When he first slept all night with the woman he had fallen in love with he stayed awake in order not to miss the pleasure of her presence. When they moved in together sleep became a problem: she complained that he woke at night, lay tense, and thereby woke her; or he snored or tossed and thereby woke her. Now he sleeps in another room, about which she also complains. He feels that the difference between sleeping and waking is diminishing: when asleep he is aware that he is asleep, and when awake he often falls into reveries. Up and in company after 10 p.m. he will nod, particularly when drinking. Only once in a while will he sleep through the night; he will never sleep so deeply that he does not know where he is on waking. His dreams will most often be confused, extensions of the day’s concerns. Near the end of his life, after not dreaming of his father for years, he will have a dream in which his father taunts him for looking old.
Charles Simmons published five novels over the course of thirty-five years, none of them over 230 pages long and even those pages were printed in well-spaced lines and moderate print. And of all of these, Wrinkles is the slightest, sparest. There are 44 chapters or pieces, each between three to five pages long. Each takes a single topic: clothing; smoking; mathematics; movies; doctors; parents; sleeping.
The excerpt above, from the sleeping pieces shows Simmons’ structure for all of them, which is unique, to my knowledge, to Wrinkles. Each begins by describing experiences, emotions, and thoughts that occurred to Simmon’s protagonist in the past–his childhood, his young manhood, his early married or working life. Then it tells us what is happening in the present. Finally, it projects ahead to what will happen between now and his death.
Simmons’ character has no name, but we do learn the basic facts of his life: he was born, lives, and will die in New York City. He is white, divorced, somewhere in his early fifties, a writer and sometime literature teacher. Had Simmons chosen to take a conventional approach to his story, it’s hard to see how it would have held much interest to anyone. He has some troubles and some successes and much that is neither, and there is little drama, at least as far as we are shown.
The lack of narrative distraction allows Simmons to focus on telling details–the amount of his childhood allowance (five cents, later raised to fifteen); the feel of the wool material of his Army uniform; the taste of a cigarette; a bird that accidentally flies into his apartment; one of his professors reaching out and touching his hand. All the details and incidents are related in a spare, objective prose–examined “are held as if before a jeweler’s glass,” as one reviewer wrote. (In an odd coincidence, in searching for Simmons’ other titles, I discovered that a century before him, another Charles Simmons had published something titled A Laconic Manual and Brief Remarker, which is an apt description of Simmons’ style in Wrinkles).
Everything, in fact, in Wrinkles is so carefully chosen and so lightly treated that the work comes to resemble poetry as much as prose. Not that this is a delicate or fragile life: Simmons’ hero has cheated, lied, stolen, smoked, boozed, shirked onerous chores and been expelled from a school. He wrestled in high school and was good at it. He goes to see “Deep Throat” with a famous woman film critic he meets at a party. He will wonder if he would have had more sex if he had not masturbated.
The details accumulate and the novel becomes a mosaic, where the individual pieces gives the reader a clearer and clearer sense of the man. And this is what, in the end, makes Wrinkles a remarkable work of art, a truly original and beautifully realized portrait of a largely unremarkable life with its share of wrinkles, warts, and blemishes. Which is what most of ours are, too–and which is why many readers will find at least a few passages that will cause them to pause for a moment and consider their own reflections.
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Wrinkles, by Charles Simmons
New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1978