by Peter Vanderberg
Steven Zultanski is a poet grounded in the Conceptualist movement and his fourth book, Bribery, tends in that direction, yet feels like something more. The book is composed of one long poem that reads like the confessions of a psychopath, but in the rambling narrative is layered engaging and disturbing commentary on violence, politics, society, human behavior, love and time.
Over the course of the book, a strange character is revealed and develops in an anticlimactic way as a narrator on a mission to become the worst person he can possibly be. Indeed, heinous crimes are confessed, but as the book progresses, the insight and razor sharp perception of human behavior exhibited by the narrator reveals a multidimensional persona that challenges the reader to consider the observations of this alleged psychotic mind. Throughout the book, there are moments when the insane narrator seems to grasp a kind of truth. The power of the book is in its deceptive wisdom — if King Lear’s fool wrote a book, it might be something like Bribery.
The crimes our narrator confesses to include petty theft, home invasion, murder, sexual assault, stalking and harassment, but in each confession, the mind of the narrator is revealed in dark and interesting ways.
a woman wakes up one morning in her Upper East Side apartment
to find deep scratches
dug into her face, and she doesn’t know how they got there or
remember the pain because there’s something mysterious and not
entirely of this world about them:
I did that too. And then every subsequent morning
for at least a month she wakes up to find new scratches on her face
in different arrangements […]
[…] But the problem with this crime is that it’s too generous: the
person who endures it might then be convinced that they’ve been
specially chosen […]
The narrator engages in these acts of criminal violence, but his deliberation about the methods of his crimes, his focus on how the crime will effect his victim’s psyche, his intense drive to create the perfect series of acts that will make him the worst person he can possibly be, beyond grand visions of glory or notoriety, renders a narrator that achieves a kind of anti-nobility. Even as I write this I cringe to say it, but there is something admirable in the narrator’s dedication to his strange mission.
Do be warned however, the crimes confessed to in Bribery are not cute. Tricking someone into surrendering their cell phone is one thing, but at one point the narrator confesses to having not only killed, but also dismembering and beheading one of his victims. But the real anti-beauty to this crime is not in the act itself, it’s in how the narrator sees the act, and what he does with “the item” (the victim’s severed head).
[…] I throw my voice
so that the item seems to talk to me and beg for its life. I’m not
trying to be crude, but I figure
if I’m going to do something that other people think is so
obviously bad, I might as well be moral about it. If I get a bit
moralistic, then at least I don’t run the risk of simply celebrating
whatever shitty thing I’ve done, plus I get
the added benefit of being just a little shittier for feigning a high-
and-mightiness about how bad I am.
Zultanski’s narrator is evil, psychotic, vile, cruel, etc. etc., but he’s so damn good at being that thing. And this is a madman with opinions. He rants about how “The US president is literally guilty of pretty much everything: he traverses time and space with bloody glee …” He later makes an insanely convincing argument about how, “there are more male professional athletes in the US that are rapists than there are male professional athletes in the US…” Even the English language itself is torn apart by the narrator who asserts that it
deserves to be denounced for its role as an increasingly universal
flattener of meaning and crusher of spirits…insofar as its
binds every attempt at an overflow of passionate verbosity to an
ugly cascade of hackneyed cliche…
It just keeps getting better. The very act of quoting passages for examination of this book trivializes the cumulative effect of reading the whole poem, which I wholeheartedly suggest be done. I haven’t even gotten into the penetrating insights the narrator reveals about the subtlest body language gestures or why “Bribery” is the perfect title for this book. Be prepared to feel at times incredulous, disgusted, and even sympathetic to this confessor of crimes against the human psyche. By the end of the book I had decided that I liked the crazy speaker so much that either his crimes were all made up in his head, or justified by his own twisted logic and the insane / tragic world in which he (we) exists.
Zultanski’s narrator is the most disturbing, insightful, loathsome and hilariously interesting hero-villain in literature. A bold claim? Maybe. But chances are, if you don’t agree, you’re not interesting enough for your opinion to matter.
(That was a shitty thing to say. I’m not normally the type of person to say something like that. Reading Bribery made me do it.)
Bribery is available from Ugly Duckling Presse
Peter Vanderberg served in the US Navy from 1999 – 2003 and received a MFA from Queens College, CUNY. His work has appeared in CURA, LUMINA, The Manhattanville Review and in collaboration with his brother James’ paintings in their book, Weather-Eye. His chapbook, Crossing Pleasant Lake is forthcoming from Red Bird Press. He teaches at St. John’s Preparatory School and Hofstra University.