Jul 022010

Aleksander Hemon‘s story, “The Life and Work of Alphonse Kauders,”  works as a list story.  Alphonse Kauders is a Zelig like character with access to some of the past century’s worst men.  Hitler, Goebbels, Stalin, Tito and Gavrilo Princip all have direct contact with Kauders.   Kauders  even impregnates Eva Braun.  The story basically involves a series of philosophical musings about Kauders likes and dislikes, about his predilections for pornography, about his fascination with fire, and about his hatred of watches and horses.

Like other list stories I’ve read, Hemon uses repeated images and patterns to substitute for traditional structural devices.  There were many memorable lines from this story:

One of Alphonse Kauder’s seven wives had a tumor as big as a three-year old child.

Alphonse Kauders was a Virgin in his horoscope.  And in his horoscope only.

Alphonse Kauders  said to Eva Braun: “Money isn’t everything.  There is some gold too.”

“Since the day I was born, I have been waiting for Judgement Day.  And the Judgement Day is never coming.  And, as I live, it is becoming all to clear to me.  I was born after the Judgement Day.”

The strange, perplexing part of this story comes at the end.  There are a series of explanatory ‘Notes’ at the end of the story.  In these notes, the author (apparently directly) gives historical context and commentary on some of the real people who figured in the story as well as on various books and historical events.  I’m not sure what to make of these notes.  Are they supposed to represent some kind of ironic statement about the story?  Is the author of the notes Hemon?  Is the author of the notes someone else (in the sense of the original story, say an absent narrator?)  The strange thing for me was how the notes (which take up almost 4 pages) seem to be really outside the formal construction of the story.   Yet when you read the notes, they seem straight forward and un-stylized.  Here’s an example:

Richard Sorge was a Soviet spy in Tokyo, undercover as a journalist, eventually becoming a press attaché in the German embasssy.  He informed Stalin that Hitler was going to attack the Motherland, but Stalin trusted Hitler and disregarded the information.  The first time I read about Sorge I was ten and, not even having reached the end of the book, decided to become a spy.  At the age of sixteen, I wrote a poem about Sorge entitled “The Loneliest Man in the World.”  The first verse: “Tokyo is breathing and I am not.”

Is the ‘I’ of this note Hemon, commenting directly on this historical figure (who also appears in the story) or is it something else?  Part of my dilemma with this is that the notes seem obvious and basic, while the story is strange.  Does the reader really need an explanation of the Yalta Conference?

It would be interesting to see how Hemon approaches the story for a reading.  Does he read the notes too?  Anyway, this has plagued me now for a few days.

—Richard Farrell

Jul 012010

Adam-Westra1Adam Westra

It’s a huge pleasure to introduce Adam Westra to Numéro Cinq readers. Adam is a philosopher and translator and he happens to be studying Kant. This amazing essay proves that good writing exists in many forms and many arenas, that there is beauty in clarity, that vigorous, surprising prose is not just the province of the novelist and memoirist. Adam grew up in Calgary, with a year-long interlude in southern France at the age of seven, after which he went to a French Lycée, then Western Canada High School. He escaped to the Netherlands for a year before heading to the University of British Columbia, where he did a B.A. in Honours Philosophy (2003-2007). Thence to Montreal to do a Master’s in Philosophy at the Université de Montréal (2007-2009; thesis title: La Critique de la raison pure, une oeuvre inachevée). Now working on his Ph.D. in Philosophy in Montreal and Berlin on the role of analogy in philosophical thinking, with a particular emphasis on Kant.



Douglas Hofstadter is an author worth reading: he has something to say, and he says it well. This fact jumped off the page with the 1979 publication of his brilliant, Pulitzer-Prize-winning book, Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid (GEB). This eccentric, eclectic and electrifying book fascinated all kinds of readers for all kinds of reasons, and its audacious young author was instantly hailed as a one-of-a-kind, ‘geeky genius’. [1]  The irony, as Hofstadter himself points out, in both the Preface to the 20th anniversary edition of GEB (1999) and again, in the Preface to his most recent work, I Am A Strange Loop[2] (2007), is that while his first book’s success allowed him to capture the attention of a wide audience, as well as to secure an exceptionally free and well-supported academic position (notably the ‘Fluid Analogies Research Group’ at the University of Indiana) for pursuing his ideas, the most central – and original – insight contained in GEB, namely, “the parallel between Gödel’s miraculous manufacture of self-reference out of a substrate of meaningless symbols and the miraculous appearance of selves and souls in substrates consisting of inanimate matter” seems nevertheless to have gone unheard, like “a shout into a chasm” (SL, xiii). His goal in Strange Loop is therefore to reformulate, re-explain, and also to explore new aspects of this very insight – and this time, with “maximal clarity” (SL, xvii). [3]

Indeed, one of the very first, and most significant, points that Hofstadter makes in this work is that what he says and how he says it, (and also that it is he who’s saying it), are inextricably bound together. In particular, Hofstadter takes analogy “very seriously”, having spent the greater part of his career studying its role in human thought:

“[…] I specialize in thinking about thinking. Indeed […] this topic has fueled my fire ever since I was a teen-ager. And one of my firmest conclusions is that we always think by seeking and drawing parallels to things we know from our past, and that we therefore communicate best when we exploit examples, analogies, and metaphors galore, when we avoid abstract generalities, when we use very down-to-earth, concrete, and simple language, and when we talk directly about our own experiences” (SL, xv).

And virtually all of the points, major and minor, that are made in the subsequent 350 pages are accordingly expressed by means of more-or-less explicit analogies (the formulations “just as … so”, “similarly”, “by contrast”, etc., are ubiquitous) and an amazing variety of concrete imagery, often drawn from everyday life.[4] Now, in both this important descriptive claim about the analogical/metaphorical nature of human cognition (“we always think”), as well as the consequent normative claim regarding the optimal form of conceptualization and reasoning (“we therefore communicate best”), Hofstadter’s starting-point and consequent approach to the study of the mind differ fundamentally from the “Snow is white” propositional model of human language and thought that is often used as a paradigm in contemporary analytic philosophy. In fact, this view of his actually comes much closer to that of the emerging “embodied cognition” movement – despite the curious fact that he never mentions the latter specifically – whose representatives, such as Mark Johnson and George Lakoff, argue – like Hofstadter, on the basis of neuroscientific research, and, again like Hofstadter, to a relatively wide audience – that all human thinking, including philosophical reflection, emerges from the body via a metaphorically-mediated process of abstraction. In any case, Hofstadter’s recognition of the importance and power of analogical thought is in itself a remarkable and distinctive contribution to a philosophical scene in which analogy is largely dismissed or ignored.

The book’s twenty-four chapters (each one divided into idiosyncratically titled sections) can, grosso modo, be divided into two main parts: in chapters 1-14, Hofstadter gradually builds up his theory of the Self (or “soul” or “I” or “consciousness” – all synonymous terms for him); in chapters 15-24, he draws some consequences from his central insight, responds to objections, and takes a stab at some traditional and contemporary philosophical problems.

The core ideas of the book all come together in Chapter 20, featuring a dialogue (a form familiar to GEB readers), between two characters, Strange Loops #641 and #642, who represent, respectively, Hofstadter and an imaginary skeptic. Now, the challenge for Hofstadter is to make comprehensible (without necessarily proving) how the notion, nay even the feeling of identity – that there is “something it is like” to be me – emerges from a merely physical substrate, such as – but not necessarily limited to –  the human brain, which is composed of neurons, which are in turn composed of molecules, and so on all the way down to quantum particles – which, for Hofstadter, is where the “true causality” of the physical universe ultimately resides (SL, 297) – and this, without having recourse to any form of metaphysical or supernatural dualism. To the skeptic, then, who balks at the very prospect of providing an account of consciousness in such a framework, he offers the following hypothesis:

I sympathize with your sense of the barrenness of a universe made of physical phenomena only, but some kinds of physical systems can mirror what’s on their outside and can launch actions that depend upon their perceptions. That’s the thin end of the wedge. […] When perception takes place in a system with a truly rich, fluidly extensible set of symbols [e.g. a non-embryonic, non-infantile human brain], then an ‘I’ will arise just as inevitably as strange loops arise in the barren fortress of Principia Mathematica (SL, 282).

Now, the “symbols” invoked here do not designate arbitrary tokens, nor the images encountered in myth or dream, but rather the physical correlates (in the case of a human brain, the specific neural structures) ‘triggerable’ by certain abstract concepts; “perception” is just the ‘triggering’ or activation of such structures, whether through sensation, memory, or imagination. For example, the specific brain structure activated when you see or think of the Eiffel Tower is your “Eiffel Tower symbol”, and this activation is just what it is to perceive the Eiffel Tower (SL, 76). Crucially, the human brain’s system of symbols is so complex that it possesses a virtually unlimited or “universal” representational capacity (in Turing’s sense of “universal computability,” described in Chapter 17).

This is where the central analogy with Gödel’s ‘Incompleteness Theorem’ comes in: according to Hofstadter, Gödel’s great discovery consisted in showing, by means of a sophisticated mapping technique, that the formal system contained in Russell and Whitehead’s Principia Mathematica inevitably produces, because of its universal representational capacity, certain self-referential statements, or “strange loops”. An analogous phenomenon is just as inevitably produced in the brain, and this, combined with humans’ “innate blindness” to the inner workings of our own brains, i.e. “our inability to see, feel or sense in any way the constant, frenetic churning and roiling of micro-stuff, all the unfelt bubbling and boiling that underlies our thinking” (SL, 204) effectively makes us hallucinate an “I”, a Self which – or rather, who – seems to run the show, i.e. whose apparent causal agency according to beliefs and desires feels like the “realest” thing in the world (SL, 202). In a word, the “I” is not the starting-point, but rather the gradual outcome of a complex process of perception that twists back on itself, thereby giving rise, over time, to an ineradicable, yet indispensable, illusion: “I” (SL, 204). Again, Hofstadter is not necessarily trying to prove this claim as a definitive theory of consciousness, but rather sees himself as offering a new perspective on the mind, a sort of ‘Copernican Revolution’[5]: “My claim that an ‘I’ is a hallucination perceived by a hallucination is somewhat like the heliocentric viewpoint – it can yield new insights but it’s very counterintuitive, and it’s hardly conducive to easy communication with other human beings, who all believe in their ‘I’s with indomitable fervor” (SL, 293). More fundamentally, Hofstadter offers a distinctive vision of the human condition (or at least a new variation on an ancient and recurring theme): insofar as we cannot help believing in the “story” we tell ourselves – namely, that each one of has, or rather is, an “I” – it then follows that “the human condition is, by its very nature, one of believing in a myth” (SL, 295).

The skeptic’s recurring objection to this picture is the following: “Where, in this picture, am I? Where is the something-it-is-like to be me? Where are my qualia[6]?” In a paradoxical vein, Hofstadter (i.e. Strange Loop #641) replies that this ‘special feeling’ combined with the skeptic’s very resistance to the idea that the “I” could merely be the product of blind and invisible particles, just are the illusion he has described; furthermore, the I arises only out of a special kind of physical system: one characterized by an abstract, recursive pattern called a “strange loop,” analogous to a Gödelian self-referential statement.

It is at this exact point, I believe, that this crucial analogy between the strange loop in the brain and Gödel’s strange loop is at its weakest. Specifically, one could object that the ways in which the self-referential patterns emerge in the two cases do not seem to be analogous at all. On the one hand, Hofstadter is committed to saying that the Self emerges from the brain “automatically,” or “inevitably,” as only in this way can the emergence of consciousness be envisaged as taking place under the strictly physical, deterministic laws that constitute the “true causality” of the universe; otherwise, some sui generis mental substance (which he mockingly dubs “feelium” or “élan mental”) would ostensibly be required to explain the insertion of the “I” into the otherwise barren physical universe, devoid of properly ‘mental’ phenomena. Now, Hofstadter repeatedly justifies this claim by analogy with the way in which Gödel’s “strange loop” arises, as at the end of the longer passage quoted above (SL, 282), and again quite clearly here:

Consciousness […] is an inevitable emergent consequence of the fact that the system has a sufficiently sophisticated repertoire of categories. Like Gödel’s strange loop, which arises automatically in any sufficiently powerful formal system of number theory, the strange loop of selfhood will automatically arise in any sufficiently sophisticated repertoire of categories, and once you’ve got self, you’ve got consciousness. Élan mental is not needed (SL, 325, my emphasis in bold).

But does this analogy really hold? More precisely, does it make sense to say that a self-referential Gödelian statement “arises automatically” qua “natural and inevitable outcome of the deep representational power” of Principia Mathematica’s formal system (SL, 161)?

The trouble is that such an interpretation of the analogy does not appear to be consistent with Hofstadter’s own characterization of Gödel’s proof. In Chapters 8-12, Hofstadter mounts an impressive attempt to explicate Gödel’s procedure and to convey his own sense of its significance. According to this picture, however, Gödel’s “strange loop” seems to be the very opposite of “natural and inevitable”: indeed, the sophisticated and recondite procedure by which the young Austrian mathematician painstakingly crafted his proof appears entirely artificial and arbitrary. And crucially, it is this very procedure that constitutes the “why” of Gödel’s strange loop: the latter did not “automatically” emerge from within Principia Mathematica’s formal system, but was, rather, intentionally produced from the outside. As Hofstadter himself writes: “Gödel carefully concocted a statement about numbers and revealed that, because of how he had designed it, it had a very strange alternate meaning” (SL, 171, my emphasis in bold). In other words, the representational power of the formal system described in Principia Mathematica is merely the condition of the possibility of the emergence of a strange loop, not its cause (in logical terms: a merely necessary, not a sufficient condition). Therefore, one cannot say that the strange loop is a “natural and inevitable” product of the formal system itself; rather, it is clearly the artificial and arbitrary product of Gödel’s artificial and arbitrary design which, it could be argued, clearly presupposes a deliberate act of consciousness to begin with. In other words, while the formal system may indeed talk about itself, as Hofstadter insists, it does not do so by itself, but only because Gödel makes it speak. So, returning to the analogy with the brain/consciousness, we must now ask: if Gödel’s strange loop does not in fact arise “automatically” from a substrate of meaningless formal symbols, then why should we think that consciousness emerges “automatically” from a substrate consisting of inanimate matter? Indeed, we could even invert the analogy, in true Hofstadteresque fashion, substituting ‘God’ for ‘Gödel’: just as Gödel’s strange loop only emerges as the product of his consciousness, so are the strange loops constitutive of our respective ‘I’s produced in the consciousness of God! From Hofstadter’s physicalism we end up with full-blown idealism à la Berkeley. We need not go so far, of course; the point is just to stress that Gödel’s intentional mathematical procedure does not seem to be an adequate analogue for the blind physical process through which consciousness ostensibly arises.

Now, Hofstadter would surely respond to the above objection as follows: while the ultimate source of the Self does indeed reside at the level of physical particles governed by universal causal laws, the strange loop as such only arises at a much higher level of abstraction, namely, the level of perception, categories, and symbols:

The sole root of all these strange phenomena is perception, bringing symbols and meanings into physical systems. To perceive is to make a fantastic jump from William James’ “booming, buzzing confusion” to an abstract, symbolic level. And then, when perception twists back and focuses on itself, as it inevitably will, you get rich, magical-seeming consequences. Magical-seeming, mind you, but not truly magical. You get a level-crossing feedback loop whose apparent solidity dominates the reality of everything else in the world (SL, 300, my emphasis in bold).

The most obvious objection here, from an idealist-phenomenological perspective, is of course that this symbolic, meaningful perception presupposes consciousness: meaning is not ‘read off’ the raw data of sensation, but rather ‘read into’ the latter. The same presupposition holds, a fortiori, for Gödel’s proof of the Incompleteness Theorem, qua deliberate cognitive act: Gödel’s strange loop only arises as a meaningful statement to the extent that it has been consciously constructed, i.e., produced by an intentional “act” or “arbitrary synthesis,” to use Kant’s terms[7]. Obviously, explaining consciousness with consciousness can’t be what Hofstadter intends, as it amounts to begging the question, and even worse, begging it in the wrong way, as all true, ‘non-magical’ explanation, for him, must ultimately be in physical terms. But this makes the following question all the more pressing: in what sense are we to understand his claim that perception, qua abstract-physical process, will “inevitably” twist back on itself? Exactly what kind of necessity is being invoked here? Are we talking about the blind necessity proper to the physical substratum of the universe or we are talking at the abstract, symbolic, meaningful level? In the first case, we retain “inevitability” qua “true causality” of the universe, but on the other hand we lose abstract perception at this unfathomably lower level of neurons and seething particles. In the second case, we keep all of the ingredients for self-referential ‘strangeness’, i.e., perception, abstract categories, symbols, etc.; however, at this higher level of abstraction, we lose any meaningful (i.e. physical) sense of “inevitability”. However, these two levels are – indeed must be – incommensurable: recall that perception, and with it, the very possibility of ‘strangeness’, according to Hofstadter, depend on our “blindness” to the physical substrate of our thinking (SL, 204, quoted above). Whence the following dilemma: self-referential “strange loops”, as such, can only arise inevitably to the extent that they are not strange and, conversely, can only be strange to the extent that they are not inevitable. In other words, consciousness and physical necessity, as characterized by Hofstadter, do not seem to be conceptually or ontologically compatible. The fundamental question that Strange Loop was meant to answer must be posed anew: Whence the “fantastic jump” from the physical substrate to consciousness?

In the second part of the book, Hofstadter goes on to confront this perspective with the conceptions of other philosophers of mind (such as ‘Descartes’[8], John Searle, Derek Parfit, David Chalmers, and Daniel Dennett) and tackle some traditional and contemporary problems in the philosophy of mind (e.g. mind-body dualism, the so-called Inverted Spectrum Hypothesis, the free-will problem, etc.). In so doing, he makes heavy use of outlandish “thought experiments”, making this section of the book quite stimulating. He also engages with the conceptual creations of other philosophers, cleverly showing how ambiguous and misleading some of these rival scenarios can be (the ones concocted by Searle, in particular). But the sword is double-edged: after a few such skillful deconstructions, one can’t help but view his own conceptual scenarios with the same measure of suspicion. [9]

Moreover, Hofstadter’s treatment of certain philosophical problems (especially the ones he dubs the ‘Sacred Cows’) can come off as facile. For example, he seems to attack the – inappropriately named – ‘Inverted Spectrum Hypothesis’ as if it were just that, i.e., an empirical hypothesis about more or less rare cases involving human perception, and proceeds to put its empirical plausibility into doubt. It could be noted, first of all, that the slightly milder hypothesis that human beings perceive colours differently as a result of slight variations in their sense organs is not at all implausible from an empirical point of view; it is an established fact. More fundamentally, however, the Inverted Spectrum Hypothesis, from a properly philosophical point of view, has nothing to do with its empirical plausibility (a license that Hofstadter frequently claims for his own thought-experiments). The purpose of the thought-experiment (as employed by Wittgenstein, for example) is rather to paint a logical picture, as it were, from which one ‘reads off’ the conceptual links between ostensible mental states or ‘qualia’, on the one hand, and language, on the other. E.g., how and what am I ‘referring to’ when I utter the sentence: “The stop sign is red.”? Is it philosophically justifiable to invoke qualia here (i.e. the felt ‘redness’ of the sign to me, ‘in my head’, so to speak) or will some form of social convention offer a more plausible account (say, that the ‘redness’ of the sign consists in its use in a particular language-game: in this case, to indicate that one must stop one’s vehicle at the sign)? In the latter case, moreover, the ostensible qualia drop out as irrelevant anyway, empirical (im)plausibility notwithstanding.

Hofstadter is far more insightful, convincing, and at times even poignant – both intellectually and emotionally –when he wrestles with the mysteries of everyday life, his own in particular. Thus, the idea that other people to some extent live on inside us (that we are able, to a certain extent, to reproduce foreign “strange loops” in our brains) can come off as merely bizarre in the imaginary “Twinwirld”, but suddenly becomes, not just more plausible, but deeply insightful, even poetic, in Hofstadter’s passionate and earnest wrestling with the sudden loss of his wife Carol, his own “soul-mate”. Indeed, the earnestness and beauty of these reflections bear witness to the fact that Hofstadter’s work is more than merely idiosyncratic (even if brilliantly so); in reality, he has, in his distinctively playful way, something serious – because deeply personal, and hence genuinely human – to say. And for this reason, perhaps more than any other, his Strange Loop is well worth incorporating into your own.

—Adam Westra

Adam Westra’s web page is here.



Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. If I permit myself this expression, it’s only because I have the feeling that Hofstadter himself wouldn’t be insulted by this appellation, and might even be pleased by it.
  2. Douglas Hofstadter, I Am A Strange Loop, New York: Basic Books, 2007. 412 pages. Henceforth abbreviated as SL. All italics in quoted passages are Hofstadter’s.
  3. While he does intend to contribute to the philosophical debate on the nature of mind and self, Hofstadter explicitly forswears attempting to prove his point of view, finding the typical ‘proofs’ that philosophers tend to give of their theories to be ultimately futile. His primary purpose is not to convince, but to communicate, and only thereby to change his readers’ way of looking at things (in this case, at them-selves).
  4. In the Index, under the heading “analogies, serious examples of”, Hofstadter lists close to one hundred entries! Some examples: “between the author’s mind and others’ minds”; “between dog looking at pixels and Russell looking at Gödel’s formula”; “between gems in Caspian Sea  and powers in Fibonacci sequence”; “between mosquito and flush toilet”; “between self-symbol and video feedback”.
  5. Hofstadter seems to have arrived at this analogy independently of Kant, who is never mentioned. See the Preface to the second edition of the Critique of Pure Reason (B xvii) for the latter’s famous “Copernican Revolution” in metaphysics, also presented as a justification for a change of theoretical perspective.
  6. The felt quality of certain states of consciousness, often, but not limited to, sensation; e.g.: the ‘blueness’ of the light coming through a stained-glass window, the ‘tastes-like-cheap-coffeeness’ of a cheap cup of coffee, the ‘pastoralness’ of the note F-major, etc.
  7. See the chapter of the Critique of Pure Reason on mathematical method, “On the Discipline of Pure Reason in Its Dogmatic Use” (A 712-738 / B 740-766), as well as the paradigmatic example of ‘Thales’ proof’(B xi-xiii)
  8. That is, the so-called doctrines of “Cartesian dualism” and the “Cartesian ego” which are widely bandied about, seldom with adequate reference to their original context.
  9. That being said, Hofstadter’s ingenious playfulness, unfortunately rare among philosophers, is only to be encouraged; indeed, this aspect of his writing is more reminiscent of the intelligent and creative playfulness exhibited by certain artists and musicians (Glenn Gould comes to mind).
Jul 012010

Herewith a sermon by VCFA graduate Hilary Mullins, not a former student of mine, though she was in a novel workshop with me once, just a friend, but an old and good friend who comes up to the campus every residency to visit and sits in for a lecture or two or a reading. I has fond memories of long evenings spent in Francois Camoins’ room in Noble with Hilary and Ralph Angel and any number of students and faculty rotating in and out. Good friends, good conversation.

I offer this sermon in the Numéro Cinq spirit of subversiveness and outlawry. Once upon a time, the sermon was a hot nonfiction form. Books of sermons were routinely published and became best sellers. Nowadays, creative nonfiction is pretty narrowly defined and almost all literary prose has turned secular. I offer this sermon to remind you of a form, now too often ignored, a vibrant form that by definition looks to the deepest places of the human heart. Also to remind you to look to the side, to avoid defining yourselves, your reading and your writing too narrowly.


Hilary Mullins, Author’s Note:

Sermons are a great form, and–as a writer addressing other writers–I am here to tell you it’s a form you do not have to be ordained to practice. You should be informed  of course, but that is not the same as being ordained. In my case, I’ve taken a couple of seminary classes plus a three-year lay training program in Vermont where I live. I have also studied a fair amount on my own. But that is all. And yet it’s enough.

Naturally, since I also run the services I preach at, my sense of the sermon’s  potential exceeds the parameters of theHilary Mullins-background changed sermon itself. For me the form is the whole service: from the prelude and call of worship, to the first hymn and prayer, to the sustained silence that comes next, and on and on, each element flowing along in the larger structure of the liturgy, creating an ongoing rhythm that, if you do it right, wakes people up—to themselves, to each other, to the deeper  river running through all things.

But as for the sermon itself, it has its own dynamics as well. Even more obviously than a short story or an essay, the sermon is a wonderfully flexible form that you can shape shift in just about any direction that will serve, mixing facts and figures with quotations or poetry, alternating straight-up exegesis with story. And in the liberal denominations I work in, which are Unitarian Universalist and Congregationalist, I have the freedom to work with texts beyond the Bible. For instance, when it comes to picking scripture for a Sunday, I have often paired a Biblical passage with a poem, using works by Rumi, Mary Oliver, Sharon Olds, and Gerard Manley Hopkins. Some denominations won’t allow this, it’s true. But the limitations are not in the form itself.

Then there are effects that, though they don’t play in a reprinted sermon, work well in person with a congregation before you. Smile when you stand up, and they’ll smile back. Then as you get going, talk quiet or talk loud, slow up, slow down, use your body. Speak as if you were a channel for something good and something good can happen. And maybe best of all, the thing that other writers so rarely get to do: look in their eyes. Worlds are there. And they will come forth as they look back at you.

Continue reading »

Jun 252010

On Emma Lake

This is a poem by my friend Dave Margoshes, also a short story writer (also someone I could depend on for Best Canadian Stories in the decade of my editorship). Dave lives in Saskatchewan which is a province I used to visit a lot–those lovely summer residencies at Fort San (a retired tuberculosis hospital turned into a summer arts centre–some details from the place made it into a story of mine called “A Piece of the True Cross”) in the beautiful Qu’Appelle Valley. Every morning we were awakened by the call of bag pipes wafting over the dry hills. But he knows Vermont well, having been a guest at the Vermont Studio Center.

Author’s Note:

“Becoming a writer” is one of the poems in my collection The Horse Knows the Way, which came out last fall (from Buschek Books in Ottawa). The poem was sparked by something I read or heard – I thought by Gabriel Garcia Marquez – to the effect that “Everything I needed as a writer I had acquired by the time I was six.” In fact, I used that quote, or what I thought may have only been a paraphrase, as an epigram to the poem, and it appeared that way in The Queen’s Quarterly. Later, as I was preparing for the publication of The Horse Knows the Way, I was unable to verify the quote – now I have no idea from whence it came – and dropped the epigram. The poem, and an explanation like this about the epigram, appeared later in The Best Canadian Poetry in English, 2009, from Tightrope Books in Toronto. So I owe Marquez – or someone – a debt of gratitude.

Becoming a writer

What could be easier than learning to write?
Novels, poems, fables with and without morals,
they’re all within you, in the heart, the head,
the bowel,  the tip of the pen a diviner’s rod.
Reach inside and there they are, the people
one knows, their scandalous comments,
the silly things they do, the unforgettable feeling
of a wet eyelash on your burning cheek.
This moment, that, an eruption of violence,
a glancing away, the grandest of entrances,
the telling gesture, the banal and the beautiful,
all conspire with feeling and passion to transport,
to deliver, to inspire. Story emerges
from this cocoon, a crystalline moment, epiphanies
flashing like lightbulbs above the heads
of cartoon characters. All this within you
where you least expect  it, not so much in the head
as under the arms, glistening with sweat, stinking
with the knowledge of the body, the writer
neither practitioner nor artisan but miner, digging
within himself for riches unimagined, for salt.

—Dave Margoshes

Jun 252010


#6:  Letting Characters Speak the Truth

How often do we lie, hide, evade, and otherwise avoid a truth in life?  I don’t mean big lies, lies of consequence, but little ones, white lies, lies of avoidance in place of harsher truths.  Most of the rules of polite society demand decorum at the expense of honesty.  The common question in the street, “How are you?” is seldom met with a genuine response.  If it was, the inquisitor would likely run for the hills.  We are expected to behave, to polish reality, to adhere to the strictures of proper behavior, and this tendency can bleed over into our writing.  (Well, it did in mine.)

Charles Baxter, in his essay, “Create a Scene,” says, “In fiction we want to have characters create scenes that in real life we would typically avoid.”

In a story I submitted for my third packet, I did something right (at last!) which created a spark of drama.  I had one of my characters speak honestly to his wife when he didn’t necessarily want to.  It was an uncomfortable moment, and my character spoke a truth that in real life he probably would have avoided saying out loud.  Prior to this moment, I had diligently avoided making this choice in much of my writing, but once I did, the scene erupted with dramatic potential.  (It fizzled soon after, but hey, I’m still learning.)

Doug wrote about this scene in my packet letter: “But then the scene develops good drama when Jacob actually tells the truth.  I love it when a student learns to use the truth to power a scene.”  They were only two lines in a 5 page, single spaced response, but what joy at reading those two lines!

On our follow-up phone conversation, Doug reminded me that at each moment in a story, the writer chooses how a character acts.  The writer, through the characters, decides to evade or rush forward with the truth.  Those choices change the outcome of  scenes and stories, creating vibrant, dramatic ones, or, in my case before this scene, creating flat, lifeless ones that mimic the undramatic experiences we have every day.  In much of my previous writing, my characters mostly behaved like genteel people, avoiding the truth in a bland mimesis of reality.

Baxter again: “The story becomes the stage, not for truth, but for self-actualization.  We try to imagine the person as we would like ourselves to be and as a result write a banal and lifelessly idealistic story.”

In life most of us are duty-bound to follow very different rules than the ones we create in our writing.  In fiction, we’re unfettered.  In fiction, the inner demons can rage.  By allowing them to do so, the writer creates an opportunity for drama.

On a specific, concrete level, such drama can be created simply by having characters tell each other difficult truths.  Baxter calls this the “staging of a desire, making a darkness visible and dramatic.”

I knew avoidance was wrong and that it impeded my story.  That was the frustrating part.  I knew that desire/resistance leads to conflict which leads to drama, but I had a hard time enacting it in a scene.  Doug’s simple solution of having my characters behave honestly (usually in dialogue) significantly helped me understand the potential at various stages throughout a story.

I found myself going back to this lesson again and again throughout the semester.  My characters began to blurt out things that most people wouldn’t say sitting around the dinner table.  Baxter says we need such spectacle.  “Bad manners put us on a stage, and a stage, as every writer knows, is what is required for dramatic force.”

By taking this relatively small step, and letting my characters speak the truth, I found a tangible technique that helped me amp up the dramatic potential of a scene.

Up Next: #5: My Love Affair with Abstractions

See also other entries in this series starting with #10.

-Rich Farrell

Jun 192010

#7: Letting Go

In my packet-three letter, Doug wrote the following:  “But as a parting shot, I want to re-emphasize the need for you to stop PLANNING quite so much…I’d be even more pleased if I felt you letting go of the reins a little bit, surprising yourself, not seeing the ending before you get there.”

Doug’s words remind me of my golf game.  I played a fair amount of bad golf in my younger days.  I had a long-standing, but modest goal: to break 80 for eighteen holes.  It was a marker for me, a personal goal that lent some credibility to all the hours spent on the links.  Every time I would come close to that score, I’d screw it up.  I shot 82 a bunch of times, but my scorecard was littered with bogies (or worse) on the final four holes.  The better my opening holes were played, the worse my finishing holes.  A demon lived in my head, a demon defying me to break 80.  The closer I got to that score, the louder that demon shrieked.

A few years ago, my wife bought me golf lessons at the course near our house.  My golf instructor, Paul,  recognized right away that I was a head case.  I told him that my goal was to shoot in the 70’s.

Paul asked me a simple question. “What’s the enemy in golf?” he said.

“My putter?” I said.

“The enemy in golf is par,” he said.

Paul told me that the problem was how I approached the game.  Every time I hit a bad shot, it messed with my thoughts because I was doing math, measuring how a few bad shots would kill the chance of breaking 80.  He said to stop counting my score and to start counting my pars.  He said if I focused on par, and not on scores, I would start playing better and that I would break 80 before the summer was over.

I played miserably for weeks and was convinced that my wife wasted her money.  Right before summer ended, I went to the course and played a round by myself.  I enjoyed playing alone.  There was a calm, peaceful feeling being on the course with no one around.  And I began to play well that day, too.  I was striping the ball and putting purely, confidently.  The holes hummed by and I was happily counting my pars.  I racked up fourteen pars before I arrived at the 17th tee box.

The 17th hole was a short, downhill par 3 with a green surrounded by water.  Until I stood on that tee, I had not calculated my score; I had only been counting my pars.  Sure enough, I did some quick math and a knot formed in my stomach.  If I finished with two pars, I would break 80.

The demon woke from his nap and began to laugh.  My legs stiffened, my palms began to sweat.  I switched clubs twice, and checked the calm breeze three times.  I took my stance, a practice swing, addressed the ball and swung.

Now how does any of this relate to writing and Doug’s advice?  That golf demon has a twin brother, and every time I sit down to write, that demonic twin visits. He loves to mock me, to point out how poorly I’m writing, to remind me of better writers, to tell me that I’ll never make it, I’ll never publish.

I fight back by studying the craft.  I’m a craft book addict.  My previous advisor actually told me to knock it off for a while.  She said all the craft book reading was getting in the way of my writing, and she was right.  But I was convinced that the key to unlock my writing potential (and quieting the demon) existed inside those books, and that some piece of the puzzle would fall into place if I just read the right one.  The problem with all this advice, of course, is that it paralyzes at the point of putting pen to paper.  The demon reads the craft books too, sitting over my shoulder, and he loves to expose every flaw in every sentence.  He mocks my attempts to write better, to experiment, to finish a story.

I hit the worst shot of the day on the 17th tee.  I popped up a seven iron and watched it soar toward the water.  The demon raised his arms in victory.  But something happened.  Rather than splashing in the water, the ball bounced on a railroad tie at the edge of the green.  It ricocheted straight up in the air and hovered a moment, out over the water, then touched down on the green.  The demon let out a roar and disappeared in a puff of smoke.  I two putted for par.  On the 18th tee, I smashed a drive straight down the fairway and hit a long three wood to the edge of the next green.  I birdied the hole and shot a 78.

I learned two important things that day: The first was that by giving my demon purchase, by counting my score on the 17th tee, the tension shot straight up.  It ruined my shot.  Only luck saved me.  But the more important lesson happened on the 18th hole.  I felt no tension on 18.  The pressure should have been even greater, because any number of bad shots would have ruined my chances to break 80, but the tension was simply gone.  How I can explain this?  The answer is simple: the previous hole’s meltdown had caused me to stop thinking.  I had let go.

In writing, like in golf, there are so many technical aspects that require study and mastery.  But anyone who’s ever tried to swing a golf club thinking about keeping weight balanced, arms straight, head still, hips turning, grip loose, etc., knows how near impossible it is to make contact with the ball.

I never did learn how to let go this semester, but it remains a goal.  The only solution that worked for me was to write more.  Writing stories that failed seemed to help me get out of my own head.  Experimenting with techniques helped too, even if the results were less than stellar.  In the end, the demon still chides me, but I hope to find a way to quiet him.  Writing a good, complete story remains a whole hell of a lot harder than breaking 80, but the underlying concepts are the same.

Up Next:  #6:  Letting Characters Speak the Truth

See also other entries in this series starting with #10.

Jun 152010

Mark Jarman Story- St. John River

Mark Anthony Jarman is an old friend dating back to our days at the Iowa Writers’  Workshop. He’s from Alberta, lives next to the Saint John River in Fredericton, New Brunswick, where he teaches at the university. He plays hockey, wrote a hockey novel, has three sons, and was a regular pick when I edited Best Canadian Stories. He is the subject of my essay “How to Read a Mark Jarman Story” which originally appeared in The New Quarterly and can be found in my essay collection Attack of the Copula Spiders. He writes the wildest, most pyrotechnic stories of anyone I know.

This story originally appeared in Darwin’s Bastards: Astounding Tales from Tomorrow, edited by Zsuzsi Gartner (Douglas & MacIntyre, 2010).



The distance I felt came not from country or people; it came from within me.
I am as distant from myself as a hawk from the moon.

James Welch, Winter in the Blood

I was lost in the stars, but not lost, my tiny craft one of many on a loop proscribed by others, two astronauts far out in a silk road universe of burning gas and red streaks, and one of us dead.

Then the land comes up at us, the speed of the land rushing up like film and our Flight Centre men at serious blinking screens.  Our valves open or don’t open, the hull holds, the centre holds, little I can do.  The dead man is not worried.  I will not worry anymore, I renounce worry (yeah, that will last about three seconds).  The angle of re-entry looks weird to my eye.  I had to haul his corpse back inside for re-entry so he wouldn’t burn up.

In the city below me traffic is backing up into the arterial avenues.  They want to see us return, to fly down like a hawk with the talons out.

“Units require assistance.  All units.”

We are three orbits late because of the clouds and high wind.  They want to be there if there is a memorable crash, our pretty shell splitting on the tarmac into several chemical flash-fires engraved on their home movies.

We were so far up there above the moon’s roads, my capsule’s burnt skin held in rivers and jetstreams that route our long-awaited re-entry.  Up there we drive green channels riven in the clouds, ride stormscud and kerosene colours in the sky, then we ease our wavering selves down, down to this outer borough, down to rumpled family rooms and black yawning garages, down to the spanking new suburb unboxed in the onion fields.

I’m a traveler, an addict.  I descend from the clouds to look for work, I was up there with the long distance snowstorms.  It’s hard to believe I’m here again, hard to believe Ava became so uncaring while I was gone from the colony.

Ava’s messages are still there.  “This message will be deleted in 2 days.”  I press 9 to save it yet again.  I save her messages every ten days, my private archives, my time capsule, a minute of her lovely voice.

“Loved your last transmission,” Ava said in September. “It made me laugh!  And I loved the pictures you sent!  I can’t wait to see you.”

But then the change in October, the October revolution.  We are changelings locked in a kingdom of aftershave ads and good shepherds, lambs and lions and the Longhorn Steakpit’s idea of a salad bar.

Her messages were so very affectionate, and we’d lasted so long, so long, but in the end our messages were not enough.  Our words were not enough.  A week of silence and then a new message.  I knew it.

“Some bad news,” as Ava termed it.  She’d met someone else, she’d had a lot to drink, one thing led to another.  And I was so close.  Only a few days more.  But she couldn’t wait for me.  So long.

In the Coconut Grove bar in the afternoon I’m feeling all right.  I’m good at clarity and appreciation, but I’m slightly out of time.  Time slows and I lurk in it, I can alter it.  Do you know that feeling?  I drink and carefully move my head to study my world.  Venetian blinds layering tiny tendrils of soft light on us, the purple tennis court on TV, an AC running low, the lack of real sky.  It all seems okay, it all seems significant, it all seems deliberate and poised for some event.  But only to me, only I know this mood, this valiant expectation, this expedition into the early realms of alcohol.

Perhaps I am not quite right, but I savour the strange interlude.  I’m a lonely satellite in space, a craft drifting alone, drinking alone.  In this room the music is fine, the hops have bite – the perfect bar moment.

Then the bartender cranks up the volume on Sports TV and snaps to his phone, “The girl who cut my hair butchered it.  I didn’t have the heart to tell her, you suck.”

And that’s the end of my spell, the end of that little mission to Mars.  And I was so enjoying it.

“Hey dog, you flew with that dead guy, didn’t you?  And then your girl dumped you.  She’s hot.  Bummer, man.”  I wait until the bartender goes to the washroom to work on his hair and I exit without paying.

Maybe not the smartest idea, but I call Ava in Spain.  She left me, but she’s the only one who will know what I mean.

“What do you want from me?  Why are you talking like this?”  Her slight laugh.

Apparently I have some anger to work out.

Turquoise mountains at the end of the street remind me of Tucson or Utah.  The mountains of the moon.  I kill time walking.  Funny to be on foot once more.  The sun and earth – what are they to me?  I still orbit Ava, but she’s not there, no there there, so to what furious solar system do I now pledge my allegiance?  I still orbit her blue-eyed summer kitchen memories and the cordwood and pulpwood childhood in the north.

Need to change that orbit, need orbit decay.

In the building where she used to live they now deal ounces and eight-balls.  I was gone, Ava’s gone, the moon has changed.

Not sure I like the messages I’m picking up re the new frontier.  No one foresaw this, crystal and crank smuggled in to the colony, dealers and Albanian stick up crews and crummy walk ups, the adamantine miners working the face under Dwarf Fortress, all the single males earning big bucks in the catacombs and mineral mines, but with nowhere to go, the shortage of places to live, the exorbitant cost of milk, the new gang unit brought in, dead bodies on the corner with splayed hands and wrists smeared red with their own blood, and bouncers at the door working hard at that Russian look.  With the economy in the toilet the Minister of Finance is studying the feasibility of holding Christmas four times a year instead of two.

At the reception for me and some other space cowboys the party crackers lie like ashes on my tongue.  The fruit salad fallen from soldered tins; taste the fruits of duty.  My long periods of radio silence and now the noise of crowds and halls of ice cubes.

My brother-in-law Horse the detective is at the reception with a woman he says has just moved to the moon from Babylon to escape the war.  Delia looks nervous, as if still in a war zone.  Her family made her leave her home, smuggled her over the border, they feared for her life if she stayed.

Forget this place, they said of the only home she’s known, it doesn’t exist anymore.

“How do you like it here so far?”

Delia says, “People are very kind to me, but it’s not what I thought.”  She shrugs.  “All my life I wanted to see the moon, stared up at it.  But I miss my home, my family, my car, my brothers, the path to the river.”

“Can they visit?”

“No, it’s impossible now.”  The family had money, but now it is all gone, they are bankrupted by the war, the stolen gold, the extortion, the journey to other lands.  Her English is very good.

“How is the new job?”

“Horse can tell you better than I.”

“Brutal,” says Horse, “A ton of movement with the gangs, a lot of old grudges, eye for an eye.  We just had a 27 before we came here.”


“It means he was already dead before we got there,” Delia tells me.  “Another young guy,” she says.  “They get younger and younger.  Children.”

Five phones ringing on the silent body, once so talkative, now so grave.  How may I direct your call?  How come it’s so easy to become a body?  He is past saving, his messages will be deleted in ten days unless someone who loves him presses save.

The woman from Babylon asks about my last trip in the light years, where I slept in far stars like fields sown with salt.

“Is it boring out there?  Is it better than here?”

“It was wild, hard to describe, almost religious.”

“What about when Curtis died?”

“I don’t know, he was just dead.”

Was it an accident or did he do it to himself?  This question is not in the press.  One time, after he was dead, I swore I heard a fly buzzing inside the windshield, that manic little taptaptap.  I turned my head slowly; there was no fly.  I had wires to my skin, an extended excellent dream.

I hear Delia speaking Arabic on her phone.  Her uncle is a consul in Vietnam with an Irish wife.  We, all of us, have come so far from home.

Very few of the December class returned alive.  There is a chance they are still out there, or else something is killing them, making them martyrs.  Or perhaps some Decembrists stumbled onto a beautiful world, and chose to not steer back to this one.  Why am I the only one who found a course home?  And to what?

It’s just survivor’s guilt, the detectives insist.  Take up golf.  Some good 18 hole courses on the moon, especially the Sea of Mares, Sea of Tranquility, condos with fake pools stocked with trout fingerlings.

“You can rent an AK at the range,” says Horse.  “Or sled down Piston Alley.”

Piston Alley is named for all the sled engines that have blown pistons on the long straight stretch.  The engine runs the best ever just before the piston shoots out like a tiny rocket.  I don’t really want an AK47.

In the NASA gymnasium the trainee astronauts play tag.  Astronauts get lots of tang; that was the old joke.  Poontang.  When I was out there I craved smoked salmon and dark beer.  The dead man went on for hours about steak and ice cream.  I have a few too many bank loans.  Curtis was outside when it happened, his air.

The woman from Babylon stares at me with her very dark eyes, says, “I wonder if perhaps you would help us in the interview room.”

Did Horse put her up to this?

He says, “The Decembrists are famous with the school-kids.”

“But with these jokers you pick up?”

Horse says, “You’ve always been better than me at reading faces.  You can let us know when it’s a crock.  We’ll have signals.”

Horse makes it seem like a job selling vacuum cleaners.

“Think about it.  Something to do.”

Something to do — he has a point.  Maybe a distraction from Ava in my head.  I have escaped gravity and achieved a kind of gravitas.  Yet I feel a broken shoe.  I can’t sleep (night and day), my mind locked on her with someone else (day and night I think of you), and the lymph nodes each side of my groin are swollen tight as stones inside a cherry; no idea what that’s about, what’s next, what’s approaching me.

They are ploughing a new road by the graveyard, by the old settlers and the new settlers in the cemetery under Meth Mountain.  The lumpy graves look to be making their slow way across the whitemoon’s dusty field, the dead in their progress to us, their magnetic message under clay walls and organic reefs and the moon’s Asiatic peaks just past the plywood windows of the closed mall.

Ava quit her job and got away, but when I filled out a Planet Change Request Form it was turned down by upstairs.  I know it’s not a planet, but that’s the form they use.  At the drive-through window on Von Braun Boulevard I order a combo and a willowy uniformed teen hands me a paper bag.

“Enjoy your meal.”

I drive to the carved-up picnic tables by Lost Lake.  Opening the bag, I find $6000.  They have handed me the day’s receipts.  Or gave something to the wrong car.  Someone will be pissed off.  And where are my fries?  I’m not driving all the way back down the mountain.

Now, how to use $6000?  Pay down the loans or just buy a giant TV?  I’ve always wanted a jukebox or to buy a bar in Nebraska.  Maybe I will.  I can learn things.  Ava said, Whosoever wants to be first must first be slave to all.  That night I sleep among the fences under stars where I rode so long.  Perfect carpentry is a thing of amazing beauty.

Downtown I see Delia walking by the Oppenheimer Fountain.  She seems shy.  I feel her lovely eyes hide something, some secret limit inside her.  Is she resigned to it?  I like the idea of a secret, like her face.

“So I can just ride along in the car?”

“Hell yeah you can ride,” says Horse.  “That’s it exactly.  A goddam team!”

I can ride, privy to the children selling ghost pills stepped on a few times, dividing the corners, eyes like radiogenic freeway lights.  It’s the Zombies versus the 68th Street runners, yellow flashes on a dark wall and the Indian Head Test Pattern, and from this world of instant grudges we pluck the sad eyed murderers and take them into Interview Room #2, where we strive to arrive at some form of truth acceptable to most of us.

Everyone loves truth.  Ava told me the truth, did she not?  She loves me, she loves me not.  It’s a gamble, shooting dice while clouds boil around the sun, goading the dominos.

Who controls the corner, the zoo?  We travel to the far corners of the universe, but we can’t control the local corner, can’t control the inside of our head.

In the interview rooms prisoners must be checked every 15 minutes.  Someone slumped there in a chair killed a son, a cousin, killed in the triple last time.  Horse walks in with his coffee.  It goes on, it goes on.

They seen you riding with Moonman and Mississippi and Ghost.

Seen me?

You been slinging dope?

I don’t know no Mississippi.

Tight bags of meth hidden in the torn baby-seat.

Where were you rolling?

Nowhere.  You know, just rolling nowhere.

By the fountain her gasmask matches her dress.  Males never quite exist for me — only women.  I don’t carry a mask; the air inside is fine, but she is very cautious and keeps it with her briefcase.

Five p.m. and the moon goes violet.  Free Fanta for all teens at the moon-base chapel.  She doesn’t drink and I am a spastic snake.

At dinner she doesn’t know she saves my life just by being there in front of me.  I’d rather she not know my sad history, my recent heartbreak.  It’s so pleasant to meet someone so soon after Ava, but still, the joy is tempered a tad by the prospect of it happening again, of another quick crowbar to the head.  But I resolve to be fun.  After the attack on the Fortran Embassy I resolve to be more fun.

Delia says she swam a lot in Babylon before the war, and she has that swimmer’s body, the wide shoulders.  She says, “I am used to pools for women only, not mixed.  I don’t want to swim in the moon-base pool.”

“Why not?”

“You’ll laugh.”

She doesn’t want to swim with strange men, but also fears catching some disease.

“I was hesitant to tell you about the pool.  I feared you’d laugh at me.”

“No, I understand perfectly.”

But now I want to see her in a pool, her wide shoulders parting the water, her in white foam, our white forms in manic buzzing bubbles, her shoulders and the curve of her back where I am allowed to massage her at night when her head aches.

Strange, Ava also had migraines, but I was rarely witness to them; she stayed alone with them in the whimpering dark and I would see her afterward.  Beside me in her room, Delia makes a sound, almost vomits over the edge of her bed, almost vomits several times from the pain, her hand to her lips, her hands to her face.

Delia is very religious, very old-fashioned, jumps away in utter panic if I say one word that is vaguely sexual, yet she delights in fashion mags and revealing bras and cleavage in silk and she allows my hands to massage her everywhere when she aches, allows my hands to roam.

“How do you know where the pain is,” she asks me, her face in pillows.

I don’t know.  I just know how to find pain.

At Delia’s kitchen table we study maps in a huge atlas, Babylon, Mesopotamia, Assur, where she says her ancestors were royalty in a small northern kingdom.  I love the small kingdom we create with each other in our intimate rooms or just walking, charged moments that feel so valuable, yet are impossible to explain to someone else.  I saw her in the store, saw her several times in the middle aisles, knew I had to say something.

“I noticed you immediately, thought you were some dark beauty from Calcutta or Bhutan.”

“You saw me several times?  I didn’t notice you.”

“But you smiled at me each time.”

“Everyone smiles at me,” she says brightly.  “And you whites all look the same,” she adds, and I realize she is not joking.

Her white apartment looks the same as the other white apartments, windows set into one wall only, a door on another wall.  I realize both women have apartments built halfway into the ground, a basement on a hill.  Yet they are so different.  Ava’s slim Nordic face pale as a pearl and her eyes large and light, sad and hopeful — and Delia’s dark flashing eyes and flying henna hair and pessimism and anger and haughtiness.  Ava was taller than me, tall as a model.  Delia is shorter; I find this comforting.

I close my eyes expecting to see Ava’s white face, but instead I’m flying again, see the silver freighter’s riveted wall, the first crash, then sideswiped by a Red Planet gypsy hack, a kind of seasickness as the Russian team ran out of racetrack, Russians still alive, but drifting far from the circular station lit up like a chandelier, their saucerful of secrets, drifting away from their cigarettes and bottles, from a woman’s glowing face.  So long!  Poka!  Do svidaniia!

The young woman in Interview Room #2 speaks flatly.

They killed my brother, they will kill me if they want.

We can help you.

She laughs at Horse.  You can’t help me.

Who to believe?  I want to believe her.  She got into a bad crowd, cooking with rubber gloves, the game.  Our worries about cholesterol seem distant and quaint.  She’s not telling us everything, but we can’t hold her.

“I’ve come into some money if you need a loan.  It’s not much.”

Delia raises her dark eyebrows in the Interview Room, as if I am trying to buy her with my paper bag of cash.  Maybe I am trying to buy her.

“And how am I supposed to pay you back?  I have no prospects.”

On her TV the handsome actor standing in for the President tells us we must increase the divorce rate to stimulate the economy.  We need more households, more chickens in the pots.  I am sorry, he says, I have only one wife to give for my country.  We switch to watch Lost in Space re-runs.

At night I ask my newest woman, my proud Cleopatra, “Is there a finite amount of love in the universe?  Or does it expand?”


“Well, I didn’t know you and no love existed, but now I love you, so there is that much more.”

“Say that again,” she asks, looking me in the eye.

I repeat my idea.

“I think you are crazy,” she says.  “Not crazy crazy, but crazy.”

I am full of love, I think, an overflowing well.  Perhaps I supply the universe with my well, perhaps I am important.  Her full hips, the universe expanding, doomed and lovely, my mouth moving everywhere on her form.   The bed is sky-blue and wheat gold.

“How many hands do you have,” she asks with a laugh in the morning, trying to escape the bed, escape my hands: “You’re like a lion!”

She is trying to get up for work.  My first time staying over.  I am out of my head, kiss me darling in bed.  Once more I can live for the moment.  But that will change in a moment.

My ex on earth watches our red moon sink past her city.  The huge glass mall and my ex on an escalator crawl in silver teeth, at times the gears of the earth visible.  We are all connected and yet are unaware.  Does Ava ever think of me when she sees us set sail?  We hang on the red moon, but Ava can’t see us riding past.

“How many girlfriends do you have?” Delia asks, tickling me.  “Many?”

“Just you.  Only you.”

“I don’t believe you.  I know you flyboys.”  She laughs a little at me.

“How about you?” I ask.  A mistake.

She turns serious, conjures a ghost I can never hope to compete with.  “My fiance was killed,” she says quietly.  “He was kidnapped at a protest and they found him in the desert.  His hands were tied with plastic.  My fiance was saving to buy me a house.  My parents told him that I wished to go to school before we married and he didn’t mind.  My parents sold their property for the ransom, but the men killed him regardless.”

I remember my parents’ treed backyard; I tilted the sodden bags of autumn leaves on end and a dark rich tea came pouring out onto the brick patio.  Do the dead watch us?  There were bobcat tracks: it hid under the porch.

Horse says, You know why we’re here?

I watch the boy’s face; he is wondering how much to admit.

Got an idea, he says.

The rash of robberies and bodies dumped in craters and the conduit to the Interview Room and my irradiated bones that have flown through space and now confined in this tiny Interview Room.

You never sell rock?

Like I told you, never.

He’s got a history.

Somebody’s took the wallet before they killed him.

Holy God.  Holy God.  Dead?

The man is dead.  We need the triggerman.

This the t’ing.  I have no friends.  I learned that.

The young man wants to pass on his impressive lesson to the interrogators, but he has misjudged, his tone is all wrong.  He thinks he is good, world-weary, but he hasn’t seen himself on camera, has no distance.  The face and the mind, O the countless cells we represent and shed, the horseshit we try to sling.

Man, they had the guns!  I was concerned with this dude shooting me in the backseat.

Down the road, what will haunt the victorious young tribes?  They’ve heard of it all, but still, nothing prepares you.

You have your ways, Delia says, you can control me.

I wish.  I can manipulate her, get some of her clothes off, but I need her more than she needs me.

She says, I don’t think I can control you.

I can’t tell if she thinks this is good or not.  We spend time together, but I have trouble reading her, can’t tell if she likes me.

Delia is not adjusting well to being here.  She hates the lunar landscape, the pale dust and dark craters past the moon’s strange-ended avenues.  She is weary of the crime, the black sky.

“The weather,” she says, “never a breeze, never normal, either one extreme or another.  Killer heat, fourteen days!  Boil to death!  Or else so cold.  Fourteen days, freeze to death!  Cold then hot, hotthen cold.  And there are no seasons.  At home summer is summer and winter is winter.  Food here has no taste, has no smell.  I hate everything and then I hate myself.  All my life I wanted to meet the man in the moon and now I’m here.”

“You met me.”

“Yes, that’s true.”

I wish she spoke with a bit more enthusiasm on that topic.

She is losing weight since moving to the moon.

This is not acceptable, she says to the waiter. You would not serve me food like this on earth.

But we’re not on earth.  Forget earth.

I’ll make you some of my own, she says to me later.  Which she does, a creamy and delicious mélange at her tiny table in the apartment.

Sunday I bring my bag of illicit cash and we shop for fresh spices.  We hold hands, touching and laughing in the store, fondling eggplants that gleam like dark ceramic lamps.  We are the happy couple you hate, tethered to each other like astronauts.  I am content in a store with her, this is all it takes, this is all we want now, red ruby grapefruit and her hard bricks of Arabic coffee wrapped in gold.

Romance and memories and heartbreak: One war blots out an earlier war, one woman blots out the previous woman’s lost sad image, one hotel room destroys the other, one new ardent airport destroys the one where I used to fly to visit her.  The only way I can get over her.  We are prisoners, me, her, bound to each other like a city to a sea, like a kidnapper to a hostage.

Why did Ava leave me when we got along so well?  It was so good.  I think I lost something human in the blue glow of that last long flight.  Will it keep happening to me?  Now I am afraid. The Russians from Baikonur Cosmodrome never returned, the sky closed over them like a silver curtain, like the wall of a freighter.

They went away and I was inside my damaged capsule, inside my head too much, teeth grinding in ecstasy, quite mad.  They had me on a loop, my destiny not up to me.  We are abandoned and rescued, over and over.  But who are our stewards?

We went backwards to the stars.  For months rumours have suggested NASA is near bankruptcy, bean counters are reorganizing; my pension is in doubt, as is the hardship pay I earned by being out there.  Now we are back to this surface, back to the long runway and smell of burnt brake pads by the marshes and Bikini Atoll.

Me alone in the photograph, the other travelers erased.  Or are they out there still, knowing not to come back?  You can’t go back to the farm once you’ve seen the bright lights, seen inside yourself.

One day I delete Ava’s sad lovely messages.  Why keep such mementos?  You burn this life like an oil lamp.  You make new mementos, wish they could compare.

I remember parking the car by the dam with Ava.  The car was so small we had to keep the doors open as I lay on top of her, but the dome light had no switch.  To keep us in darkness I tried to hold one finger on the button in the door and my other hand on Ava.  That ridiculous night still makes me laugh, but I need to forget it all, to delete every message and moment.

You are unlucky in love, Delia says.  The God is fair and distributes his gifts and clearly you have many talents, but not luck in love.

Is she right?  I had thought the opposite, that I had inexplicably good luck that way, but now I wonder; she does seem to know me better than I do myself.  I was lucky to know Ava, but now my thoughts are distilled: Ava was too tall, too pretty, too kind.

What I thought was good fortune was bad fortune.  Was I bad luck for the Russians?  Did I kill Curtis?  Strangely, I feel lucky to have met her, to have crossed paths in the long florescent aisles of the store.  With my cash from the drive-thru I buy her shoes, an ornate belt, French dresses.  She is very choosy, but I like to buy her things.

In her room when I squeeze her hard she calls me a lion.  Says I will devour her.  I want to devour her, her ample flesh.  My tiger, I call her.  My tiger from the Tigris will turn.  Friday night and we don’t talk, no plans do we make.  I thought that was kind of mandatory.  Are we a couple or not (Is you is or is you ain’t my baby)?  It is odd to not know.

Desire has caused me so much trouble in my life, but I miss it when it is not around.  Living without desire – what is the point of life without desire?

Perhaps that is a question an addict would ask.

Perhaps I am not unlike that French youth – you must have read of his sad sad plight – rejected by a circus girl with whom he was in love.  A circus girl!  I love it.  The poor French youth committed suicide by locking himself in the lions’ cage.

I was locked in a cage, tied in a chair, in a capsule’s burning skin, hairline cracks like my mother’s teacup.  A rocket standing in a pink cloud and I am sent, her pink clitoris and I am sent, 3,2,1, we have ignition, my missions hastily assembled, mixed up, my mixed feelings as I move, my performance in the radiation and redshift.  The officials and women are telling their truth about me.  I was thrown like an axe through their stars.  I was tied in a chair, a desert, waiting.  When the engines power up – what a climb, what a feeling!  And who is that third who hovers always beside you, someone near us?  When I count there are only you and I together – but who is that on the other side?  1,2,3.  3,2,1.

Why can’t Delia say something passionate to erase my nervousness?  I have to live through someone else.  Why can’t I be aloof, not care.  I used to be very good at not caring.  But when Delia hates the moon I feel she hates me, when she says she has no money and that the moon is dirty!, too hot!, too cold!, then I feel I’ve failed her with my moon.

Why does she not say, Come to me my lion, my lost astronaut, I love you more than life itself, my love for you is vaster than the reaches of the infinitely expanding universe, oh I love you so much, so very much.  But no one says this.  Her expanding clitoris under my thumb.  She is calm, she is not passionate.  But she is there, I’m happy when she is near.  After my trip I crave contact.

I am being straight with you, swear to God.  I had a couple of ounces.  He was on me – it was self defence.

Did he have a weapon, Delia asks.  How can it be self defence if he didn’t have a weapon?

Friends we question say the dead man was always joking, always had a smile.

We were sitting there, the kid says.  The gun went off, the kid says, and he fell out.

It went off.  Delia tells me they always word it in this passive way, as if no one is involved and, in a kind of magic, the gun acts on its own.

Government people contact Delia.  Don’t be afraid, the government people say to Delia, which makes her afraid.  They visit her at her apartment, claim they are concerned that a faction in the war at home may try to harm her here.

Has anyone approached her?

No, she says.  No one from home.

Has she heard from her uncle in Vietnam? they wonder.  Is he coming here?

They were very nice, she tells me, they bought me lunch.

I look at the white business card they gave her; it has a phone number and nothing else.  My hunch is that they are Intelligence rather than Immigration.  She asks questions for a living and now she is questioned by people who ask questions for a living.  Now I worry we are watched, wired, wonder if they hear me massage Delia’s shoulders and her back and below her track pants and underwear, if they hear us joke of lions and tigers.

In the interview room: He owed me money so I hit him with a hammer.  He was breathing like this, uh uh uh.

A day here is so long.  At Ava’s former apartment building I pick up my old teapot, books, and an end table from the landlord’s storage room.  The aged landlord’s stalled fashions, his fused backbone.

“Young man, can you help me with the Christmas tree?”

Of course.  I like to help.  He was one of the first here.

“The moon used to be all right,” he says.  “Now it’s all gone to hell.”

He gives me a huge apple pie from the church bake sale.  They attend church religiously, they’ll be in the heavens soon.

And poor Mister Weenie the tenant evicted from his apartment down a red hall.

What was his life like, I wonder, with a name like Weenie?

Horse laughs when I tell them, but Delia doesn’t get the humour.

Now it’s on the books as The Crown versus Weenie. How he yelled in a red hall.

“I belong in there!” he hollered, pounding at the door closed to him.  “I belong in there!”

Mister Weenie pounds at doors that once opened for him, and I wonder where we belong and who do we belong with.  In times of great stress, says science, the right brain takes over like a god and the left brain sees a god, sees a helpful companion along for the ride, an extra in the party.  Does Mister Weenie see a helpful companion?

My ex quit her job to move to Spain.  Ava has always loved the sun, the heat in Spain, the food, the language, the light.  On a weather map I see that Spain has a cold snap and I am happy, as I know Ava hates the cold.  I want her to be cold and miserable without me.  I am not proud of this part of me.

Delia reads from a childhood textbook that she found in Ava’s belongings: “Our rocket explorers will be very glad to set their feet on earth again where they don’t boil in the day and freeze at night.  Our explorers will say they found the sky inky black even in the daytime and they will tell us about the weird, oppressive stillness.”

“It’s not so bad,” I say.  “The stillness.”

“It isn’t at all beautiful like our earth,” she reads.  “It is deadly dull, hardly anything happens on the moon, nothing changes, it is as dead as any world can be.  The moon is burned out, done for.”

Delia endured a dirty war so I admire her greatly. She gets depressed, refuses to leave her room.  Where can she turn?  Her Babylon is gone, the happy place of her childhood no longer exists, friends dead or in exile or bankrupt or insane.

My dark-eyed Babylonian love, my sometimes-passionate Persian – where will she move to when she leaves me?

Out the window are astral cars and shooting stars.  Where do they race to?  I know.  I’ve been out there, nearer my god to thee, past the empty condo units, the Woodlands Nonprofit Centre for New Yearning, the Rotary Home for Blind Chicken-Licken Drivers (hey, good name for a band), the Rosenblum Retirement Home (Low Prices and Low Gravity for Your Aching Joints).

My happiest moments with my mouth just below her ample belly, I forget about outer space, her legs muffling my ears, a gourmand of her big thighs, her round hips, surrounded, grounded by her flesh; I have never liked flesh so much as with her.  The world only her in those charged moments, my brainstem and cortex and molecules’ murky motives driven by her and into her.  The devil owns me.  No devil owns me.

The valves on my heart are wide open.  I have no defences, sometimes I am overflowing with affection – and I have found this is a distinct disadvantage when dealing with others.  I never want this to end; so what do you suppose will happen?

The crowd pays good money to file into the old NASA Redstone Arena, into the band’s aural, post-industrial acres of feedback and reverb.  The band used to be someone, now they play the outposts.  We are happy to see them here.

The woman singer moans, Don’t you dog your woman, spotlights pin-wheeling in the guitarist’s reflector sunglasses.  She sings, I pity the poor immigrant.

We will remember, we will buy t shirts, souvenirs, get drunk, hold hands on the moon.  We will remember.

Later the ambulance enters the moonbase arena, amazed in pain and confusion.

The white ambulance takes away one body from us so that we can see and not see.  Carbons linger like a love song for all the coroners in the universe.  One casualty is not too bad.  Usually there are more.  An OD, too much of some new opiate, some cousin of morphine, too much of nothing.  You pay your money and you take your chances.

Who calls us?  The ambulance tolls for someone else.  Who owns the night, owns the night music of quiet tape hiss and music of quiet riches and debts in messages and missives from the crooners and coroners and distant stars?  I have learned in my travels that the circus girls own the night, and the Warriors and Ghosts and Scorpions run the corner.  They have the right messages.

And come Monday or Tuesday the interview room still waits for us, will open again its black hole, its modest grouping of table and walls and the one door.  But Delia books off work: the war, the government people, the questions.

Say that one more time?

Who do you think did this?


Dronyk says you did it.

Who’s bringing it in?

Who.  That’s a good one.  Who isn’t!  Man, who’s bringing it in.  Can I have a smoke?

The room – it’s like a spaceship for penitents; we climb in and explore a new universe, their universe.  Fingers to keyboard: does he show up on the screen?  A hit, a veritable hit, he’s in the system, the solar system.

I don’t want her to worry, but I want to know that she knows.

“Those government people asking you questions; they may not be who they say.”

“I know that,” she says.  “I wonder if they are watching us now?”

We watch Delia’s TV.  In the upscale hotel room the actor states to the reporter, Friend, for this role I had to go to some very dark places.  He was gone for a while, celluloid career gone south, the actor is hoping for an award for this project, a comeback in the movies.

Gone?  I’ll tell him about being gone.  I went up past the elms and wires, past the air, past the planets.  Where did he go?  A piano bar, a shooting gallery in the Valley, a dive motel in the wilds of Hollywood?  The actor went nowhere.

When you return to a place that is not your home, is it then your home?  I insist she go out with me and then I fall into a fight on Buckbee Street in the fake Irish bar (yes, fake Irish pubs are everywhere).

“Hey, look who crashed the party.  It’s that rug-rider cunt who sent me to jail.”  The slurring voice in the corner, a young man from the interview room.

The brief noise of his nose as I hit him and he folds.  Granted, it was a bit of sucker punch.  Why oh why didn’t I sprint out of the fake Irish pub at that point?  I stuck around to find myself charged with assault.  Aren’t you allowed one complimentary punch at Happy Hour?

Now it’s my turn to be asked the questions in Interview room #2.  I’ve been here before, know the drill, I know to stonewall, to lawyer up.

What the hell were you doing?

Wish I could help you, Horse.  Really do.  Beer later?  Chops on the grill?

Mine may be the shortest interview on record.

Delia says to me, Stand against that wall.  Face forward.

The camera flashes in my eyes.

Now please face that wall.  The camera flashes.

After the fight in the fake Irish bar Delia gets depressed and doesn’t want to see me for a week, lunar weeks, it drags on, which gets me depressed that she is depressed in her subterranean room andwon’t let me even try to cheer her up, have a laugh.

“No, I’m in a hopeless situation,” she says on the phone.  “I don’t want a temporary solution.”

“Everything is temporary.”

“That is true,” she admits.  “Everything is temporary.”

But, I wonder, what of Curtis?  Gone, permanent.  Ava?  Gone.  Is that permanent too?  I feel myself falling from the heavens.

“Are you hungry?  Let’s go out,” I beg.

“There’s nowhere to go here.  I’ve told you, I don’t want temporary solutions.”

“Can I come over?”

“I’m tired of questions.  No more questions.”

The other astronaut, Curtis – I wonder if I’ll ever know for sure whether it was a malfunction or suicide.  Curtis might have tinkered with his air and made it look like an accident, a design flaw, or his air went and it was horrible.  I often wonder where I’d like to be buried; perhaps he wanted to die out there.  Flight Centre instructed me to tether him outside to the solar array until just before we got back; didn’t want him stuck out there burning up when we made our grand entrance.  Maybe Curtis wanted to burn up, the first outer space cremation.  It’s almost poetic, but the Flight Centre would not see it as good PR.

You know who strangled the old man?  You know who did it?  A fuckin stupid crackhead!

He is pointing at himself and in tears.  It’s Ava’s landlord who is dead.

I fouled up good, says the aged addict.  Using that stuff wore me slap out.

His craggy face.  He is sincere, his hard lesson.  But he is somehow alive.  His prints don’t match his face, but I can read his mind.  By the power invested in me.  He is thinking like a cheerleader, he is thinking, I must look into the future.

Yes, I tell myself, I too must remember there is a larger world out there, a future.  I too must think like a cheerleader.

“This has worked a few times,” my lawyer says before we file into the courtroom.  “You guys are the same build. Both of you put on these glasses and sit side by side.”

The judge asks the victim, “Do you see him in the courtroom?”

“He bumped my table, he spilled my drink and then it all went dark.  I had a bad cut over my eye.  I couldn’t see nothing.  Dude was on top of me wailing all over me, and it went dark.”

Wailing?  I hit him once and he dropped.

“So you can’t point out the assailant?”

“Hell if I know.”

His girlfriend takes the stand, says, “It might be one of them over there.  I thought he was going to kill him, beating him and beating him.  I remember the third guy, that tall white-haired feller.”

They cannot ID me.  The judge throws out the case, my lawyer makes his money, the truth sets you free.

After my lawyer takes his cut I still have $3000 of the $6000 cash in the paper bag.  She’s so sad.  Delia saved me, but can she save herself?  Delia believes that her God takes care of her.  I guess I don’t need to buy a bar in Nebraska.  With my cash I buy her a ticket back home to the Hanging Gardens, a visit, but I suspect she’ll stay there or land a more lucrative job in Dubai and never return from the sky.

You are nice, she says.

Because I like you.  I like you a lot.

Thank you, she says.

She never says, I like you.  Just, Thank you.

The Interview Room is never lonely for long.  Who did it?  Why?  Someone always wants to know.  We come and go like meteors, Horse at his desk staring.

That’s the one was running.

Did you see the shooter?  Did you see?

I ran off, I didn’t see anything.

No one sees anything.

Why did she leave when I was almost there?  Who shot him?  Who was the third guy?  Don’t know a name.  I ran.  Give me your money, I heard him say, then Pop pop pop!  Man I was gone.  No need for it to go that way.  I don’t want to do nothing with nothing like that.  Maybe Eliot did it.

This is good, this is rich: a collection agency calls my voicemail using a blocked number.  The young hireling tries to be intimidating.  It may be the loansharks or skip tracers or maybe the poor Burger King clerk at the drive-thru wants his paper bag back.

“Reply to this call is mandatory,” the dork voice speaks gravely on my voicemail.  “Govern yourself accordingly,” he says, obviously proud of this final line.

Govern myself?  I love that, I enjoy that line immensely, much the way the roused lions enjoyed the French youth’s heartbreak as he walked in their cage, as he locked himself in their interviewroom.  You sense someone else with you, you’ll never walk alone, and the empty sky is never empty, it’s full of teeth.

Maybe I’ll re-up, sign on for another December flight, collect some more hazard pay, get away from everyone, from their white apartments and blue eyes and dark eyes.  Be aloof, a change of scene; maybe that will alter my luck.  I’ll cruise the moons of Jupiter or Titan’s lakes of methane, see if I can see what’s killing the others.  Once more I renounce worry!  And once more that notion will last about three seconds.

One Sunday Delia phoned at midnight, barely able to speak.

What?  I can’t hear.  Who is this?

A delay and then her accented Arabic whisper: I have headache.

I rushed over with medicine for her migraines and some groceries, sped past the walled plains and trashed plasma reactors in the Petavius crater.  I was happy to rush to her at midnight, happy that she needed me to close the distance.

In her room I saw that she had taped black garbage bags to the windows to keep light from her eyes, her tortured head.  I unpacked figs and bananas and spinach as she hurriedly cracked open painkillers.

“Thank you for this,” Delia murmured quietly with her head down, eyes hidden from me.  “I know I bother you, but this is hard pain.  Every day I will pray for you.  Every day I pray the God will give you the heaven.”

—Mark Anthony Jarman


Jun 122010



Here is a story by my friend Michael Bryson from his 2010 collection How Many Girlfriends. For several years Michael published a terrific online magazine in Toronto called The Danforth Review, which is sadly defunct although the pages now reside in the Library and Archives Canada and can still be accessed there. This was before online magazines had much legitimacy; Michael was ahead of his time, and his magazine was a useful lens on what was new and coming in the Canadian literary world while it lasted. He also writes. I put one of his stories in Best Canadian Stories (2005). And he publishes a blog called Underground Book Club.


When I was sixteen, a man spoke to my parents. A week later, he bought me a new set of clothes and I flew with him to California. His name (and I’m not making this up) was Sly. Maybe my story starts with the arrival of Sly. My parents will tell you straight out he’s an evil bastard, which is true enough, but Sly’s character was nothing if not Byzantine. He looked a bit like Santa Claus, an fact he exploited with the young and the old. It took me a long time to see the bits of him that I can claim to know, because for a long time I couldn’t see over his wake. I would look at him and see just the crest of his wave. He was my substitute father, my mentor, my guide in the world of glitter he had brought me to, and I was his servant. I was his paycheque, too, but it took me a long time to figure that out. I’m trying hard not to cloud my judgement about Sly here. I’m trying to tell you things that are simple and real. I would like to say things about Sly that even Sly would agree with, if he were here to agree with them, which he isn’t, since he’s dead.

Maybe that’s where we should start.IMG_0220

It was a dark and stormy night in New Hampshire (I’m not making this up). I was in L.A. with Lily (more on her later). Sly was in New Hampshire. I was trying desperately to get him on the phone. In recent days, we had argued. I had been in a professional slump. At the time, I blamed Sly. “Patience,” he counseled. In my condo on the outskirts of the city, Lily laid out the last of our drugs. It was approaching nightfall. Lily was still wearing her bathrobe. Beneath her robe she wore only her bikini bra. She was seventeen. I was twenty-one.

“Sly, you fucker!” I screamed into the phone. I kept getting his answering machine. He had gone to New Hampshire to meet a new client. A potential new client, anyway. I was afraid that I would lose his attention. Before he had left for the East Coast, he had been reassuring.

“I have a script on my desk right now. It’s perfect for you. The producers want you. It’s a role that could really make you.”

“Well, shit! Send it over!”

“When I get back,” he promised.

The circus was his favorite metaphor. “Life’s the Big Top, kid,” he would say. “Don’t ever forget that.”

After he died, I kept hearing his voice over and over. “Life’s the Big Top, kid. The Big Top, kid. Don’t ever forget that.”

Let me tell you one thing clear and true: I haven’t forgotten that. Life is a carnival. The carnival is the centre and source of all life. Sly taught me that, and now I’m telling it to you.

Continue reading »

Jun 112010
David Homel

David Homel on location on a film shoot in the Dominican Republic, on the Puerto Plata-Sosúa road. Photo courtesy of the National Film Board of Canada.

Here’s an excerpt from a forthcoming novel by my friend David Homel who, not coincidentally, is going to be the visiting translator at the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Writing winter residency (January, 2011). Go to his reading, walk up and say hello, give him the secret Numéro Cinq handshake, whisper the Words of Power. David is a novelist, translator, and screenwriter. He has won the Governor-General’s Award for Translation, not once but twice. His novel  The Speaking Cure won the Hugh McLennan Prize. Last year David and his wife, children’s book author Marie-Louise Gay, co-authored a picture book entitled Travels with my Family.

The Midway is due to be published by Cormorant Books in Toronto in September.

Excerpted from Midway

Author’s note: In this excerpt, the novel’s hero Ben Allan confronts the heart of the male mid-life crisis which manifests itself to him as the fear of death and a desire to destroy everything his life is built on. The real problem, Ben is discovering, is with death itself: it refuses to let itself be known, even after it has visited. Ben has two allies in his attempt to work out a new way of living with his wife. Unlikely allies, it’s true: a couple of plastic dinosaurs. They prove to be pretty good therapists.

“I’m afraid I’m turning into a cliché,” the stegosaurus lamented to the tyrannosaurus. “You know, the one with the discontent middle-age male. The mid-life crisis from which there is no escape. The red convertible and the blond girl with the wind in her hair.”

“Sounds delicious. But don’t worry about being a cliché: there are no new emotions,” the tyrannosaurus answered in his pontificating manner. “The genius is in how you experience them.”

“And I am experiencing them,” the stegosaurus said ruefully. “Human, all too human.”

“Are you complaining by any chance?” the tyrannosaurus asked. “Night after domestic night, isn’t that what you wanted? What you pined for, like in one of those sentimental ballads you liked to listen to when you were a teenager and that formed – deformed is more like it – your emotional universe to this very day? And now that you have a few of those wild, inconvenient emotions you once craved, you hesitate. You retreat. You are becoming human. Careful what you pray for – you just might get it.”

“I was hoping for more empathy from you,” the stegosaurus said. But even in the lower forms of vertebrate life, among the prehistoric, the extinct, empathy was hard to come by.

The tyrannosaurus snorted. “You know my nature. It’s a world I never made.”

Typical, the steg thought to himself, for his brother reptile to quote James T. Farrell, the pugnacious pride of Chicago, that tough-guy writer whom he personally considered one-dimensional. But he kept that thought to himself. He had been drinking, albeit modestly, but he didn’t trust his own thoughts after two glasses of wine. Unlike the tyranno, he was an inexperienced drinker. The stuff went to his head, and sometimes he couldn’t tell which thoughts were his, and which belonged to the wine. The effect wasn’t very pleasant.

Both dinosaurs had been drinking, though they were still within the domain of “moderate.” You couldn’t call them “social” drinkers, since their society had long since disappeared. They were just a couple of lonely guys, up late at night, egging each other on, a meditation for two, spoken out loud. They were lonesome monsters, and they knew it.

The steg was a worn green color, like the copper roof of some university pavilion in an Ivy League school. He carried his characteristic bony plates of defense on his back as if they were a burden, which they had become, now that his place in the world was assured. The tyrannosaurus had no other defense than his famous teeth and nails, powered by an aggressiveness that even scared him if he bothered to consider it. He was earth-brown, but his drab color made absolutely no difference to him. They were both banged up from a lifetime of play: the stegosaurus was missing a horn, and his companion had his tail twisted up at a jaunty angle that seemed out of character for this most fearsome of predators.

Continue reading »

Jun 102010

9.  Pronouns Without Antecedents Are Abstractions.

I’m going to share with NC the opening of the first story I submitted to Doug this semester.  This paragraph was not one of my finer moments as a student, but it nicely illustrates the way pronouns can muddle clarity and muck up a story.

We don’t like the sun, his eyes say when they speak.  They tell him they want darkness, rest and a release from the prison of sight.  It’s a tiresome, thankless job, they say, this constant work.”

The paragraph contains thirty-six words and nine pronouns.  Nine!  Fully one quarter of the paragraph is made up of pronouns, most without antecedents.  (Not to mention speaking eyes and italicized eye-speech.  What can I say?  I had just moved back from Spain and the reverse culture shock was brutal.)  I was not trying to be intentionally abstract and confusing.  If I’m honest, I was trying to sound interesting, mysterious, perhaps a little vague, but my exuberant use of pronouns severed the paragraph’s clarity lines, unmooring the writing into a sea of vagueness.  Using pronouns made sense initially, but toward what end?  By keeping proper names out and using pronouns, I created a false intimacy with the reader.  The intimacy created with this paragraph was unearned.  The slight benefit of being abstract (by using pronouns) rendered only confusion, frustration and fuzzy logic.  I’ve seen it done well in stories and novels before, but I wasn’t pulling it off.  Instead, I had created an incoherent mess!

I quickly learned from this experience (and the accompanying packet letter which scorched my hands) that a pronoun without an antecedent is an abstraction.   Doug wrote the following: “Pronouns are abstractions, they refer to other words, they are not concrete and easily identifiable.”  (Then the shredding began in earnest! )

I’d never really thought about pronouns as abstractions before.  I used them willy-nilly, inserting pronouns freely and effortlessly as I wrote, not recognizing that my use of pronouns created a swirling ball of confusion.  The reasons now seem obvious:  As I wrote, I understood implicitly what each pronoun referred to.  I knew ‘him’ referred to a character, and ‘they’ referred to a voice inside this character’s head.  But a reader would not understand the missing antecedents, and would quickly tire of the confusion.  Did I say nine pronouns?

Theodore A. Rees Cheney, in his wonderful little craft book, Getting the Words Right, addresses the issues of pronoun ambiguity.  “Pronouns make speech clearer by serving as a shortened reference to something previously mentioned.”   Cheney continues:

For pronouns to do their job, it must be clear what they refer back to.  We are much more tolerant of poor referencing in conversation than in writing because in conversation we receive other clues (sometimes subliminally) to the antecedent.  However, if a reader is forced to guess at an antecedent, there’s a better than even chance he’ll guess incorrectly.  A careful writer does not want his reader confused, even momentarily, so he watches his pronouns as carefully as he does his briefcase in a restaurant.

Doug relentlessly stalked my stories for pronouns without antecedents.  I often revised sentences with the sole intent of taking out as many pronouns as I could.  Clarity, again.  (See #10.) Pronoun use often simplified my sentences at the expense of clarity.

Up Next: #8: My Dirty Little Secret: Grammar Issues.

-Rich Farrell

Jun 082010
Canadian Icons?

Where’s Paris H?

What follows are informal thoughts on the top-ten things I learned this semester.  Caveat 1: I learned way more than ten things.  (At least eleven or twelve.)  I’m setting out to reveal the 10 most consistent mistakes I made and looking at a few outside sources to help clarify my explanation.  I hope that the NC moderator (and my former advisor) will feel free to comment, correct or criticize any of the entries for future students.  (I’m also sure that future students will be better-versed in these things, and less likely to make the same mistakes I did.)  Caveat 2:  I didn’t come from a literary background, so please don’t laugh too much if some of these seem woefully obvious.

All of these were consistently repeated problems for me this semester.  One would think, at my age, that I could have corrected them more quickly.  (Something about an old dog and new tricks.  Or is it a blue dog and old ticks?…no matter.)   Many of these kept reappearing, packet after packet.  Alas, after much navel gazing and mental anguish, I have compiled a top ten list.

I will update the post as often as I can before departing for Slovenia.  (In just over 2 weeks.)

10.  Use attributed dialogue.

Doug beat this point into me again and again.  He reminded me to consistently attribute my dialogue with specific tags.  (He said, she said, etc.)  I knew enough to avoid saying things like “He gasped,” or “She said sourly.”  Dialogue should carry the tonality of what’s being spoken.  But this idea of attribution was new to me, and Doug  seethed over unattributed dialogue, which occurred in almost all of my  stories.  He referred to it as a “disembodied voice.”  I had never been told to be so clear and consistent before, nor had I been so aware of how unattributed dialogue quickly creates abstraction and confusion for the reader.

Janet Burroway, in Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, puts it this way:

“The format and style of dialogue, like punctuation, has as its goal to be invisible; and though there may be occasions when departing from the rules is justified by some special effect, it’s best to consider such occasions rare.”  (135)

Burroway says keep it simple and, above all, clear, so the reader knows who is speaking at all times.  Creating confusion usually serves no purpose.  Burroway does say that if it’s clear who’s speaking, don’t use a dialogue tag.  I recall Doug telling me (and please correct me if I’m wrong) that Gordon Lish once told him to use attributed tags on nearly each spoken line.  Clearly, a consistent approach helps.  I think of hearing stories read aloud, and how attributed dialogue helps clarify speech immensely when listening to it.  But even on the page, I’ve certainly read a number of stories and novels where I literally have to go back and re-count lines of dialogue to figure out who’s speaking.

Burroway makes another interesting point: that dialogue tags should come in the middle of a spoken line, rather than at the beginning.  Again, the impact of calling too much attention to something supposed to be invisible dictates this choice.  For example, it should NOT be:

Doug said, “Rich, how could you be so stupid?”

It should be:

“Rich,” Doug said, “how could you be so stupid?”

The second example keeps the reader’s focus on Rich’s stupidity, and not on Doug’s voice.

If there was one, overarching message this semester,  it was the importance of being clear.  Clarity in writing only helps the story get told.  Using disembodied voices and inconsistent dialogue tags leads to reader confusion and abstraction.  As ponderous as it felt at times, writing the tags over and over, it certainly did clarify my speaking scenes.

See #9.

See #8.

See #7.

See #6.

See #5.

See #4.

See #3.

See #2.

See #1.

And recap.

–Rich Farrell

Jun 062010

Bruce StoneBruce Stone


Remind me again of the advantages of living?” This I say to my girlfriend Svetlana, who pretends not to hear me at all. She’s far too preoccupied with the task, quite literally, at hand: namely, to bring to some sort of acceptable conclusion the handjob that began under the usual hurried circumstances, in the hall, outside my apartment door. I waited silently, burdened, for Svetlana to work the deadbolt, bracing the trusses of my arms against the groceries, their novel heft, their alien aura, bulging implausibly in polyethylene bags. They swayed and listed above the hardwood like twin worlds, grotesque, misshapen, stalled in a zone of veering space into which, shortly, Svetlana would deposit the keys, my keys, with a noise like breaking glass. As she bent to retrieve them, her shirt ascended and exposed to the air that little sacred band of flesh above her transparent linen pants (she goes around with her ass more or less wrapped in cheesecloth), and then the bags crashed to the floor, ejecting each one of their itemized contents, and I was clawing freely at her shirt.

We negotiated, somehow, the debris field-a shuffling, sloughing dance over tuna cans, yellow onion, solitary units of Jolly Good cream soda, a razor-sharp pineapple with negligible rind-rot-and maneuvered inside where those preliminaries graded into an hour of ineffective coitus on the living room floor (Svetlana’s face gradually taking on that cast of expressive accusation), which then lasted through dinner (I thought she almost had me when she brought out the colander), one and a half games of postprandial chess (I am a sore loser), and the phone call from the unemployment adjudicator who dispassionately informed me that my benefits are running out.

Now it seems we have come full circle.

Anyway, to my knowledge, she doesn’t speak a word of English.

She’s in a crouch, Svetlana, by the lower kitchen cabinets, directing the business end of my flexed equipment toward a saucepan. She does not perform fellatio, and I can’t blame her. From time to time she looks up at me, her face miming what she’s unable to say: “When it finally goes, look out!”

According to Dorland’s Medical Dictionary, I have a condition known as priapism, which, I must admit, has a certain old-Greek venerability to it, a bracing air of Trojan grandeur. But sadly, these heroic connotations bear little relation to the sordid facts of the case, the light of which compels me to refer to this predicament for what it really is: i.e., functional impotence. To all outward appearances, the equipment mostly works. I am erect almost constantly. And I go around dragging this piece of lumber, torquing it out of the way (I’m not a maniac) with the waistband of my boxer briefs-the type of undergarment I prefer because, I don’t know, despite everything they still make me feel athletic and capable. As I say, the equipment mostly works, excepting the gonads, of course, which Svetlana now hefts on her outstretched fingers, eyeing them sadly. No, those gonads are without question on the fritz: swollen, unresponsive, definitely not trucking their weight at all.

Svetlana is a good kid. When I met her, that’s the first thing I thought, and how could I not? Look at that face, pale, long-suffering, chinless, with here and there the inflamed corona of a pimple. What I see in her is complicated: she reminds me daily of that capacity exclusive to Slavic peoples for, shall we say, aesthetic forthrightness, a point impressed upon me a long time ago when I visited a rundown cathedral in an obscure corner of Prague. High on the wall, grainy, light-starved, above a bank of pews gnawed into ruin by devout parish rodents, a muscle-bound Christ was pinned isometrically to the Cross, His face grim, sightless and furrowed as an Easter-Island monolith, a sturdy bolt bisecting each gnarled wrist. Those muscles might have been a put-on, but that wrist business, from a procedural point of view, was pure honesty. Svetlana, perhaps through her very speechlessness, helps me to see things more clearly, perhaps to see things as they really are. With Svetlana, I think, I have become a tourist in my own home.

I do not say this to her, though I might. Her eyes prevent me. She has absolutely nothing going on in the eyes. It occurs to me that those eyes of hers, under the high forehead and the wounded line of bangs (she sheared them herself, in my bathroom, with shaking hand), beneath such tender agonies, the eyes and their wreaths of lashes have the look of blighted forget-me-nots, blackened, irretrievable. I gesture for her to stop, which she does, and when she rises, there’s a pop from her overstressed knees that says pretty much all there is to say. We look over the kitchen-a wreck of Etruscan implements and tomato-paste carnage-she adjusts the binding of her cornsilk ponytail and then saunters, nude, to the sofa where she raises one giraffe-leg and eases over the back, piling into the cushions. She waits, oblivious now to my presence, for the disk to load: I have a PlayStation. Svetlana has discovered a passion for the kart-game Crash Bandicoot. That’s imprecise. Svetlana has transferred a peculiarly Slavic hopeless fixation onto the kart-game Crash Bandicoot. Gravely, without irony, she adopts the guise of her favored avatar, the title character: a psychotic marsupial at the wheel of a souped-up go-kart, bound to race to the death a band of likewise mutant critters across a baroque steampunk landscape. Silently, unblinking, she imbibes the scene, a wash of tailpipe exhaust, the lurid geography (pixelated sand, mud, beached galleons) of the track. I hear her engine throttle, followed almost immediately by a cataclysmic crash. Her ponytail doesn’t flinch.

Sometimes I think this technology is the sole basis for our relationship. There are probably worse arrangements.


Living is a habit I have lost, I think, as I cross from the alley shadows into the streetlight glare of Third Avenue. Lampposts, really. Black fluted steel with dual bulbs hanging, a concession to nostalgia, harkening to quainter times as you might expect from a tourist hub. They throw a hell of a lot of light.

The street is active, even at this hour, when most of the shops have closed. But the lights are there, as is the canned music from the place that sells Irish things at a nice margin, and I think, not for the first time, that none of this has anything to do with me. The stragglers come on, with a fluorescent shimmer to their gear, immoderately peeping into storefronts for hypothetical souvenirs: the chance to see themselves reflected among the wares and experience, momentarily, grace. Tonight, it seems all the leggy daughters in their high-cut tennis shorts have been secreted away (I imagine cloistered wings of inaccessible resort facilities where machines shit ice incessantly), so around the sated passers there is an absence of gamboling and only the laundered air is on hand to frisk the shirttails and purse straps, the T-Mobile pouches and rigged-out cargo shorts, the sundry frayed edges of the blessed. At the fire station, the garage door stands open and the guys in their blue jumpsuits are fussing over one of the vehicles, an open-faced rig that could pass for a UPS truck except for the blaze-red paint and the gold-embossed letters that read, in honor of our fair city, SBFD. Above the left front tire there is a conspicuous ding, a hull fracture, really, which I take to be a succinct and pithy reminder of the inattentive driving habits of civil servants.

I thought a walk might help to calm me, but I don’t have the heart for it, not now, so I get no farther than the corner where the town’s only hansom cab (itself a remarkable fact) is stalled in a halogen pool near the stop sign: Eddie at altitude in the cabman’s box, portly and immovable under a black Stetson, presently neglecting the knotted reins to keep company with his folded newspaper.

I worry about Eddie. His ostensible purpose is to capitalize on the season, yet here he sits, on an eligible night, idle. For some reason he is giving me the finger; otherwise, he does not condescend to notice me.

This is the problem, I think, stepping into the gutter across from the BP and the medieval spikes of its lurid green sun, where a lone sedan quietly gorges. The oasis around the pumps is lit up like a reasonable affront to heaven, and still, out over the canal, above the bent girders of the old bridge, all the stars are burning, furious, ridiculously near. I have never gone in for stargazing, which, judging from the blunted glances of the pedestrians, isn’t so much gazing as it is a kind of celestial rubbernecking, an obligatory inspection of local ruins. I took my degree in finance, and am after all a man of commerce, a bottom-liner, and, when it comes right down to it, in my own way, a cheat. But I have what is known as a literary mind, and so it is to be expected that I would resent the inflated reverence commonly afforded to those moronic constellations, their sentimental mythologies and two-dimensional imprecision: their legacy, as I see it, is played out. I want to know that there’s a broader view. If there are apprehensible shapes in the cosmos, I want to feel that their complexity is somehow adequate to this tortured existence, this interminable straining at the yoke, this endless peering through blinders. In short, I want a more expansive consciousness so that I might better understand what I am, I think, already closing in on Eddie’s horse, whose name I never bothered to learn, who any minute now will blast the street with a searing bolt of piss-I have a sense for these things. Eddie thumps his paper irritably, but doesn’t say a word, not even when I lean forward, really feeling like weeping, and take the bit in my hands where it protrudes on either side from Moe’s gums (I call him Moe). The bit is understandably moist. Moe smells of baked mud and scabs. I lower myself in, enfolding and even cradling with my abdomen that length of aggravated cartilage, that blunt piton of thwarted virility, until at last we are brow to muzzle. I feel his coarse hairs on my skin, his wheezing through dilated nostrils, the disconcerted gaze of his runny brown eyes. There is no reassurance whatsoever. It occurs to me that, in human terms, what I am looking for is a plot.

The pain, when Moe nips, is stunning, such that I totter backward and drop onto the sidewalk to get my bearings on the impressive magnitude of this sensation. It is a pain not of the skin, but something deeper, an aching in the bone, which feels bludgeoned, throbbing from the core outward. This has my attention. I would like to tell someone.

Eddie is laughing his ass off, but he never puts down his newspaper.

The firemen have lighted cigarettes on the far side of their machine. I see the smoke rising.

When I get back to the apartment, Svetlana and the PlayStation are gone.

But she’s done this before.


“The advantages? Of living?” I say aloud simply because I can. I have retreated to this burrow, beneath the bench, on the third floor of the Fairfield Gallery, and per usual there’s no one else around. Up here they have some of the higher-end merchandise-a few of Giacometti’s striding stickmen, a stilted Modigliani, a Fauvist something or other. Across from me on the wall, there’s an uncharacteristic Magritte, having nothing to do with the bowler-hatted stuffiness of say The Menaced Assassin: something busier, nearly Cubist, a fevered collage reeking of consumerism, with one of those nifty Belgique titles like What the fuck are you looking at?

I grimace now in earnest.

Speaking objectively, every moment is for me a more or less harrowing experience.

I have decided to find employment, and arriving at this momentous decision was itself enough to get me through yesterday-I felt quiescent and resolute-so much so that today, just after lunch and a series of convoluted reflections-I was loitering by the canal, killing time before my rendezvous with the kid at the library-I double-checked the stays on that material nuisance below-decks and ventured into Castle Cove, a recently erected eyesore of sand-colored stone that towers over the timid and, in certain lights, maidenly waters of the harbor. I made a note to admire the facility’s stone battlements, suavely crossed its redundant moat. Inside, among the steamy fumes emanating from its banquet halls, I could distinguish the smells of cabbage and upholstery, or Svetlana emerging from a hard-water shower, toweling her tangled hair. A bartender directed me to the administrative offices on the second floor, where I introduced myself to the appropriate party (whom, I can honestly say, I’d never met before), allowed him to ravage my wounded hand in his grip. My good humor, my chummy grin, never creased. I had on my clean shirt and best sandals. But the whole time I had the feeling that all of this was inconsequential, as if I were on an errand in the subtext of a novel, one of those throwaway characters who has nothing whatsoever to contribute but who nevertheless goes on existing in a peripheral and stunted capacity. For some reason, I had particularly in mind the guy who rents the bicycles in Robbes-Grillet’s The Voyeur (a singularly disappointing work), his role of meaningless facilitation, after which he lapses once more into that unfinished layer of creation where everyone is a tourist against his will and the only common currency is loss. This is what I was thinking in the margins of our chitchat, and I recall nodding sagely as the appropriate party regretted to inform me…. Or words to that effect.

We were on the tail end of a more or less amicable farewell in the hallway when a woman in a beige housekeeping get-up swept past us, pushing a facilities cart in the direction of the elevator. She beamed, as she passed, with the languid self-assurance of her sub-tropical ancestors, turned her head and beamed, offering those sizeable teeth like a sunflower in the manner of all phony and perverted companionable displays. Her cleaning cart smelled of pineapples. At the elevator, she regally popped the call button. I really meant no harm, but in a moment of unchecked ire, I muttered something ambiguous about the openings of certain resort facilities and those of ingratiating, big-titted Tahitians. The usual harmless stuff. When I came to and there was sufficient pain to remind me that I was still in fact alive, a few blazered security attendants were hauling me to the street.

It seems everyone has a hair-trigger these days.

Scruggs, that was his name, Scruggs, bent over as if inspecting his handiwork, said he’d never liked me.

Speaking objectively, I have no reasonable explanation for how I have come to be this way. As I dragged myself through the parking lot, I could see the huge freighters where they mass in the shipyards, congregating like a bunch of fat guys in a bar, and though they did nothing, not so much as listing on their stays, I thought they might as well rear up on their prows, water spouting from their smashed-iron sides, just heave up, trailing tentacles of rigging and chains, and glide on the air for an instant before crashing arbitrarily earthward. I have lost my basic trust in things, I think.

Now that I consider it, yesterday was no different either.

I have missed my rendezvous.

“I know exactly what you mean,” I say to the taller of the Giacomettis, who lumbers woozily in the direction of I don’t know where.

When my father was in Chicago for his criminal prosecution, I took the train down to be present in the event that I should be called upon to corroborate the depositions. I was never called, so while the tax lawyers were zealously divesting my father of his net worth, I was stomping with my hands in my pockets along Michigan Avenue, getting similarly bullied by a pugnacious wind that caused the very street to ripple uncertainly. A guy holding his ground by a coffee cart was zipped up to his ears. I doubted that he would murder me. This was April. At Jackson Park, I watched an SUV crest a portion of hill between two enormous cement monuments where it sleekly descended into an apocalyptic collision-the swift, calamitous bang of metal and burst glass-with an onrushing Beetle. The vehicles, I thought, would have to be torn apart. Of course none of this was helping my agitated condition, and by the time I reached the river bridge, with the tinted-glass skyscrapers veering toward me, and the relentless menace of the traffic, CTA buses grinding their brutish hubs against the curbs, and that Munchian wind too fierce to carry a single smell, just gripping me by the testicles, shaking me furiously, I thought, well this is it then, and I clutched the stone guardrail, peering into the green contortions of the river, waiting for the universal annihilation. But there was no universal annihilation, and I could only shamble back in the direction of my hotel room, wind-tears streaming down my face, searching out my lost equilibrium.

This is how it is more or less all the time.

If Giacometti had walked in my shoes along the river bridge, I doubt he would have sculpted a thing.

He does not corroborate my deposition.


How, exactly, is this helping, I want to know. I am at the library. On the sofa. Across from the circulation desk where the librarian is wearing her flowered vest and a big clock on the wall tells me that I have been stood up. This library pacifies me. There is something in its architecture that conveys both aesthetic refinement and maximum functionality, like the high contrast between the dark floorboards and incandescent walls on the third floor of the museum. Here, I feel touches of the subdued poetry of Monticello, a kind of Jeffersonian exposition in the colonnaded entrance and shaved-steel book-drop. The newspapers are free for perusal, if you don’t mind another pair of mitts roughing up your creases, and I am taking full advantage, skimming the classified section with the practiced, clinical eye of a man of commerce, someone who knows what he’s about. On the cushion next to me, I have stowed a slip of paper (a halved portion of an old card-catalog entry-the remaindered book was titled Lime: The Corrosive Agent) and a short pencil, one of those clean amputees, to take down relevant information.

Across the room a bank of computer terminals blinks and simmers, a creepy phalanx of low-flicker-rate monitors and distressed motherboards. The machines siphon off most of the afternoon foot traffic, absorbing the very worst of user misbehavior and making of my abstinence a virtue (I duly honor the lifetime ban meted out to me, however unjustly: the Wikipedia vandalism was a misunderstanding, I maintain, the desultory porn surfing purely medicinal). Amid the sprawling tweens who occupy chairs even in front of the dud terminals, at a spot in the corner, seated in profile, a guy who looks exactly like Richard Gere squints into his browser, as if carefully considering his next move. This is the same man who, very recently, as he swept imperiously through the reference section, had paused, leaned in over my shoulder, and, pointing a hoary finger at my newspaper, suggested I avail myself of the Web classifieds with a simple, neighborly, obnoxiously affable “You know, most of those are online now” (flexing his eyebrows in postscript). He had feathery white hair, streaked with grey, a stubby hooked nose like a can-opener, and twin rows of small even dentures that he bared above a droopy lower lip. His face, I noticed, bore lurid red patches on the nose, cheeks and brow-fractal patterns of burst capillaries on his nostrils-and the skin appeared slick, richly lubricated, intermittently poreless: as if his face had been buffed with sandpaper, some radical therapy for psoriasis.

Now that I think of it, the resemblance is slight, at best.

For a while I breathe shallowly and sit perfectly still in an effort to compose myself, to keep in check a sensation of acute paranoia, but even so, from her post beneath the wall clock the librarian forwards disapproving glances in the general vicinity of my sofa-as if she does not remember at all my gratitude when she helped me to locate the Dorland’s Medical Dictionary, or when she procured for me the Russian/English dictionary with its impossible pronunciations, or when she directed me, that time before all hope was lost, to the men’s room with the bad light on the upper floor.

Anyway, none of this did me any good.

I try to tell myself that I am a miracle of nature occurring for a short period of time, but I’m not buying what I’m selling.

Help wanted, I think.

Time is a corrosive agent.

Svetlana, her disappearances notwithstanding, was never like this, this waiting, this agonistic uncertainty. When I first met her, at the public beach by the pier stanchions where she was sobbing into her hands, she was all present, all access from the start. I had rolled up, coaxing my arthritic Buick over the moguls in the parking lot, really feeling like a wreck: an implacable bone-deep aching, desperate to be rid of this ludicrous erection, which even then was less a figure of unassuageable longing than a serious breach of anatomical contract. By this point, I was, strictly speaking, no longer employed, it grieves me to admit; my father’s winery had already been shut down, owing to fiscal mismanagement, misreported revenues and an ongoing failure to respond to the worried messages from his accountant (Dad’s absenteeism was hopelessly thorough). Before me, I had the beach mix of sand and white stone, the late-season sun, the waveless water-its surface a veneer of chrome and blueberry fanning out toward the far islands like the purposeless expanse afforded by my severance package-and I was thinking that I would swim until I could distinguish, among the sand bars, the contours of my destiny, until things made sense or ceased forever to matter.

I didn’t care which.

I had already stripped down to my boxer briefs and was marching toward the water when I noticed Svetlana, sobbing in Cyrillic, amid the boulders by the pier, her ponytail limp over her shoulder, her lankiness knotted in a heap. She did not look up at me, but I could feel her wanting to look up at me as soon as I took a step in her direction and she shifted over onto one side, defensively, disrupting the spasms of her sobs and revealing in those see-through pants an elliptical stretch of buttock and the ghost of her thong chemise (her wardrobe is pitifully limited): then I knew everything about her all at once. That she was part of the influx of foreign nationals, a source of ready labor imported to ease the convulsions of an overstrained tourist economy. That the language barrier led her to suffer mistreatment at the hands of her Dickensian employers (I imagined her working as a housekeeper for one of these big resorts-a point later confirmed by the rhythms of her absences). And that her spirit was withering in the loveless dormitory erected by the chamber of commerce to house tragic migrants.

I could see that she needed looking after. And immediately we began to trade kindnesses, a slow-motion pantomime of consolation-she, sputtering in damaged Cyrillic, me, with a hand stuffed deep into the gauze recesses of her linen pants, as if to say, “Shhh, Svetlana, Shhh.” And when we rolled apart, sometime after sundown, as it has ever been, anticlimactically, her sniveling ceased, and I felt-I can’t explain this-pocketed somewhere in the root opacity of our conjunction, that life was nearly tolerable.

You can go a surprisingly long way on that slight feeling.

I wonder offhandedly if I should be concerned about this habit I have of narrating myself to myself.

Then she’s here. I did not notice her come in, pass the aluminum drinking fountain, and the tourist brochures in that wall-mounted display, and the double doors to the reading room with its odor of anxiety. I did not notice her trot up the stairs, shoot a meaningful look in my direction, gauging the coordinates of my position and the logistical possibilities it afforded. But I see her now, up there in the balcony-the loft area where the nonfiction holdings are sequestered and a kind of recessed catwalk spans the length from here to there. For a moment I permit myself to confuse her with Svetlana before I concede that her good teeth, her bad perm, her resolute American comportment radiate a special and inimitable charm. She does her best to look nonchalant, she even has me fooled, and I can see the shadows from the spindled guardrail stripe her legs until she stops above my position. She is wearing a cheerleader outfit and sheer underthings. That’s not precise. I can’t tell if she’s wearing sheer underthings or no underthings.

She’s a good kid, but my interest in her is strictly therapeutic.

We have an arrangement.

When I first approached her, she told me she was eighteen and I pretended to believe her.

The outfit, presumably, is for my benefit, but the tinny colors and the coarse material make her look dumpy, even fat. I don’t have the heart to tell her this.

With her back to me, she grips the sturdy banister and makes as if to stretch, straining forward on raised toes. I can see fine. Then, still gripping the handrail, she drops into a crouch, thrusting her rear between two of the steel spindles such that her skirt splays out like a fan.

Cherry Bluff Orchards is looking for day-labor. I entertain a vision of myself shirtless, in ripe orchards, gorging on fruit. I raise the amputated pencil, grit my teeth (figuratively) against the pain of flared nerves, make an apposite notation.

Up there, the kid is fronting the guardrail. She scans left and right with a vague air of gravity, and then she shoots up one leg onto the banister, ballerina-style, and raises her arms over her head, straining sidewise to the knee.

She’s a flexible kid. I should tell her about the ballerina thing.

I make a notation with the amputated pencil.

As a literary conceit, pedophilia is of course ridiculously old hat. But in this world (hardly real) it remains a viable coping strategy.

I’m rattling my paper, and when she doesn’t get the signal, I start making forced, throat-clearing sounds until the librarian at the desk trains her eyes on me. My erection is fine, but I cross my legs anyway.

This is all I have.


This is how it happened for me, I think, because I would prefer not to think about what happened yesterday, which is why today the only thing I am good for is standing like this, leaning out the open window, overlooking the midday thoroughfare and its faltering, cinerary traffic as if it had some necessary relation to me. I am naked from the waist down and giving no one in particular the finger.

Without the PlayStation, my store of household technologies is significantly depleted, consisting solely of the portable television (which gets no reception), a universal remote (which communicates with nothing), and the empty case of the lone DVD in my vestigial collection. Said videodisc Svetlana smashed in a fit of pique not long after we got together, the same fit of pique in which she absconded with, and subsequently sold (in her blatnoy black market, I presume), the DVD player that I bought, in another lifetime, on clearance at Wal-Mart.

The film was an old Richard Gere, Laura Linney title, one-hundred-nineteen minutes of oracular nonsense called The Mothman Prophecies. The plot and particulars escape me now, but I remember the thing came into my possession during a routine test of the public library’s security system (the old-fashioned book drop, it turns out, provides a functional point of egress). Hardly a loss.

I don’t know if my condition has worsened-there are blotches now, I think, or maybe there have always been blotches, or maybe the black bruise on my finger, which gives every indication of indelibility, has somehow migrated and metastasized, or maybe it’s just the light. In any case, pants today are out of the question.

Perhaps if I had turned up like this yesterday, things might have gone differently. The orchard keeper might have done something other than what he did, which was to take one look at me and say (he insisted) that the ad had been a misprint. And then I might not have gone for that sentimental traipse through the cherry trees and their cultivated nostalgia, where I encountered the harvest crew performing tense deliberations around the recent hire, critiquing her form up on the ladder. She was a nice-enough-looking gal with the predilection for short skirts, the aversion to underthings and the cracked teeth of a Croatian. Probably she bunked with Svetlana at the dormitory for imported foreign nationals. Probably she knew her. That was really all I wanted to know, but still the ensuing scuffle ended with me on the turf, and the stout veteran Mexican grinding my clenched hand and an anomalous swatch of skirt hem under his boot, asking had I had enough.

I had.

My appetite is gone.

This is how it happened for me, I say to the fire truck, that UPS imposter, which shifts into neutral and luxuriantly throttles its engine at the stop sign where the people are making a big deal over the crosswalk. As if they had never seen vomit before.

This whole landscape is tilted, unreliable, I think.

This is how it happened for me. Because you hear all the time that god is dead, life meaningless, all the usual encouraging clichés, and then one day the truth hits you with an almost biological urgency. I was on the train, southbound, heading to Chicago for the denouement to my father’s criminal proceedings, when I still had no idea that he was going to shoot himself, and I had managed to secure a seat beside a guy in camouflage pants who was penciling cartoon images of a femme fatale and whom the conductor referred to chummily as “Colonel.” Somehow, between his arms, the notepad and his compressed belly, he cradled a sandwich, soggy with tomato, lettuce and cold cuts, which leaked helplessly onto a sheet of waxed paper.

Having secured this seat, I made as if to read King Lear in my Oxford Shakespeare-the Bullen edition from 1938 and it looks it-because by then this was all I could do to discourage people from noticing me (of course, for a long time now I have been off actual reading altogether). And besides, the Bullen promised to create a suitable diversion, dispelling the images that I had (and toward which I was rushing anyway) of my father at a table of grimly polished wood, hounded by attorneys, a haunted, vanquished expression clouding the movie-star good looks on which he had founded his modest empire (the spaniel nose, the boyish grin, a tasteful hint of mullet in his wavy, gray hair-the staff used to say he resembled some Hollywood celebrity whose name escapes me). In my mind, I didn’t see the face of a man on the verge of incarceration, his nest egg vaporized: it was the face of a man who had lost a child.

Perusing those mildewed pages, their gargoyle fonts, gripping that fantastically dry-rotted spine, I found then a kind of respite, a loose psychosocial insularity, within which I entertained the odd minimalist sexual fantasy involving both Regan and Goneril (those vastly underrated sisters) and all of their voluminous skirts. But at some point in the course of these literary peregrinations, my lazy eye happened to fall upon that line in which Gloucester whimpers his pretty analogy to the effect that flies: wanton boys = men: gods. And it occurred to me, not for the first time, that the image was unsatisfactory. As the leading term in the rhetorical figure, the earwig, I thought, would make for a much better choice all around as the earwig is more repulsive, sluggish and malicious, and more stubbornly ineradicable.

But the longer I dwelt upon this unfortunate convergence of sadism and entomology-and what choice did I have really, with the great expanses of marsh ripping by, and the exhausted willows, and the Colonel’s sturdy leg knocking me in time with the swinging car-slowly, with greater force and gravity, the analogy began to reveal deeper and deeper layers of ineptitude until I was experiencing what can only be called epiphanic hyperventilation. Because of course, my earwig substitution was sheer snottiness, but the real crux of the matter was that the insect failed to convey the incomprehensible vastness of the gulf between mortality and immortality. The fly, as it staggers, wingless, has a language to communicate its suffering. The boy knows it suffers. To the hypothetical gods and any putative celestial persecution, we cannot ascribe anything like intentionality or malice. To such gods, I reckoned, we must possess as much personality and agency as, say, a tomato, or some other vegetable byproduct of four billion years of terrestrial confinement-Yes, I thought, this formulation, what it loses in poetry, it gains in precision. Between the here-and-now and the hereafter, we must assume a more radical separation, an evolutionary leap, as it were, which precludes any intelligible communication between states of being. We are destroyed, sure, but there is no way for the gods to know that we know it. In short, I thought, there is no way for the gods to hear us. And although I had absolutely no reason to mope about it, I must admit I felt the full weight of my solitude bearing down on me as if for the first time, as if all of this had just happened to me personally, and I looked mildly in the Colonel’s direction with my face wrenched into a brokenhearted smile, a smile of tolerance and shared purpose, but he had dozed off, mouth open, head collapsed on the seat back, and his pencil, I saw, had slipped into the dregs on the waxed paper.

I wanted to retrieve it for him, but you know how it is.

The water is going in the saucepan. I feel the steam saturating my sinuses, but I dump in the bag of Ramen noodles anyway.

Svetlana’s favorite race track was Hot Air Skyway.

It’s nice to know that I still have food in the house.

The noodles are going in the pan, churning and paling in the roil. I think, but I do not do this, of submerging my hand in the froth. I imagine the skin peeling away, flapping in the current, entwining with the noodles. I think, but I do not do this, of lowering my hand to the bottom, palming the flat blaze of steel. I wonder how long I could stand it.

I wonder if I might profit somehow from this pain.


Has it really come to this then? I reflect offhandedly through the filtered light of exertion and the dingy, shadow-burdened light of the bathroom and the abrasive, played-out feel of this advantageless arrangement.

Everything is this crummy, filtered bathroom light.

It’s all I have.

The kid had turned up in a yellow shirt screaming Cheerios, which bore, between the breasts, the imprint of a seat belt, as if implying the existence of a conscientious parent, and when I suggested that we modify our arrangement, stuffing the roll of my last remaining bills into her pocket, she didn’t bother to count the money (which was exactly twenty-four dollars). She just took me by the wrist and led me up here where everything smells of nonfiction, except the urinal cakes, which smell of despair, and when I asked her why the men’s, she merely shrugged as if to say she’d always wanted to see the inside.

If you ask me, it isn’t much to look at.

The shirt is now torqued in a mess under her chin. When she tightens, innocently I think, the grip with her ankles, the balled jeans make a push for total asphyxiation, but I don’t back off because at this point I’ll try anything and I don’t have the heart to let her know that I’m not even close.

She’s a good kid.

She doesn’t seem to be in any hurry, though periodically she steals glances at the door, not as if she expects any sudden intrusion, but solely I think to break up the monotony of the view. So I have plenty of time not to remember what happened to me yesterday when I visited the offices of the tourist bureau, which claimed to be soliciting legitimate applications for employment. I had presented myself, thinking optimistically about what it would be like to thrust my hands into soil, to water copiously, to till. That sort of thing. I had, what’s more, taken considerable preparatory pains, acquiring some of the lingo with the gracious assistance of my librarian friend in the flowered vest that she kept rearranging to conceal her incensed nipples (I figured she was breaking in a new undergarment, and tactfully did not draw attention to her discomposure). She led me through the nonfiction holdings to a tome on husbandry that helped me to distinguish my bulbs from my seeds, explained how to finesse a hydrangea, etc., and I was nearly feeling pretty good about myself until I arrived at the office where I learned 1) that the position had called for a brochure copywriter and not, as I insisted, an experienced groundstender; 2) that they had already hired a leggy Bratislavan who has her own tools and consents to work in a homemade bikini of spaghetti-string straps and Eastern-Bloc Post-Its; and 3) that they had never heard of anyone named Svetlana. Point taken, I thought, conceding, then, the evident redundancy of my placement in this universe, but I didn’t say a word, just lay down on the carpet and waited for the inevitable formality of the coup de grace. Underneath the desk, an invoice or some such had fallen, its letterhead sporting an urgent-looking QUAST, which was supposed to remind me of quest but instead made me think only of an obscure radioactive element mined in the African jungles of an old English novel. Somewhere someone was running a vacuum cleaner. They let me lie like that for a while. Eventually I bedded and seeded and sodded my quap heap and went home.

When I pick up the pace, the tile hardly bothers her at all.

The last time I had contact with something beautiful goes like this: I was on the train, returning from Chicago, where I had made a nuisance of myself in the courthouse, but was otherwise incapable of effecting any alteration in the proceedings against my indicted father. The night before, I had stumbled in the direction of my hotel room, bent at the waist, fighting the whole way a sheering wind and chafing briefs-a classic existential fug which I tried to drown in curaçao at the tavern across the street from my hotel, where I left the bartender a tip to the tune of twenty-four drenched dollars in a heap on the bar (she had a butterfly tattoo on the small of her back and a commiserating air of self-destruction). So I was feeling a little iffy when I arrived at the station the next morning, a condition that persuaded me, on medical grounds, to procure a bottle of pineapple juice from the cooler at the busy and inattentively manned newsstand. This I later had occasion to regret.

But I boarded, and bribed the conductor to leave me alone, which he did after riffling through a ticket with his hole-punch. For some time I sat sipping cautiously from the rank platform air that seeped into the compartment, endured the silent inquisition of an overdressed policeman who braced his fists against the luggage racks and completed a thorough inspection of the vacant balcony seats before heavily disembarking. An oily, evasive period followed, then, with a bang and a lurch, the train creaked out into the sunlight and swung between the high rises and the low brick slaughterhouse tenements, and the city, I must say, looked itself a little green around the gills through the tinted windows. I had the car mostly to myself. When I closed my eyes, I could feel the unsteady jiggering of the wheels bumping over the junctions, and the gentler, steadier subliminal jiggering from side to side, and through the murderous headache and the pineapple-tainted cottonmouth it became clear that I would be sick.

In a state of surprising composure, I ventured on faith, a shambling, weightless gallows walk, to the next car to locate the facilities, into which I shut myself, sliding the battered door on its tracks and throwing the bolt behind me. Simultaneously, a jaundiced interior light came on above the mirror to offer visual corroboration of the pervasive aura of fecal smatterings and urinary drippings and other Dantesquan unpleasantnesses.

In all of this there was a minimum of ceremony.

Almost casually, I bent a little at the knee, folded an arm across my chest and, in a state of truly remarkable composure, retched voluminously and accurately in the direction of the long-suffering toilet, with its cheap flap lid and shallow cavity and the flimsy trapdoor at the bottom. I retched in successive waves, primly and energetically, shouting at the onset of each spasm, discharging tubes of vomit with a surprising geometrical integrity, in the color, for some reason, of crushed plums. The effort forced tears at an impressive rate from my eyeducts, but even weeping as I was, I offered none of those intermediary whimpers that indicate a self-pitying temperament. Time, in a metaphysical sense, became irrelevant. At some point I distinctly heard the door to the vestibule slide open, and the conductor as he passed with measured steps of his black shoes, idly clicking his ticket-punch. After one last roar in the direction of that obedient drain mechanism and the messy business of puffing air through my lips, submitting to full-body tremors, I flooded the bowl with its toxic rinse of blue slime, putting paid, I thought, to the proceedings. But as I continued to feel a shimmering violence around the middle, baroque sequences of expulsive ripples, I negotiated the cramped space, hobbling in a tight circle, and with a foreigner’s hypersensitivity proceeded to unbuckle and lower and rest my haunches on the bowl, training my erection with both hands (which nevertheless spurted wayward spikes of urine as the train swung me back and forth), noisily and helplessly unburdening myself of this secondary colorectal duress.

I felt humbled, purged on a mitochondrial level, thrown clear, as it were, of the blast radius of myself. As if I had finally settled the accounts on a lifetime of error.

I made myself presentable once more, straightening my collar and smoothing my hair, savoring the preternatural stillness that had descended over our steady acceleration. Then I swept open the door, naked as it were before the horror and derision of my fellow passengers, who merely gazed placidly at the retreating city, rocked sedately over columns of unwavering newsprint, continued gravely and serenely to tap keypads, communing sweetly with obsolescing technologies, stenciling the windows of Palm-Pilots and cellphones with earnest, euphonic prayers. I believed that I had gained access to the benevolent region of pure poetry.

The kid makes out as if she understands all of this.

For a split second it occurs to me that I am in love with Svetlana.

And then the kid starts quivering strangely, copacetically, beneath me, and I feel something quickening in the machinery of my loins, a delicate rising sensation, like the immaculate reoccurrence of an extinct organism. It is a sensation that I can only compare to hope as I am inclined to believe that all of this now is headed somewhere. For a few moments, I catch a glimmer, in the radiating swarms of banded light, of my destiny, a benign assurance that it exists somewhere. I think of Svetlana and myself cruising unhurried, contentedly, in a sleek two-seater, along the levitating expanses of Hot Air Skyway-where the smoking wreckages of the past have been cleared away, and there is only the pristine patchwork of the track as it rises and falls between the watercolor dirigibles, the gush of pixels drummed up by their bow-blades, leading us on toward the pastel smoke of high cirrus that reaches far into the measureless horizons-and I believe that life is trembling on the verge of a nearly tangible possibility-until I see the kid moving under me, squirming without inflection, that patient look in her eyes discharging gun-batteries of boredom, and then I understand that I am experiencing what is known as a false positive.

I try for her benefit to simulate orgasm, and when I roll off her, I can see that she’s scarcely disheveled.

A good kid.

Before she goes, she smiles with her eyes closed as if to acknowledge a completed transaction but she does not ask about my hand.


I am reasonably sure that this is how it ends. I am sitting on the tarmac under the oasis of the BP in a puddle of lake water and the solitary dribble of gasoline that I was able to squeeze out of the pump before the clerk’s invisible intercession.

The police, he has leaned out the door to inform me, are on their way.

He seems a nice enough sort, this despite having refused me a job application, a book of matches, and a show of human compassion, in that order. He watches from the window through which you can just distinguish the top of his no-doubt impeccably balanced cash register, and he conveys an aura of concern, of nearly paternal solicitude that reminds me of what had always been lacking between me and my father. Perhaps, had I felt this abiding tenderness, things might have gone differently; I might have abetted his criminal prosecution less aggressively, might even have copped to my own modest profiteering-which was negligible, certainly, but I might have saved him some jail time.

In any event, the shot to the chest wasn’t fatal.

I am not suicidal-the matches were really a kind of pick-me-up as I am generally cheered by the smell of sulfur. The gas, I think, is a poor substitute.

Still I am reasonably sure that this is how it ends.

When I returned to my apartment this afternoon, there was a notice of eviction affixed to the door, official-looking in every way excepting the marginalia scrawled in an illegible Cyrillic.

All in all, this has been a disappointing day.

When I reached the site of our putative rendezvous, the kid was not there, nor were her three promised friends.

I had been stood up.

The place I had selected for our assignation was, and still is, called Cave Point, a stretch of shoreline where the water has been occupied for centuries fine-tuning the deep scallops that it is carving into the limestone. After that unfortunate business in the men’s room-the librarian pushing through the door, prematurely outraged, where she discovered me at the sink, splashing tap-water over my tormented equipment, her face then paling and burning by turns, the paisley of genuine outrage-this seemed like a sensible alternative.

But the kid wasn’t there.

Perhaps she had seen through to my basic insolvency or the four of them had found a more lucrative arrangement.

Anyway, it wouldn’t have mattered.

I waited by the water, my toes grasping the limestone, which, on the cusp of dusk, appeared to be the last remaining source of light, as if the rock had stored up remnants of the sun’s irradiation, igniting the sheltered depths, turning them a limpid lozenge-blue color that was liquid in addition to the water being liquid.

It was twice liquid, and very pretty.

I have heard stories to the effect that the water has carved clean through the peninsula, bored underground, creating cavernous transepts that are too dangerous for divers, but which contribute to all sorts of mythologizing possibilities: as if secreted below the surface of this life, there might be a comprehensible and benevolent rationale, a basic cohesion and purpose, a root stratum of ultimate meaning.

The same old dream, but clearer then, more plausible, I think, than ever. I foresaw myself backstroking beneath architraves of glazed stone, drinking in their salaried air and tart snorts of lake water. Hypothetically, as it were, I was already knifing through the tremulous wavelets, the mantle-stink of sulfur, flexing the oarlocks of my shoulders, making good time with a compact and serviceable Australian crawl, but it was no use. If I were to discern, say, by the inconsistent torchlight of my imagination, the arterial patterns of mineral stains or the guano from a race of prehistoric bats, if I were somehow to negotiate the interchanges of those catacombs and emerge, where none had ever emerged, to glimpse the lights of a foreign city across the water, faltering, intermittent, obliterated by steadier vapors, that city, I understood, that other more profitable landscape would itself be forever unattainable: charging away endlessly into the silent collision of earth and sky in the molten dregs of the horizon. No, what we had here was no geological covenant, just the ravages of the timeless and purposeless intercourse of the elements.

I adjusted the disposition of my boxer briefs, measuring the distances before me, concealing my erection as a courtesy to the people who would never arrive.

Where the water slopped into the recesses, the sound was rich with empty promises.

Everywhere the stars were quickening, and I consulted them, stared into the press of their teary declinations before I heaved over the edge and crashed into the water, which, unearthly light notwithstanding, immediately went to work on my bandages.

To be precise, I had cozied my crippled hand into a tube sock smeared with lard.

The water was remarkably fierce on the wounds.

After a while-of scissoring luminous water, enduring the fore and aft shove of the tide surge, diving and groping and straining at the indisplaceable façade of slick, pitted stone-after a while, I gave in to the simple unpoetic truth of the matter.

Shivering-that is, in a state of neurological agitation brought on by the pain, the exertion and the cold, I clambered out of the water, rattling my bones against those blunt escarpments. As I stood, damaged and quaking, on the shelf, no longer contemplating the industry of the waves, the passive fury of the business, it was as if I could see myself reflected there on the air, where the light was disappearing on a molecular level.

Not a pretty sight.

I made an effort to induce vomiting but there was only the existential run-off pooling between my feet.

For a moment I considered the possibility that there had never been any kid, nor for that matter any Svetlana.

Then I could hear them, coming toward me from the path where it breaches the tree-line. The four of them, snorting, yelping from time to time as they struggled with the terrain. Between them, they had three pairs of high-cut tennis shorts, two flashlights and one conspicuous whistle on a long neck-leash, which I imagine was a hedge against their encountering other, unwanted erect personages by the waterside.

The kid herself was nearly unrecognizable in this entrepreneurial context.

I adopted an attitude of conscious disregard for the dripping bas relief of my boxer briefs.

One of the girls asked to see it.

Gingerly, I removed the tube sock.

Concerted and quite unnecessary movements of the flashlights.

“Does it hurt?” the kid asked.

“Yes,” I said. “Everywhere.”

And that was how I left them.

I am prepared to wait now for the inevitable.

It no longer bothers me that there might have been a time before this, when things were different.

There is only this.

From behind the window, the clerk watches me and a limited, though he cranes, portion of the universe.

Across the street, a deep sense of loss emanates from the empty garage at the firehouse. I see Moe, at the curb, standing amid a frothy pool of old urine, hanging his head in agony, and Eddie curling forward, leaning toward the pavement as if in the last throes of infarction. Then I glimpse the nearly recognizable legs through the cab wheels, the capri pants sliced into segments by the spindles, and I am already rising, crossing the tarmac, stepping down into the street where I see the familiar ponytail, the unsteady bangs, the aesthetic honesty in the features. For a moment I am under the impression that I have something to say to Svetlana, something uncertain but pithy and basically communicable, and I am crossing the street, making for them, until I see that she is cradling in her arms the portable television from my impounded apartment, and that Eddie is listening intently to whatever it is she is saying. Then I realize my mistake. This is not Svetlana at all, but some other foreigner with good pidgin English who happens to be holding my television. And I am standing like this in the middle of the street, which telescopes weirdly as if in the direction of someplace I remember. I am trying to commiserate with the ancient tar smell and the deep sense of loss that I feel emanating from the dark interior of the firehouse garage, when an overhead light goes on in the recesses, as if to portend some conclusive epiphany, an in-house singularity, a constellation of one, and it’s not until then that I hear the roar of the CTA engine, which strikes me as odd since we don’t have a transit system and, anyway, I never even see the bus.

–Bruce Stone

Jun 032010

It’s great pleasure to post here a poem by Julie Larios, a generous and playful Numéro Cinquoise and a member of the faculty of the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults program. In a way, we already know her and she needs no introduction. But there are links here  to various sources and interviews where you can find the hard data–books, teaching, publications.



On Reading the Poems of Someone Buried in Poet’s Corner

“Dear Lizbie Brown…”
that’s all our hero Hardy needed for a letter.
But he was better at it than the rest of us.
The best that we can do is “Sir or Madam,”
and “Sincerely Yours.”—even when love stirs
the soul and bakes the brain, our best refrains
fill with adolescent templates and clichés,
not Lizbie,
Lizbie Brown.

Even Hardy’s frowns went deeper down than ours—
his stars were brighter, fields greener, cows cleaner,
cream more clotted,  world more Wessex, thrushes darkling,
and his Bettys were all Lizbies,
Lizbie Browns.

Darling, if we lived in England and you died in time,
before me, I would love you Hardy-style, epistolarically
and lyrically and all seized up by grief and elm trees.
As is it, you’re hale and hearty, and I’m hardly Hardy.
But I’m sincerely yours. Love, Julie,

P.S. I’m sorry but
the toilet’s running
and I tried to fix it
but I can’t. Just thought
you’d like to know.

—Julie Larios

See also “What Bee Did” not to mention Julie’s entries in the Numéro Cinq Villanelle contest. And here are a couple of interviews with the author: The Miss Rumphius Effect and  Cynsations.


Jun 012010

To continue the Numéro Cinq religious threads, I offer the following.  (An ablution, perhaps?  A burnt offering?)

I used to be an altar boy in Christ the King Catholic Church in Worcester, Mass.  I have no sordid tales of degenerate priests.  The priests I knew were kind, serious men.  They understood rituals and sacred spaces in a way that made church seem magical and removed from the mundanity of life in the working class neighborhoods where I grew up.  My favorite time in church was when I prepared the altar for mass; when the church was empty and quiet, when I lit candles, placed unblessed wine and water aside before the prayerful arrived.  The poet Rodney Jones says that his sense of the religious springs from a recognition that Sundays have a different feel from other days.  In the introduction to his poem, “Life of Sundays” he says the following:

“I’ve written a number of poems at the edge of a long study of religion.  This is probably a poem that comes from my reading of Stevens as much as my understanding of an individual life of a person like myself who’s not a believer and yet who maintains some sort of superstition about Sundays.  I think I could recognize Sundays from any other day if I came back from the planet Mars.”

I have drifted far from the faith of my youth, yet one of my favorite places to go is an empty church.   Jones speaks directly to me about this.

Later in life, at the U.S. Naval Academy, I found a similar sense of the sacred in the military rituals.  Annapolis imposed rigid institutional codes to instill in me a sense of duty, responsibility and service.  We (the midshipmen) were somehow different, somehow set apart from the rest of the world because we believed in those codes.  The inevitable drift towards war seemed, somehow, beside the point.  The rituals of that life informed the decisions we believed in: the honor code, the sense of duty, the pride in service.

Yet in both of these formative experiences, something lacked.  Both (the religious and the militaristic) somehow served only to exclude.  Only those on the inside could be admitted, accepted.  The rituals of church and state demanded an adherence to singular principles.  You believed in Christ.  You believed in Country.  Outside of these narrow confines was the enemy.

Literature (I think, I hope, I pray) offers a broader view of the sacred.  Literature grapples with similar structural concepts, with ritual and meaning, but not towards a single answer.  The artistic search scatters as it meanders toward a destination.

In a very elegant, brief essay, “Degenerates,” (Found in The Best Writing on Writing, Vol. 2, edited by Jack Heffron) the poet (and Benedictine oblate)  Kathleen Norris talks about the connections between monastic life and writing.  Norris lives with monks and talks about how monks and writers (poets) face a similar challenge: to live outside a world devoid of a sense of the sacred.

I told the Trappists that I had come to see both writing and monasticism as vocations that require periods of apprenticeship and formation.  Prodigies are common in mathematics, but extremely rare in literature, and I added, ‘as far as I know, there are no prodigies in monastic life.’  This drew a laugh, as I thought it might.”

Norris goes on to describe her life living with the monks and the similarities to the writer’s life.

I was recognizing the dynamic nature of both disciplines; they are not so much subjects to be mastered as ways of life that require continual conversion.  For example, no matter how much I’ve written or published, I always return to the blank page; and even more importantly, from a monastic point of view, I return to the blankness within, the fears, laziness and cowardice that without fail, will mess up whatever I’m writing and require me to revise it.  The spiritual dimension of this process is humility, not a quality often associated with writers, but lurking there, in our nagging sense of the need to revise.  As I put it to the monks, when you realize that anything good you write comes despite your weaknesses, writing becomes a profoundly humbling activity.”

I take comfort in being an apprentice, that the beatings I’ve endured at the hands of certain elders of the ‘church’ (read: certain, unnamed VCFA advisors) are going to temper my faith.  (Please note a benevolent sarcasm in this.)  Norris puts it this way:

Poets and monks do have a communal role in American culture, although it ignores, romanticizes, and despises them.  In our relentlessly utilitarian society, structuring a life around writing is as crazy as structuring a life around prayer, yet that is what writers and monks do.  Deep down, people seem glad to know that monks are praying, that poets are writing poems.  That is what others expect of us, because if we are doing our job right, we will express things that others may feel, or know, but can’t or won’t say.

-Rich Farrell

May 242010

burroughs1William S. Burroughs & James Grauerholz in Lawrence, Kansas


When I was in grade school, William S. Burroughs visited my house. At least I think so. Strange old men with secrets were fairly commonplace in Lawrence, Kansas.  Old Man Puckett, our octogenarian next door neighbor on Delaware Street, lived alone in squalor for all the time we knew him, until he was robbed and murdered in his home. The men who killed him found little of value, but it was obvious they were looking for something. After the crime, police searched his house extensively, and after removing the floorboards they found just shy of $100,000 hidden. Old Man Puckett came to our door once trying to get us to sign some sort of petition. When he tried to come in the door without my parents’ permission, my bulldog just about ripped his arm off. My mother brought him in and wrapped his arm in gauze, but he refused to go to the hospital.

Old Man Burroughs was better prepared when he came knocking. When mother opened the door and my bulldog growled, he simply waved his cane at her and she slunk back away from him. He spoke slowly and lucidly to my mother, accusing me of trespassing on his property and chasing his cats. This was probably true – I chased every cat I saw, and so did my bulldog. My father glowered in the corner, but didn’t open his mouth.

Old Man Burroughs didn’t say a word directly to me until he’d laid out his case to my parents. He then looked directly into me. “You should know,” he said, “that I’m quite proficient with a handgun.”

Burroughs and I came into Lawrence from opposite ends. He was at the end of a life lived fuller than most, and I was just beginning mine. Both of us were bewildered. He arrived in 1981, when I was eight years old. He seems to have spent most of the eighties fluctuating between the peace of an old warrior retiring to his cottage and deep depression.  His friends had left him and the anti-establishment movement he’d helped found had been co-opted by the establishment. He grudgingly accepted his induction into the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters in 1983, and went home broke.  He tried to get Ginsberg, Gysin, Giorno, and the rest of them to come visit him, but they mostly scoffed, referring to his new home in Kansas as Nowheresville.

For the life lived outside the communal graces of religion, family, and conventional sexuality, he was now paying in loneliness. His closest friends were the brood of cats he gathered around his house on Learnard Street. By 1987 he’d finished The Western Lands, the final volume of his Red Night trilogy, in which he supposedly gathered the loose ends of his previous work into a cohesive mythology. I haven’t read the trilogy. I have, however, read The Cat Inside, a brief and surprisingly tender volume he published in 1986 about his beloved brood. In one passage he recounts a series of dreams he has about Ruski and Fletch, his first cats, in which their heads are on the bodies of children. He doesn’t know how to take care of children but he vows to protect them, saying, “It is the function of the guardian to protect hybrids and mutants in the vulnerable stage of infancy.” I’m now very sorry if I tormented his cats.

When I left home at 17, I discovered William S. Burroughs – the writer, not the old man. It wasn’t until I heard a recording of him reading that I made the connection between the two. I read Naked Lunch three times, desperately trying to make heads or tails of it. Like most other male college English majors, I became obsessed with the Beats. But mostly, I loved, still love, the voice of William Burroughs. It was at once weathered and sarcastic, two attributes I assumed of myself way too early. But that’s what it was – William S. Burroughs was who I wanted to be, the literary tradition I wanted to come from, and I’ll even say it – the father I wished I had. His death in August of 1997, just a couple short months after Ginsburg’s, officially ended the Beat Generation, though it had long been usurped and bowdlerized by its own legend. I eventually wrote my graduate thesis on the influence of Naked Lunch on film and popular culture, but I wanted much more than that to write about the influence of William S. Burroughs on me.

Burroughs had a son of his own, Billy Burroughs. I’m continually surprised at how few people know this – or even believe it – when I mention it. But it’s easy to understand why, really.  Not even taking into account his homosexuality, Burroughs just doesn’t seem like father material. He had, after all, shot the boy’s mother. And he in fact wasn’t much of a father to Billy, mostly allowing his own parents to raise him. Billy went to stay with his father in Tangiers where,  according to an article Billy wrote for Esquire, Burroughs allowed at least one of his friends to molest his son. Billy wrote that article shortly before he died at age 33, saying that his father had poisoned his life. He did, though, read and reread his father’s books – I imagine this was a way to feel close to his shadow-father – and cherished every scrap of affection his father threw him, like the Rimbaud copy mailed to him when he reached puberty, the glass-cased Amazonian butterflies , and the shrunken heads mailed from Africa. Billy also wrote two novels. While his father was recovering from his heroin addiction, Billy became an alcoholic of the most extreme sort, vomiting blood while having dinner with Ginsberg, needing an experimental liver transplant, and eventually dying alone in a ditch in Florida. William Burroughs was in New York when Ginsberg called and told him. That was 1981, the year Burroughs moved to Lawrence. Burroughs fell back into methadone and/or  heroin use around that time, and was addicted for the rest of his life.

My Grandpa Light, my mother’s father, died in 1997, a few months before Burroughs. I loved him, but I didn’t cry at his funeral the way I cried in my apartment  that August. My Grandpa Proctor, my adoptive father’s father, died just last October.  He’d had lung cancer for about a year. I hadn’t gone back to see him because he wanted me to reconcile with his son, whom I’d chosen not to see since my mother divorced him. When I said I couldn’t Grandpa Proctor disowned me, via email. But I went back to Kansas when he was pissing blood and treatments were stopped. I didn’t know if he’d let me in when I showed up on his doorstep. But he did. He was old, and broken, and wanted to talk. So we talked – about his job as the first union projector operator at the theater downtown, and how all his sons got smallpox the same summer when they lived on 19th Street and they had to quarantine the house and have the rest of the family stay out at the shack on Lone Star Lake. I remembered that shack – we used to spend our summers there when I was in early grade school. It was only about half the size of the loft apartment my wife and I were sharing when my grandpa got cancer, but somehow my grandparents fit all three of their sons, parents, siblings, and their families into it. I asked him what happened to that old place.

lone-star-lake-crewAt Lone Star Lake – my grandpa (far left), adoptive father (middle), and uncles (photo courtesy of my Aunt Carol)

“Oh, we sold that place sometime round ‘85, to some old artist type, name of Burroughs. You probably heard of him.” He then told me how this artist type didn’t even do much out there after he bought it, just rowed out to the middle of the lake and sat all day. “And get this,” Grandpa told me, “I sold it to him for under $30,000. Now just two years ago the owners sold it for $160,000 to some guy in England, just because that old Burroughs lived there.” I didn’t believe him when he told me, but I googled it and found the eBay listing. I even found a journal entry from Burroughs himself about our shack:

I got me this cabin out on the lake. Got it cheap since I was able to put up cash, which the owners needed to put down on another house they is buying out in the country. Could easy sell it now, but what for? A few thousand profit? Nowadays what can you do with that kinda money? My neighbor tells me right in front of my dock (I’ve got access, and that is the thing matters here on the lake… a dock, see!), well, my neighbor tells me that right in front of my dock is the best catfish fishing in the lake, but I don’t want to catch a catfish…I could cope with a bass, or better, some bluegills — half pound, as tasty fish as a man can eat — fresh from the lake, and I got me an aluminum flat bottom boat, ten foot long, $270…a real bargain. I likes to row out in the middle of the lake and just let the boat drift…

So there it is. Burroughs spent the last years of his life in the middle of the lake of my youth. I won’t even venture a guess as to what he thought about out there, but I do know that less than a month before he died in 1997 he wrote in his journal:

Mother, Dad, Mort, Billy – I failed them all –

And I don’t know what conclusions to draw from that, what lesson there is to be learned, what connections there are to make. I’m now 36 years old, three years older than Billy Burroughs was when the weight of his father’s legacy ravaged his liver and landed him in a ditch in Florida, but less than half as old as William Burroughs was when he exited the world addicted, without a family, and adrift alone in the middle of a lake so muddy my wife refuses to set foot in it. I have a daughter now, who will be a year old in just a couple of weeks. Somehow I’m glad she’s not a son.

burroughs-rowingBurroughs, rowing in Lone Star Lake

— John Proctor


May 212010

Here’s a poem by John B. Lee, a poet who lives in Brantford, ON, just along the highway from the farm where I grew up and which my family still owns. For a while, John even taught at the high school I once attended. One nice coincidence: The first time I co-judged (with the novelist Lisa Moore) the Winston Collins/Descant Best Canadian Poem contest, we picked John Lee. The judging was blind, so the convergence of fates was particularly appealing. “Burning Land” is written, yes, in Canadian. “Stoneboat” is a word I grew up with: a flat plank sled on low iron-shod wooden runners, drawn by horses, used to haul stones out of the fields. (See also “tobacco boat”–a tall narrow sled on steel runners, drawn by a single horse between tobacco rows during harvest.)  James Reaney was a massively influential and inspirational southwestern Ontario (Sowesto, as we call it) poet and mythographer. Raymond Knister was an early modern short story writer and novelist who died young in a drowning accident. His was the first Canadian novel I ever read that was about my home territory–he even talks about tobacco growing (we raised tobacco from the 1920s on). Raymond Knister’s daughter still lives in Waterford, my home town. I ran into her in the drugstore last fall.



Burning Land

“talk farmer …”
my mother chastens me
in conversation, for
though I have been to school
I’m still her wayward son
and what shall I say
shall I say
clevis and gambrel
sheaf and stook
shall I limit my earth
to the matter of mud
the matter of water and loam
or lambing in April
or driving a spile in the bloat of a cow
or the bark of maple in spring
what shall I tell her
concerning the Georgics of Virgil
the shearing of ewes, the keeping of bees
of Piers and his plough
of Jefferson’s science
of the three sisters of the Iroquois
or of Clare who wept at the closures
of the Idylls and eclogues of Spenser
of old or the pastoral beauty
of Eden and Eve
of her murdering son
and the land where he roamed

how David the King was a poet
with his lyre and his psalms, how he sang among sheep
how Wendell Berry walks on Sunday
with his pencil to the page
how Frost came appling out of orchards
blunt and rubbling at his dry stone wall
how Reaney
lost his Milton in a furrow
how his father
pierced a gasy rumen with a fountain pen
how Knister came to wintering after horses
writing “the horses will steam when the sun comes”
and how I listen for such lines
how I learned my Greek on shoulders
my mind much like a stoneboat with a single earth-heaved stone
how I came to Latin
in a cowflap, Latin fallen from the paper cows of Rome
how I told myself such stories
with a clay clod in my hand
I might have been Prometheus
with my breath of ancient words
while the ashes of my forehead
burned like burning land.

—John B. Lee

May 152010

Herewith it’s a huge pleasure to introduce my friend  Bill Gaston, a writer of poignant and sometimes Rabelaisian family stories, plays, novels, and a fine sports memoir Midnight Hockey. He teaches creative writing at the University of Victoria on Vancouver Island (way to the left if you’re looking at a map of Canada). “The Night Window” can be found in print in Bill’s story collection Gargoyles. It’s a story I know well because I included it in Best Canadian Stories the last time I edited the annual anthology (during my ten years as editor, I picked Bill three times).


The Night Window

By Bill Gaston


Tyler’s librarian mother has brought two home for him. He hefts them, drops them onto his bed. One is on fly fishing. The second is Crime and Punishment. Tyler suspects Dostoevsky is a writer he will read only if made to, for instance if it’s the only book he brings on this camping trip.

Tyler knows that what he is actually weighing here is his degree of insubordination. Yesterday his mother’s boyfriend–Kim–went through all their gear, inspecting wool sweaters and cans of food. Peering into Tyler’s hardware store plastic bag he shook his head and pointed in at the new reading-light with its giant dry cell battery.

“It’s a natural-light camping trip,” he said, unpointing his finger to waggle it, naughty-naughty, in Tyler’s face. Tyler saw how he could fall to an easy hate of his mother’s boyfriend, except that Kim was just always trying to be funny. His mother had explained this early on.

“Umm…no lights?” his mother began, half-coming to Tyler’s defense. “If I have to pee in the middle of the night? Kim, you want some on you?”

It was this kind of statement (which had Kim laughing over-loud) that made Tyler turn away blank faced, that made him not want to go camping, and let his mother go wherever she wanted without him. It must be exactly this sort of statement that offends her co-workers at the library; it’s the reason she fits nowhere, and dates someone like Kim Lynch.

Continue reading »

May 132010



This past  month I’ve read and re-read fifteen short pieces, each of which  might be called a list essay. I say this with the confession that before last month I didn’t even know such a form existed. I did, though, find myself writing in it and blindly starting to lay out some basic precepts as I wrote, then trying to identify them in other essays. I can’t precisely identify  the methods I used in finding the essays I chose, except to say that I searched through my non-fiction anthologies for essays that looked like the ones I was writing (and I mean “looked” in the most physical sense – I tried to find essays that resembled lists), googled the term “list essay,” and asked everyone I knew if they could think of possible examples. Perhaps rather haphazardly, I found and read the following “list essays”:

  • Leonard Michaels, “In the Fifties
  • Wayne Koestenbaum, “My ’80s
  • Jonathan Lethem, “13, 1977, 21” [from Lethem’s The Disappointment Artist; also the anthology The Fourth Genre: Contemporary Writers of/on Creative Nonfiction]
  • Susan Allen Toth, “Going to the Movies” [from Harper’s Magazine, May 1980; also The Fourth Genre anthology]
  • Carol Paik, “A Few Things I Know About Softball” [from Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction, Volume 9, Number 2, Fall 2007, also The Fourth Genre anthology]
  • Debra Marquart, “Some Things I Know About That Day”
  • Wendy Rawlings, “Virtually Romance: A Discourse on Love in the Information Age”
  • Nancy Lord, “I Met a Man Who Has Seen the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, and This Is What He Told Me” [from Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction, Volume 9, Number 1, Spring 2007, also The Fourth Genre anthology]
  • Michele Morano, “Grammar Lessons: The Subjunctive Mood” [from Morano’s Grammar Lessons, also The Fourth Genre anthology]
  • Meriwether Clarke, “The Grimm Brothers: A List Essay
  • Sei Shonagon, “Hateful Things” [from Shonagon’s Pillow Book, also The Art of the Personal Essay anthology]
  • Christopher Smart, “My Cat Jeoffry” [from Smart’s Jubilate Agno]
  • Brenda Miller, “Table of Figures” [from Miller’s Blessing of the Animals, also The Best Creative Nonfiction, Vol.3]
  • Anonymous, “(names have been changed)” [from The Best Creative Nonfiction, Vol.3]
  • Dawnelle Wilkie, “What Comes Out” [from The Best Creative Nonfiction, Vol.3]
  • Tim Bascom, “Community College”

In reading at these essays I tried to establish certain “rules” that the pieces seemed to share, and found that in fact this motley crew did have some common characteristics.  I also should note that I’m looking at the pieces in terms of their connections to this form, not as individual pieces, so all references to them will be in terms of how they illustrate the precepts of the form. So here’s what I learned:


That the term “List Essay” might not be precisely correct. David Blakesley wrote a review of Reinventing Rhetoric: The Dialectic of List and Story by John D. O’Banion, in which he sums up O’Banion’s admixture of the list story like this:

List is the form of discourse utilized by logic or systematic thought; story is the form utilized by narratival thought… In their application, “List records scientific truth, with logic providing tests of a List’s accuracy and universality. Story embodies aesthetic ‘truth’ (meaning), with narration providing guidance in revealing and discovering such situationally bound meaning.”

It’s important to point out here that the list essay is a different entity than the list story, since technically the essay is a non-fiction form that usually contains elements of both systematic and narrative style. So by this reasoning, almost every essay is to some degree  a systematic-narratival or list-story essay – the only “list essays” would be the ones that don’t employ any narrative. With this in mind, I’d propose the title systematic narrative essay. Aesthetically it’s not as concise as “list essay,” but I think it actually rolls off the tongue quite nicely. And the process itself of reading a bunch of unrelated essays and attempting to delineate precepts that they all follow is itself an example of the tightrope walk between narrative thought and systematic application, as each of these essays does tell a story, most of them intensely personal, and my attempt here is to figure out some analogous connections between their systematic methods of telling those narratives.


That the force that drives the essay is at least as much concept as plot. The list essay could be called a non-fiction concept story. In eleven of the 15 essays I read, the concept was even stated in the title:

“Community College”

“Table of Figures”

“Grammar Lessons: The Subjunctive Mood”

“A Few Things I Know About Softball”

“I Met a Man Who Has Seen the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, and This Is What He Told Me”

“Going to the Movies”

“My ‘80s”

“In the Fifties”

“The Search for Marvin Gardens”

“The Grimm Brothers: A List Essay”

“Virtually Romance: A Discourse on Love in the Information Age”

And in the other three the concept was subtly, almost secretly  implicit:

“A Few Things About That Day” [about an abortion]

“What Comes Out” [about an abortion clinic]

“(names have been changed)” [about an 11-year-old girl with HIV, presumably from her stepfather or uncle)

The importance of this is that not just the action, but the structure itself of each essay revolves around the concept. And “revolve” is a good word for it, as very few of the list essays I’ve read follow a linear narrative, and even the ones that generally do, like “A Few Things I Know About Softball,” “Community College,” and “The Grimm Brothers: A List Essay,” break up the narrative with systematic stylistic devices. In “…About Softball” Paik breaks up the sections with headings like “Lesson1: Put your body in front of the ball,” “Lesson 2: Catch with both hands,” and so forth. “Community College” reads like a log book of a college lecturer, with headings for each of the 16 weeks of the semester. “The Grimm Brothers” injects social, literary, and historical critique into a skeletal summary of the brothers’ lives, attempting to draw conclusions as to how they wrote the fairy tales that have become part of Western culture’s collective unconscious.. In Jonathan Lethem’s “13, 1997, 21” he tells the story of watching Star Wars twenty-one times at the age of thirteen when it came out in the summer of 1977, and even the form serves the content – it’s told in twenty-one short, concentric sections.


That they can be panoramic in scope or ultra zoomed in, sometimes both at the same time. The panoramic view  allows essayists to think of their subjects  on a macro level. In Michaels’s “In the Fifties” and Wayne Koestenbaum’s “My ‘80s,” both writers use the decade to frame events in their own coming-of-age stories. Both relate literary and cultural touchstones associated with the respective decades – Michaels using Dylan Thomas, McCarthyism and Greenwich Village bohemians and Koestenbaum using Tama Janowitz, AIDS, and the Greenwich Village gay subculture – to private events in their own lives. This juxtaposition gives these private events an epic scope. Conversely, in “The Grimm Brothers: A List Essay,” Meriwether Clarke uses 53 ultra-short paragraphs (1-3 lines each) seemingly to remove the epic-ness of the Grimm Brothers’ legend, simply relaying fact after fact about their lives and work. I’ve found the zoomed-in approach less common in list essays. But, like on Debra Marquart’s “Some Things About That Day” in which she lists everything she remembers about the day she had an abortion, the process of listing everything one remembers about one event can reveal to the writer and the reader why this event has defined the writer. The essay is only two pages, eleven paragraphs of 4-6 lines each. In the third paragraph, she finds it “difficult to remember the order in which things happened.” In the seventh paragraph she recounts telling her husband she was pregnant and him asking, “Is it mine?” And in the last paragraph she arrives home from the procedure to find him watching the NBA playoffs and telling her how brave she is. This isn’t the only action of the short essay, but I point it out because it reveals the importance of this day as a reflection of the days before and after it. Also, in “13, 1977, 21” Lethem attempts, through the prism of the systematic retelling of his pre-teen obsession with Star Wars, to come to grips with his mother’s death at the time and his own budding sexuality. Which brings me to the next thing I’ve learned:


That the form is a great way for the writer to get grip on material, how it fits together. So many of the essays I read seem to be working themselves out either implicitly or explicitly in the process of listing and arranging all the individual parts. In “Going to the Movies,” Toth, in three brief numbered sections, tells of three different men she goes to the movies with, how they watch movies, and how she watches movies with them. Each of these is reactive, starting with the men’s names (“Aaron takes me only to art films.” “Bob takes me only to movies that he thinks have a redeeming social conscience.” “Sam likes movies that are entertaining.”) and portraying herself only in her semi-romantic relationships to them. Then, in the fourth and final section, she tells of going to the movies alone, putting her feet up, and singing along to musicals with happy endings, where “the men and women always like each other.” It is through the systematic, quantified analysis of the men she goes to the movies with that she finds her own place in the narrative. In “The Subjunctive Mood” Morano employs a 2nd-person perspective to simulate a Spanish language lesson, which she beautifully interweaves with her on-and-off relationship with a suicidal man while living in Spain: “This is the when, the while, the until. The before and after.The real and the unreal in a precarious balance…But at least the final rule of usage is simple, self-contained, one you can commit to memory: Certain independent clauses exist only in the subjunctive mood, lacing optimism with resignation, hope with heartache.” “Community College” also uses this teacher’s perspective to frame his narrative in time and space, logging his students’ actions strictly from their interactions with him as their writing teacher. By Week 16 – Finals Week – he knows probably more about the students’ personal lives than he wants to, and the Week-by-Week log of their failures, excuses, and minor triumphs shows as well as any essay I’ve read the unique relationship a college professor has with his or her students.


That they’re generally pretty short. The title of one, “I Met a Man Who Has Seen the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, and This Is What He Told Me,” is nearly as long as any of the nine sections. The longest essay here by far, “The Search for Marvin Gardens,” clocks in at a whopping eight pages, and is by far the shortest piece by John McPhee I’ve read. I’m going to test this precept this summer in reading what seems like a book-length systematic narrative, The Know-It-All by A.J. Jacobs, in which he writes about reading the entire Encyclopedia Britannica for a year and arranges the book as A-Z mock entries.


That the language of the form is generally spare, implying connections that the reader must infer from the systematic framework the essay sets up.  A good example of this is the pair of essays, “What Comes Out” and “Some Things About That Day.” As stated earlier, both center conceptually on abortion. But they deal from opposite sides of the plate glass window, Marquart recounting her own experience getting an abortion and Wilkie recounting the life of the health care worker assisting with the abortions. Both are short, unassuming, and quietly heartbreaking, and neither says what is implied. Wilkie even starts the essay by telling the reader, “We do not talk about What Comes Out,” then clinically and unsparingly  takes the reader through the process the health care workers go through in removing and disposing of it. Marquart, in two brief pages, reconstructs from hazy memory the same process , stating that “My friend tried to soften it for me afterwards. Just say you had a procedure, dear.” So, for both, perhaps the United States’ most heated contemporary political debate becomes simply a procedure to get something out. The human narrative is embedded in the systematic procedure.


That the form, while contemporary, is not without antecedents. I recently discovered “Hateful Things” from the “pillow book” of 10-Century Japanese matron and snob Sei Shonagon, which as advertised is a list of things she hates, including pretentious people, inkstones that malfunction, and men who leave after overnight trysts without saying goodbye. She even states, “Sometimes one greatly dislikes a person for no particular reason – and then that person goes and does something hateful.”

“My Cat Jeoffry,” a poem, is perhaps the piece I remember most from my undergraduate early English literature survey course.  Its systematic structure is rigid – 74 lines, every one starting with “For,” all praising his beloved cat. Smart was obviously insane and did in fact spend a good portion of his life in an asylum, but the 74 lines of “My Cat Jeoffrey” do give a loose, loving, altogether unique narrative portrait.


I went out to lunch this week at Hunan Delight, my new favorite place in Park Slope for cheap Chinese, and when I opened my fortune cookie at the end of lunch it read:

Digital circuits are made from analog parts.

I’m not usually one to assume meaning in mass-produced slips of paper, but this one spoke to me. I come from a family of electricians and mechanics, and though I can barely keep the oil changed in my car and frequently need my wife to help me operate my Macbook, I know this much: Digital circuits work in bits of information, each bit working into the systematic logic of the circuit; if any bit doesn’t logically fit, the circuit will malfunction. Each bit, though, works in a continuous  strain, and thus has its own infinitely variable narrative order. I teach a class on convergent media, and one of the things we talk about is how digital (online) media have changed the way we read, and think. With the rise of non-fiction as a predominant form in publishing market, perhaps the systematic-narrative, or list essay, is both a response and a reflection of this change.

—John Proctor


May 122010




Hazlitt said, “Every word must be a blow.” And that’s the way Victoria Redel writes. Every word and phrase a hammer blow, crafted along the edge of a twisty syntax that is taut, teasing, emphatic and lascivious.

Swoon is something else, is gorgeous, a complex triptych of a book, a classic three-step structure held together by the strings of eros and femininity and point of view (that woman poet) and the technical threading–the repetition of the italicized “Such Noises” prologue poems and the smaller linguistic and image parallels (see, for example, how “…bend into the microphone…” on p.4 in “Somewhere in the Glorious” transforms into “And with that she’d sing, tilting and leaning into/ the purpled head…” on p. 71 in “Tilted Woman”; and how Akhmatova, the “Russian woman” and “my mothers” in “Such Noises” on p. 3 return as the “old Jew” who kvelts in “Noisy Woman” on p. 77). And so, though the book moves through its sequence–the young lover in the throes of eros the bittersweet, to the mother, to the multiple female characters of the austere, Chekhovian prose poems in the last section–it is one complexly woven whole.

In Swoon, Redel has hit her form in a spectacular fashion. She is alive in language. She’s a mature poet, a knowing poet, a wild, romantic poet. But, in the end, what she is most besotted with (what the poet in the poems is besotted with) is language itself.

Look at that second poem already mentioned “Somewhere in the Glorious”; two lines in the middle go: “I have only all my waiting. For what have I waited/ by cross street and elbow, for what gadget of transformation?” Then, two poems later, in “Cabin Note”: “We are still waiting./ But for what?” And then in the next poem “Damsels, I”: “If not for paradise then for what/ do I rut, incorrigible in the palm of your hand?” Nevermind that I’d give anything to have written any of these sentences myself with their insistent and erotic parallel constructions, their open-ended and endless interrogatives, their theological and sexual weavings, their surprising turns of phrase. But Redel has actually managed to thread and suspend the thought through three different poems over several pages so that the mind of the reader, in the middle poem (with its acute exploitation of white space, the emptiness of waiting, quite specific to this poem), is really suspended, in suspense, unconsciously waiting for the syntactic pay-off. And the pay-off is spectacular, not because of the thematic surprise (the connection between desire for spiritual transformation and for love is an ancient theme) but because of the language, the bull’s-eye perfect “what”/”rut” rhyme in the third poem. It goes straight to the heart and the mind. It’s what makes Redel a masterful poet.

I love things like this: “What we do we do in this life with our clothes still mostly on.” A line I could write an essay on, an epigram made poetry by the atypical verb placement. Think how a line like this gets built up. It starts with the idea: We do what we do in life with our clothes on. (A slightly anti-romantic, pretty realistic view of what life is like after you’re grown up.) Redel inverts natural word order–“We do what we do” to “What we do we do”– to make the line surprising, give it rhythm and zing. What we do we do in life with our clothes on. An interesting idea but still not a line Redel would write. She adds the word “still” so that we get: “What we do we do in life with our clothes still on.” Which builds in the antithetical picture of what we do with our clothes off which, accordingly, is not what we really do in life. And finally she adds the amazing “mostly”–“our clothes still mostly on” which twists the whole sentence with a wry, ironic tweak. The epigram becomes story, it becomes the image of a couple doing what they do in life but half-in or half-out of their clothes, that sad, comic moment of struggling, half-dressed transition from passion to so-called real life.

—Douglas Glover

See also “Swoon.”



May 112010

I recently started reading Steven Heighton’s essay collection, The Admen Move on Lhasa, after discovering his writing on Numero Cinq.  The title essay elegantly compares a work of art to a “living and visionary” city, in this case, Lhasa, Tibet.   He contrasts art (and Lhasa) with advertising and schlock (and modern, planned cities.)  There were many illuminating points which I will not be able to do justice to here.  The following are just a few quotes, the ones I underlined and double starred.

…art usually involves an invitation and solicits the entry and collaboration of the audience, while advertising usually implies a threat.  Or, to continue this meandering trip towards Lhasa: art invites you into the city along any available road, while advertising dictates where you enter.  And when.

Perhaps artists can begin to suspect they’ve created a memorable city, a god-haunted world or visionary town—some site worthy of a repeated pilgrimage—only when responses to the work are unpredictably  and ungovernably divergent, diverse, off the wall, missing the point that good artists do sometimes try to make but without ever quite succeeding—always seeming instead to convey something else.  Something impossible to signpost.

Schlock makes us understudies loitering in the wings of our own lives.

It’s not that art cannot be entertainment, the way schlock is, or is advertised to be, but rather that art, while entertaining us, also unsettles.  For whatever sedates us is shuffling us off towards the great sleep of death.  Art, on the other hand, is a persistent wake-up call, the setting off of a quiet siren in the heart.

This entire collection is filled with great essays, insightful, honest and so well-written.  I hate to be simple-minded and say, This is really good, go read it, but…This is a really good collection.  Go read it!

See also Heighton’s poem and novel excerpt on Numéro Cinq.

May 052010

I’m pleased here to present the first  few pages of Steven Heighton’s new novel Every Lost Country, published just yesterday (really! May 4) by Random House in Canada. Many Numéro Cinq readers will already be familiar with Steven, having read his poem “Herself,  Revised” published here a couple of weeks ago. The poem is from his recently published collection Patient Frame. It is not my intention to flood the market with Steven Heighton prose and poetry, but the man is a walking definition of the word “prolific” and ambidextrous and a compatriot and his words are good companions in the long summer evenings.


from Every Lost Country

Air this thin turns anyone into a mystic.  Dulling the mind, it dulls distinctions, slurs the border between abstractions—right and wrong—or apparent opposites—dead and alive, past and present, you and him.  The brain, rationing oxygen, quiets to a murmur, like a fine-print clause or codicil.  You’re at high altitude for the first time and this mental twilight is a surprise as rewarding as the scenery.  This recess from judgement, sedation of the conscience.  How your sleep here seems too shallow for the nightmares that await you at a certain depth.  You and the rest of the party are basically drunk.  Till now you’ve had to treat others for minor problems only, small cuts and contusions, headaches, insomnia, so this intoxication remains a luxury, not a medical challenge.  Or a moral one.

To you, right and wrong are not abstractions.

Still, think of the freedom of those summit squads dreamily bypassing climbers fallen in the Death Zone—the strange luxury of that.  What Lawson himself has done.  You might have thought twice about joining his expedition as doctor, and bringing along your  daughter, if you’d known his story when you signed the contract.  But at this altitude your numbed mind has to wonder.  Camp One.  Put yourself in his boots if you can.  Now say for certain what you’d have done, or will do.

September 20, 2006, 4: 17 p.m.

She sees the trouble coming because she knows her father.

Sophie sits where she has sat for the last few afternoons, on the flat top of a concrete cylinder rebarred into the glacier, her backside in Nepal and her boots in China—Tibet.  The seat of her favourite ripped jeans covers the line of Chinese characters inscribed in the concrete.  Beside her stands a lightweight aluminum flagpole not much taller than she is and skewed some degrees off vertical.  The breeze cooling her back can’t stir the small Chinese flag, because monsoon winds or, more likely, mischievous Sherpas like Kaljang and Tashi have spooled and tangled the flag tightly to the pole.  Come to think of it—and the notion pleases her on a number of grounds, playful, political—she is likely seated a dozen steps or more inside China now.  Chinese border patrols have to hike up the glacier and adjust the markers from time to time.  A week ago, she and her father and Kaljang and Amaris stood at the edge of base camp and watched the Chinese set up a device on a tripod and take readings and untangle and lower the flag and remove the flagstaff and pry out the marker and roll it laboriously upslope and core new holes in the ice and slot it in.  Some of the men were in blue coveralls and black toques like a SWAT team, others in olive down vests over camouflage gear.  They trudged from chore to chore and said little.  They ignored their audience, though one of the men in camouflage, maybe eighteen or so, waved shyly and blew kisses to her and Amaris.  Amaris ignored him.  Sophie waved back.  Beside her, Kaljang’s eyes narrowed merrily in his brown face and he showed his nicotine teeth.  She snuck a glance at her father on her other side, but he too seemed tickled by the scene, rubbing his salt and pepper stubble, shaking his head affably.  He seemed almost himself again up here.

Read the rest!

May 042010

kate_waterKate McCahill on the Ganges

It’s a huge pleasure to introduce Kate McCahill who is a former student of mine at Vermont College of Fine Arts (she hasn’t graduated yet). Before coming to VCFA, Kate traveled in India, and when she came to work with me, she was writing a series of essays about that experience (with a book hovering in the near distance). These essays were remarkable for their structure and verve, their plots and their attention to character and detail. This is one of my favourites.

The big news for Kate, though, is that she’s just been awarded the Mary Elvira Stevens Traveling Fellowship, funded by Wellesley College (Kate’s undergrad school). Kate expects to get about $15,000 to finance a writing trip from Guatemala to Patagonia.



The day I met Teddy, the heat and the grimy streets of Pune had mixed a muggy haze outside, which leached its way into the bookstore, slicking our foreheads and necks. As I examined the travel section, the bell above the door clanged and Teddy came in, stood for a moment in the doorway, backlit by the sun, and then walked over, close to where I stood, so close I could hear him breathing. I watched from the corner of my eye as he scanned the horror novels and selected an old hardcover. I caught a glimpse of the curling binding: Carrie, by Stephen King.  The bell above the bookstore door clanged again; hot wind blew in.

Teddy was a tall black man with close, tight curls and white teeth save for a brown one towards the molars, which he’d learned to hide by keeping the left side of his mouth closed. Because of this, he talked with only half his mouth, and that, combined with the rotting tooth behind full lips, gave him a sly, crafty look. We were four hours northeast of Mumbai, in a city known mostly for an ashram, built by the guru Osho.

Teddy’s eyes sidled to mine as we browsed, but I looked away. Aman had warned me of certain people on my first night in Pune. There were those who came to Pune for the money there could be made selling drugs to hippies at the ashram, or slipped pills into their coffees at the German bakery, or took them away by motorbike into the night. Aman was a friend of a friend, a second cousin of a farmer I’d met while still in Dehra Dun, and I figured he was exaggerating a little, trying to scare me into being extra-careful. But I took the horror novel in Teddy’s hands as a sign nevertheless. The books on the shelf before me bore beaten bindings and dated titles, and I set my attention on those. The USSR Today, one stated gloomily. Myanmar: Temples of Splendor, read the cracked yellow spine of another. When I tugged it down, opening the long cover that drew stickily back, a flattened moth broke off and spiraled to the floor. The pages showed Technicolor tourists admiring a crumbling, sunlit temple.

Those books were like the maze-like, rutted streets outside, the old men on rickety gray bicycles, even the street-children, their cries at once pitiful and joyful, and the beggars with their practiced wheedling. I would remember each one as an enduring, Indian staple: worn by time, accustomed to crowds, doggedly resilient. Teddy, on the other hand, was fresh, with pearl buttons on his Western shirt and pointy shoes on his feet. “Have you read this?” I heard him ask. I looked up; he waved Carrie. I couldn’t help it: I smiled, shook my head, and pretended to look grim. He wasn’t like the enduring things of India, standing so tall in the bookshop, and speaking English, too.

“What’s wrong?” Teddy asked, seeing the look on my face. “What’s it about?” His question was mockingly innocent. Even if you knew nothing about Carrie, the cover, with her body stained red, told you everything. “Just joking,” he said at my raised eyebrows, and flipped fast through the pages like he was just seeing how long it was, how closely set the type.

“So, you can’t stand the gore?” he asked after another moment. When I looked at him, he winked. Be careful, Kate, a little voice said. But Teddy continued talking, and I kept listening. “That Stephen King—he’s something else,” he remarked, lowering his voice a little as an elderly Indian couple brushed past us. “He’s American, like you?”

I could tell by the way he said it that he knew the answer, but I nodded anyway. His own accent sounded imprecise—a little off-kilter, rolling and round. He was from South Africa, if I had had to guess.

He looked at me like he was waiting to hear me ask where hewas from, but I remembered Aman’s warning and said nothing. When I looked up from the Myanmar book again, he’d bent to examine the rest of the Stephen King section. I slid my book back beside the others on the shelf, and as I walked towards the door to leave I ran my fingertips along the soft spines once more. Just before I reached the end of the stack, the pad of my first finger caught on the broken coil of a spiral-bound book, and I drew my hand back. I thought I felt a tiny spark as my fingers left the book. I stopped, peered at it, then eased it out from between the other books. It was a loose-leafed notebook, the kind you buy in American drugstores. I felt Teddy glance over, but in that moment, nothing could keep me from lifting the cover and looking inside. There was something funny about that notebook, I just knew.

Handwriting choked the inside cover and the very first page: all Sanskrit and all in pencil, delicate marks made by a trembling hand. The words spilled onto the next page, and then the next and the next. In places, the writing ran over itself, and as I turned the pages the characters grew smaller and began to march up and down the margins and snake between each coil of the binding. It was as if the writer had had the book as his only source of paper for a very long time.

“Someone’s journal,” I heard Teddy whisper beside me.

“Maybe,” I said. Put it back, the little voice said, and leave Teddy. That’s what Aman would want you to do. But I just couldn’t take my eyes from those pages. The notebook felt both heavy and flimsy, like the words were weighing the cheap paper down. Teddy didn’t try to take the book, didn’t say anything else, and together we looked at the pages the way little kids look at picture books without reading the words. The tightness of those words; their growing frenzy.

Towards the very end of the notebook, we came across a nearly clean page, startling and white like a flat, smooth stone in grass. The lines resembled the veins on a wrist, and the only other thing there was a signature at the lower right. The signature was both scratchy and looping, if that can describe it: hard at its points, but soft in its curves. How had it happened, this page? I heard Teddy’s breath quicken a fragment. Had the writer waited as he filled up every other page for the person who would sign their name on the only blank one? I imagined a prisoner, or someone exiled. Someone banished. Was it a hastily scribbled prayer?

Teddy brushed the signature delicately with one calloused thumb. I reached out myself and felt the way the writing cut into the page. It was impossible to tell whether the signature was a man’s or a woman’s, in the way it both rolled and cut into the page. I glanced at Teddy; he shrugged. When I looked down again I felt a little chill, even in the hot store: looking at that page was like seeing a secret.

I felt guiltier and guiltier as I held the book in my hands. What was it doing on these shelves, anyway? I glanced towards the counter at the young shopkeeper, who was typing into her cell phone intently, perched on a stool with her legs crossed. I closed the book, knelt down, and slid it onto the lowest shelf, taking care to tuck it in so that it wasn’t easily visible to a browser. Teddy didn’t protest. It didn’t occur to me to even ask whether the book was for sale: I simply assumed it was not. For one selfish second I imagined waiting for Teddy to leave, and then slipping the book into my purse, hurrying back to Aman’s and holding it open again, this time alone.

We stood there for a while, looking at the place where I’d slid the book back. Teddy finally broke the spell. “Want to grab a chai?” he asked, and I felt relieved that he’d broken the strange book’s spell. What could be said, after all, except that those pages had held a mystery? All of a sudden I was aware again of the shouts of chai-wallas outside and the shotgun explosions of motorbike engines in the street. No, I didn’t have time to drink chai, meditations started in an hour and I still had to meet Aman beforehand. I shook my head.

“Can I at least get your name?” Teddy asked, and I gave it to him. What the hell; we’d already shared one secret. “I’m Teddy,” he replied, and plucked Carrie back up off the shelf. “I’m taking this one,” he added, grinning.

“Good luck with that,” I said, and without looking again for the spiral-bound book on the shelf, I left the store and went back out into the sunshine.

The ashram wasn’t like the rest of Pune, which was built, as far as I could tell, around the wide, trash-littered, dried-up river that divided the city. Aman lived on the northern side, opposite the ashram, up a little street lined with apartment buildings built in the seventies. Most of Pune’s streets were unpaved—except for the wide avenues that circled the city center—and were crowded with vegetable stands and bidi shops, vegetable-wallas and munching cows. If you walked from Aman’s flat away from the river and up the hill a ways, it was like stepping back in time: no cars, just cows and bike rickshaws and a crumbling red temple, centuries old. Strings of marigolds for sale. But the ashram was always gleaming, always manicured, perpetually gated to keep in the scented flowers, the shining floors, and the servants in their clean white linens.

Beggars gathered at the ashram gates, but of course they could never go in; two guards planted there day and night made sure of that. You could feel the shift as soon as you entered; gone were the noisy cars, the shouting hawkers, the trash on the ground. Fake waterfalls obliterated all unpleasant noise. Neatly shaven grass; tall, carefully-planned stands of trees.

I was late to meet Aman after the bookstore, even though I’d been rushing. It always took longer than I thought it would to race back to the flat and change into my red robe. Everyone at the ashram had to wear the red robe, even the guards and front-desk agents. The robe was to keep us all looking the same, all equals I suppose, but when you walked around the city you sure could tell who was part of the ashram and who wasn’t. The most devout in the ashram wore their red robes everywhere. Personally, I hated my robe, which chafed against my skin and made me sweat profusely, but when I didn’t wear it to the ashram Aman took offense. He’d given it to me as a gift, and wore his each day, washing it carefully in the evenings and putting it out on the little balcony to dry in the night.

I didn’t tell Aman about Teddy as we sat sipping our tea before meditation. I didn’t mention the notebook either. I wanted to keep it a secret, preserve the mystery. I held it in my mind like a precious stone, something to be guarded and saved. Instead, Aman and I just drank our tea and talked about our schedule: noon meditation, another at two, and then the White Robe ceremony in the evening.

Aman had taken great pains to ensure that I attended at least one White Robe ceremony. In the first few days I’d arrived, we’d both been too exhausted; meditation at five AM followed by afternoons of touring Pune tired us both out. But today, Aman was determined. The morning before, he’d sent me across the street to his neighbor’s, a woman who lived with her teenaged daughter. They lent me a white robe stamped with cream-colored flowers. Aman laundered it again for me after I brought it home – just in case, he’d said. In case of what? I wanted to ask, but bit my tongue. Deep down I knew why. While Aman’s apartment was clean right down to the shoes lined up by the door, the neighbor’s house was really a two-room flat, smaller than Aman’s and stinking of cigarettes, the windows shut tight to preserve the air conditioning. I didn’t mind the smell, just the close, freezing air. The television blared.

Aman drank down the last of his tea now and we made our way to the meditation room. It was just as the website pictured: the whole room sparkled with mosaics made of mirrors. Aman and I showed our ID cards at the door, removed our shoes, and went in; thirty people or so already sat cross-legged on the low, wide steps that rose toward the back of the room, their eyes closed. Silently, Aman and I joined them, and he settled into a cross-legged position. His breathing soon deepened and slowed. I closed my own eyes.

I tried to let me thoughts slip from me, but my legs fell asleep right away, still unused to the position. I cracked my eyelids open: everyone around me kept their backs straight and their hands folded. Someone dimmed the lights and a gray-haired woman wearing lots of turquoise jewelry lit a candle up front, clicked two little chimes together, and the room fell into an even deeper quiet, steady breath the only sound.

But I couldn’t keep my mind still. This wasn’t like the yoga I’d practiced up in Rishikesh, in an old man’s living room that became a studio every afternoon. In this glittering space, thoughts crowded in on me and raced around. Little twinges in my muscles and on my skin grew into itches, cramps, and I wanted to stretch so badly but knew that if I did, I would bump the people around me, break them from their trances. The candle smelled sickly sweet, and the room grew very warm with all of the bodies. Notice your breath, I reminded myself, but my thoughts just shot away from me again like little film reels. I was hungry. What were my parents doing, right now? And where was that scarf I bought in Thailand? I hadn’t seen it lately. My mind circled over itself, and then I remembered the journal. I thought of the words that filled the pages, and then startling empty one. I settled on the thought of slowly turning the notebook’s pages. I imagined touching the penciled words. Teddy’s breath on my neck. When the gray-haired, turquoise clad woman touched the chimes together again, I blinked in the light with everyone else, like waking up from a dream. I hadn’t emptied my mind, but I’d come close, had thought only of that creamy blank page for the final long minutes of the session.

Aman never spoke about his actual meditation. When I tried to ask him, on our second day together, what he tried to think of when he meditated, where he tried to send his mine, explaining that I was struggling with the concept, he’d shrugged. “We each find our way,” he’d said, and though he was never short of words anywhere else, we both avoided further discussion of the hours we spent in inward silence. After this meditation, we talked of yoga later on, of his adopted son who was planning a visit later in the week, and of where we’d take our lunch. We ambled to the German bakery, still in our robes, and ate soup together at a long table where other soul searchers, also in their robes, talked and ate too. Outside the German bakery, vendors displayed long racks of red and white robes for sale. I tried not to meet their eyes on the way out.

Aman liked to wash before the White Robe ceremony, so after we’d attended the second meditation and eaten dinner, which Aman purchased in tins from the same neighbor who’d lent me the robe, he went into the bathroom. I could hear the water running as I took off my red robe and slid on the white one. At least it was cooler, sewn of thin cotton instead of the red robe’s scratchy polyester. Aman emerged from the bathroom eventually, his hair slicked back with water, his white robe cloaked over him. He’d ironed the robe that morning; I told him it looked nice. He told me mine did too. Then we walked back across the river to the ashram, where a hundred other people in white robes waited outside of the big auditorium, its silhouette reflected in the meditation pool that lay before it.

You weren’t allowed into the auditorium until right before the White Robe ceremony, so while Aman chatted with old friends who’d donned the white robe for years, I recognized an Israeli girl, Eti, that I’d met in a yoga class the day before. She, too, was looking around, standing a little apart from everyone, so I went over to say hello. She always toted a huge backpack, and it was no wonder, with the number of robes we needed here. She smiled when she saw me coming over, and we talked about the mall, where she’d been that morning. “I just could not get up for this morning meditation, you know?” she said. “Maybe tomorrow!” And then the doors were opening and people began flowing in along both sides of the meditation pool.

It took quite a while to get to the door, because everyone needed to remove their shoes and place them in cubbies, then grab a handful of tissues for when the breathing meditation got started. People murmured and mumbled in line, but no one spoke too loud or laughed, unwilling perhaps to break the stillness of our reflections in the meditation pond. Slowly we made our way up the stairs and into the cavernous auditorium lobby. I unlaced my sneakers and tugged them off, tucking my socks inside, and stuffed them beside Eti’s in an available cubby. We started to follow the other white-robers inside.

“Miss,” I heard a woman call from behind me. Eti and I turned; the woman was talking to me. “Miss,” she said again, and beckoned with her hand for me to come back. Eti and I looked at each other; I shrugged, and she found a place on the floor.

“I’m sorry, miss,” the woman was saying, as I pushed back through the doorway, against the flow of the white robes. “You can’t attend the ceremony today.” She glanced at my robe. “It’s the flowers, these little flowers here. The robe needs to be totally white, just plain.” She shrugged her shoulders and legitimately tried to look sympathetic. Sorry, they’re the rules, her look said.

“Are you serious?” I asked her, and a few heads turned. I was making a commotion, but I just could not believe it. After Aman washed the robe? After the neighbor lent it to me? The woman nodded. “Sorry,” she said, out loud this time, and then coolly moved her gaze from my face to monitor the others who still trickled in. I glanced through the doorway; Eti had craned her neck from where she sat and was watching me, confused. I didn’t see Aman anywhere. I held up my hands at Eti, the universal gesture for who knows? Eti waved, smiled a little smile that genuinely seemed sorry, and I was at least grateful for that as I laced my shoes back up and left, taking the stairs two at a time, my face aflame.

Mostly, I was annoyed—after the initial shock of being banished wore off—that I didn’t have a change of clothes. I figured, as I tried to steady my breath and slow my beating heart, that I had two choices. I could go home, or I could wait for the White Robe ceremony to end so I could still walk back with Aman. After pondering the walk home alone, across the bridge beneath the dimming sky, I chose to wait, and so I walked out the ashram gates, white robe and all, and down to the German Bakery, where I thought I’d get a coffee and try to find a magazine, or a person to talk to, that would take my mind away from this mess.

Stupid white robes, I muttered as I walked past the beggars, who must have sensed my frustration because they didn’t even bother to approach me. Or maybe they just figured I was stingy. Or, maybe even beggars hold off when someone’s having a conversation with herself. Damn freaking flowers, I mumbled as I entered the German Bakery, and what finally stopped my cursing was the sight of Teddy, standing there at the counter plain as day and talking with the girl serving coffee.

He turned and grinned, recognized me immediately, then took a moment to look at my white flowered robe. He studied my face. “Everything okay?” he asked carefully. I must have still been red in the face.

“I’m okay,” I said, then blurted it out. “I got turned away from the White Robe ceremony just now.” He grimaced.

“Was it the flowers?” I nodded. “How’d you guess?” I asked, half sarcastic.

“I’ve been to a few of those White Robe’s in my time,” Teddy said. He put on a grim doctor’s face: “I’ve seen this a few times before.” I laughed at his tone, which compared the ceremony to a serious condition that lacked a cure.

“It’s silly,” I admitted, “but I was so embarrassed! It really sucked, you know?”

“Let’s have a coffee and make fun of the ashram,” Teddy said. I couldn’t help but laugh, and nodded yes. A coffee was what I needed, all right. For those moments I forgot all about the empty page in the journal and the little voice that warned me about Teddy, and instead just felt happy that Teddy was there, for sly as his half-smile was, he was being kind. He bought two coffees, and we looked around for somewhere to sit. All the chairs were full, tables littered with dirty cups and newspapers.

“Let’s go outside,” Teddy suggested, so I followed him out the door and we sat down on the sidewalk outside of the coffee shop, lowering ourselves carefully so as not to spill the steaming contents of our mugs.

“So what do you do here, Teddy?” I asked him as we sipped. I could smell chocolate emanating from the bakery.

“I’m a PhD student,” he answered. I was surprised, but then I knew nothing about him. “Anthropology,” he added, anticipating my next question. “I’m especially interested,” he paused, put down his books, stretched his hands out before him, “in the palms.”

“You read palms?” I asked, before I even realized the words were out of my mouth. Sure enough, he looked offended.

“I don’t just read palms,” he insisted, like he’d dodged the question all his life. “I read them in the traditional, voo-dooey way, yes,”—he wiggled his fingers in the air to emphasize voo-doo—“but my degree has many levels. Astrology, physiology, human biology, psychology…” the list petered out. He set his coffee down beside him and leaned back on the heels of his hands. “It’s a complicated degree,” he finished, and drew a pack of cigarettes from his pocket.

I watched him strike a match and light a cigarette. As an afterthought, he offered the pack to me. I shook my head. “So, what can you see in the palms?” I asked him. I looked at my own; they were sweaty, for one thing, with a few scooping lines.

“Oh, you can read many things,” he finally said vaguely, maybe still miffed at me. He drew on his cigarette and blew the smoke out into the street. He took another drag, exhaled.  “Many things,” he said again, this time as if to himself, drawing the words out like swoops of honey pulled from the jar. I guessed he’d decided to make me beg. He turned and looked at me for a long moment, his gaze uncomfortably piercing. I looked away.

“You don’t have to tell me,” I said. I reached for his pack of cigarettes and took one out. He struck the match.

“It’s not that I don’t want to tell you,” he finally said. “It’s that…” he paused, dragged. “I’m afraid to tell you what the palmist sees.” I waited for him to explain. The cigarette tasted smooth and had a thick gold filter.

“Everyone wants their palm read,” Teddy said, “but when they hear what the lines mean, they often see them as…” he waved his hands, looking for the right word. “As ugly,” he finished. “People are afraid of the truth in the lines.” He looked over, down at my hands. I was touching the lines of my left hand with my right fingers. When I noticed the movement, I lifted my cigarette to my lips.

He grinned at that. “Do you really want me to read it?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said, and then I realized that I meant it. I guessed I wanted to hear what was so bad, the way we’re compelled to stare at car accidents we pass on the freeway.

“You sure?” he asked. “Because I will. I’ll tell you what it says.” His voice was still lighthearted, and I nodded.

“Okay then, hand it over. Ha, get it? Hand it?” He snickered. I fake-laughed. “I get it,” I told him, and stuck my left palm out.

He flicked his cigarette into the gutter. “Get rid of yours, too,” he said. “I need to see both.” I obeyed, tossing the golden butt in behind his. He rubbed my outstretched palms with his thumb, as if to draw out the lines. For a very long time he stared at them, looking back and forth between my two hands.

“It’s a very interesting hand,” he muttered finally. “A very, very interesting hand.” Again he went quiet, pressing my palms again with his thumbs. Then he let both hands fall.

“You will have an ordinary life,” he said with a shrug. He wouldn’t meet my eyes.

“That’s it?” I checked my palms again myself; what was so wrong with them? “Tell me, Teddy,” I urged. “I won’t be hurt.” Even then I think I knew that was a lie.

“Yes, you will,” he affirmed, and inhaled deeply, let the breath out slowly. “This is why I never read the palm of a friend,” he said, and went for his cigarettes again. “They never leave me alone, after that.”

But I wanted to know! I had to know. “Please tell me,” I said, and now I really was begging. What could be so terrifying in the lines?

“Okay,” he finally said, after a few long drags on his new cigarette. “Okay. I can tell you about here, because the hand is always changing to show the present. Here,” he reached for my right palm and poked a finger into the longest line, “in India, you are afraid. You are suspicious. And, you are often alone?” he looked at me. I nodded. “But, you feel as though you are searching for something here?” he continued. “And,” he added, “you worry you’ll go home without it.” Again he looked at me, confirming. I nodded yes. “You’re expecting something. Not expecting,” he laughed, “as you Americans say, but expectant. You’re waiting for something.”

“That doesn’t sound so horrible,” I said. It was all I could think to reply. Only later would what he’d said would really sink in; all throughout India, I felt challenged by the constant eyes upon me, the crush of people always.

“There’s something else,” he told me. “Something happened, before you were born.” He let the words sink in for a moment, then continued. “Maybe something happened with your parents, or in your family, or something. I think,” and he paused, took a drag, let the cigarette fall. “I think it was something bad.”

Ever since that moment, I’ve wondered what he meant when he said that. My parents lost a child before me; is that what so darkened my palm? But Teddy was standing now, his coffee cup empty. He stretched his arms high and glanced down at me. I must have looked bewildered, because he said, as if to comfort me, “Don’t worry, Kate. Luck will be on your side.” He mumbled something about how he had to meet his friend inside. “You okay?” he asked. I nodded. “See you, Teddy,” I called softly as he walked away, but I can’t be sure whether he heard.

Instead of returning to the ashram, I walked towards the city center, letting my mind wander into everything I passed. I just couldn’t think too much of what Teddy had said, I just couldn’t. Yet his words were like the empty page of the journal we’d found together: meaningless without context, yet important too, somehow. The most frightening thing was his hesitation, and what he withheld. I thought of the meditating rooms, and tried to send my mind to the quiet tranquility they claimed to hold. I took in the world around me, and walked for miles.

The walk to the city center was always rich for the senses. Food-sellers tended stands from dawn until dusk and the cigarette and sweet shops stayed open through the night. Boats on the river pulled up to the banks, and bums and sadhus slept on the shores, shaded by day and protected from the wind by night with trees and boulders.  Taxis pulled up from the train station; buses came through from Bombay and sometimes from as far away as New Delhi.  The wealthier, more modern side of Pune came next, with paved roads and expensive restaurants, a shopping mall and a university. Aman’s side of the river had bumpy, narrow streets, the buildings alongside crumbling from a dozen layers of paint. I thought that old paint made walls more beautiful, because you could see every color of paint ever used on the place—cream was popular, and yellow and blue. The paint told a history of the building it clung to, and judging by the number of layers around here, that history was usually long. Thin old men pedaled bike rickshaws as I approached the city-center, their sandals flapping on their feet.

The center, when I reached it, pulsed with people bicycles, a score of buses, cars that slunk through the crowds. The visitors ambling around the mall were dressed in Western clothes; almost everyone wore sunglasses, their skin tanned. I forgot about my white robe and let myself observe: the women walking here could have stepped onto Fifth Avenue and would have been admired for their beauty, their cutting-edge style. I hadn’t seen Louis Vuitton since Hong Kong, and suddenly I was surrounded. There was Jimmy Choo and Vera Wang, draped over the wrists and arms and heads of the women who glanced at me, taking in, I guess, the silly robe and the sweat at my hairline. Clearly what they thought of me was not much; they didn’t interrupt the flow of chatter into their cell phones, just raised curved eyebrows or half-smiled to themselves and turned their eyes down, amused. Still, I liked the walk, a striking contrast to the crowd Aman’s street. The woman here picked their way along in stilettos, the men in polished loafers. I imagined them pausing for a bag of mangoes or a pack of American cigarettes before hurrying on down towards the bridge to catch a rickshaw that would rush them back to the city center’s magnetic glitter.

I remembered the wealth I’d encountered in America: a few friends with houses like mansions, a ride in a limousine, dinner at an elegant restaurant with my parents, one night in a four-star, silk-sheeted hotel with my boyfriend.  Here in Pune, amidst all this downtown glamour, I felt a pang at the disconnect. How strange it seemed to have known such comfort, in a place where such a level was now inaccessible to me. I had little money, and my pack at Aman’s contained everything I’d needed, this whole time I’d been traveling. It struck me that everything I had could fit in one bag and meant nothing.

I got lost in the winding streets of Pune, and it was dark before I took a rickshaw back to Aman’s flat across the river. He’d been worried sick about me, it was clear; when I knocked on his door, he opened it immediately, relief in his eyes. His hair was greasy, like he’d run his hands through it over and over. He’d changed out of his white robe, but still had his black sneakers on.

“Oh, Katie,” he gushed, before I was even inside. “I heard about the robe.” He looked me over. “I guess I should have known. They’re very strict about the white robe.” He went to the stove to start tea. “Oh, Katie,” he went on as he filled the kettle, “Where were you? Oh, I’m so sorry. I apologize. What a long night you must have had.” He turned to look at me, to check whether indeed I’d had a long night, and perhaps to hear where, exactly, I’d been. But I couldn’t think of an excuse. How could I tell Aman that a palmist had seen something bad in my hand, and I’d wandered the city as a way to escape? I apologized, explained that I’d gone to the library and lost track of time. As we sipped our tea, I thought of being banished from the White Robe ceremony, but spared Aman the details.

Aman and I resumed our routine. For three more days we rose in the morning, walked across the river to morning meditation, then sipped tea at the ashram. I walked around the city again, this time with Eti, and together we strolled through the mall. Malls are universal things, I realized in Pune. The shops are just an excuse to gossip, to waste time, to escape from whatever burdens your home life brings to you. Each shop window was painstakingly decorated, the costumed models thin and exuberant. Aman and I did not attempt the White Robe ceremony again; we didn’t ever again speak of the night I’d been turned away.
But the ashram wore on me. Beyond the issue of the flowers on my robe, there were the fees, and the guards at the door, and the aging hippies who floated around, seeking nirvana. There was the overpriced tea, the glittering meditation room, the pristine, manicured lawns. This was not what I’d come to India to find; the closest thing to peace I’d encountered so far was the illicit blank page in the journal, the one I could settle my mind upon. After my seventh day in Pune, I told Aman I’d be leaving. I told him while we both stood in the kitchen that night, preparing tea. He was sorry, wishing I would stay so as to more fully experience the ashram, but in the end he relented, helping me to book a train ticket online to Goa, where I planned to meet a friend.

That night, Aman and I went out to dinner, I guess to commemorate my final night in his city. Aman selected a touristy place in the city center, where he was practically the only Indian man ordering dinner, but we had a fine time in any case. We both grew jolly with Kingfisher beer, and I paid the tab in order to thank Aman once more for his hospitality. We took a rickshaw back home, and then Aman lay down in his hammock and I shut out the lights. I packed the rest of my things; my train left at five the next morning. I wished, right before sleep came, to see Teddy again, of all things, and then my alarm was going off, and it was time to wake up and get going.

Aman still slept as I crept out the door. I scribbled a note on the pad beside the phone: Aman: thanks for everything. Will call when I get to Goa. Then I let myself out, closing the door quietly behind me, and then I saw the envelope on the ground.

Whoever had left it had tucked it halfway under the door. I thought it was an electricity notice, or some apartment document, but when I picked it up and lifted the open lip, I saw that it wasn’t anything Aman was meant to see. I drew the page that was inside from the envelope, knowing what it was and at the same time hoping it was anything but.

It was the empty page, with the signature in the lower right corner.

The edge of the paper was ruffled from where it had been torn from the notebook. Now ripped from its context, it had clearly been folded and smudged. It resembled trash. I held the envelope and the piece of paper with trembling hands. I remembered my train. With the papers still clutched in my hands, I ran down the stairs, through the gate, and out into the main road, where I caught a rickshaw that would take me to the station.

I don’t have the empty page anymore. When I got to Goa, I looked up the address of the bookstore and mailed it back. I don’t know why Teddy tore the page from the book, or how he knew where to leave it. But the story has stuck with me, even as my time in the ashram has fallen away. That ashram was a place where I failed, spiritually and logistically, but Teddy and the empty page remain unanswered questions in my mind. Maybe, holding that book in my hands, with Teddy looking over my shoulder, I did find what I was seeking in India. No, the memory of that moment has never left me. I think of Teddy now, his sly half-smile, and realize that perhaps its purpose was both sad and true: the gesture’s most basic intent was to hide something ugly from the world. And I can only hope that whoever wrote that journal will someday come to claim it again. I’ve prayed that they will open the cardboard cover, checking for the scrawled name, and find that page just where they left it, torn from the spiral rings but still intact, blessed in its comparative bareness.

—Kate McCahill


Apr 272010


Jacob Paul is a former student of mine, a VCFA graduate, a ferocious mountain climber, and the only person I know who was in the World Trade Center when the planes hit on 9/11. 

This is a hot-off-the-press excerpt from his first novel Sarah/Sara, a book that reflects Jacob’s own orthodox Jewish upbringing, his love of Nature’s astringent extremes, and, yes, the haunting mystery of political terror and death.



August 10

What will become of me? Yesterday, I skipped out on Shabbat. I wrote all day, cooked over my stove, didn’t da’aven. Basically, the only violation that I could conceivably have done, but didn’t, would have been to travel in my kayak.  And that’s the one thing it might have made some sense to do (though the fog was really too thick to travel; it seems to be fog season here). Today, on the other hand, I da’avened three times, morning, noon and night (the distinctions between which I’m coming to accept as any sense of ongoing wonder at this unmitigated day bores me now).  It makes no sense.  I don’t transgress smartly.

And here is the other thing that doesn’t quite jive. Those days on which I da’aven, do follow my structure and order, are my best; and yet I so rarely bother to pray anymore. But really, today was a perfect day. I woke up on time; promptly washed my hands and said the bruchah for that; doused myself in mosquito repellant; said Shemah and Shemonah Esrai; ate, saying bruchahs before and benching afterward; rowed out past the breakers in the fast sea like I am trained; pulled ashore for lunch saying bruchahs before eating, benching afterward, and then saying Shemah and Shemonah Esrai before getting back in the boat.

The afternoon session on the water was equally productive. I felt strong and elected to row rather than sail, blissfully blanking my mind in an exegesis of physical endurance. A small pod of white whales breached intermittently on my left – generally a common sight but anomalous in the dense fog – atomizing a sardine-scented mist that drifted in wisps of otherwise indiscernible wind and precipitated along the lee side of my boat and myself. I really stink now.  And then past that interlude, and late in the day, I rounded a rock-corniced jetty, a jumble of leaning shattered gray rock testifying to a lost glacier’s ocean border. On its far side, a concavity of black sand beach steeply shelters the facing side of a frigid trickle rushing through tundra from the hills. I set up camp on a step in the beach’s curve well above the high-water mark. Above the beach, all still passes for summer, but the sun will set soon, and once it starts to do that, darkness grows like a bad habit, staying out a little longer each night until it loses itself in a months long binge of black night and effervescent celestial light and death-cold.

I prepared a dinner of rice and beans cooked with butter and rehydrated eggs and ate it wrapped in flour tortillas. Gradually, while I ate, lifting fog uncloaked a broadening landscape. Finished eating, I benched and da’avened for the third time, leery of saying nighttime prayers proscribed for sometime after three stars come out, in what passes for broad daylight here. Finished with the day’s obligations, feeling good, swaddled in fleece, top, bottom, head and toes, and able to see the landscape for the first time in a while, I delicately felt my way down the deep rut my hull carved on the way up to what passes for surf here, my down booties finding there slightly less tenuous purchase than on the rest of the steep slick sand.

Near the waterline, the grade relented and I comfortably walked along surf-scum tailings towards a large flat rock I’d noticed on the way in.  The rock was about four feet high, and I easily climbed on top of it. Scanning the now-visible horizon, my intention was to lose myself in a meditation on my mother. I perused the ocean in front, beach and jetty to the left, mountains behind, wondering what she might think if confronted with this brutal landscape, empty of people, jagged and raw and colorful. She’d made fun of it for years. I continued my revolving watch. To my right, where the beach abruptly ended in a scrub of brush, I saw the glint of glass. I focused. Yes, the low sun caught something amber and reflective. I thought, well here’s evidence of people; trash is everywhere. I thought to go pick it up and pack it out, but figured that with all the corroded oil drums I’d passed and not thought to remove, what difference could this infinitely smaller relic make?

But I have all the time in the world, in a certain sense. There’s nothing for me to do, really, once I’ve rowed for the day. I was under no obligation or discipline to stay on my rock, thinking about my mother, and staring off into space (literally, when the clouds clear, the horizon here ends in space. I’m confident of it).  So I sort of slid-slash-jumped off the rock, smashing out twin bootie prints that seeped water like a rotten hull, and picked my way across to the shrub.

I have to say, I’ve never felt so self-consciously awkward as I did walking over, completely unobserved, to investigate this oddity in the bush. After several weeks of purposeful motion, this luxurious amble made me feel guilty. And how innocent and clear my mind was then. Because this is what I found in the shrub: my whiskey.

Abba and Eema, if you guys are watching over me, please explain what this all means. Am I being tested? Am I meant to hurl the bottle back into the surf whence it reemerged having so successfully followed me here? Am I supposed to carry it out as trash? Or am I being regranted the right to drink having had a recovery of sorts these past several days? Or is the world in fact entirely random as my mother believed? No, I’m way to creeped out to believe that this is entirely accidental.

And have I mentioned how pissed I am that in two week’s hard effort rowing – has it been two weeks since I cast off the booze? I should check this journal – I’ve made no better time than a drifting bottle. Though, in my defense, I have at my best rowed twelve hours in a day while this bottle has plugged ahead twenty-four seven, no rest stops for it. Or has it? Can’t it be possible that it too washed ashore from time to time, only to be sucked out by a changing tide, all the while wondering whether it would be better to go backwards or forwards or just stop for once and for all? Could it not have in fact been carried by a playful polar bear great long distances?

Ursus Marinus may well have seen that glinting, highland confection and taking it for a reflective bauble playfully pushed and batted it along the frozen shoreline, carrying it like a dog’s toy baby on long northward detours to ice floes past the 85th parallel. Perhaps he showed it to his friends, and in the face of their ridicule – what ferocious white bear, god of the natives, carries a manmade, glass liter bottle around with him – abandoned it back to the waves. Or maybe he had it beside him as he lurked on top of a seal’s breathing hole and when making that fateful lunge, slipped, tragically on the smooth, rolling glass, and succeeded in losing at once both libation and dinner. And maybe the seal, inquisitively trailing the stream of bubble accompanying the bottle’s temporary plunge, pushed its savior along the bottom of the ice until it reached open sea again, bidding it alas farewell, safe home, good journey. Or maybe the bear stashed the bottle here temporarily. Or maybe it wasn’t a bear at all but some people in a boat, or on a beach, who found my whiskey and expecting some special message in that buoyant bottle instead found the best of clan McCallan, aged in oak twelve years. And those people, as they passed this piece of shore, stashed the bottle for safekeeping (unlikely, the bottle hardly seemed stashed, it looked as if it had been entrapped on the backwash of wave, held back in a sieve of stunted willow as the water dropped. No, if in its journey it encountered other humans, they did not willing leave it there. And yet, they may have parted with it as willingly as I, taking that piece of dangerous trash far out into the ocean and dropping it, hopefully to never return.

Or perhaps Hashem, creator the universe, simply ceased the bottle’s existence once I cast it from me, and now, for reasons only known to the divine, has recreated it in my path.

I don’t know.

I also don’t know whether to have a drink or not.

I don’t think I’ll throw it back just yet.

August 11

Like a donkey after a carrot, I followed The Whiskey bottle duct-taped to my bow all day. It sits there, glowering, an ever-watchful, never-sleeping bowspirit; baruch Hashem.


August 12

White-knuckled, not-sleeping, hanging-on-for-dear-life, tehillim-reciting me is still here. And so is It, unopened. Baruch Hashem.

But I passed a long abandoned sod and wood hut today. Something I expected to see far more of than I have. I stopped there for lunch. A track where the last visitors hauled boats out persisted above the waterline. I reached and circled the hut. Behind it, meadows broken by rain-pools stretched back at a gentle but increasing slope into the foothills of the mountains, which are growing ever nearer. In a week or so, I expect to reach their near-confluence with the ocean, which will be the closest I come to the tree line on this journey, one of only two stops in towns, and the Canadian border. The hut’s roof was well set into the small rise of land on which, and undoubtedly, from which, it was built. It faced out towards the water. I went inside, an easy feat in the absence of doors. Ancient cigarette filters – lone survivors of butts long pilfered for remnant tobacco – mixed with bits of fur and random decomposition on the floor.  The space would have been claustrophobic had the front opening been closed and the sod washed away from the wood walls. In other words, restored, the hut would have been quite unpleasant.

Yet there were conveniences and comforts that made sense for a small outpost on a near empty arctic shore. The center of the floor was carved in lower, the way snow caves are, so that cold air sinks out of the structure. The walls were well shaped to accommodate sitting backs and stacks of fur. A small oil fire in here would be very warm. No longer. This place is like nature now. For decades, passing itinerants, what few there are, have probably used it to get out of the wind, maybe cook a meal. But no one vests an interest in maintaining the hut, or what others like it persist. No one counts on it as a point of return. No, nomadic arctic life is a failing experiment, even amongst those born into it. What am I doing here?

—Jacob Paul

From Sarah/Sara pages 98-103, courtesy of Ig Publishing, Copyright 2010


Apr 262010

Though I’ve known and admired Jack Hodgin‘s work for ages, we actually hadn’t met til we ended up on the same judges’ panel for a literary award three years ago. Usually, these things are tense affairs, but Jack, our third panelist, the novelist Joan Barfoot, and I had such an agreeable time together we became internet friends, a tiny community of three sending group emails back and forth. Joan lives in London, Ontario, and Jack lives far, far away on Vancouver Island. He has been known to complain ruefully, upon finding a sequence of emails from Joan and me, that everything happens in the rest of the world before he even wakes up in the morning.

Jack has been a huge and beneficent presence on the Canadian literary scene for a couple of generations now. You can find all this for yourself by exploring his website (which, incidentally, contains a generous amount of writing advice). I love the list of prizes he’s won; it’s almost as long as the number of books he’s published. I am also fascinated by his real life relationship with the fictional character Dr. Jack Hodgins in the TV series “Bones.”

This little essay is just a taste. I like it because it reminds me of all the friends who have made the pilgrimage to Oxford–so many of us loved Faulkner and yet had to fight our way out from under his stylistic shadow.

Jack has a new novel coming out in May. It’s called The Master of Happy Endings. This is what Alice Munro says about it: “From one of Canada’s master storytellers comes a powerful new novel about memory, belonging, helping others, and the vagaries of the human heart. It is also a compelling story about how a man in his later seventies manages to conjure one more great adventure for himself.” Buy the book.



Walking up the pathway towards the front steps and white pillars of the house known as Rowan Oak, I was aware of a chill that lifted the hairs at the back of my neck. William Faulkner had lived here, had written most of his novels here, had walked up this pathway, perhaps had even laid this herringbone brickwork in the pathway himself. The man would not be inside, of course – he had been dead for several years – but the house was open to visitors, with a resident guide from the nearby university.  Still, I was about to reach the destination in what was really a sort of pilgrimage.

We had spent a few sunny April days in New Orleans before driving the little rented car north, pausing only briefly in Baton Rouge before passing into Mississippi. We’d visited the ante-bellum houses in Natchez and toured the 16 miles of Vicksburg battleground before driving on up the highway through pine forests in the direction of Oxford.

In the direction, that is, of the town where once lived the man whose books had thrilled and inspired me, and whose powerful voice and vision had so invaded me as to destroy all my earliest attempts at writing – two bad novels and several stories, all rejected and abandoned — before I’d eventually found my own place and my own voice. Still, though I may have shaken off much of the power I’d once allowed him to have, I had not abandoned my admiration for the man and his work.

Of course the first indication we were entering Faulkner country was the little signpost naming the Yocana River, which was just a narrow yellow creek barely moving at the bottom of a muddy ditch.  It was not easy to imagine this “Yoknapatawpha” in anything like flood, or to believe in the difficulties it gave the Bundren family when they crossed it with the mother’s coffin, heading, as we were, for the town where “Pa” would get a new set of teeth, bury his wife, and find himself a new one. I hoped this was not a hint of more disappointments ahead.

Read the rest!

Apr 232010


Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.

Down in the mouth myself the past months over matters personal and literary, I decided to follow Ishmael’s advice and took to the sea, vicariously at least, and reread Moby Dick, or rather Moby Dick; or the Whale—the full title of the original edition. It was a good break. I had a chance to leave behind the present noise and let myself drift in its sea of words, be carried by the slow, restless rhythms of musings that took me everywhere and nowhere. To read Moby Dick is to become aware of the immensity of things one cannot explain, that one may never understand, yet at the same time be reminded of humanity and culture. All three are related.

I also ran across two recent editions, both abridgments. Orion, a British publisher, released Moby Dick (Moby Dick: In Half the Time) a version that did just that, cut the novel in half, to make it accessible to those of us who just don’t have the time to read those big, old books. This edition prompted Damion Searls to take all the parts that were removed by Orion and present them together as a novel in their own right, ; or The Whale—the part of the title Orion cut—which appeared in its entirety in The Review of Contemporary Fiction (Summer 2009). The Orion edition does not name the editor (editors?) who made its cuts.

I have the Searls but not the Orion. It’s impossible for me to read either fresh since I have read the full version several times and would be able to fill in what is left out in both. I have, however, skimmed through ; or The Whale. It is a strange, wild book that intrigues me in many ways, for reasons I may never be able to sort out, which intrigues me as well.

The introduction to the Searls also gave an excerpt from Adam Gopnik’s New Yorker review of the Orion (“The Corrections,” October 22, 2007), which I also tracked down.

These passages are, by modern critical standards, “showy” and “digressive,” nervously intent to display stray learning and to make obscure allusion more powerful than inherent emotion… Melville’s story is intact and immediate; it’s just that the long bits about the technical details of whaling are gone, as are most of the mock-Shakespearean interludes, the philosophical meanderings, and the metaphysical huffing and puffing.

Gopnik is referring to the parts that were deleted. He is also voicing an esthetic, “modern critical standards,” and that is what I want to look at in this post.

Melville does spend an enormous amount of time detailing whales, whalers, whaling ships, and the history and practice of whaling—and so much more. He also densely packs his writing with a wide range of allusions that span centuries and cross cultures, East and West. Many day-to-day incidents are related in scenes that have no dramatic bearing on the essential plot, the course of events leading up to the fatal encounter with that huge, white fish. Allusions and other references are pared down; the introductory section “Extracts,” which contains excerpts from the Bible and literary writing that mention whales, was removed entirely. What Shakespeare did with language, apparently, should be left in the Bard’s grave. Not only is philosophy idle bluster, neither, apparently, is there much use for religion. Orion also removed the chapter on Father Mapple’s pulpit and, needless to say, we don’t get to see him climb it and hear him deliver his sermon—based on the book of Jonah, of course.

But what is essential to this novel—or to any novel? Some standard needs to be set, and one is suggested: emotion is what should drive a novel and not thought. Gopnik elaborates:

By the same token, the Orion Moby-Dick is not defaced; it is, by conventional contemporary standards of good editing and critical judgment, improved. The compact edition adheres to a specific idea of what a good novel ought to be: the contemporary aesthetic of the realist psychological novel.

Moby Dick does have many penetrating psychological observations, but these are only one part of his development of characters, of the ground beneath the plot. The main plot itself, the pursuit of the white whale, is determined by more than Ahab’s obsession and subsequent mental breakdown. Melville takes a position that people are more than a mixed bag of motives, traits, and pathologies, that our identities and behavior are defined not just by the interaction of these with those of other people, but also by whatever else exists in our cultures and whatever might lie beyond that.

I’m not sure what a realist novel is, however, though know I haven’t read one yet. Reality is a subjective matter that depends on who looks at what, how he or she looks, and why. Melville’s technical and historical excursions are what ground me in the “reality” of the book, and their bulk massively persuades me to accept it. But reality is only one effect in fiction. Mystery is another. Why are we so profoundly moved by an immense mammal that is largely comprised of that fragrant, oily stuff whalers refined to light America? Melville explores this question at length. We need to ask a similar question about his novel.

It is what a good editor, of the Maxwell Perkins variety, would do: cut out the self-indulgent stuff and present a clean story, inhabited by plausible characters—the “taut, spare driving” narrative beloved of Sunday reviewers…

There is nothing self-indulgent about Moby Dick. Ishmael, the narrator, is self-effacing and rarely speaks about himself. He always step backs, placing himself in the vast perspective of the subject matters of the novel. It is one of the least egotistical books I’ve read.

Self-indulgent, however, is a word I’ve often heard lately from readers and reviewers—and editors and agents. Pretentious is another. Again, I’m not sure what they mean, but these words seem to be applied to anything that taxes them in content or form, or slows them down, or stretches their frame of reference.

The subtraction does not turn a good work into hackwork; it turns a hysterical, half-mad masterpiece into a sound sane book. It still has its phallic reach and point, but lacks its flaccid, anxious self-consciousness.

If these editors have their say—and they have—this is my greatest regret about writing today, that we can’t have anxious, half-mad, much less fully mad, novels. For me it is enough cause to write one.

But the novel is an exploration of sanity, set against the serious madness of Ahab. Not mentioned in Gopnik’s comments is what buoys the narrative and helps keep madness in check, Melville’s generous democratic spirit and the expansive humor that infuse his book. Nor does Melville ever rest with certainty, or the appearance of certainty. He does not claim to have all the answers, or any of them. This, to me, is sanity, and Moby Dick is as sane as a novel can get.

Moby Dick is a ponderous book that promotes pondering. Is there a god or gods, thus a basis for religion? Is there any point to philosophy? Is our culture determined by anything other than our desires and their manifestations and perversions? I have no idea, but all of these are engaging esthetic propositions that give a novel depth and extension. Literature, however, I am certain exists, and Melville sustains a discussion about literature that has been going on for millennia and, I would argue, looks forward to its future.

Some of the writing, to be sure, is overblown, and many of his allusions strike me as odd and forced. And it is an odd book. The novel takes the point of view of Ishmael, yet often abandons it. In one chapter we see Ahab in his cabin, talking to himself; in another we hear a voice from another ship, the Delight, as the Pequod sails away. Several chapters are written like plays, with stage directions and characters’ lines. Sometimes the narrator steps back in time, sometimes forward, and sometimes steps out of it altogether as he writes chapters that take the form of entries in an encyclopedia.

None of which disturbs me. It is a novel that necessarily has to be hit or miss in its writing, given the magnitude yet elusiveness of its subject. A harpooner has to hurl several times before he hits his target. Not only does it grapple with life’s questions, it questions novels themselves, taking on the conflict between form and content, between containers and what they try to contain, between points of view and larger perspectives. It is a novel that debates the novel. I don’t have to adjust much to make the shifts work.

“Call me Ishmael”—is that actually the narrator’s name, or is he characterizing himself by this allusion, a kind of Ishmael about whom the angel said:

And he will be a wild man; his hand will be against every man, and every man’s hand against him. (Genesis 16:12)

A judgment Melville must have taken to heart, given his literary career. Or is Ishmael a pseudonym the narrator gives himself? We never hear his last name and are told almost nothing about Ishmael’s prior life except that he once sailed on a merchant ship. Is the young narrator, in fact, a budding novelist, who presents himself both as a character in the book as well as the Author? (The Author is Melville, writing from his experience as a sailor and writer, but not Melville, since Melville never sailed on the Pequod.) The dominant time of the novel is not that of the events on the Pequod but of the writing of the book itself, a time to which so many chapters return; the dominant voice is that of the mature writer. It is a novel of reflection and looking back, and the Author is an author who tests authorship.

I have no objection to judicious editing or to realist psychological novels. Both depend, however, upon a set of assumptions, which, like any other, need to be examined and considered against other possibilities. To decide these modern critical standards have priority is to make the mistake that form should determine content, and not the other way around.

If these are our only standards, what esthetic and cultural decisions have been made, with what effects? These editors suffer, I fear, from a modern condition known as sanity. Fiction has made progress, and we have discovered its true structure. There is no longer any need to experiment with the form. Novels must be terse, direct, and clean, where motives and actions are what count most, perhaps all that count. Action speaks louder than thought and should be decisive and quick. There is no room for doubt or hesitation, no reason to question ourselves or look for other contexts. Our references should come from the things that most catch our attention at the moment, that most thrill. We know all we need to know now and have no need for looking back.

And what if our ways of telling stories are telling us how to live? Once upon a time there was a passionate man of action who decided if we took out the bad guy—well, what? Peace and world order would be restored? Did our last president look at other texts or think past the dramatic climax to the story he wrote about Iraq?

An excerpt from ; or The Whale, Chapter 10 in its entirety:

Chapter 10

A Bosom Friend


It may seem ridiculous, but

He made no advances whatever; appeared to have no desire to enlarge the circle of his acquaintances.

If there yet lurked any ice of indifference towards me in the pagan’s breast, soon thawed it out, and

More excerpts can be found here. Searls comments on ; or The Whale here, at The Quarterly Conversation. A translator, he also writes fiction and offers his manifesto for the New Aestheticism here, again at The Quarterly, which might be compared and contrasted with Gopnik’s esthetic. We’re trying to find our way now, once again. Excerpt:

Modest in aim, New Aestheticist art does not want to change the world—to bear witness, deconstruct, problematize. It does not batten onto greater social goals, the kind responsibly fundable with tax dollars. It wants merely to be beautiful.

It differs from the old Aestheticism, “art for art’s sake,” in that it no longer believes in Art as a sake either, as a holy cause. New Aestheticism is art for people’s sakes. It is not antisocial; it aims to please. It is elitist but not discriminatory, for it is open to any and all who care to love it.

Seamen had to take their turns standing at the mastheads, ever on the lookout for whales. But they didn’t have a crow’s nest as such, but rather had to stand and balance themselves on two thin spars—the t’ gallant crosstrees—with only two metal rings to cling to. Ishmael describes the temptations of his first watch:

… but lulled into such an opium-like listlessness of vacant, unconscious reverie is this absent-minded youth by the blending cadence of waves with thoughts, that at last he loses his identity; takes the mystic ocean at his feet for the visible image of that deep, blue, bottomless soul, pervading mankind and nature; and every strange, half-seen, gliding, beautiful thing that eludes him; every dimly-discovered, uprising fin of some undiscernible form, seems to him the embodiment of those elusive thoughts that only people the soul by continually flitting through it. In this enchanted mood, thy spirit ebbs away to whence it came; becomes diffused through time and space… There is no life in thee, now, except that rocking life imparted by a gently rolling ship; by her, borrowed from the sea; by the sea, from the inscrutable tides of God. But while this sleep, this dream is on ye, move your foot or hand an inch; slip your hold at all; and your identity comes back in horror. Over Descartian vortices you hover. And perhaps, at mid-day, in the fairest weather, with one half-throttled shriek you drop through that transparent air into the summer sea, no more to rise for ever.

Also deleted in the Orion.

I must confess I took a few lines out myself.

The picture of an American whaler, above, is by Currier and Ives.

— Gary Garvin




Gary Garvin lives in San Jose, California, where he writes and teaches English. He has written two novels, and his essays and short stories have appeared in Numéro Cinqthe minnesota reviewNew Novel ReviewConfrontationThe New ReviewThe Santa Clara ReviewThe South Carolina Review, The Berkeley Graduate, and The Crescent Review. He is currently at work on a collection of essays and another novel.



Apr 212010

Herewith, a lovely poem by my friend Steven Heighton from his new book (his fifth poetry collection) Patient Frame. Steve is also a prolific novelist, story writer and essayist. He has a fourteen-year-old daughter and recently took up hockey–has been trying to lure me into a comeback (not going to happen). Read him and look up his other books. Something here not to be missed.




There’s a final bedtime when the father reads
to his daughter under the half-moon lamp.
The wolf-eyed dog sits guard on the snowy
quilt at their feet—ears pricked, head upright
like a dragon on its hoard—while the daughter’s
new clock ticks on the dresser.  When the father
shuts the book, neither feels in the cool sigh
cast from its pages a breath of the end—
and how can it be that this ritual
will not recur?  True, this latest story
is over, Treasure Island, which held them
a dozen nights, but “the end” has arrived
this way often before.  Maybe she’s tired
of the rite, or waking to a sense of herself
revised?  Maybe he’s temporarily bored,
or unmoored, reading by duty or rote,
turning deeper inside his own concerns.

How does the end enter?  There’s a hinging
like a book’s sewn spine in the raw matter
of time—that coded text, illegible—
and stretched too far, it goes.  An innocent
break, the father off one weekend or the child
sleeping at a friend’s, followed by a night
or two she wants to read alone, or write,
for a change, in her new padlock journal.
She has no idea what has changed.  She
can’t know that the enlargement of her life
demands small death after death, and this one,
the latest, is far from last.  She will not
notice this death, being so intent on life—
so implied in its stretching crewelwork
of seconds.
Some nights later, suddenly,
writing cheques or checking email, he might
notice and wonder at the change.  In a sense
such minor passings pre-enact his own.
For a moment he might lay down his pen,
forget the figures, peer over the roofline
and find she was right—Orion, rising,
is more blueprint of butterfly, or bird,
than hunter.  How does it enter, through what rift
or flaw?  Maybe it doesn’t enter at all.
It was there in every sentence: the end.

–Steven Heighton

Apr 162010


It’s a huge pleasure to introduce Donald Breckenridge to these pages. He’s an old friend and supporter, the fiction editor at The Brooklyn Rail, editor of The Brooklyn Rail Fiction Anthology and co-editor of the Intranslation web site. He’s written a dozen plays as well as the novella Rockaway Wherein and two novels, 6/2/95 and YOU ARE HERE.

The following is an excerpt from his forthcoming novel This Young Girl Passing (Autonomedia, 2011). A while ago I read the ms. and wrote the following: This Young Girl Passing is a deceptively short, dense, ferociously poignant novel of sexual betrayal and despair set in impoverished upstate New York, a Raymond Carver-ish milieu of never-weres and left-behinds. Breckenridge is a pointillist, constructing scene after scene with precise details of dialogue and gesture, each tiny in itself but accumulating astonishing power and bleak complexity. The novel’s triumph though is in its architecture, its skillfully fractured chronology and the deft back and forth between the two main plot lines, two desperate, sad affairs twenty years apart and the hollow echoes in the blast zone of life around them.



Monday April 19, 1976

Bill had kept Sarah after the bell to find out why she was failing his class.  She dutifully asked him to recommend a senior who would be willing to tutor her. He wrote a name and number down on a scrap of orange paper then offered her a ride home.

“And the photographs,” Sarah glanced at Bill, “you should see them,” as they continued along the narrow path, “the models are wearing casts and some of them even have black eyes,” they walked by a cluster of bluebells as she concluded, “it’s like pornography only worse.” A chipmunk scurried across a large rock then disappeared into a pile of leaves. “Women being beaten by groups of men in suits… How could anyone find that beautiful?” Bill stepped over a tree trunk that had fallen over the trail, “I know I don’t,” turned to her and held out his right hand. The cloudless sky was teeming with dozens of songbirds in flight. She placed her left hand in his, “it’s like the feminist movement never happened,” and stepped over the trunk. The plaster cast on Sarah’s right arm extended from her elbow to her wrist. He stepped on a brittle weed and a cluster of brown thistles clung to the cuff of his pant leg. Her best friend Laura had covered the cast in tiny red hearts and flowers with fingernail polish. When a blossoming willow caught Bill’s eye he stopped walking, “I think they’ve run out of supposedly wholesome ways,” and pointed it out to her, “to sell expensive clothes to wealthy women.” The willow’s flowering limbs swayed as the breeze cast off a shower of yellow petals. “What does that say about the way society treats women?” A multitude of bees, undeterred by the breeze, pollinated the tree. Bill realized that he was still holding her hand, “but the models are just well paid mannequins.” She frowned, “What does that mean?” “It isn’t that complicated Sarah,” beads of sweat appeared on his forehead, “the people behind the camera simply script fantasy roles for women and those roles have little or nothing to do with reality.” The air around them was enriched by the scent of the blooming tree. “Well,” she looked at him closely, “don’t you think it says a lot about the kind of people who buy them?” and noticed the faint outline of her reflection in his brown eyes. “I suppose,” he nodded, “but aren’t most of those designers gay?” A robin in a nearby tree began to sing. They saw each other in class, their last class of the day, five-days a week, and yet she never looked the same. He was almost twice her age, “I mean, that really doesn’t have anything to do with it, but it does seem strange that you would get so worked up about advertisements in fashion magazines.” She smiled tentatively at her reflection while asking, “How is it not complicated?” Bill had been married for three years, “things like that are very temporal,” and he was as bored by his wife’s passionless lovemaking as he was repulsed by the middle-class existence that pacified her. He was as embarrassed by his wife’s ideals, “next year they’ll find something else,” as he was resigned to them. “Like what?” “Who knows,” Bill shrugged, “maybe next year they’ll use vivisection to peddle their dresses.” Sarah let go of his hand, “that’s very funny,” and began walking away. He watched her hips sway beneath her blue jeans, “Can I ask you something?” She turned around, “you just did.” He stepped toward her, “Why does that bother you so much?” She lowered her eyes, “I really thought you were different,” and scratched at the rash above her cast, “So, why make jokes about something you obviously don’t understand?” Her fingernails left faint whitish trails around the rash. “I was being ironic, Sarah.” A bee hovered above a cluster of dandelions just inches away from the tips of her sandals. “You’re being an asshole.”

She had told him in the car that the cast would be removed next Monday and that she was very self-conscious about the way it smelled. When asked if her parents were concerned about her grades she looked out the open window of his Impala and laughed. When asked why that was funny she spoke enthusiastically about Truffaut’s 400 Blows that he had shown the class a month ago—then made it clear to him that the only place she didn’t want to go was home.

“What is it that I don’t understand Sarah?” She placed her hands on her hips, “What is it that you wanted to show me, mister Richardson?” He took two steps forward, “I thought that maybe we could talk and that you could tell me-” “Tell you what,” she held her ground, “that I’m going to love playing in your magic tree-fort?” “You can start by telling me why you’re failing my class.” She shrugged before looking intently above his head. He softened his tone, “there’s a beautiful lake a short walk from here,” then motioned toward the tail, “are you coming or not?” She nodded sullenly and they continued along the trail. “I don’t care if you call me an asshole, we can always disagree, but please don’t ever call me mister.” “Why not?” “Because it makes me feel like an old man.” “What about mister Asshole,” she laughed, “Can I call you that?” “That really doesn’t work either,” furrowing his brow, “I’d really like for you to think of me as a friend… okay?” She took his hand and asked, “How old are you?” “I’ll be thirty-one this August.” “Oh, that’s right, you’re a Leo… you are the most willful.” “Not that nonsense again.” “It’s not nonsense Bill, you can tell a lot about a person from the sign they are born under.” “For instance?”  “The Zodiac is how we, as mortal beings, have passed from the spirit world into the material one.” Holding Sarah’s warm hand while being lectured about the Zodiac made Bill feel like he was sixteen again. “The world is divided into two opposing parts, involution and evolution.  The first six signs of the Zodiac represent involution and-” “What are the first six signs?” He asked. “Aries, Taurus, Gemini, Cancer, and then you the Leo,” squeezing his hand for emphasis, “the willful lion and then Virgo, the soulful giver.” “And when were you born?” With a smile, “my birthday is in February, under the sign of Aquarius.” “Isn’t that a water sign?” “Right, it’s the eleventh sign in the Zodiac and it’s a water sign, on the side of evolution. Aquarius symbolizes the disintegration of existing forms. It’s a symbol of liberation.” Bill’s foot got caught on a root and he almost tripped. “Be careful there…” he nodded sheepishly as she continued, “the Egyptians identified Aquarius with their god Hapi who personified the Nile and when it flooded it was a tremendous source of both agricultural and spiritual importance.” He was tempted to suggest that if she spent half-as much time studying French as she did astrology then she wouldn’t be failing his class. They passed a rusting black and white sign nailed to a tree warning trespassers that they would be prosecuted. “So,” Sarah concluded, “we are from opposite sides of the Zodiac and I think that is a very good thing.” The trail opened onto a small clearing. “And you consider yourself a liberated person?” They startled a pair of Mourning Doves foraging in the tall grass and their wings made an airy whistling sound as they flew away. “I do,” with a solemn nod, “to the extent that a woman can be in a society dominated by men.” He turned to her, “And how much of that has to do with the sign you are born under?” She said, “everything,” with conviction. “Come on Sarah, don’t you think your environment has more to do with shaping the person you are and the one you’ll turn out to be?” “No I don’t,” she stopped walking, “I think it’s the other way around,” then let go of his hand. “It’s all up to your astrological sign?” “You know,” noting his smirk, “arrogance is another one of the Leo’s traits.” He placed his hands on his waist, “it seems to me that you’ve got it all backwards.” “How so?” A crow cawed as it flew above the meadow. He looked away from her before asking, “How did you break your arm?” “I fell off my bike,” she bit her lower lip, “I told you that.” He frowned, “yes, you did.” She looked down at the clump of green grass between them, “So how far away is this world famous lake of yours?” He nodded in the direction they’d been walking, “it’s just beyond this meadow.” She tried to sound apathetic, “Are we going there or not?” He cleared his throat before stating, “the most important virtue in any relationship is honesty.” She stepped toward him, “you are nothing like any of my other teachers.” “I think most of your teachers are in school because of the paycheck they get every other Friday.” She nodded, “it is so easy to talk to you.” “If they had to sell shoes instead of teaching to pay the bills it wouldn’t faze them one bit.” Her curly blonde locks, “everyone in class thinks you’re really cool,” were rearranged by the breeze. He glanced at her chest, “it is very important to me that we are always honest with each other.” Her dark brown nipples were erect and visible through the light cotton blouse. “Sure Bill.” He scratched the top of his head, “I’m really glad you feel that way Sarah,” and looked down at her sandals, “let’s not keep any secrets from each other.” Her toes were perfectly symmetrical and the nails were dark red. “Sure Bill, I think that honesty-” “I think you already know that I really care about you,” he looked into her eyes, “and I always want you to tell me the truth.” Her smile, “sure,” revealed the narrow gap between her two front teeth. “Don’t you have a boyfriend?” “No, I did,” shaking her head, “but he broke up with me right before Christmas.” “Did he hurt you?”  The trees cast shadows around the edge of the meadow. “Not really, he was a real jerk though… I still don’t know why I went out with him.” “No,” Bill shook his head, “I meant physically,” while looking at her intently, “Did he break your arm?” “No way,” her eyes widened, “I don’t like guys like that… jocks or violent ones.” A jet silently streaked across the blue sky leaving a thin vapor trail behind. “What kind of guys do you like?”  She began to blush, “older ones I guess, most of the guys my age are so immature… they behave like little kids.” “What about married men?” She laughed out loud. “Why is that so funny?” The last thing she wanted to do was offend him, “it’s not,” but he had such a constipated expression on his face, “you make it sound so serious,” she took hold of his left hand and examined the gold band, “Aren’t you married?” he nodded before she quickly added, “I’ve even met your wife.” Bill slowly pulled his hand away, “When?” “She’s almost as tall as me and she has long brown hair and,” Sarah winked, “and her name is Mary.” “How do you know her name?” She felt like a lawyer on television presenting a surprise witness to a stunned jury, “Mary chaperoned a dance in my sophomore year,” with a giggle, “your not very happily married to Mary though.” “Sarah,” he began to blush, “I asked you a question and I’d like for you to answer it.” She held up her left hand, “okay,” and whispered an oath, “I’ve never dated a married man,” before placing her left hand on his shoulder and kissing him on the mouth, “but in twenty years you’ll still be fourteen years older than me.”

Friday March 28, 1997

Sarah contemplated his tranquil expression before saying, “I always thought that you had,” in a soft voice. Bill pulled the damp condom off his flaccid erection, “that isn’t true.” The pounding in his chest had begun to subside. Sarah possessed a glowing intensity that radiated between them, “a lot of girls in school,” her cheeks were a rosy pink, “said they slept with you,” and her eyes were wide open. Sperm collected in the tip of the condom he held between the thumb and forefinger of his right hand. She pressed her thighs together and sighed. He weighed the fluid with an absentminded pride, “that certainly doesn’t mean that I did.” A television could be heard through the wall behind the bed. She reached behind her back with both hands and undid the tangled clasp of her bra. He leaned over and placed the condom in the ashtray. She pulled the black bra away from her breasts and cast it onto the edge of the bed. To the right of the ashtray there was a beige touch-tone phone. “How could you believe something like that was true?” To the right of the phone a red and white brochure instructed the occupants on how to exit the building in the event of a fire. A metal lamp with a beige lampshade was mounted to the wall above the nightstand, a sixty-watt bulb illuminated a portion of the room. She waited for him to adjust the thin foam pillow beneath his head before claiming, “because you never took me seriously.” Long brown watermarks ran across the ceiling above the bed. He closed his eyes, “that isn’t true,” clasped his hands and rested them on his stomach.

Bill had saved a batch of color photographs of Sarah from the spring of ’76 and would remove them from the cardboard box marked poetry that was buried in the bottom of the closet in his study at least twice every five years. Mary would be spending the weekend at her sister’s in Bridgeport and he would be home alone and very drunk. Bill and Sarah had driven up to Sylvian Beach on a sunny weekday during the Easter break of her junior year. The image of Sarah standing on the beach with her jeans rolled up to her knees as small waves broke before her pale ankles. The image of Sarah feeding a seagull (with outstretched wings) French-fries while sitting at a dark red picnic bench. The portrait of her looking directly into the 50-millimeter lens—her blue eyes almost mirrored the cloudless sky. Sarah sitting on the back of a green bench overlooking Oneida Lake. Sarah holding a melting chocolate ice cream cone with a sardonic grin. Bill would spend hours pouring over the images until he was seeing double.

The springs in the mattress creaked, “like you were just testing the bath water with the tip of your foot,” as she placed her right arm on his chest. He opened his eyes, “What does that mean?” The television on the dresser reflected their faint silhouettes on its darkened screen. She noticed the crows-feet, “That you were just interested in having sex with me,” etched around the corners of his eyes, “and that you just saw me as some dumb, needy girl-” “How can you-” He tried to interject.  “-Who really couldn’t give you anything else.” “-You were sixteen years old,” Bill shook his head while adding, “and I couldn’t believe how lucky I was to have found someone who was as… as passionately interested in me as you were then,” then lowered his voice, “it was like a dream come true,” as the realization that it had taken two decades to tell her that descended upon him. “You never made me feel like you were committed to our relationship.” “I certainly tried,” he nodded with conviction, “the sex was very important, the sex was incredible, as it should be in every relationship, although it never is… but we shared a lot of the same interests as well.” Her eyes narrowed, “you never made me feel appreciated.” That she would berate him about the way their relationship ended didn’t come as a surprise, “I think that had a lot more to do with your upbringing and besides-” “I always felt like you were taking me for granted,” she pursed her lips, “like that letter you gave me.” “Twenty years ago,” he shrugged his shoulders, “you can’t change the past so why live in it?” Wasn’t renewing their relationship a way of reliving the past? Televised laughter could be heard through the wall as she thought about his question. How could she have harbored his betrayal for twenty years?

Sarah took her arm off his chest and sat up, “you know that I kept it.” Bill looked puzzled, “Kept what?” “That letter you gave me on the last day of school,” Sarah rested her shoulders against the headboard. “Oh that,” he contemplated their reflection in the television screen. “Oh that,” she placed the tip of her index finger on her chin, “I should have brought it tonight,” while watching his expression turn sullen, “Do you remember that day?” He nodded, “I don’t remember what I wrote in it though.” “You don’t?” “No of course not… Jesus Christ… not word for word.” She saw herself sprinting through the teacher’s parking lot, “I guess you’ve done it before,” and reached his car just as he was turning the key in the ignition. She was about to ask him what was wrong, “it was in the parking lot,” as he rolled down the window, “on the last day of school,” and shoved the envelope into her hands. He noticed the burgundy lipstick, “yes,” smudged around the corners of her mouth, “I do remember that.” “I’ll have to show it to you sometime… maybe that will freshen your memory.” Bill recalled how idiotic it felt waking up with a hangover on the daybed in his study to discover those photographs scattered across his desk. “What good would that do,” he shrugged, “I’m sure that you can find a lot of faults with anyone in retrospect.” “And I would get so angry with myself for wanting that life with you,” she brushed his right hand off of her thigh, “you had convinced me that you didn’t love her and I gave myself to you… unconditionally… and then you-” “I think you were being delusional,” Bill unclenched his fists, “I was never going to leave Mary,” before changing the subject, “What happened with your parents?” Sarah swallowed hard, “my mother is in a nursing home and I haven’t spoken to my father in thirteen years.” A door down the hall slammed. “Really?” She leveled her eyes at him, “if anyone hurt Kate the way he hurt me I would kill them.” “And no jury would ever convict you,” He cleared his throat before adding, “what if you got pregnant.” “I wanted that life with you so badly,” she hadn’t taken her eyes off his chest, “and I…” “What then Sarah,” he pressed his hands on hers, “what sort of life would we be living now?” “And I…” she blinked twice while looking intently at his face, “and I’ve never loved anyone the way I loved you. Not even my husband,” she squeezed his hands, “even when things were really good between us. I’ve compared every man I’ve been involved with to you and none of them have even come close.” He leaned forward, “I’m right here,” and kissed her on the forehead. “I had an affair,” she turned her head away, “with my boss.” “The dentist?” She nodded, “at one point he wanted to leave his wife and kids for me and I told him I would quit and end our relationship if he even suggested it again.” “How long did this go on for?” “The other night I realized that I was never really able to love any of them… it was more like a role that I was playing,” she cleared her throat, “after we ran into each other last month I ended it with him.” Bill managed to mask his skepticism, “just like that,” but how many hours had she spent with her boss in a room like this, “you didn’t know,” he swallowed dryly, “you didn’t know that we would be intimate again?” “That didn’t matter,” she leaned forward, “knowing that you still cared about me was enough,” and kissed him on the mouth. Bill thought of taking her picture as she stood on the shore of Sylvain Beach. Sarah had removed her sneakers and socks, rolled up her jeans and stepped into the dark gray water. “It’s sooo fucking cold!” He was standing five yards away when he framed her in the viewfinder and focused. She looked down at the miniature waves breaking around her ankles just before he took the picture.

“Why were you playing a role?” Bill asked. Sarah’s shoulders were covered with gooseflesh, “I guess in some stupid way I felt that if I couldn’t be fulfilled by one person than two might make me feel,” she stopped herself from saying happy, “the thing is I could never convince myself that it was true.” He shifted on the bed, “That what was true?” She frowned, “that I was unhappy,” shrugging her shoulders, “or that I was just really lonely,” then looked closely at his face, “or maybe I had finally convinced myself that things would never change and that I would never have another chance with you.” Bill examined their entwined fingers, “When did you start sleeping with your boss?” comparing their mismatched wedding bands. “In December.” “That wasn’t very long ago,” he sighed, “you made it sound like-” “December of ’94,” she bit her lower lip, “it was three years ago… right after I started taking Prozac.” “And you’re still working there?” When she smiled and said, “I just got a raise,” he noticed how white her teeth were. He took his hands away and stood up. “Where are you going?” He slowly crossed the room, “to the bathroom.”

Dearest Sarah, She saw him in the teacher’s parking lot and ran over to his car. We have had the very real pleasure of each other’s company for more than a year now, but this relationship cannot continue any longer. She got there just as he was turning the key in the ignition and breathlessly asked, “What’s the matter with you?” I know this will not be easy for you to understand and it wasn’t easy for me to reach this decision but I need you to be strong for me and for yourself. He rolled down the window and gave her the letter. I have carefully thought through the plans we have made and the dreams we share for our life together and I honestly feel that I will be nothing more than a blight on your future. When she asked what was wrong he replied, “I think it’s time to move on.” The love and passion we have shared has been a real blessing and you have helped me rediscover a part of my youth that I thought I had lost forever. “What,” she pressed her hands on the car door, “what are you talking about?” I am ashamed to admit that I could never be willing or able to leave my wife for you. He revved the engine while asking, “How is this being discreet?” And instead of living a lie that would have only created greater unhappiness for us in the future I think it’s best that we come to our senses now and honor the secret love and friendship that we have shared. The car pulled away as she stood there. I will never forget you and I will always be devoted to the memory of our time together.

With much love and gratitude,


She was smoking when he returned. “Does it bother you that I’m on anti-depressants?” He stood at the end of the bed, “Isn’t everyone in America on Prozac?” She exhaled, “I’m being serious,” while scrutinizing his torso. “Well,” shifting his feet, “is it helping?” She said, “sometimes,” before placing the cigarette between her lips. “Then it doesn’t bother me,” the mattress sagged beneath him, “I didn’t know that you smoked,” as he sat next to her. “Maybe a pack every other week,” she noticed a tiny bit of flesh-colored wax on his earlobe, “why were you looking at me like,” picked it off with her index fingernail and flicked it onto the floor, “like you were afraid of me.” Bill shrugged, “Did you hear about that cult in California?” Their clothes had slipped off the back of the wooden chair and formed a pile on the gray carpet. “Heavens Gate?” The smoke from her cigarette swirled above the lampshade.  He nodded, “it was all over the news again tonight.” She cleared her throat, “they thought the comet was coming to take their souls away,” and placed the cigarette between her lips. “And maybe it did,” he turned to her, “you know it’s flying above our heads right now.” She exhaled slowly, “Hale-Bop,” and the smoke was pushed beneath the lampshade, “that is just so sad,” where it lingered in the yellow light, “they claimed their bodies were only temporary vehicles holding in their souls and when Kate and I saw that clip on the news she said that all of those bodies, that the way they were dressed in those uniforms, made them look like envelopes.” “I really loved you Sarah.” Her eyes were downcast, “Then why did you end it?” Shaking his head, “I wasn’t.” She reached over and crushed the cigarette in the ashtray, “you used me.” “That was twenty years ago.” She crossed her arms beneath her breasts, “Can’t you just apologize for hurting me?” “Why have you victimized yourself over this?” Clenching her jaw, “I want to know why you took me for granted.” He let out a long sigh, “The risks were just impossible.” She placed her hands on her knees, “Just tell me why you gave up on us.” He frowned, “Answer my question.” “It’s not like I could have gotten pregnant anyway,” she looked at him uneasily, “I was on the pill, remember that, that was your idea.” He nodded, “Weren’t you on the pill in college?” The off-handed way she said, “I really wanted to have your baby,” stunned him.  Bill shook his head in disbelief, “I wouldn’t have given you that choice.” “You’re an idiot,” she looked away and whispered, “I wanted to spend my life with you.” “That’s not what I thought was best for you,” he examined the tufts of hair below his knuckles, “that was a mistake on my part, a selfish and –” “Is this a mistake?” He didn’t hesitate, “No, no it isn’t.” She stretched her long legs out on the bedspread, “I’m going to see you again?” He nodded before asking, “If we had married then do you think we would still be happy?” “Why,” she placed her hands on his shoulders, “wouldn’t we be happy now?” and kissed him on the cheek. He cleared his throat before saying, “that’s an interesting question.”

—Donald Breckenridge


Apr 132010

I can do no better than repeat what I said when I introduced David’s translation of the Chekhov story “About Love,” published earlier on these pages. David Helwig is an old friend, a prolific novelist, story writer, translator, and poet, and a mighty gray eminence on the Canadian literary scene. In 2007 he won the Writers’ Trust of Canada Matt Cohen Prize for distinguished lifetime achievement. In 2009 he was appointed to the Order of Canada. His book publication list is as long as your arm. He founded the annual Best Canadian Stories which he edited for years. He is also a very graceful human being as evidenced by his comments on Numéro Cinq.

I had my choice of new Helwig poems to post here, but I picked this one because I really like it. The last stanza alone is worth the trip. It’s a rare poet who can make you feel the fever and mystery of  life in as few words.

Unfortunately, the poem is written in Canadian, so I’ll have to translate a few of the words for my American and Mexican readers. Lower Canada College is a venerable Montreal private school, Lower Canada being the former name for what became the province of Quebec. There is an Upper Canada College in Toronto, another venerable private school (not a college in the American sense, a grade school and high school). Upper Canada is what we used to call Ontario. Upper Canada and Lower Canada as designations don’t make a lot of sense intuitively to Americans since they are actually east-west neighbours. But in the days when the St. Lawrence River was the major highway east and west, Ontario was upriver and Quebec was downriver.

Hugh MacLennan was a great Canadian novelist, whose book Two Solitudes invented the myth or metaphor that, for decades, defined the way we thought about relations between the French and English sides of the nation. His other fine novel, Barometer Rising, about the Halifax Explosion of 1917 I gave to my son Jacob when I took him to Halifax for his freshman year at the University of King’s College last September. MacLennan taught at Lower Canada College and later McGill University.

The rest you can figure out for yourselves.


La Rentréé

The dignity of a considered rhythm: today
the school year begins. Across the dappled green lawn
of Lower Canada College children of privilege
kick a soccer ball, foregather in little groups;

by the fence a red-head and her friend exchange news.
The ghost of Hugh MacLennan in his teaching days
observes from the shade of a tall tree. He can hear
the plock of tennis balls from further up the street,

the sacred precincts of the Monkland Tennis Club.
A seasonable invention, all these memorable
hours, a cherishing of slowness, as eyes might observe
the infinite seconds of fine craftsmanship,

afforded to some in their best bargain with time,
the finely grained and cut and carved, its artifice
emulating the splendour of the eternal,
the existential calm of the elegiac.

Then turn the wrong corner. A house has disappeared.
As if entrapped in the suicide’s murderous mistake
or the muddle and depletion of dementia,
you come upon maddened wasps in all the cities,

sea giants, monsters, dragon, roc, sphinx, mermaid,
a phoenix tattoo paints resurrection on a pale skin.
Retrace your steps toward the pragmatics of freedom
in the grace of the familiar, that shape of our being,

the chosen hour of the chosen day, though the lost
slip from the slender thread of their living, yet first
and last the taut and shining wire vibrates
with tunefulness, proposes such fine music.

–David Helwig

Apr 132010

CaptureLorrie Moore



Dancing Amidst Despair: From Cosmology to Counterpointed Characterization

We begin adrift, as an idea hovering above a blank page, as two cells floating in the miasma of fallopian tubes.  Our stories and our lives begin as little-things, as truly, almost nothing.  And from the void emerges a word, a unified cell; and thus begins the story, begins the life.  How much does an idea weigh?  Certainly even less than a single cell, if such weights were quantifiable, yet all things are built upon these foundations of lightness.  A creation begins with the merest thing.  The idea, like the cell, must gain by accretion.  It lives only with connections to other ideas—without those connections, it vanishes.  And with variability, with diversity, with contrast, the stories and characters become rich and layered.

Pattiann Rogers opens her essay, Twentieth-Century Cosmology and the Soul’s Habitation, with this thought: “I’m very curious about the grid upon which we mentally place ourselves in time and space.  There must be a grid of some kind there for each of us, a visual scaffolding, for balance, for orientation.”  I think of that grid as a story, as the details which define the particular world of imagined lives captured on a page.  I think of that grid as the small, Pennsylvania college town where Lorrie Moore’s unnamed narrator has gone for an evening to meet up with her old friend, Cal, in the short story “Dance In America.”  I’d like to dwell on that grid awhile, to see if it can provide some clue what it’s all about.

Moore opens with an evocative, almost lyrical passage about dance.  Yet absent in this opening is character.  The unnamed narrator speaks in abstractions to an undefined audience, albeit with carefully crafted words.

I tell them dance begins when a moment of hurt combines with a moment of boredom.  I tell them it’s the body’s reaching, bringing air into itself.  I tell them it’s the heart’s triumph, the victory speech of the feet, the refinement of animal lunge and flight, the purest metaphor of tribe and self.  It is life flipping death the bird.

I make this stuff up.

Despite the power of the language, the story suffers because we don’t have a grid yet, we don’t have a context for what’s happening, until the second paragraph, that is.  Until the narrator bursts in and says, “I make this stuff up.”  That short sentence brings life in.  It opens up the story so that a character speaks honestly about herself.  It reveals instantly a penetrating and close narrative voice.  The rest is slight by comparison—beautiful phrases destined for posters hanging in a dance studio.  Without the dancer, the words mean almost nothing.  Character must be present to contextualize the abstraction.

Later, the narrator and Cal are out walking his dog, and talking about the past.  “He’d been exaggerating his interest in dance.  ‘I didn’t get it,’ he admitted.  ‘I kept trying to figure out the story.’” Dance continues to remain abstract here, a concept not yet alive.  Cal as much as tells us this.  There is also a distinct coolness between these two old friends so far.  “I’m determined to be agreeable,” the narrator says at one point; “I must be nice,” she says just a paragraph later.  They talk about paint colors and trade witticisms about Snickerdoodles, but all of this is surface clutter.  There is not enough contrast or conflict between the narrator and Cal.  At one point on the walk, they even think the same thoughts.  “Up in the sky, Venus and the thinnest pairing of sickle moon, like a cup and saucer, like a nose and mouth, have made the Turkish flag in the sky,” thinks the narrator.  “‘Wow,’ Cal says.  ‘The Turkish flag.’”  Were this to continue, I would argue that these two characters would not generate much dramatic spark.  Such energy-providing contrast comes from what Charles Baxter calls counterpointed characterization.  This will come in a minute, but first, back to the cosmos.

Rogers quotes Bertrand Russell when she says, “The point of departure must be ‘unyielding despair.’  We start from the recognition of that point to build the soul’s habitation.”  This despair emerges from a modern cosmology, a historically recent understanding of the universe and our almost imperceptible presence in it.  Rogers says:

The Sun is tiny compared to the size of the solar system, the solar system to the size of the Milky Way galaxy, the Milky Way to the size of the Andromeda galaxy, which is twice as big, containing 400 billion stars.  And yet the Andromeda galaxy is tiny compared to the universe, which contains billions of other galaxies.  All of that, up there, going on at this moment.

The point of departure Rogers refers to is the act of creation within the vast coldness of an indifferent cosmos.  In the past, such creation had a single source and a single destination: the divine and it’s manifestation of a destiny—a revealed plan for man.  For a long time in the West, art, history, politics and society served and glorified God, with a capital G.   Modern thinking, however, must contend with a much different perception of reality.  Rogers says: “As a result of this cosmology all of us, I would venture to say, have seen ourselves at some moment or other as ‘mankind aimlessly adrift in a meaningless universe.’”  We begin adrift. This awareness of our diminished role in the cosmos leads directly to a sense of unyielding despair.  What can we do, specks of dust on a piece of rock floating in an unfathomable, endless universe? How can we create something of value in a universe devoid of meaning?  Rogers turns not to science’s reductive approach of cutting and measuring (which she also defends and respects) but by seeking an artistic interconnectedness in things.  “The creative person, whether scientist or artist,…is that person who imagines new, different connections, broadening our conception of the universe and its interconnectedness as a whole.”   Charles Baxter echoes this too, although more narrowly, when he talks of the “incompatibility of passion and gentility” in James Joyce’s short story “The Dead.”  The artist seeks to illuminate the human condition in the darkness of an unfathomable universe.  Creation, in its highest forms, begins as an act of passion.  “Passion knocks decency right off the stage,” Baxter says.  The soul’s habitation is constructed on this grid, against this backdrop of cold, endless despair, filled with quotidian formality, gentility, struggles and structures, but in the hearth, a fire surely burns.

In order to render such passion in fiction, characters must be brought into contrast.  Baxter says, “Plot often develops out of the tension between characters, and in order to get that tension, a writer sometimes has to be something of a matchmaker, creating characters who counterpoint one another.”  Baxter says that characters are designed to rub up against each other, to create friction of sort, or even warmth, but that it is the connections between the characters that make the story.  “Certain kinds of people are pushed together, people who bring out a crucial response in each other.  A latent energy rises to the surface.”  It can’t be done with beautiful prose alone, at least not in a sustainable way.  Without the characters, the prose energy cools quickly. With counterpointed characters, the energy levels rise even more quickly.  In “Dance In America,” Lorrie Moore works to heat up her story with the introduction of a seven year-old boy named Eugene.

Eugene, the son of Cal and his wife, Simone, has cystic fibrosis and his “whole life is a race with medical research.”  Moore never says so directly, but we gather that the boy is dying.  “Already, Cal says, Eugene has degenerated, grown worse, too much liquid in his lungs.  ‘Stickiness,’ he calls it. ‘If he were three instead of seven, there’d be more hope.’”  Enter the backdrop of despair. Yet in spite of his condition, a condition which makes him labor for breath, Eugene steals this story, crashing into it with life and verve.  Notice the verbs Moore uses with respect to Eugene:  shouts, slides, chases, races, grabs, and smiles.  Eugene roars with life, overcoming his parents, the narrator and even our own despair.  Before he even enters the story directly, his presence pulsates with energy.  Talking to the narrator, Cal says:

‘It’s not that I’m not for the arts’, says Cal.  ‘You’re here; money for the arts brought you here.  That’s wonderful.  It’s wonderful to see you after all these years.  It’s wonderful to fund the arts.  The arts are so nice and wonderful.  But really: I say, let’s give all the money, every last fucking dime, to science.’

Notice the contrast here.  The repetitive use of wonderful and the clichéd language in relationship to abstract things, and in relation to the narrator’s visit, builds to an almost ecstatic outpouring for Eugene, who has yet to appear but whose illness has been introduced.  Moore uses the word fuck two times in this story, and both times (I will examine the second use below) the energy and force of that most un-genteel word strike exactly the right tone.  There is no vulgarity here, only passion.  The last sentence of this paragraph works like a prayer, like a devotion to the modern god, Science, driven by the most desperate yearning of the human spirit.

Eugene works as the counterpointed character to the adults in the story.  With only Cal, Simone and the narrator, the story would fall flat.  Eugene reminds the other characters what life is supposed to be about.  In talking about counterpointed characters, Baxter says:

A third element is born when these characters meet.  This element is not just drama, the force of conflicting desires.  It is a kind of invisible presence whose identity is generated by the proximity of these…characters, and this presence in not moral or simple.

Eugene shakes up this story when he arrives.  The adult lives are turned completely around.  The story becomes exciting during Eugene’s time on stage.  Notice the changes in the voice of the narrator especially—gone is the cynicism and ironic detachment from her voice.  “He huddles close, cold in the drafty house, and I extend my long sweater around him like a shawl.”  “He watches, rapt.  His brown hair hangs in strings in his face, and he chews it.”  With Eugene present, the narrator is dancing for the first time.  Through his suffering, Eugene teaches the narrator (and presumably, hopefully, the reader) to celebrate life. After dinner, they actually go and dance in Cal’s living room.  The narrator takes the hand of the “amazing Eugene” and loses herself to the music of Kenny Loggins.  “We make a phalanx and march, strut, slide to the music.  We crouch, move backward, then burst forward again.  We’re aiming to create the mildew, resinous sweat smell of dance.”

This story works with no real direct conflict in it, other than the unyielding despair of an indifferent universe that would besiege a seven year-old boy with cystic fibrosis.  What drives this story is the contrast between the adult word of sophistication and social codes and the free, more open world of Eugene.   It’s Baxter’s passion knocking decency off the stage again.  “Counterpointing substitutes for conflict, or displaces it,” Baxter says.  Were Eugene not present, some other motive force would have to drive this story forward.  Instead, Eugene’s vibrancy works to shake the characters loose of their doldrums.  It’s managed carefully, however.  Moore is hardly preaching and hardly providing a caricature of morality.  In one telling scene, Eugene practically begs the narrator to visit his classroom the next day, when she stops by his school to conduct a dance workshop for older kids.  “‘Sure,’ I say, not knowing that, in a rush, I will forget, and that I’ll be on a plane home already, leafing through some inane airline magazine before I remember that I forgot to do it.”  Moore uses prolepsis here to underscore this scene’s importance, and she shows us how easy it is to forget the sublime in place of the mundane.  The use of the airline magazine works to underscore this point.  Just because Eugene’s presence shines like a beacon in this story, Moore is a careful enough artist to render reality’s often cold indifference to the light.

Yet, in spite of the pain and suffering, we press forward.   Rogers puts it this way:  “And here’s a miracle that must be constantly celebrated: In spite of the moments of the soul’s desperation, we do proceed.”  Moore paints this picture vividly in the story, again using the sharp contrasts between Eugene and the adults.   After he is called to dinner, Eugene must take a regimen of pills for his illness.  Notice the verbs and how they contrast between the characters.

‘Coming!’ shouts Eugene, and he leaps off the couch and slides into the dining room, falling sideways into her chair.  ‘Whoo,’ he says, out of breath.  ‘I almost didn’t make it.’

‘Here,’ says Cal.  He places a goblet of pills at Eugene’s place setting.

Eugene makes a face, but in the chair, he gets up on his knees, leans forward, glass of water in one hand, and begins the arduous activity of taking all the pills.

I sit in the chair opposite him and place my napkin in my lap.

In this short example, we have despair and miraculous procession.  The illness hovers always over Eugene.  Like the universe, it is a dark, relentless presence that cannot be escaped.  Yet Eugene perseveres, undaunted by the magnitude of it.  Notice also the counterpointing to create this effect: Cal, placing the pills, the narrator placing the napkin, while Eugene shouts, leaps, slides and falls into his chair.  And though out of breath, he finds the strength to speak while the adults watch in near silence.  As readers, we feel the emotional weight of Eugene through the adult consciousness of the story, but it is Eugene, not the adults, who instructs us how to live under the cold universe.  Rogers says that “we continue to build the soul’s habitation” by “expressing the awe and thrill and gratitude we feel at the mystery and beauty of the universe.”

The final scene in “Dance in America” seems to capture this feeling of awe perfectly.  The characters are dancing in the living room but Eugene tires due to his illness. He is “determined not to cough until the end,” and the narrator then goes to him.  Notice the change in language from the opening.

I am thinking of the dancing body’s magnificent and ostentatious scorn.  This is how we offer ourselves, enter heaven, enter speaking: we say with motion, in space, This is what life’s done so far down here; this is all and what and everything it’s managed—this body, these bodies, that body—so what do you think, Heaven?  What do you fucking think?

This passage is the narrator’s direct answer to the cosmos; it’s her defiant answer to the question, What’s it all about, down here?  In spite of the flaws and terrible fates awaiting them, these characters are dancing.  They are staring into the unfathomable emptiness of infinity and “flipping death the bird.”   Moore’s narrator has reclaimed the language of her opening, by rubbing up against Eugene, and has taken the “latent energy ris(ing) to the surface” and burst it over the top.  By achieving a harmonious balance between very different characters, Moore has crafted both a simple story and a profoundly moving one, one that seeks to find a grid, a location to construct the human soul’s rightful habitation in the universe.

—Richard Farrell

Works Cited

Baxter, Charles.  Burning Down the House.  (Saint Paul, MN: Graywolf Press, 1997)

Moore, Lorrie.  “Dance in America.”  In Birds of America. (London: Faber and Faber, 1998)

Rogers, Pattiann.  “Twentieth-Century Cosmology and the Soul’s Habitation.”  In Writing it Down for James, edited by Kurt Brown.  (Boston: Beacon Press, 1995)