Bits and Pieces of Trips

by John Wain
Nog
by Rudolph Wurlitzer (Random House, $4.95)
This is the sort of novel, or antinovel, that one is getting very used to. It is vaguely hippie in that it attempts, quite successfully, to reproduce in the reader’s mind the simplification, the slight and continual dissociation from ordinary jagged reality, which is the hippie’s ideal state and is normally achieved by using soft drugs to tinker with the nervous system. The Middle Ages used the dream convention as a vehicle for high vision, and perhaps this very prevalent kind of symbolic-fantasy writing is our idea of high vision, in which case I feel we might as well call it a day and turn the writing of books over to computers.
Nog is a dream fantasy, interspersed with nuggets of near-realism, about someone who travels from place to place, at first alone save for an inflatable model octopus which he exhibits at fairs, later with a girl called Meridith and a man called Lockett. Lockett appears to be what the square world would call a psychopathic criminal, but the narrator seems to like him all right, though “like” and “dislike” would be terms too strong to apply to the almost imperceptible ganglia movements that for him take the place of feelings. Perhaps Lockett is intended to figure
as some kind of soul physician for the narrator; certainly, he intervenes decisively in the narrator’s life by stunning him with a weighted sock and dumping him in the back of a car in which he then drives off with Meridith; when the narrator awakes, Lockett speaks words of comfort and wisdom:
“Whoever you were before coming aboard, you’re sure different now. You’ll drop out like a man or know the reason why.” Lockett grinned, His is eyes are ferocious with love and compassion.
Even in that tiny extract, one can see the author’s characteristic manner at work. Note, for instance, the change of tense from “grinned” to “are.” The book abounds in this leapfrogging between past and present tenses; at first, I put it down to sheer absentmindedness on the author’s part, but in fact, I think, it is intended to contribute to the all-pervading vagueness, the sense of floating, the exhilaration (if that is the word) of escaping from the world of sequence and causation.
The real subject of Nog is the struggle to slough off human character and become a kind of limpet without a shell, and when we first meet the hero he is rather depressed because he is having some difficulty in achieving this. His main problem is to handle his memories. That is
a problem for all of us, of course, if only because, as the man said, the unexamined life is not worth living, and what we chiefly have to examine are our memories, even if they are only memories of half an hour ago. But the narrator’s way of solving this problem, or more properly, containing it, is to meditate on a strictly limited number of memories, which, in order to make them more amenable, he invents. “I find,” he says, “when I ruminate like this, that I invent a great deal of my memories — three now, to be exact — because otherwise I have trouble getting interested.” This statement would be easier to understand if one could be certain whether the author really meant to write “a great deal” or “a good many”: does he invent a high proportion of his many memories or a high proportion of the content of his few (three, “to be exact”) memories? It’s too late; the words whip by like smoke. A line or two further on from the passage quoted above, he says,
I think about trips, bits and pieces of trips, but I no longer try and put anything together (my mind has become blessedly slower), nor do I try as much to invent a suitable character who can handle the fragments. But I don’t want to get into all that. There is always the danger that I might become impressed by what once was a misplaced decision for solitude.
Speaking for myself, I’m not sure that I understand that last sentence; in fact, on reflection, I’m quite sure I don’t understand it, but I’m not worried because, like the narrator, “I don’t want to get into all that.” This is a dream, and part of what it is a dream about is the wish to escape into emptiness, to absolve oneself from participation in the rich clutter of life.
Nog is not the narrator’s name; it is a name he picked up from someone he came into brief contact with, the man who sold him the octopus (very symbolic). Nog gets quite a full description: he is “one of those semi-religious lunatics you see wandering around the Sierras on bread and tea, or gulping down peyote in Nevada with the Indians,” and he is a bit worried about “a yellow light that had lately been streaming out of his chest from a spot the size of half a dollar” (very symbolic). They go off and have a drink together in a place where “thousands of frogs croaked monotonously,” and the narrator feels “vaguely elated, like a witness to some ancient slaughter.”
Since Nog makes the narrator feel vaguely elated, it is only right that he should take over Nog’s octopus and name. Nobody else gives him even that much, though the girl Meridith has a lot of sex with him in an absentminded way. and there are occasional half-suggestions that
he finds this not unenjoyable. Since no one has an identity or a history and there is nowhere to put down any roots, Pseudo-Nog doesn’t have much to escape from. All he needs to duck is flying symbolism. Since the story is so dreamlike, virtually everything that happens or nonhappens is symbolic. A lot of the symbolism centers on a black doctor’s bag stolen by Meridith and Lockett from a hospital.
“Meridith snatched it,” Lockett said. “It was on a chair outside an office.”
He reached slowly into the bag and withdrew three tongue depressors. He spread them out on the ground a few inches from each other. Then he pulled out a thermometer and a vial of tranquilizers. He arranged the thermometer and tranquilizers to the right and left of the tongue depressors, creating the upper half of a star. He shut his eyes, his hands groping before emerging with clenched fingers. The fingers slowly opened, exposing a small vial in his palm.
“Morphine,” Meridith whispered.
“Morphine,” Lockett added.
The vial was placed into the center of the star. Rapidly now, he withdrew Band Aids, gauze, an ear syringe, a regular syringe with a box of needles, more tranquilizers, a stethoscope and a box of Q-tips. The star is complete.
“A start,” Lockett said. “Find us a place and build. Which don’t mean there is no place, you understand.”
Meridith dropped a small black stone into the bag. Then she took a button off her dress and dropped that in.

The Writers

Sam Bingham, a recent graduate of Yale, was in Czechoslovakia after the troubled summer of 1968.
Frank O’Connor, the Irish poet and novelist, died in 1966. The poem in this issue was discovered in manuscript by his widow, Evelyn Garbary, and is printed with her permission.
Michael C. Janeway is an editor of the Atlantic.
John Greenway, a professor of anthropology at the University of Colorado, is doing fieldwork in Australia.
John Wain is a British novelist and critic who has written extensively about American fiction.
Edward Weeks, the Atlantic’s editor from 1938 to 1965, has written a new book, Fresh Waters.
Arthur Loesser is the author of Men, Women and Pianos.
Herbert Kupferberg is completing a book about the Philadelphia Orchestra.
Phoebe Adams contributes a monthly column to this journal.
“Nog,” Lockett commanded.
“No,” I said.
“You’re in,” Meridith said.
Pseudo-Nog’s protests are in vain, and Lockett ceremoniously clips off a bit of his hat and drops it into the bag, which now becomes the symbol of their togetherness. (A star made out of tranquilizers and tongue depressors is a good emblem of the book, and could almost serve as a one-image summary or epiphany of the whole.) None of this prevents the three of them from drifting apart, and in fact the story ends with Pseudo-Nog’s making one of those routine acts of renunciation of a human tie. Lockett has disappeared somewhere; Pseudo-Nog and Meridith are aboard a ship waiting its turn to go through a series of giant locks; she decides that they must make their escape, carrying the sacred black bag with them. PseudoNog lets her launch a rubber dinghy, but once she is in it he refuses to hand over the paddle and lets her drift away, presumably to be drowned, as the last we hear of her is the agonized appeal. “The boat is leaking. Nog, the boat leaks. Lockett. Daddy. Stop.”
That disposes of Meridith, and Nog is left in possession of the black bag with its undecipherable secrets, comforted, as he lies on his bunk and the ship is moved from one ocean to another, by the thought, “There has been no decision except that I’m moving on.”
I’m moving on, too.