Thoughts on 98.6 by Ronald Sukenick (FC2, 1975)

pg. 26

My fellow language junkies, this book should interest you:

To celebrate the near completion of their house Ron makes up a song. The song he makes up on this occasion is part of his plot to destroy the English language. The song goes like this.

Bjorsqi poppamomma
Wocky wocky
Plastic jam
Iron blintzes
Fill the inches
Sooky buby nishtgedeit

(pg. 74-75)

To map the boundaries of 98.6 is to acknowledge the absence of start and finish, the absence of unification, cohesion; to map the boundaries of 98.6 is to recognize recurrent motifs: community, mythology, language, communication, sex, obsession, religion, history, destruction, evil, jealousy, ownership, nature, grief, sadness, loneliness, desire. The way these concepts manifest in the material world is at the heart of 98.6.

Divided into three sections (Frankenstein, The Children of Frankenstein, Palestine), the text is ostensibly about three attempts at creating a utopian commune. It moves from third person to third person to first person. The connections between the three sections are tenuous, but present. I get the sense that they are related, despite the thinness of explicit connections; in other words, I believe part of the experiment of the novel is to see how far one can stretch Aristotelian unity without completely undoing it. It’s a very interesting experiment—one of the fundamental of all novelistic experiments—and although the results are obviously up for debate, I find Sukenick’s results absolutely fascinating and rewarding.

The first section, Frankenstein, seethes with aggression, disjunction, and inconsistency. It foregrounds calendar dates, but nonsequentially. It incorporates newspaper clippings, Mayan and Aztec conspiracy theories, Hollywood, footnotes, field notes, pangrams, S&M, witches, magic, and murder. This commune invokes thoughts of the Manson family.

The second section, The Children of Frankenstein, is raw, carnal, corporeal, material, animal, and convulsive. It’s the most narrative of the three, but the narrative is episodic and it deteriorates as it progresses. Characters take on hippie names like Cloud and Branch and Cassiopeia. Everybody has sex with everybody and it seems like a Woodstock-type commune sexfest thing, but there’s repeated mention that they don’t do very many drugs. There are ways in which this section remind me of Richard Brautigan’s In Watermelon Sugar (1968) and Ben Marcus’s Notable American Women (2002), especially in the way that Sukenick does that kind of word replacement thing where he calls a tent an egg and there’s something called the Monster, and all sorts of stuff is called asparagus wine.

The third section, Palestine, is feverish, cognitive, theoretical, scientific. It feels less connected to the other two sections, or else I could say it feels less akin to them. Section one and section two are of a kind different than the kind of section three; yet, there are indicators of their connectivity: overlapping concerns, phrases, characters, etcetera. This section is dominated by logos, whereas section two is dominated by pathos and section one by ethos.

One reading of the text would be to see it in Hegelian terms: section one representing the synthesis of section two (imminence) and section three (transcendence).

Another way of reading the text would be to see it as a kind of allegory for the disrupted and disillusioned nature of 1970s American society following the failure of the revolutionary potential of the 60s to actually materialize.

But because I tend to read texts in terms of aesthetics rather than ethics, I read 98.6 as a triptych (painting), as a variation on a theme (music), or perhaps as three parts to a puzzle for which the remaining pieces have been lost. The pleasure I derive from the text is chiefly attributable to Sukenick’s strange sentences, which almost seem to change their mind about where they are going or why they are going there halfway through and so sometimes they end up somewhere completely different from where they started and othertimes they just seem to be a bunch of ideas smashed together in a beautiful way. Here’s a couple examples:

Glasses break without being touched appliances fail then the next minute work perfectly furniture in the next room is knocked around. (pg. 23)

Fatty comes out to see what’s going going on she hardly has a chance to say Casseopia isn’t here when Ralph breaks away from the two freaks and pulls his butcher knife on her. (pg. 154)

He thinks of the eerie ecstasy of of whale songs calm throbbing poignant that’s the kind of song he wants to compose he’s starting a new career he wants to be a songwriter but he’s stuck. (pg. 25)

But readers beware: one cringe-inducing element of the text is its treatment of women, a perennial problem in Sukenick’s work, which I suspect might account, at least in part, for the dearth of critical acclaim afforded him. Especially in the first section of the book, Sukenick forces us to face cruelty in a way that I found uncomfortable because of my inability to determine whether the text is condoning, celebrating, or critiquing misogyny; of course, it’s completely feasible that it’s doing all three. I would like to give Sukenick the benefit of the doubt, to assume that he was interested in presenting uncomfortable issues as a way of confronting what so often goes ignored, overlooked, silent; namely: violence against women and not only the physical but also the psychological effects of that violence. Here’s an example from the first section, Frankenstein:

Does it hurt he says.

I don’t care do whatever you want to me she wants to be destroyed. She wants to be torn apart and completely helpless and at the mercy of. That’s the way she thinks of it at the mercy of. She wants to go all the way back to animals and past animals to things. She wants to go back to her thing nature and be part of the rest of the world for once in her thingness a thing among things. She wants to die what a relief it’s a special kind of death it feels like shitting in reverse no more fighting off all the deadness in the world letting it in letting it in oh god she didn’t know she could get this excited like completely giving in he’s in he’s all the way in he’s so far in all the way up into her guts she feels completely owned she wants to eat his shit. (pg. 33)

In this example, we can see the beauty of the strange sentences, which I previously suggested make for the text’s greatest reward, but to see the beauty of the sentences we have to also see the horror of the ideas being expressed. That a woman would desire objecthood, the evacuation of her subjectivity, is troubling and problematic, especially coming from the pen of a patriarch. It is here at this very precipice that I come face to face with my issues about the necessary distinction between form and content. It is here, in this very example that I am challenged. I want to stand by my position, a position I have dug a rather large trench to defend: that the primacy of a work of art must be viewed in terms of its form rather than its content. Content, I have argued time and time again, is irrelevant. But what to make of this: the content so repugnant, the form so beautiful?

I’m pleased that a work of art has caused me to question my position because it attests to the affective power of art. Despite any misgivings I might have about the content of Sukenick’s work, I firmly believe he deserves a revival. 98.6 is a fascinating work of literature and it most certainly deserves to be read and studied and talked about widely. Hopefully, maybe, some of you have read it and could share thoughts?


  1. BAC

      Have you read Narralogues?

  2. Christopher Higgs

      Hi, Brian,

      Nope. Not yet. Do you recommend it?

  3. Blake Butler

      thanks for this Chris. it’s been a minute since i read 98.6, this made me want to again. 1998.6 by Matthew Roberson is also really interesting, if you haven’t checked that out yet.

  4. deadgod

      I think an enablement that ‘means’ necessarily is a zone of unity and coherence that indicates disjunction and incoherence impinging-from-within. It’s exciting when this nature of signs is thematized with aesthetic success – as in Hamlet, a dramatic poem riven inwardly by its fact, its performance, of disclosure, and As I Lay Dying, a ‘family’ likewise discontinuous.

      whether the text is condoning, celebrating, or critiquing

      Yes, when one realizes (of any container) that the “content is repugnant”, one is already monitoring ‘ethically’ – one might always be monitoring ‘ethically’, regardless of one’s aestheticism: a challenge to the position that “aesthetic” and “ethical” admit of absolute separation.

      Chris, did you mean “immanence”?

  5. Ken Baumann

      ‘one might always be monitoring ‘ethically’, regardless of one’s aestheticism’
      I agree with this. I think it takes massive mental effort to cleave the two for long, to subdue ethical judgement. Comparative social emotion is too quick.

  6. Christopher Higgs

      Cool, thanks for that tip, Blake. I’ve not read the Robertson one…just put it on my “to get” list.