Published in 1956, The Song of the Red Ruby by Agnar Mykle is a sequel to Lasso Round the Moon, a book that earned my full-throated endorsement not long ago. One part bildungsroman and one part barbaric yawp, The Song of the Red Ruby returns to Ash Burlefoot and his insatiable appetite for life, for food and friendship, for music and literature, and for sexual adventures with all manner of women: With stately plump women, with warm, apple-scented women, with women who have nut-brown hair and blue eyes, and even with women slightly beyond their prime. You know, cougars in their late twenties and early thirties whose “bodies are slightly rancid.” Nary a feline beast Ash won’t bed, that’s for sure.
The gift of youth’s pathos
In Proust’s Search, there’s a scene in “The Captive and the Fugitive” where Marcel identifies Dostoevsky’s gift, the unique thing he gives the world. According to Marcel, it’s woman’s dual nature, capable as she is of sincerity and playacting, and the vivid reality of homes, whose private anguish is made public. That’s Doestoevsky’s gift, says Marcel. Mykle’s gift, on the other hand, the unique thing he gives the world, is a candid treatment of youth’s exuberance, of the often bewildering fluctuations between hope and optimism, on the one hand, and uncertainty and despair, on the other, of youth’s amatory impulses and sexual calisthenics. Thankfully, Mykle’s treatment is taken up in naturalistic terms:
Spring seethes quietly in the dark soil and rises like fermenting wine in stems of the plants, in the trunks of the trees and in peoples’ limbs: sap and milk and blood
Mykle’s raging heart on
In Mykle’s prose, the intermittencies of the heart reign supreme. The heart frets, worries, and hopes. It longs, yearns, and wonders. It praises, condemns, weeps, sorrows, blusters, laughs, and of course ejaculates. There’s nothing the heart doesn’t do, and that’s the problem: the novel is all heart, surging like a cataract after a rapid snow melt. There’s very little intellect, and by this I mean there’s no rigorous causal sequence of events. As a result, the plot line, if such a thing can be said to exist in Mykle’s Song, is very faint, indeed—consisting mostly of loosely assembled episodes that are only weakly organized by causality. A sure sign of this defect is that a vast majority of the scenes can be transposed without doing any violence to the story. As regards plot, it’s materially indifferent whether Ash goes to the dance before or after the poetry reading, or ravishes Wilhemine before or after Constance, or goes to the Socialist’s Students Group before or after a trip to a cabin in the mountains.
Because causality is next to nothing, I have the suspicion, which I don’t care to defend because I know it’s true and so will happily assert it, that Mykle too easily finds in Ash a vehicle for thinly disguised autobiography. Many of the episodes in the novel have the form, “I remember when…,” and then Mykle rifles through his card catalogue of memories, finds a 3X5 with a suitably vivid anecdote, and then shoehorns it into place, with a spit, buff, and a snap. Now I’m as kindly disposed to Dionysian frenzy and wistful memories as the next guy, but for the greater glory of literary art, they’d better find their Apollinian counterpoint in causal orderings.
Which is why I prefer Lasso to Song—and that by a goodly shot.