What an era it has become in which to be teaching. At present nearly all our students are young people who have been born in the shadow of possible nuclear annihilation and raised with the practical assumption that they might not be allowed to live out their full natural lives. Then, during the 1989-1990 academic year, everything changes—or at least to the extent that the adversary always assumed to be ready to push that nuclear button is no longer there. In terms of a sudden void, this transformation may come to equal the Death of God breakthrough of one hundred years ago.
What an era to be reading about Jerzy Kosinski, the novelist who built his entire reputation on the fact that he could only be a creative writer in America because, in postwar Poland, a cage of words had been placed around him by the most powerful writer of his time: Joseph Stalin. In Words in Search of Victims, Paul R. Lilly, Jr., faces a similar challenge: not that Kosinski's premise has dissolved (as now it may well have, forcing him to search for a new one), but that as Lilly was conducting his own research into Kosinski's elaborately reasoned persona as an author the whole fabrication came crashing down like a house of cards, thanks to investigative journalism by The Nation and The Village Voice and a resultant press war in which Jerzy Kosinski's reputation became as much a pawn as a higher cause. [End Page 245]
The test of Lilly's study, then, is to see how well it accommodates the Kosinski who emerges from this investigation (which debated the autobiographical basis for his fiction) and who now, if he wishes to continue, must write in an emphatically post-Cold War climate. The first point is one that Lilly handles with admirable candor, for unlike some Kosinski scholars who find themselves being apologists rather than critics, he cites the full historical record and undertakes a minimal amount of rationalization in weighing the evidence. The second point, however, is tougher, all the more so because it should occur to both the subject and the scholar that the conditions generating Kosinski's narratives might change. That some amount of change may be on the horizon is evident from the weakness of Kosinski's later works. Lilly catches this weakness and explains it in a way that keeps these novels (Passion Play and Pinball) within the canon: as the author loses his formerly tight control of words, plot takes over the force of his narrative and ends up controlling him.
What Words in Search of Victims records, then, is the slow but steady deterioration of what was once an important writer. In 1988, while Lilly's study was in press, Kosinski's ninth novel appeared. The Hermit of 69th Street: The Working Papers of Norbert Kosky does indeed take the turn Lilly suggests. An almost total word salad of arcane references and personal neologisms, the novel's plot is virtually indecipherable amid the thick layer of words. But are those words so eminently controlled, as they were in The Painted Bird and Steps? Answering this question will be the next item for Kosinksi scholars to debate.