Despite its odd and slightly lurid title, Discrete Needs by David C. Morrow is an authentic work of modern fiction of which the erotic is the key component. The unseen protagonist is the shooter from the famous clock tower at the University of Texas campus in Austin. He is the man who in 1967 blasted randomly away, killing and wounding a number of people. Mr. Morrow posits that one of those trapped in the crossfire is Stellara, the central figure of Discrete Needs who is driven to hide under a shrub in the sweltering Texas heat. She is not physically wounded, but she is emotionally catapulted into an exploration of what she calls her “higher being” by the shooting.
To his great credit, Mr. Morrow does not present the shooting as an epiphanal moment of recognition for Stellara, but rather as a catalyst that slowly reorders her understanding of the world around her. The author and I are of an age, and it is refreshing to read someone who understands that the period from 1962 to 1969 was one of rational becoming for most of us rather than one of suddenly reversing some quasi-spiritual course. The gurus came later and mostly they were there for the celebrities who paid them to arrive.
Stellara’s experience of the tower shooting seems one of those random spurs that life digs into our softer parts. They cause you, without fully realizing it, to wonder who you are; who it suits that you are that person; what you are doing; and why you are continuing to do it. Having lived through the early sixties in the Midwest, I have a strong sense of empathy with the principal character as one of the males doing the gazing. Kansas was much duller than Texas, but we also avoided Texas’ boundless supply of crack-brained assassins.
Stellara is not Holden Caufield, ‘rebel without a thought’ from the 50s. She is not angry, but discomfited and dissatisfied with the disconnection between the certitude of middle- American life and the facts of it. The frame that brought her to young adulthood does not fit her perception of reality, and for her, especially after the shooting, that frame is incomplete.
Like the hero of Dick Farina’s, Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me, she searches out a new perspective through her senses, partly through sex and partly through drugs that range from tobacco and booze to caffeine and on to pot with a goodly measure of LSD. She is not, we must understand, another feckless junkie escaping into the drugs. She is using them. She is building a larger understanding, as many did in the 60s, by both an interior exploration of ourselves, as well as re-examining the world around us that we had taken for granted. That included other people.
That meant that you took other people on their own terms -- just as they chose to give themselves to you -- rather than the usual pigeonholing information. Questions such as name, age, occupation, affiliations, cultural origins, belief systems etc. gave way to the more authentic discovery of who the other person was at the moment you encountered them. Meeting people in the raw could be a disturbing revelation and that is what Stellara discovers about herself and others.
What Stellara is leaving is the poofy, frilly, manufactured femininity that was (and still is), at once designed to be attractive to the standard stud male, and a bulwark against being truly revealed as a person. I remember these simpering, eye-batting, fluffy girls from my own time at Milburn Junior High School. They were utterly unknowable, much less attainable, and I fancy as nourishing as dry toast if you somehow got closer to them. They were the sort of person Janis Joplin was constitutionally unable to be, a fact which drove her over the Texas border to wail on our inner minds.
Though the book revolves around the University of Texas, a nominally sound school at the time, Mr. Morrow presents us with no authentic students. In that he has missed one of the two key resources that undergirded the Movement in the 1960s. First, people may have rebelled against the established intellectual order of the Eisenhower Era, but they were passionate about learning. Most people spoke and read foreign languages, traveled extensively on the cuff or by thumb, and read as voraciously as they partied. Mr. Morrow’s characters do not. They are the sullen kids at the back who don’t do the reading. And like most dullards, they tend toward teenage suburban inertia.
Secondly, his characters possess no clear-headed, reasoned sense of politics. I grant that it is hard to write seriously about the 60s – especially now – without falling into harangue, but that is the burden of history for the author. The War, the Draft and many other points of American life made that impossible if you were attuned to the Movement, which some of Mr. Morrow’s characters claim to be. Instead they declaim, in a druggy form of paranoia, about the Establishment in general. The most ardent apologists finally come – through self-parody -- to make light of the women’s movement, perhaps the most lasting and powerful result of the 1960s. It is not so much that they espouse an alternate point of view. They are disappointed by the world because they do not give it any serious attention. Stellara is the exception though her consciousness never rises very far.
It is not that Stellara wants to be more than such a person, she simply is more, and she cannot escape the larger self within her. Having been raised to seek the approval of bullish (very square) males and hide her more substantive self, she finds she cannot. She denies politics in general and so cannot see that private acts can have political significance; Like it or not, her ultimate erotic choices give her a political voice.
All of that would be fine if Discrete Needs did not suffer from a lack of editing – or from the error of self-editing which cannot work with a complex novel such as this one. I am perfectly content to put up with the author’s regional caprice in the face of standard English, but at times his writing seems to lose control and go mushy. Someone needed to be asking, “What’s the point here?” and holding a blue pencil at the time.
Worse still are random passages that seem incoherent. I submit the following:
“I want to get you as off.”
Who is speaking to whom about what is completely unknown. It has no relevance to the passages before or after, and the first sentence is not in any form of intelligible English.
A recent New Yorker cartoon depicted a middle-aged woman noticing a large sign saying, “Meet the Author” taped askew in the window of a seedy adult bookstore. The joke is, of course, who would want to meet (much less shake hands with) the author of an adult book? Until we clean up the editing and utter (if not willful?) stylistic sloppiness of erotica, there will be no just claim for more respectful treatment, Anais Ninn or not.Discrete Needs is a serious novel, worthy of serious critical attention even if making a close reading is infuriating at times for the reasons cited above. Mr. Morrow knows his period, handles it well and he has a great deal of very creative insight into what that time has to give us now. I hope he keeps writing.