Tag Archives: Writing

How to be Good

It was the beginning of a time when it was almost as if the novel itself didn’t matter anymore. Publishing a shiny booklike object was simply an excuse for parties and glamour and goodlooking authors reading finely honed minimalism to students who would listen rapt with slack­jawed admiration, thinking, I could do that, I could be them. But of course if you weren’t photogenic enough, the sad truth was you couldn’t. – Bret Easton Ellis

John Berryman is supposed to have said that a writer never knows if he’s any good. He asks himself this throughout his life and dies without a satisfactory answer—no matter what prizes, money, publications, or objects of social approval have been tossed his way. It’s easy to conclude that this is just an egotistical hangup for celebrities with enough time and money to fish for validation. Am I good? Tell me. Really? Tell me again. But what Berryman didn’t say was that these doubts seem to come to every person in every field. And insofar as nothing in this world is ever finished or static, such questions must always remain open.

In fact, most things a writer may ask herself about writing (usually in a fallow time when she isn’t writing and feels hollow and dead inside) have no real answers. There is no objective standard for writerly success. You’re never going to know, quoth Berryman. Perhaps because of this, the path of a developing writer is fraught will all kinds of psychological pitfalls, uncertainties which emerge in the space between creation and judgment—writing the thing and then deciding whether it’s worthy.

Consider the luminous transcendent moment when Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize for literature. Let’s be honest: she fucking deserved it as well as anybody else. Do you mean to tell me she isn’t a skilled writer? That she hasn’t led the life? That she doesn’t deserve to get paid? Sure, the Nobel system is a politicized, public relations hype-sandwich. In that, it’s no different than the Pulitzer, the MacArthur Genius Grant, the Stegner, or any of the other smaller awards that function as patronage for writers.

Still, I had to laugh when Bret Easton Ellis—who is also great but very different—commented that “Alice Munro was always an overrated writer and now that she’s won The Nobel she always will be. The Nobel is a joke and has been for ages.” After the inevitable social media backlash, he added, “The sentimental hatred for me has made me want to re-read Munro, who I never really got, because now I feel like I’ve beaten-up Santa Claus.” That one kept me laughing for about a week. But the truth is a lot simpler than whether or not Ellis beat up Father Christmas: Munro might not be his cup of tea. But nobody can say definitively that she is “completely overrated” because nobody actually knows. Not even, I will venture to say, Alice.

Young writers (in years and / or in terms of artistic development) especially try to fill this gap with metrics designed to quantify success and banish their excruciating doubts. But most writers have to fight this battle, some throughout their entire careers. Over the course of many years in the writing life, one sees it all:

  • the hack machine who puts out a formulaic novel every three months like clockwork and points to this as the ultimate sign of achievement;
  • the bitter self-publisher, who has completely dismissed the Manhattan book industry as a hive of scum and villainy, and who now only writes direct-to-Lulu ebooks because nothing else matters anymore;
  • the one who can tell you any any minute of the day or night how much money his books are making and exactly why other writers are so jealous of his commercial prowess;
  • the defensive YA-ist (Young Adulterer? Young Adulterator?), who started out trying to be Pam Houston but after the first orgy of rejections turned to Harry Potter the way an abused housewife turns to brandy—it takes the edge off in the middle of the day, helps her convince herself that writing about fairy children with super powers is her true calling, and makes it possible for her to stop experiencing those week-long fugues of black existential dread in which she used to compare herself to Pam;
  • the lost soul in the MFA program, trying desperately to clone herself into Alice Munro or Donna Tartt or Jonathan Foer or Gary Shteyngart or whoever else is currently receiving the publishing industry’s golden shower du jour (Look how closely I can imitate X! Can I get a cookie? Do you love me? Why won’t anyone love me? You promised me a cookie. Where’s my cookie! I’ll be over there, cutting myself, until you bring me my cookie.);
  • the lost soul after the MFA program, trying desperately to justify himself to his drunk brother-in-law at Christmas dinner by mentioning all his literary journal publications (I just put a story in Bumfuck Quarterly! It’s my fifteenth publication! And fuck you, you philistine.);
  • the lost soul who got the two-book deal early on, enabling her to worm her way into a tenure track position at a small liberal arts college, and who behaves outwardly as if this validates every word she has written and will ever write (but who continually asks, Is this it? when she’s not buying cases of gin at the package store because maybe Gilbey’s is the only answer);
  • others, many and various.

I know. I’m being cruel. Although cruelty does come standard with the writing life, these are stereotypes and we all have a little of this inside us.  So pointing fingers is a bit hypocritical.  Call it the pathology of trying to be a writer in a system that presents itself as a meritocracy but functions via medieval power games and nepotism. And we can be as angry as we want. We can shake our little fists at the heavens or spend hours upbraiding ourselves in the mirror. But we’re never going to know how to be good. We’re only ever going to know that we want to be.

 

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Bora Bora

I’m watching my father from the mezzanine of the Chicago Hilton. He’s sitting in the lobby with a prostitute and they’re both drunk. She looks like she’s providing a GFE, a “girlfriend experience”—what passes for one in her price range. Laughing, poached beet red from booze and sun, she sits on his lap, slips off, lands on the floor, hauls herself up, tries again. He glances around, as if he can sense someone watching. But he’s too far gone to think about looking up at the entresol, where I’ve been sitting now for 15 minutes. It’s Christmas Eve.

I don’t really know if she’s a prostitute. But maybe I do know. Or I know enough—that my father now only engages in transactional relationships with women; that she’s wearing huge plastic bangles, has runs in her nylons, a sloppy stain on her blouse. Tangled, white-blonde hair. Large injected lips. A smoker’s laugh like a hatchet splitting wood. Just his type. He took her to Bora Bora for three days. Now they’re waiting for a room.

“That’s FUNNY,” she says, and they both crack up. He said something hysterical. Something really funny.

I tailed my father and his new friend here from O’Hare, brushed through their vodka cloud without being recognized, went up to the armchairs on the mezzanine, then got a call from Frankie Lum.

Frankie’s voice in my ear. He’s talking about putting a tracker on his wife’s Civic. He can follow her on his smart phone. Wants to know what I think about that, but I’m not really participating in the conversation. He says that tomorrow he might take his kid to Disneyland and wants to know if I’d like to come or is it too weird?

“I don’t know. Should it be?

He doesn’t say anything and, for a moment, I forget he’s there. Then: “You mean Disneyland’s weird or it’s like we’re gay for each other and Manny’s our kid?”

“It’s your son, Frankie. I don’t know how gayness comes into it. But now it is weird.”

Why does my father do this? Maybe I know why. Maybe I consider smoking a cigarette, even though I quit 4 years ago. I’d have one if I could walk through the lobby without being noticed. I’d feel better in some ways that probably don’t matter.

“That fucking sadist. I know what she does during the day. Like I even need to track her down.” Frankie has been cheating on his wife with women he meets online for years. Somehow, this makes no difference. Bonnie does it once in a while and she’s lying, cheating, vicious, while Frankie’s the victim.

I tell him that I couldn’t go to Disneyland even if it wasn’t weird. I have to visit my mother’s grave with my father tomorrow since she died two years ago on Christmas morning.

“She says she has to work. On Christmas? You have no idea what this is doing to me.”

A waiter from the bar brings them a bottle of Absolut in a champagne bucket shaped like a loving cup, glasses, tonic water in a vintage fluted carafe. My father says something and her OH MY GAWD draws stares around the lobby. The two women at the front desk giggle. My father—red-faced, sweating in his wrinkled Valentino pinstripe and Montecristi Panama hat—looks very much like Minnesota Fats inflated by hot gas. Like he might float up and pop.

The possibility that this woman is actually his girlfriend and not being paid flickers through my mind. I dismiss it immediately when she calls him DADDY and falls out of her chair for the fifth time.

The concierge stalks over, whispers in my father’s ear. The concierge is a short man in a cheap blue suit. He has a mustache and perfectly squared, sprayed hair. My father nods and then he and the girl start laughing all over again. My father offers him a drink. The concierge straightens his tie and looks down at my father the way one looks a bum jingling a cup from a doorway.

Frankie asks if I’m listening to him. I tell him the truth.

“You’re not paying attention to me? What the fuck, James? I don’t even know if we’re friends anymore. Can I trust you?”

“Sure.”

“What’s that mean? Sure? Like I’m asking if you want to hit a movie? I’m saying can I trust you?”

I ask him why and immediately regret it.

“Illinois law. This state’s fucking law says, and I quote: grounds for marital dissolution exist if, without cause or provocation by the petitioner, the respondent has committed adultery subsequent to the marriage. That’s compiled statues 750, chapter 5, section 401, bitch.”

They’ve found my father a room. An entourage has assembled in the lobby: a guy to load their 10 suitcases on a rolling cart; a guy to carry the bottle of vodka, tonic carafe, and glasses on a silver tray; another guy to help the lady walk; and the concierge, overseeing everything, with dead eyes and a key card. Back to Bora Bora: a mountain caravan replete with porters and shitfaced great white hunter in Panama hat. They move slowly through the lobby, the lady stumbling on her heels and shouting FUCK every time.

“You think it’s weird to come with me and Manny to Disneyland? That’s fine. Cause my son and me are gonna be busy photographing his mother breaking the law. Thanks for nothing. See you on Monday.”

Frankie clicks off. He gets emotional like that. He’ll come away with a flash drive full of photos of Bonnie in flagrante delicto with the pool boy or another yoga teacher. They’ll fight and go somewhere for the weekend to straighten things out. Then Frankie will hook up with a morbidly obese woman named Jolene or a sex-addict cutter or a bipolar divorcee or a leathery women’s volleyball coach in the back office of the high school gym.

Always the same: he’ll come over to my desk at work to confess. He’ll ask me if I think he’s got a problem, if I think he’s a bad person. And I’ll say if he’s into Jolene and she’s into him and they want to do it in the master bedroom of the house she’s supposed to be cleaning that day, then that’s their business. I’ll tell him good and bad don’t come into it, which is what he wants to hear. Then all will be right in the world. Except, I guess, with Manny. Nothing’s ever going to be right with that kid. But you can’t pick your parents.

After the entourage departs, a certain calm descends on the lobby. 1 AM. Lights wink on the enormous fake Christmas tree over by the doors. The girls at the front desk lean against the wall beneath eight brass clocks that show times from around the world. The concierge passes me as I pass through towards the entrance. He’s loosened his tie. He walks forward with his hands in his pockets, staring at the carpet.

Outside, snow along Michigan Avenue is three feet high. I ask one of the valets for a smoke. He gives me a Marlboro Light. I don’t cough. It doesn’t make me sick after four years of Puritanism. I spend a long time slowly smoking it, watching the flakes come down in the headlights of cars.

Bora Bora is one of the Leeward Islands of French Polynesia. It’s surrounded by a lagoon and a barrier reef. The island is completely supported by tourism. There are 18 hotels, but my father always stays in the Herenui Suite at the Four Seasons. The biggest town is named Vaitape. It’s on the west side of the island, opposite a lagoon. Somewhere inland, there’s a dormant volcano. And there are many coconut trees. Coconut trees are everywhere. You could close your eyes and point and you’d be pointing at a bunch of coconut trees. At least, this is what I’ve read. I’ve never been there. In 45 years of marriage, my father took my mother on one vacation to New Mexico. Now he goes to Bora Bora and stays in the Herenui Suite twice a year.

I should eat something, but I don’t have an appetite. I trudge over to 7-11 and buy a pack of Marlboro Lights, a blue plastic lighter. Then I go back to the valet, hand him two cigarettes, say thanks, and he looks at me like I’m a psychopath.

I’m not crazy, but I do hear my mother telling me I need to eat. I hear her voice all the time from out of the past, from my memories. And I know it’s not a psychopath thing. It’s a grief thing. When you’re a kid, it’s enough to know there is such a thing as grief. If you’re lucky, that’s the extent of your knowledge for at least a decade or two. But you learn. Everybody learns. So fuck the valet. I paid him back with interest out of gratitude and this is how he acts. I hope his lungs turn black.

The All-American Diner is open on Christmas Eve. It’s half-full of sad-looking old men in wrinkled clothing, the ones who can’t afford or who can’t bring themselves to pay for some company. My Denver omelet tastes like corn oil. The wind picks up and the lights of the Hilton across the street make gauzy halos in the snow.

I could go home to my studio apartment in Westmont, smoke a few more, fall asleep in front of the TV. But the same thing that motivated me to tail my father and his unfortunate new friend from the airport is what keeps me in the diner booth. I can’t go home. And I can’t say exactly why, but it feels like giving up on mom.

The last time I spoke with her, the cancer had reached her brain. She talked gibberish half the time. But you could see, deep down, that she was still in there. It had been a bad day, a messy, humiliating day for her in which the nurse had to be called multiple times. But there was a moment when she turned to me and said, “Don’t blame your father. He won’t know how to take care of himself.”

At the time, it was okay. Anything she said was. But now it breaks my heart to think she’s looking down at all this. At me, here. At my father up in the room, sweating out Citron and Viagra while he grunts and strains through the last night of his Girlfriend Experience. We should be sitting in the living room, having a drink together on Christmas Eve. We should be doing the things families do.

Frankie calls and I let it go to voicemail. I’ve had just about enough of Frankie Lum for one day. I finish my omelet and eat a piece of toast to soak up the grease. After four refills of coffee, I start feeling like a jerk for taking up the booth so long. New gray-faced men keep coming in, their trench coats and umbrellas caked with snow.

It’s a strange sight on Christmas Eve, but the lone Russian waitress keeps the glasnost fish eye of hate trained on everyone in equal measure. I tip 25% because no one should have to work in the All-American Diner on the night before Christmas. Or ever. There is no Russian word for “table service on Christmas Eve in Chicago.” The waitress scoops up the money before I’m fully out of the booth. I don’t look at her.

I wander back into the lobby of the Hilton and leave a message for my sister, Elsa—who said no straight out when I suggested a family memorial service for mom. But she said she’d be coming to town with her husband Johann and to give her a call. So I do, even though I told myself I wouldn’t.

Her voicemail’s tinny robot message expels a burst of German, then her name in her own voice, slow and clear, the way she might enunciate it for a two-year-old. I can’t bring myself to describe what I’ve been going through. So I just say, “It’s your brother. I’m at the Hilton. Dad’s here.” And I leave my number to prevent her from being able to claim she lost it. She loses it every time I give it to her. In this era of cell phones and caller ID, there’s only one way that’s possible.

“Can I help you?”

Ah. One of the girls from the desk. Heavy glasses, brown Velma hair in a bob. Freckles. Big mean stare. She’s had her nightly snigger and now must deal with the vagrant dripping on the upholstery.

“I don’t think so.”

“Are you staying here, sir?”

“I’m James Garrit. My father, Trevor Garrit, is staying here.”

“Do you want to ring his room or leave him a message?”

“No.”

“Then can I help you?”

“Not really.”

“Then why are you sitting here?”

“Don’t you think it’s a little late for philosophical questions?”

“I’ll be back.”

“I’m sure you will.”

The trouble with Bora Bora isn’t that the volcano might wake up some day and turn the place into a burning hellscape sinking beneath the waves or, even worse, that the entire economy depends on wrinkly divorcees like my father. It’s that the island has exploitation threaded into its soil. Polynesian settlers took over in the 4th century. Then Captain Cook arrived. Then missionaries from England built a church. And once that happens, as my grandmother used to say, it’s all over but the shouting.

In 1888, Queen Teriimaevarua abdicated as supreme ruler over the island. Henceforth, Bora Bora would be a French colony. Baguettes. Wine in the afternoon. Tennis. A vacation spot for Legionnaires on furlough and a place to take your mistress when that dusty little nid d’amour in Lyon starts to seem confining.

My phone vibrates and I make the mistake of answering without checking. I expect Elsa. But no. Frankie.

“You still staking out your dad?”

“You live in a world of stakeouts and mistrust, don’t you, Frankie.”

“Screw you.” He hangs up.

No, I am not surprised that he does this. Yes, this is my life.

The desk girl returneth. “Sir, if your party isn’t expecting you, I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”

“I thought this was a lounge.”

“No, sir, this is the lobby.”

“But people sit here and order drinks here from the bar, right?”

“No one sits here, sir. This is just the lobby.”

“Does the lobby have a function?”

“People walk through it.”

So Bora Bora. One cannot nurture expectations contrary to the nature of a place. But since I’ve never visited the island, it exists only in my imagination. And therefore it exists only for my father, only as a symbol of his treatment of my mother, especially while she was dying. There it really is a ghostly hell where lobster-red tourists marinate their organs in loving cups filled with Vodka and the Girlfriend Experience is compulsory.

Frankie texts me: Apologies. Under stress. Forget Disneyland. You need to be the one to follow Bonnie. I just can’t do it. Text YES if you understand.

The weirdness never stops, does it?

Is that a no?

“So you’re saying no drinks?”

“I’m calling security.”

The sun comes up and I’m still in the lobby-lounge-place people walk through with no drinks. I did nap a bit. Velma the desk girl eventually called the concierge, not security. But perhaps because of the earlier difficulty with my father, nothing was done. She wouldn’t look in my direction. Then she went home. And I remain. Like Gibraltar. Like the Great Sphinx. Like the brooding volcano at the center of Bora Bora, which the natives call Otemanu.

But there is a moment when the gravity shifts, when the barometric pressure rises and I don’t feel so certain. It’s a familiar feeling. Even before I see Else standing over me with her hands on her hips, I know it’s her.

“You look like shit.”

“Good to see you, too.”

She looks down at me and, for a moment, I get the impression that she really does see me as an enormous glistening turd.

“Why don’t you just get a room if you can’t bear to go home?”

“Have you seen what they charge for rooms here on Christmas?”

“Don’t poor-mouth me. It’s disgusting.”

I follow my sister out of the lobby and compliment her on her silver Bentley Continental.

“I’m selling it.”

I know that if I ask why, she will tell me she doesn’t like the curvature of the dash board or how the back seat ashtrays vacuum her cigarette smoke too directly. Asking questions pisses Else off. Her driver’s name is Howard. But she doesn’t have to say a word to him. Howard knows not to ask. We get into the back seat and the car slips down Michigan Avenue. It’s perfectly silent. No snow crunch under the tires. No rattle from the heater. The first thing I hear is the flitch of my sister’s lighter.

“So you’re here to spend the holidays crying in a graveyard.”

“I just thought it would be nice to have a memorial.”

Else exhales smoke and it’s immediately snatched apart by air currents, vents, suctions, the hidden impedimenta of flawless climate control designed to keep the interior of the Bentley throne-room perfect.

“It’s morbid and useless. You’re smart enough to know that. This is really about the fund, isn’t it.”

“I don’t want your money, Else.”

“SHUT UP YOU FUCKING LIAR!” She slams her cigarette into the ashtray built into the door. “You know it’s about money. It’s ALWAYS about money. I should kick you out into the snow right here.”

“No,” I whisper. “It’s never been about the money.”

Howard changes lanes. We cross the Chicago River. Traffic floats past outside, heading downtown for morning services or home or far, far away from whatever home has come to mean.

So much rage in her little body. Else lights another and we listen to the ashtray whir as it opens and takes her previous cigarette down into its mechanical bowels. Else came into the world as a mistake. That’s what our parents used to say. They never stopped saying it.

When she was 14, they sent her to a convent school in Frankfurt. She spent her holidays there, too. Like she didn’t exist as part of the family. Like the cigarette: whir, click, gone into some fancy garbage disposal.

Four years later, she appeared at the New Years celebration my father’s magazine was throwing in Brooklyn. Else, all grown up, dressed in black, weaaring immaculate boots, a smoker of fine cigarettes, and a lesbian. Three years after that, she married Johann Moll and moved to Geneva. She’s still married to Johann. But why, how, and in what capacity I do not know.

When it comes to my sister, the only thing I can be sure of is that she thinks her trust fund should have been larger—that I received preferential treatment yet again, that I somehow cajoled a chunk of her inheritance away while mom was on her deathbed, and that I’m angling for the rest of it.

Actually, I received nothing. Instead of a trust fund, my mother had intended the family gold—a substantial number of heirlooms that had been in her family since before the Renaissance—to come to me. My father made off with that before the ink was dry on the death certificate.

I had no way to prove anything. But I never complained. I never threatened to kick someone out into the snow. In any ten of Else’s thoughts, eight are invariably about money and one is about something she hates. I like to imagine that the remaining tenth thought might be about art or music or kittens, but it’s probably just about selling her Bentley. In an earlier age, she’d be a cruel Cleopatra, a Lucrezia Borgia, a young Roman matrona rooting for the lions.

Antipater of Sidon is supposed to have written the following in 140 BCE:

I have gazed on the walls of impregnable Babylon along which chariots may race, and on the Zeus by the banks of the Alpheus. I have seen the hanging gardens, and the Colossus of the Helios, the great man-made mountains of the lofty pyramids, and the gigantic tomb of Mausolus. But when I saw the sacred house of Artemis that towers to the clouds, the others were placed in the shade, for the sun himself has never looked upon its equal outside Olympus.

I have enjoyed that passage ever since I was forced to read it in high school. Antipater of Sidon is the prototypical sidewalk pitchman, the classical version of: Hey buddy, you thought you seen wonders? You ain’t seen wonders. Back here in the tent, shit, I got some wonders. Only five bucks for a look at the sacred house of Artemis. But how might he describe Else’s arrival in Bora Bora?

I have gazed on the 32-karat gold shingles of Johann Moll’s house along which chariots may race, and on Herr Moll dressed as Zeus by the banks of Rhône. I have seen the lingering bad attitude of his wife and her colossal resentment towards her brother, the groundless mountain of irrationality that props up her lofty opinion of herself, and her gigantic ego. But when I saw Else Moll arrive, smoking Gitanes in a diamond palanquin, I knew Bora Bora might never recover, and Otemanu himself might be so offended as to erupt after four million years.

Or something like that. The point is, we travel all the way to her empty Victorian on West Armitage without another word between us. Just cigarette smoke getting suctioned away and Howard engaging the turn signal with silent dignity. The whir of the ashtrays. Dirty snow. Bleak white-gray Chicago Christmas morning beyond the tinted glass. I have all the time I need to speculate about Antipater of Sidon and offending the volcano and how sad my mom must be that we all turned out like this.

The interior of Else’s house is a time capsule of late Victoriana—not because she is in any way enthusiastic about Favrile glass or Morris wallpapers, but because Johann bought the place along with its contents in a single consumerist ejaculation. I have no idea if either of them have spent one night in the house since they signed the papers last year, but I tend to doubt it.

“You can sleep here tonight.” She puts a glass ashtray on the Louis XV rococo coffee table polished to a museum sheen. “But don’t think you’re moving in.”

I imagine how the house cleaners must feel, coming here to dust once a week, nothing ever moved, nothing changed. “I’m not homeless, Else. I actually have a job, a life.”

She smiles, raises an eyebrow. “You’re obsessed with our dead mother. Any woman attracted to you is either stupid or thinks you’re a chump. Or both. You have no life.”

“Speaking of that, I think dad just got back from Bora Bora with a hooker.”

Else walks over to the baroque drink trolley that looks like two brass flamingos having sex while falling to earth. It’s fully stocked. None of the bottles have been opened. The whole room disturbs me. Red Persian rug. Tasseled drapes. The tall stained-glass windows glare with late morning light.

“Who cares. Martini?”

“It’s ten in the morning.”

“It’s Christmas.”

“I’ll pass.”

She shrugs without turning around and makes her drink. “If he wants AIDS, that’s his business.”

Calling Else was dumb. I knew it was. Why did I do it?

“I think I should go.”

“Yeah,” Else says. “Maybe you should.”

She takes a sip of her drink and stares up at the tall window, a blinding red, green, and yellow mosaic showing a saint blessing a pack of dogs. If it was taken from a church, what kind of church? If it was made to order, who would want to look at that every day? Johann?

“Why did you want me to come here? Just to see the inside of the place?”

“This house means nothing to me.”

“Sure.” I stand up to go.

“You don’t understand a thing, do you. You’re completely clueless. My clueless brother.”

She follows me to the door, smoking furiously, then holding her cigarette and drink in one hand and cupping her elbow with the other.

I open the door. Tiny snowflakes swirl around us. “Don’t forget,” I say over my shoulder. “You were a mistake.”

Try to get a taxi in Chicago on Christmas day. I dare you. It’s not impossible. Nothing is impossible. It’s just highly improbable—like every other thing we want. What should take me 30 minutes takes 4 hours and it’s nobody’s fault but mine for letting Else do her number on me yet again.

Somewhere between the house that means nothing and the Hilton, Frankie updates me on his situation.

Manny’s in the car. Okay? When they ask you where he was, you know I said he was in the car.

What?

I’m doing this. It’s the only way. Not for me. For my son.

Don’t talk crazy.

I always liked you, James. But someone has to put a stop to her. She’s evil. She’s fucking up my son’s childhood.

You don’t sound rational, Frankie.

Good-bye.

Hey. Don’t be like that.

And this, too, is Frankie. The last time he got this upset about Bonnie, he threatened to burn down his house. I’m guessing that’s what he has in mind today. Always the same. Good old Frankie Lum, creature of habit.

Only I do not believe—not even in all worlds and all times while infinite monkeys type ad infinitum on infinite keyboards and the means and will and opportunity recur in Frankie’s life like the tide—that he would ever burn his own house down. Had he but world enough and time, he might find the proper expression for his inner turmoil. He might be able to actually say what he signifies by threatening arson. But he doesn’t. And so. And so.

Okay, Frankie. You want to get a beer?

My $67 Christmas cab ride through the most circuitous route known to the driver brings me right up to the front of the Hilton before Frankie responds: okay. Because nobody wants to be alone on Christmas. Of course, he and Bonnie could decide to spend the holidays with each other like a family, but I guess Frankie prefers to work it out by threatening to commit felonies.

I tell him I’ll call him after I go to the graveyard with my father. I’ve already Christmas-guilted the new front desk girl into telling me my father’s room number by the time Frankie texts me back one last time: okay. It’ll give him time to think up a face-saving excuse for not torching his house after all. And whatever he says, I’ll make sure to believe it.

The elevator plays all of The Partridge Family’s “My Christmas Card to You” by the time it gets up to the 17th floor. The music makes me want to shoot myself and does nothing to improve my disposition when I knock on my father’s door.

I’m thinking about Else saying so you’re here to spend the holidays crying in a graveyard, about Frankie standing in front of his house with a gas can and some rags just so the world will take him seriously, and about mom—feeling like I should be somewhere making an apology for my family, burning incense, praying for her soul and her forgiveness. I don’t consider myself particularly religious. But I was raised Catholic. And we know how to do all kinds of guilt.

My father answers the door, still drunk, his black silk bathrobe hanging open. White pubic hair. His enormous belly. He’s got a red fez on his head with a golden tassel and his face is painted like a clown. He looks at me for a moment before realizing who I am.

I resist the urge to walk back down the hall to the elevator. Instead, I put my hands in my pockets.

“What’s with the clown makeup?”

“Hello, Jim. How’d you know I was here?”

“Come BAAACK,” his friend calls from somewhere behind him in the room. “We ain’t done yet.”

He wobbles and holds onto the door frame. “What’re you doing here? You staying here, too?”

“I called you about ten times. I had to follow you here from the airport. It’s Christmas day, dad.”

“No shit.” Then, over his shoulder: “Hey, Carla, didja know it’s Christmas?”

“Today? Wow. Time flies. Hey, who’ya talkin’ to, daddy?”

“Nobody, hun.” He looks at me and thinks. “You need some money? Is that it?”

“I thought we might go over to mom’s grave. You know, just for a few minutes. Put down some roses.”

“I got this party thing later. But let me give you some money, Jim. For Christmas.” He turns back into the room and Carla takes his place. She’s dressed in a green fishnets, a green vinyl babydoll one-piece, green platforms with a big costume emerald on the top of each.

“He’s a sad clown and I’m Poison Ivy. Who’re you?”

“I’m just leaving.”

“Yeah. Okay.” She stifles a burp. “Good.” And she shuts the door.

I’m halfway to the elevator when my father catches up with me. He’s got a vodka tonic in his right hand and a roll of bills in his left. A gangster roll. Living large, my dad.

“Take it. Five-hundred bucks. For Christmas, you know?”

When I don’t reach out and take it, he tosses the roll to me. Reflexively, I catch it. He grins and I feel like an asshole.

“Good,” he drains the rest of his drink. “Gimmie a call next week, okay?”

I toss the roll back at him. It bounces off his belly and lands on the carpet between us.

“Go fuck yourself.”

“Hey.” He bends down to pick up the roll and almost falls on his face. “That’s not right. That’s no way to treat me.”

He doesn’t follow me down to the elevator. He just stands in the middle of the hallway watching me, repeating, “That’s not right, Jim. That’s no way to be,” over and over. The elevator closes and a moment later I can’t hear him anymore. I wonder if he’ll remember that I came by at all. Something tells me Carla won’t mention it.

The lobby is full of happy, smiling families—people visiting relatives in Chicago, people from the west coast, from New York City, from Austria, from North Dakota. I sit in a plush chair in the center and listen to their conversations. I pay attention to my breathing.

Frankie texts me: Look, I need a favor.

Another one?

You didn’t do the last one.

Which should tell you something.

I need you to take Manny until tomorrow night. Is that too gay for words?

Frankie. Gay is okay, you know? You use the word like a 14-year-old. What are you going to do when Manny starts saying things are “so gay”?

Are you really asking me that right now? I’m calling out for help.

It’s the middle of the day and bright, but large flakes drift past the front windows. The Canadian father of three next to me calls it the “polar vortex.”

Did you know it’s never snowed in Bora Bora?

WTF are you talking about? Something’s happened. I need to

There’s a long pause in which I imagine Frankie is trying to come up with a way to seem not so predictable, not so much like an overly dramatic fool.

spend some time with Bonnie. Set her straight about a few things.

You flying to Palm Springs this time?

No. What makes you think that? We’re going to Niagara Falls. But hey we need to take a rain check on that beer. Can you come get Manny ASAP?

He’s forgotten all about me saying I had to go visit my mom’s grave. The dead don’t compute. They don’t exist. They don’t matter when it’s time to go to a casino in Niagara Falls to fall in love all over again or to a costume ball dressed like a mime version of Kasper Gutman. Who’s going to take care of the dead if not us? If not those of us who can still remember them? Staring at my phone, my thumb poised above the little keypad, I ask these questions again for the thousandth time since my mother died on the worst Christmas of my life. Still, in the end, maybe family—any family with a chance to be more than a rabid bunch of animals snapping at each other’s throats—matters more than the dead.

So: Yeah. Okay. We can go to a movie or something.

Cool, man. Can you come right now?

I tell him sure. I’m not doing anything special.

When I go outside to have a cigarette, Else’s driver, Howard, is waiting in the snow, standing by the silver Bentley, with a cardboard sign that reads, JAMES GARRIT. He looks at me as if he’s never seen me before.

“Greetings. Mrs. Moll has told me to take you wherever you need to go today.”

“Has she. Howard, right? I met you earlier.”

“I have no recollection of that, sir.”

I shrug and let him open the car door for me. We pull away from the curb. I imagine I could say nothing and Howard would still know to take me Mount Olivet Cemetery then to Frankie’s house. But I tell him anyway and he simply nods. Beside me on the backseat is a bouquet of 36 large roses. I count them as we go and think about my sister sitting in that house, drinking, looking at the stained-glass saint blessing the dogs.

My cell phone tells me that in Vaitape, it’s 77-degrees, partly cloudy, with a 20% chance of rain. Today, Bora Bora is silent. Otemanu broods, shrouded in mist, knowing nothing of Christmas, while tiny yellow butterfly clouds twist above the jungle. I picture this as the snow falls silently over Chicagoland, over the sidewalks, the river, the Eisenhower Expressway, and my mother’s grave.


Distance Learning

 

“Anyway, I think if we route the grant money into the primary fund we’ll be alright. Actually, we’ll be more than alright as long as we don’t spend another dime before fall.” Merton Swinn, the English department’s most recent acquisition, took a measured sip of brandy without blinking or looking away from Van Adler, the department chair.

Van Adler sighed and stared into the mouth of his empty beer bottle. His suit jacket was wrinkled and his feet already hurt. He’d been at the faculty party now for 45 minutes—15 minutes more than he normally preferred to spend at these things. But sometimes escape was impossible. He wished, above all else, that he were at home having a bath while his wife, Myra, blasted the Late Show downstairs in the den and laughed out loud.

He tried to smile at Swinn, but the effort felt unnatural. Lately he’d caught himself grimacing even when he was not upset, as if his face had become perpetually fixed in a transition between dismay and rage. Moreover, his hands ached horribly. Van Adler could no longer ignore the arthritis that had announced itself two semesters before and now visited him regularly with sudden jolts of pain from wrists to fingertips.

Van Adler looked at Swinn, who was starting to purse his lips, and said, “Right. But how will we account for the fact that we now have only seven tenure-track lines? Are you recommending that we forego the new one opening up? Missouri mandates at least eight full-timers in an academic department.”

Swinn’s eyes darted to Van Adler’s face, down to his brandy, over the crowd of graduate students and professors, and then to the carpet. “Well,” he said, “is that so monstrous in a recession? We have the adjuncts. And we’re not being evaluated for another two years. Who’ll complain?” He was a short, compact man who wore heavy multi-colored sweaters and round rimless glasses. At age 35, Swinn was already balding with a wispy tonsure of blonde over his ears. His eyes moved with his thoughts, which were quick and numerous.

Swinn’s dissertation at Rutgers, which he’d published shortly before being hired by Hauberk College, had been a study correlating the rise of the novel with the expansion of private leisure space in middle class English homes. Everyone on the hiring committee had agreed that it was inoffensive and at least mildly interesting. But for an expert on the literature of leisure, he seemed rather consistently ill at ease. Which was understandable, thought Van Adler, seeing that Swinn did not yet have tenure.

Van Adler sighed, shook his head, and again tried to smile. “Do you want a riot, my friend? We’ve announced the position. There’s no un-announcing it. The part-timers are already massing like flies.”

“That’s another thing,” Swinn said, following Van Adler’s gaze around the room. “We have 32 adjuncts. With a distance learning component in place, we could do with about half that.”

Swinn put his empty snifter down on the piano behind him. It was a baby Mason and Hamlin and it, along with the rest of the two-story Victorian townhouse, belonged to Juliette Lezerski’s, the department’s resident medievalist. She’d held her graduate classes in Chaucer and the bi-annual departmental get together in her large sitting room for over 30 years. Most of the furnishings in the house were historically accurate to mid-nineteenth-century Missouri, except for the piano, which Juliette tuned herself and otherwise kept in a state of factory perfection. She also played beautifully and, being slightly deaf, very loudly—always a miraculous respite at these functions. Van Adler turned, but didn’t see her. He wished Juliette would come over and start playing right now.

“There is something to be said for departmental morale, Merton. How many composition classes would you like to teach?”

“I’m teaching three at the moment.” Swinn crossed his arms, then caught himself and relaxed, clasping his hands at waist level like a boy heading to communion. Then he also smiled. Van Adler thought Swinn did a better job at smiling; though, Swinn’s eyes stayed level and his smile was nervous and tight in the bottom half of his face.

Van Adler could remember being like that years ago (before tenure), practicing a “warm, humane yet humble” smile in the mirror when Myra wasn’t around. It was something he eventually programmed into himself to an exact degree as if he’d carved it out of wood. And he held that wooden smile in reserve for those unforeseeable moments when true feeling threatened to rise and lay waste to his carefully sculpted professional image.

But that was years ago. Times were different when Van Adler had been a young assistant professor, teaching four to five sections a semester and spending the weekends writing in the humanities research library. There’d been 16 full-time lines back then and only a handful of adjuncts. Still, he’d served on more committees than he could easily count. This was his second and thankfully final term as department chair, since he planned to retire in two or three years. And Van Adler felt he had nothing left to prove to anyone. In fact, he was thinking of buying a boat.

“I know how hard you’re working.” He patted Swinn lightly on the shoulder. “And everyone thinks you’re doing a really fantastic job.”

Swinn raised his eyebrows, a flicker of anxiety and contempt in his face. Then the smile returned. “Well, thank you, Jim. It’s only been a year, but I already feel at home.”

“That’s great, Merton. That’s just what we want.” Van Adler flexed his left hand. He felt a hideous electric current dig into his knuckles and shoot down his fingers. He supposed it was time to take Doctor Whitehurst up on that prescription. He didn’t want to. It felt like giving in, like he’d lost. But maybe this kind of pain meant he already had. That’s how it was with everything, he thought. You didn’t know what you’d lost until it was gone and then your only recourse was to numb yourself and wait for the next catastrophe, the next unavoidable disappointment.

When Swinn left to get another brandy, Van Adler saw an opening. There was a small servant’s door in the pantry where a housekeeper could discreetly bring in supplies without disturbing anyone in the other parts of the house. And the door between the sitting room and the dining room had been propped open, revealing a straight unobstructed shot into the kitchen. Such moments of grace were few and far between. He felt that it would be the essence of hubris, an affront to all the gods of fortune, if he didn’t capitalize on the opportunity. No one would blame him for cutting out after an hour of fielding meaningless pleasantries and enduring Merton Swinn’s considerable angst.

And he was almost successful. He shuffled around the baby grand slowly, keeping his gaze on the fringe of Juliette’s authentic Boston Sego Bicentennial piano rug. There was a technique to fleeing a party: one walked easily yet quickly, avoiding all eye-contact, stepping cautiously as if barefoot in a room of scorpions. One kept a Zen mind, blank and empty, and did not congratulate oneself until safely in the car and away. Such was the discipline. But Sheila Barnhof-Canterbury emerged from across the sitting room at the last moment, sealing off his route to the kitchen and the pantry. Sheila was an adjunct with two kids and a husband who was out of work, and she radiated desperation in the best of times. When she saw Van Adler, her eyes lit up and he knew there would be no escape.

“Oh Jim! How wonderful to see you. Did you get my emails?”

“I’m sure I did, Sheila, but you’ll have to excuse me. I’m on my way—.”

“That’s fantastic. Then you know I’m planning on applying to the new full-time position everyone’s talking about. There is a new opening, right? It’s not just a rumor?”

He tried to flank her to the right, but she adjusted, holding her glass of chablis to the side for extra blocking width.

“Well,” he said, “it’s been advertised nationally. You can find it on the MLA job list, for example.” He put his hands in his pockets and glanced over her shoulder through the dining room. Apart from Sheila, the way was still open. But this was now a bad situation. They were very visible. And, not unlike flies, one adjunct talking about job prospects attracted others. An accurate, if unfortunate, analogy, Van Adler thought to himself, given what usually causes flies to swarm. Before long, he would have to start lying and prevaricating, making him the proverbial turd. It could get bad. It had before.

“My goodness.” Her knuckles turned white around the stem of her wine glass. Van Adler thought it might explode in her hand unless she did first. “How many applicants do you think there will be?”

“Sheila, I really—there’s no way to be accurate about something like that. Those things go up and down year to year. You know. Many factors. Hard to say.” But no less than 100, he thought, 100 if there’s one and potentially twice that many. Swinn’s job search had been a nightmare. They’d begun with 233 applications—an impossible number for a hiring committee of six professors with full teaching loads and other administrative duties. And so they’d made wide cuts, rejecting off-hand anyone who didn’t have multiple publications or an impressive pedigree. That brought it down to 50, which was where the hard work of actually reading the applications began. And there was nothing to indicate this process would be any less brutal. Sheila had a MA in English from Northern Missouri State University. What could he tell her that she shouldn’t have realized already?

She grasped his arm lightly, just above the elbow, and leaned into him. “Are you going to your car? Can I walk you out? I have a few more questions.”

Van Adler scanned the room. Three creative writing students had cornered Swinn, eliminating the possibility that he’d want to come back and revisit the budget apocalypse for another hour. But two adjuncts, whose names escaped him, were starting to move through the crowd in his direction. He had a vague memory of them. Former graduate students at Hauberk, now husband and wife. They certainly looked like adjuncts—Walmart wardrobe, disheveled hair, and a certain air of exhaustion, maybe exasperation. They must have had kids, he thought. The ones with kids were the worst off—the most scared, the most desperate, the most likely to have a psychotic episode at a faculty party. If there were a universal handbook for temporary academic employees with no benefits and no future, Van Adler felt the first line should be: if you’re going to lead that life, get sterilized early. Sadly, the best advice was always hard to give and even harder to hear. He’d definitely be calling Dr. Whitehurst about those pills.

“Jim? Are you alright?” Sheila looked up at him with her big blue eyes. She had set her wine glass down so she could hold onto his arm with both hands.

“I’m fine,” he said. “But I really have to go.”

“Sure. Of course. I’ll come with you.” She tightened her grip.

“Whatever. Just please let go of me.”

“Oh. Sorry. Yes. Absolutely.”

Juliette had appeared at the piano and began a baroque interpretation of “Blue Hawaii” loudly enough to draw everyone’s attention and prevent all conversation. The perfect diversion. Without another word, Van Adler turned, went through the dining room, and into the kitchen as quickly as possible with Sheila right behind. He unlatched the pantry door and pulled the little metal chain on the overhead bulb. It hung down at eye level on a green safety cord.

The pantry was well-stocked and looked like a cave of canned food with wicker baskets of onions and potatoes lining the bottom shelves. The door at the far end was made from polished oak planks with black metal bands. Its top rose to a minaret peak, making it look like a hobbit door or something out of the The Thief of Bagdad. It had a simple tumbler lock set in an ornate black face with an inlaid leaf design. And its shiny brass key hung from a loop of red yarn beside it.

Van Adler realized that there had never been a time when the key hadn’t looked perfectly new. Juliette must have polished it regularly. But who polishes their house keys? Only a medievalist who plays Elvis standards as if they’d been written by Antonio Scarlatti and who lives in a house on the National Register of Historical Places—someone interesting to know about but someone you didn’t want to get stuck next to on the plane.

That realization, plus the roar of graduate student cheering when she finished “Blue Hawaii” with a trill and two motets, made him feel slightly unsettled. The normal degree of strangeness was heightened tonight. There was more than the usual morose faculty party energy in the air. It was as if the impending job search had fueled a frenetic current, a wild, wavering voltage that might quadruple into something very unpleasant for the chair of the department if he were cornered by a group of drunken angry part-time instructors.

He was wiggling the key into the lock when Sheila closed the door behind them and laid a hand on his shoulder.

“Jim,” she said, “hear me out.”

She was wearing a white long-sleeved blouse designed like a man’s button-down with tails out over jeans and scuffed brown flats. One more of the buttons on her shirt was undone, plunging her neckline lower than it had been a few minutes before. He looked at the V of smooth white skin there between the slopes of her breasts. She caught him looking and smiled.

“Jim. I know you’re going to go out that door and get in your car. And you’re never going to respond to my emails.”

He opened his mouth, but she held up a hand and let it drift down to rest lightly on the front of his shirt as if she were radiating a magnetic force through her palm that held him in place.

“Don’t worry about it,” she said, moving closer to him, almost whispering. “I know everybody wants this job. But it would really, really mean a lot to me, I mean, I’d be so grateful if you could help me out.”

Van Adler could feel her breath on his lips. It smelled like the cheap white wine Juliette provided at the faculty parties. He wasn’t a young man anymore. It seemed like he’d stopped being a young man earlier than most—maybe sometime in his PhD—where, like Swinn, he’d decided to get serious about his future and quit playing around. Marriage to Myra had been an advantage, solid closure on the question of romance and loneliness. He’d gotten that handled with alacrity and moved on to more important things. But Sheila Barnhof-Canterbury was a good looking woman. Was there anything he could do for her?

“I don’t think—“

“I’m not asking for a miracle.” She pushed him against the door and slid her hands up around the back of his neck. “But, you know, I find you very attractive.”

She was lying, of course. But did that matter? How many lies had he already told this evening alone? How many half-truths, evasions, duplicitous omissions? How many lies was he obliged to tell in a standard academic week—as chair, as a professor of American lit., as a mentor to a group of neurotic, hopeless graduate students, half of whom needed prescription mood stabilizers to get through the day?

“It doesn’t work that way. I’m not even on the hiring committee.”

“But you could be on it if you wanted. Isn’t that right?”

It was there, at age 65, in Juliette Lezerski’s pantry, with the light bulb swinging back and forth at the end of its green safety cord, that James Van Adler was kissed by the first woman since he’d married his wife, Myra Chambers, 33 years earlier. Kissed, that is, by a desperate woman two-and-a-half decades younger than him, who had a son and a daughter and a husband who used to be a dispatcher for a garbage truck company and who, rumor had it, now spent most nights with a bottle instead of his wife. Moreover, Van Adler sensed that Sheila Barnhof-Canterbury found kissing him vaguely repulsive, which, in a strange non-personal way, he could understand. Some days, actually most days, he felt the same way about himself.

“Sheila. Honey. There’s nothing I could do for you that you can’t do for yourself by applying. I’d be glad to write you a letter of reference if you need one. I could be honest and say you do good work. Because you do.”

She pushed him hard with both hands. He’d moved forward, away from the door about two inches, when she’d kissed him. And now he connected with the surface again, exhaling a sharp burst. A jolt of agony went through Van Adler’s hands and he cried out softly.

“You have no idea what it’s like,” she said, stepping back and sizing him up. The light bulb bounced against the back of her head. “You have health insurance. You can get your teeth fixed. When my son needs the doctor, what do I do? We’re on fucking food stamps.”

He nodded, turning the key behind him with his right hand. The situation that moments ago had seemed quite pleasant was now scandal-worthy. An intoxicated tirade by Sheila in the pantry and the rumors would reach Myra in less than a day. Above all else, Myra hated being talked about. It was what made her the perfect faculty wife. It would also be what made her perfectly insane when Bethany Lyon called to lay it on and enjoy her suffering.

“But I do know what it’s like, Sheila. I was an adjunct for years.” Actually one year. “I paid my dues in a time when there were no social programs in place to help me lead the academic life.” Actually, Myra’s income as a CPA would have disqualified them for state aid had they looked into it.

Van Adler’s hand complained horribly as he turned the key and pushed the little pantry door open. He put one foot on the pebble walk outside. The walk ran through Juliette’s rose garden to a small wrought iron gate in the six-foot hedge that went along the sides and back of the house. It was a windy night in Hauberk, Missouri. The trees wagged and swished, their shadows dancing through rectangles of light. Next door, a dog started barking. And inside, Juliette had started playing a mashup of “Flight of the Bumblebee”, “Blue Suede Shoes” and Beethoven’s 5th symphony.

He looked back at Sheila. She was standing in the center of the pantry, arms at her sides and the light bulb hanging down behind her head. She was about to start weeping. And the radiance from the bulb made it seem as though she had a halo—a white-shirted wingless angel with blue eyes who’d lost her way.

“I have two children,” she said.

He smiled. “They’re very lucky.” And he stepped outside, closing the pantry door behind him. He took a deep breath. When he got around to the front of the house, Juliette had segued into “Great Balls of Fire.”

Van Adler looked up at her grinning and pounding away at the keys. Her trifocals had slid down to the tip of her nose and the strap of her glittery blue dress had slipped off her left shoulder. A group of drunken graduate students pressed in around her, singing and egging her on. In another window, Swinn concentrated on his Blackberry, a concerned look on his face, texting with both thumbs.

It was only after Van Alder was halfway home that he realized he was still smiling and that it was the old wooden smile he’d developed years ago to get out of bad situations. His face seemed to be stuck like that, the muscles overtaxed and somehow charlie-horsed in place. And he couldn’t, for the life of him, stop.


Life vs. Death (or How I Keep Going)

1. Veritas vos Liberabit

Karl Lessing and I decided to finish the five gallon jugs of flat Michelob his little brother had liberated from a frat party. It felt like a big decision. This was 1993. We were sitting in Karl’s parents’ garage, watching old footage of Tower of Power’s “What is Hip?” on Soul Train. And it all seemed to go together—the cheap plastic folding chairs, the Everlast heavy bag bandaged with silver electrical tape, the beat-to-shit Zenith with a wire hanger for rabbit ears, the VHS player I got at Kobey’s Swap Meet for $12, the incense cones Karl’s sister made out of ganja and cinnamon burning on a dinner plate. Nothing had changed since high school. We were two years older and both felt that because we hadn’t yet become wealthy, famous, and adored, we were obviously has-beens.

We didn’t talk much. We were better at being self-absorbed and sullen, experts actually. The way I remember it, it was a Saturday night and neither of us had girlfriends or anything interesting to do other than sit there and make the occasional comment about how much of a badass Lenny Willams was or how Mic Gilette had them chops. One thing I’d learned how to do since high school was get good grades. And, as a sophomore at San Diego State, that meant I had a lot of free time on my hands to think about music when I wasn’t feeling like a loser.

People our age were fixated on Nirvana and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, but Karl and I were heavily into jazz and 70s funk. That was our main obsession—Tower of Power, Brass Construction, Average White Band, Graham Central Station, Chaka Khan, Sly and the Family Stone, The Gap Band, Sun Ra, Miles Davis, McCoy Tyner, Coltrane, on and on. In truth, we listened to all kinds of music when we weren’t playing it, but because Karl was one of my best friends and happened to have three bookcases of CDs, I got exposed to a lot of styles I would not otherwise have known about. I never took world music or music appreciation. I was a double major, music and English, and apart from what I learned from Karl, the trajectory of my influences was limited to what I did in my classes. Karl was also a music major. The difference between us was that, while Karl was already an accomplished jazz saxophonist from a family of professional musicians, I was just a lost soul.

But that’s not precisely true. Looking at the 20-year-old boy I was then, I can see that I was just a writer who just didn’t know it yet, not unlike a lot of the students I’ve taught over the years. At the time, I thought I was going to be a classical pianist, but I was doing exactly what a writer does—getting absorbed in other people’s lives, details, energies, seeing the world through their eyes. Not all creative people do this but I’ve recognized the tendency in many of the writers, actors, and assorted soulless vampires I’ve met along the way. And to be perfectly honest, I had the affinity and intellectual capacity for classical music but not the temperament. Temperament might be everything.

Even with all of these influences, tendencies, fears, and assumptions swirling around us in that garage like fate, the Michelob didn’t taste any better. That said, when you’re 20 and frustrated, flat stolen beer is there for you. And we were halfway to our sworn goal when something amazing happened. Maybe it was right around the moment when Lenny in all his green velour majesty, goes, Do you think it’s drivin’ a big fine car? Have you heard, it’s tryin’ to be a star?—though that would have been too perfect—that Karl had a moment of profound wisdom which has stayed with me all my life. He looked at the gallon jug balanced on his thigh, then at me, and said, “Davis, some people get everything they want in life. The rest of us become philosophers.”

2. My Life as a Philosopher

“I know the many disguises of that monster, Fortune, and the extent to which she seduces with friendship the very people she is striving to cheat, until she overwhelms them with unbearable grief at the suddenness of her desertion.”  ― Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy

17 years after Karl’s moment of Michelob profundity in the garage, I was sitting in a conference room at Western Michigan University looking at a class of creative writing students, all in their early 20s, all lost souls. It was the last year of my PhD. And in my private life, something I am not inclined to casually discuss with students, I had suffered immense personal losses by then—death, estrangement, betrayal, and disappointment. But what else is new? One still has to get up in the morning and put on one’s pants.

Unfortunately, the only way to earn the putting-on-one’s-pants insight is to suffer and then choose to become a philosopher, a choice these kids hadn’t faced yet. A lot of them looked at me and thought, this guy has it made. How do I do what he’s doing? Some of them actually said as much to me in my office hours, peering across the desk in a kind of half-disbelief that I could lead the writing life, the idyllic life they imagined they wanted but felt was forever beyond their reach. In other words, they were 20 and thought they were already losers.

The key ideas in my beginning workshop were simple: you have to read like a writer in order to teach yourself about what can be done. You have to learn how to evaluate your writing on its own terms. And you need to develop discipline, which includes an ability to survive criticism and make it work for you. Most students can emotionally grasp these things after a 15-week semester, but it usually takes about that long. The problem is that the most gifted ones, the ones with that extra something—that divine spark of talent given to them by the muse or an angel or the Prince of Darkness—are usually the ones who take a lot longer to get over themselves. They’re so busy trying to sort out the fact that they’ve internalized materialistic social values at odds with who they are, that they ignore the practical side of the work.

Just as I absorbed Karl Lessing’s love of music and the aura of professional musicianship that always surrounded him, my own students absorbed similar energies from me. Even the most gifted writers over the years were not insightful enough to see that it wasn’t me they were absorbing. Rather, they were admiring some eidolon, some mirage of ideal qualities they imagined I must have in order to do what I was doing. If I’d told them what Karl had said that night it the garage, would it have mattered? No. Because they hadn’t suffered enough to understand. You can’t tell someone who has been searching for the lost city of gold that the glimmer they think they see isn’t El Dorado. They don’t want to face reality and become philosophers. They want to be on Soul Train with Lenny Williams covered in green velour. And I don’t blame them.

One young man that semester, Paul, who stands out in my memory as having seemed broken and gifted in equal parts, came into my office hour looking pale and severe. And as soon as I looked up at him, I knew we were going to have one of those conversations—the kind that start off about writing and segue quickly into What do I do about my difficult life? To honor the teachers who put up with me when I was the one asking such things, I never slither away; though, I’m often tempted. It’s draining to talk with depressed, frustrated people. But it’s a small act of kindness, which is the only sort of kindness that really matters.

So he sat down and unleashed the kraken. He’d taken a beating in workshop the day before for his fairly chauvinistic first-person story about a guy who uses a pickup artist system to seduce a barista in some nameless college town. After using her sexually, he tells her to take a hike and she’s crushed. And that was the story. I still remember it, not only because Paul seemed to have that stricken shell-shocked look of someone who’d just gone through an Inquisition-style critique, but because the story really was tremendously bad. Also because Paul was generally talented as a fiction writer and it was unlike his other work.

After going on about various things and people he disagreed with in his critique, he stopped, deflated, and said, “This is mostly nonfiction. I don’t know if you’ve realized that.”

I nodded. “I think most of the class did.”

Then Paul turned red, stood up, and thanked me for my time. I watched him through my open door as he went down the hall. I felt a little sad for him. But I didn’t feel sad for the girl in the story, who I was pretty sure didn’t exist. Did Young Paul apprentice himself to a “How to Get Girls” system? I didn’t doubt it—as much as I didn’t doubt that he was girlfriendless and powerfully, elementally lonely.

The last scene of his story went something like this: the protagonist and the girl are standing under a streetlight or something. She’s clinging to him and he says it’s not going to work out because he just doesn’t feel things like normal people. He has a cold heart. And then he walks away and she collapses in tears. Everyone in the workshop thought (rightly) that it was an ending that resolved / showed nothing. Plus, it was melodramatic. Plus, Paul seemed completely immersed in what he called the “pickup artist movement” and the other students were sick of his critiques always somehow incorporating that material.

But what I saw (and didn’t say) was that Paul wasn’t the two-dimensional womanizing protagonist in his story; he was the girl left sad and alone under a streetlight. The protagonist was who he told himself he needed to be—someone with a cold heart who doesn’t get kicked around anymore. Though there was no world, no permutation of reality, in which he could be that. He was too much in love with love and didn’t even know it. All he’d done was absorb the “pickup artist” ideology for a time—like a writer tends to do.

In the practice of philosophy, which often comes down to a single question—What is good and how do I know?—personal truth sets us free. The lost city of gold is lost for a reason. In seeking it, we learn how to live. We don’t get what we think we want, but we become philosophers inured to the vicissitudes of fortune. It is only through this that later in life we are able to resist death’s constant alluring invitations.

3. Death Pact

In 1700, Lord Nabeshima Mitsushige, ruler of the Hizen Provence, died. Tsunetomo Yamamoto was one of his loyal samurai, but he did not follow his lord in death because Mitsushige had expressed a dislike of the practice. Instead Yamamoto traveled into the mountains to spend the rest of his life as a hermit. Nine years later, he narrated a book of thoughts and parables about the samurai life to a fellow warrior, which became known as The Hagakure or In the Shadow of the Leaves. It is a powerful book, not only because it teaches us about the historical reality of the samurai, but because one of its principle themes is that much of what the samurai thinks, does, and feels is hidden from public view.

The purest expression of this was accepting death to the deepest extent possible, essentially embodying an “already dead” perspective. One is so dedicated to one’s mission that life itself is secondary. He writes that “even if it seems certain that you will lose, retaliate. Neither wisdom nor technique has a place in this. A real man does not think of victory or defeat. He plunges recklessly towards an irrational death. By doing this, you will awaken from your dreams.”

By doing this, you will awaken from your dreams. I have thought deeply about this passage over the years. In my current understanding, this “dream” is a dream of the self—the self-centered fairy tale each of us carries in our hearts about what we wish our lives could be. We’ve spent so much of our time, as writers, absorbing the energies and beliefs of others that it can be hard to wake up. But if we are to become philosophers, our fairy tale dream cannot have a happy ending. In the words of Karl Lessing, we don’t get what we want. Instead, we start asking questions.

We’re shocked awake, in media res, and we realize that we’re running towards an irrational death. We didn’t plan any of it. It’s not logical. We were busy dreaming about winning and losing, success and failure, fortune and misfortune. Everything that used to make sense doesn’t anymore. Death is waiting. It’s inevitable. And nobody wins.

At this point, the writer, if he’s honest, says to himself, my mission is more important than my dream. I know I’m going to die. But I have to try to make art until that happens. This is the pact every creative person makes with death. It’s the moment we can answer the philosophical question, What is good and how do I know? It’s the moment we look back at our 20-year-old selves—those depressed narcissists already willing to concede and accept defeat because everything at that point is cast in terms of winners and losers—and smile. The lost city of gold must remain lost to mean anything. The gold is incidental.


The Catherine Wheel

I first noticed the wolf in East Africa. Heard of brothers fighting and killing each other outside Makamba, daughters poisoning fathers in Goma, laughing while their houses burned, and everywhere the ritual of suffering enacted with a kind of desperate abandon. So I knew it had come around to this once again: an axe age, a sword age, a wind age, a wolf age. An age of bullets. An age of scorn, of grief, of fire and ice and tongues of rust filthy with blood. In such times, no one has mercy or even remembers it. Instinct rules. Understanding is rare. And few hear the wolf creeping up behind.

I knew Bujumbura waited to impart such knowledge to me when I saw the catherine wheel in a stand of trees beyond the airfield—a frame for breaking and burning witches—with an empty metal folding chair waiting beside it. I stepped away from the plane and stared at purple thunderheads hanging low over the steaming hills. I’d arrived during the rainy season, prop wash of the Dornier 228 twisting bits of paper and plastic bags over fields of grass and ochre mud. Then into town on the back of a piki-piki, plumes of brown water shooting up behind the wheels into the rain.

Streets with broken ditches, piles of burning garbage that smelled like shit and rubber. And everywhere: singing, chanting, drumming, sirens, heavy bass, the crackle of French radio through the wet dark as we passed yellow rectangles of light cut by barbed wire, spiked security bars, the black silhouettes of branches waving in the storm.

Arrived at crumbling plaster villa with collapsed third floor, brooding and dark and unoccupied for months—the best the company could get me on short notice. Two blocks down the hillside from the President’s mansion, the house had its own water cistern on stilts, gate guards, and a cadaverous German Shepherd, who sat beside the front door and frowned at me as I carried my suitcase in. Rusted rebar lattices over the windows. The outer wall pitted by bullet holes and topped with broken glass. The bedroom ceiling covered with spiders. My home for a month.

In the morning: Laurent Nzikobanyanka pulls the outside bell rope. Bald, smiling, gold Masonic ring, pressed blue suit and cream tie, long handshake. Regional supervisor for the company—a man in love with absurdity and beer and the absurdity of beer. Straight to Ubuntu Résidence for pizza with bitter Goma cheese and 40oz bottles of the local Primus for hours.

Then slow, the ground tilting, we walk the Public Gardens while jogging clubs in identical berets run around us, three gravely serious men in yellow track suits do Tai Chi on the wet grass, and a laughing girl flips somersaults on her roller blades. A passing woman nods at Laurent. Ça va? Ça va bien. It starts to rain. People look up and laugh at the rain. And this, too, is Africa.

The report I’m supposed to write for Laurent—what report am I supposed to write? I take the Lariam I brought with me to keep off the malaria and have bad dreams, wake up in the middle of the day with cockroaches on my belly, kill them, go back to bed and have bad dreams of cockroaches. Laurent comes by and pulls the bell rope, but I don’t go to the door. Three days in, and I’m pale and trembling. I’ve started vomiting and shitting uncontrollably. I worry I might have typhoid. So I add Cipro to the Lariam and spend ten days going from bed to toilet. Ça va? Ça va bien.

On the eleventh day, I rise again, thinner, with clean intestines and more circumspection. Before dawn, dogs are howling all across the city at a WWII air raid siren being cranked for no discernable reason. The house German Shepherd, who I have learned is named Jean-Pierre, howls back one raspy and exasperated howl, his duty as a dog. But he’s heard it all before. I lean out the back door and give him an ancient withered galette from the tin I found over the sink. The dogs in the distance begin again. He holds the end of the flat cake in his mouth and looks up at me with something like sympathy. “Good boy,” I say. “Fucking eat it or I’ll take it back.” He growls a little, but he doesn’t put it down. When I close the door, I hear him whimper. Growl or whimper: life is simple until you need to do both at once.

Laurent takes me to meet Father Martin, a Catholic priest, a descendent of a Tutsi king, and an initiate of Imana, the old creator god. Father Martin has no problems with this. We walk through his small, crumbling Église de l’Ascension while he talks to us about water issues, the rebels, the Evangelical Christian missionaries defacing ancestor shrines outside Gitega. Half-burned pillar candles in wrought iron stands line the bare walls. Spiderwebs over everything. The tiny arched windows have no glass, only black bars set deep into the frames. A breeze twists down, guttering the candles, lifting the webs like an invisible hand.

That night, there is mass and then, in a tent behind the church, the worship of Imana. Drumming. Singing. I pass out on a bench and no one notices, not even me. When I come to, Laurent is gone. Covered in sweat and smelling like incense, I walk through silent black streets until I find my way home, where I drink and smoke cigarettes and talk to Imana in the dark of my bedroom.

Day fifteen, halfway through the report, chain smoking, writing what the company wants me to write to calm the investors: emerging technologies, very good, country is on the upswing, great opportunity for development, everything is wonderful, god is in his heaven, all is right with the world.

I don’t mention the child who’d been thrown in a pool of acid when he was three, who is now eighteen and assigned to guard my front gate in a blue uniform with only half a face. I don’t mention the woman who weeps every night somewhere nearby or that I heard the catherine wheel was used a month before I arrived to break every bone in a woman’s body. They said she used sorcery to make her boyfriend impotent. Grenade attacks at gas stations. Shootings in the central market. The Muslim Brotherhood taking revenge for someone taking revenge for something another group did in some other country at an earlier date. A rebel general in the hills above Kigali, raping and murdering villagers, mounting their heads on spikes by the side of the road. The wolf age. The wheel of iron, come back around for its bloody payment.

Sicker than five dogs, but no time to relax. I stop writing only when Laurent insists that I get out of the house for my health. I stink and speak incoherently and sweat and grope for a cigarette every few minutes. But Laurent is determined. We have lunch at New Parador with Jessica Stanley, a functionary from the U.S. Embassy so far up or down in the hierarchy she doesn’t have a job title. Blonde, early fifties, stick thin with a pearl necklace and a pained squint. “What do you do?” I ask. “I work at the embassy.” “And what does that involve?” “It involves embassy work.”

Laurent smiles broadly and orders three big beers.

She goes thirty minutes later, her Primus untouched. Laurent drinks it slowly and sighs. “An unfortunate woman, but someone I thought you should meet.” I don’t ask him why. The interior of the New Parador dining room is covered in chipped gold leaf. The ceiling drips water into a plastic bucket. I decide Laurent is too sincere to be putting me on.

With the month almost up, I write continuously, pausing only to feed galettes to Jean-Pierre and drink filtered water that smells like an unwrapped condom. Before I can finish, I’m visited by Reverend Moonstar, an old high school friend who used to be named Sean Roberts. He got rich importing wicker things from the Congo and selling them in Manhattan. Now he practices polyamory and runs a coven of divorced Wiccans in Italy.

Reverend Moonstar has become pale and obese. He tells me Wiccan bitches are all succubi while he mixes a pitcher of martinis in the kitchen. “You know, this light in here, I think it’s flickering ‘cause it’s broken, Mikey. And, uh, you’re not living here permanently, are you? You’ve got a serious fucking roach problem.” I tell him he’s got a dirty mouth for a man of the cloth. The reverend offers a martini to Jean-Pierre, but the dog nips his hand. Even this doesn’t bother him. He laughs and sips his martini while I bandage him up. In the morning, I open my eyes to see Jean-Pierre snap a cockroach off my shirt, bite it in half, spit it out, and lie down again with his head on my body. I don’t know how he got inside, but I decide he gets double galettes later.

I finish the paper and Laurent is pleased. He pats me on the shoulder and hopes I get over my chronic cough, trembling, and fever. I have started to sweat profusely and I’m out of Cipro. The Lariam gives me dreams of my dead mother, memories of my father on one of his two-week whiskey benders where he called the house and told us he’d been elected governor of Alaska, dreams of a man-sized cockroach kneeling by the bed, hissing terrible things into my ear.

I’ve got an extra week paid for if I want to stay and Father Martin has invited me to another service. The Public Gardens are empty and covered in mist. I walk through them in the morning, feeling like the mist is more solid than my body, like I could hike up the side of the mist to heaven where Imana waits to explain Burundi to me, the wolf age, the twilight of the gods. I realize I know nothing. I have learned nothing. And, at best, I am seriously ill.

So I take a moto-taxi out to the airport where the catherine wheel is now soot black. They have broken and burned another witch since I arrived—always a poor village woman or a rape victim. Never someone like our Reverend Moonstar, who can wear pentagrams and talk about spells and Wiccan bitch-succubi all he wants. I vomit twice in the airport bathroom and pay the attendant 500 BIF for the trouble. A mustard yellow gecko crawls out of my laptop bag before I board the plane.

Brussels. I miss my connecting flight to London and get a closet room at the Hotel Friederiksborg instead. Too weak to get to a clinic, I soak the bed with sweat and think about dying. I think about Jean-Pierre, my best and only friend, and that I should have taken him with me. Room service leaves bottles of carbonated Spa outside my door with dry toast. The conceirge is understanding and discrete; though he is clearly worried about what to do with my corpse should I kick off in the middle of the night. I live on bread and mineral water for a week until I can keep it down and am strong enough to bathe myself and walk outside.

I look up friends of friends who live on Rue de Lakenstraat—three Estonian girls who give me tea, wine, and chocolate. In my lingering dizzy exhaustion, they seem to me like creatures of pure air and fire, filling up my glass, laughing, wanting to know—everything—how many people there are in Burundi; what the climate is like; why I went there; whether I have read a certain Polish travel writer; what I think of Belgium; what I think of Obama’s administration relative to the Bush administration and if there is much pro-American sentiment in Burundi; if anyone I know has been a victim of the grenade attacks; what my dissertation was on; what they should see if they visit Rwanda other than the gorillas; and whether I am a vegetarian. I look around and tell myself none of it is real. Any moment, a man-sized cockroach will sit down next to me and raise his glass. Cheers.

When I leave I feel I’ve spent time with the fairy court in the kingdom of the Shining Ones. But when I walk along a canal into a bad part of town I see dull-eyed prostitutes leaning against the buildings and the primered chassis of an Audi up on blocks behind a chainlink fence. And I remember the catherine wheel and decide that I am somewhere on the earth after all.

In the morning, the money comes through. Job well-done. Everyone is happy. Glowing praise from Laurent. In the unfathomable machinery of coincidence, I am offered a small part-time position at the university in Tallinn, Estonia.

Sure, I think, why not? I can spend some more time with the Shining Ones in a beautiful European city. But, of course, it’s not that easy. Even now, in my dreams, the empty roads are still and silent under windows painted with the brown of old gore. And the ragged lines of cities have given way to sand and weeds. And no one cares about the trash in vacant lots or whose bones lie there, warm and pale in the sun. Of these things, only those with eyes to see can recognize the Ouroboros coming full circle again. The blackened catherine wheel. The rows of heads by the side of the road. Only those with ears to hear will notice the wolf sniffing at the door in the dead of night or recognize the riddle of our beginnings tied to the wheel and broken by the ignominy of our end.

 

 

* Note: this story originally appeared in The Painted Bride Quarterly, Print Annual 6 (2013)


The Housemates on Krypton

There is a definite upside to living in a creaky old house next to a canal with a doctor and four housemates: you’re alive. The downside is only slightly less obvious than that: you and the housemates have to get along with a degree of functional civility, which in Oxford generally means avoiding each other in the hall.

This seems perfect. I’m an introvert by nature and I don’t actually like the company of other human beings for extended periods of time. Someone told me that this almost makes me English, but I don’t believe it. I don’t believe that the culture of Oxford is a very accurate representation of English culture in general. And I don’t believe reclusiveness and introversion necessarily characterize all of Oxford all of the time. Only some of Oxford part of the time. The part involving beer.

I’m not talking about pubs. I’m talking about survival. Beer is essential to cohabitating in Oxford. If you drink wine, you’re out of luck. Get your own place where you can listen to Brigadoon and sing to your cat while making courgette hummus for your dinner guests. I’m talking about something far more exacting and necessary, something essential: the redemptive power of beer to make everything okay when you have to get along with people completely terrified by the prospect of disclosing anything about themselves.

I don’t mean to imply that it’s necessary or even desirable to drink beer with your housemates. On the contrary, you will often drink beer because of your housemates. And the world of difference between these simple and compound prepositions is the world in which you will take 4 cans of the Fursty Ferret up to your room, lock your door, and watch old Trapper John, M.D. episodes as you sip your way toward a better tomorrow.

You will do this because the alternative is staring at the ceiling—listening to your neighbor give sexual dictation to his girlfriend or a meth-head talking to an owl down by the water—while thinking about the psycho-spiritual train wreck that passes for personal relationships in this town. And I say that with nothing but love in my heart for Oxford, its children, and its ales.

Of these particular housemates, though, there isn’t much to say. I think, if we were shipwrecked together on an island in the North China Sea, we would probably converse from time to time. Maybe if we were interned together in a work camp. But, even then, it’s possible that few words would be spoken. As a writer, I have a tendency to catalogue and amplify the personal eccentricities of the people around me. And, in that way, I come to appreciate them. But there is a certain type of person who sends me straight to Trapper John.

This is not without some theoretical precedent. In a creative writing workshop, when someone has written a supporting character who is a two-dimensional rat-bastard, who is such a complete bastard that he never evolves beyond a state of fundamental, luminous bastardy, we call that character “plot furniture.” In other words, he exists as a prop. But if we’re talking about a central character, maybe the main character, the writer has more work to do. Instead of dismissing this character as furniture, we tell the writer, “Look, you have to give the character something.” This means you have to round the character out. He can’t just be a prop; he can’t just be a bastard. You have to give him something that shows another psychological dimension. Because no one is ever just one thing in life. Uncle Wiggily might be an “engaging, elderly rabbit who suffers from rheumatism.” But he only really gets interesting when you learn that he performs a Satanic black mass every Thursday in the bobcat’s basement. Like that.

So when I write these therapeutic blog posts, I try to give something to the people I write about. I was trained to do this in the sadomasochistic hellworld of MFA writing workshops. And the fact that I’m mostly writing creative non-fiction* here never gets in the way. Giving your characters something is the “creative” part when you’re writing about people who exist in real life. But the type of person who short-circuits this, the writer’s kryptonite, is someone who can’t be given anything without you having to completely make it up.

In other words, there is a type of person who has pushed his libido down so far, who has conformed so perfectly to a kind of fastidious, highly curated, social acceptability, that the most compelling thing about him is his sweater. Sure, we can say that he’s interesting in that he tries so hard not to be interesting. We can give him that. And we know he probably has dark squirmy things crawling around in the sub-basement of his soul, but getting down there, drilling down through all the conformist blast-shielding and cautious evasiveness is tedious at best. At worst, it’s exhausting.

Of course, there’s money in being boring. It pays to be socially careful, even if it does inspire a certain degree of contempt in those of us who never could fit in. Sometimes I wonder, when such people lie awake at night beside a partner just as meticulously uninteresting, if they can hear those squirmy little devils scraping their proboscises on the other side of the blast doors—the ghost sound that torments people through their long dull miserable lives into late middle-age depression and a pension they don’t know what to do with. Then they buy a camper, I guess. Masturbate less or more. Eat a lot of soft-serve ice-cream.

It may be that I don’t have enough material on the housemates to even write a very substantial piece on them or their calculated sweaters. But, while deciding whether to write it, I remembered something Arthur Miller wrote in Death of a Salesman:

Willie Loman never made a lot of money. His name was never in the paper. He’s not the finest character that ever lived. But he’s a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid. He’s not to be allowed to fall in his grave like an old dog. Attention, attention must finally be paid to such a person.

In a perfect world, we’d be able to stave down the horror of having a full conversation with each other. We’d actually step out into the hall.  But a terrible thing is happening, has been, I think, for as long as social pressure has rewarded people for not standing out in any way and avoiding human contact as a rule.  Krypton is a boring utopia.  And every utopia is a dystopia.

So beer. Instead of speaking to the housemates, everyone listens behind the door until the hall is empty, until it’s quiet in the house, and it’s possible to creep down the stairs and over to Sainsbury’s where four cans of the Fursty Ferret will run you £4.30. A small price to pay for equanimity, I guess. And I guess this post is the lagniappe.


* I publish two types of writing on this blog: creative non-fiction and short stories I’ve already published in magazines.


Seeing the Cranes: Double Dickage, the Dragon Tower, and Felicia Day

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Rundetaarn

I was sitting in a cafe across the street from Rundetaarn, a Masonic dragon tower in Copenhagen, trying to make progress with William Gibson’s novel, The Peripheral, when I realized it’s constipated with words and it wasn’t going to get any more regular after 100 pages. It’s so self-referential, so overwrought and self-conscious that it broke my heart a little bit. This is not a realization one wants to have in a city so far from home, even if the concept of home no longer makes sense. Consider the beginning of chapter 8, “Double Dickage”:

The boss patcher, unless he wore some carnival helmet fashioned from keratotic skin, had no neck, the approximate features of a bullfrog, and two penises.

“Nauseating,” Netherton said, expecting no reply from Rainey.

Perhaps a little over two meters tall, with disproportionately long arms, the boss had arrived atop a transparent penny farthing, the large wheel’s hollow spokes patterned after the bones of an albatross. He wore a ragged tutu of UV-frayed sheet-plastic flotsam, through whose crumbling frills could be glimpsed what Rainey called his double dickage. The upper and smaller of the two, if in fact it was a penis, was erect, perhaps perpetually, and topped with what looked to be a party hat of rough gray horn. The other, seemingly more conventional, though supersized, depended slackly below.

When you read something like this, unless hard work has already been done to make it clear, all you can do is give the book the benefit of the doubt and hope. Maybe in 50 pages, bullfrog dicks and frills will make sense in a way that allows suspension of disbelief. Maybe in 150.

To be fair, sometimes this actually does happen. A novel reaches a point at which its unique terms and weird settings stabilize in a comprehensible way, allowing the reader to orient herself and understand what matters in the world of the story. This is especially true in books written in a 1970s sci-fi prose style, where sensory and linguistic overload establishes a specialized language in which author, text, and reader can identify as a discourse community (cf. Tvtropes.org’s definition of “Fan Speak”). For example, when I first read Samuel Delaney, I had the experience of feeling completely overwhelmed by an alien prose style that seemed to function in performative resonance with the subject matter. I felt like I had to assimilate to this world. I was the alien.

Apparently I wasn’t the only one who had this experience. Jo Walton writes about that same feeling on the Tor.com website, in “Overloading the Senses: Samuel Delaney’s Nova.” But if the language and settings of a novel can’t become the new normal, if there is no way for the reader to orient himself, there can be no suspension of disbelief. Overload becomes noise instead of a communal bonding experience. And the reader loses interest because there is no way to become emotionally involved. There reader is shut out. It’s like peering into the murky waters of an aquarium, unsure what exactly is supposed to be on display.

Nevertheless, this is William Gibson, one of the great sci-fi writers of the late 20th century, someone I grew up reading, admiring, and trusting, which I suppose exacerbates the tragedy of the double dickage on the reader. At least, I felt doubly dicked over. Compare the above, to the opening chapter of Mona Lisa Overdrive, “The Smoke,” which is lyrically beautiful and which exemplifies everything I love about Gibson’s sensibilities:

The ghost was her father’s parting gift, presented by a black-clad secretary in a departure lounge at Narita. For the first two hours of the flight to London it lay forgotten in her purse, a smooth dark oblong, one side impressed with the ubiquitous Maas-Neotek logo, the other gently curved to fit the user’s palm. She sat up very straight in her seat in the first-class cabin, her features composed in a small cold mask modeled after her dead mother’s most characteristic expression. The surrounding seats were empty; her father had purchased the space. She refused the meal the nervous steward offered. The vacant seats frightened him, evidence of her father’s wealth and power. The man hesitated, then bowed and withdrew.

Very briefly, she allowed the mask her mother’s smile.

Ghosts, she thought later, somewhere over Germany, staring at the upholstery of the seat beside her. How well her father treated his ghosts. There were ghosts beyond the window, too, ghosts in the stratosphere of Europe’s winter, partial images that began to form if she let her eyes drift out of focus. Her mother in Ueno Park, face fragile in September sunlight. “The cranes, Kumi! Look at the cranes!” And Kumiko looked across Shinobazu Pond and saw nothing, no cranes at all, only a few hopping black dots that surely were crows. The water was smooth as silk, the color of lead, and pale holograms flickered indistinctly above a distant line of archery stalls. But Kumiko would see the cranes later, many times, in dreams; they were origami, angular things folded from sheets of neon, bright stiff birds sailing the moonscape of her mother’s madness.

The difference is striking. Here, the immersion is immediate, the images are beautiful, and there is still enough weird dramatic tension for us to understand that this is not the world we take for granted when we get on a plane to Big Smoke.

Now I’m living in England again; though, I’m back in Oxford instead of the Smoke. I wish I had something like Gibson’s Pattern Recognition or All Tomorrow’s Parties to carry with me, to help me contextualize the inherent (sometimes pleasant) weirdness of this place, which, on a good day, can seem a bit like home. I learned so much from him when I was just starting to read like a writer. And on those rare occasions when I find myself teaching a creative writing class, I still assign his cinematic vignette, “Thirteen Views of a Cardboard City,” as an example of how prose can be minimalist and immersive at the same time—especially when the students seem to have developed an unhealthy Raymond Carver fetish.

You can only read lines like, Randy, she said, I can’t do this anymore. Randy poured another glass of scotch. They looked out at the empty parking lot, before you start longing for more adjectives. (Yes, I know Carver is great. He is actually one of my favorite writers. And, yes, I can see my father right now, sneering at me, saying, Raymond Carver you ain’t. And I have to agree with him. Carver is a truly great writer and maybe by saying “Raymond Carver fetish,” I’m dismissing him unfairly. But in the neurotic, self-castigating, New Critical environment of most MFA programs, Carverian minimalism is as much a problem as it is a protection. Writing outside the boundaries of late 20th century minimalism takes courage. Description makes us vulnerable. And being willing to make oneself vulnerable is one of the hardest and most valuable lessons to learn as a creative writer. So, yes, Carver I ain’t. And Carver you ain’t, either.)

So back to the dragon tower. The Peripheral was killing me. I was doing my best, trying hard to find some way into the story, but I was failing. And it didn’t help that I had come to Denmark for a variety of reasons, none of them having to do with science fiction or reading. One reason I was there had to do with a kind of spiritual journey. I do this. I set a destination, sometimes with friends, sometimes just for me, and I go there, trying to realize / recognize another part of myself.

I once read a short story in OMNI magazine—I must have been ten or eleven years old—about people living on a space station that had somehow been stabilized at the edge of a wormhole. They would go on space walks into the anomaly and return with cures to diseases, ancient historical artifacts lost to time, new mathematical theories, answers to the great unsolvable questions. The only catch was that anyone who went out came back a little more suicidally insane. Eventually, if they went out too many times, they’d carve themselves up with surgical scalpels or blow themselves out the air lock or something equally horrible. The question for the main character was how far she was willing to go, how much of herself she was willing to sacrifice. I’ve never forgotten the story because I have always felt that I, like her, would give it all in the end—not because I care so much about humanity or so little for myself, but because the opportunity to experience what might be on the “other side” and come back would be worth anything, even if it ultimately consumed me. My spiritual journeys around the world are like that, only I come back with more of myself instead of less.

There always has to be a way to fund the trip, some work tie-in or set amount of money I know I can spend. But once I have things locked in, wherever I happen to be, I go looking immediately for the dragon tower. I go looking for those places—like Stonehenge or the Ha’penny Bridge or the Russalka Memorial—that speak to me about myself. This is entirely subjective and often inexplicable, but that’s the whole point. I don’t make these journeys for other people. I go because there are things I need to understand. I have my own “great unsolvable questions.” Maybe I never solve them completely, but every time I go, I have at least one moment like Kumiko where I see the cranes, tiny origami mysteries that unfold the corners of who I am, which makes the space walk worthwhile.

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The walk up to the top of the tower.

Rundetaarn is beautiful, symmetrical, solid, powerful—all things pleasing to the eye that carry a sense of divine perfection. I have visited it many times in dreams since then. But that day in particular, sitting in the window across the street, I wasn’t thinking about spiritual things as much as the past. The Peripheral was depressing. So I reread the postcard I was using as a bookmark. It was from Kurt, a friend who went to graduate school with me. We don’t see each other much. But every now and then, we’ll send emails or postcards or a Facebook message. He’s a painter and a poet, gifted and serious, and one of the best people I know. His note covered a lot of things but what really stuck with me was the observation he made that so few who got MFAs with us are still writing after more than a decade. He’s right and I’ve wondered about that, too.

So I was sitting there, looking up at Rundetaarn, and thinking about how the past never squares with the present. Life always seems better before. We were always saner, more prolific, healthier, more blissfully ignorant. Is this why I couldn’t connect with Gibson’s novel? Was I clinging, like a brittle fanboy, to an idiom that the writer already transcended without me noticing? Was I clinging to the idea of what it was to be an MFA student back at the University of Montana when I should just accept that not everyone wants to die in loveless penury? Was this the part of myself I was meant to bring back from my space walk—the realization that obsessing about the past is double dickage I don’t need?

(Possible corollary: obsessing about the past is actually obsessing about the present; it’s all the same space walk. It just seems different because our linear presuppositions about the nature of change blind us to the reality that everything is taking place all at once. We just see experience from progressively different angles because our perceptions are bound to what we consider the “physical world” and therefore receive the impression that things are constantly degenerating. All things change. All things are subject to cycles of entropy. But change itself is eternal, apart from our flawed conventional idea of time.)

After thinking about these things, watching tourists go in and out of the tower, I finally wrote a response to Kurt. I said:

I don’t understand why so many of the talented people we knew stopped writing because I don’t really understand the Manhattan publishing industry. I think there’s a strong connection. . . . What I am is tired of gatekeepers so worried about their careers that they only think in categories. Barton Fink comes to mind a lot. Maybe people stop writing post-MFA because they get worn out, some sooner than others. People are wired to be social and run on interpersonal feedback. Ignore them long enough and they will lose their happy thoughts. Then there are the weirdos like us who keep doing it anyway. It sometimes feels like I’m sitting in a dark room, talking to no one in particular and yet hoping someone is standing there listening. I don’t actually believe someone is there in the dark, though. That’s the problem. I can’t make myself believe it. There must be another reason. Compulsion? Obsession? I don’t know. I wrestle with this stuff a lot.

I wrote it in my journal and then emailed it to him a few weeks after getting back to Oxford. But I’m still thinking about it. And I suspect that Gibson wrote The Peripheral because it was simply time for him to write another novel—because he, being commercially successful, explicitly does not have the problem I’m talking about. The problem of dying cold, alone, unrecognized, and broke that most artists have to face. Moreover, I’m glad he’s written what he has. His recent novel might not be my cup of tea, but I suppose I am still a Gibson fan despite the double dickage.

Still, I had to wonder what it was that I was supposed to find in Copenhagen. I did a lot of different things while I was there. I had many important insights. But it wasn’t until a few days ago, when I read Felicia Day’s memoir, You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost), that it all came together for me. I’m not much of a fan when it comes to celebrities. To be honest, the only other celebrity autobiography I’ve read is David Carradine’s Endless Highway. Unlike many famous people, Carradine could write. And I think Day can write as well. She’s funny, smart, and reminds me a lot of her character on Supernatural that way. It was an easy read with some very interesting parts—chapters on Gamergate and her experience as a double major in violin performance and math at UT Austin. She reminds me of a lot of people I was friends with in college—people more interested in how things work than in how much they’re going to make after graduation.

There is one passage in her book that clicked everything into place and brought me back to that day in Denmark when I was sitting by the tower. In her chapter about struggling to make it in Hollywood, Day writes:

No one had a place for my geeky, weird, homeschooled, video-game-loving inner self. They could only see me as an extremely clean but neurotic secretary. . . . . I painted myself into a tiny corner, so I could be simpler and cleaner and more hirable by Hollywood. I was rewarded for it, but it made me miserable, and I didn’t even realize it. When the system you want to be a part of so badly turns you into someone you’re unhappy with and you lose sight of yourself, is it worth it? Er . . . probably not. But self-reflection wasn’t my strong suit at the time. I just knew that I kept getting opportunities that I couldn’t turn down, that I would have killed to have in the dry years before. I never stopped to wonder, Why am I so depressed all the time after all this success?

  • Because playing a two-dimensional background stereotype of a secretary wasn’t fulfilling her as an artist.
  • Because publishing a constipated inaccessible science fiction novel by virtue of an author’s pre-existing fame is nothing more than a cynical publishing industry gesture.
  • Because giving up your art after getting an MFA is a crime against yourself committed from a place of despair and futility.
  • Because the part of me that I retrieved from my space walk was simply this: there is art and there is the business of selling it. I am and always will be invested in the former to the detriment of the latter. It’s so easy to conflate the two. And people who don’t know do this all the time—You’re a writer? So how come you’re not living in New York? How come I’ve never heard of you? There is no way to answer questions like that without sounding defensive about not “making it.” But the truth is very simple: the person courting fame is not focusing on her art. There is often a difference between what is salable / commercial and what you have to personally do as a creator.

Sometimes these things come together, like when Day’s web series, The Guild, got attention on YouTube, helping her circumvent the Hollywood gatekeepers and advance her acting career. There are many examples of this in self-publishing as well. But the point is not to find a new clever way of climbing the ladder to commercial bankability. The point is to express yourself through your work. The rest is incidental. What you find when you step through the wormhole is ultimately yourself. You climb the dragon tower and see the cranes—origami, angular things, the stuff of your dreams, unfolding.

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