Harold Brodkey’s barococo ‘Innocence’ portrays a college girlfriend, Orra, as seen by her lover, Wiley. Both the narrator and his object of desire emerge in parts, in pieces, in pleasures sought. The first-person speaker deifies Orra: she is the monument, the mystery, the god, and the court. “Any attempted act confers vulnerability since only she could judge it,” Wiley explains. Pleasure and pleasing reveal their kinship, since Wiley’s desire to pleasure Orra is inseparable from his hunger to please her. The seamless swerve from interior monologue to omniscient description is Brodkey’s high-wire act.
The meticulous inventory of sexual sighs, moans, and tremblings seduces the reader into the scene: we look back and forth between their faces, trying to interpret their expressions. Like Wiley, we are mired in the tension of sexual pleasure Brodkey accomplishes this simultaneity by sexing-up the syntax, using paragraph-length sentences punctuated by nothing except semicolons; drawing slow trains of commas ruptured by interjections across the page; employing diction that shifts from the sensitive to the obscene and then back. The frantic lens narrows and widens, enacting the disorienting effect of earnest sexual encounter.
‘Innocence’ deploys the semicolon as texturizing agent in the paragraph. Like flour and oil, semicolons thicken the mix and build stickiness when stacked; they intensify the list with their rich, gooey stitch. Proust would not exist without his semicolon suave— that distinct baroque swerve of accretive syntax—nor would sex in Brodkey. His semicolons implicate us in the lustrous tangling and indulgent all-at-once-ness of sex.
As a low-status punctuation mark, more ornamental than necessary, the semicolon asserts itself aesthetically, like a gold earring or a faux mink coat. This cloying extravagance is amenable to risking kitsch. The semicolon is the acrobat of the line – it gushes, and then withdraws, leaving us to feel the world changed by its effusion. Brodkey uses it to establish rhythm that builds towards sexual climax, and then shortens his syntax to designate withdrawal. What Wiley wants evolves from simple sexual pleasure to self-discovery: “It was the feeling she aroused in me, a feeling that was, to be honest, made up of tenderness and concern and a kind of mere affection, a brotherliness as if she were my brother, not different from me at all.”
As Wiley identifies with Orra, she becomes his counterpart, his sibling, his co-innocent. The seducer is replaced by the astonished child, as the sex goes on, there is “an increasing failure … of one kind of sophistication—of worldly sophistication—and by the increase in me of another kind, of a childish sophistication, a growth of innocence: Orra said, or exclaimed, in half-harried, half-amazed voice, in a hugely admiring, gratuitous way, as she clutched at me in approval, “Wiley, I never had feelings like these before!”
A coming-of-age story, ‘Innocence’ centers the chasing of mutual orgasm, and the discovery of a self driven entirely by the desire to give them pleasure. Loyalty grows from this carnal communion — intimacy is disinhibited, shameless, and guilty of nothing apart from trying to crawl inside the Other.
Collected in Stories in an Almost Classical Mode,Vintage Books, 1989. Available online here