Bribery by Steven Zultanski
Ugly Duckling Presse, 2014; 97 pp
Reviewed by Robert Torres


Why do we grieve a murder victim but ignore murderous imperialism? Why mourn the victims of imperialism if it’s inevitable? Bribery raises these questions and so many more. This book is a novel-length poem about crime in the same way Synecdoche, New York is a movie about acting. It is a tesseract of post-Christian guilt, asking us to juxtapose one man’s crimes against those of a city and the crimes of a city against humanity as a concept. It makes the reader question how we gauge morality, which it approaches as a technical mind struggling with the ambiguity of right and wrong, like an AI stumbling across Jeffrey Dahmer’s Wikipedia page. With sprawling verbosity and telescoping precision not unlike Pynchon’s, Zultanski moves from the difficulties of balancing a severed head at the center of a bedsheet to atrocities on the scale of American imperialism.

I’m the worst. And that’s not good enough for me. I want to be worse. I want this shit country to exist again tomorrow. It’s not good enough for me

that we’re responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people all over the world; it’s not good enough for me that we shoot

scores of people with unmanned drones in Somalia Pakistan . . .

He robs a bodega. He stalks a little boy. He fails to rape several women. He dismembers a man and leaves his corpse in pieces around New York. He wastes millennia in a toxic relationship. In another dimension, so does Obama. Zultanski’s narrator brings all these crimes and more close to his chest and uses them to flagellate himself. Even the English language isn’t bad enough for him.

binds every attempt at an overflow of passionate verbosity to an ugly cascade of hackneyed cliché purified by decorative simile and a pervasive and predictable syllabic jangling, all rotten through by a more or less unstoppably nasal assonance

At times ironically verbose and somehow refreshingly cynical, Zultanski’s narrator uses theoretical physics and science fiction—and a disregard for cause and effect that would make William S. Burroughs proud—to blame himself and everyone for every crime, for creating the concept of crime, and for failing to dehumanize himself enough to ignore it.

His humanity indeed comes through, especially in his precise attention to body language.

the kind of man who holds his head to one side when someone else is speaking; the kind of man who tilts his head back a little when someone else laughs; the kind of man who

waits for someone else to smile and then abruptly laughs in preemptive affirmation of their good humor; the kind of man who shakes his head and smiles

Bribery is a disgustingly human book, exactly the kind of book we deserve to read.