FOR THOSE OF US WHO DESPISE THE COMMON memoir, the real craft of autobiography lies in lying. Life, after all, is always the same old story, tired variations on egomaniacal mythology--poor boy makes good, rich girl establishes herself as an independent person, etc. Period details, cultural differences, sexual preferences can give it some spin, but basically the autobiography has no more potential to be art than does the industrial supply catalog.
Not to demean autobiography (or the supply catalog), or to isolate it as scholastic journal-keeping. Autobiography is ubiquitous, insofar as we can't help but write what we know. But of those who set out to write about themselves, very few seem to consider the basic problems of the form. Even Joyce, old artificer of 20th-century inventiveness, fell back on received technique to do his own portrait. At another extreme, Georges Perec revisited segments of an awful past through rigorously constrained narratives, allowing dull readers the luxury of ignoring what an abbreviated memory of childhood a French Jew born in 1935 might have.
Then there's Ronald Sukenick.
Thirty years after his first published novel, UP, came to terms with the problem of autobiography, Sukenick returns to the subject in The Mosaic Man. In the intervening years he has written 10 novels and a book of essays, and helped to found and direct the Fiction Collective (now FC2) and American Book Review, two enterprises run by writers primarily concerned with art, in deliberate opposition to an industry run for profit. A fraternal relationship, where peers judge each other's work, replaces the paternalistic system, where writers compete for favors bestowed by an institutional authority. When, in the early 1970s, he and fellow novelists dumped their established publishers in favor of doing it themselves, Sukenick freely railed against those conglomerates that were ruining culture.
Rather than supersede his career as a novelist, these extracurricular publishing ventures keep the U.C. Boulder professor involved in the business end of book production. UP is among a short list of books now made available by FC2 (via arch-distributor Ingram and, of course, Barnes & Noble, among others) as a "book-on-demand." (Books-on-demand is a technology whose time came years ago, but it is only now finding its way into practice. Instead of having to keep store rooms packed with overstock that might have to be remaindered, the technology allows publishers to laser-print a perfect-bound paperback on demand in minutes, at a minimal cost.)
UP bounded onto the publishing scene to critical and popular acclaim. Although this generally chronological yet wildly fractured account seems grounded in events of the author's life, Sukenick exuberantly entertains the idea that none of these experiences are actual. "It's just a sequence of words. The only thing that matters is the order of revelation in print," the character with the author's name argues with his critic friend Bernie, who makes a tepid stand for verisimilitude ("the essence of fiction writing") before the author and/or hero says, "Why should we have to suspend disbelief? ...Are we children reading fairy tales or men trying to work out the essentials of our fate?"
As fate would have it, The Mosaic Man continues this theme. It is, even more than UP, a mosaic of styles and approaches, with somber and meditative passages mixed in with humor, puns, and playful tropes. As ever, Sukenick is more interested in the order of revelation and the accuracy of what's revealed than in the imaginative reconstruction of reality. He wants authenticity, not mimesis. While elements of form inform his narrative (a tape-recorded conversation with his parents, for example), Mosaic Man aims at the very essence of his life, as Sukenick searches for his roots in Jerusalem, Berlin, and in Poland, where his family came from and where hardly any Jews remain.
An avant-pop revision of the Old Testament, mixing in cultural references from his era, welcomes the prodigal Ron Sukenick home from a lifelong journey. The older he gets, the more difficult it is for him to realize his identity as something distinct from the identities of others, and yet his autobiographical mosaic celebrates an idiosyncratic self, so packed with contradictions that it passes for the truth.