaining to the penis and the vagina and the sexual verbs and the positions and body parts in contact with this or that. With all these, I’m still puzzling over the kind of story that this is. It’s not just a sex story and it doesn’t strike me as a love story. A drunken sex between a Jewish man and a rich beautiful white woman, sex that can be easily forgotten the morning after can hardly be a love story, so I’d say that this is a slice of Wiley’s life.

Without the sex, this would have been Wiley’s rambling on life and maybe on class and power (sex is in some ways a power struggle), but it would have been a droll, moody, and indulgent speech had it not been framed around it. All the fucking repels me, which makes me feel that it’s all about fucking, period. Wiley even says that one may call a life story A Book of Fucks, which is fucked up considering that Wiley doesn’t seem like a guy who would sum up a life with an oft censored word. What of kids? Of celibates? Or am I taking this literally?

I know how difficult it is to write about sex and I wouldn’t say that this is bad sex. The writing is pretty good. It is long-winded, maximalist, and it focuses on quotidian details, which makes me suspect that everything is a metaphor. Perhaps a second reading would make me at least be okay with this story but I can’t bear the thought of rolling my eyeballs again and again.

Obviously, I have nothing much to say. It’s just me. I’m put off by it. I feel so dumb, but at least I know that readers will be puzzling whether Wiley came or not.


Listen to Michael Cunningham reading this story at The New Yorker Fiction Podcast.

Rating: 1 out of 5 stars

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