A succes de scandale brings with it a host of problems for an author, most notably the difficulty in obtaining a fair hearing from the reader. Arnon Grunberg's The Story of My Baldness arrived in America carrying an odor of showmanship and self-seeking: Mr. Grunberg won the Anton Wachter Prize for his first novel, Blue Mondays, and won it once more with The Story of My Baldness, submitted under the pseudonym Marek van der Jagt. Because the Wachter Prize is awarded only to first novels, Mr. Grunberg was publicly reproved. This baggage is unfortunate, because The Story of My Baldness is a dark, funny and penetrating analysis of adolescent sexual fear, executed with a much lighter touch than you would expect from a book brushed by literary controversy.
Mr. Grunberg presents his book as a memoir, and van der Jagt as its supposed author. Marek is the youngest son of a wealthy Viennese couple, an eccentric, philandering heiress (dead nearly a year at the book's opening) and a rapacious businessman (recently remarried). The book opens with his attempted pickup, in a bar, of a dilapidated older woman. Marek begins to explain the unusual circumstance that compelled him to restrict his amorous pursuits to ignored or desperate women, a circumstance more or less the central fact of his existence: his laughably small, near-useless penis, revealed to him as such by a disgusted girl in the course of an evening tryst.
In the face of the psychic devastation that this wreaks on him, Marek seeks help from a plastic surgeon and a psychotherapist, and consolation in the arms of Miss Oertel, a forgiving art teacher. His mother, the hitherto-dominant influence in his life, contracts a terminal illness soon after the fact of Marek's abnormality comes to light, and he accompanies her to a remote mountain resort, where she meets a grisly death at his hands.
The baldness referred to in the title? Induced by defective penis-enlargement pills, procured for Marek by the woman we see him attempting to seduce as the book opens.
It may strain one's credulity to hear that Mr. Grunberg derives comedy from such material -- but he does. And it's a kind of comedy that stands out among dark sexual farces for its understatement. Marek is a careful and wistful narrator, with (unsurprisingly, perhaps) a novelist's eye for detail. He conveys his stepmother's stunning banality with a single phrase --"She was very unlike Mama; she despised needy people and had an aversion to handguns too." And it's this care, and Marek's unselfconscious self-awareness that allow the comedy to emerge. (Mr. Grunberg does not engage in any metatextual trickery; Marek's self-awareness stems from his suffering).
Mr. Grunberg's sharp, not untender treatment of the abortive sexual encounter in which Marek discovers his underendowment recalls vividly the fumbling in which we begin our sexual lives. In the grip of an unquenchable desire to experience an amour fou, as he calls it, he clumsily picks up two girls on the street, invites them to an overelaborate meal and a dismal bar, brings them flowers, calls in his more experienced older bother as wing man and, having inveigled them back to his parent's house, is rudely awakened to the fact that he has "the penis of a dwarf."
That crushing judgment provokes a near-total disintegration in Marek -- bizarrely, but utterly believably, he begins to walk on his haunches, to make himself more dwarflike and thus more proportional. In a phrase that captures the high choler of adolescence perfectly, Marek, when pressed at the dinner table for an explanation, screams "You people gave me the penis of a dwarf, you're all a bunch of murderers!" The words are no less despairing for being spoken in high dudgeon, and they expose the real subject matter of The Story of My Baldness: the end of a weak, pampered, slightly mother-fixated and high-strung boy's innocence. Marek, reviewing his life from the perspective of a sexually wounded man, sees all of his adolescent passions -- to write the greatest poetry of his age, to become a figure of Byronic proportions, and even the rage and hatred that fill him after he discovers his shortcomings -- as just those: insubstantial, narcotic passions.
Mr. Grunberg's book is not without its flaws. Marek's murder of his dying mother -- he pushes her from the top of the resort mountain -- seems contrived; it lacks the force of his earlier, more imaginative gesture, walking on his haunches as a response to his disillusionment. But the book as a whole succeeds. Marek's meditative, nostalgic tone of voice sounds in sharp distinction to the hysterical, self-abusing patter of Alex Portnoy, the model for so much American literature about the sex life of adolescents. Perhaps Arnon Grunberg didn't feel Philip Roth's presence as strongly as an American coeval might. In any case, he has produced here a compelling and, at moments, troubling and saddening study of the darker corners of the adolescent mind.