Much of the novel issues from the stage and much of the language is stagy. Since the explanation for staginess comes after the fact, one is obliged to determine how much satisfaction a belated explanation can give. Contrivance is a tricky tool and there is abundant contrivance in What a Piece of Work I Am.
Reviewed by Bob Williams
What A Piece of Work I Am
by Eric Kraft
Picador USA; Reprint edition (June 1995)
Little Follies gave us Peter writing about Peter. In Herb ’n’ Lorna Peter was the biographer of an unknown side of his maternal grandparents and his role as an individual therein is modest. Reservations Recommended was an exercise in pure imagination and has almost no relation to Peter beyond the preface, itself untypical. Where Do You Stop? is more like Little Follies than the other books but is more sophisticated in its underlying concept than any of them. What a Piece of Work I Am differs from most of its predecessors. It is almost identical in length to Reservations Recommended but has seventy-two chapters instead of seven. Like Reservations Recommended the focus is less on Peter. It is on Ariane Lodkochnikov. She was mentioned in Little Follies and had a very active part in Where Do You Stop? This is the last of the first eight works by Eric Kraft in which Peter is not the dominant character.
The preface confronts us with a typical Kraftian puzzle. Raskol Lodkochnikov – as we know from Little Follies – is imaginary, a character based on a runaway that Peter knew for only a matter of hours. Peter makes no pretence that his sister Ariane is real except that he allows her to die in a fire, resurrects her in his imagination so that she can tell him the story of her life, the subject of this novel. Apparently Peter has special demands to make when he is describing the life of another. Even in Herb ’n’ Lorna Peter has a special approach where Peter writes “I have tried, therefore, to tell the story as it probably happened. The facts may be wrong, but I think the spirit is right.”
Ariane is the French version of Ariadne and it is right to dwell on the significance of this name. Just as the original Ariadne led the hero Theseus from the labyrinth so our Ariane leads Peter through such painful events as the death of his grandmother (Big Grandmother Leroy) and through the difficulties of life itself. There is a further similarity in that both Ariane and her namesake suffered badly at the hands of men. Kraft deals vividly with the Ariadne story in what purports to be an extract – complete with discussion questions – from a school textbook. It is the story of Ariadne as if told by the cynical Matthew Barber. Ariane Lodkochnikov suffers from the double eccentricity of her name. She cooperates with her own debasement and responds with outward equanimity to her nickname, Tootsie Koochikov.
In the development of the narrative, Ariane and Peter assume roles and act out the dialogue of various situations. This narrative device appeared in the preface of ‘The Static of the Spheres’ (Little Follies) and in Inflating a Dog where the impersonations of Patti Fiorenza and of Peter of Ella Leroy and Dudley Beaker play a major role in the story. Later we will see the same elaborate denial of the miseries of life through role-playing when Big Grandfather and Big Grandmother fantasize about a voyage to Rarotonga as an escape from the fact that she is slowly dying.
In Where Do You Stop? Ariane takes a job as waitress in Porky’s restaurant, then known as Captain White’s. In What a Piece of Work I Am she meets a young soldier there. He is Denny, and indirectly she arranges to see him at Corrine’s after work. She then digresses concerning her reputation and how it preceded her deserving it. She determines when she meets Denny to change her life. This seems an arbitrary choice since Denny is very ordinary. He tells war stories of a bloody sort, most of them made up. In a way he resembles Andrew Proctor of Herb ’n’ Lorna, another boring teller of war stories although Andrew’s were genuine. Together Denny and Ariane attend a party of former classmates.
The outcome is not fortunate, at least not for Ariane. Denny bores her and when they are petting in his car (just a car, not specifically a Studebaker so we know what Kraft thinks of him) what she allows is mostly from indifference. Denny, on the other hand and very untypically for him, forms an imagined romantic attachment.
“This was the nearest to a poetic thought that Denny had ever had. He was infatuated with his little thought as soon as he had it. He fell in love, truly, really, right at that moment. He fell in love with Ariane (a little) and with his idea of her (more) and with this newly discovered self who could have such perceptions and think such thoughts (quite a lot).”
Ariane thinks more realistically “ ‘He must have come,’ Ariane decided.”
Denny makes a declaration of his love and Ariane is startled at first but ultimately sees it as part of a seduction attempt and grows bored again. She sees the resort that is in the process of being built nearby and finds it powerfully attractive. It represents to her the glamour and elegance that is lacking in her life and for which she feels a need. Denny feels as many of the folk from Babbington feel – and Mr. Lodkochnikov is one of them – that it is not a ‘Bottomy’ thing, Bottomy being the local mispronunciation of Bolotomy. Peter’s thoughts measure the changes in Babbington, changes summed up in the fact that formerly everybody could clean a fish but now everybody buys fish that is much inferior but already cleaned and otherwise processed.
In an action that recalls Peter and Raskol pillaging for lumber in Where Do You Stop? she begins to explore the unfinished resort by night and fantasizes that she will be the hostess of the restaurant. At what she perceives as a fortuitous opportunity she applies for work and is hired. She is wearing an inappropriate but very sexy dress and Mr. Murray, the manager, writes a cryptic memo to himself on her application. It reads POA and stands for ‘piece of ass,’ a quality remarked on by one of the other men present at her interview.
She elaborates what she will tell her family, toys with the idea of telling them nothing but blurts out the news. The family reaction is forbidding but she is determined. She similarly blurts out the news to Porky. He is sorry to lose her and becomes philosophical about the nature of work and the need for the protection of self-anesthesia. But he makes a deal with her: she can keep the silly clam-shaped hat that she wears as his waitress if she will give him the recipe for her clam chowder. There is no recipe. It is her mother’s inspired combination of whatever ingredients are available, never the same way twice. It is also Kraft’s approach to the novel, often expressed by his alter ego, Peter Leroy.
Ariane arrives at the Sunrise Cove Resort Motel for work. Mr. Murray calls her Tootsie. She corrects him and a brassy looking woman with him reinforces her correction and calls Mr. Murray a goon. Ariane expresses her disappointment at being hired, she now perceives, as a waitress. When she expresses her wish to be hostess, the brassy looking woman recommends patience. The brassy looking woman, Renée, will be hostess but not for long since another newer motel is bound to take her attention elsewhere.
The first evening as a waitress is a chance for Ariane to study Renée closely and to model her own behavior on hers. Mr. Murray watches and, while he is amused at Ariane’s assiduous copying, sees in Renée’s behavior much to be avoided, particularly her flirtatious manner with male patrons. Narrative distribution includes random selections of conversation among the patrons, especially the local ones, and the acts and thoughts of those who watch – Ariane who watches Renée and Mr. Murray who watches them both. The brief chapters that characterize What a Piece of Work I Am get careful attention from the author. The focus is sharp and short for a short chapter needs precision in order to work.
Ariane’s geniality is open to misinterpretation and the wife of at least one patron develops grave suspicions of her husband on the base of it. Rumors spread and few couples from Babbington patronize the new resort although many of the local men do, middle aged and hopeful. She flirts a bit too much with a handsome young man in the restaurant and it turns out that he is the manager to replace Mr. Murray. In his pep talk to the staff he emphasizes that the aim of motel and staff should be the attraction of local patronage.
On what will prove to be a fateful night, the night that the new manager, Guy, and Ariane really meet, the staff is cleaning up. There is a scraped chair, reminiscent of the effect familiar to Peter and Ariane from a Greg Tschudin film, and a clean-up man sings the Rarotonga song, an important reference here and one occurring as early as ‘Life on the Bolotomy’ (Little Follies). Renée is eager to leave early and Ariane offers to close up for her. When Ariane herself is ready to leave she finds that Renée in her haste has left the door to her locker open. Ariane wears one of Renée’s dresses when Guy interrupts her. They flirt and agree to go together to the diner in Babbington.
What a Piece of Work I Am has a major preoccupation with the question of identity. Ariane in particular assumes the task of remaking herself. Porky warns her that work requires suppression of the self. She acts a role. She apes Renée. Under the stimulus of Guy’s first talk to the staff, she becomes a more reserved employee. Underneath all this surface activity is the question, raised in the preface, of the different levels of reality that Ariane occupies. To Peter she is both fictitious and real. As she fashions herself in the ways shown, she uses models to create the self of her desires. As she progresses she becomes more discriminating about her choices. All of this looks forward to the theatricality that forms the basis for much of the latter part of the novel. Her choices, though better, have passed beyond the functional into artifice, possibly into art.
It is puzzling, in the light of how we will finally perceive Guy, to learn that he drives a Studebaker (Ariane’s friend Tina, for example, drives a Commander). This is not expressly stated. He drives a Golden Hawk, ascertainably a Studebaker, but only so to the reader by prior knowledge or subsequent research. In terms of the identity theme it is interesting that at one point of the story Guy says that his real name is not Guy. If it is not Guy, we never learn any other name. The question of identity becomes very perplexing when we have no true name for him.
Their dinner is a success and it is not at the diner as Ariane originally suggested. They dine at the Manifest Destiny, a restaurant already familiar to us from a mention in the preface of ‘The Static of the Spheres’ (Little Follies). Ariane discovers that she is, however often she has been in lust, now in love. Upon her discovery of this she needs to confide the news to her friend Tina but she is not available. On her way home she sees Big Grandfather on his porch. She does a dance step under the street light and blows him a kiss. This is the first step in an association that will prove to be one of the most important in the novel.
Ariane, to remain close to Guy, shows an interest in the motel business and he promises to train her. This promise converges with the necessity of reducing staff at the end of a season and she finds that she is now a maid instead of a waitress. Although the idea was originally repugnant, she finds it fascinating to be in a stranger’s room and to see the stranger’s belongings. She is temporarily the audience for the intimate lives of others. And to a degree she is a participant. She tries on clothes, for example, left out by the guests and, like Goldilocks, even tries out the beds. When Guy is gone for a few days she searches through his room. She discovers that he is a petty thief, stealing trifles from the motel guests and hiding them clumsily in his room.
When Guy returns to the motel, Ariane greets him in a way that she perceives as acting and she now sees him as one who is playing a part. She is pregnant. They make love that night and Ariane tells him that she knows about his thefts. At first he accepts her knowledge of his criminal activities but they begin to quarrel. She cannot hide that she thinks him to be a small person and that she wants no part of his aspirations. He loses control and beats her savagely but skillfully so that no bruises will show. Barely able to walk, she gets home. During the night she miscarries.
Misguidedly she returns to her work at the motel. There she finds that Guy has planted some of the stolen property in such a way that she seems to be the thief. Mr. Murray will not listen to her explanations and orders her off the premises. He has no intention of prosecuting because of the unfavorable publicity. After a stormy session of impotent anger during which she encounters an unknown motorist, Tina’s mother and Big Grandfather, she returns home. There she strips for her brothers and tells them what has happened. The next morning she is able to tell from their battered hands and satisfied manner that they have taken care of Guy.
In an interlude a fictitious author describes a fictitious movie, A Little Mischief. This movie, by Gregory Tschudin, has a strong resemblance to Ariane’s experiences at Sunrise Cove. Peter mentioned Tschudin in the preface and his relevance begins to appear in this interlude but is not yet fully disclosed.
Ariane decides to become a waitress at Corinne’s. She assumes her duties almost on the strength of her own initiative. Her first official act is to serve Big Grandfather, John Leroy, with a drink. He has become a frequent customer at Corinne’s as he seeks some relief from the pain of watching the slow death of his wife.
The narrative strategy has for the most part been omniscient objective narration but – apart from the Tschudin interlude just mentioned – Ariane and Peter have been having a conversation, a conversation in which Ariane recalls the narrated events and Peter contributes to or hinders her recollections as his comments are perceptive or off target. The degree to which the conversational element is integrated into the texture of the novel varies.
In the chapter that describes the illness of Eleanor Leroy, Kraft refers to the death of her firstborn son. Kraft has admitted that this was an error since it was (Herb ‘n’ Lorna) Bert, not Buster, who was the firstborn.
Ariane and John Leroy become friends and he tells her of the fantasy of a trip to Rarotonga with which he has amused Eleanor and the difficulty that he now encounters in keeping the fantasy alive. Her suggestion is to abandon the examination of ocean-worthy vessels and – in imagination – to make the trip itself. With some very simple tricks he persuades Eleanor that they are in fact aboard ship and Rarotonga bound. From outside Ariane keeps watch and helps him disable the streetlight.
The events of this section are lighted with a beam broad enough to permit observations that are relevant to Kraft as a writer. Peter speaks of his grandfather’s care in painting the wood on the screen door that he had made as a boy “teaching me – but only by the way, without a word – that some work not only takes time, but needs time, as if it were alive, and had its needs.” This is the quality in Robert Musil that Kraft particularly admires and which he admits was highly instructive to him as a writer.
Convinced that John needs her assistance, Ariane comes to his home and does all behind the scenes that she can to foster the illusion of a voyage. She looks upon herself as his combined first mate and cabin boy. Every day she and John invent an excuse for a delay in the voyage since the trip cannot of course be finished. Together they chart a course that is marked on a map in the kitchen. Ariane reads books on the islands in general and Rarotonga in particular. Of the books that Kraft names all are by real authors except for the Christensen sisters Susanna and Elizabeth, brought back to life from their acidic survey of the local scene in ‘Life on the Bolotomy’ (Little Follies).
Ariane – eager for a larger role in the deception – spies on John and Eleanor. It dawns on Peter that Eleanor was not deceived but was happy at John’s pretence of a voyage, to make his own life easier while she died. Ariane seems to recognize it too as she makes her way quickly away, torn between laughter and tears.
The complexity of the situation grows, especially for Ariane. She marvels at John’s devotion to Eleanor and, while he is upstairs with his wife, she searches for some clue that will explain it. She modifies her own life so that she will be able more and more to slip into the fantasy of the voyage. And she falls in love with John. Eleanor approaches death and the fantasy of Rarotonga becomes all embracing for all of them. Eleanor herself decides to sail on and not put in at an island with a hospital. Ariane, shopping in prosaic Babbington, perceives it under the influence of the Rarotonga fantasy as an exotic village filled with colorful natives. She returns from her shopping. Eleanor is dead.
The excerpt that follows describes another film by Gregory Tschudin, To Rarotonga. It is a mad version of the events that we have just experienced. Like the other excerpt from Cargill’s work, on Tschudin’s Little Mischief, the ending to To Rarotonga had to be changed to meet the standards of the day regarding punishment of wrongdoers. The song ‘Rarotonga’ seems to be Kraft’s invention although the Mills Brothers was an actual singing group.
Peter and Ariane resume their conversation but it is overtly different. “She turned from me,” Peter observes, “sat stiffly upright, and faced directly forward, toward the audience.” A less obtrusive reference took place as early as chapter thirteen: “We exchanged a private smile.” Ariane is a performance artist and her performance is to live her life in public. She and Peter are on a stage before an audience. Some of the broader than life dialogue that has taken place between them here receives a kind of explanation.
She repeats for the benefit of her audience the story whereby she became the performer that she is. It is a story. In it Gregory Tschudin approached her with the concept already in his mind. She tells the true story. It was former friend, Denny the young man that she knew before Guy, that brought her to the warehouse where he intended to establish a theater of some sort and how they stumbled into the idea of her performing. An inadvertent watcher had seen them as they conversed and took it to be an entertainment. It was he that by accident gave them the idea that Ariane would lead her life in public for the entertainment of an audience. She has been doing this for ten years but this is the last night.
But in the beginning they had many problems. The first was with Duncan Rollo, chairman of the Babbington Zoning Board. At the same time that Ariane charms him she confuses him. What is habitation and what is the scene of an artistic performance? Later there will be obscenity charges as Ariane widens the scope of what is public. At what prove to be stormy meetings of the Zoning Board, Rollo is her eloquent defender and the controversy brings her a greater audience and wider renown. We read excerpts from critical notices from the immediate period of her success and from two later periods. They reflect various points of view in a way that is subterraneanly funny and explore the metaphysical aspects of a person being herself. Most praise Ariane but the last quoted review of the middle period is a harsh dismissal of her authenticity. Gregory reacts to it with exasperation, not at the reviewer but at Ariane who, he says, has changed. The reviews from the most recent period are even harsher. Even those critics who first supported her in her putting her life on display now retreat from her as she makes comments based on her life.
But the demands of reality are difficult and hard to fit into the framework of her life as a performance artist. Roughly midway in her career, after she had added on stage sex to her performance, she becomes pregnant. Gregory Tschudin, the father, displays guilt but abandons her. She is gone long enough to have an abortion and, when she returns, she remodels the stage. All the walls come down.
Her new lover, Terrence, is, like her, sick on the war. He douses himself with gasoline and she joins him. They would both have been burned to death but for the quick thinking of Duncan Rollo with fire extinguishers. Made introspective by this experience, Ariane embarks on a voyage of learning and self-discovery. Except for interludes with zealous teachers, she offers nothing to her audience except that sight of a woman thinking.
Before her last audience she speaks of things undone, encounters in which she disappointed herself. Incidentally, we learn that John Leroy took refuge in insanity after Eleanor’s death. Ariane, after a brief commentary on Ariadne her namesake and a request that Peter tell her story as it was instead of in the distorted version that Gregory Tschudin has created, picks up her luggage and leaves. Some of the members of the audience follow her.
In a third excerpt from Andrew Cargill’s study of Tschudin’s films, we see Tschudin’s distorted version of Ariane’s on stage life in a film called On Display. The architect, the builder and Terrence are principal characters in the film and in typical Tschudin style the heroine seems to kill them all at the conclusion of the film.
Ariane tells the rest of the story in her own words with a series of nine letters that she writes to Peter. The letters are a curious mixture. Along with reflections on the art of making clam chowder, she details the success of shaking off her pursuers, fans of the performance artist that will not allow her to quit. She also sees her flight as a flight towards a new self, the making of whom and of clam chowder are analogous.
The letters arrive at random intervals but none of them are nearer to each other than four months. The time of the first letter is unspecified so it is impossible to guess at the exact span of time that they cover. By the time she writes from Rangoon in the seventh letter she has only two pursuers left. Her last pursuer dies in Australia, an older man, happy victim of Ariane’s amatory allure. At last free to find a place of stop she writes her next letter, the one with which the novel closes, from Rarotonga. It is lyrical in tone and satisfied with the person that she has at last made of herself. Her final exclamation? “What a piece of work I am.”
But this is not really the end. The author, as if slightly dissatisfied, adds a short note about the nature of his intentions and the underlying premise that Peter Leroy is to them.
Much of the novel issues from the stage and much of the language is stagy. Since the explanation for staginess comes after the fact, one is obliged to determine how much satisfaction a belated explanation can give. Contrivance is a tricky tool and there is abundant contrivance in What a Piece of Work I Am. Much of the from-the-stage dialogue between Ariane and Peter fails. It fails because it is not deeply rooted and because of that it is boring, the cardinal sin of any writer. This is the weakest link in the Peter Leroy chain.
And as a link it anticipates the next novel, At Home with the Glynns, – by contrast for the next novel is brief and funny. But it also recalls Reservations Recommended, another novel with a very dark atmosphere, but there the awfulness of humanity is treated with humor and compassion instead of rage and loathing. The great shortcoming of What a Piece of Work I Am is its dependence on the hellfire sermon as an acceptable literary device.
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About the Reviewer: Bob Williams is retired and lives in a small town with his wife, dogs and a cat. He has been collecting books all his life, and has done freelance writing, mostly on classical music. His principal interests are James Joyce, Jane Austen and Homer. His writings, two books and a number of short articles on Joyce, can be accessed at: