Kenneth Gangemi Biography
Nationality: American. Born: Bronxville, New York, 1937. Education: Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, New York, B. Mgt.E. 1959; San Francisco State College (now University), California. Military Service: Served in the United States Navy, 1960-61. Awards: Stegner fellowship, 1968; PEN grant, 1975; Creative Artists Public Service fellowship, 1976.
Olt. New York, Orion Press, and London, Calder and Boyars, 1969.
Corroboree: A Book of Nonsense. New York, Assembling Press, 1977.
The Volcanoes from Puebla. London, Boyars, 1979.
The Interceptor Pilot. London, Boyars, 1980.
Lydia. Los Angeles, Black Sparrow Press, 1970.
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A literary innovator whose works have often had their first appearance in French translation or in British editions, Kenneth Gangemi has distinguished himself as an uncompromising perfectionist whose fiction makes none of those gestures toward popularity that made similar developments part of mainstream American fiction in the later 1960s and 1970s. Without foregrounding techniques or dramatizing his pose as an anti-illusionistic writer, Gangemi has fashioned a style of narrative that at times questions itself comically and always highlights the pleasure of having referential materials from the world being transformed into the makings of literary art.
His short novel Olt remains the best introduction to Gangemi's fiction. Although it qualifies as anti-fiction (in the terms of refusing to capitalize on the effects of suspended disbelief), not a single convention of traditional fiction is violated. The characterization of Gangemi's protagonist, Olt, is coherent, and the narrative action of his adventures is linear. Gangemi's style is clear and concise. Yet none of these familiar aspects is used to accomplish the customary aim of narrative. There are no flashes of insight or moments ponderous with great meaning, and certainly no accumulation of wisdom that might add up to a conclusive point. Instead Gangemi fashions a narrative life in which his on-going language constitutes an experiential flow of life, as Olt's existence is generated by the fact that he lives within a sentence structure capable of accommodating an infinite series of actions. "Olt knew he would never see a meteor striking an iceberg, a bat falling into snow, or a clown on a nun," for instance. "He knew he would never go to a party and talk to thunderstorm experts, roller-coaster experts, vampire experts, sailplane experts, dinosaur experts, or volcano experts. He knew that he would never design bear grottos, furnish a time capsule, live in an orange grove, wade in a vat of mercury," and so forth. Even though all of these objects exist in the world, and even though syntax makes it possible to combine them, what readers know about the world confirms that seeing a bat fall into snow is among the unlikeliest of possibilities. Yet these sentences of Gangemi's have linked them linguistically, the word "not" preserving the narrative from utter nonsense. Readers can therefore delight in the combinatory action of language without having to suspend disbelief. Free of any obligation to add up to something, these fictive objects can be appreciated in and of themselves.
In Corroboree—like Olt, a short novel of about sixty pages—Gangemi uses similar found objects to constitute a style. These objects predominate over narrative, and where narrative exists it is often for the sake of a self-referential joke, such as the quickly summarized story of a man who makes a fortune in the shipping industry by realizing cargoes of ping-pong balls need not be insured against sinking. Gangemi's talent for construing off-base situations leads to such real-life observations as noting a woman at the Hong Kong Hilton suggesting a trip to Chinatown and considering the effect of filling a cello with jello. As a result, language is allowed to become its own subject without such artificial devices as concrete forms on the page or devices such as featuring a writer writing a story about a writer writing a story about a writer ….
Gangemi's most successful work is The Volcanoes from Puebla. As a transfictional narrative, it combines the most useful aspects of both the novel and the travel memoir by discarding those factors which prove overly determining for each form: in the case of fiction, the need for a developing story, and in the memoir a dedication to the chronology of time and integrity of space. In The Volcanoes from Puebla, the only true narrative results from the reader coming to an appreciation of Mexico as a sensual experience, while the autobiographical element of this experience is countered by the adventure being broken down by alphabetical points of reference. The references themselves are various, as idiosyncratic as a system devised by Jorge Luis Borges to show off its own infinite cleverness. While "Calle Bolivar" rates a description as a street in Mexico City, so do "Helmets" (as part of a motorcyclist's gear) and "Mexican Day" (as a reflection on typical daily rhythms). Read in this jigsaw-puzzle manner, the book stresses the materials of experience themselves, apart from any of the typical travelog conventions which by prioritizing such materials tend to falsify the experience. The test of Gangemi's effectiveness as a writer is how well he is able to hold this experience together, fragmented as it is by the alphabetical structure and antisystematics of its categories. Soon the reader sees how the author himself is experiencing Mexico free from traditional constraints—letting buses pass by while he appreciates the pleasure of waiting at the bus stop, seeing a beautiful girl walk by with a baby coati-mundi on her shoulder and not knowing whether to look at her or at the coatimundi. The Volcanoes from Puebla is itself experienced by the reader just this way, free of both fictive narrative and biographical consequence.
The ultimate effect of Gangemi's art is seen in what is his most conventional narrative, a full-length novel titled The Interceptor Pilot. Its plot is traditional and has the interest of a politically pertinent action thriller: during the Vietnam War an American pilot volunteers his service in defense of the North against bombing by his own countrymen. The key to this novel is that it is told as simply and as sparely as possible; indeed, the form implied is that of the film treatment, a bare-bones, present-tense indication of how the camera is supposed to capture the action ("The scene is …," "The time is …"). Here Gangemi has taken just the element that his earlier fiction discarded, and now employs it to do the work that in other cases would be accomplished by detailed characterization, careful imagery, and complexly contrived action (all of which the movie treatment assumes will be displayed for the camera). Again like a film The Interceptor Pilot ignores every element except what can be seen; being so limited, it must rely on such cinematic devices as montage and quick cutting. What happens in the narrative becomes a dynamic collage in which each object remains itself just as much as it functions as an agent of action: kills stenciled beneath an airplane cockpit railing, a copy of Le Monde tossed on the seat of a French journalist's car, TOP SECRET stamped on an Air Force document. Just as the objects of Olt, Corroboree, and The Volcanoes from Puebla function as narrative and not just referential materials, the lightness and clarity of Gangemi's prose allows similar objects to take on similar artistic importance in The Interceptor Pilot.
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