Nov 162014


Numéro Cinq at the Movies readers should recognize Julie Trimingham’s name from one of our first entries when we featured her lovely, haunting triptych of films beauty crowds me, a pseudo-adaptation of the poems of Emily Dickinson.

In keeping with Numéro Cinq‘s penchant for reflecting on the creative process, NC at the Movies is asking filmmakers we’ve featured to reflect on why they make movies, what compels them to tell the visual stories they tell. Presented with that question, Julie Trimingham came back to us with a triptych (she likes to work in threes) of articles that look at her relationship with film: “Rosebud,” “The Horror,” and “Raising Hell.” This month NC at the Movies features her second article, “The Horror.”

— R. W. Gray


Part 2: The Horror


The horror. He says it twice. Marlon Brando’s hulking Kurtz in Apocalypse Now has witnessed and done things a person should never. I wish I could unsee the scalpeling of an eye in Un Chien Andalou. The severing of an ear in Reservoir Dogs. The rape in A Clockwork Orange. The flaying of a man in Red Sorghum.  A thug in The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover tortures a young boy by stuffing him with buttons torn from his apprentice cook’s white coat, and then finally the most awful button, the excised one from his own belly. Paul Newman swallowing too many hard boiled eggs in Cool Hand Luke leads to him digging his own grave at the end. Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout begins with a man trying to kill his children. A diligent boyfriend’s investigation into the disappearance of his girlfriend in the Dutch film The Vanishing ends with him, and us, finding out what happened by sharing her fate: buried alive with no hope of escape. Celluloid images of brutality –nightmares – are belched up from our species’ shadow side.


Part of me wants to cling to Anne Frank’s belief that we are all good at heart; another part wants to figure how it is that all these good hearts are involved with genocide, murder, torture, stupid wars, as well as more intimate and prosaic barbarities. It is a question against which I bang my head. My son, now in kindergarten, has suggested that the good people should kill all the bad people in the world. I am become death, destroyer of worlds.

Oppenheimer atomic bomb lecture

Australian security recently reported that they had broken up a plot in which zealots would randomly seize people of the streets of Sydney, cut off their heads, and videotape the killings so all the world could see. The White Rose, an intellectual, non-violent resistance movement, bloomed in Munich in the early 1940s. Comprised of university friends, the group anonymously wrote and distributed leaflets that decried Nazi policies. Sophie Scholl, a girl of 20 who loved hiking and books, children and God, was one of these activists. I clap my hand over my eyes as she is beheaded by Nazis in the film that bears her name.


Nor can I bear to watch the beheading of Thomas More in A Man for all Seasons, the beheading of King Henry’s smart, proud queen in Anne of the Thousand Days, the beheadings of Daniel Pearl, of James Foley, of Steven Sotloff, of Hervé Gourdel in virally distributed jihadist propaganda film clips.

Even when unseen, these scenes have made their way into me as if I have swallowed dark pills.  Does it matter that some are fiction,  some historical dramas, some news, some threats? Yes, but the images are all queasily spliced together in my mind; they describe the same arc of an unjust blade.


Aristotle would have us feel cleansed by tragedy, scrubbed by pity and fear. Screaming, crying, gasping at something that happens on screen allows our bodies to release some of the horror we feel simply because we’re human, because suffering exists, because the world is as cruel as it is beautiful. Too, the dramatic form is a container for collective emotional experience, a means by which we can feel connected, if briefly, to one another.  We can mourn together. We can vicariously survive the tragedy, and come out the other side. We can empathize with the protagonist who, by dint of pride or error, has come to a sorry end. If Anne had held her tongue, if More had signed the oath, if Sophie had discreetly distributed the tracts rather than flinging them into the air, they all would’ve kept their heads. We all screw up and behave foolishly, and we are reminded and relieved that we get away with it when we watch the heroes of these stories fall.


But what of the character who snuffs out, who desecrates the hero? What of the executioner? The eye-slicer, the ear-cutter, the flayer, the flogger, the imperious king, the dictator, the jihadist, the torture artist? What of Laurence Olivier’s dentist in Marathon Man, the Nazi sadist? Ben Kingsley and Sigourney Weaver, taking turns inflicting pain in Roman Polanski’s Death and the Maiden? I do not feel purified by watching them; I feel stained.


Brutality is suffering inflicted for selfish gain, cruelty of a particularly human strain. Witnessing it in movies seems not catharsis but admonition: the veneer of civilization is thin.


I should know: I have hacked a man’s throat with a small, blunt knife and watched as his life gushed out. I have allowed the police to cart off my innocent young daughter, and then I have denounced her as she is tortured, her face pressed against a white hot iron. And often, sometimes nightly, I’ve had to run through the narrow streets of Montreal and Jerusalem, climbing up walls, out of windows, hiding behind dumpsters, I’ve had to run for my life from the oppressive state, from the minotaur, from my university painting instructor.

Carl Jung’s description of dream structure is not so different from Aristotelian dramatic principles or North American film script conventions: what Jung calls Exposition is our Act I, setting the stage with theme, character and place; Development is classic Act II, the playing out of conflict and action; Crisis is the Climax; Lysis is the resolution or conclusion, Act III.  Filmmakers structure films in order to create emotional momentum, to keep us from getting bored. Jung structures dreams in order to read us.

Some neurobiologists think that dreams are rehearsals for survival, if we run from disaster in our sleep, we’re more likely to do it when awake. Freud stripped dreams down to a single, telling essence, be it conflict, neurosis or wish-fulfillment. Various cultures have seen dreams as prophecy, healing, or divine intervention. As all human bodies are variants of the same basic genome, so our psychologies simply play off a fundamental human psychology: Jungians read dreams as messages from this unconscious, collectively held and personally expressed.

Sharon is a tiny, blonde woman who dresses in pale silk and pearls. She speaks softly and is, as far as I can tell, fearless. I suspect that if she weren’t an analyst she would tame lions.  Her talent and work, whether with adult neurotics or troubled kids, is to behold a psyche – that messy, alive, invisible thing – and to accept it, understand it, reflect it. To give it back to itself, nudge it toward wholeness. Her take on dreams is informed by Jung and also by decades of experience, of witnessing people thrash out meaning in their lives. She takes the internal narrative –dreams– as reflection both of the dreamer’s own psyche and the human consciousness we all share. Sharon translates, and transforms, nightmares: killing is repression; I am the killer, I am the innocent, my self is refracted in the violence of my dreams. The images are all clues.

Seeing our selves more clearly is a kind of spiritual proprioception. As these selves of ours are always caught in the sticky web of culture and history, seeing the web more clearly allows for more nimble navigation of it. If we can intelligently read our dreams, our own moving pictures, we are not bound to act blindly according to buried fears and desires.

Ditto, perhaps, for films. If we peer into the collective darkness, if we peel the text from the subtext of our cultures, might we be better off?


I am a filmmaker who no longer makes films: after a series of short films, my first feature was, despite a flurry of meetings with producers and a lovely actress in Montreal, never produced; it became a novel instead. While not explicitly violent, the work does explore how decent people (namely, a drifting actress) come to take morally questionable action, how our most altruistic motives can be twined with the most selfish. My husband has asked me why my characters aren’t better people; he doesn’t understand, and doesn’t like my need to traffic in what he sees as tawdry, what I see as human. He doesn’t like that my brain even comes up with this stuff. I don’t think I’m coming up with anything; I’m just watching, and trying to describe.

If we can see the ways in which we are wounded and the ways in which we wound, aren’t we more likely to be kind? If we can see the ways in which we are blind, isn’t our vision at least partially restored?

Too: the light in chiaroscuro works so well because the darkness is so thick. We are barbarians with moments of grace. Cruelty sometimes inspires resistance, transcendence.


I once wanted to make a movie based on Etty Hillesum’s An Interrupted Life, which is a compilation of letters and journals of her time during World War II. Photographs show a young woman with short, dark hair, bright eyes. She lived in Amsterdam, was a secular Jew, and wrote as a way to figure out her path in life. Living in a non-Jewish household, and consorting with the bohemian class, her writings limn the city in which she lives and her coming into her self, sex and her physical desires, the world of ideas opening to her. Politics and religion stayed in the margins until the Nazis invaded her life and her pages. She was recruited to the Jewish Council, where she performed administrative duties, but she hated this work and requested a transfer to Westerbork, a camp where she worked in the department for Social Welfare for People in Transit. These people were in transit to death camps. In time, and despite chances to escape, she became one of those sent. She accepted this fate. I came across, and was stunned, by her journals when I was 29, the same age as she was when she was gassed at Auschwitz.

Although unmade, scenes from this hypothetical film are cut into the montage that slow-burns at the back of my brain:

INT. WESTERBORK TRANSIT CAMP: She nurses the sick and comforts the anxious in the barracks. They all know what they’re waiting for. Etty tries to get a smile out of a fraught new mother. She can’t. The nursing infant unlatches from his mother’s breast. He gurgles, milk-drunk. The mother can’t stand it, she tries to contain herself. She hands the baby to Etty while she goes off to scream.  Etty gentles the baby, coaxing him to sleep. Kisses the top of his little bald head.

INT. CATTLE CAR CROWDED WITH FAMILIES – DAY:  Etty scrawls on a postcard. From outside, we see her fingers reaching through the slat, letting loose the card which flutters down and settles on the gravel ballast of the railroad,

INSERT POSTCARD:  her last written words: We left the camp singing.

A common interpretation of this act is that Etty had achieved great spiritual maturity, going Christ-like to her death. I prefer to see it as a beautiful fuck you to brutality.

—Julie Trimingham


DSC_0053 - Version 3Julie Trimingham was born in Montreal and raised semi-nomadically. She trained as a painter at Yale University and as a director at the Canadian Film Centre in Toronto. Her film work has screened at festivals and been broadcast internationally, and has won or been nominated for a number of awards. Julie taught screenwriting at the Vancouver Film School for several years; she has since focused exclusively on writing fiction. Her online journal, Notes from Elsewhere, features reportage from places real and imagined. Her first novel, Mockingbird, was published in 2013.


Nov 162014

Mark Anthony JarmanMark Anthony Jarman


 Our sincerest laughter
With some pain is fraught;
Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought.

Percy Bysshe Shelley, poet (1792-1822)


Pope Rat watches Euro Cup, the blind man wanders our hotel halls, and I wander Rome’s swarming city. I soak my head and T-shirt in cold water to escape the Roman heat, I inhale cold bottles in a dark bistro, then I creep into another empty church – simple, not a rock-star church, but I must look. The streets burn in wild daylight, but inside is shadow, inside my eyes rise to a blue dome where a young Italian artist painted night stars inside the cupola before spilling from his high scaffold, the falling man ending his art and life in one downward stroke.

Ever so slightly sunburnt and intoxicated, I am in the precisely right state to take in the swooning gift of these stars glowing in a tiny compass of sky, this is exactly what a place of worship should do, lines of light guiding my eyes from the well bottom up to these high stars in a circle.

My cells vibrate happily, my mind and eyes ready to receive this perfect sacrament. Light like blocks of white stone fills the church windows, and in my head Gene Clark’s tremolo voice singing, ain’t it good to be alive. This temporal bliss won’t last, but in the moment its echo is beautiful.

Our world revolves about me for a few hours until like Galileo I know, what heresy, it doesn’t circle me, I remember I am millions of miles from the centre. But I’ll survive, I have options. What of the woman from Iraq with her injured eyes? She was once so happy, on her way to college she steered a blinding gold Mustang through the heart of Baghdad and courted bright ambitions, but after the invasion she has nothing, finds herself so far from the centre.

American soldiers liked the woman from Iraq and Americans ran over her gold Mustang with a tank while she was trapped at the steering wheel and then I meet her in her new life in Rome, in her exile. Birds and countries flying through the air like scalding shrapnel, all these wax nations, all these melting borders and homes. Our hotel rooms have teensy televisions bolted to the ceiling and mine pulls in a German MTV channel, rock unt roll, the VJ’s narration an unsettling mix of Teutonic Girl and Valley Girl. Our alliances and kingdoms fidgety as a blackbird’s eye.


Loaded down by buckets of dirt and rocks, men trudge out of the earth carrying rocks by hand through the hotel atrium, lugging buckets to a tiny truck the size of a scooter. In a silent prayer I call upon the backhoes of the nation to help them.

I want to chat up the soft-eyed Spanish woman who inhales cigarettes in the atrium. In her white sundress blood speaks in her skin and she reminds me of Natasha, a similar face and hair, as if I know this person, a sister-messenger, though Natasha is too health-conscious to smoke, Natasha is more green tea than Pall Malls.


Angelo owns the rambling hotel, Angelo delivers to our atrium party a giant vat of purple-black wine that resembles Welch’s grape juice, a giant ham, prosciutto di Parma, and a giant knife; Eve and I glance at the knife warily. Angelo moves slowly to a long table, his grey hair slicked back, a beaked nose like a hawk; he is generous to us, he is regal.

“Tonight we have a super-big party!” exclaims a smiling Angelo.

Eve can’t take the wine’s sweet taste, but Ray-Ray and the others like the hooch well enough. We also carve up a spicy sausage the size of a small pig and an amazing cake filled with light custard. Food is so good in Italy; it’s like being stoned.

Father Silas makes a toast, “Thanks to the hotel owner for a festa with real Italian girls.” And it’s true, Angelo did arrive with smiling Italian girls with big hair like Amy Winehouse or the Shirelles.

“The bigger the hair the closer to God,” says Eve.

“Grazie, grazie,” we all intone. Grazie. Am I saying it right?

Basta, Angelo says modestly. Enough.

Father Silas whispers to me, “If Angelo says Ciao to us, then we can say it to him.” Otherwise Father Silas worries we might be too informal.


The Spanish woman says Angelo’s men are digging a cellar for a basement cafe and gym. Angelo is ambitious, owns many buildings, and I find myself wondering how much real estate he has. Or how he owes. The crew has no jackhammer or bobcat. Excavators and dump-trucks are too wide for the narrow lane. So the work is done by hand and back and legs, like labour scratched out thousands of years ago. Will the men’s picks and crowbars stab into artifacts, find bones in a well? Will our hotel collapse?

Every time they dig in Rome they find something, the Spanish woman says, reading my mind. It is impossible to do anything. If they try to expand the subway, the new line they can dig, a tunnel is narrow, that is okay, but a new station means excavating a much broader space and then they find a temple to Saturn, to Venus, they find a villa, they find rude frescoes, and work is halted. A stray cat crawls into lost catacombs and they must bring in specialists in archeology and incest. So apologies to the world, but Rome will have no new subway lines.


Bottles of champagne arrive, like the hand-cut prosciutto, courtesy of generous Angelo, and the champagne thrills Tamika, she scrambles for her camera to snap photos of the large dark bottles. I find this endearing, and wonder if Tamika wants the photos to show her parents or grandparents that she moves in champagne circles. Or perhaps they worry she isn’t having fun in Rome and here is evidence to send them, truthful or not.

I feel guilty lounging around with Eve and Tamika and the Spanish woman while the men work in this heat, passing by us with buckets of rocks and earth. They must think me a rich tourist, that I am lazy, that I am lucky. Am I lucky, I wonder. They dig under the hotel and I hope the undermined foundation will be all right.


Angelo’s cured ham is scrumptious and the soft-eyed Spanish woman sips spring water inside her cigarette fog, says, “I am here from Madrid to help a friend at the hotel, a woman. I am not staying at this hotel, I am staying by Termini. Do you know my friend? Do you know Madrid?”

“Madrid is a beautiful city; I was there many years ago.” I struggle for memories: such striking architecture and art deco and oil paintings in the Prado and parks and tabernas, but what I recall mostly is summer heat ballooning in an airless upstairs room by the Puerto del Sol, the temperature driving me from the old hotel and driving me from the city to a cooler sea and a smaller harbor town. Perhaps the Spanish woman loves the heat, like Natasha. The Madrid hotel was shelled during the Spanish civil war. And I remember St. Sebastien and the threat of bombs in Basque country. Does Natasha still keep her hair long, light striking her like a saint?


Eve wears a fichu cape and a cute Oriental coolie hat to fend off the sun. An Italian man in the courtyard stares at my cousin Eve’s white t-shirt, a low scoop top that reveals the top of her breasts. He speaks to her breasts in heavily accented English.

“Oooooh, look at you! That is a very nice shirt. My wife has been in the hospital for eight weeks, that’s her over there.” He points to a weary-looking woman glued to a phone, but his eyes stay riveted on my cousin’s chest.

“She was really sick. Yes, her kidneys I think, I’m not sure, but oh she was in so much pain. It was hard to take, but she’ll be all right.” His eyes never lift from Eve’s t-shirt. “You look so goooood!”

My cousin backs up, trying to get away.

“Oooooh yessss, I very much like your beautiful shirt.”


I chat with the Spanish woman several times in the atrium, but find I cannot ask her out because I am sure she is waiting for me to ask her out and I hate the moves and the knowledge and the lack of knowledge.

“Are you interested in zombies?” the Spanish woman asks me. Her name is Elena. How do you say dinner and drinks in Spanish (the dream of a common language)? How do you say that you are so very tired of zombies? I wish I had my old phrase book from years ago in Spain. Mucho gusto.


Whenever I walk onto my room’s terrace I hear two women talking on their terrace.

We went to Australia, one woman says. We went camping, it was fun. They offered me all kinds of seafood and I said no. We didn’t have money to buy. Well, we had some.

Don’t you wish you’d done some of those things?

You look back. There are memories.

Those are positive memories! Mary, you still have memories to come.

You think so?

Absolutely! Life isn’t over. It’s a new chapter. And another chapter. A set of problems is just a new chapter.


I make noise with a chair on my side of the terrace so they know I am there, but it has no effect, the two women keep talking, so I abandon my comfy terrace to zigzag bridges crossing the Tiber.

I step inside out of habit and curiosity; every church has a relic, fragments of the true cross, bones, thorns, nails. What chance that they are real? There is Christ’s alligator suitcase retrieved from the Holy Land, there is Christ’s hairdryer, and his first report card signed by Mary.


On the terrace Mary the nervous woman says, In the old days I’d talk to men. Now I hold back.

Her more confident friend says, You’ve forgotten who you are.

I lost that. You understand?

Absolutely! What if he knew you were looking for someone new. I’d be interested in his reaction. I’d be very interested.

Maybe we’ll meet some Italian men!


Ray-Ray says to me, “I hear you’re running for Pope. Very cool. If there’s an interview, just remember he’s human, he puts his pants on one leg at a time.”

Ray-Ray, so tall and smiling, has a girlfriend and a baby waiting back in Canada, but in Italy he’s on a quest for an Italian woman, even asking the Spanish woman for advice.

“Where can I meet them? What do Italian women like, what should I say?”

“It will not happen,” she says, “they live in another world. My apologies, but you must be Italian to seduce.” Ray-Ray has a few words of Chinese, but little Italian.

“One leg at a time,” she says, “yes, I understand such a motivational concept, but does a Pope even own pants?”

“He probably wears sweat pants at home,” says Ray-Ray, “you know, to chillax, eat chips and watch Euro Cup on the boob tube. But the man’s from Dusseldorf or somewhere. So what team does the Pope pull for? He’s deep in this crazy-ass palace in Italy, but, really, the man’s from Germany, right? And he’s got these Swiss Guard dudes, who do they pull for?”

“Is there a Swiss team in the Euro Cup?”

“The Swiss Cuckoos?”

“The Swiss Army Knives?”

“Ye Gods,” mutters Father Silas shaking his head while enjoying cake and custard.

South Africa is killing Italy in the Euro Cup; Angelo and the girls with beehive hair grimace as one. The goalie moves the wrong way with his ski gloves out-stretched. Italy has a gifted team, but they seem jinxed, they lose every match. For the locals this is heart-breaking and suspicious: are the matches fixed?

Angelo holds one hand up high: “How the team should play,” he says. Then a hand low: “How they are playing instead.”

As a child in Nigeria Ray-Ray went to old style British schools, obeyed a headmaster, wore school uniforms in the Nigerian heat. I try to imagine him in a blazer. Later he may try to kill himself in the Don Valley, but how can our group know that?

Ray-Ray says to the Spanish woman, “Did you know the Etruscan language was never deciphered?”

“That’s really a shame,” she says.

Ray-Ray keeps saying that he was a celebrity in China, the girls on campus loved him, flocked to him, thinking he must be an NBA star because he was so tall. But he is not so well loved in Italy. In the hotel Ray-Ray doggedly pursues the chambermaids room to room, his big wolf teeth in a grin.

“How you doing today, ladies?”

The chambermaids’ boss, a severe Aryan looking woman, shoos the towering Ray-Ray away from her staff. “Go! Go! Let them do their work!” And we smile at the ribald drawing room spectacle.

But what of my gaze, and my crush on Irena, our Croatian chambermaid? Am I so different than Ray-Ray? Every day I speak to Irena on the stairs or when she knocks on the door of my room to ask if I need my room cleaned.

Irena gently scolds me in the hall: “You should not walk about in bare feet! You might step on broken glass! You are a free spirit. It is America.”

“It is not America.”

I delay wearing socks as long as possible, not to upset Irena the chambermaid, but because in bare feet the day remains somehow mine, I feel the chains when I have to don socks and shoes and move out into the world to take care of something dubious or pay money to someone when I’d rather not pay. When I get in the door I can’t wait to peel off shoes and socks, especially in this hot climate. And what chance of stepping on glass when Irena guards our sparkling halls? Being scolded by Irena is enjoyable. She first showed me the long route to my rooftop room. Why do I feel my pursuit of her is not base, but is high minded, a noble romantic quest? “It is Canada.”


Marco the intern laughs about the hotel’s Croatian chambermaids. Three women were washing a floor and Marco had to get in the room for inventory, so he took off his shoes to tiptoe past. They were incensed; the clean wet floor should be made dirty rather than Marco take off his shoes. A man should just walk through.

“When I had to move out of my room and stay with the chambermaids I made my own bed every morning, but they would unmake it and make it their way. They are still very old world.”


On my way out of my room one fine morning I see Irena making up the beds next door, in what I think of as the sex room, as this room is used by so many mysterious couples. Irena pauses by the bed, looks over.

“Do you need your room made up?”

“No, thank you. My room is fine.”

She asks me every day and I have the same reply. I have everything I need. Grazie.

You are lucky, she may say. That is the usual extent of our talk. But today she stops her work, today she wants to chat.

“You are wearing shoes today,” she notes with approval. “You are from Canada,” she says, “what is it you do in Canada? What is life like there?”

She knows some Croatians who like Canada. She says, “Canada has more interest in culture. Here in Italy it is all business.”

“It is?” I’m surprised.

“Here it is who you know. Want anything done? You need a friend, a connection. And if you have no friends? Nothing can be done for you.”

“I think of North America as all business. With Italy I think of art and culture.”

“No, no. Clearly it is the other way around.”

Now I’m puzzled. Irena tells me of her home in Croatia, the hills of white stone above the sea, she says in Croatia there are mountains, but not too high, they are just perfect. Her town once a Roman colony and now she is drawn to Rome, her town once a key port in the salt trade, but now its beaches are covered with roasting Germans, the Germans are everywhere, the EU accomplishing what Hitler could not.

Irena says, “I’d like to move to London and go to school there, but it’s hard.”

Irena has been working in Rome two years to save her pennies. London a magnet for her, but London is so expensive and school in England is so dear, thousands and thousands of pounds Sterling. She worries, she worries about the crash of the Euro and the terrible economy and the backlash in Rome and Athens and Madrid and she sees the TV news of arson and riots and jobless males battling police and attacking foreigners (do we have that in common, Irena, we are both foreign?) She is an immigrant, as were my parents, but her hill town is close to Italy, she did not need to step in a sinking boat, she rode to Italy by fast train.

Irena says she worries that what is happening elsewhere is sure to spread here and become far worse. Greece is a disaster, Spain, Tunisia, Libya, Syria in rubble, Iraq in convulsions.

“It’s not over yet,” she says, “on the contrary, it is just the beginning.”

She has worries and hopes, Irena seems impossibly nice. She asks where else I’m going and I mention Napoli and Pompeii.

“Ah, Capri,” she says dreamily. “And you must go to Elba. Though Napoli has the best food. It is the best city.”

I wonder if Irena lives and works in Italy legally, but can’t bring myself to ask. Irena has three languages and I have none. I heard her speaking Croatian and the language sounded like jagged Russian colliding with musical Italian. How long must Irena clean tile floors in Rome, work in a hotel and save a few Euro to put herself through school? She has no iPhone or tablet, no college student pub-crawls, no fast Bimmer or fake and bake tan, no Mom and Dad paying the credit card for a trip to the capitals of Europe.

Irena served and fed Marco, the hotel’s American intern when he was kicked out of his room. The hotel was over-booked, desperate for a room, so for a few days he was farmed out to the apartment shared by several Croatian chambermaids. A male guest in their home was not allowed to lift a finger, they cooked full meals and fed him plums from a mother’s garden in Croatia, plums a storm-cloud purple, taut yet dripping sweetly with juice, and sliced wrinkled apples that tasted like summer wine, as if the apples were ready to ferment. The young chambermaids treated him like a lord.

Irena’s stern blonde boss bursts out of the coffin-sized elevator, an unwelcome genie with dyed hair. The woman stares, suspicious of a shirker, suspicious of what I am after. Irena’s face alters, eyes scared, and she scampers back to cleaning the sex room.

Sometimes I feel like an exact saint of restraint, sometime I worry I possess the virtues of a dog running loose. At times I’ve been called a dog, but my mien leans more to milquetoast, surely I am more custard than canine. Galloping miles of halls and stairs to the Roman street (I don’t use the elevator), I hope that Irena’s Aryan boss won’t make trouble because she spoke to me. But I am happy Irena wanted to chat with me about her future life in the U.K.


A sickle moon hangs over the curved brick portal arch, moon and brick permanent fixtures both. And statues everywhere in Rome, long lines of anemic statues peopling rooftops, huge armies of silhouettes and future suicides crowding ledges, arms spread as if losing their balance or to leap from the ledge and get air in their beards, fly off and shudder like shaky kites around the white columns and spires and tourist piazzas.

I stare at chalk-white eyeless statues and older Italians in the subway car stare baldly at Tamika’s dark round face and wire-rim glasses and dainty dreads. They are not shy about staring wide-eyed, as if Tamika is some amazing piece of furniture perched beside me on a subway seat.

Tamika is super-shy and doesn’t fit into the group of young drunks and Tamika is very aware of the open stares as we ride buses or the Metro. In Philly she fits in fine; in Rome her dark skin draws unwelcome attention, eyes on her.

Tamika asks me, “Do people stare at you here?”

“Not really.” I am becoming invisible and to be invisible has its uses.

Tamika tells me that she ate something that disagreed with her and warning she became sick on a moving public bus.

“I felt horrible, but I couldn’t get off in time. The driver stopped the bus and he called the police.”

“The driver called the police?”

“They took me off the bus and I sat for ages in the police station. No one seemed to be paying any attention, so after three or four hours I slowly stood up and walked out the door with some other people and came back and hid at the hotel. I get nervous when I see any police or a uniform.”

Shy Tamika the outlaw. Italy has an uneasy relationship with colour, with Africa, Africa once part of its old Roman Empire and still so close, a slow boat-ride away from Sicily or the Italian island of Lampedusa far to the south where refugees swim to shore at this exact moment or they fail to swim to shore.


Some citizens in northern Italy prefer the north, would like to be part of Switzerland or Austria or Friuli, Venice wants to be an independent serene republic. Italian cousins in the south are seen as uncouth, un-north, they are Terroni, of the earth, swarthy peasants, lazy, corrupt, brutish, violent, invaded and tainted by Arabs and Moors and Algerians, by heated kingdoms of darker blood, by invasion after invasion.

Men ask Tamika, Are you Africano or Americano? They want to be sure.

Father Silas surprises us, saying, “Some Italian men have a fetish for black prostitutes.”

“A fetish? North Africa? West Africa?”

“I really can’t say, it’s not my fetish.”


“It’s not that I’ve been cold to him.”

The two woman talk on the next terrace and I imagine my wife saying similar words to her best friend over a glass of shiraz, adjusting decades of memories. To hear this is depressing.

“You ask yourself what happened to all those years.”

The years of connections and cities and good times don’t alter or disappear. But now those years are different to my wife, now tainted, though not to me. The women talking on the next terrace are a vocal reminder of what I’ve done wrong and how I will be misunderstood and maligned over a glass of shiraz, perhaps at this very moment.

“This new therapist, he lets me come to my senses, he doesn’t tell me.”

“I like the advice this doctor gives you.”

“Is it out of fear I’m doing this or out of love?”

“You do what you have to do.”

“I don’t want my kids to be vulnerable. Damaged people gravitate to someone like, to damaged people. I can empower my two children by standing on my own two feet. Or they’ll step into the exact same scenario. It’s a valuable lesson.”

“You know in your heart you did everything you could.”

Don’t the women know that I’m on my side of the trellis and vines, that I hear every word and sigh? I make noises on my terrace to alert them, but they are like oblivious shoppers who block the whole aisle with their carts, no one else exists.

“What if he came back? He’s not open, he’s not going to be expressive or lively or please me. He can’t find it in himself to be happy.”

“Can’t go down that road. Tell the kids when they’re older.”

“If I’m giving 150 per cent and he’s giving 80, it ain’t gonna work. Is that flame too high?”

“I don’t think so.”

“That fire worries me. Should we get some water?”

“It’s citronella. It smells nice. Ah, this is the life. Shopping in Rome.”

“Can we put it out?”

“Okay, okay. Feel better?”

“I do.”


Jesus, I think, let the stupid fire burn.  I’ve lost my euphoric mood under the perfect cupola of chapel stars.

So once more into Rome I wander footsore, that one church on the edge, marble underfoot, tombs underfoot, reading graffiti, stepping over graves, over a lost city.  Eve and I gaze at The Conversion of Saint Paul, but the canvas is so dark for an epiphany, it seems more the reverse of an epiphany, I see no light or illumination.

Saints line every rooftop and I pass the spot where the dead rat has been resting every day on cobblestones and when I wander back the two women still talk on the next terrace.  Like me, like the woman from Iraq, these two women on a terrace so dedicated to their dead country.


“I told him wish you were here, she says.  Why did I say that?”

“Because that’s how you feel.  Mary, you’re allowed your emotions.”

“If he was here he’d know every temple where Caesar was stabbed.  I think women a generation or two back were stronger.”

“Hey, we’re two powerful women — we put out the fire.”

“Safety first, ha!”

“This is fun.  More vino?!”

“We are having fun.”

“Be grateful for small things.  The here and now is important.”

“You’re wise.”

“Life isn’t over.  It’s a new chapter.  Life is a book.  And each chapter….”

“See in a marriage…well…he betrayed me.  But I’m more angry about the car than that woman.”

“Tell him you’re looking for someone.  Did you do that before?”

“Fool around?  No.”

“To grow.”


“I did, I went to someone else.  I felt those feelings.  It scares me that I don’t care.  Is it because I’ve dealt with it?  It’s wonderful to feel that close to someone.  If I stumbled across her in a social setting, what does she look like, I don’t care.  It’s almost creepy.  It is creepy, a creepy creepy feeling.  Every day I wake up and expect it to change.”

“The Mole called me back.”

“Who?  Not him.”

“Turned me down, but he called me back.”

“You’re better off without him.”


The woman’s last words make me wonder: in the long run, am I better off without Natasha?  I resist, but I need to believe this, need to take it in like an arthroscope to the knee.

Something in me can’t accept the finality, some part of me still wishes for contact, to hear of Natasha’s mother and father, the farm, her sisters.  “My dad’s youngest brother died, only 62; my poor dad, such a shock for him.  My crazy sister is okay, but her boyfriend bonked her on the head with his laptop and she’s depressed a bit.”

And I want to tell Natasha all my Italian news, I feel a wave at times, a physical command: lift the phone, click Reply on her last email.  But I have decided: no more.

It’s difficult, as we were so comfortable with each other; how to find that lost empire again in the stone mountains?  It seems impossible.  The anatomy of desire and the anatomy of loss – I have them mixed up in my sun-burnt head.   Brushing my right ear is the fever song of mosquitoes, then a mosquito frittering inside my ear, wanting my brain.  I smack my own head hard, then cry out, OW!  And Eve laughs at me: is such slapstick exactly what this mosquito aims for as evening entertainment?  Like me, the mosquito has a soft spot for the Three Stooges.  Rome’s hills and marble temples built above a marsh and winter mosquitoes felled an emperor.  In Trogir I leapt off a water-taxi to see a Norman fortress in palm trees and walked Malarjia Park.  In Rome we will devour delicious blood oranges and pray to Madonna della Febbre, the protectress of victims of malaria.


At night in the hotel stairwell I bump into a thin blind man.  The blind man is shirtless and wields a long white cane, a slim stick, a pilgrim of sorts.  His pale wonky eyes aim into deep space.

“I’m above you on the steps,” I say.

“Are you with that group?”  His voice is assertive, angry about noise in our hotel.  Would I be so confident if I might fall down an open stairway?

He says, “I have a wife and a two year old trying to sleep.  Can you tell them to stop chit-chatting?”

He may mean a noisy group up on the roof.  I don’t know them, but I lie to the blind man, saying I will pass on his message.  Is it more of a sin to lie to a blind person?  Or is the sin pretty much the same?


Eve and I are crossing manic streets like expat experts, we’re leveraging complex transactions in fruit market bedlam.  When was it I met the exiled woman from Iraq in a supermercato?  She told me later that I did something and she knew she could trust me, she told me that she can read people, was trained in it.

Was it posture, I wondered, how I clasped my hands?

She wouldn’t tell me what it was, but it was enough for her to believe in me.

I had no idea what I would learn about her family, her fiancé.  At the time she was simply someone interesting I met by chance, one of Iraq’s numerous exiles, Iraq coming to pieces and so many forced to become gypsies, wandering like brimstone butterflies, the first to appear after winter.

She worked in a hospital in Jordan after fleeing Iraq, liked her job and the people and the dialect was similar, but Jordan was overwhelmed by refugees from Iraq.  Every month she had to make her way to a police station and pay a monthly fee to stay legally in Jordan. The fee rose every month until it was too high for her to pay and she had to leave her job and had to leave Jordan and look for work in Italy.

She does not drink, is devout, well-schooled in the Koran, but she does not wear traditional garb, does not wear robes or a veil.  She can look very western in stylish jeans, makeup, nail polish, even a Mickey Mouse T-shirt if she is in a happy mood.

The woman from Iraq told me her father had kidney problems, she worried about him.  She said to me with a serious face, “Drink only water when you wake up and cleanse your kidneys.”  No one else speaks to me quite like this.  I enjoyed such times.  She was always very clean, concerned with health and hygiene.  At one café she wouldn’t sit on the seat cushions because they seemed dirty and she was used to better.

I bought her tea from Ceylon, Akbar big leaf, and one afternoon over tea I guessed her age.

“How did you know?”

I said I liked the henna tint in her hair and she asked, “How you know that word?”

“I know some things.”

Much of what I said seemed to surprise her.  I told her about Natasha and she did not approve.  “So she left after causing trouble with your marriage?”

“It’s not that simple.”


She showed me the ring her brother gave her years ago.  “He loves me.  He is very handsome.  And in Iraq it is real gold, 21 karat, not like here, 10 or 11.  In the Middle East men don’t wear gold.  Only women.  Men don’t have earrings like here.  If men wear jewelry, or a lot of gold, we think, eh, no.”

She looks at my hand.  “There are no rings on your fingers?  All those years, did your wife not give you a ring in all those years?”


The women’s voices continue on the next terrace.

“I fall for people.  You understand?  I fell into that trap.”

“Are you mad at me?  What I said about the Mole?”

“He was nice.  He’s ok.  He had the Asian wife.  He did seem interested in me.”

“He’s a microbe, a creepy little creep.  He had an affair with the cleaner, can you imagine, creepy, on the desk.”


“Yes.  He’s a pervert.  She got pregnant.”

“Maybe that’s why he was so hot and heavy to get a vasectomy.”

“He’s a perv.  He has to send her cheques and his other wife has to get up at 5 a.m. to catch a bus and work at a factory.”

“She probably has no background.”

“Treat your spouse like that.  It’s unbelievable.  A perv.”


I listen to the women and think, Now I have joined the club of those sending cheques, joined the club of those termed a perv.

The woman from Iraq says, “Everyone I meet here, divorced, separated, divorced, separated.  I think our system is better.”  She may have a point.  My drunken question to popular opinion: Why does the phrase “night falls on Rome” sound cool, but “morning falls on Rome” sounds clunky and wrong?

She doesn’t drink, but young males stagger our hotel halls shouting, MAKE SOME NOISE!  Rome has no history, Rome is a drinking binge with no parents to harass them.  They lug huge jugs of rotgut wine, yelling Yo Yo Yo Yo!

Young and loose and full of juice, drunk with what seems possible.  Their shop has not yet been bombed to rubble, to molecules.

In the Roman night someone is insisting over and over that she is not a hollaback girl.  My high room is well removed from the inebriated and industrious fray, but poor Tamika’s hallway is the epicenter of several open-door party rooms.

Eve walks by bent to her tiny clamshell phone, her face serious, saying, “She told me three of the drugs she was on.”

Tamika says, “I can’t get any sleep with their drunken racket.”

Father Silas says, “I’ll see what I can do,” and walks over to a noisy open door.

“You ain’t my daddy,” yells a drunken female voice inside, “and you sure ain’t ….”  And then the voice trails off, seemingly stumped, and we all wonder: what else is he ain’t?

Tamika does not like the drunkards, Tamika a lone wolf roaming Rome while the others seem blind to the ancient city, see Europe as a hotel, an outlet shop, a humongous nightclub.  They are the same age as Tamika, but she dismisses them with a world-weary wave.

“It’s so awesome here in Rome, but all they do is complain about everything, they bitch about the food, bitch about their room, bitch about walking through amazing cathedrals.  They complain if they have to walk uphill!  They bitch about having to look at Bernini’s marble and paintings by Caravaggio.”

Tamika mimics their voices: “It’s not fair!  You can’t tell me what to do.  This is boring.  I’m hungry.”  Tamika pauses for breath.  “Rome is not boring, they’re boring.”

From my backpack I dig out a tiny sealed bag from my days in a loud band: the baggie is not drugs, but a packet of disposable foam earplugs for Tamika.  Eve asks for some as well, worth a try to help her sleep and she is wary of depending on sleeping pills.

Tamika takes the earplugs a skeptical look on her face, and eases the door closed on the drunken mayhem.  She longs for sleep.


My cousin Eve has an uneasy relationship with sleep, uneasy with Morpheus and Hypnos, the father and son team running our sleep and dreams.  I never know if she is awake or asleep, she has a night language, uses her hands to make a point or ask a question, wakes up laughing.  It’s odd to watch.  Eve dreamt the two of us were trying to find our way out of a city-sized department store and I fell down an open elevator shaft.

“People were running down stairwells to find you.  Is that a 9/11 dream?”

Is the blind man’s sleep a steep grey cinema?  Has he ever seen stars at night?  Can you imagine colours and faces and fields in your dreams if you are born blind and have yet to see colour or a face?  Can you dream light if you don’t know light?  When the blind man is in a better mood I must ask him.

To shutter my own eyes at night seems not always to deliver quietude; my sleep chaotic, unnerving, festive.  I close my eyes to a strange movie-house in my head, fragments and half-lit clips, an unseen projector constantly grinding.  A huge cast and the footage never stops.  I have no idea where these night films come from, but I like them.


“Someone called him, did you hear of the bomb downtown.  I begged him not to go.”

The woman from Iraq told me about her fiancé, though she did not tell me this part right away, it took her some time to get to the chapter of her fiancé.

“His business was in the bombed building, he wanted to see if his shop was hit.  Can’t you wait?  I had a bad feeling, I pleaded with him.”

Sorry, sweet one, he said, I must go see the damage; perhaps his shop would be spared, God willing.  His shop was his livelihood, his hope, their future, her fiancé was worried and he drove into town to see the damage.

The second bomb exploded later, timed to kill those who came to walk the rubble of the first bomb.  The second bomb exploded and her fiancé vanished and she was a widow without yet marrying.  As Trotsky said, You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.

“He was good to me,” she stated calmly, “he was modern, he told my parents when asking for my hand that he didn’t mind if I wanted to go to school or have a career.”  The bomb was only months before, but she stared off speaking flatly.  It happened to someone else a long time ago in a world that no longer exists.


Thursday at dawn our art group rises grumpily to inspect the Sistine Chapel.  Father Silas has a connection, he knows an ancient Irish monsignor who arranges a select viewing, but we must arrive very early, before the mad throngs block the front of St. Peter’s Basilica.

Eve and Tamika crave more sleep and the party animals cradle monstrous hangovers from their dubious cooking wine.  For a few cents more decent plonk can be had, but they scoop up huge jugs of cheap cooking wine, amazed by bargain prices, but this is stuff the Romans don’t drink.  At dawn they feel the hurt big time, at dawn they can barely move, can barely text or kill aliens.

In my arms I once carried my dead dog from the street where it had been hit by a driver who did not stop: my dog’s beautiful brown eyes lost their light to a machine, the brown eyes had no depth, no engagement, no awareness.  Some in the group have that dead canine look as we shuffle down the block to Michelangelo and the vaulted ceilings of Sistine Chapel.

My head!  Man, why does this asshole make us go out so fucking early?  Who wants to see some stupid Listerine chapel?  Dude’s seriously harshing my mellow.  And we’re missing the coolest Shark Week like ever.  Got any Advil?  Man, I can’t deal with fizzy water, going to hurl.

Father Silas hates alcohol and some suspect he has made us rise early to punish those with piercing hangovers.  He reacts strangely when I happily tell Tamika that Eve and I found an “Italian American-style Irish pub” called Fairy Tales of New York, a great little underground bar.

“American and Irish and Italian?” asks Tamika, interested.  “What was that like?”

Before I can answer Tamika, Father Silas gets right in my grill.

“A place for American college students to get DRONK!” he shouts, his big reddening face in my face.

I want to say the pleasant arched cellar is not for drunken college students, but he won’t give me a chance.  Everyone I meet in the cellar is Italian, lives in the neighbourhood, and the young musicians are local.  But Father Silas hates any mention of pubs and pub-crawls and Rome is crawling with pub crawls, posters and ads everywhere; Father Silas is furious when he spots Ray-Ray in a souvenir T shirt from a pub-crawl that reads APPRENTICE ALCOHOLIC.

Ray-Ray complains to Eve.  “Man, why does he get so mad like that?”  Ray-Ray says, “I’m not a child.  I can travel and check into a hotel, he’d be surprised.  I can do all sorts of things.”  The younger people in the art group hate it when he lectures them on how to behave in Italy.


Father Silas may not win a popularity contest, but he finagles us past the giant lineups in front of St Peter’s, skipping mobs and security checks; his Irish connection in the palace of Popes pays off.  As early-birds we have time to check out the Sistine Chapel before the crowds arrive.  How many times have I joked about some half-ass project, Don’t worry, it’s not the Sistine chapel.  Now it’s the real article, now it is the Sistine Chapel!

Father Silas expertly guides our eyes through each brushstroke and painted image on the ceiling, nude bodies and fresco skies of pale pink, robin egg blue, pale canary yellow, Noah drunk and disgraced and martyrs and mild saints flung about hallucinatory heavens floating in this chamber.  I love it.  Grotesque figures and prophets lean out from high dizzy corners and sinners pulled to hell in this ecstatic artifice.

Noah a drunk!  News to me.

Don’t let Father Silas know, says Eve.

The guards yell at us, No fo-to!

A young German backpacking couple elbows me, pushing past me to cram closer to Father Silas and hang on every word; they are not in our group, but they are eager for Father Silas’s narrative of the Sack of Rome in 1527; our group couldn’t care if the Sack of Rome is in five minutes.

Eve nudges me, signals with her eyes at a bench where some of our disgruntled comrades perch: one art lover cradles his pained head in open hands, one holds his giant Dr. Dre headphones tight, one poor soul manages to tap out a text.  In the Sistine Chapel they are all looking down!  I will say this once and then let it go: the fucking Sistine Chapel and they can’t see, can’t lift their eyes to Michelangelo’s The Last Judgment, blind to the arches and lunettes and miracles hovering above their dehydrated heads, blind to treasures floating over their trauma brains.

Above us God divides light from darkness and we linger in the centre of the chapel, Father Silas ecstatic, the longest visit he’s ever had here.  But as the room fills with travelers, guards spring up to move the crowd along the marble, to herd us to the exit.

“Keep moving.  No fo-to.”  Does the blind man know the chapel?  “Keep moving!  No fo-to.  Keep moving!  No fo-to.”

A woman from Delaware asks me, “Where is Noah?”  And I have the answer!  I show her the ark and his drunkenness and we chat easily, she charms me, looking me in the eye – how to describe that permission to engage her eye, the face, that magnetic connection?  But her tour group is gone from the tidal room and she worries she has lost them.

Bye! she says hurriedly, eyes still on my eyes.  Very nice talking to you, she says.

I want to say more: woman from Delaware, you seem important.  But what to say quickly that doesn’t seem lame?  I fail to utter key words and she vanishes from sight.  Sometimes I feel my own mind staring at me and judging like a separate person.  Delaware: I’m picturing a river, a green valley.


In the Vatican cafe Ray-Ray buys three sandwiches and three drinks and thirty Euro vanish in seconds; Ray-Ray puts it on plastic, does this over and over, Ray-Ray is always hungry.

A button on his tote bag says, I was Raised by a Pack of Wild Corn Dogs.  “Does the Vatican sell corn dogs?  I’d kill for a corn dog.”

I don’t know if the Vatican has corn dogs.  I will return from my travels to be murdered in the bath.  It is the 40th anniversary of the White Album; the Osservatore Romano says that the Vatican forgives John Lennon his “boast” that the Beatles were bigger than Jesus.

“Weird to drink beer in the Vatican.”

My parents loved the church and hated the Beatles.  I am going to get me religion, maybe I’ll start a church, the church of cold toast.  Natasha likes cold toast and cold butter, as I do.  No one else likes cold toast.  It’s a sign, she sank her nails into me, haunts me still.  Like Pompeii after the volcano, the shore altered.


Through marble halls and chambers we find our way and stumble outside to battle sunlight in our slit eyes, we are in the vast pillared piazza in front of St Peter’s Basilica, the floating dome, the silver spaceship, the mothership and its rows of myriad Doric pillars moving out like great arms enclosing a flat open space larger than a football field.


This is not the way we entered; this morning we slipped in the north side, and now we move under the church of churches, the rock of Peter.  Byron admired this view, this architectural marvel, Melville stood here, Goethe, Dickens, Dostoevsky, Jethro Tull.

“Are there any zombies in Rome?  Yeah, zombies in the Vatican!  That’d be a very cool movie.”

Ray-Ray yells “HEY” and runs across the space to question an Italian man who is missing one leg and has an amazing comb-over, his hairdo a monument to tenacity.

“Hey man, is it true about phantom limbs, that you get an itch in the limb that’s not there anymore?”

Non capisco.  He doesn’t understand English.

In the endless white light, in the corner of vision, a bear cub gallops through the forest of pillars.  The bear must be panicked, but it looks very cute: dark fur, a pale brown muzzle, outsize ears and that rolling stiff-legged lope past our hungover group, past Saint Peter’s, and barreling toward the sidewalk men selling leather purses and sunglasses.

“How did a bear get here in the city?” asks Eve.

Is there a gypsy circus camped in Trastevere or the Piazelle del Gianicolo?  The poor animal swiftly crosses a road, speeds down a narrow medieval passage and I can’t see it anymore.  People scatter before the bear cub, but some follow behind attempting shaky photos and videos.  A tiny blue police car joins the chase and when the men selling sunglasses see the police car, they gather up their squares of cloth and footstools and vanish, a form of magic.

“Oh shit, where’s my iPhone?” calls out one of our group, half of a star-crossed tragic couple who have fallen for each other on the trip, but are betrothed to others back home.  They spend much time in Rome pacing and staring at each other and exaggeratedly sighing like silent film stars.  “Did someone steal it?  I put it down for like five seconds max.  My mother’s going to freak!”

In Italy eyes are on us, waiting for the moment when we put down our laptop or briefly ignore our camera on the table.  The thieves love us.

Eve says she was mugged for her phone in Chile: she laughs telling us, says the man asked for her phone, looked at it, an old clamshell with a duct tape hinge, and handed it back to her, her phone not worth stealing.

“What’s it like to not have a phone?”  They ask me this with genuine curiosity.

Discarded phone cards litter the ground.  They are so afraid to not be connected; everyone staring at a tiny screen, that slow zombie walk, zombies in Rome.

Our hungover group walks away from the mothership’s giant field of pillars.  Taking our place, a new batch of amiable tourists line up to display their girth and sunglasses; we are all part of a giant art installation, the pure products of America abroad, trodding leather and considering miracles in marble and wondering about beer and lunch and dinner menus with no inkling that a cute bear cub rambled past us moments ago.

Ray-Ray stops me: “What kind of pants is this?”

He’s studying a woman swishing past in gold harem-pants; her walk has a pronounced twitch, her pants moving about her like shimmering drapes.

“Looks like MC Hammer.”


“You can’t touch this.”

“Touch what?”  He looks suspicious; what am I talking about?

With the harem-pants woman we try our limited Italian.  Dove un internet café?

There follow many speedy sentences and in seconds I’m lost.

Wait, non capisco.  Holdo, signora, parla lentamente per favore, lentamente, please speak slowly, I am a foreign simpleton in your speedy empires of talk.  Our group did not invent stupidity, but we are the latest visible practitioners.


My cousin Eve leans conspiratorially toward Tamika and says, “Those Italian men on the street!  Their eyes, they look right into your soul.”

Tamika mutters, “It’s not your soul they are after.”

Amore, amore.  Look at the eyes here, eyes like slow sunsets and foxfire and Friar’s lantern, eyes like the feral cats in the temple ruins, diamond-eyed cats after rats.

My eyes roam the world too, looking for stars held in a cupola, looking for the right person, a person who likely does not exist, like my childhood guardian angel, an ideal that may lead only to disappointment.  I’m not unlike the two women on the next terrace in that respect.


The promise of Rome and the promise of the Spanish blonde in the leafy hotel atrium, her adherence to smoke and water bottles; I work up my nerve for the question.  And I never do this.

“Would you, um, care to go out for dinner?”

“No,” she says too quickly.  “I’m having dinner with my friend when she gets off work.”  So Elena was expecting the question and ready to say no.  What is it like to believe in an anthem, I mean really belt it out?

I need a wee drink.  The others keep working away on vats of sweet wine.  In the laneway a few feet away a sweaty man with no shirt hits a motorcycle with a piece of wood, setting off a loud alarm.  The man tosses the piece of wood and casually lights a smoke to wait for the resulting beneficial social interaction.

His hope: someone will approach and fight.

Our hope: he will go away.

All our tiny wretched hopes like cartoon thought balloons over each block of Rome, multiply these across the city street-map, across the wide world, all these hopeless little balloons of our hopes, like markers on a board game, like hotels on Expedia.

We are not always pleasant, but we all have our tiny hopes.


The blind man wanders the stairways in search of culprits and the women’s voices continue on the next terrace.

“I asked that nun for the time.  In Italian.”

“We fit in.”

“We’re doing so well, we went right to the edge of our map!”

“No one would know we are tourists.”


Sun beats on our skin, leathers our lives of quiet desiccation, sun on lovely hours of fountain spray as Hotwire and Orbitz fight over my soul and then the strange lost look of my street before dawn.

Get some sleep behind scrolled blinds and rise late and the sun always there until it must enter the horizon like a burning airship and a million emails jetting out to everyone in the world say A Special Offer Just for YOU! and at dusk swallows circle and blur in a mosquito frenzy and in her famous T-shirt my cousin walks out in the garden of green parrots just before rains sweep in from some distant sea.

The Italian man has eyes.  As do I.  I resent him as cousins might.

“It’s so cozy here,” says Eve.  “I love the sound of the rain.”

Night and the light on Eve’s face may change your mind about the world.  I have to gaze, to compensate for the blind man who can’t see her.  Behind the city a wall of rain like green glass, like some remnant of hurricane season.  She climbed above me in the fig tree and I was allowed a vision of her muscled legs and beyond, I see Paris, I see France, I dream of her at the beach, half nude at the shore, her freckled skin so lovely, to live inside it, to kiss her in the eelgrass, light under the harbor swell like light inside a fountain, to see her at the sea where she is almost naked with strangers, but I never go with the group to the beach, it is too scorching or I am not inspired.

Perhaps I’m a winter person, a touch of winter in me always.  I should drop everything and be a ski bum in the blue glaciers before they melt and vanish, I could work on the hill, work as a liftie putting skiers on the Angel chairlift.

Eve knows the mountains and resorts, says, “No, don’t quit your day job.  Being a lift-operator is a killer on the back and people are always falling over and poking you with their ski poles.  Definitely join a band.  Chicks dig that.”

The lifties use shovels to level the snow where skiers load on the chairlift, like shoveling coal, and Eve says at shift’s end they’d set their ass down in the scoop shovels and race each other in shovels to the bar at the bottom of the mountain.


God is irritable, God recently gave up cigarettes.  At our subway stop I let Eve and Tamika step out first, but the doors close hard on my arms as I step out just after them.  Why do the subway doors attack me when I was so chivalrous?  Perhaps the gears and sensors know something of my true nature, gods alive in our machines and devices.  I must have offended the elders of the internet, a major disappointment to You Tube.  I need to learn to love technology, must dab datum on me like cologne from a dollar store.


In the neighbourhood café Francesco knows our faces and gives us free morning coffee.  Angelo, the aged hotel owner, joins us for a late breakfast.  Eve picks up an espresso and an Italian newspaper.

“Tell me, Marco,” Angelo says to the American intern.  “Is it true that Americans eat donuts for breakfast?  That is wrong.”  But for his breakfast Angelo fills a sweet croissant with whipped cream and chocolate Nutella.

Angelo says he used to know the Vatican crowd, but no more.  I assume those men he knew are dead now (and there rose a pharaoh that did not know Angelo).  He doesn’t look that old, but Marco says that Angelo is over eighty; he never stops working on his hotel, moving walls, refurbishing rooms, digging a cellar.

Eve and Tamika run off to a pro-choice rally gathering in front of Pope Rat’s place at St. Peter’s; Angelo finishes his whipped cream and Nutella and leaves; Marco lowers his voice to tell me of an old friend of Angelo’s at the hotel.

“The man paid me cash for three different rooms.  Seventy years old if he’s a day.  He books the rooms for four hours and I swear five different women showed up.”


I wonder if the noisome couple in the next room paid by the hour, the minute, or down to the second.  Or hotel staff who know it to be free?  Or was it Angelo’s old friend with his harem?  Does his harem wear shimmering harem pants?


Every hotel, every guest house, every B&B, has offered me “an arrangement” to pay cash.  No receipt, but the room costs much less.  I find it hard to say no as it saves me so much, hundreds easily, perhaps thousands given enough weeks or months.  Factor in millions of tourists wheeling luggage down Europe’s cobblestones and dropping cash only and one sees why lawmakers and accountants have such trouble chasing their cut of the haul.  As a spoiled North American I am so used to plastic, but cash is king here and my best deals are off the books.


Marco’s work at the hotel has to do with the books; Marco’s task is to nudge the hotel into the computer age.  The French woman still consults a huge old-fashioned ledger book with our names and reservations written by hand.  Marco is setting up a computer.  Businesses in Italy often need two sets of books; after Marco is done, will the hotel need two sets of computers?

God enriches, but cash is king, so we all must stash envelopes of cash, cash on my person or hidden in my room, more cash than I am comfortable carrying or hiding.


Eve’s purse was stolen from her hotel room a year before; she found a small footprint in a flowerpot on her balcony and her bag tossed to the next balcony.  Luckily, the young thief missed Euros she had hidden in the WC.  The art historian’s phone lifted as he walks a crowded street, a religion teacher’s wallet eased from his front pocket on the bus, a beatnik backpacker swarmed by children, turning and turning, a dizzy whirligig to keep their nimble fingers from his pack pockets, and a pink rental car stolen as a woman from Banff opened the car door for the first time, she possessed the car for seconds and it was gone.


Marco and Eve traveled to the police station to interpret for the hotel’s American family who lost a ring handed down from a great-grandmother, lost blown glass from Venice.  A sweltering night, an open window or balcony door.  The police type up a report, but what can they do, a waste of ink.

Who expects someone from the roof?  In all corners of Europe such a complex economy dotes on our purloined phones and cameras and we oblige, we carry cash, wallets and laptops, and we deliver them to the thieves.  How they long for us like lost lovers in their damp winter and each year we come back like the blossoms of spring.


Angelo had to sack an employee who lit rubbish on fire in a stairwell; the employee hated the guests, the noisy party animals, and he wanted to get off work early.  So a fire against the exit door is the answer.  Could he be the hotel thief?  Or is it the blind man, bounding like a cat across the roof?


Father Silas tells our group a farmer’s daughter joke.  And Natasha sent me email from her parents’ farm in northern B.C.  Why did I not think of this all these years: Natasha is a farmer’s daughter.  I broke off contact with the farmer’s daughter, for my own well-being, but every day I have a physical urge tell her what I see in Italy.

In Canada Natasha said we must stay in contact, an unbearable empty place if we stop talking, a huge hole in both our lives.  She said those words, admirable thoughts.  But in her life, in her distant city, she has someone there to turn to, to say she had a bad day, to say, He’s really upset, I just don’t know what to tell him.  She can say to say to someone, Let’s go out for a drink, can say later, Hey, love you so much.


Irena the chambermaid greets me, Come ve?  She does not ask, Come stai.  Is she being formal with me as a hotel guest?  Irena is always so friendly with me.  Is she just as friendly with the others?  I want her to like me.  She wears cargo pants with numerous pockets to hold cleaning gear, waistband low on her belly from weighted pockets and pulled tight on her round rear.  Irena’s shirt rides up as she cleans the room and I notice a puckered scar on her belly like a hieroglyph, a story scripted in a scar.  In her supple hands a large sheet rises and settles as if on a breeze: her levitating art.

Come stai? I ask.

Sto male.  She is sick.  But she is working anyway.  Maybe she caught whatever Ray-Ray had when he arrived from China.  Some afternoons I see the chambermaids walk away from work in their street clothes, altered in their clothes, happy to be free on the sunny avenue, happy to be free of us.

 “I hope you feel better,” I say.  She nods.

Irena leaves the sex room, Eve leaves Italy like a merry sleepwalker, “Excuse me,” says Our Lady of Madrid, “I must go.”  Soon all leave the city, the mountain frontiers, leave Europe’s stone quarters and catacombs, say goodbye to the orchards and marble excavations.


It seems so long ago that Natasha phoned after silence to say there was someone else.  I knew something was wrong, but did not know what.  I was married to the sound of her voice, talking to each other when she was almost asleep, part of something beautiful and spooky and rare and rich, but part of nothing now, and another woman in a doorway or an airport says, I’d hate to lose touch with you, you know I love you in so many ways, who says, It’s been wonderful.  My half-buried past, my layered Pompeii, my quiet buried city.

That day my faith was tested.  Phil Ochs in exile from Ohio, kicked out of Dylan’s car, no more songs and the rope on the pipe beckoning.  The snake handler’s look of disbelief as he died in his own church, as he recalibrated his idea of being exempt from the fang.

I KNOW I AM NOT SPECIAL: I must repeat this until it sinks into my head like a spike into a rotten log.  Exiled from dopamine, from the snowshoes of yesteryear, I tape a piece of white paper to a mirror: For sleep, riches and health to be truly enjoyed, they must be interrupted.


On a map I showed her Canada, showed the woman from Iraq where I grew up.  She is well educated, but has rarely seen a map with Canada.  And America there right below Canada.

“They have has so much space; why did they want to invade our country when they have so much land?”  She peers at the map with utter puzzlement.

The billion dollar question: why did Bush and cohorts invade the wrong country?  Oil an easy answer or they got their Auto Association maps mixed up.  Or rumours say the invasion was revenge for an earlier plot by Hussein to kill Dubya’s father, George Bush, Senior.

“Bush is in town; you could ask him.”

“Bush is here?  Where?  I’ll go see him.  Did you see him smiling on the aircraft carrier, he was so happy while we suffer.  Bush is always talking of terror.  My brother is not a terrorist.  I am not a terrorist, I want to hurt no one.  He has killed more than anyone else in the world.  Will someone hunt down Bush and hang him on a rope?”

The woman from Iraq is very charitable, she is not anti-American, has relatives in Chicago and wonders about moving to live there.

“I hate no one,” she says, “but I hate that man.  When they threw a shoe at Bush, I was glad.”

I do wonder about Bush, what he really thinks.  “Did you ever see your Mustang again?”

“Oh no, nothing was left.”

Blow upon blow, her pleasant world dismantled by this man Bush, her fast American car transformed into a tin can, her brother kidnapped and dumped in the desert in plastic cuffs, her mother going mad with worry, her fiancé dead in the rubble, her happy life stolen by a thief.  And the banner on the aircraft carrier:  Mission Accomplished.  After meeting her, I swear I’ll never complain again.

Her mother misses her bright laughter in the house, now the house is quiet, but for the noisy generator running outside the house; the power off and on since the invasion, so they must run a generator in the yard.

“I was always laughing then,” she says.  “Now I only laugh with you.”  And somehow we do laugh a lot.  Our odd connection.

She says her mother needs to go to the hospital, but the power grid is so damaged that doctors are afraid to start any complicated surgery for fear the lights will go dark while a patient is cut open.  She grew up in a prosperous, stable country, her father a professor, but now it is too dangerous for him to leave his home and risk the roadblocks where someone in a mask may execute you if you say the wrong word or drive the wrong part of the city.

She misses driving her car in Baghdad.

“Was your Mustang fast?”

“Oh yes.  I’m not a crazy driver, but on the highway one must go fast.”

Marco convinces Angelo to lend me a two-door Fiat so I can take her for a spin and let her drive a car once more.  I am nervous in Rome’s traffic.  Sniffing Rome’s oily exhaust, she claims the petrol in Iraq is so pure that her car’s exhaust was sweet as perfume.  Before the war every road was brightly lit and the roads smooth and broad, not so narrow as here.

“Summer must be hot in the desert.  You must need air conditioning.”

“Desert?  Iraq is not desert.  There is a river, how can that be desert?  There are plants, a hundred varieties of dates and olives, such flavours.”  She is offended.  “Iraq was a great civilization.  Why do you say desert?”

Sorry, but on TV with the rolling tanks and dust it looks like desert.  When her car was too hot in the Baghdad sun she kept a special aerosol spray in her purse to cool the hot metal so she could touch the car door without burning her hand.

Sipping leafy tea, we chat and laugh and by accident I discover my power over her: if I reach out in conversation, touch her shoulder or neck, the woman from Iraq swoons, falls into some half-awake state, not used to touch from a male who is not a cousin or betrothed.

I ask, Has this happened with anyone else?

No one else has touched me, but you and my fiancé.  How you do that?

I don’t know; it’s never happened before.

Please don’t right now, I want to go out, I don’t want to be sleepy.

I touch her and her knees buckle, but she acts as if it is normal to have such power.  She casually asks me to be careful.  Yes, I will be careful.  I have the strangest life.

She asks me, “In Chicago, are there many blacks?  I’ve heard there is work in Chicago, but it has many blacks.”  She worries about blacks.  “They scare me,” she confides.

“Winters can be cold in the Windy City,” I say, “and you’re used to the heat.”

“Yes,” she says, “I don’t know how you go outside in that cold.  You whites are tough!”

I get an inordinate kick out of being called a white.  I put my arm by her arm and her skin is lighter than the skin on my tanned arm.

The woman from Iraq jumps at any noise, even the sound of feet running on stairs in her building.  I strum a quiet Townes Van Zandt song on guitar and she says, “That’s nice, soft music.”  She can’t listen to loud rock or rap, she can’t take bright light, must wear her big sunglasses.

At night she wakes from nightmares, has a frightening nightmare immediately after telling me the story of her fiancé and his bombed shop, her eyes closed in sleep she relieves the scene and I feel guilty for bringing on the nightmare.  Any noise in a room above, a shoe dropping or a door slamming and she jumps in panic.  I’m no physician, but these seem classic symptoms of trauma.  The young American soldier in the graveyard may suffer from the same set of ailments, the war that always follows the war.

Odd that I meet both in Italy, two brains creased slightly by trauma, two brains moving through train stations of beautiful flowering vines and thuggish teens.

I heard this mother and daughter weep on the phone when a connection worked.  Often her phone rang briefly and then went dead.  I bought her time at a grubby internet café.  She told her mother all was well in Rome, she didn’t want her mother to worry.

We’ll talk soon, she said to her mother, God willing.  She often ends sentences with this careful phrase: God willing.

“If there is a God,” I commented once.

“No if!” she said.  “No if.  Believe me, there is a God.”

But is it the same God George Bush believes in?

She has such faith in God, that God will look after her, but she must sell the gold ring from her handsome brother who loves her, she must enquire into jewelry or coin shops.  She can’t understand why this has happened, her father trapped in his eerie house, the old land of Persia laid low, his daughter exiled in a strange land, an orphan who is not an orphan, a widow who is not a widow, Babylon destroyed and giant tanks lumbering through the garden, tanks in the garden where we began as Adam and Eve.  Then Adam and Eve forced to pack their bags, exiled to a less fashionable suburb.


The woman from Iraq’s last email to me: Happy Birthday, I wish you the best wishes, I hope I’m the first one who remember your birthday, have a nice day and might be when I have time will do it again coz I will be busy tomorrow, have fun and wish you the best.

Her name translates as some kind of desert blossom.  And like her fiancé, she vanishes as if never there, like an ancient civilization, like dew leaving a blossom as the sun rises.  No answer on her phone, no reply to email, no answer to a knock at her door.  Weeks went on and I finally received email from her, but it was spam, her email account hacked.  I see her name, but it is not really her, she has been taken over, a regime change.

At a hockey arena in Canada I once heard a man say, “My truck’s got the same tranny as a tank in Eye-rack.”  I never thought I’d meet someone who’d been crushed by an Abrams tank in Iraq.  I hope the woman from Iraq finds a home, perhaps with her relatives in Chicago, a quiet home in the world.


Bush stands on an aircraft carrier in his flight jacket and Father Silas sits in his curtained hotel room where I drop by to return a book on art in Naples.  Out of the blue Father Silas tells me that his favourite sister is a serious addict.

“She wakes up each morning and it’s a fight to not have a drink, not use something.  I’ve seen it firsthand.”

So Father Silas detests levity about staggering drunks or stoners and he loathes people profiting from giant pub crawls.  My eyes open: so this is why he is always angry at the group’s moronic drinking, so angry at Ray Ray’s APPRENTICE ALCOHOLIC pub crawl t-shirt, this is why he got in my face about the Italian American Irish pub.

“I worry some in the group will be on that same road because of Rome and I don’t want to encourage it.  That boy from Madison, blotto every night, but he makes it for every class or trip, up wearing dark shades in the morning.  He’s coping, which is a bad sign.  I don’t want something like that to start on my watch.”

What about me, am I also coping on his watch?

If he told the group about his sister they might understand his anger, not dismiss him as a Puritan out to kill the party, to ruin Italy for them.  Can one hold up a sign?  My sweet baby sister is a heavy duty addict; please cut me a little slack.


“More vino?”

“Yes please.”

“I like to do a good thing now.  Like today at the elevator, so they think about it and pass it on and it keeps going.  It makes my day, it really makes my day.”

“A good feeling.  I think I’m getting to that.”

“Mary, You’re almost there.”




“No, 80.”

“Only 80, only 80.”

“Sorry I’m so mean, I’m terrible, but Mary, I couldn’t lie to you.”


Go ahead and lie, I think on my terrace, please lie to Mary.  For fuck’s sake, tell her she is 90%.


A lightning storm hangs over the mountains, an x-ray shudder, a heart attack of bleached light, then the world brought back to dark purple, back to now, a form of time travel, two worlds at once.  Near our high terrace an invisible dog speaks in an urban cave and the barking echoes into every neighbourhood wall.  Which window or room is the dog?  The woman from Iraq was not used to dogs; in Iraq they are stray curs or guard dogs, associated with fangs or power, not a favoured pet in your bedroom.

Eve loves animals, bends to address every dog and cat she spies.  This invisible dog speaks to something in the night and the two women on the next terrace speak their lines to the night as if in a play and I hear every word, yet my eyes never know their keen faces.  Now I stop, now I close my terrace door on their secret mix of bonhomie and sadness.


We all believe we have a corner on sadness.  In our Jetson future perhaps sorrow will be valued as a renewable resource.  The immense power of sorrow will light our giant glass houses and pay the tab for our therapy and plastic surgery.  In our jeremiad Jetson future they will mine our misery the way we frack the earth for shale gas pinned there like a cage wrestler.  Our sorrow will fuel beautiful sports cars and sleek machines to Mars, our sorrow will employ our children’s nannies and reverse invasions and rescue the Euro and make shuddering markets rise in joy, our reliable sources of sorrow will make brokers rejoice and smile champagne smiles behind their complex buzzers and floodlit gates and blank limos.


An animal speaks, a piano echoes tidy counterpoint, and my small room sways above you in lightning, orbiting in a beautiful Roman sky, and the blind man walks our clean halls with his clicking white stick: Will you please ask them to be quiet!

He can’t stop the raucous partiers, those who drink themselves blind.  I close my eyes and see Eve at the black sand beach in the bay under the volcano, her pale form stretched to the black sand – like looking at a negative.  The blind man wanders eternally, I expect him to carry a lantern at noon, Diogenes searching the halls for an honest man, Diogenes searching the deck of an aircraft carrier lurking in the gloom offshore.

I walk down the stairwell with my eyes shut, I feel I owe the blind man that much, but on the stairs I fail, I have to look.  Train your eye, he seems to suggest, see better, live better.

I will try.  We try on mysterious shoes, have mysterious offspring.  One child wants to be a priest, one wants to be a pirate.  Like the snake-handler, and like me, Adam and Eve felt exempt from the fang.  Something changed.  We sin and are forgiven, we fly to and fro, we are on earth, then we are in the heavens, then we are not, we are on earth, then we are back in the silent cup of stars, then we are not.

In this world tiny things make me irritable and tiny things make me greatly happy.  Like a stone in my shoe, like stars inside a chapel ceiling, or my high window in the night sky, its glass moon shape, and moonlight over arched doorways and ivory rooftops, moonlight making shapes seem profound and unearthly, but only for those who have a moment, this staggering light so secretive and brief and only for you and me.

—Mark Anthony Jarman


Mark Anthony Jarman is a short story writer without peer, heir to a skein of pyrotechnic rhetoric that comes from Joyce and Faulkner and fuels the writing, today, of people like Cormac McCarthy and the late Barry Hannah. He edits fiction for a venerable Canadian magazine called The Fiddlehead which, in the 1970s, published some of my first short stories (and another story is coming out in the summer, 2011, issue). Jarman has written a book of poetry, Killing the Swan, a hockey novel, Salvage King Ya!, four story collections, Dancing Nightly in the Tavern, New Orleans is Sinking, 19 Knives, and My White Planetand nonfiction book about Ireland called Ireland’s Eye. “Exempt from Fang” will appear in Jarman’s forthcoming short story collection Knife Party at the Hotel Europa (Goose Lane Editions, 2015).


Nov 142014

dave-smithDave Smith via The Poetry Foundation


By design I was to introduce the poet Dave Smith on December 4th, 2013 at Rockhurst University in Kansas City, Missouri. By chance an ice storm struck Mississippi where Dave lived and he could not make it. By design he returned to give his reading at Rockhurst in September; by chance I could not be there. Those of us who write as much for pleasure as for profit try not to waste words; better to recycle them, to wit:

Dave Smith and I have been friends for almost thirty years which might surprise him because we met only four or five years ago and since then have passed only a few hours in each others’ company.

We did not grow up together; his brother did not date my sister, and we did not get in a fight about it; we did not hunt quail together with me out-shooting him (or the other way around) neither of us boasting of it but instead agreeing it was good practice to feed the quail heads to the dogs. We did not swap lies at the local tavern, nor tell raw jokes back and forth, the same ones again and again over the years, my favorite being about the Ozark man who feeds his pigs apples and Dave’s being an especially reprehensible one about a hillbilly bringing his daughter to the doctor for birth control pills.

And we have not grown old together, the two of us at a high school reunion a few years ago in either his Virgil Cain’s south or my West Jesus Land, Kansas, re-calling that in our youth we’d talk about breasts and buttocks but now we talk about stove-up bowels and government bonds. How is it then have we been friends all these years? By the power of the 17century metaphysical poet’s ability to yoke the mechanics of compasses with the sublimity of love I will explain.

Not that Dave would know this, but I first met him when he was in Utah and I was in Paris. A left bank book store (not Shakespeare and Company) had a display of American literary magazines, and I bought two or three to take back to my apartment in the couscous quarter. In those literary magazines I read a number of poets whose work I knew (and knew in person as well as in print) and some I did not: Dave Smith was among the latter in both regards. But instead of being just a poet whose poetry I had not read, he became a poet who sent his poems directly (and especially) to me via a literary cosmic connection established well before the Internet.

Surely all of us who read have had such an experience: Bill Stafford wired me poetry from the early sixties on—well before we met. William Maxwell and J.D. Salinger hailed me from New York City. Evan S. Connell sent me high signs from New Mexico years before Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward became Mr. and Mrs. Bridge. Henry Green (not Graham Green) found me sitting on a bench in Washington Square’s Greenwich Village, Mary Travis a bench away. Paul Bowels got in touch from Tangiers while I was in California at the No Name bar in Sausalito listening to Tom Leher sing Poisoning Pigeons in the Park on the jukebox. As Dave Smith writes of the poet Richard Hugo: “His poems spoke to a listener that I did not know was in me; an ear I didn’t yet know listened.”

Remember when Holden Caulfield says that when he reads a good book he wants to call the author. That’s what it is like. Only in reverse: Dave Smith called me in Paris and we began over the years a magical literary conversation. Not that Dave Smith knew (or maybe he did and just never told me). Which reminds me: Garcia Marquez got in touch from Macondo; Elizabeth Bishop from the New Yorker; Amos Tutuola from Nigeria; Elizabeth Bowen from Dublin; Jean Rhys and Mavis Gallant from Paris; and in Kansas City at the Westport Inn where I was sitting at a back table having a red beer, Andrei Bely hailed me from Petersburg at the suggestion of Vladimir Nabokov who, in the early sixties, had sent Dolores Haze in her circular skirt and scanties to my night stand at the Window Dunn’s farm house in Lawrence, Kansas.

The list is long; the world is round, the conversation everlasting. To talk about literature is as natural as breathing, Eliot writes. Dave Smith spoke to me; I listened. Our breathing had begun.

The Dave Smith I met on rue Xavier Prive in Paris that summer wrote thin, long one stanza poems; more elegy than story. Others were short and taciturn. Not quite lyrics, they were less songs than small bore single shots to the squirrel of our heart. I imagined him trim as his poems, and short. Over the years, his gift expanded, and so did his poetry. To read Dave Smith now is to read one of America’s fine narrative poets. To read his prose, as in his book Hunting Men (in which the Richard Hugo piece is included), is to read one American’s fine literary essayists. Metaphors and similes happily abound in both. This is Dave’s description of three coyotes running ahead of a car at night in a snowstorm, taken from his poem “Christmas Concert, With Violin.”

They took the road oblivious as saints. Soon flecks of ice
like metal shavings, then blizzard. We followed.
Snow spooled, slammed, like treachery, hiding those shadows.
As I gripped the unknown way, snaking, we’d
see them in and out, crossing a creek, clattery bridge, the new
milk-blue on their backs like royal robes.

Ever since the Iliad, the narrative poem and repetitive similes have cohabited in verse. But in our time, not since A.R. Ammons, has a poet used metaphor and simile with the description power of Dave Smith. Or, as he writes of Ammons, “he felt the weight, metaphysical and back bending, of snow.”

Such accomplishment is not much admired these days. We look for less length in our verse, less story, and a lot less of what one confessional poet told me was “the dead white whale poet still lingering among us.” I was tempted to point out that whales, even dead ones, don’t “linger.” And like Oscar Wilde I did not resist.

In the end however, what must be admired, at least for the sake of what is left of our Republic of Letters, is Dave Smith’s poem itself. “Christmas Concert, With Violin” is huge, running 28 stanzas to nearly 200 lines. And those stanzas are an unrhymed version of rhyme royal (think Chaucer) where the stanzas are sometimes rooms, and sometimes rooms that a-join one another to deepen the scene while carrying along the story. In this way, Christmas Concert, With Violin is both dramatic and narrative, all in pursuit of an adventure—not unlike the classical epics. I know of no other poem like it.

What friends who are writers do is make literary gifts to one another: slices of scenes, bits of dialogue, stories, all as a way of saying: I can’t use it, maybe you can. Better to recycle than even compost. Dave, here’s one for you from me:

Years ago, even before we became friends, I was a student at the University of Arkansas Writer’s workshop in Fayetteville where, on the local television news one evening, there began live coverage of a murder on Magazine Mountain. Someone had been “butchered into body parts,” as the reporter told us. Now the search was on to find the “whole fellow, who ever he was.” To that end the sheriff, a man named High Hat Hal, had called upon the local hunters to lend a hand, in this case their dogs. Each evening for about a week, I would tune into the television news to learn what body part had been retrieved.

“What do we have today?” The reporter asked.

“One of Ed Earl’s pointers drug back most of a leg,” High Hat answered. “It was River Johnson’s coon dog that found it, but coon dogs are not much on fetching. You know River Johnson?” He was the reporter’s shoestring cousin.

As the week went by, the other leg came in, then one hand and most of both arms—-but not the body itself, which High Hat opined had been either digested and passed by bob-cats or tossed into the West Fork to float down to Simpson’s ox-bow where the turtles would “nibble it clean.” As to the head, again it was River Johnson’s coon dog that bayed at it, but Texas Tom’s half-breed retriever who brought it back so badly chewed they’d have to send it to Little Rock to see who it was.

“That dog always was hard-mouthed, “ said the sheriff.

With all the body parts more or less accounted for, it was left to the following week for the Sheriff to report that they’d found the murderer, a man not yet named but charged. His wife had turned him in after she’d freed herself from his chaining her to a washing machine, then running the spin cycle with a lump of wet blanket on one side to shake the devil from her innards.

“He was apparently given to Jesus,” the Sheriff told us. The body parts had been the wife’s lover.

Dave Smith, my friend all these years, make a huge great poem of it, from that I’ll write a screenplay. Like James Dickey, you can be the sheriff; I’ll be the reporter. We’ll need to find a some dogs and an actress willing to be chained to a washing machine. But in the end, how about the two of us walk out of the final frame like Rick and Louie in Casablanca? Only I want to be Humphrey Bogart for reasons having to do with Ingrid Bergman. Dave: The story is yours. As is my gratitude for your friendship.

—Robert Day

Robert Day

Robert Day’s is a frequent NC contributor. His most recent book is Where I Am Now, a collection of short fiction published by the University of Missouri-Kansas City BookMark Press. Booklist wrote: “Day’s smart and lovely writing effortlessly animates his characters, hinting at their secrets and coyly dangling a glimpse of rich and story-filled lives in front of his readers.” And Publisher’s Weekly observed: “Day’s prose feels fresh and compelling making for warmly appealing stories.”


Nov 132014

CaptureNarcissus by Caravaggio via Wikipedia

In pre-revolutionary Cuba, they used to tell the story of an hidalgo who had emigrated from Spain as a very young man, and who had amassed a huge fortune in the sugarcane industry. Old and ill, he gathered his many children around him in order to give them his final instructions. “If I should die here in Havana,” he told them, “promise me that you will send me back to Spain to be buried there.” One after the other, all of his children swore that they would carry out his will to the letter. “However, if for some reason I should die in Spain,” he added, “I want you to bring me back here to Havana to be buried.” “Of course, Father,” his eldest son assured him, “That too we shall do. But tell me: why do you wish this?” “Oh, I don’t know,” replied the old man, “Just to fuck around.”

It is in such a spirit that I would like to propose a brief meditation on mirror scenes in contemporary Scandinavian detective fiction. Gratuitously in other words, in a largely unfettered and fundamentally playful perspective, one not driven by the prospect of immediate utility, but rather by simple (and very nearly idle) curiosity.

The burgeoning of the detective novel in Nordic countries during the last couple of decades is a remarkable phenomenon, comparable in many ways to the Latin American “boom” of the 1960s. Working in the wake of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, whose ten-volume Martin Beck series (1965-75) set the terms of the trend, an impressive diversity of writers has broadened the genre’s horizon of possibility in significant ways. I’m thinking here of figures such as Henning Mankell, Stieg Larsson, Åsa Larsson, Kristina Ohlsson, Kjell Eriksson, Åke Edwardson, and Håkan Nesser (Sweden); Karin Fossum and Jo Nesbø (Norway); Yrsa Sigurðardóttir and Arnaldur Indriðason (Iceland); Peter Høeg and Jussi Adler-Olsen (Denmark). Among the many intriguing features one may find in this body of work, it abounds in mirror scenes, that is, moments when a subject comes face to face with her or his reflection in the mirror.

That the detective novel should deploy a topos such as this one makes a great deal of sense. For that literary genre is all about discovery after all; and perhaps, as much as anything else, it is about the prospect of self-discovery. Think for instance of Oedipus, an excellent example of an early detective, and consider especially the way he solved the riddle of the Sphinx. When asked what creature walks on four legs in the morning, two at noon, and three in the afternoon, he replied “Man,” and that answer of course did the trick. Yet the real answer to the Sphinx’s question is “Me”—as the rest of Oedipus’s tale clearly demonstrates, to his doom. The moral is clear enough: no riddle can be solved if the subject cannot first come to terms with himself or herself. And in certain cases, the subject need look no further than that. Such is the lesson of the gnothi seauton, the imperative of self-knowledge that has animated Western culture from its very beginnings. And such, too, is the impulse that subtends the mirror scene wherever we may find it these days, in our increasingly specular culture.

CaptureOedipus and the Sphinx (detail) by Gustave Moreau

The other key figure in the tradition of mirror gazing is of course Narcissus. There are many versions of his myth, and the lessons they put on display are varied. The most harrowing among them is the version that Ovid recounts. Asked if Narcissus will live to a ripe old age, a seer remarks, “Yes, if he does not come to know himself.” It’s a sly answer, and a very perverse one, too, cutting across the grain of cultural commonplace as it does. Its moral is more immediate than that of the Oedipus myth, and less equivocal with regard to the gnothi seauton. Both tales, it must be recognized, paint a dark picture of the encounter with the self, one where deliberate, uncompromising introspection leads to catastrophe for the subject. All of this is to say that the mirror scene is a cultural topos more than passingly vexed, and more than usually fraught with contradictory messages. When contemporary literature turns to that topos and puts it to use, even in offhanded ways, its trappings come along with it, which may help to explain why even the most apparently innocent mirror scene typically creates a disturbing moment in a text, a moment of exceptional reflection.

In what follows, I would like to consider the different shapes those moments assume in the Scandinavian detective novel, proposing along the way a loose, heuristic typology that may help us to think about them more efficiently. My own sense is that those scenes are deeply involved with the poetics of the gaze in literature, with the representation of the self, with the way the human subject grapples with his or her humanity, and with what we may hope to find when we look into the mirror of the text.

CaptureKarin Fossum

Before we leap into those moments, it is important to point out what is not a mirror scene; and in doing so it is best to be both draconian and exhaustive. First, it should be noted that the mere mention of the object does not suffice. When Karin Fossum writes, “I got up every morning and went out to the bathroom, and there was his toothbrush below the mirror” (Don’t Look Back 255), there is indeed a mirror in the scene, but the subject fails to encounter herself therein. Fossum is particularly fond of events like that, sometimes wagering upon pure (and from the devotee’s point of view, purely otiose) analogy: “A mirror-like tarn, no bigger than a large pond, lying among the spruce trees like a secret space” (Don’t Look Back 26). One gets the same sense of missed opportunity when the mirror is invoked in a figural, metaphorical manner. “The same questions. Again and again,” complains Håkan Nesser’s Inspector Van Veeteren, as he grapples with a particularly thorny problem, “Over and over again. Reflecting themselves in the mirror” (Mind’s Eye 19). Those questions may reflect themselves till the cows come home; they are not human beings, and their specularity has no psychological or moral depth. More cruelly still, Åsa Larsson insists upon the absence of the mirror, and we benighted readers are left to muse upon what the moment might have been like if only a mirror had been present: “‘What gorgeous clothes,’ smiled Sanna, her cheeks flushed with pleasure. ‘Look at this jumper! Pity there isn’t a mirror in here'” (Sun Storm 26).

One must also dismiss a category that I would like to call the mirror scene manqué. “He was in such a hurry,” remarks Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, “that for once he didn’t stop to admire himself in the little mirror hanging beside the coat rack by the door. If he had, he would have seen that his aura was heavy and dark. Almost black” (My Soul to Take 131). Here, the subject’s encounter with the mirror is conjectural, rather than actual, and thus unsatisfactory. A more literal example of that species presents itself when Jo Nesbø’s Harry Hole finds himself nose to nose with a great white shark at the Sydney Aquarium: “At first he thought it was his own reflection he could see, then his eyes became accustomed to the light and he felt his heart register a last pounding beat before it froze. The Great White was beside him, watching him with cold, lifeless eyes” (The Bat 168). Though this is not a mirror scene, it should be noted that there is an ironically specular dimension to it, for as he gazes in horror at the shark Harry Hole realizes that he, too, may have something of the coldblooded predator about him.

Jo nesboJo Nesbø

We must also agree to turn aside from scenes of simple introspection, moments of self-appraisal undertaken without the mediation of the mirror. Consider this passage from Henning Mankell’s The Man Who Smiled: “He sat at his desk, feeling that he could now examine himself at arm’s length: the man staggering around in the West Indies, the miserable trip to Thailand, all those days and nights when everything seemed to have ground to a halt apart from his bodily functions. He was looking at himself, but he realized that that person was somebody he no longer knew. He had been somebody else” (57). Perhaps he was indeed “looking at himself,” but not in the literal sense; and in a rigorous consideration of mirror scenes, we owe it to ourselves to be as literalist as we possibly can.

When one character in Mankell’s The Pyramid asks another, “Have you even seen what you look like?” and that latter individual testily retorts, “I don’t spend my time looking at myself in the mirror” (9-10), the suggestion is that looking at oneself in the mirror is something that vain, lazy people do, something that is unfit for people of a more active, engaged, and robust constitution. And perhaps it is for reasons such as those that Inspector Kurt Wallander upon occasion deliberately eschews the mirror: “He splashed cold water on his face and took a long leak. He avoided looking at his face in the mirror” (Henning Mankell, One Step Behind 333). Other passages in Mankell’s writing are a bit more difficult to dismiss, because while the mirror therein is virtual rather than literal, the subject’s encounter with himself has a great deal of flesh on its bones: “Sometimes he imagined himself as an image in a mirror that was both concave and convex at the same time. No-one had ever seen anything but the surface: the eminent jurist, the respected minister of justice, the kindly retiree strolling along the beach in Skäne. No-one would have guessed his double-sided self” (Sidetracked 14). I realize that I have been relying heavily upon Henning Mankell here. Having read him so attentively, and with so much pleasure, over so many years, I feel now that he is a close personal friend. I’d like to go to IKEA with him. More pertinently, his writing provides a very rich vein of classic mirror scenes, as we shall see in a moment, undoubtedly the mother lode insofar as Scandinavian detective fiction is concerned.

Before we get there however, and having now plucked most of the low-hanging fruit in the non-mirror scene orchard, let me invoke a few examples of passages that hover right on the threshold of mirror scenedom. Consider this passage from Karin Fossum’s Don’t Look Back: “Each time he looked at the picture of his father, his own old age seemed to advance uncomfortably on him” (35). Clearly, the subject sees something of himself when he gazes at the picture of his father; but to call this a mirror scene is to reach too far. It offers, in a sense, a negative image of a mirror scene, a notion that can be confirmed by comparing it to a positive image of the same topos, such as this passage in Henning Mankell’s The Dogs of Riga: “He examined his face in the mirror and saw that he was getting more and more like his father” (201). Yet when the subject gazes at a photograph of himself, rather than one of his father, the elements of a full-blown mirror scene fall easily into place, as Åke Edwardson understands: “He removed the cloth and stared at a photograph of himself, taken shortly before high school graduation” (Death Angels).

Then there are textual moments when the encounter with the mirror is implicit, rather than actual. “She sat anesthetized at the kitchen table,” writes Åsa Larsson, “and recalled the joy she had felt earlier; the bike ride to the city and back, how she already felt more fit, the feeling of putting on the black skirt and the neat blouse, her new appearance that the hairstyle and her more conscious application of makeup gave her” (Sun Storm 329). Any reasonable person would infer that the subject had put her makeup on while looking in the mirror; yet the narrative elides that moment maddeningly.

As much as it pains me, it must be said that in certain mirror scenes nothing happens—or nothing of real interest. “Gullberg was completely exhausted after all his efforts on Monday,” writes Stieg Larsson. “He did not wake until 9:00 on Tuesday morning, four hours later than usual. He went to the bathroom to shower and brush his teeth. He stood for a long time looking at his face in the mirror before he turned off the light and went to get dressed. He chose the only clean shirt he had left in the brown briefcase and put on a brown-patterned tie” (The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest 124). The moment is flatly constative; it provides nothing beyond the simple fact of the encounter; it has no depth. A passage in Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s The Terrorists is similar: “They returned to their own base, where there was no one but the chief of the Stockholm Police. He was standing in front of the mirror combing his hair with great care. Then he eyed his tie, which as usual was of plain colored silk. Today it was pale yellow” (226). In both cases, alas, we learn more about the tie than we do about the subject. Certain other passages of this sort set up the encounter with the self, and then shy away from it, as it were: “While she was putting on her coat, Thóra looked at herself in the large mirror. She knew it was important to make a good impression at the first meeting, especially if the client was well-off” (Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, Last Rituals 12-13).

When the devil holds the candle

Still other instances put mirror substitutes into play, and I think we can agree that they clear the bar when those proxies are functional. Here are two examples of that ilk, the first borrowed from Karin Fossum, the second from Åsa Larsson: “Zipp could see the outline of his own face in the black of the television screen: a cowardly, wavering thing” (When the Devil Holds the Candle 222); “She looked at her reflection in the mirror that the roll of aluminum foil attached to the wall provided and where her face appeared cracked in a thousand wrinkles, before she tore off a sheet and handed it to Johnny” (Sun  Storm 172). Sometimes those proxies are human. Arnaldur Indriðason is especially fond of moments like that: “Looking at Steve, she saw her own anxiety reflected in his face” (Operation Napoleon 237); “Marion Briem’s eyes revealed clear pity and a sad certainty that they were looking at their own reflection” (Jar City 121). Other people’s faces can serve as very efficient mirror substitutes, often reflecting an image of the subject that is no less faithful than one that a more literal mirror might provide, if one is willing to embrace the phenomenon of projection that such scenes put on stage, that is. For this specular relation between the self and the other is patently a matter of projection, as Henning Mankell points out: “Wallander looked at Martinsson’s and Hanson’s tired faces and wondered what his own face must be like” (Firewall 68). In other instances of the same effect, Mankell underscores the fidelity of that projection for our benefit, confirming the information that the other’s gaze conveys by a more literal encounter with the mirror: “‘At your age you shouldn’t stay up all night,’ she said. Wallander looked at her with surprise. ‘Is it so obvious?’ She bent down and got her bag from behind the counter, then fished out a make-up mirror and handed it over to him. She was right. He was pale and had dark circles under his eyes. His hair was a mess” (One Step Behind 239).


As we move beyond these dubious, hybrid, or limit cases toward sturdier and more compelling examples of mirror scenes, it should be noted that their fundamental discursive mode is interrogative. That is, whatever else they may put on offer, mirror scenes portray a questioning subject; and the vector of that questioning points directly toward the subject herself. Gazing at his own reflection, a character in Kjell Eriksson’s The Cruel Stars of the Night articulates the question that quickens any mirror scene at all, be it overtly or more subtly: “‘Who is Stig Franklin?’ he asked the mirror” (275). We are squarely in the orbit of the gnothi seauton here, of course, and that’s just where we’ll remain as we trace the subject’s fate through three types of encounters with the mirror. The first type involves simple recognition, a moment wherein the subject comes across a mirror and recognizes himself or herself unproblematically. In the second type of scene, such recognition is not immediate, but progressive, and it involves a process that runs the gamut from the mildly difficult to the outright traumatic. In the third type, finally, the subject fails utterly and definitively to recognize himself—and I hereby promise not to dwell upon that morbid eventuality more than is strictly necessary.

Having postulated those categories so very categorically, allow me to temper their terms just a bit. For it must be said that the scenes of simple recognition one finds in contemporary Scandinavian detective fiction are very rarely simple. One does come upon scenes of that sort—”As the coffee was brewing, Wallander went into the bathroom. He noticed with pleasure that he looked healthy and energetic” (Mankell, The Fifth Woman 20)—, but they are few and far between. Most of the time, scenes of this first type involve something beyond the subject’s mere recognition of himself. In The White Lioness, for instance, Wallander’s recognition may be immediate, but it is problematized by the recognition of far broader truths about himself and about his manner of being in the world: “When he got back to his apartment, he stripped and stood naked in front of the hall mirror. ‘Kurt Wallander,’ he said aloud. ‘This is your life'” (182). He reads himself in the mirror in this moment of naked truth—and of course we read him reading himself, recognizing as we do so that what is fundamentally at stake in scenes like this is interpretation itself. Obviously, the principle of self-knowledge is deeply imbricated in scenes such as this one. Yet upon occasion the promise of unique identity that is implicit therein is put into question by the encounter: “He saw himself in the mirror and realized that he looked like thousands of other young people” (Sjöwall and Wahlöö, Cop Killer 274). In that instance, the subject recognizes himself without difficulty, but he fails to recognize his particularity, and by virtue of that the encounter has gone badly awry.

CaptureSjöwall and Wahlöö

For it is almost always the other who vexes the encounter with the mirror, whether that other be real or virtual. Sometimes, it’s a matter of checking one’s appearance in order to appreciate how other people will see us. That sort of moment can be relatively uncomplicated, like in this passage from Håkan Nesser: “She checked how she looked in the mirror. It’ll do” (Borkmann’s Point 131). Or this one, from Sjöwall and Wahlöo: “It was now eight o’clock on Monday morning and she was standing in front of her large mirror in her bedroom, admiring her suntan and thinking how envious her friends at work would be” (The Fire Engine That Disappeared 144). Alternatively, the moment can be significantly more fraught: “Carl took a step toward the mirror and ran one finger along his temple where the bullet had grazed his head. The wound had healed, but the scar was clearly visible under his hair, if anyone cared to look. But who the hell would want to do that? he thought as he studied his face” (Jussi Adler-Olsen, The Keeper of Lost Causes 3). Who indeed? But that’s just the point, of course, because whoever else may choose to look at Carl, we readers are looking at him, and in that sense we constitute one of the others that lurk on the edges of these scenes.

But we’re not the only ones, I think. For even if there are no other flesh-and-blood witnesses to these events in the fictional world, mirror scenes always suggest a doubling of the subject. That effect can be more or less pronounced. Sometimes it is merely a question of a subject seeing himself in an unexpected way, projecting an image of himself that he had not anticipated: “In the mirror behind her he saw himself sitting with an idiotic grin on his face” (Jo Nesbø, The Bat 80). Other cases suggest a deeper alienation of the subject from himself, as if I really were an other: “The mechanic stands next to me, gazing at his own reflection as if it belonged to some stranger” (Peter Høeg, Smilla’s Sense of Snow 213). Who is that stranger one sees in the mirror? Is he merely a pretext, a figment, a convenient and temporary construction enabling us to see ourselves objectively? Or is it really someone else, someone with whom we are largely unacquainted? If it is true, as Peter Høeg’s Smilla argues, that “you see yourself clearly only when you see yourself as a stranger” (Smilla’s Sense of Snow 395), are we to take that assertion literally or figuratively? For if it is indeed the case that mirror scenes put the act of interpretation itself in play, the manner in which we choose to interpret them must be deeply involved in the success or failure of the wager they stake.


Consider for example this passage from Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s The Laughing Policeman: “He had looked in the mirror as recently as the evening before and seen a tall, sinister figure with a lean face, wide forehead, heavy jaws and mournful gray-blue eyes” (55). One may choose to read that passage in a literal sense, in which case the moment becomes a very strange one indeed, and in some respects the reading experience is enriched thereby. Or one can read it more figuratively, imagining that the subject is impressed by the alterity of the image he sees, but not duped thereby. Those choices are conditioned by a wide variety of factors—and not least by extremely thorny questions of readerly desire. Like the White Queen, we can easily believe six impossible things before breakfast in the looking-glass world of fiction. And we may well seek the thrill of the uncanny while simultaneously attempting to normalize and rationalize a given narrative event. Faced with a passage such as the one I just quoted, most readers would opt for a figural interpretation, I imagine. And all the more so insofar as they are acquainted with the supremely rational Martin Beck. For he is a man who never forgets who he is, and no matter how unrecognizable his reflection may seem, he is always able to bring himself back to himself: “While he hung up his coat he glanced at his face in the mirror. He was pale and looked sallow and he had dark circles under his eyes. This was no longer due to the flu but to the fact that he had gone without much sleep” (Sjöwall and Wahlöö, Roseanna 61).

Other subjects are not as lucky. Karin Fossum’s Zipp Skorpe, for instance, is a badly broken man: “He stopped in front of a store that sold mirrors and looked at the dozens of tiny Zipps. It suited the way he was feeling: shattered into thousands of pieces” (When the Devil Holds the Candle 175-76). Still other individuals embrace that estrangement effect, putting it to use in an effort to get outside of themselves. Such is the case of a teenager in Henning Mankell’s Sidetracked, who makes himself up as an Indian warrior before committing the first in a series of murders: “The first strokes on his forehead had to be black. It was as if he slicing two deep cuts, opening his brain, and emptying the memories and thoughts that had haunted him all his life, tormenting him and humiliating him. Then the red and white stripes, the circles, the squares, and at last the snake-like designs on his cheeks. None of his white skin should be visible. Then the transformation would be complete. What was inside him would be gone. He would be born again in the guise of an animal, and he would never speak as a human being again” (12). In other cases, the recognition of one’s image in the mirror is a fundamentally unhappy event, because it triggers a sense of self-loathing. “She was 16, and had gone to stay with her mother in Malmö,” writes Henning Mankell. “It was a time of crushing defeats, the kind only a teenager can experience. She hated herself and her body, shunning the image she saw in the mirror while strangely enough also welcoming the changes she was undergoing” (Before the Frost 24). At least this character comes by her self-loathing honestly, for she is none other than Linda Wallander, the daughter of Kurt Wallander. And he is someone who has honed self-loathing to an art: “You flabby piece of shit,” he tells his reflection in the mirror, “Do you really want to look like a pitiful old man?” (Mankell, Faceless Killers 27).

Henning-Mankell-007Henning Mankell

In order not to end my discussion of recognition scenes on that sour note, let me point out a final topos that they commonly exploit. I have argued that the recognition of one’s image in the mirror is typically accompanied by the perception of broad truths about oneself. It is useful to imagine those truths as significantly mobile ones. That is, they shift over time, and that process of shifting leaves perceptible traces upon the face. “When he looked at his face in the rearview mirror, he thought that every scratch, every lump, every discolouration from purple to black was a memento of the week’s events” (Mankell, Faceless Killers 217). The cultural cliché upon which this passage plays is a familiar one, of course, but it bears special scrutiny in the present context. For if the face is indeed a kind of text in which a person’s experience may be read, two considerations follow. First, the situation of a subject gazing at her face in the mirror and reading the story of her experience thereupon is very much like the situation that we are in, as gazers and readers. Second, each of these scenes, whatever else it may seek to put on display, is not simply specular, but rather doubly so: that is, the mirror function is itself mirrored in a reflection upon representation and its possibilities.

Scenes of difficult recognition are fewer in Scandinavian detective fiction than in certain other regional traditions one might name, though I hesitate to draw sweeping cultural conclusions from that fact. As to the shapes they assume, I mentioned a moment ago that difficult recognition scenes run the gamut from incidents that are mildly disturbing for the subject to events that are far more traumatic. On the former end of that horizon, one finds scenes where it is merely a question of momentary hesitation before recognition sets in. By way of example, consider this scene from Håkan Nesser’s Mind’s Eye, where Inspector Van Veeteren gazes absently into a mirror as he makes a phone call: “While he was waiting for a reply he observed the grotesque face glaring at him from the shiny surface above the telephone. It was a few seconds before it dawned on him that he was looking at his own reflection” (68). Those “few seconds” are readily dismissed, and the uncanniness of the moment can easily be rationalized by appealing to Van Veeteren’s distracted state, the fact that the “shiny surface” was not obviously a mirror, and so forth. Yet the face that confronts him is nonetheless “grotesque,” and its expression is “glaring.” Both of those features serve to heighten the strangeness of this encounter, and to broaden the distance between the subject and his image. Moreover, rather than dismissing the incident out of hand, Van Veeteren continues to reflect upon it, gazing upon his face as another person might do, or even as if it belonged to another person. “He was smiling,” he notes. “The corners of his mouth were raised to form a generous curve and gave his face an expression suggesting a touch of lunacy” (68). That coldly phenomenological description of a smile, and the conjecture of lunacy (rather than a more reassuring and conventional interpretation of a smile as a sure sign of happiness) testify to the difficulty Van Veeteren finds in coming to terms with his reflection. That impression of difficulty is further underscored by the comparison that Van Veeteren next invokes. “Like a posturing male gorilla,” he muses (68), and the analogy seems so apt to him that he pursues it: “he stood there glowering at the gorilla” (69). In other terms, what we find in this incident is an apparently trivial scene that opens onto an event far more disturbing, a conversation of self with self wherein the interlocutors stray ever further one from the other. Without wishing to belabor the point, it should be noted that, just as “simple” recognition is never really simple, so “difficult” recognition is actually difficult, in every case.


If time is at issue in that scene from Nesser, it is only a brief moment in time, those “few seconds” that it takes for Van Veeteren to recognize himself. More consequential stretches of time are often at stake in scenes of difficult recognition, however. Most characteristically, these occur when the subject finds it hard to accept that she or he has grown old. These scenes are highly variable, to be sure, but they tend toward the latter end of the spectrum I described, that is, toward trauma. “The face I saw in the mirror terrified me,” remarks Fredrik Welin in the final moments of the story he tells. “I had become old” (Henning Mankell, Italian Shoes 240). On the one hand, Mankell is playing on a cultural commonplace here, the one that holds that as we age, our sense of ourselves does not age at the same rate, so that we are often unconscious of how old we have actually become. On the other hand, when we do come face to face with our aged selves (and whatever the particular vehicle of that encounter may be), it is most often an occasion for mild surprise, rather than outright terror. Yet clearly mild surprise pays fewer dividends than does terror, when it is a matter of storytelling; and just as clearly, Mankell has chosen to accentuate the strangeness of this moment in his novel in order to heighten its narrative effect.

A similar phenomenon can be noted in Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s The Abominable Man, when Lennart Kollberg confronts himself in the mirror after having shot someone in the line of duty: “That person there has killed a man” (108). It is not that Kollberg cannot recognize himself; instead, that recognition is “difficult,” because it entails the acceptance of a harsh truth about himself. The estrangement effect is very pronounced when he designates himself as “That person,” and the effect is further amplified when he muses about other killers he has known: “During his years on the force he’d stood face to face with more murderers that he cared to think about” (108). What distinguishes him now from those others? And, more disturbingly still, what distinguishes the self he has always believed himself to be from the self he has now so unmistakably become? In other words, has he become someone else entirely?

Questions of that ilk can make the encounter with one’s reflection in the mirror a very painful experience indeed. “Every morning he looked into the little mirror on the wall and asked himself if he was staring into the eyes of a madman,” Mankell says of a character in Before the Frost (246). And of course that’s one way to rationalize the estrangement effect: I look unfamiliar to myself and thus I must be going crazy, because otherwise I would recognize myself easily. Yet such a gesture obviously creates a kind of feedback loop whereby alienation is accentuated rather than attenuated, and it thus points tantalizingly toward catastrophe. For pushed relentlessly to their limits—and why would we readers wish it to be any otherwise?—such moments can have only one outcome: the utter failure of the subject to recognize herself.

Throughout my discussion of mirror scenes, I have argued more or less stridently that the way they function is closely bound up in questions of readerly choice and semiotic desire. That is especially true of this third and final type of scene, which puts on offer an I who has in fact become an other. Now, whether we read that metamorphosis in a literal or a figural manner is entirely (or mostly, rather) up to us. For my own part, speaking as a mirror scene fundamentalist, I would argue that we must take mirror gazers at their word whenever possible. I am forced to concede, however, that some cases strain our credulity more than others. Consider the moment when Stieg Larsson places Lisbeth Salander in front of the mirror in The Girl Who Played with Fire: “She studied herself in the mirror and decided that Irene Nesser looked a little bit like Lisbeth Salander, but was still a completely different person” (68). It is very difficult to imagine that Salander fails to recognize herself here. For one thing, she is an exceptionally astute individual. For another (and more compellingly), she has just disguised herself as this “completely different person,” Irene Nesser, and she is checking the effect of her disguise in the mirror. In other terms, she is assessing the effect her disguise will produce when other people look at her. We have already discussed gestures like that one, of course, and I think it is prudent to dismiss this moment, reluctantly, from our catalogue of failed recognition scenes.

CaptureNoomi Rapace as Lisbeth Salander in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

Another moment, again involving Lisbeth Salander, occurs in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and it is far more difficult to dismiss: “She had a dazzling view of Lake Zürich, which didn’t interest her in the least. But she did spend close to five minutes examining herself in the mirror. She saw a total stranger” (442-43). The encounter is far more uncanny than the one in The Girl Who Played with Fire. The abyss between the self and the reflection of the self yawns more broadly, and the language is more uncompromising. Reason tells us to interpret this figuratively, but desire urges us to read it literally. In this instance, one can really go either way; it is a shining example, I think, of a passage that teeters in precarious equilibrium right on the brink of this third and final type of mirror scene. Sort of like a funambulist, in other words. And what is it about funambulists that fascinates us, other than the possibility that they might fall off the wire? It is the very precariousness of their situation that keeps us breathless, and the danger that awaits them, below. Insofar as mirror scenes are concerned, that danger is defined precisely by the possibility that the subject might fail to recognize herself. It is a fear that haunts many of us, notably including those people who inhabit the worlds of Scandinavian detective novels: “What she feared most of all was to walk down the street and not exist, to step into the elevator at work and discover that the mirror reflected someone else, to exit the elevator and hear the poisonous tongues gabbing behind her back” (Kjell Eriksson, The Cruel Stars of the Night 110).

Jo Nesbo

It is that kind of fear, and the fascination it provokes in us, that fuels our reading of passages such as this one: “Harry went to the lavatory, splashed some cold water over his face and confronted his reflection in the mirror. Beneath his wet, closely cropped fair hair he saw a pair of bloodshot eyes with dark bags under them and drawn, hollow cheeks. He tried a smile. Yellowing teeth grinned back at him. He didn’t recognize himself” (Jo Nesbø, The Devil’s Star 40). And this one: “Kristín closed the door. A mirror hung in the hall and when she caught sight of her reflection in the glass on her way back to the living room, she did not recognize the figure in it: a gaunt-faced stranger with dark circles under her eyes and dirty hair, matted around her ear which was now red with fresh blood where the wound had reopened. She was wearing the thick snowsuit which was still stained with Steve’s blood. She did not know this woman. Did not know where she had come from. She stared at her, shaking her head with incomprehension” (Arnaldur Indriðason, Operation Napoleon 307-08). And this one, too: “He turned on the cold tap and tried to rinse the blood off his face. He did not recognize his reflection in the broken mirror. His eyes were staring, bloodshot, shifting” (Henning Mankell, The White Lioness 293). Each moment creeps closer to the moment of no return, to the moment of absolute catastrophe. Because if the subject can no longer recognize himself, what in the world will become of him? And what will become of us, granted that we have willingly suspended our disbelief in order to dwell in these fictional worlds?

For it is largely a question of suspense, I think. Moreover, in that very perspective it is we readers who are the funambulists, suspended vertiginously between what we know and what we wish, between experience and imagination, the real and the virtual, recognition and bewilderment. In such a parlous, tensive state, with all of our senses on the alert, we can learn a great deal about who we are and how we read literary texts. For each of these mirror scenes reflects us, too, and the gestures we sketch as we interpret them. They are eminently welcoming, integrationist tropes, in other words, pointing toward the permeability of the boundaries between the fictional world and the phenomenological world. They suggest that even the most committed rationalist among us has a role to play in an imaginary drama, whether that drama be bound up in the struggle of crime and punishment or in the dynamic of writing and reading, whether it be staged on the foggy plains of Skåne or on the comfortable hillocks of one’s own couch.

—Warren Motte


Works Cited

Adler-Olsen, Jussi.  The Keeper of Lost Causes.  Trans. Lisa Hartford.  New York: Plume, 2012.

Edwardson, Åke.  Death Angels.  Trans. Ken Schubert.  New York: Penguin, 2009.

Eriksson, Kjell.  The Cruel Stars of the Night.  Trans. Ebba Segerberg.  New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2007.

Fossum, Karin.  Don’t Look Back.  Trans. Felicity David.  New York: Harcourt, 2005.

—.  When the Devil Holds the Candle.  Trans. Felicity David.  New York: Harcourt, 2007.

Høeg, Peter.  Smilla’s Sense of Snow.  Trans. Tiina Nunnally.  New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1993.

Indriðason, Arnaldur.  Jar City.  Trans. Bernard Scudder.  New York: Picador, 2005.

—.  Operation Napoleon.  Trans. Victoria Cribb.  New York: Picador, 2012.

Larsson, Åsa.  Sun Storm.  Trans. Marlaine Delargy.  New York: Delta, 2007.

Larsson, Stieg.  The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest.  Trans. Reg Keeland.  New York: Knopf, 2010.

—.  The Girl Who Played with Fire.  Trans. Reg Keeland.  New York: Knopf, 2009.

—.  The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.  Trans. Reg Keeland.  New York: Knopf, 2008.

Mankell, Henning.  Before the Frost.  Trans. Ebba Segerberg.  New York: Vintage, 2006.

—.  The Dogs of Riga.  Trans. Laurie Thompson.  New York: Vintage, 2004.

—.  Faceless Killers.  Trans. Steven Murray.  New York: Vintage, 2003.

—.  The Fifth Woman.  Trans. Steven Murray.  New York: Vintage, 2004.

—.  Firewall.  Trans. Ebba Segerberg.  New York: Vintage, 2003.

—.  Italian Shoes.  Trans. Laurie Thompson.  New York: Vintage, 2010.

—.  The Man Who Smiled.  Trans. Laurie Thompson.  New York: New Press, 2006.

—.  One Step Behind.  Trans. Ebba Segerberg.  New York: Vintage, 2003.

—.  The Pyramid.  Trans. Ebba Segerberg with Laurie Thompson.  New York: Random House, 2009.

—.  Sidetracked.  Trans. Steven Murray.  New York: Vintage, 2003.

—.  The White Lioness.  Trans. Laurie Thompson.  New York: Vintage, 2003.

Nesbø, Jo.  The Bat.  Trans. Don Bartlett.  New York: Vintage, 2013.

—.  The Devil’s Star.  Trans. Don Bartlett.  New York: Harper, 2011.

Nesser, Håkan.  Borkmann’s Point.  Trans. Laurie Thompson.  New York: Vintage, 2006.

—.  Mind’s Eye.  Trans. Laurie Thompson.  New York: Vintage, 2008.

Ohlsson, Kristina. Unwanted.  Trans. Sarah Death.  New York: Atria, 2012

Sigurðardóttir, Yrsa.  Last Rituals.  Trans. Bernard Scutter.  New York: Harper, 2009.

—.  My Soul to Take.  Trans. Anna Yates.  New York: Harper, 2010.

Sjöwall, Maj, and Per Wahlöö.  The Abominable Man.  Trans. Thomas Teal.  New York: Bantam, 1974

—.  Cop Killer.  Trans. Thomas Teal.  New York: Vintage, 1978.

—.  The Fire Engine That Disappeared.  Trans. Joan Tate.  New York: Vintage, 1977.

—.  The Laughing Policeman.  Trans. Alan Blair.  New York: Vintage, 1976.

—. Roseanna.  Trans. Lois Roth.  New York: Bantam, 1971.

—.  The Terrorists.  Trans. Joan Tate.  New York: Vintage, 1978.


Warren Motte

Warren Motte is Professor of French and Comparative Literature at the University of Colorado. He specializes in contemporary writing, with particular focus upon experimentalist works that put accepted notions of literary form into question. His most recent books include Fables of the Novel: French Fiction since 1990 (2003) Fiction Now: The French Novel in the Twenty-First Century (2008), and Mirror Gazing (2014). He lives in Boulder with a wife, two sons, and a couple of dogs, in a house full of books.

Nov 122014

MooreLisa Moore

Alligator teaches us to embark on an absolute concentration on what the eye receives. Like hyperrealist painting, it alters our sensory perceptions of objects around us; we start noticing them and pausing on them once we are out of the novel. She [Moore] concentrates on the defocalizing power of a random element that does not fit within the machinery of life. —María Jesús Hernáez Lerena



The philosopher apparently meets our expectations by spelling out what the “reverie” of the refined poets and the commitment of the contemporary artist have in common: the link between the solitude of the artwork and human community is a matter of transformed “sensation.” What the artist does is to weave together a new sensory fabric by wresting percepts and affects from the perceptions and affections that make up the fabric of ordinary experience. […] What is common is “sensation.” Human beings are tied together by a certain sensory fabric, a certain distribution of the sensible, which defines their way of being together; and politics is about the transformation of the sensory fabric of “being together.” (Jacques Rancière, The Emancipated Spectator 2009, 56)

I am similarly ensnared by consumer products and culture, especially “junk foods” such as chocolate bars: I like to celebrate their blaring colours and slogans, and I like the noisy, chance juxtapositions of everyday things: the newsagent’s sweet counter, the magazine rack, the stall of souvenir t-shirts.” (Cynthia Poole “Exactitude IV” 2008, 1)


Lisa Moore’s novel Alligator is fashioned by conferring the still life —the depiction of inanimate objects— primacy over other kinds of discourse. The narrative opens itself up to another medium in order to imitate methods of composition that would be otherwise fully realized in painting, thus resisting the naturalized impulse of narrative to become a transition or temporal process. By this transfer of the still life from one medium to another, I do not only mean that there are abundant descriptions of place and objects in the novel, since all novels depend on this explanatory apparatus [1], but that the mere sight of objects —a view the reader shares with the characters at all times—, becomes the center of gravity in their lives. Novelistic and biographical discourse is thus counteracted and transformed into a mode of understanding which does not depend on the disclosure of meaning through time but on the peculiarities of shape, color, and brightness that objects possess.

In this article I will attempt to describe Lisa Moore’s method of composition in Alligator and relate it to an analogous form of composition in the visual arts, particularly an artistic movement called hyperrealism, in order to throw some light on the epistemological implications of their common strategies. I will then discuss whether this perspective in the novel —a besetting representation of external reality— addresses or contests certain ideas of cultural distinction and community which are ever-present within the cultural context Lisa Moore belongs to, Newfoundland [2]. “Burning Rock” is the name of the writers’ collective where Lisa Moore began her career as a writer in St. John’s. The phrase refers to an unidentified burning object which fell into the sea off the Newfoundland coast. With this name, its members wish to point to the emergent incandescent energy coming from Newfoundland, The Rock, which until relatively recently was seen as marginal to or lagging behind Canada. They wish to conjure up “images of isolation and extreme subject matter”:

Geographically, we have always been an extremity: on the edge of a new, unknown world, the cusp of the Atlantic Ocean and the North American continent, our topsoil scraped by glaciers and dumped into the Grand Banks. An island on which, for centuries, it was forbidden to settle. And now, economically and culturally we have drifted to a state of emergency. The ball of lightning has burned past us and we stand stunned, dumbfounded by the experience. […] We live in a bruised landscape which cultivates extreme people with extreme stories. (Michael Winter Extremities 1994, xi-xii)

I will address two different but interrelated questions: first, how to think critically about our response to Lisa Moore’s particular invocation of reality in fiction; and second, does Moore’s particular depiction in Alligator of a group of characters in St. John’s constitute some kind of statement about sense of community in Newfoundland? [3]

My approach is conducted by a basic idea that underlies much of the theories of Susan Sontag, John Berger, and Jacques Rancière: the belief in the dichotomy between seeing and understanding. John Berger’s quote “Yet the knowledge, the explanation, never quite fits the sight” (1972, 7) points at this basic premise: an awareness of the mismatch between what we perceive through our sense of sight and the elaborations of discourse. The idea that the image does not make you understand, that it only activates your sensory system, also runs through much of Susan Sontag’s interpretation of the photograph (1977, 110). For her, photography is the opposite of understanding, “which starts from not accepting the world as it looks” (1977, 23). How the world functions must be explained in time. “Only that which narrates can make us understand” (1977, 23; 2003, 89). According to her, muteness in a photograph is an attraction, a provocation; it “makes us feel that the world is more available than it really is” (1977, 24). The art of photography makes no invitation to understanding the world, but to collecting it (1977, 82). For Jacques Rancière, viewing is also the opposite of knowing: “The spectator is held before an appearance in a state of ignorance about the process of production of this appearance and about the reality it conceals” (2009, 2). Additionally, he believes that viewing is also the opposite of being active, “to be a spectator is to be separated both from the capacity to know and the power to act” (2009, 2).

Both critics agree that the photograph, the image in general, is a moral anesthetic, in spite of the fact that it may produce distress (Sontag 1977, 109-110). Our impression that we have come into possession of the essence of tragedy, for example, neutralizes horror, it distances us from it. As a result, history is transformed into spectacle because it possesses the qualities of beauty and eternity (Sontag 1977, 109-110; 2003, 99-103). “Despite the illusion of giving understanding, what seeing through a photograph really invites is an acquisitive relation to the world that nourishes aesthetic awareness and promotes emotional detachment” (Sontag 1977, 111). [4]

This idea of the binary image/word is supported, on a different front, by critics who could be termed sociologists of identity: Nicholas Rose (1997, 244), Charles Taylor (1996, 51), or Anthony Giddens (1991, 54), for example. For them, the self cannot be constructed outside words, it requires verbalization and narration: it requires the story of how things happened. There can be no such thing as instant identity. [5] For Rose “Language is one of the keys to our assembly as psychological beings. Only through lexicons, grammars, syntax and semantics can we organize our thoughts and formulate our intentions” (1997, 234). Psychological language is, for him, the main key to the modern soul (1997, 238).

In Sources of the Self, Charles Taylor (1996 18, 48) rejects the value of the immediate experience or the sudden rupture by explaining that our notion of ourselves only comes through the story of how we have become, the unfolding of how we have travelled to get here. According to him, not to use this framework for one’s life is to fall into a life which is spiritually senseless. “The sense of the good has to be woven into my understanding as an unfolding story” (1996, 47). The self cannot be punctual or instantaneous. Self-understanding necessarily has temporal depth and sense of direction, and incorporates narrative. If we think that we become different persons each time we are in a different situation or if we fail to meet the full challenge of making sense of our lives we destroy our chances for a meaningful life. When analyzing confessional narrative, Dennis Forster remarks that “[n]o matter how one’s experiences may be present in memory, the events of these narratives are understandable only when they are transformed into objects of consciousness, into histories rather than sensations” (1987, 10). His argument clarifies the dilemma of our considering images as mere stimuli that cannot substantiate “real” knowledge, which is only to be accessed through a contextualized historicity. [6] Thus, we seem to be immersed in a battleground where the warring forces are the dissociated images —objects which belong to the realm of suspended temporality— and articulated plots sustained by informed rationalizations. [7]

One paradox inherent in Alligator is that, although the novel’s plot is action-packed, it is structured around the perception of a few objects whose presence becomes overpowering. A jar, a metal Christmas tree, the walls of an elevator, the arrangement of objects on a restaurant’s table, a plastic bag that contains food, reflections of the city in a car door. The visual qualities of these objects are a magnet around which events and thoughts seem to rotate. Due to the intensity of gaze these objects are given, the novel’s plot, events, even the thoughts of the characters, seem to be beside the point. The characters’ past also appears to them in a clear and crystalline form: like light falling on surfaces.

In a narrative, a description does not materialize into a still life merely because an object is being described; the description resembles a pictorial still life when the reader feels that a frame has been put around a small section of static material reality and the surrounding area remains out of sight. The same object may be shown again but, contrary to common poetic strategies which turn the object into a symbol once it has appeared several times in the narrative —and it has become interwoven with events and feelings—, the still life retains its specific characteristics in isolation, impervious to the meaning-making processes that narratives per se impose. Alligator opens with a young woman, Colleen, watching some footage where a man surrounded by a crowd is taming an alligator. For some time the narrator focuses on a helium balloon tied to a little girl’s wrist:

The balloon looks like a hole burned through the sky. There’s no wind, but the balloon jerks when the little girl shifts her weight. It jerks to the side and bobs and then settles, becomes still. There isn’t a cloud. The little girl’s blond hair is spread over her shoulders and bits of sunlight come through it and some of her hair is full of static and it stands up and the sun makes it buzz with light. (1)

A spellbinding fascination arrests the pull of the narrative. We are clinging to a sort of tableaux vivant whose mise-en-scène leaves the temporal processes of the plot without a sense of purpose. Both character and reader are given the position of a stunned viewer, what we see is sharply outlined but slowed down and torn from context. This ocularcentric approach presides over Alligator; the reader is put inside metaphorical bubbles which somehow prevent a rationale. The impression that characters are in a bubble returns many times:

On the street the boy from next door was playing with a bubble wand. He pressed a lever in the handle and the wand opened out into a large diamond shape and bubble liquid shot up from the clear handle and coated the plastic diamond when he tipped it into the breeze and a giant bubble wobbled into the air and lifted from the wand, and it caught the reflection of the landlord’s Jaguar, which was parked outside the bed-sit and the black streaky gleaming car slithered on the curve of the oversized bubble. (225)

Slavoj Žižek claimed that repetition turns an element into a symbol, that it ascribes a metaphorical import to an event due to our need for transcendence. “The crucial point here is the changed symbolic status of an event: when it erupts for the first time it is experienced as a contingent trauma, as an intrusion of a certain nonsymbolized Real; only through repetition is this event recognized in its symbolic necessity” (1989, 61). However, this direction of meaning is at odds with the dynamics of our understanding in Alligator: the objects depicted do not become symbols. What we perceive is the intensity with which the narrator or the characters look at them. Once an object becomes a reference for something else, the still life somehow loses its force. This is because the reader’s pleasure originally lay in the actual physicality of the thing, not in its evocative or allusive power. This is contrary to painting, where still lifes have historically gone hand in hand with fixed metaphorical traditions. Whether or not we wish objects to become metaphors, the actual achievement in a medium formed by words is to be found in the materiality they seem to bring to life, in their rotund visibility.

Thus, the usual methods of characterization in novels are somehow put on hold in Alligator; there is no panoramic setting that may hold or explain characters. Readers encounter mainly the exigent presence of objects. The first time we meet Frank, a street hot dog vendor in St. John’s, we read:

FRANK’S GOT THE windows open and the warm night breeze jostles the handful forget-me-nots sitting in a Mason jar of yellowish water on the windowsill. A few petals move on the surface of the water like tiny boats on a still lake. The glass jar and the submerged flower stems are coated with silvery beads of air. There’s a housefly near the jar, bluish and iridescent, lying on the crackled paint of the windowsill, since Frank moved in a few months before Christmas, two days after his nineteenth birthday. (10)

After this still life we are informed of the string of events in Frank’s past that the narrator recollects for him: Frank’s mother died of cancer, he sold her furniture, he was evicted and moved to a bed-sit, he became a hot dog vendor in a sleazy street in St. John’s, an Inuit man hanged himself in an apartment above his, the police came and removed the body. But all these chunks of experience are related as if in haste, while Frank himself is standing, having a shower, thinking. There is no analysis, no comment: meanwhile the way objects stand before Frank’s eyes while he is thinking acquires a full dimension. The objects are explored as if with a magnifying glass: minimal spaces which the narrator makes conspicuous by describing the way the light makes them appear. These descriptions are not ornamental or explanatory, they form the very substance of the tale.

At this early point in the narrative the reader may not yet suspect that the overwhelming presence of objects may in fact not be there for the sake of our understanding of the characters, their moods, or their plights. After all, we could agree that the image of a preserve jar and a dead fly on an old window sill may evoke the emptiness, the silence, the vacuity of a life. As has been previously mentioned, having objects as projections of the character’s situation is indeed a common literary device. However, at the end of this chapter, Frank leaves the room and we read:

Inside Frank’s empty bed-sit, water drops travelled in hesitant, zigzagging paths down the plastic shower curtain, and in the window several air bubbles on the stems of the flowers in the Mason jar floated to the surface and broke soundlessly. The breeze nudged the flowers into one another and the stems tippytoed across the bottom of the jar. (17)

Then we realize that objects, this object here, is not a thing which irradiates emotion coming from a human source. The relevance given to the physicality of the jar, its inner workings —so to speak— alters our idea of Story itself, story defined as sequence of events or a flow of emotion. Alligator becomes a medium to render life as externality attached to trivial, inconsequential objects we do not normally care to perceive in their full essence. At the end of the chapter we have been given a glimpse of Frank’s life but after he leaves, the object (the Mason Jar) is the element that remains there to give a sense of closure to the chapter. The attention paid to the jar seems to reduce everything else to insignificance, to diminish the pull of narration by having us stare at a random element when the room is empty. What stays is the solidity of the object, the little changes in its appearance; the rest seems to be ephemeral, pure silence. Narrative as such evaporates and the way an object impacts our retina remains. The personality of the object becomes the priority.

The abundance of examples of the previous strategy in Alligator implies that the novel articulates our dependence on the visual mode as a mode of conscience. This affects the reading experience structurally: all fiction strives to make the reader visualize but some fictions, such as this one, engage in the visual as a literal index to reality, even when the image itself is outside the drama of the story. That does not make its “reality” less urgent. When we experience a moment of intensified perception, we put continuity and sequence on hold. And this is the way suspense is created here: it defines experience as visibility in a strictly physical sense and stops short at that, without offering reasoning in transitions. The author refuses to provide the consolations often implied in novelistic, biographical, or historical narrative. These explanatory structures often assure us that life is a journey which can be explained by the author, that we have access to the characters’ minds and understand them, and that we can morally assess their decisions.

The presence of objects through their materiality of glass, metal, clothing, plastic, skin, is insistent (Fig. 1). Their solidity is sometimes offputting, even fierce, and it upsets the fluidity that events, feelings, and thoughts are supposed to be given in a narrative. To focus on the way objects are depicted in stories leads us to the question of narrativity and narrative resistance, that is, to the questions: Is reality amenable to storytelling? and, can we translate reality into a continuous and coherent temporal sequence? Any story is the abstraction of a temporal trajectory, a humanized sequence of events or emotions, of accomplishments and frustrations, or psychological deepening and sometimes of healing. Objects, on the contrary signal an impasse, an impenetrability, the indifference of the inanimate world.

Fig.1-StevenSmulka-SolarSystemFigure 1. Steven Smulka. “Solar System.” 2011, Oil on Linen, 76.2 x 116.8 cm.

Other explanations of the function of objects in literature have run against the above-mentioned interpretation of objects as repository of absence and of aloofness. The latter interpretation of the role of objects in narrative has been given, for example, by genre theory. The short story as a genre does not seem to depend on the rendering of temporality in the degree that the novel does, and one recurrent strategy to enhance meaning is to use objects to which characters become emotionally attached in order to express, through them, the characters’ ordeal. [8] This paradigm for understanding the characters’ dilemmas is a model usually called “feeling behind the surface,” that is, trivial objects embodying conflicts. The objects contain a quality of latent lyricism and speak on behalf of the characters. They signal turning points in their lives, they implement a revelation or show the manifestation of something hidden. The effect is usually of tragic awareness: a detail, an object from the past, emits significance without explicative intrusion; it discloses the character’s essence. [9] Our associations may be false but they show us the mechanism of our thinking: we like to believe our actions and feelings do have an effect on our environment, on the objects around us.

However, the objects we find in Alligator are not so obviously there for the sake of the distillation of meaning. If they are disturbing and their presence cannot be shaken away it is because of the fetishized relationship characters have with them and also because of the author’s frantic attention to visual compositions of objects and light: they are not peripheral, they always remain sharply focused in a close-up mode. Lisa Moore creates a certain kind of bond between words and things, a certain responsibility within language to render ocular arrangements. A focus sharper than you’d thought possible, as a fellow writer said. [10]

Madeleine is another character whose experiences we trace and whose life is patterned through vivid perceptions of a number of objects. She is an aging film director, obsessed by making a film with iconic images from Newfoundland: a priest, a cliff, the foaming sea, the rocks, horses running wild. She tries to put together this scenario for the film, she gets into trouble because of the transportation of horses, she has imaginary conversations with the archbishop whose letters she found in the Roman Catholic Archives. But her obsession with capturing the essence of Newfoundland becomes somehow secondary when, almost at the end of the novel, she gets inexplicably, almost pathetically, fascinated by a metal Christmas tree in the middle of the summer. The narrator says on her behalf:

It was as though she had unleashed all of her loneliness. Her loneliness had been imprisoned in a tree, which happens all the time: and she had been forced by some evil spell to walk up and down the aisles of Canadian Tire, forgetting why she was there (clothespins), until she found the tree. When she got it home, the tree leapt out of the box, screaming absurd loneliness in eight different languages. A burning bush of shame, how old she is and weak-feeling lately and the film is lost and how profoundly alone with a ball and chain of a film around her neck. (180) (My emphasis)

This passage may be interpreted as a parody of one the best known revelations or epiphanies in the history of English literature, the one rendered in Katherine Mansfield’s story “Bliss”: an upper class woman looks at a tree in her garden and comprehends how mistaken she was about her life and achievements. When looking at a tree in full bloom, she realizes she has lost her husband and her best friend. Madeleine wants to uplift the idea of Newfoundland through images but instead finds herself attached to a cheap commercial object. Moore is responding here to the often trotted-out western tradition which unites objects and feelings. This becomes even more conspicuous when Madeleine says in addition to the previous comments: “There is no need to question the rightness of the tree. She wanted some stone stupid objects in her life that are irrevocably themselves” (181) (my emphasis). Clearly, objects do not have to stand for emotions. Moore is explicitly defining objects outside our need to turn them into bearers of significance. Their solidity may be the only source of comfort.

Thus, in Alligator, Madeleine makes her final, important point: objects are, after all, just objects, and not any other thing or idea, and she claims their validity as such. But although objects are that, just commonplace things, even if we need to attach to them some psychological import, the very juxtaposition of objects and feelings hints at the monstrous separation between inanimateness and the continuity of ordinary life, at the abyss between life and non-life. The act of looking at something and the way Alligator is studded with these images increases this very distance. No quantity of words can make up for life’s opacity. There are no doors for in-depth revelations. However, the final issue in this novel does not seem to be the encounter with the untameable inhospitality of reality; Moore’s novel conveys a recognition of its impenetrability as well as an offer of a certain kind of pleasure, a call to pause on the objects’ idiosyncrasy. Experience is both blazing and numb, as one character in the novel says about love (263). By inflating the status of the sense of sight, Lisa Moore offers us narrative as bondage: this term, taken from dictionaries of fantasy —so concerned with alteration in narrative– means: “an engagement with story not as process but as bondage, that is, being trapped by a particular place or physical shape that keeps you immobile, under a spell” (Clute & Grant 339).

Alligator does not only represent the case of one medium (narrative) and a genre (novel) taking on the nature of another medium (painting or photograph) and genre (the still life): it contains an explicit dialogue with a painting style, a certain method of rendering external reality that an artistic movement, hyperrealism, has made well-known in the last few decades. [11] Lisa Moore’s interest in genre hybridity may have to do with the fact that she is an art critic. She studied Art at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design and is an art journalist for a variety of Canadian newspapers and magazines. In Alligator, a meeting between two characters takes on the iconic quality of the paintings of photorealists and hyperrealists: a shaltshaker is foregrounded, “It was ordinary, with a stainless-steel screw on perforated lid and a fluted glass bottom. The salt looked very white” (83). Two friends meet at a restaurant: “There were white truffles in small jars under lock and key. The ceiling was stucco with bits of mirror and the tablecloths were checked and the balsamic vinegar and olive oil were poured into a saucer that must have a matching teacup in the back” (174).

Frank visits Kevin, another poor child who, like him, had to be kept in a home as a child. Both have been beaten down by life and they meet at Kevin’s run-down flat many years later:

The rain came down hard, drilling the metal garbage tin, rising up like white fur from the slabs of the concrete that made up the patio, spiking off the arm of the plastic lawn chair. Kevin unwrapped the bologna and, peeling off the wax rind, dropped each slice in the sizzling margarine. (259)

The embarrassment they feel at the uneasiness of being together is replaced by a concentration on objects (their conversation revolves around a frying pan). These are all very clear cases of ekphrases, literary representations of visual art. Ekphrasis is a mode of narrative which speaks to and for works of art, not only about them (Heffernan 1993, 7): it is the “art of describing works of art, the verbal representation of visual representation” (1-2). Its difference from pictorialism is that the latter “represents natural objects and artefacts, not art.” Ekphrasis represents pictures. And in this case, pictures which represent photographs, which look like photographs, as is the case with hyperrealism.

Whenever there is a shock experienced by the characters it is associated with a certain kind of brightness, a colour, a piece of clothing that assaults the characters’ memories persistently after seeing it. Scenes in Alligator are transformed into “metal experiences,” also plastic and glass: electrified fences, coins, saltshakers, plastic nozzles, meat in fridges, sun striking the doors of cars, the remains of food on a dish, bottles: precisely the icons that hyperrealist writers have painted over and over again. There are too many coincidences to be overlooked. Coincidences in subject-matter, method and purpose, even ethics. One could even say that Lisa Moore is establishing an open dialogue between her strategies of written composition and the pictorial approach to reality that has become the trademark of hyperrealism. She has gone beyond fiction to converse with visual art.

Hyperrealism is a style of painting, although some painters and critics consider it a proper artistic movement, which seeks a perfection of resolution above all other painterly interests (Head 2009, 16). [12] Hyperrealists seek to achieve a hypnotic sense of objective presence. They want to make the real and the illusory indiscernible: reality in their paintings looks like a photograph. The photograph is indeed their technical starting point and from that primal source, they enrich its photographic reality, they make it more palpable, larger, impossible to obviate. The real is translated onto the canvas through the camera and then it is “photographed” by painting it. They make of minimal spaces and objects magnificent feats of physicality. Some say their work is more realistic than photography. They do not leave marks of brush strokes on the canvas; functionality is emphasized. They are said to be an outgrowth of the photorealist movement which started in the 1960’s especially in America, whose subject-matter was mainly cars, motorcycles, diners, fast-food emporiums, etc. They believed that their work should adhere strictly to the information found in the photo, as the photo was the object to imitate because in their time it was the supreme reality. They zoomed in on shop windows and through doorways. Most of the time they approached a culturally charged subject matter (American everyday objects) while retaining the objective stance: their aim to reveal banality and beauty, but also address the industrial wastelands of our civilization. Some well-known photorealists are Richard Estes, Ralph Goings, Charles Bells, John Baeder, Tom Blackwell, et al. [13] (Fig. 2 and 3)

Then again, at the beginning of the 21st century painters from a number of nationalities mainly exhibiting in One Plus Gallery in London, England, formed a movement called “Exactitude.” They showed a similar approach to reality to that of the photorealists, but this time they expanded their techniques and their range of subjects. They abandoned their fidelity to the photograph too. They added more detail than any photo would ever show and from the emphasis on urban wastelands and American cultural icons, they would move on to other less panoramic views in order to bring the contemporary commonplace to our attention. A certain amount of explicative literature has been gathered by them and about them. Certainly, the language painters and visual critics have used to describe their hyperrealistic methods and philosophy helps us to understand better the artistic qualities displayed by Lisa Moore in Alligator.

Figure 2-Ralph GoingsFigure 2. Ralph Goings. “Double Ketchup.” 2006, Pigmented Inkjet on rag paper. 22×32.75 in. Edition of 30.

Figure 3.- Randy Dudley, Coney Island Creek at Corpse Ave, 1988Figure 3. Randy Dudley. “Coney Island Creek at Corpse Ave.” 1988, Oil on Canvas. 28 1/2 x 54 in.

One of their maxims is that things deprived of their functions and of their context reveal their real status: “A thing stripped of its real function […] revealed to me the poetry of reflection, distortion and light!” says Dutch painter Tjalf Sparnaay (2002, 34). For him, the object is explored and discovered down to the smallest detail: “Under the realistic surface of this painting is the soul of the object, and essence we were never aware of before” (Introduction). He usually paints fried eggs, banana peels, half-eaten food, dishwashers, packaged meat, etc. He tries to find beauty in ordinariness and is fascinated by banal subjects unrelated to mainstream aesthetic traditions, the question being “is this thing really so ordinary?”:

Clean Crockery! A fresh start, gleaming as if nothing has happened, ready to be dirtied again. But then that is the whole point of crockery —and of the dishwasher. We are happy with it, although we never take the trouble to see how nice it really is. So I’ve done that for you. Our domestic and eating tools shine in all their clean-lined stupidity. (2002, 56). (Fig. 4)

Fig. 4-Sparnaay-DishwasherFigure 4. Tjalf Sparnaay. “Vaatwasser” (“Dishwasher”). 1998, oil on canvas, 185 x125 cm.

When trivial objects are contemplated in their timelessness, we obtain a renewed sense of reality:

Time stands still when I place these objects in a classical arrangement, removed from the context of their day-to-day surroundings. Ideally, this sense of timelessness is the way in which my technique is close to the 17th century Dutch tradition” (

Sparnaay talks back to classical painters by having their iconography transformed into a consumerist product, his most famous painting being that of “Meisje Van Vermeer in Plastic”, a version of Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring” wrapped in plastic and with a price tag (Fig. 5) (see /overview/meisje_vermeer.html).

Figure 5-Tjalf-Sparnaay-MeisjeVanVermeerInPlasticFigure 5. Tjalf Sparnaay. “Girl with a Pearl Earring in Plastic”. 2002, oil on canvas, 75 x 60 cm.

These painters share an acute awareness of the visual overload in our contemporary society, but they accept the ubiquity of consumer products and attempt to create new relationships with them: “The visual overload we are exposed to day in, day out, has deprived us of the ability to look “purely”, in the same pure way a child, for instance, looks at reality. The visual harmony of things is dictated not, as consumer society would have us believe, by perfection, but by imperfection, idiosyncrasy and unpredictability.” (Sparnaay 2002, 46).

Another hyperrealist, Cynthia Poole, says:

Many of the pictures are of chocolate bars and crisp packets, either in newsagents’ displays or in vending machines. I like their vivid colour and strident competitiveness. These objects are normally only perceived as signage, their actual visual qualities, particularly in combination, are invisible —yet they make up much of the visual fabric of contemporary life. […] Again, that captivating combination of ordinary objects, vivid colours, and strong signage. Still close-cropped, taking still life outside into the larger urban context. [14]

Cynthia Poole is interested in the surfaces and signage of everyday things, mass-market, consumer items, so that she can rescue them from our familiarity with them. She thinks of her work as “contemporary still life.” (Fig. 6)

Figure 6-Cynthia Poole -DisplacedMintsIIFigure 6. Cynthia Poole. “Displaced Mints II.”2011. Acrylic on canvas. 100 x 120 cm.

Thus, they promote a sense of seeing anew through an intense gaze at objects that are otherwise background and meaningless. Their aim is to activate a sense of visual excitement with our immediate environment (Clive Head 2009, 12). They share a common optimism “which asserts humanity’s ability to create beautiful objects” (10). Sometimes they represent reality in an almost forensic way, like Vania Comoretti; [15]  their purpose being to bring clarity and focus to our lives, suspend disbelief, realize meaning in the mundane. Sparnaay claims that: “As a painter I seek my personal reality in almost trivial subjects. […] even a till receipt offers a voyage of discovery.” (2002, 102).

They also like to experiment with the borderline of meaning: how close does a close-up have to be before becoming blurred and decontextualized?:

I like to arrange the objects in a ‘modern’ way: thanks to the camera, we are overwhelmed by images; we are used to seeing multiple views of the same thing. […] I am also interested in the close crop: how close can you go before the composition becomes entirely abstract, or the context incomprehensible? (Cynthia Poole at 382&Object=#Bio)

They sometimes openly manifest that theirs is not an art of social illustration or comment (Head 2009, 10-12), it is not an art which raises issues, or cultivates irony. [16]  Their dedication is to a world that has already shaped its identity; that is, there is no troubled relationship with “objective reality.” They say, we see what others miss and then make it compelling (Fig. 7).

Most of these painters are interested in a corner and not in the big picture, not in the architectonics of place and the archways of biography or feeling but, like Lisa Moore, only in that restricted visual space (or object) our eyes can apprehend with intensity. [17] They wish to possess the world and remove it from chaos (Head 2009, 12), or what is the same, from time. The world, or better, certain parts of the world are presented in a state of permanence, their object apparently, as Jean Baudrillard (1976, 1018) had claimed, “to enclose the real in a vacuum, to extirpate all psychology and subjectivity in order to represent pristine objectivity.” This project was common, for example, to the Nouveau Roman. It was an attempt to elide meaning by exhibiting the attrezzo of a meticulous reality.

Figure 7- TomMartin-OneofFiveFigure 7. Tom Martin. “One of Five.” 2009, Acrylic on panel, 90 x 90 cm.

Hyperrealism has sometimes been harshly criticized for being an art without soul, without a transformational end, that is, it has been regarded as unable to awaken consciences. Hyperrealist ethics, an extreme commitment to the reproduction of reality, seems not to be enough. After all, so-called “objective realism” has been downgraded from the early 20th century. Is this just art for art’s sake and therefore just barren aesthetics? Perhaps we are still clinging to a very limited definition of aesthetics, forgetting its capacity of awakening us into the qualities of the world. Or, could we say that hyperrealism represents the aggressive triviality of modern life and that therefore, Lisa Moore´s method liberates her portrait of contemporary St. John’s from all duty to depict inner states or to raise social issues?

Is the effect “glacial”, as some have said? Hyperrealists have been accused of not trying to depict inner states, to eliminate the presence and the interpretation of the painter. These questions about artistic positioning, as well as about method and subject-matter, bear on the impulse which generates Lisa Moore´s novel: her penchant for the still life, her close-ups of objects from kitchens and restaurant tables, her insistence on the city reflections on cars and windows, her habit of rendering people (characters) as patches of colours. The prominence of the surfaces of everyday consumer products turns her novel into a hybrid form: “The meticulous investigation of the events in a minimal space” as Vania Comoretti says of her work.

The way the biographies of the characters shape up in the novel is inextricably linked to their perceptions of a world made of glass, of metal. But do we perceive it as lacking in depth? Indeed, as in the case of Madeleine, there is a hitch between the character’s aims and their actual experiences; their sensorial input sends them off their tracks. Colleen, a young woman who wishes to act against the environmental destruction of developers in Newfoundland is caught out when she pours sugar into the fuel tanks of some bulldozers which belong to a business man in St. John’s. She wanted to save the Newfoundland pine marten from extinction. Her meeting with the judge is put in these terms:

THE ELEVATOR DOORS fling open and Colleen sees a judge heading toward her from the end of a long hallway. He’s in full stride, forehead first, the arms of his black robes billowing. The reflection from a tube of fluorescent ceiling light runs over his oily bald head like a charging train […] Colleen looks at the judge’s reflection in the brass panels of the elevator. His eyebrows hang down into his watery eyes. His face is warped in the polished metal. (18-9)

Just after this view, a whiff of perfume hits her and she immediately remembers a gift package of four bottles of Aqua Velva that she gave to David, her stepfather, for Christmas. The relationship of Colleen with her stepfather —the most important familial tie she’s ever had— will be told from now on through this object.

The Aqua Velva was the first gift Colleen had ever picked out by herself. A tower of boxes ingeniously piled one on top of the other, each with a corner slightly off-kilter so the stack rose like a spiral staircase. There were giant Christmas bulbs hanging from the rafters, carols bubbling wordlessly through the overhead speakers, shoppers in bright coats rushing forward and away like the bits of coloured glass in a kaleidoscope (20).

Before and after this passage, people seen at the supermarket are described within a dynamics of visual pyrotechnics. They become shreds of colours, the buttons on their clothes blinking: suddenly a close-up shows us the head of an obese woman in a wheelchair. “The grooves made by her comb were still visible and the pink of her scalp showed through.” (21)

How can Colleen remember the past in such a visual literality? Narrative is supposed to be the main medium to transform reality into psychological information, i.e., useful, therapeutic, but here narrative becomes a static medium more akin to a certain style of painting. Also, characters only remember themselves seeing something, their past only becoming remembrance through the visibility of objects. This approach gives a certain vision of identity. The self is defined as more punctual and instantaneous than narrative oriented; it is not given real agency. The cologne is the last agent in the chapter which tells about Colleen’s relationship with her stepfather:

The cologne eventually made its way up to the cupboard under the sink in the guest bathroom, behind the pipes, containers of Comet, cleaning rags. It remained there, even after David died, the plastic window of the box covered in a fur of dust (31).

The presence of this object permeates at least three chapters, but it does not crown an important episode in Colleen’s life. The cologne is placed outside a gigantic mechanism of causes and effects, rescued from a then-and-then narrative, from any kind of purposeful biographical arrangement. As a consequence of the high status given to the sense of sight, the narrative becomes the story of how objects put their imprint on us, how they assail us: in fact, everything else is defocalized by the spell that a banal element casts on us. It definitely blocks our reading habit of uniting objects and symbols: although the bottles of cologne can indeed be considered to stand for disappointment and forgetfulness, that dusty box that is waiting for our look there in the bathroom is not totally subservient to the character’s mental summary of her past. The visuality of the package challenges the passing of time, it refuses to be made absent, it makes the reality of feelings, the crazy turmoil of experience, recede, become tangential. It is as if the narrative proper, with its incertitude and all too human mistakes, would lie far away, muted.

An art critic said: “Stories may be told about animals, or even inanimate objects, but most Western narrative art depicts the vicissitudes of individuals in human form: men, women, children and the gods who take on their semblance” (Langmuir 2003, 11). Certainly here, humans seem to be more absent than objects, their burning wishes and fulfilments swallowed by a whirlpool, sent back in another direction, inapprehensible, unmanageable. In contrast, the permanence of everyday, commonplace objects becomes too familiar, almost threatening. And this method of composing a novel certainly reflects the way characters think of themselves. Beverly, Colleen´s mother, says:

She had come to think of life not as a progression of days full of minor dramas, some tragedy, small joys, and carefully won accomplishments, as she figures most people think of life —but rather a stillness that would occasionally be interrupted with blasts of chaos. (46) (my emphasis)

Alligator takes on the nature of the still life as a painting genre, and when it moves beyond it into a temporal dimension, the world of the characters explodes with grief and physical pain, like Frank, who is literally burned alive, one of the most horrifying sights we are made to look at in the novel. We see how his skin is transformed by the effects of fire; it is one of the climaxes of the novel rendered in descriptive slow down. The acts of perception of each character seem to originate in different dimensions of existence, there seems to be no thread that connects their personal circumstance so that we can reach a common platform for social analysis. The very idea of cruelty embodied in the dehumanized Russian exile Valentine, who sets a house and Frank himself on fire, is put in the background in view of the narrator’s fascination with the transformations of Frank’s body in the flames.

As in hyperrealism painting, in Alligator we have an altered state of reality through a meticulous depiction, taking human observation of the visible to an almost impossible realm. [18] But does this heightening of visibility inevitably provoke a trivialization of humanity? Is it a flat, clean, and thrilling art where the image is liberated from all metaphysical troubles?

Characters in Alligator are dissociated from large-scale setting and attached to common-place “universal” objects: crockery, cars, gifts, consumer items. These objects seem to bulge out of the page and they are presented to us at critical moments for the characters. They become pivotal and replace the role that psychological discourse often plays in fiction. The characters’ bond to the appearance of objects intensifies their isolation, trapped as they are by their overinflated visual perceptions. As a consequence of their fascination with the “outwardness” of objects, the idea of collective —of a common experiential space— is difficult to assemble or imagine in a novel where characters are given a more sensorial than social existence.

This narrative environment close to ekphrasis prevents the past from being memorialized. It cannot be passed to others as a legacy because it creates situations that are outside time. It precludes the possibility of offering a regional representational continuum made up of images that could be regarded as the epitome of Newfoundland, powerful as its iconicity has been historically in the literature of the province. In Alligator we find recognizable geographical and cultural facts of St. John’s, its streets, institutions, businesses, tourism, although the overall impression readers assimilate is that of the bleak realities of a city overridden by greed and short-sighted development practices. However, close attention to the dynamics of the novel prevent us from giving primordial importance to an interpretation revolving around loss or dilution of cultural identity. This is a fact at the start of the novel and the tone is not elegiac. Life is not seen as a collective enterprise and the transmission of information between individuals is not effected through storytelling; [19] there is either the isolation of intense perceptions, often happening in miniature domestic spaces, or an exposure to the violent realities of the world through the internet. The novel opens with a teenager, Colleen, watching an accident during a stunt performance with alligators in Louisiana; she then watches a man’s beheading on the internet while she eats a sandwich. In the unobserved intimacy of her room she can view the world’s detritus.

Rancière defined aesthetic and political communities in the quotation that opened this article. Through tactics similar to those of hyperrealist painters, Alligator shows us that the “sensory fabric” (Rancière 56) that characters share is personal and untransferable and if there is to be a community of sensations, it lies in those objects that everyone shares nowadays, objects that accompany us when we eat, watch TV, or shop at a mall. The second quote opening this article by hyperrealist painter Cynthia Poole attests the validity of that idea. This is the collective enterprise, “the distribution of the sensible” that Rancière alluded to, a globalized reality wedged into little worlds that, like Newfoundland, not so long ago were very different.

Another strategy which overrides the evocation of the uniqueness of geography —and the notion of connectedness among individuals in a community—, consists of forcing the reader to reconsider the status of narrative as process or plot by creating suspense through images unaided by any rationalization. Lacerating memories retain their physicality and cannot be appeased by the comforts of narrative: narratives are therapeutic, they tie things up. In a different kind of adventure —closer to the ecstatic nature of visual art—, Moore, like the hyperrealist painters, brings clarity of vision into focus by the isolation of detail. Moore makes us look at objects purely, as was Tjalf Sparnaay’s desire. There seems to be a resistance to take a step further than the impact caused by an assailing stimulus. Alligator teaches us to embark on an absolute concentration on what the eye receives. Like hyperrealist painting, it alters our sensory perceptions of objects around us; we start noticing them and pausing on them once we are out of the novel. She concentrates on the defocalizing power of a random element that does not fit within the machinery of life. The power of sight dismisses the significance of plot. By doing this, Moore makes problematic the conventional bond between image and message in narrations by showing us that the power of sight may reduce everything else to insignificance, to fuzziness. The paradoxes of hyperrealist art are the same paradoxes implicit in Moore’s style: does it give an intimate or a detached vision? Is her rendering of reality matter-of-fact or hallucinatory? Are objects reliable or menacing? This is a kind of psychic ambush, but it certainly does not foster a sedate or stultifying approach to reality, as some critics have claimed about hyperrealism.

The novel does show some concern with the modern overexposure to images, a problem which deeply troubled Sontag and Rancière, disturbed as they were by our “chronic voyeuristic relation to the world which levels the meaning of all events” (Sontag 1977, 11, 28 and 30; Rancière 2009, 87). Photography negates the ephemeral quality of an event and once it makes everything permanent, the fact of considering one thing important and another trivial becomes arbitrary; discrimination is often beside the point. These critics have sensed the moral problems resulting from our saturation with the image, with the photograph; the analgesic effect of living in a world made up of overpowering visual display. At one point in the novel, Madeleine, the film maker, comes across a digital photograph of a naked man with his cuffed hands over his genitals. She is deeply shocked:

She brought the picture close to her face to see if she could see pixels, how the colour had been reproduced; she tried to understand the image. A blooming horror made her skin prickle; what was this photograph? It was a homemade joke about torture, folksy and kitsch, full of abject glee and hatred. She had left the egg boiling. The egg was boiling over. She went back to the kitchen and put the paper on the table. The shock of the photograph receded; shock smacks and recedes. She would not let herself think the word evil. The egg was rubbery. The photograph was evil. (170-71)

In this excerpt and the text that follows, we realize that extreme cruelty is unavoidably implicated and overridden by the little urgencies in our daily life. Madeleine soon forgets about the Iraqi prisoner, even after she notices his broken shoulder.

Although characters are occasionally allowed brief glimpses of the pain of others, Moore does not bear in the novel any representational burden, neither from the icons that may represent Newfoundland’s culture nor from an overly exhibitionist capitalist system. Thus, she somehow questions Sontag’s negative ethical interpretations of the overexposure to photographs that citizens in the first world are inevitably subjected to. Like hyperrealist painters, she has turned this overload of images of commercial items into a visual gift which can work toward creativity in art. There is celebration rather than rejection: of shapes and colours, also an impulse to foster a capacity for acute visual focus. Time and again in her novel we realize she does not show impatience with the image, that her approach is not fatigued or mournful, nostalgic for a time where the world was not so imaged-choked.

In Alligator people are defined for what they are, a portable kit of images. With them we try to possess the past and grapple with the present (Sontag 1977, 8). This definition of humankind rooted in the sensory does not mean that the novel’s final statement is to opt for visual entertainment removed from social discord. [20] There is deep reverberation beyond the sensorial. The emotionally neutral temperature of the still life in its coolness and detachment in fact intensifies the heated chaotic state of discomposure that the characters are experiencing. The intractability of reality, the resistance of objects and circumstances to bend to the characters’ purposes or understanding is a basic factor in realizing that the relationship between characters and objects is not one-way road.

There is another dimension added to this celebratory mode: all the characters seem to be spectators rather than actors. They do try to become agents in their own lives but cannot help behaving only as viewers. They build private spaces within which to be able to build protection against aging, failure, poverty, loneliness. Walter Benjamin (1936) and Susan Buck-Morss (1992) described a mental state where the individual, by looking at something other than himself, lets this otherness, usually inhospitable, invade his senses. As a result of this saturation of the senses, the powers for thought are paralysed. This understanding of reality as shock was explored by Benjamin to explain how modern society has created artistic mechanisms and commodities (phantasmagoria) that protect people from the excessive energies of external stimuli and from the harshness of industrial societies. The creation of cushioned spaces in the professions and in art is further developed by Buck-Morss, who located the threat of bewilderment and pain in the relationship between humans and the image. According to her, we possess a synaesthetic system through which the images we store in our memory get connected with external stimuli, thus creating an internal language that cannot be conceived of in conceptual terms (see Sarikartal 2005, 106). This language threatens to betray the language of reason, endangering its philosophic sovereignty. What is absorbed unintentionally resists intellectual comprehension, it baffles notions of knowledge as comprehension and confers instead climactic status on states of bewilderment. As Susan Buck-Morss explains, “all of the senses can be acculturated […]. But however strictly the senses are trained […] all of this is a posteriori. The senses maintain an uncivilized trace, a core resistance to cultural domestication […] they remain part of the biological apparatus” (1992, 6).

This existential stance undermines the polarity used against hyperrealist painting: the accusation that there is a prioritizing of aesthetic creation over reflexive criticality. Moore shows us in her novel pop-up images and the fascinating labyrinths of the mundane. Yes, she portrays characters as spectators, however, she shows the dangers of spectatorship. Characters keep trying to make cushioned versions of their reality that would fit their purposes, yet they live in a world of digitality which inhibits metaphor and transcendence. The digitalization of reality itself troubles definitions of what is real. Moore shows a world that is itemized through the image (see Sontag 1977, 22-3) and novelizes what to expect after humanity has gone through the saturation point, the image-choked world Sontag referred to. The consequences were diagnosed by Sontag (1977, 28): “The arbitrariness of considering some elements as trivial and some as important has been superceded long ago.” When all events are levelled, the result is lack of empathy: the world in Alligator has withdrawn the lines between the extreme and the trivial, between the relevant and the inconsequential or frivolous, the cruel and the desirable.

If we bring to mind how the notion of “Newfoundlandness” is usually codified, we perceive a marked contrast between Lisa Moore’s literary practices in Alligator and some manifestoes of national or regional identity, such as the one previously quoted, Extremities, which explained shared objectives by writers bearing witness to the same landscape and history. This declaration revolved around notions of extreme geography and extreme experiences, however, Alligator is constructed upon a foregrounding of globalized consumer objects.

Certainly Alligator’s message is not that geography is destiny, an idea which permeates much of the literature by Newfoundland writers and others writing about Newfoundland; the novel is almost a visual treatise on the materiality of new capitalist spaces. Alligator also runs against the idea of constructions of Newfoundland as a therapeutic space, where victims of capitalist modernity can pull themselves together and recover meaning. [21] Characters are not cultural artefacts and the plot is not contaminated by the stitches of historicity because the arbitrary intersections of emotions and circumstance provoke not so much a meditation on cultural heritage as an engagement in a densely displayed net of affective intensities. Moore’s technique prevents the past from being memorialized: she works on a common contemporaneous fabric of sensation that is often unnoticed but that nevertheless reaches everywhere.

How do we describe place now? Lisa Moore has shifted our ocular bondage to place from an evocation of landscape or cityscape to the hypnosis produced by readymade objects which do not transmit transcendental meaning or collective memory but a common sensory fabric, a certain quality of palpability devoid of conciliatory epilogues. [22]

—María Jesús Hernáez Lerena



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San Sebastian-2014
María Jesús Hernáez Lerena is an Associate Professor of American and Canadian literatures at the University of La Rioja (Spain). She is author of the books Exploración de un Género Literario: Los Relatos Breves de Alice Munro (1998), Short Story World: The Nineteenth-Century American Masters (2003), and co-author of Story Time: Exercises in the Study of American Literature for Advanced Students of English (1999) with Julieta Ojeda and James Sullivan. She co-edited the volume Canon Disorders: Gendered perspectives on Literature and Film in Canada and the United States (2007) with Eva Darias Beautell. She is the former editor of Journal of English Studies (University of La Rioja) and teaches graduate courses on Canadian literature within a doctoral program awarded a quality distinction by the Spanish Ministry of Education. She has published essays on English, American and Canadian writers such as Wyndham Lewis, Sarah Orne Jewett, Alice Munro, Carol Shields, Douglas Glover, Katherine Govier, Barbara Gowdy, Michael Crummey, etc. Some of her articles and interviews can be found in the journals Toronto University Quarterly, Canadian Literature, British Journal of Canadian Studies, Arc Poetry Magazine, Wyndham Lewis Annual, Atlantis, Journal of Tourism and Cultural Change, etc., and in the books Visions of Canada Approaching the Millennium (1999); Wyndham Lewis the Radical: Essays on Literature and Modernity (2007); Canada Exposed/ Le Canada à découvert (2009); Unruly Penelopes and the Ghosts: Narratives of English Canada (2011); Short Story Theories: A Twenty-First-Century Perspective (2012). Forthcoming is her edited book: Pathways of Creativity in Contemporary Newfoundland and Labrador.


Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Description and narration are not clear‐cut categories, there is usually instability of their boundaries. Nevertheless, some texts show a marked tendency to one or the other direction. See Heffernan (1993, 6).
  2. Some of the recurrent topics in Newfoundland literature have been the idea of extreme geography, rugged individuals, fraternal communities in the outports, a tradition of orality, and loss of nationhood. See O´Flaherty (1979), Adrian Fowler (1985), Seifert (2002), or MacLeod (2006).
  3. Lisa Moore belongs to a young established generation of Newfoundland writers who, after Wayne Johnston, have become well‐known beyond their region. Together with other writers such as Michael Winter, Michael Crummey, Kenneth Harvey, Ed Riche, Jessica Grant, Joel Thomas Hynes, etc., they represent the literary present and future in Newfoundland.
  4. Rancière poses that the intolerable image, the image which shows pain or infliction of pain does not necessarily imply or call for action or engagement, since we live “a single regime of universal exhibition”: “the mere fact of viewing images that denounce the reality of a system already emerges as complicity with this system” (2009, 85).
  5. Fernández Prieto (1994, 124‐25) claims that there is no identity previous to the act of narration. In order to achieve a sense of the self, we have to become a narrator and construct a plot in which we fashion some of our pasts as characters. Giddens (1991, 54) asserts that we are not to find a person’s identity in behavior, or in the others’ reactions, but in his or her ability to keep a particular narrative going. The self is no longer a list of qualities, but a narrator in search of coherence.
  6. Melnyk (2003, x) is another author who has reflected on this dilemma: “We know that reality is separate from language and beyond language, although language claims to offer us the truth of reality. At the same time we are not comfortable in a reality beyond the explanations of our language. If we find ourselves in a situation that is unexplainable we become either fearful or we struggle to find within our language some explanation. Trapped in the discourse created by our culture and our time, we are lost without it.”
  7. Photographs make us confuse beauty with truth, according to Sontag (1977, 112): “the truths that can be rendered in a dissociated moment, however significant or decisive, have a very narrow relationship with the needs of understanding.”
  8. See Elizabeth Bowen (1994, 262) and Michael Trussler (1996, 558).
  9. Well‐known examples are the pear tree in Katherine Mansfield’s story “Bliss” (1920) or the snow in Joyces’ story “The Dead” (1914).
  10. See Tracy Whalen’s (2008) view on the scope of Lisa Moore’s rendition of hyper‐sensory details.
  11. See Takacs for a definition of the hyperreal in the context of digital art and the contemporary indiscernibility between the actual and the virtual.
  12. See Clive Head (2009, 8‐19) and John Russell Taylor (2009, 20‐53) for a manifesto of hyperrealist principles. Some hyperrealist painters of a variety of nationalities are Tom Martin, Tjalf Sparnaay, Cynthia Poole, Pedro Campos, Ben Schonzeit, Paul Bèliveau, Cesar Santander, Steve Smulka (Fig. 1), etc. Literature on and reproductions of hyperrealist paintings can be found at the following websites: http://www.justart‐;;; http://hyper‐ Apart from Bèliveau, there are other Canadian hyperrealists who use the photograph as their starting point: Robert Potvin, Wayne Mondock, Merv Brandel, Olaf Schneider, Brandi Deziel, Evan Penny (sculptor), etc. however, not all their work would be closely related to the hyperrealist impulse. In Newfoundland we can also find paintings by Helen Parsons Shepherd and Mary Pratt. Lisa Moore’s iconicity in Alligator, however, does not seem to be related to the Canadian painters but to less panoramic artists who obsessively represent certain kinds of objects mainly related to an urban American tradition.
  13. See Louis K. Meisel (2002) for an introduction by Linda Chase and for excellent reproductions of paintings by most photorealists.
  14. In‐Info.cfm?ArtistsID=382&InTheNews=1&Object= #Press (Last retrieved April 2, 2012).
  15. See her pictures at (Last retrieved April 2, 2012).
  16. An exception would be Denis Peterson, whose astonishing paintings of poverty and marginality pose as call‐to‐action photographs. See, for example, “A Tombstone Hand and a Graveyard Mind” in his exhibition “Don’t Shed No Tears” at http://www.denispe
  17. These painters had a hostile or rather indifferent critical response. According to Clive Head, the brainchild of Exactitude in Europe, “The art world is predominantly a place for political or social pronouncement, not a forum for aesthetic development” (2009, 14). After so much conceptual art, they think of their realism today in terms of avant‐garde. There are websites devoted to them which engage in making this kind of art known to the public. See, for example, “Deviant Art” (http://hyper‐ Clive Head (2009, 18) claims that “Exactitude occupies a very particular stance within the contemporary scene. Undeniably rooted in their own personal creativity, these artists nevertheless present a collective position against the philosophical underpinnings of the mainstream. What might be seen as a conventional pursuit in another era could be regarded as radical in today’s context. The failure of the media and large art institutions to embrace this art only intensifies its outsider status, consolidating it as an avant‐garde movement.” A return to representation was seen as a retrograde step. See also Russell Taylor (2009, 33‐45) for a discussion on the criticism to this art and a meditation on the use of photography in painting.
  18. “There are certain qualities produced by the camera that do not exist in reality; they are only present in the hyper‐realist world of photography”, says Simon Hennessey, a hyperrealist painter who exaggerates the qualities in conventional photographic portraits of people. (Bollaert 2009, 144).
  19. This is somehow surprising for an author coming from Newfoundland, an island who has historically possessed an acute sense of independence based on a distinctive cultural legacy and a political past separate from Canada. Moore’s style is at odds with usual modes of transmission of cultural memory, namely storytelling, usually revolving around episodes of the national past, sense of place, the rural idyll (or tragedy), and on a reassuring sense of human connectedness in small communities.
  20. See T. J. Demos (2010) for a meditation of the status of storytelling in contemporary art and cultural industry.
  21. See Danielle Fuller (2004) and Ian McKay (1993) for the ideological dangers of romantic constructions of Newfoundland and Nova Scotia. A notorious case is Annie Proulx’s novel The Shipping News, harshly criticized in Newfoundland for its inaccurate and stereotyped representations of the place (see Tracy Whalen 2004).
  22. An earlier version of this paper was published as “Still Lifes: The Extreme and the Trivial in Lisa Moore’s Novel Alligator” in the electronic journal Canada and Beyond 1, 1‐2 (2011). http://www.canada‐and‐
Nov 112014

AlastairReidAlastair Reid — 1926-2014


Scottish poet Alastair Reid died on September 21st of this year at the age of 88, just three days after the naysayers for an independent Scotland won the day and the sunstruck madmen of Reid’s poem “Scotland” crawled home in defeat. It seems fair to say Reid’s poem — with its direct title, its landscape in high relief, and its dour fish-shop matron — stands as one of the poet’s definitive takes on the culture of his homeland.


It was a day peculiar to this piece of the planet,
when larks rose on long thin strings of singing
and the air shifted with the shimmer of actual angels.
Greenness entered the body. The grasses
shivered with presences, and sunlight
stayed like a halo on hair and heather and hills.
Walking into town, I saw, in a radiant raincoat,
the woman from the fish-shop. ‘What a day it is!’
cried I, like a sunstruck madman.
And what did she have to say for it?
Her brow grew bleak, her ancestors raged in their graves
as she spoke with their ancient misery:
‘We’ll pay for it, we’ll pay for it, we’ll pay for it!’

In the referendum of September 18th, good money was bet that Reid’s woman represented Scotland well enough to prevail — her brow bleak, her ancestors raging, her misery ancient — and that the optimistic Home-Rule voters would not prevail. They did not go down in flames; perhaps their failure was more sodden. Certainly “We’ll pay for it” was the rallying cry for those who urged a No vote and who implored Scottish voters to stick by the Queen.

QueenApparently, the Union needed Scotland, and vice versa.

But what of the Scottish landscape, in contrast to the taciturn Scottish character? “…the air shifted with the singing of actual angels. / Greenness entered the body. The grasses / shivered with presences, and sunlight / stayed like a halo on hair and heather and hills.” Reid  celebrated landscape.  How a poet capable of writing those lines can fade into the background on the stage of British poetry is a puzzle to me. In 1954, Selden Rodman wrote an introduction to Reid’s work for Poetry magazine in which he said, “There are echoes of Dylan Thomas and Auden….[Reid] stands among these gifted contemporaries as an equal, one of the few poets writing in English to promise a continuance of their original affirmation.”

ScotlandA view of the Scottish hills: “Greenness entered the body….”

Could it be that since much of Reid’s mid-career energy was spent on the translation of poets who wrote in Spanish — Borges, Neruda, Garcia Marquez, Vargas Llosa, Pacheco, Padilla — his relative obscurity as a poet in his own right was guaranteed? As with other poets in this Undersung series, Reid was not completely invested in his identity as a poet; his output of poetry was high-end but sporadic, his interests were broad, his wanderings wide, and his abilities as both essayist and translator loomed large enough to cast a shadow over his own talent as a poet. On the other hand, it might just be that Reid’s early ascendency was interrupted by something more sanguine, something described this way recently by the columnist Daniel Mendelsohn (himself a translator) in the June 3rd New York Times’ Book Review column, “Book Ends”:

As a critic, I’m often struck by the way in which so many successful writers settle into a groove by midcareer: Whatever marked them as special, new, or distinctive when they started — the “thing” that set them on their path — becomes, with time, a franchise; at worst, a straitjacket. By the end, most of us repeat ourselves. Very few — perhaps only the greatest — continue to grow.”

Over the years, Reid did not settle for a straitjacket; he wandered the world and grew as a writer, seldom repeating himself, accepting few of the categorical limitations that certain genres (and upbringings) usually insist upon us. He was restless, and his writing reflected it. He moved between poetry and prose, between memoir and travel writing and translation work and articles about sports — he even wrote two picture books for children.

He was born – his father a minister, mother a doctor – near Whithorn in the Galloway region of southwest Scotland in 1926, the year of Scotland’s debilitating General Strike, during which soldiers and tanks were used in the streets of Glasgow to disperse angry crowds of union men. The entire decade of the 20’s was one of mass emigration from Scotland, with families leaving behind high unemployment and miserable living conditions in order to head out for better highlands and lowlands in “the colonies”; the vision of so many people leaving home, longing to find a more comfortable life, might have contributed to Reid’s famously itinerant lifestyle.


“What drew me to writing was its portability,” he once wrote; “it requires essentially no more than a notebook and a pencil, and it allowed me to own my own time, to travel light, to come to rest anywhere….”

His poems often explore the pull away from, and eventual push back towards, home:

Whithorn Manse

I knew it as Eden,
that lost walled garden,
past the green edge
of priory and village;
and, beyond it, the house,
withdrawn, white,
one window alight.

Returning, I wonder,
idly, uneasily,
what eyes from inside
look out now, not in,
as once mine did,
and what might grant me,
a right of entry?

Is it never dead, then,
that need of an Eden?

Even this evening,
estranged by age,
I ogle that light
with a child’s greed,
wistfully claiming
lost prerogatives
of homecoming.

Reid understood that what the landscape offered and what the people offered could be radically different things. But he did find a number of places that came closer to what he was searching for, especially in the landscape and language of Spain and Latin America, and in the character of their people. It was this level of comfort that allowed him to focus on learning Spanish – to hunger for it, to eat it up and beg for more – and begin his highly-praised works of translation.

Over his lifetime Reid lived for extended periods in Majorca, Switzerland, Argentina, Chile, the Dominican Republic – on a ginger plantation – Mexico, England – in a houseboat on the Thames – and the Greenwich Village neighborhood of New York City, where he finally settled in (or was settled by old age) until his death. The obituary Charles McGrath wrote in The New Yorker three days after Reid’s death opens with this line: “The poet and translator Alastair Reid, who died on Monday at the age of eighty-eight, had itchy feet.” In his essay titled “Digging Up Scotland,” published in 1981 in The New Yorker, Reid makes clear that his restlessness had something to do with finding a place where he could “feel one” with his surroundings:

“I have a friend in Scotland, a painter,” he wrote, “who still lives in the fishing town he was born in, grew up in, went to school in, was married in, raised his children in, works in, and clearly intends to die in. I look on him with uncomprehending awe, for although I had much the same origins, born and sprouting in rural Scotland…I had in my head from an early age the firm notion of leaving….He has made his peace with place in a way that to me is, if not unimaginable, at least by now beyond me. ”

Reid seldom stayed in one place long enough to have what he considered a permanent address; his mail was delivered to the offices of The New Yorker, where he let stacks of it pile up for months. His unease with permanence is clearly visible in his poems, where two perceived opposites often pull against each other, interfering with any hope that the tug-of-war will be settled or the people involved come to rest, as seen in the opening stanzas of a poem titled “What Bones Say”:

The skeleton
is hardly a lesson
in human nature.

Similarly, stones
are the bones of landscapes,
and yet trees blossom

in contradiction.
We are much more
than our brittle topography.

In those lines, see how beautifully Reid handles the simple language – in the near-rhyme of “skeleton” with “lesson,” the full rhyme of “stones” with “bones,” and in the echo that chimes between “lesson,” “blossom” and “contradiction” – not overwhelming readers with musicality, but giving us just enough. I admire the courage he has to say something as large as “We are much more / than our brittle topography.” He approaches language the same way in the other poems transcribed here – the abundant alliteration in “Scotland” and its chiming verbs – “shimmer” and “shivered” – the triptych of “idly,” “eyes” and “inside” in “Whithorn Manse,” its full rhymes (“white” and “alight) and near-rhymes (“need,” “Eden” and “garden.”) Reid’s poems seem spoken at first, easy and conversational, but the music on which they rise is carefully and thoroughly composed.

In the same New Yorker essay mentioned above, Reid writes, “The natural world and the human world separated early for me. I felt them to be somehow in contradiction, and still do. The Scottish landscape – misty, muted, in constant flux and shift – intrudes its presence in the form of endlessly changing weather; the Scottish character, eroded by a bitter history and a stony morality, and perhaps in reaction to the changing turbulence of weather, subscribes to illusions of permanence, of durability, asking for a kind of submission, an obedience. I felt, from the beginning, exhilarated by the first, fettered by the second. Tramps used to stop at our house, men of the road, begging a cup of tea or an old shirt, and in my mind I was always ready to leave with them, because between Scotland and myself I saw trouble ahead.”

He traveled first to Spain; it was during his time in Majorca – six years, off and on — that he met and became friends with the poet Robert Graves (about whom I wrote in my Undersung article about poet-novelists.) Their friendship ended when Reid fell in love with – and ran away with, temporarily – Graves’s muse, Margot Callas. Though Callas eventually returned to Graves, the conversations and apprenticeship Reid once enjoyed with the older poet were finished. In an essay Reid wrote on the occasion of what would have been Graves’s 100th birthday, he chided Graves for having been “mired in domesticity” during his first marriage, but then Reid becomes more conciliatory, saying “The English have always kept Graves at a distance, as if he were an offshore island, out of the mainstream – something they often do with English writers who choose to live elsewhere and are still successful.”

MajorcaThe Majorca home of Robert Graves – “an offshore island, out of the mainstream”

The same might be said of Reid himself – an offshore island in the sea of British literature. His most important books are out of print; these include his poetry collection Oases; Inside Out: Selected Poetry and Translations; Outside In: Selected Prose; Whereabouts: Notes on Being a Foreigner; and Weathering: Poems and Translations. If you subscribe to The New Yorker, you’re in luck – he contributed articles and poems there for more than forty years, and my quick search of their archives produced 152 hits.

In addition to “Scotland,” Reid’s most anthologized poem is “Curiosity,” about a dog’s and cat’s (but mostly human’s) view of the old adage “Curiosity killed the cat,” with the poet coming down hard in favor of being curious. Click here to hear it read by Reid himself over at The Poetry Archive. Rather than transcribe the poem so you can read it, I hope you will finish this essay and then go over to The Poetry Archive to listen to it.  We’re lucky to have recordings of these poems(as well as three others) in Reid’s own voice, since it was voice that he valued above all other qualities in a poem.

In an essay about translating his friends Jorge Luis Borges and Pablo Neruda, he wrote, “I realized I couldn’t read a poem of Neruda’s simply as words put down on the page without hearing behind them his languid and caressing voice. The most important thing to me in translating these two poets was the sound of their voices in my memory, since this helped in finding my way in with the appropriate English….The key was voice.”

Keeping Quiet

Now we will count to twelve
and we will all keep still.

For once on the face of the earth,
let’s not speak in any language;
let’s stop for one second,
and not move our arms so much.

It would be an exotic moment
without rush, without engines;
we would all be together
in a sudden strangeness.

Fisherman in the cold sea
would not harm whales
and the man gathering salt
would look at his hurt hands.

Those who prepare green wars,
wars with gas, wars with fire,
victories with no survivors,
would put on clean clothes
and walk about with their brothers
in the shade, doing nothing.

What I want should not be confused
with total inactivity.
Life is what it is about;
I want no truck with death.

If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with death.
Perhaps the earth can teach us
as when everything seems dead
and later proves to be alive.

Now I’ll count up to twelve
and you keep quiet and I will go.

Pablo Neruda — from Extravagaria (translated by Alastair Reid)

He went on to say, “For me, Neruda’s poems were fundamentally voiced – spoken poems of direct discourse – his voice was, in a certain sense, the instrument with which he wrote.” Describing one lecture he went to at Queen Elizabeth Hall, Reid says Neruda’s voice “spread out like a balm over the English crowd; a magical sound, even without the thread of meaning.” [Note: my source for these quotations from the essay about Borges and Neruda was in Spanish – the translations are my own.]

1754-PABLO_NERUDA_5-630x350Pablo Neruda – “…his voice was, in a certain sense, the instrument with which he wrote.”

It was Reid who was instrumental in getting the work of both Neruda and Borges in front of English-speaking readers. About translating Borges, Reid was less lyrical than he was about Neruda: “Translating Borges was, for me, like learning a private language….” He refers to Borges’s skeptical and questioning tone, concluding that Borges’s poems were more interdependent than Neruda’s, linked as they were by a “recurring heraldry of symbols – chessboards, maps, knives, mirrors, coins, labyrinths, tigers, libraries….”

Reid and Borges

Reid (second from left) and Jorge Luis Borges (third from left)

One of Reid’s most interesting observations about Borges focused on his blindness: “After many conversations with Borges, from the most serious to the most entertaining, I came to the profound realization that for him, I existed only as a voice. Maybe this led me to the deep conviction that voice is the most long-lasting incarnation of my existence. Even more, it is in voices rather than photographs that the dead remain alive.”

borges-in-libraryJorge Luis Borges – “…for him, I existed only as a voice.”

At one point, Reid explains Borges’s style: “He spoke English with the respect a language well-known to him deserved, but within which he did not live – that is, with the controlled cadence of literature. On other occasions, in the company of Spanish-speakers, he was more playful, less solemn. Still, I think his bilingual upbringing gave him a sense of the arbitrary and fickle nature of language: a bilingual person is more aware of the gulf that exists between word and object than someone limited to a single language.”


Reid’s awareness of the strange nature of words and his innate playfulness (in Charles McGrath’s obituary write-up, Reid is remembered as “cheerful, funny, and irreverent, with high expressive eyebrows that were frequently squeezed together in amusement”) show up full force in his picture book Ounce Dice Trice, a collection of nonsense – that is, a collection of real but relatively unknown words – tantony, quicklings, moonglade, etc. – revealed to us in all their strangeness, the way a talented chef might reveal the secret ingredients of a favorite dish. In the book, Reid creates several imaginative ways of counting from one to ten without numerals (“Instant, distant, tryst, catalyst, quest, sycamore, sophomore, oculist, novelist, dentist” and “Ounce, dice, trice, quartz, quince, sago, serpent, oxygen, nitrogen, denim.” The words sound like they come straight off the playground. Of course, the whole point of the book is wordplay, emphasizing that “gulf between word and object” recognized by people who have learned more than one language. Illustrations by Ben Shahn make the book a collector’s item – previously out of print, it’s now available again thanks to the New York Review Children’s Collection.

Ben ShahnReid himself was a gongoozler….

Reid’s origins might have been provincial — even restrictive — but as he grew his poetry and prose became more and more cosmopolitan and expansive. He regarded translation as an act resembling “bewitchment,” and he wrote that the translation of someone else’s work required “not only reading it deeply and deciphering it, but climbing on top of the scenery backstage, up onto the supports and the scaffolding.”

I often wished while getting my MFA that the program I attended had offered a translation track. Translation seems to me one of the best ways – almost acrobatic, according to Reid — to capture and understand how a poem works. Reid understood the way a poem could float out over the reader “without the thread of meaning,” though with his own poetry we are lucky enough to find both meaning and music.

Poem without Ends

One cannot take the beginning out of the air
saying ‘It is the time: the hour is here’.
The process is continuous as wind,
the bird observed, not rising, but in flight,
unrealised, in motion of the mind.

The end of everything is similar, never
actually happening, but always over.
The agony, the bent head, only tell
that already in the heart the innocent evening
is thick with the ferment of farewell.

— Julie Larios


Julie Larios has contributed seven previous essays in her Undersung series for Numéro Cinq, highlighting the work of George Starbuck, Robert Francis, Josephine Jacobsen, Adrien Stoutenburg, Marie Ponsot, Eugenio Montale and The Poet-Novelist; her own poems have been featured in our pages as well. She is the recipient of an Academy of American Poets prize and a Pushcart Prize, and her work has been chosen twice for The Best American Poetry series.


Nov 102014

Sam-Savage-author-photoPhoto by Nancy Marshall

A common feature of the five prose novels is that  Savage assumes, without being presumptuous, that what he wants to get across about interior states can be told, despite the obstacle of language and in however provisional a fashion. Clearly his narrators don’t share that hard-won assurance, and we witness how their opinions often are not so much nuanced as worried down to a nub.
—Jeff Bursey

Layout 1

It Will End with Us
Sam Savage
Coffee House Press
Paper, 150 pp., $9.99


1.Sam Savage was born in South Carolina in 1940, and became visible as a novelist with his first prose work, Firmin: Adventures of a Metropolitan Lowlife (2006), published by Coffee House Press. (His first novel, The Criminal Life of Effie O.: An Entertainment [2005], is in verse). It is a first-person narrative told by a Boston-born rat, living in a bookstore, which can read, an ability that, unsurprisingly, ostracizes him from his fellows. This aptitude is insufficient to make him understandable to humans since he is not able to speak in a language they understand. Comic, at first, the tale darkens as the supports of life, such as family, shared experiences, finding someone to talk with openly and the bonds of community, depart or are denied, and the story moves into territory that is genuinely affecting without being sentimental. The Cry of the Sloth (2009), Glass (2011) and The Way of the Dog (2013) share those emotions as well as certain technical elements: one narrator, a restricted setting, a set of interconnected topics that are divulged slowly if incompletely, and exactitude of language.

In The Cry of the Sloth and Glass, instead of speech we are given typewritten letters and memoirs written by lonely people. Andrew Whittaker and Edna, respectively, sit and type whatever comes to mind, with a degree of articulateness that quickly shows itself as a disadvantage instead of an asset. Their precision, wit and energy provide no abiding pleasure or comfort and are useless when it comes to dealing with the real world, coupled as they are with obsessions, narrowness of vision and an isolating prickliness. Nothing good happens for Whittaker by the end; Edna has a moment of relief from the worst of her misery, but her ways of thinking will persist. In The Way of the Dog Harold Nivenson orders his thoughts on scraps of paper; most of his views are harsh about neighbours, former friends and others, but over the course of the novel a few people insert themselves into his life, against his will, and change things for the better, at least temporarily.

One might wonder if this is limited terrain. Savage addresses that in an interview with his editor, Chris Fischbach:

Chris Fischbach: Gilbert Sorrentino once said to me, “I just write the same book over and over. I don’t really have very much material.” Given the similarilies between Glass and your previous novel, Cry of the Sloth (the setting of each being a writer sitting at a typewriter in front of a window), would you say the same about yourself?

Sam Savage: I suppose that might be one of the reasons I like Sorrentino, that he keeps digging at the same vein. But I have to confess that I never noticed the similarities among his books, I just thought each time I opened one that here was another “vintage Sorrentino,” which was exactly what I wanted. Now that you bring it up, I suppose I would say the same thing about myself. Or maybe I write the same book over because I didn’t get it right the first time.

Savage persists, but his books do differ, and It Will End with Us is about more than it initially seems.


A common feature of the five prose novels is that Savage assumes, without being presumptuous, that what he wants to get across about interior states can be told, despite the obstacle of language and in however provisional a fashion (thus the revisiting of concerns, something present in the works of his contemporary, the sadly under-read Gabriel Josipovici.) Clearly his narrators don’t share that hard-won assurance, and we witness how their opinions often are not so much nuanced as worried down to a nub. Generally, the voice we spend so much time with is firmly located in an apartment or house set in a nameless suburb or city. The narrator of It Will End with Us, Eve Taggart, writes notes, though we’re not told to whom or for what purpose, on memories of her childhood in South Carolina. (In addition to being born in the same state as her creator, Eve shares her year of birth with him.)

She is not a first-time writer—“I once wrote an entire book that I called A History of My Suicides”—and this collection of reminiscences of the mid-20th century South, often of only one- or two-sentence paragraphs, are not strung together to present a clear history:

Now that I am at my desk again for more time than it takes to write a postcard, I am fond of mornings in particular, especially when the sky is clear and the white of the building across the way is splashed with sunlight, splashing back onto my face.

Writing on typing paper in pencil. A little something, even if only a sketch.

On the first page Eve reveals that this is not the first time she has tried to set down thoughts on what her childhood and family were like. “I wasn’t going to begin again, having stopped, apparently, and started up again, foolishly, too many times already, attempting to write about my family and Spring Hope and myself there with them and later there without them.” (The commas indicate lingering indecision.) We slowly learn about the gradual decline of her family: parents Iris and an unnamed father, both dead, and her two siblings, Edward (perhaps dead, perhaps missing) and Thornton. The family home in Spring Hope has flaking paint, holes in the screens and mushrooms growing out of the wood; the father runs a furnishings store and instead of being able to build upon the successes of past generations must, like his predecessors, start from the bottom up; the land the house is on, and in the region generally, is in rough shape.

Images of unpainted shacks and tumble-down sheds in small acres of poor-looking fields, mules in paddocks, hogs in makeshift slab pens, and strange dirty barefoot children my own age standing among the wandering chickens in the yards, looking up at our car, staring, unsmiling usually but sometimes waving, unsure, flow through my mind the way they flowed past the car.

I remember looking out the rear window at a cloud of dust curling behind us, and coming to a stop and the dust catching up with us and rolling over the car.

While the father runs a failing business, and spends more time dismantling parts of the house instead of fixing anything, the mother, Iris, an artist in her heart who favours lavender-coloured dresses, fills notebooks with poems that are seldom published. “I was fifteen when I finally understood that my mother’s poems were not literature,” Eve notes. These two people—one mercantile and brutal, the other not temperamentally equipped for a provincial, hardscrabble life—do not comprehend the extent of their personal decline nor that of the surrounding area, and consider themselves above others, passing this false notion on to their children. “I remember always knowing that we were superior to other families of our acquaintance,” (86), Eve writes; “I thought of us vaguely as ‘illustrious.’”. Yet the evidence of their true station is everywhere: tattered fabrics or chipped paint can seem irrelevant when placed among other considerations, but in this way Savage shows, before being explicit, how Eve’s life in Spring Hope started in ruin and became worse, though she herself may have escaped becoming either her mother or father.

Told through haphazard recollections, It Will End with Us portrays the Taggarts as troubled by the father’s offhand brutality (arguments with his sons, bloodying Eve by dragging her across a schoolyard) and the mother’s unraveling mind (tearing out her hair, and almost daring her husband to shoot her), located within dire economic and environmental conditions. The myth of the fertile South is replaced with the reality of a parched region losing its resources—dusty land can’t bear crops, neither Eve nor Thornton produce children (the family line likely expiring with their generation), and the crumbling family home a rebuke to the prosperous Big House frequently featured in Southern history. Savage’s foray into Southern fiction bears some resemblance to Faulkner in its capturing of the deterioration of a self-important family and its host culture, but in Eve there is a larger theme at work, to my mind, than that of the decline of the South. She does not look back with self-pity. Whether we can trust her is open to question.


Like Modernist and Postmodernist writers, Savage prefers to dislodge certainty from its purchase rather than provide sudden plot twists. Eve sums it up: “If I had to describe my situation in a word… it would be indeterminate” (italics in text). To unsettle the narrative, Savage supplies details that look unrelated and, more obviously, removes the possible validity of Eve’s memories when, alongside having her say she imagines this or that or repeatedly uses the phrase “I remember”—books by Joe Brainard (I Remember [1970]) and Georges Perec (I Remember [1978]) come to mind—he has her confess: “I suspect a number of my early memories might actually belong to Thornton or even to Edward, and I just took them over, ingested them, so to speak, after hearing one or the other talking about them.” Iris is the name attached to her dead mother and to “a phantasm of no fixed or definite shape that draws and clusters to itself a host of other images like filings to a magnet [that was] born with the first opening of my mind onto the world and will die with me, finally.”  The concrete world vanishes, the real world is subordinate to what the imagination constructs, and we are asked to accept, and trust, a simulacrum of recall. What can be trusted when the memory is Eve’s and yet not hers, and who is Eve, really?

The integrity of the main character and of the story told, fascinating topics deftly handled, lead into another aspect of her that is equally rich. A character named Eve who focuses on a childhood when her family was intact invites us to entertain the possibility that this novel, certainly at one level about the mythical/real South, at a deeper level plays with religious myths through the creation of a Biblically-named figure from Spring Hope—a debased name for Eden—who is trying to retrieve a pre-lapsarian world that never existed. Throughout It Will End with Us we are told of dead bears, dried-up swamps, vanishing trees and other decimations of the natural world. After Eve declares that “National Geographic magazine is the saddest thing I have ever read” we are given lists of animals extinct and endangered, and ones more numerous in Spring Hope than the undefined “here” where Eve currently lives. Cats “kill two billion birds every year in the United States” creating “Dead Bird Mountain” on what Eve calls “Planet Dearth.”

Eve is the bearer of the names of creatures but does not bear children nor remember the names of classmates; her father’s killing of stray dogs illustrates the hardness of the male heart; and she mulls over the concept of the soul, eventually giving up this pursuit, but not before tying together the small and large themes of the novel with resignation: “The world seems to me such a poor and barren place, I can’t imagine what a soul would find to live on here.” This Eve, containing impressions of scarcity and imminent death—as the title suggests—and who is scarcely more, in her mind, than a mingling of “figments” named Iris, Spring Hope, and so on, is a figure we must consider taking seriously, and if we do, what happens then? Sam Savage, once more, elicits our admiration and aesthetic appreciation for reminding us not to be complacent, and to interrogate what Eve terms the “inner reaches”—our inner selves—and what we believe, in a compact with others, to be the real world.

—Jeff Bursey

jeff again (3)

Jeff Bursey is a Canadian literary critic and author of the political satire Verbatim: A Novel (2010).


Nov 092014

Bruce StoneBruce Stone


This is gonna hurt a little. The shooter mouths these words in a hush, the syllables squashed and slurred, just coded exhalations of cotton mouth and brimstone, aimless as smoke rings, not quite turned to purpose vis-à-vis the face of the woman behind the plate glass. With one hand beyond the shooter’s line of sight, she’s got a death grip, he knows, on the handle of the guard door, all of the blue veins bulging wildly, desperate to halt his ingress.

His mother.

The fact that she’s raving registers in the foremost aperture of the shooter’s consciousness, but the knowledge remains wadded in the gauze of déjà vu, as if all of this had happened long ago, as if he’s peering through the telescope of the rifle barrel into memory. At this range her face appears to dilate, a slab of putty warped and seething, patches of psoriasis like chemical burns. The jowls saw violently, their imperative thrust and grind arresting, almost hypnotic, muted behind the glass, flab corkscrewed in a snarl, of a sudden erupting in batshit contortions that send the button-mole rollicking on the lip. She pauses, maybe to let the upshot of the words sink in, tongue lazing in the dry salvage behind the parted teeth, as if she’s mouth-breathing, panting, then the whole arrangement snaps again into motion, head weaving on its stalk, lashes thrumming distress signals through the bite and wheeze of her harangue.

A little girl, still clutching in her hand the tardy slip she has recently been issued but will never need again, stares balefully in the background of this silent movie.

From her post behind the counter, the woman must have spotted the shooter as he approached, all kitted out and badass as hell, striding down the hall like the second fucking coming about to descend upon the cringing hostiles of Gilbert S. Lance Elementary. This is no exaggeration. The shooter doesn’t need to pad the record of his legend—that was strictly for amateurs, conduct unbecoming. Because even agitated, even with every nerve blazing, a shooter manages to retain his self-prepossession, his lethal cool. Take the boots, for example. The shooter had no quarrel with the boots, the boots were optimal, heavy clawed and steel-toed, black as carbonized lead, adding a bit of thump and tremor, a bit of menace and mayhem to his customary mincing steps. Sure, they hobbled the shooter just enough to make him self-conscious of each footfall, the secret-guarding clench of his scrawny buttcheeks, but the new consciousness, this had its special pleasures, its novel advantages.

The plugs too contributed a fresh note of terror, a spike of the demonic, to the horrorshow of his birth-defective ears—the top ridges bowed-out and down-curled awnings of flesh, pale, waxy and crimped like the ears of bats—which he often contemplated self-doctoring with a penknife (the first incision had hurt like a motherfucker, the wound had healed badly). And he couldn’t hear a goddamn thing! Almost. At times, the shooter could discern bubbles of muted sound stirring in his head. But if the shooter is being honest, if the shooter is to make a scrupulous real-time account of his glory blaze, the Kevlar didn’t really fit all that great. When the shooter had checked his assembled image in the mirror at home, the Kevlar looked—no two ways about it—like nothing so much as the too-big life jacket, clunky and unwieldy, his mom had strapped on him long ago, snapshot at the beach, that save-me! fluorescent orange and mom’s plausible smile and the skittish waves dissolving in retreat under his pitiless child’s gaze. Initially, the shooter had been of two minds vis-à-vis the donning of the armor, but eventually, the shooter had conceded to necessity and suited up. A shooter needs to make allowances if he’s gonna leave a mark.

So maybe the shooter had looked a little ridiculous, shambling with his tight-assed stride in his too-clompy boots and his too-big vest, shoulder-strap fanny-pack for an ammo pouch, this gangly monster lurching toward his mom, burning with a savage pride, as if to show her the awful thing that she’d wrought. On the outside, maybe a bulky, ill-fitting carapace. But on the inside, the shooter was all valor, a warlord dipped by the toe, headfirst, in gods’ brew. The shooter felt gold-plated, bulletproof.

When the shooter squeezes the trigger of the AK, the weapon rumbles spasmodically in his grip, and the cheek-to-stock weld gives. Muffled soundtrack. General sense of catastrophe. Three maybe four bullets leak out at a rate of 2300 feet per second, so impact is more or less immediate. The plate glass explodes in winking weightless shards, in the same instant the woman’s face is wiped clean of all humanity, shredded and dripping gore even before the body has time to discompose and fall. Just behind the corpse, the little girl, blonde hair, daisy hair band, cowers by the counter, one arm raised above her head, the hand gripping the ledge as if for support, shelter, her mouth torn open, eyes tight shut— posture of a scream which wilts and oozes through the rubber bulbs of the plugs, finding a home.

Bye, Ma, the shooter thinks, surprised to discover that he feels almost nothing, no regrets, no remorse, hardly a soupçon of joy. The shooter takes stock, peruses the collateral damage to the far wall, plaster pocked with holes in a simple pattern like a check mark. The wall clock, unfazed, carves notches in the wheel of time. Lightly, just a click, hardly more than a toggle bump, the shooter fingers the trigger again.


The shooter had expected bedlam to ensue. The sound of the weapon must have echoed all up and down these halls, but the architecture remains eerily becalmed, guarding secrets. No gym teachers come bounding down the passageways like apocalypse zombies with whistles and buzzcuts to meet the hero’s welcome of his AK muzzle. No teary kids make wild dashes for the exits, heads down, denim soiled, eyes agog. No creeping janitor crepitates behind the moving target of his wheeled garbage can. The place is solemn, charged with disapproval, silent and still as the ghost town that it’s becoming. The only downside to the plugs is that you can’t really hear anything except the slosh and gurgle of your own life’s essence. Probably barricading doors, the shooter thinks. Probably trying windows. Probably planning getaways.

In days after, the shooter knows, people will try to rationalize what has transpired. They will speculate, the shooter knows, they will probably besmirch his good name, say the shooter’s got some mental defect, like a retard, like that half-wit Purdy who couldn’t shoot his way out of a wet paper bag, who couldn’t shoot to save his life on his birthday, the imbecile. No, the shooter, by dint of raw shooting prowess, would set the record straight. He had all his marbles in the bag. He was way smarter than they gave him credit for. It’s like that, the shooter thinks, draping the AK athwart his body, letting the muzzle for the moment fall.

The shooter is on the move now, a methodical sweep of the corridor, past the aluminum drinking fountain and the bathroom doors—boys, girls—behind which extend the banks of mirrors in which all of the heartache concentrates, all suffering comes to a head. Backpacks on coat hooks line the walls in paralleling recession; at the far end of the hall, the terminus, the distant citadel, the glass bands of the exit doors. In the first room along the inward wall—a notational 2 engraved on its name-plate—darkness obtains. The shooter awards no bonus points for quick thinking, but resolves instead to grant a modest life extension for the hostiles in Room 1 while he storms in to teach the switch-happy occupants of Room 2 a proper lesson. He turns the handle—unlocked!—and boots the door in with a bang. Inside, rafts of anemic daylight stream through the blinded windows, so the shooter moves in the half-light, gliding past the Tetris blocks of desks —wee, they were, toy, sad composite things of sandboard and tin—like a proper Brobdingnagian, a giant loosed upon the puny villagers, fucking Godzilla in Kevlar. The shooter doesn’t so much see the occupants as feel them, crouching there by the back wall, beside the reptile tank where a benumbed box turtle lies prostrate under a heat lamp. The kids aren’t yet hyperventilating, their faces not yet streaming with the terror of recognition, the abomination of knowledge. Probably think he’s just fooling. The teacher knows. She knows the shooter. She’s seen him with his mom about town, at the PDQ, the Target, in the school parking lot, haggling over car keys, gazing impassively into the torture-chamber of memory. She’s not talking yet, not yet negotiating for the lives of her charges. Because maybe she thinks that the shooter will lose his nerve. Maybe, she thinks, the shooter won’t have the juice to pull the trigger. Maybe she thinks the shooter lacks follow-through.

She’s crouched at the head of her phalanx of charges, arms spread in a V behind her, protectively, a human shield in creased slacks and white top with a bowing lunar rim. From her neck a spirographic cross dangles meekly on a chain. Above the cleavage. That’s what it’s called. The boy most immediately abutting her armpit fidgets and shifts, his body quaking in a soccer jersey, probably from the Target, and the shooter peers directly into the puffing muzzle of his doughy face which catches the window light and shines. Bangs shorn unevenly, as if he did it himself, tiny unfocussed eyes, melon-headed… Mongoloid, the shooter allows, the boy’s mouth drawn in a permanent grin, a cheerful smear of lips about which nothing could be done, as if even mortal terror were a goddamn treasure, a special treat that he alone could divine. Well, shiit, the shooter thinks, rapidly parsing the faces massed behind the apparently untouched-in-the-head teacher. Black girl in looping pigtails, triple-thick lenses in her glasses, goofiest set of buckteeth the shooter has ever beheld. The cagey, guarded boy—is he ooomphing?—sort of squirting with pent-up noises that make advances on the tombal silence welling behind the plugs—eyes all pupil, pitchdark eyes, betokening some kind of defect, a grade of autism. And then the scrawny little rat with the food—cupcakes?—gumming up his face, and the shooter thinks, Well, shiiit, because he’s ambushed maybe the shiniest crop of mooncalves in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Not exactly propitious.

The shooter cottons, through the plugs, more a matter of motion than sound, that the teacher is negotiating now. If the shooter has to say so himself, he’s a pretty decent lip-reader, and he thinks he discerns the words special needs, this with an imploring arch to the eyebrows. He definitely catches the upshot of Please They don’t understand. The teacher’s eyes spit tears down her beefy face, but she doesn’t betray any of the other signs, facial gestures and whatnot, indicative of terror. Almost reluctantly, as if disdainfully, with his bionic gamer’s trigger finger he flips the lever on the stock from full to semiauto. Reconsiders. Full. And then he empties the clip in the vicinity of the reptile tank, AK erupting with seismic gutturations, sizzling fury, spraying fire like deliverance, and high above the carnage, as if from a vast distance, the shooter tallies up the damage, the bodies felled instantly, pitted and broken, poses of agony, blood seep steady and silent, the vanished turtle maybe amazed, in the moment before death, at the sensation of being airborne, vacuumed all at once out of captivity, liberated. In the new-forged calm, the stench rises as a single unit, a solitary integer of sewage-smell, and from that toxic bubble of putrefaction the shooter reckons that one or more of the victims have been gutshot, maybe the black girl there, the shooter considers, lowering his weapon, placing the free hand over his nose and mouth, drawing now the brimstone scent of his own slick palm. Total annihilation, the shooter reckons, craning for some sense of satisfaction, but finding just this pique of attention, this novel awareness. He hadn’t anticipated that the splintering of bone would be quite so VISIBLE, that the split of flesh might expose to the air the clean white edge of the MANDIBLE, and should the wounds be fucking SMOKING like that? And the shooter watches them, wisps of smoke rising like party streamers from the gory sinkholes of the impact wounds, and the shooter considers that maybe he overdid things with the Silverbullet Gun Oil beforehand, embarrassed snort of pride fizzing in his palm, but above everything, the shooter in a figurative sense drops to a knee and sort of bows in honor of the awful responsibility, the dread beauty of the directive, Leave no living thing alive.


The shooter proceeds methodically, unhurried, sweeping room to room with a dreamlike slowness, and as in a dream the rooms are uniformly darkened and uninhabited. You’ve got to be shitting me, the shooter thinks. He stops booting in doors (which don’t give much anyway, what with the hydraulic safety catches), just cracks them open and peeks inside, standard reconnaissance. On one polished floor, a wide circle like a clock face with twenty-five hours of geometric shapes: triangle, square, repeating red circle. Strung from the drop ceiling, threaded for display on a length of catgut, a population in effigy, watercolor parade of childhood self-imaging: elephantoid faces in pinks or browns, heavy puddles of hair like a crude graphic language, target-range eyes (pupils drowning in irises), and no renderings of any ears, but always the same menacing smile of irregular white teeth. In the ineluctable sweep of his ken, the shooter detects just one locus of actionable movement: a lightweight cage of cloth and mesh aquiver with tortoiseshell butterflies, husks of cocoons still dangling like detonated ordnance from the roof. The shooter considers the tactical pros and cons, but opts to save the ammo, and he positions the contraption on the floor amid the scraps and the drool and the curled catgut, and he raises his heavy combat boot and stomps the fluttery creatures to dust. His progress takes him all the way to the far end of the corridor, where he pauses by the exit doors. In the schoolyard, the playground equipment—monkey bars, funhouse slide, six swings on a steel pole—should be posing, by now, under keening skies, for the still-life documentation that will accompany tomorrow’s hashtags. But the yard seems merely vacant, vacated, unregarded, disused. The ball field grass needs mowing, and farther on, in the street opposite, where abandoned houses belly down against the earth, a lone sedan backs out of a driveway on an errand of an ordinary Tuesday. The shooter taps his rifle muzzle on the door handle.

The shooter heeds the rage welling within him, the shooter teeters, if he’s being honest, on the verge of freaking out, but he practices self-soothing techniques, massaging his testicles with the rifle stock, rocking his hips fore and aft, imaging carnage behind closed eyes. The shooter steadies his nerves, homes in on the pressure lodged in his pooper. The shooter projects an outward calm. This was probably the hard part, the shooter observes, this just keeping your wits about you in the absence of targets. The shooter concentrates on the massive burr in his body cavity, clenches tight, commends his own foresight in his delicate arming for the war. Strange, though, how the rifle’s weight has begun to wear. When the shooter had arrived, parting the school doors with that newfound air of authority and purpose, a monster on a mission, everything had seemed weightless—the rifle, the Kevlar, the boots scarcely touching the ground but falling into lockstep with the strides of his admirable but incompetent predecessors—the pussy in Connecticut, the cartoon-crazy Korean at the college who shot way more footage than liberal-arts majors, of course the Joker and Purdy and the wacko Laughner and the Columbine kids. The only one with a proper sense of style, the only one who understood the true gravity of the shooter’s burden, was that Norwegian ubermensch with his Uzi and his hollowpoints and his fucking nice Scandinavian hairdo and his steely Viking-love-letter aplomb. Course, even he failed to plan tactically for the endgame, to formulate some viable EXIT STRATEGY, and besides, his legacy was irreparably compromised, his shooter’s cred regrettably squandered, subsumed by a petty geopolitical ambition. Because, the shooter thinks, can you really imagine a political solution to all this? (Here, the shooter gestures broadly with his mind, taking in everything from the furred clouds to the tract housing to the mildewed wavelets of the great lake.) But all this notwithstanding, as the shooter, this shooter, had traversed the steps of Gilbert S. Lance Elementary in his remote Wisconsin principality, he had felt buoyed up by the wings of their supermaniac precedent, hoisted aloft by the welcoming embrace of a club in which he sought conscription. And now? Now? Lugging the AK, what with the ammo and the Kevlar and the combat boots and the perspiration slicking his face and the pitons plugging most available orifices, this was starting to feel rather like work—the rifle so much heavier than his Xbox stick with its variable controls and triggers, its wireless capability, its porcelain surety. Compared to that, the AK felt almost neolithic—just the one trigger, a slide tab for the discharge setting and the idiotproof snap-click of clip loading. One day, maybe, advances in technology would be fully commensurate with the shooter’s desires. Until then, one could only admire the purist’s economy in the design.

From this vantage, the shooter can see that his general setup might leave something to be desired, but it wasn’t all that bad. The shooter’s mom, with her permissive nature and indulgent streak and her hereditary love of ordnance, she kept him in pretty good straits, really. Gave him the whole half of the duplex to do with as he pleased. Thoughtful enough never to gift him with a dog to torture, merely encouraged the shooter to bus the leavings of the crows, the squirrels, the odd possum, fugitive skunk, that he eliminated in the fenced-in backyard. Sure, there were occasional unpleasantnesses, like Mom barging in while you had ramrod in hand, speed-reading in Braille (the shooter was bloody well-read), or the time he slid open the pantry door and surprised a clutch of rats on the shelf, fat brown bastards with those sentient needly whiskers and notched hairless tails. One had an eye entirely occluded by a pinkish mass, a floral tumor, and it stabbed its nose high in the air, listening, observational, just as all of them were stilled in their gnawing of the shooter’s saltines, constellation of peppercorn rat eyes measuring him as if HE were the intruder, as if they were peering into a region of nothing in particular, just an outline-in-chalk of the owner/proprietor shooter. And then there was the general aroma of overwarmed humanity wafting from the cushions of the secondhand furniture, the photoelectric seizure hazard in the searing pixels of his aging technotronic arsenal, their much-abused countenances, their aggregate hard miles. Still, the shooter was given the run of the place, with its aromatic, but still decent secondhand furniture, its old-school HP and big-screen Magnovox, rogue pack of cigs he likes to keep on hand, and the sandbags in the basement, a stand of target-practice dummies with humanoid figures scratched in Sharpie on the burlap, now a little overworked maybe in singe marks and skid marks and claw marks and teeth marks, but still humanoid, recognizably humanoid.

When the survivors begin to speculate, this is probably what they’ll do, the shooter thinks. Imagine some terminal falling out with dear-old-mum, some issued ultimatum that required the shooter to desist in one or more of his many entertainments. Or maybe say she threatened to withhold pin money or revoke his gaming privileges (fat chance), or refused to order that fancy new carbine that the shooter had scoped on YouTube (his internet connectivity was optimal, fucking optimal). This explains why he picked today, today, to repay her many services and kindnesses with violence (with violence, they euphemize a volley of point-blank bullets to the victim’s throat and face). Oh, the shooter could laugh to think of the stories these dipshits would assemble on his behalf. But the truth? The truth was almost obscene in its banality, almost beyond imagining. It was MOM who googled the AK and brokered the sale and inked the permits and paid with her charge card and arranged to take possession at the in-town Walmart. It was MOM who shouted for him through the common wall of the duplex to come over and behold the wonder of a civilization in which it was possible to manufacture and google and purchase on credit said WOMD. She was bracing her fat haunches against the sofa, the box with its jaw cracked open, spilling hazard tags and black-sponge packing foam on the floor between her legs. She just hefted the thing in both hands like an offering for the gods, like a newborn child, didn’t raise the barrel yet to peer through the sight, didn’t massage the trigger with her bony hag’s finger. No, she was coolly murmuring her praise with a matter-of-fact pride of ownership, with her matronly pragmatism: “This is the weapon of a patriot, hon’.” This much pierced the shooter’s awareness, but it was hard to concentrate in the face of so much carefully honed steel, such incalculable killing power, the rifling of the barrel a dreamy and mesmeric recession to the silence at the origins of being. The shooter’s mom vocalized her joy with a measured and seemly decorum, with an undertone of civic responsibility, but the shooter had been moved to a region beyond words, a primary zone of pure sensation, nerves firing all along his private inseams, a manic sizzling combustion like July 4 sparklers. The shooter was simply beside himself with unmitigated rapture.

That isn’t to say that there hadn’t been precipitating events, that there hadn’t been tipping points. This morning, for example, when he’d switched on the Xbox, the power button failed to glow with its molten kryptonite green, but burned again the searing red of error and terror, a malfunction known to gamers as the Red Ring of Death. The shooter felt the rage, naturally, recognized with mounting fury sensations in the neighborhood of impotence, but he didn’t attribute some mystical importance to the console’s crapping out. This had happened before; the box might recover, give it time to cool off, though the shooter had really had about enough of such inconveniences. The prospect of the day fanned out as an expanse of emptiness, a plane of time wasted, idle perusing of the web’s nastier backalleys and red-light districts, maybe kill an hour cat-and-mousing on Craigslist. Anyway, the shooter had tossed his head in disgust, cast an eye over the room and its limited delights, and thought simply, No. No more. And then the shooter assembled his arsenal, the shooter mutely sheathed his skull, the shooter bedecked himself in the trappings of death.

But the impetus, the liberating event, if the shooter is being honest, should really be pinpointed earlier. How long? A week? A month? Who’s counting? He had been marathoning Gears of War—showboating with the chainsaw—and of course the batts in his stick died on him just when things were getting hot, so he popped them in the charger, then kicked in Mom’s back door to see if she had any in stock. He was rooting through the junk drawer—Duracells, jackpot!—when he saw it, wedged in underneath all that debris, the rubber bands and glue sticks, the cough drops and playing cards, the address books with their pristine rule-lined pages, midden pile of hole punch, stapler, circle compass, all the hillocks and depressions of the jumbled matter modeling in negative space the burial mound of a long-lost claw hammer: it was just a black bandana, tattooed in white with a floral Arabian design (a bit fruity maybe but the pattern was sufficiently abstract to look badass and dudely). Mom must have got it from the fabric store, once upon a time. Must have wedged the useless thing in here. What in the hell? he had thought. He pulled the thing clear of the junk, slammed the drawer to. He was heeding an instinct now, channeling a wordless directive.

You see, hats were no good. They never fit right on his lopsided head. Berets, Kangols, too natty, ball caps too far out of character, and besides, the whole kit called way too much attention to the ears, left to swing in the breeze, exposed and tender like dewlaps. Couldn’t get away with tucking those disasters in, sort of pinning them up with the infrastructure of the hat. A little too conspicuous, even by his standards. For a while, he made a go of it anyway, tried sporting one with an abrasive insignia, just the lippy catchphrase You talkin’ to me? in a juicily hostile font, but it made him feel ridiculous, even at the GameStop, because you couldn’t wear a hat like that while drawing on a slushee and trying to haggle for a used copy of Return to Castle Wolfenstein, what with both meat flanges fanned out and sagging, dilapidated structures of chewed bubble gum. So he had more or less given up on the whole head-coverage initiative.

Because even with the ears, and the scrawny befreckled frame, the droopy eyes and rutted spine, the off-kilter hips, to say nothing of the genitals, what the shooter really couldn’t live with was the hair. The hair was a no-win situation. It was Mom’s hair, of course, except on her, she could gather it into a presentable rat’s nest, a heap on top and swept back unremarkably at the sides. All of this well within standard parameters of decency. On the shooter, no such luck. It flopped there on his head like a pile of frazzled weeds, each strand thorny and bedraggled and bedeviled and weighted with a molecular sadness. The shooter had tried, logged hours in front of the bathroom mirror, staring himself cross-eyed, gasping with tears (if the shooter is being honest), wielding comb and hair paste like butcher’s tongs, testing every conceivable arrangement. No go. A few years back, the shooter had gone ahead and shaved the whole skull, shaved it clean, wagering that a skinhead look might suit him, but no. He had contemplated his bald skull with a lunatic joy, a joy ripe with inconsolable grief: he looked like a plucked chicken, a scrawny hairless runt unfit for human consumption. And that was enough of that. So the thing was to keep busy, maniacally busy, game until your eyes bled, try not to think about the great OUT THERE, the whole world of other people and their god-given happiness, all their laughter and procreation and prim unremarkable ears and totally acceptable hair styles. There was a certain beauty in the Xbox’s contours, the fetish of the stick in his grip. The milky green of the power buttons now backlit the world of his more pleasureable dreams, which always had the feel of a panoptic FPS. Stable supply of Velveeta in the fridge, monster mash of porn on the web (his connectivity was optimal, fucking optimal). A guy could make his stand here, maybe survive thirty or forty years until the tumor grows too large to be extracted, and after that, who could say?

So yes, if the shooter is being honest, the hair deeply troubled him. He might have borne up under everything else, but the hair fucking grieved him. He wore it now in his customary fashion, splayed out from the forehead like a moldering cabbage leaf, parted in the middle like rotted thatch. It had grown long now, untended, and still he could never get that piece over there to lie flat, and this section over here to cooperate with that bit over there, and his skull lay exposed unevenly, a leprous and barnacled waste of pale skin. So be it.

And then he had found the bandana. He wasn’t consciously recalling what he had seen on the web in the course of googling, as was his habit, the more unusual suicides (YouTube was basically god, the shooter had concluded), but he must have taken note when he saw the photo of that poncy writer who had the world by the ass, who had his lippy wisdom foisted on the unsuspecting registrants of game-scripting classes but still elected to string himself from the rafters in his garage. What is the world coming to anyway? the shooter sometimes wondered. The shooter had perused the YouTube footage of the poncy writer at the lectern, working his jaws on some dunce’s errand, then toggled to the garish mugshot on his Wikipedia page, the head sheathed cleanly in a carnival tent of a do-rag. Tie-dyed, it was. Like a clown’s handkerchief. The shooter must have taken note.

So when he discovered Mom’s fabric-store bandana, he must have known that there were options. It took him a while to decrypt the problem of folding and knotting the thing properly, but even in his first abortive attempts, he knew he’d struck gold. He felt newly forged. And it was really then, in front of the mirror, both ears pinned tight to the skull, all the traitorous forward follicles shrinkwrapped in funereal black, it was then that he saw that he was the shooter. It was a moment of recognition, a negative epiphany.


 The window in the cafeteria affords a view of the rear parking lot and the auxiliary playground, used only by special dispensation, where the shooter had been effectively coldcocked by a dodgeball, once upon a time. The lot brims with the usual cars in the stalls, the ass-end of Mom’s battered Civic, but in the cafeteria itself, the shooter had surprised only the lone cook arrived early for her shift, with her jowly face and crinkled hairnet, apron pin-striped prison grey. There had been a brief farce of an over-the-counter interrogation, what with the shooter being half-deaf for all intents and purposes, but despite the novel surety of his words (courtesy of the AK muzzle), the woman was unresponsive. Where the fuck is everybody? the shooter wanted to know, training the muzzle on her cook’s forehead, sighting that void in the face between the eyes, and the woman just locked up, listed from the force of the tremor, the biomechanical undulations, the jerk and the slide of her fear. This wasn’t going anywhere, the shooter had thought, so he tried another tack: Do you still make those little pizzas—those rectangle slabs with the crumbled sausage that come in those little aluminum boats? The shooter spoke the words, but he wasn’t really asking this. The shooter was just communing with himself, surfing his own consciousness, because whomever he was addressing was only the most proximal manifestation of the nullity, just a two-dimensional pane of light colored like a fogged-up mirror, a silhouette in quicksilver, chalk outline done in frosted glass swimming with the oil-slick colors of the shooter’s own image, the spin-cycle of his reflection deconstructed and atilt like the aurora borealis.

Let’s just say the shooter had a lot on his mind as he was putting down the lunch lady. The shooter was doing a lot of processing, and this work occupied him all those moments as he lowered himself gingerly, caught his breath on a bench seat by the panel windows, gazed flat-faced into the residential spaces beyond the back lot, searching out the path through the cornfield of his memory. And this state of preoccupation lingered as he got to his feet and shambled into the corridor and breached the bathroom where the bullies routinely booted in the door, already chanting Swir-lee, Swir-lee, and summarily upended the adolescent shooter, and—never mind his thrashing, his wailing—dipped his shooter’s head into the nearest available toilet, scouring the bowl with his radiation-sickness hair until they tired of the torture and someone smartly pressed the lever and sent the water streaming down, cascading, dragging with it the seaweed coil of the shooter’s mortified follicles. And when the whole crew swept out with their bullying laughter and the bathroom had been vacuumed clean of their existence, the shooter had stood and confronted his drowned rat visage in the mirror, the sopping ears, the hair that could never be righted, and he just thought pleasenonononononono, one sustained sob like a language beyond words, a language beyond language and more in the ballpark of a death rattle. The same mirror in which the shooter now beheld his assembled image, his grim reaper righteousness, and he set the AK on the sink, checked the stays on the bandana, pulled it snug, smoothed the assassin’s brows. Is that a zit? The shooter inspects the lesion in the archway of his nostril. Tests. Sniffs. Touches a greasy finger to the surface of the mirror. Resumes the work of processing the resemblance.

Because naturally he could see it, the resemblance, the bullet-absorbent jowls, double-barreled nosecone of the chest, rat’s-nest hair molded in the cabling of the cook’s hairnet, the stupid sideward drawl of the mouth in the death grimace. In the aftermath, people were probably going to make too much of the resemblance, the shooter reckoned, say that Mom was the skeleton key, the anchor foot of the compass tracing the event radius, the weeping singularity. The shooter grants a certain warrant for this misconception. Only yesterday, after all, Mom had barged in on the butt-naked shooter as he was speed-reading in Braille, kamikaze-style, whooping and hopping in his usual antic ecstasy among the much-abused sofa cushions, porn blazing from the dilated muzzle of his quaking Magnovox. The shooter had felt the flashboil, the murderous hair-trigger rage rioting in that first instant of self-coitus interruptus. But the truth was that this had happened so many times now that Mom hardly made a big deal out of it—no mouth agape in horror, no shrieks of dismay, no revulsion of the abject—now, when she toddled through the door, trying to share with the shooter some recent grocery haul or to inform the shooter of some tasty munitions sale, and surprised the shooter in the frenzy of his self-pleasuring, she just rolled her mother’s eyes and muttered oh jesuschrist sheldon and toddled back out again in quiet egress. No, there wasn’t some pustulating psychosexual fury at work here. The shooter really had nothing against Mom in particular.

The truth, much simpler, really, was just that the shooter wasn’t entirely conscious of other people until he felt pregnant with the rage. From the shooter’s vantage, other people went about the business of living encrusted in this body armor of light, a pane of bulletproof glass fitted over their silhouettes, a virtual scrim antecedent to the actual body, as if they weren’t quite real, insubstantial as ghosts. It was the mirror image, the inverse reflection of the REFUSAL TO COUNTENANCE that typified the public’s collective response to him the shooter. If the shooter strode through life cloaked in the hurt locker of his sexual invisibility, well, there was bound to be some blowback, and the shooter for as long as he could remember perceived other people not as they were commonly portrayed (discrete loci of alien anatomies and consciousness, with the potential for mutually beneficial alliances and contacts), but through the scrim of the nullity, a sociopathic cataract, this morphologically humanoid blind spot. So if the shooter failed to anticipate Mom’s comings and goings, it wasn’t that he WANTED to be caught with his pants down or anything, he didn’t CRAVE some acknowledgement of his so-called erotic identity, it was just that he tended to disremember the existence of other people until he was cornered, provoked.

Bottom line is, the shooter didn’t have any special vendetta against Mom. The shooting was nothing personal. That Mom was victim zero, that the massacre centered on the outpost of her job, that two of the other victims closely approximated Mom’s roly-poly physique and sizeable cleavage: call this just the hazard of living in proximity to the shooter, chalk up the rest to serendipity. The shooter strenuously objects to, and in fact finds offensive, the hypothesis that jealousy had lit the powderkeg, that he resented the affection that Mom broadcast freely to the schoolkids as she toddled through the parking lot and paused to confer, folded arms and flapping wattles, with the special-needs teacher in the shade of the school’s pillared awning. The shooter knew that she viewed them with different eyes than the ones that viewed him the shooter. Case in point: at the range last week—just their usual spot in the woods off the highway, a non-sanctioned dry salvage of abandoned appliances and dumped tires and derelict trees bedecked with bullseyes—as he broke in the AK, the shooter had caught Mom scoping him with an expression of evident DISTASTE, observing him as if she DISAPPROVED of the shooter’s joy, his crazed glee, as he wielded the rifle, torched targets. Then again, the shooter had scoped Mom’s crookeye not long after he had, just messing around, leveled the rifle muzzle in question at Mom’s fat head and sang out in his shooter’s reedy alto, Say cheeese…. Mom hadn’t seen the humor. In any event, if the shooter is being honest, if Mom had factored at all into the shooter’s plans, it was simply because she was the only one who could be relied upon to TAKE IT. The shooter had sailed into the elementary school and shot Mom point-blank in the face for the simple reason that she was the only human being alive, anywhere, ever, who would assent to all this, assent to the shooting, assent in an existential sense to him the shooter.


To reach the art rooms at Lance, you had to follow the long corridor with the wide-screen windows around the auditorium—it might have been a risky crossing if anyone were paying attention, but the circle drive, the street beyond, are still empty, the neighborhood trees stirring drably in the breeze beneath those clouds, knotted in welts, curdled and heaving… are they tufted, even teated, bulging with these polyps like egg-crate packing foam? Must be massed low mammatus, ripe with storm. The shooter elects to forego a belly-crawl and instead improvises a duck-walk in his Kevlar, so his thighs burn radioactive as he traverses the exposed passage. When he rounds the corner for the art rooms, their vast warehouse spaces, lofty studios, toddler ateliers, he discovers that all the doors are locked, bald-faced and pallid from disuse, holding under heavy guard those flimsy memories in which the shooter had submitted to have his face covered with Vaseline and then soggy plaster of paris, an exercise in mask-making adapted from some African tribal ritual. When the masks had set and the kids were directed to paint them howsoever they pleased, the shooter had dutifully heeded the instructions, and he plied the paints with his geometrical intelligence, assembling piecemeal the countenance, dread and fierce, furrowed and fanged, bright potent stars streaming from the eyes. Of course, the kids teased him mercilessly because one of the Rohrshack blobs looked, they said, like a fat cock angling straight at his mouth hole, and the shooter had sat there with his crazy hair still pushed up from the recent physical persecution and blubbered with rage. But when the shooter had calmed down, when he could think clearly, he saw that the bullies were wrong, flat wrong. They couldn’t grasp the truth of what he’d made, and the shooter contemplated his handiwork and felt a preternatural chill descend, a blissed-out cool, as he fondled the rasping contours of the death mask.

Does it bother the shooter to be traipsing in this fashion through the bad dream of his memories, surprising himself, as it were, with every footstep? No, it doesn’t bother the shooter at all. This protracted self-communion, this was inevitable. This is what happens when you at last discover your true identity, find the place where you belong.

The shooter recalls hearing something about the abrupt foreclosure of the arts instruction at the school, maybe Mom or maybe the tv, but he knows there is no hurry now, that he has discovered some citadel at the end of time, a postapocalyptic world without zombies or vampires or feral bad guys, but just the cinderblocks and tile of an elementary school, once his own. He ascends the wide central stairwell, makes a sweep of all the rooms on the upper floor, likewise abandoned, Roanoke Island of the mind, clouded test tubes and dud bunsens in the lab rooms, scroll maps of the world drawn like mortuary shades over blank brown chalkboards, faded Tetris grid of a periodic table at which the shooter lobs a boulder of phlegm, library locked tight and windows boarded against the rapture, everything immune to weapons fire. When he reaches the office again, he sees that the kid’s body appears to have moved a fraction, slipped a scoash in the coordinates of spacetime. This particular face-down, floor-eating posture, so final, so FORLORN, doesn’t jibe with the shooter’s recollection, and the blood pool looks altered, its planar integrity disturbed, as if a comet had traversed the nebula, streaming. Seems to have stalled out now. Maybe the shooter should just call it a day, maybe head home like nothing had happened, rig up some Velveeta on toast and see if he could contain the auxiliary arson event and get the Xbox back online. Well, maybe he should…. The shooter cradles the weapon, reaches to his head, checks the stays on the bandana, roots in the abject of his ears, pops one plug, then the other. The seashell whooshing in his head goes silent, in rush the sounds of the world in which nothing stirred, this grisly standstill of elementary education. In his palm, the plugs, bright orange, industrial, some space-age rubber soft and pliable, look like bullets with fan tails, miniature bombs. The shooter sniffs them, salty, tart, tang of ear canal.

Then he hears the hollow staccato waffling, some voice yammering at a distance, slight reverb. It reminds him of the sound of the radio from the other room as he whirled about the kitchen rigging up some Velveeta on toast, fuel for the gaming marathon, and Rush Limbaugh worked the airwaves of his enclave, bitching about somebody or something, giving someone the BUSINESS. The shooter rarely heeded the particulars of Rush’s tirades—the shooter really didn’t care one way or the other, you know—but he liked Rush’s spirit, found in Rush something apposite, a companionable hostility, a slinger of rich horseshit. So sometimes he would tune in to Rush’s program and let him yammer in the background as the shooter wasted Krauts, then zombies, then aliens, then lycanthropes, and scarfed Velveeta on toast, because how many times can you listen to the same cybervillain gaming soundtrack without losing your mind? But the shooter wasn’t religious or anything on this point. Sometimes he would just mute the Magnovox, fire up some Lemmy Kilmister or Megadeath or Iron Maiden or that theater-nerd Rob Zombie. By such means the shooter attended to his sense of duty, like he had to cultivate over time the righteous badass mojo, even though he was WAY happier after the hours of training, with Mom out of earshot, when he could just crank up some Foreigner or some Styx and rock out through the bloody maze of pixels. The shooter wasn’t bent or anything, not some wimp erotically deranged, though when your sole sexual experience consisted of a school janitor hosing you down on a rooftop and the classiest thing in your browser cache was a German scheise video, you probably had some explaining to do. In any case, the sound is like that, that distant unintelligible echoing, Morse code of syllables striking the air.


The Lance gym has four functional points of egress, hulking pairs of sound-shielding panel doors with a push-bar and an opposable stop on each interior face. On the outer façade, just a curved steel grip like a silver parenthesis magnetically affixed to the bulwark, battleship-gray. The shooter might have improvised, with a simple piece of fabric, say, some kind of catch, binding the two handles together, to prevent the opening-outward that would allow a good percentage of his victims to escape. But time is a factor, the shooter knows, as the voice continues booming for a few beats longer, then pauses, as if to ride out the crossfire, and quickly the shooter cottons the drift of the convocation. Distinctly, he hears the voice, female, insist that some bad things were just accidents, that the loss of those precious members of our SCHOOL COMMUNITY had been just such an accident, a tragic accident. The shooter ponders, Did one of the little fuckers off himself? Some recent plane crash maybe?, a burst of the glee washing over the algorithms of his shooter’s calculations, but it doesn’t add up, something definitely twitchy, and anyway it doesn’t alter one jot the purpose building then to a lethal hollowpoint terminus, because the shooter responded to words just as he responded to bodies, consigning all of them to the zone of the nullity. The shooter, game on, just tamps down the glee, dips the plugs one after the other in his pursed lips, grimly reinstalls them, thinking only Aim, don’t spray. Aim, don’t spray.


Through the prison-panel window, a narrow slat of glass reinforced with a mesh of chicken wire, a rectangular spyhole, the shooter has a limited view of the grief assembly, the fluorescents high in the ceiling irradiating the polished floorboards of the basketball court, soaking everything in a honeyed orangeade light, but the bleachers, he can see, are brimming at max occupancy, kids folded like SS lightning bolts of knees and torsos and cheap big-box sneakers, gazing solemnly in the direction of center court, attending to local distractions. How many? Three hundred? Five? The shooter feels butterflies tickle his stomach, rattle in his ammo pouch bulging with clips and their fifteen hundred rounds, give or take. There was something definitely twitchy about all of this. A decade of gaming—expert gaming—had conditioned the shooter to expect an escalating series of attacks, an increasing number and capacity of hostiles—this, as carefully scripted as a Hollywood movie, as scrupulously followed as a stone-tablet law. But after the initial jolt of adrenalin, the peerless execution of Room 2, there had been only the shooter and his loneliness and his gnawing self-loathing returning to surprise him even now in his Kevlar and commando boots, his ammo pouch bulging like a vinyl IED, his head coolly sheathed in his assassin’s black bandana. The shooter hadn’t anticipated the possibility of this asequential JACKPOT-WITHOUT-PRECEDENT, but gaming expertise enables him to improvise. When the shooter pulls open the door, he dips the AK to navigate the aperture, forestalling the clumsy bang that might stir too soon too much unrest. The kids in this corner of the bleachers, as if hanging in the air above him, note his entrance, and they must figure that the patently armed and armored shooter belongs to some special security force at the school, an avenger who would appear only when the kids were confronted with death, because, to a body, they don’t panic. They just watch him as he advances, minor bustle of dark hair and coppery skin tones, paying homage to the ordnance: one girl confronts him with an ancient Mayan face imperturbable as the moon. Has the shooter strolled into a nest of minorities? Maybe Rush had a point about that immigration business. This used to be a good school, the shooter thinks.

At this range, the shooter can’t miss, but the shooter is, if anything, overbold, and he knows that he has to gain a vantage point from which he can maximize the body count, let there be no premature annihilation, so the shooter still isn’t firing even as he rounds the front of the bleachers and everyone in the room can see him, now, stalking across the hardwood like a cat stalking a yard bird across the surface of Mars. Through the murk of the orangeade light, the stilled air of bated breath, the shooter tacks directly for the officiants, five adult anatomies in business casual get-ups, beflanking a retro cabinet podium and the steel bulb of its microphone. At either end of the gym, the backboards are raised, retracted against the ceiling, and their suspension has all the permanence of a burial.

Maybe it’s the jaundiced light, or maybe recognition drains the blood from the faces of the officiants, ambassadors of the living, must be the principal, the vice principal, the counselor, the grief expert and the victim’s mom for whom it is no longer too soon to talk about her loss. The dumpy woman in the dress pants is mouthing words at the shooter, approaching him, APPROACHING HIM, with both hands raised, palms outward. The shooter can see the shaded creases in the skin, like a monkey’s palms, but mottled, curdled, and his head is fizzing with PopRocks of euphoria. He feels touched, smitten, almost brought to his knees by a kind of awed gratitude, a kind of pageant-beauty’s triumphant disbelief, her dazed incredulity, clapping both hands to her face, for me? all this for ME? The shooter, still stepping forward, closing the distance between him and his victim, locates in the crude language of words something adequate to his breathless amazement, Are you fucking shitting me? I mean…all of these fucking people and they’re all fucking UNARMED?! The shooter comes to a halt, waits a beat, recovers his cool, steels over, thinks just Hakunamatata. And then the shooter opens fire.

The first sweep of the AK takes out all five targets and most of the lectern though the microphone still juts from its mount. The shooter wheels and turns the gun on the bleachers, the top rows of which are streaming with the anatomies of the larger kids, the upper grades with their superior hitpoints and body mass. Through the plugs, now that the AK has ceased for the moment roiling, the shooter can discern the outlines of amusement-park screams, the sound of communal shrieking as the roller coaster barrels over a towering cliff. The sound approximates that mad joy as the bodies spill out over the far sides of the bleachers, jumping ship, running for lives. Better start there, the shooter thinks, training the AK muzzle on the top tiers, and almost instantly the shooter does enough damage to more or less cease the outflow of bodies over the edge. The shooter sees the scene as a tableau, the kids and all of their well-formed ears and well-groomed hairstyles stilled in this conga line of terror, yammering, faces streaming in a language like words, bodies scrambling for occasion to flee, save for the dead spot just off-center where some lummox in a Halo t-shirt, gotta be the biggest kid in school—watermelon head, weirdly pinched face scabbed with acne, pompadour shelf of acceptable red hair—just holds his ground, swatting at the rain of ammo with great bear paws until the hands, then the lummox disappear in a lurid splash of pixels. The shooter puts most of them down—snap, click, snap, click, bionic gamer’s trigger finger working the bolt, AK butt jackrabbit-humping his shoulder, flap of the ammo pouch costing him precious seconds, a real fucking nuisance, actually, but so be it— though in both margins of his peripheral vision he notes the panel doors parting in regular spasms of egress. On the bleachers the bodies fall each according to his own, some instantly ceding animation and dropping in a heap, others, merely winged, executing graceful rubber-limbed pirouettes, still others succumbing upright to full-body conniptions as if they’re being electrocuted on the way down, and all this leaving those nimble few who duck and cover, cower in bunkers behind the bench seats until eventually they panic and make a dash for the hereafter. It reminds the shooter of nothing so much as the view of his crown, in the bathroom mirror, when he angled the clippers at the offending follicles and raked across, and over, and sideways, and again, and the hairs fell en masse, wilting and feathering, cascading in clumps and isolate strands, ringing the drain until it was basically occluded like a grave.

The adults in the mix, the teachers and staff and pervert custodians, the in-loco-parentis bodies, make a mess of things, just dive in front of the shooter’s sight lines, absorbing the bullets immediately preceding the bullets that strike the kids. He sees one woman in a corduroy skirt, way younger than Mom, somersault over the bleachers’ edge, where she remains, crouched and hyperventilating, the shooter knows, like a rat in the pantry. In the lower tiers, courtside, where the youngest kids congregate, the terror has bottle-necked and the kids STAY WHERE THEY ARE, frozen in the floodlight of the shooter’s chthonic glory, quivering, waffling with a grief indistinguishable from horror. No one said it was gonna be easy, the shooter thinks, this doling out of death even on the wholesale, and empties a few more clips as if composing himself to deliver the most important address of their lives. Please listen carefully, the shooter thinks. Do I have your attention now? Can you see me now? Snap, click. The shooter feels buzzed, light-headed, flickering at incalculable frames per second. And though he unleashes reams of bullets into the faces of the children shimmering in the candied light, the shooter can’t help but feel a little discombobulated because he spies, always in the periphery, the lone body of the brown-haired kid, with the perfect ears and unblinking eyes, staring him down, immobile, stalwart, uncowed. Or again, the same stone-faced stare, but a little higher in the bleachers and to the left, now a grim and knowing little girl, in a star-bedazzled hoodie, hair bundled like USB cable against her shoulders, solemn and round-eyed as an owl. Or again, the broad-faced fat Mexican kid in the SuperMario t-shirt, gazing at the shooter as if he were gazing into a vast nullity. And whenever the shooter pivots to mow down the offending visage, no living thing stirs in his sight; the sweep of his omnicidal ken discovers only the tumbled array of bodies, blood-drenched and smoking, sprawling anyhow piles, like a snapshot of a mass grave on the internet. It was a little disconcerting. The shooter was clearly having problems with his apprehension. But becoming the shooter probably had its costs—this fracture in the consciousness, call it the price of doing business.


In the days to follow, while the shooter is holed up in his mountain redoubt, relishing his new gaming console and phat recliner, gold bricks of Velveeta lining the fridge—that is, after the shooter shoots his way through the piddly SWAT team that this city could muster, a foe unbecoming, really, almost a waste—the populace will speculate about the state of the shooter’s emotions at this moment, as he contemplates the mass grave of the bleachers, alone, the gym evidently quiet now, the last whimpers and sobs, the gurgles and death groans, evaporating like smoke, converting to memory. They will attribute to the shooter the satiation of a maniacal bloodlust, which is not entirely inaccurate, the shooter allows. They will invest the shooter’s psyche with the devil’s own glee. Touché. But they will underestimate the shooter’s meticulous planning, his architectural genius, because the shooter knows a thing or two about bitchin’ game design. Back in the days when the shooter still made plans for a future (a future other than the future of his post-shooting mountain redoubt), the shooter’s mom had sprung for the tuition at the local college with the iffy admissions standards where the shooter purposed to master the cheatcodes and hashbangs of programming language, that he might blaze a trail up the career ladder of XXX Software Company, Gaming Division, and expose that guy who developed Donkey Kong as the poncy dipshit that he was. The shooter had contemplated the menu of courses, and the shooter had figured that, in addition to the foreign-language class in computing sciences, he might as well take the creative writing course, though if the shooter is being honest, he was really more in the market for a course along the lines of, say, DESTRUCTIVE GAMING. But, antonyms being what they are, in the absence of options, the shooter had figured that he might log some target practice at the keyboard, try out some new premises for games, hatch the baddest of all badass badguys.

The shooter had been progressing adequately, though he hadn’t quite expected that the programming would be so BORING, so, you know, LABOR-INTENSIVE, that there were so many baby steps and first principles to cotton prior to the actual orchestration of a murderous virtual reality. The shooter had made it maybe a few chapters, or maybe a few pages anyway, into the computing sciences textbook before he just cashed in, called it a day, and assumed the role of the silent smartass in the back of the cheaply appointed classroom because maybe he could absorb the basics without really too much wasted energy. This glitch in the plan was unexpected, but the shooter had thought to compensate by making a more or less serious go of it in the NOT-DESTRUCTIVE-GAMING class. Naturally he ignored the assigned works of the poncy writers, among whom figured THE poncy writer on the verge of his surprisingly unimaginative suicide, from whose example the class was to attain a vantage from which to assimilate the VERY DRY art of narration, but when the shooter was directed to script his own work of NOT-DESTRUCTIVE-GAMING, he had endeavored to make a proper go of it, and there were times, whole stretches of minutes if not hours, in which he DID NOT GAME but instead punched words with his idiot fingers on the keyboard of his old-school HP.

It was a strange process because the shooter had begun with the best intentions, planning something of no more than four thousand words in which, say, Call of Duty met Zombie Apocalypse met Chicks Dig Guns—the futuristic neon-Nazis were ZOMBIES! and their bitches were BABES!—but quickly he found himself diverted. The problem was the words. They threw, like, a wrench in the engine works of the nascent virtual world, perpetrated this liquid-crystal spoon-bending malfeasance on the shooter’s laser-scope FPS wetdreams. They were basically seething with electromagnetic forces of their own, mercurial algorithms warping light around the center of the dark mass, and they interfered with and disrupted the unfolding war saga amid which the shooter recognized, through a thin veneer of gamescript clichés, the people, his familiars; the places, his haunts—his cast of characters more or less straight-up decoctions of his mom and her no-account brother and the girl at the Target and the superior type at the Game Stop, and the guy who stalked him once in traffic, and the freakshow anatomies of the dungeon-diaper mamas on the Internet, and the stray hazy figure, leached of physiognomy, of his father who had strolled out of the shooter’s life and into the early grave of a salvage yard in Butte. And the script kept lurching and convulsing into hilariously unsavory predicaments involving a lot of allusions to and one protracted sequence of what might be called nonconsensual anal intercourse, a tactical assault with blowtorch and baton on the supervillain’s sphincter, said supervillain being just a flimsy straw-man of a stepfather figure, all bulbous forehead and the devil’s own puppy-dog eyes with no clear correspondent in the shooter’s biography. The shooter discovered that he used a great number of exclamation points in his most decent sentences. Well, the shooter had typed the thing up, each word glinting and turned to purpose like a newly forged round, and printed it out, each page unspooling like an assembly-line WOMD, like thin-slicing Semtex, and the shooter’s psyche hummed at an exceptionally high flicker rate, burned with a chthonic exhilaration vastly superior to the chthonic exhilaration consequent upon the wasting of seminude flesheaters, and the shooter had passed the thing in with the firm conviction that even the old hag of a teacher would have to recognize the shooter’s non-shooting prowess. But when she had returned the script—which, the shooter allowed, read more like a sitcom sketch, a birth-defective play with maybe an excess of shouting, than an epic game saga—the pages, unlike his classmates’, were immaculately empty, as if the whole thing were consigned to a plane of nonexistence, a kind of REFUSAL TO COUNTENANCE, the sinister shimmering zone of the nullity, leaving the shooter with just the louring gaze of the old hag of a teacher who seemed to have pierced through to the sweat-smelling inseams of his maniac soul and tipped all that she beheld straight into the trashbin of oblivion. That was more or less what had happened, though if the shooter is being technical, there had been four actual words on the final page of the shooter’s manuscript, just an interrogative in the broad, looping hand of calligraphic logomancy, Can I help you?, which amounted to essentially the same thing as the REFUSAL TO COUNTENANCE. After that point, the shooter’s attendance didn’t so much taper off as collapse entirely, until now he remembered the campus as just another site in need of a good hosing down with, say, three to seven thousand rounds of high-caliber ordnance.

And that would have been that, just another abortive episode in the shooter’s pre-spree incarnation, another enervating memory with which to pass the days in his predestined role of CONSUMER/USER-GAMER until the tumor really took root and ballooned, but then all that time later—how long? months? years? the calendar is pretty flexible if you spend most of your days in the suspended animation of a virtual reality—the shooter had recognized the name of the poncy writer attached to the clown-cool bandana-d visage, and he had diverted the pure intent of his sadomasochistic googling in order to view the poncy writer’s Wikipedia page wherein the shooter cottoned the essence of his aesthetic. That’s what it’s called. To wit: amid all the blah, and he blahed, and then blahblahbadiblahblah, the poncy writer’s shining insight, his fucking insuperable metaphysic posited a theory of universal SYNECDOCHE, something to the effect that the least part of our experience is the all of what we are. That every possession, every stray thought and drive-by experience, every appurtenance and concomitant, each one of these was itself synonymous with the whole of one’s identity, a precise mathematical expression of the perceiving human consciousness. A world super-saturated with life’s essence, hyperspatial and ramifying, in which artifacts and entities, animate and inanimate, people and places and things and airy notions, all of this sort of adheres to us, and there’s this mutual infusion of energy such that the one gifts us with the other, object-subject, and vice versa. All in the end is really one.

This discovery had put a significant twist in the shooter’s noodle. The shooter wasn’t dumb. He could catch the upshot here. Instead of a radically compartmentalized world of alien and THEREFORE innocent things, everything was connected, or infected with everything else. And simply to be alive, you had to assent to all of that which was not, but would inevitably become, you—every light ray and sine wave that boogied through your consciousness, to all of this you had to assent. Either that, or clock out, call it a day, start rigging up the noose. Because if you reject one jot, refuse one iota of your experience, you might as well be practicing the intricate and sorely underrated art of self-annihilation. Well of all goddamn things, the shooter had thought, summoning in a single totality every instant of snubbing, of scorn, if not of outright bullying and abuse that he had experienced over the course of his life, and he felt the colossal NAY in all of it, the fundamental withholding of assent. Assent for him. For him, the shooter. And the shooter had taken in all of this with the pitiless gaze of his consciousness, and he felt the full measure of the INJUSTICE of it, the violation of basic MORTAL DECENCIES. And he muttered it low, muttered it and repeated it, slanting the syllables with a slur that softened the semiautomatic fire of his vocal chords: Nonononononono.

You might say that the shooter had learned the hard way the elementary principles of game-scripting, because every artificial prod had come to nothing. In the end there was only experience, and so the apoplectic plotline in the grade school, while in some ways a bit of a hatchet job, a catch-as-catch-can rampage, it still tried to conform to that standard premise of escalating mayhem. Because all of these little incapable-of-resisting bodies, all of those precious rounds spent in the mass grave of the grief assembly, this was for the news reports, this, all this, was for the sake of an indelible communal scarring, a barbed dildo wedged straight up the ass of the collective memory. But for the shooter the massacre in the gym was merely foreplay, preamble to the second phase of this meticulously orchestrated rampage. The real test, and with it, the greater measure of the joy, was coming, the shooter thinks, rounding the corner of the bleachers and turning his pitiless FPS gaze on the crouching body of the teacher, a squat composition of Oxford and corduroy, strappy shoes that bare the splayed bones of the instructional feet. She’s still got her cellphone to the ear, she’s intoning syllables into the device, eyes harrowed, squinting, leaking tears. She appears to be uninjured, save for the mussed hair and hurt feelings. 911, the shooter knows, and that was in the plan too, leave at least one with a set of working fingers to get the po-po out here on the job. Check and check, the shooter thinks. He turns his pitiless gaze to the vast spaces of the gym, the cellblock locker rooms where the kids were made to shower TOGETHER. I mean, are you shitting me? the shooter sniffs. What the fuck were they thinking, herding all those naked kids TOGETHER into tiled cellblocks, training the water on them and ruining their hairdos, all in the name of an illusory cleanliness—because who thought to use soap?—all this under the watchful eye of the pervy gym teacher who must have been in cahoots with the janitor, who must have publicized the particulars of the shooter’s, well, irregular juvenile cock, probably conspicuous to connoisseurs even when concealed behind his cupped shooter’s hands.

Wait. That’s not quite accurate, the shooter does the math, self-corrects. This must have been when the building still housed his, the shooter’s, middle school, before the burgeoning juvenile mortality rates and subsequent redistricting led the elementary schools to merge and decamp from their former locations and take up unified residence here, now the Gilbert S. Lance Elementary School. These dead kids here, they probably weren’t made to shower together in those locker rooms there. Oh, the machinations of a small town could be surprisingly complicated. It was much harder, the shooter allows, to work all of this out while nursing a pretty serious problem with one’s apprehension. Because the shooter peers now into the skeletal gridwork of the underside of the bleachers, and he sees them there like imperturbable rats ambushed in the pantry, the somber bodies of children, flat-faced and immobile, amid the blood puddles and drizzle waterproof and inviolable, contemplating the shooter as if measuring a vast nullity. The rage spikes, and the shooter sprays bullets into the shaded cavity where sparks fly like fireworks from the spokes of the bleachers, but the kids just evaporate into nothing.

At his boottips, the Oxford and corduroy have gone into convulsions, and the shooter, still pensive, abstracted, bends his gaze to consult the streaming visage of the victim. Removes one, then the other plug. Cups them in the hand that levels the rifle barrel.

What do you think, sister? Do you assent to all of this? The shooter hears himself channeling the droog squad from A Clockwork Orange, detects in his shooter’s English the British inflection absorbed from the Cockney precincts of his impressive media empire, though the shooter regretfully acknowledges that, below the theater, his shooter’s voice still sounds like his everyday voice, mealy-mouthed, nasally, taint of a lisp. The truth is that the shooter tenders the question uncertain of his own intent: is he negotiating in good faith a life-or-death contract, or is he just offering her access to a website of dubious provenance and questionable taste? Take a GOOD LOOK. Take it ALL IN. And do you ASSENT? The shooter gestures with the AK, leans in harder on the words, but still isn’t really sure if he’s offering her a deal, if he’s offering to spare her, leave one alive to tell the tale and all that. He’s just channeling the directive, and she’s blubbering, sputtering and mooing in sheer terror, and the shooter feels the rage ebbing aimless until he realizes that she’s breaking up in laughter, struggling, failing to suppress the wave of it. She’s spitting laughter all over the shooter’s boss commando boots that had arrived in the mail just last week, that were nearly fucking brand-new, she’s doubled over and guffawing now into the gleaming butterscotch woodwork of the gym floor, and of course, then the shooter steadies the AK over her brainstem and opens fire. The sound explodes, cracking open fresh nodes of space in his sinus cavities, reverb booming in his ears. Dayum, the shooter thinks. Execution style, hair and skull just chewed to rags. Gore now on his pants and boots. The shooter slurps the plugs, reinstalls them. This is just getting started.


The shooter looses a dispirited sigh, the controlled exhale of a guy very much on the clock, then breaches the gym doors and marches along the corridor, expecting a dull round of finishing work, some standard mopping up of the would-be hostages, but the shooter finds the hall, the cafeteria, the distant exit doors, simulacrum of a playground beyond, all of it immaculately empty, with no memory or record of even the shooter’s own passage, the whole place silent and still as a ghost town, so when the shooter again makes a pass by the front office, he isn’t too disconcerted to find that the little girl’s body has vanished, the bulk of his mom lying there alone, in death as she was in life, just occupying real estate on the surface of the earth, birthing defective children. The shooter doesn’t have occasion to locate and euthanize the absent body because he can see it now, the first cruiser speeding into view. ‘Bout fuckin’ time, the shooter thinks, expecting the next act to follow the script, the cruisers to arrive one after the other and position themselves in a defensive row, tightly circled wagons, from which vantage the beefy and undereducated dimwits will shield themselves behind the bullet-retardant wings of cruiser doors, one fat guy on his belly steadying a never-before-fired rifle on a tripod, the whole scene gripped with inertia, the sheer boredom of a lazy, lackadaisical standoff. But the cruiser swings to in a lunatic motion, a vector that bespeaks squealing tires, strained suspension, engine chuffing in fury. The cruiser bumps over the curb and patch of lawn fronting the school, bounds up onto the WALKWAY in front of the building and then the trooper is out with his pistol drawn—a thick black Beretta with, what, maybe NINE rounds?–and striding toward the doors like the very hand of God, the righteous soldier about his work, about to kick some serious ass. It’s like the guy has accessed some ultimate cheatcode that makes him invulnerable and deathless and he motors on thick polyester legs, heeding the lash of his own dread directive.

Not awaiting backup, the shooter recognizes, a little dazed by such a breach of protocol, this departure from the script, and hamstrung besides by the plugs so that he realizes a beat too late that the trooper—muttonchop face, brown mustache, large flared nose, hair well-oiled and swept over from the side—has already opened fire. The first bullet clips the shooter on the exposed collarbone, and the shooter feels the lightning bolts of splintering, hears the round fucking RICOCHET—phee-eew!—amplified under the lid of the plugs, but the impact is glancing so the shooter can still blink and get his bearings as he teeters, think to raise the AK and spray the air with thirty windmilling rounds that make a disaster of the drop ceiling and swiss cheese of the trooper’s undefended chest, shower of blood spritzed across the shedding insulation. The trooper’s body lies in a supine heap, but the arm still moves, fumbles, trains the weapon without the aid of eyes in the vicinity of the shooter who is still digging in his ammo pouch, and the bullet strikes with a wallop of blunt-force trauma against the Kevlar, knocking the shooter decisively onto his tightly clenched keister.

The bullet had struck at the ribcage under the arm, the pain is deafening in its magnitude and insistence. The shooter can’t draw a breath, he’s gasping and acking and bleeding from the collarbone wound, and it takes a few more moments before he can scream his imprecatory rage, heaping ignominy on the head of the now-for-sure dead fucking trooper, and then the shooter recognizes the calming scent of brimstone, the whiff of powderburn and death, and he knows that he’s breathing again, still here, still alright. He curls up against the cinderblock in the corridor, huddles unto himself, licking wounds, still gasping and wincing. The shooter knew there would be risks, after all. He takes a minute, hunkered in a ball against the cinderblock, body spasming as it accommodates the novelty of pain. Fingers with the far hand the impact crater in the Kevlar. The shooter thinks now that maybe it wasn’t so smart after all, not such a boss idea to sneak that lone AK bullet and slide it greased up the pooper, because you never know when you might get separated from your ammo pouch (still fucking here, asshole). No, maybe that was a little excessive, because the shooter is straining now to retain control and then all at once he concedes, assents, unclenches his scrawny asscheeks and there it goes, with an explosive belch the shooter empties his spastic bowels, a sharp buckshot spatter of colorectal expectoration, probably induced by the GSW, in his immaculate shooter’s underwear. The shame, the humiliation, evolves almost immediately into a grim relief, a cheery aw-shucks WILLINGNESS TO COUNTENANCE. That really was a lot better. It feels liberating to sit here like this, on the deck of this mausoleum, this fucking institutional crypt, leaking blood from the collarbone, blinking away stars, the warm texture of human feces—not a full load, but not negligible either—in a shooter’s underwear, the secret hardware of the AK bullet still gleaming, abiding, palpable like a nut in the peanut butter. There was something almost endearing about it, familiar. Like home. And then the smell cuts through the brimstone, and the scent of his own rich humanity offends the shooter’s nostrils and he resolves to raise himself so as to sight, over the ledge of the window, the cruisers sweeping in, the breadtruck with its SWAT team, already in armor and helmets, already packing, and the troopers rooting in trunk compartments for shotguns, one guy kitted out in some kind of spacesuit studded with grenades, maybe Bomb Squad, and all of them moving, fucking trotting from the street, up the drive, toward the door.

OK, then.

By sheer force of will, the shooter bites down on the pain and gets a move on. He’s shambling through the corridors, hears the muted tinkling of the windows exploding into fireworks behind him. I’d say these guys seem motivated, the shooter thinks, no time to long nostalgically for the lazy and inconclusive standoff that might have occupied his afternoon. The shooter hustles past the cafeteria which appears as orderly and unvisited as a photograph of a cafeteria on the internet, and follows the forward passage around the gymnasium at which the shooter hesitates to take a peek, because what if the crypt was immaculately empty, unshot-up and idling away an ordinary non-shooting-event Sunday? But no, he sneaks a look through the spyhole as he passes, and there it is, the wreckage at center court, the jumbled holocaust carnage of the bleachers. The shooter quickens his pace, pain dulling into regions of the nearly tolerable, almost handleable, and on the far side of the gym, just before the glass of another escape hatch beyond which he sights more troopers deploying, he parts the door to the boiler room where the janitor had led him lo those many years ago, and the shooter regards the furnace apparatus, machine-age hulk of nickel and brass, like an industrial oven, the plate-welded kiln of a child-eating ogre, but smaller now, more decrepit than menacing, hardly scary at all. The shooter scents the sooty air, familiar and pacifying, all around him the cotton batting of memory, and he follows again the path to the wrought-iron stairwell pinned to the wall, leading to the ceiling and the door carved into it, and he hugs his pain tightly to himself and kicks the door open and strides out into the leprous daylight, the low-ceiling lobed clouds still spongy and cinerary and efflorescing with moisture to piss in the shooter’s Cheerios and spill on his spree.

The rooftop has weathered over the years, everything a little drabber, blurred, faded, but is otherwise much the same, its crunch of gravel and tar, ratty upturned edges of the tarpaper, HVAC doodads populating the vicinity. For the record, the shooter thinks, dropping an eye to measure the bloodflow in the margins of the Kevlar (maybe slowing, negligible), it was over there, behind that aluminum box vent with its ceaseless whirring, where the janitor had treed him. No big deal, the shooter reflects. It’s not like the moment defined him or anything. It wasn’t like there was actual penetration or anything, and in that sense, the whole episode was only an experiment in the legitimacy of the virtual, a toxic dose of elementary education. Gray hair oiled back, face a mask of oversized glasses and pathetic whimpering desire, the janitor had just drawn him in with those sympathetic assurances, those soft-lipped promises that there was an end to the abuse and savage loneliness of the schoolrooms, and then the janitor had hauled out his, the shooter’s, irregular cock, which was just as it had always been, from birth, sort of studded with cartilage all along the barrel, burred and bethorned at the pallid muzzle. Kind of like a miniature gourd, a bewarted kumquat. Kind of like a stumpy sea urchin, like the business-end of a medieval mace. There were specialty dildos in the porn industry, these thick sheaths of heavy-duty latex, shaped in exactly this fashion. The shooter had done enough googling subsequently to determine that his cock was barbed like the cocks of the great cats. In the long run, the shooter had thought this a definite boon, this possession of a tiger’s cock, this wielding of a carnivore’s studded wang. He never much credited Mom’s disclosure, of the time that she had left him, hardly more than a toddler, alone for a few minutes to change the laundry and returned to discover that he, the shooter, had wrenched open the junk drawer and extracted the claw hammer and shed his drawers and gone to work flattening the slender length of his curled toddler’s wang. The calcium deposits, or the mutant cartilage burrs, call them painful souvenirs, Mom had said, and though the shooter failed to credit the report that would clear Mom’s conscience for birthing this defective piece of merchandise, he sometimes had misgivings, little flashbacks of aborted memories in which Mom’s curling iron atop the toilet tank and the scent of scalded flesh figured largely. Anyway, the shooter thought it exalting in a way, this tiger’s nubbled wang, an anatomical conferral on him, the shooter, of the status of a demigod or scourge or something, and the janitor had just given his pecker a good going-over, and then he’d told the partly denuded shooter, very politely, to turn around, and he introduced the shooter to what could be called not exactly consensual anal outercourse. That is, the janitor had attempted to mount the shooter and access the shooter’s rearward orifice, but the rearward orifice had marshaled its meager resources and effectively repelled the forces of invasion. The experience was not unlike attempting to plug a USB cable into a dataport upside down. There might or might not have been diarrheic weeping. Anyway, the shooter scarcely gave it a second thought these days, and when he did give it a moment’s thought, he just conceded that it was part of the mosaic of his reality, the past was the past, warts and all. The shooter doesn’t feel supercharged with rage or anything, now that he’s wandering the terrain of his troubled memories, reinhabiting the landscape of his shitty past. He just feels, if he’s being honest, a little overworked, feels as if he’s laboring, and he pauses a moment, tries to double over to get his breath, quell the pain from his wounds, and then he makes his way to the iron ladder bolted to the brickwork, leading to the uppermost roof, a proper bird’s nest.

The shooter grits his teeth and gains altitude, but he keeps low as he shuffles across the gravel and takes up a forward position by the ledge. The shooter readies the AK, but all he can see are the stalled cruisers in the street, freshly waxed and gleaming in the dingy light, the bread truck of the SWAT team crisply painted, properly emblazoned, but the whole scene abandoned, no houses across the way empty to supply spectators or supererogous victims on the sidewalks. No passing cars slow to permit a few sniper clicks at the windows. The street holds its breath and lours with an air of gravity, and the shooter feels the officers streaming through the facility, without a thought for the lives of the nonexistent hostages, making an inventory of the shooter’s handiwork, seeking out the shooter’s hideout with the grim and implacable urgency of an avatar on a cheatcode bender. The shooter considers, crawls toward a bulky HVAC port, takes up a siege position under cover, bellies down, grinds Kevlar into gravel, levels the muzzle of the AK at the access ladder that communicates with his position.

The shooter allows that some troubleshooting might be in order, because he hadn’t exactly prepared for this scenario. The shooter had anticipated a, you know, leisurely standoff in which he could amaze his adversaries with his shooter’s prowess, pick off at a sporting rate the best among them, leave them to contemplate a future bereft of such exemplars, a future that must accommodate the girth and heft of the shooter’s will. The shooter had expected merely to hole up for a while on the rooftop and dole out death on a retail basis until he got bored and decided to target the weak link in the wagon chain, probably in the back parking lot, where the female troopers would be stationed, and blast his way through the defenses, and from there, it was just a brisk jog to the waiting bicycle and the short ride home to reclaim the gear he’d left in the yard (and thus spared from the auxiliary arson event), and then the vast frontiers of the future, his eventual forest redoubt, or mountain redoubt, from which he might devise fresh slaughters for those days when his Xbox was on the fritz. But this blatant disregard for FPS engagement protocol, this murderous HASTE, this would need some rethinking.

The shooter rummages in his ammo pouch, does the math by hand, chews his lip, trembling. Should be plenty, the shooter thinks, still more than three hundred rounds, plus the one in his drawers, if it comes to that. Had he really spent so much ammo in the gym? Wasteful, probably, the shooter thinks. Wasteful. Supposes he could have prevented those 911 calls, just decided to pack it in after the massacre, gone back to the office to root around for Mom’s car keys so he didn’t have to pedal that damn bike through the ghost-town neighborhoods with the AK draped idiotically across his saddle, maybe just save himself for another day when he might have more energy and those cops might respond with conduct more becoming. I mean, the shooter thinks, these fucking people have families, don’t they? The shooter checks the fit of his assassin’s bandana which had ridden up rather high on the shooter’s forehead, exposing who knows what catastrophe of acne and sprawling follicles, but the ear flaps are still pinned to his scalp, the rearward knot still secure. The shooter thinks it would be nice if there were a serviceable mirror on hand, but the HVAC stump here is nonreflective, slatted like shark gills or stadium bleachers, and when the shooter stares into the sheen of the AK, he discerns only the greasy smear of his silhouette, the slide lever on the stock deadending at the locus of the amputated third discharge setting, factory disabled. Safety, Semiauto, Safety, Semiauto, …. Wait. That would mean…. His bionic gamer’s trigger finger does feel a tad raw. Might have overdone things with the gun oil, after all, the shooter thinks, but never mind. He levels his gaze on the regions of the access ladder, at this point ready for grappling hooks to claw for a hold up here on the topdeck of the world, this rotten principality in the wilds of Wisconsin, and only then does the shooter adjust the dial of his apprehension, attune it to the sound.

Checks the AK, as if it’s malfunctioning or just buzzing with the memories of recent hard use. Nothing but the secret silent language of ordnance, mute and immutable as death.

Scans the perimeter. Gull’s-eye view of gravel rooftop expanse, treetops and housetops, blue porcelain water tower bestriding the powerlines, a principality that has laid down weapons in surrender.

The sound, those steady rapid-fire gutturations of hell’s own fury, intensifies, noise still without origin as if emanating from another virtual dimension, until the shooter thinks to cock an eye skyward, half-expecting to see a valkyrie with an Uzi rappelling from the clouds, and sure enough, there it is, the whirling thunder of propellers, not a proper marine’s Black Hawk, lean and lethal and studded with ordnance, but a cherry-red airbus of a Flight4Life helicopter, probably called in from Racine to scoop up the sharpshooters on the roof of the hospital and then tearass over here to draw a bead on the shooter’s position. I mean, Christ! the shooter thinks, the hospital was just across town, bike-able in maybe twenty minutes. But AIR SUPPORT? A little egregious, if you ask the shooter.


The shooter hasn’t anticipated this, but he surmises that the chopper might have limited value as a tactical asset, maybe just there to obtain some aerial reconnaissance, keep a lookout for the shooter’s eventual run-for-it. Call it a precautionary measure, even if it is embarrassingly homemade, improvised, not quite consistent with an adversary of the shooter’s mettle. The shooter tracks the fat behemoth’s inching progress through the horizon frame, considers an air-evac scenario, maybe an errand of mercy for one of the victims, until he sees the thing shift its ungainly bulk on the air, pivot on its landing skis with conscious intent. The floating circus banks laterally and picks up steam, and in a nightmare eyeblink—as if acres of sky have warped and folded and catapulted the rig on a hyperspatial seawave, as if the same fucking cheatcode has been accessed and the tilt of the earth itself bends to purpose to accommodate this maneuver contrary to all physical laws of particles and pixels—the chopper doesn’t so much cover intervening space as phase-shift between categories, from remote-controllable life-at-a-distance to UP-CLOSE-AND-PERSONAL DEATH. And in this awkward attack posture, a little askew, off-kilter, at odds with the plane of reality, the booming lummox bears down on the shooter’s position. As if on cue, the sharpshooters appear from the bomb bay doors in the rig’s belly, and they hug the sides, lean out, level and sight weapons—automatics, the shooter deduces as they lay down strafing fire: ribbons of bullets chew up the gravel, ravage the tarpaper, gotta be hollowpoints streaming toward, overshooting the shooter’s position, and it’s then that the searing pain in his legs detonates, a cellophane veneer is peeled back from the shooter’s consciousness, and the grey sky glows three shades brighter as the shooter allows that he’s been hit.

Imprecations occupy the next few moments of the shooter’s lifescript, and then the pain steadies and gathers, nerve endings ablaze, sizzling spikes of blinding combustion like the phosphorus and magnesium of July 4 sparklers, and the shooter flops over on his soiled rear, the prod of the bullet almost below the threshold of awareness now, and from this hardwon vantage point, the shooter tallies the damage. Not one, but both legs shorn clean just under the knee—rather more under the knee on one than the other—the shooter’s black assassin’s jeans, bullet-chewed, fraying perforations already drenched in and draining the shooter’s life’s essence, terminate in a flaccid expanse where the shins and feet have been dislodged. Well, shiiiit, the shooter thinks. The severed limbs lie inert on the gravel, steel-toes pointed wrong way ‘round, clearly at odds with the shooter’s presently seated anatomy. The shooter’s head is swimming now, flares and crossfire singing in his brain, but he draws breath and concentrates, and clutches the AK tighter, and takes a last look, already preparing the eulogy for his one-time legs—the stump edges hewn ragged and spuming blood, their speckle-shreds of black jeans and righteous grave-walking boots—but in the sweep of his faltering ken, he descries instead the lamb’s-leather rise of an SS jackboot and hashbangs of European khaki, on the gravel a trickle-pool of cold fjord-water. The other leg, copper-tinted and hairless, calf tattoo of a dragon-demon and shod in a skate-rat’s sneaker. And the shooter, even under such duress, even while experiencing such severe problems with his apprehension, can recognize the provenance of said appendages. And though the shooter doesn’t exactly have a spare moment to do the math, time balloons outward and sprawls, dilates to accommodate the conclusion, almost wordless, just part of the directive, that the shooter at the instant of his dissolution is discomposing, shedding fragments of himself, the cumulative shrapnel of the biohazardous identity to which he had once assented and laid claim. The shooter feels some ambivalence about this eventuality, this too-late discovery that he could only ever be a composite shooter, a rigged-up concoction culled from the ghastly odds and ends and junk-drawer atrocities of a diseased civilization. I mean, none of it was even fucking ORIGINAL, the shooter concedes. Was this a loss of identity, an annihilation of self, the shooter wonders in this atemporal rooftop zone of gore and pain and whirring chopper blades raining thunder through the useless burrs of the plugs, or was this the proper fucking triumph, the pinnacle of everything, the final level at which point the faithful gamer at last achieves nirvana?

The shooter doesn’t really have occasion to settle the matter because the airbus is bearing down now, ass-end pitched up, dorsal blade churning giddily with the promise, the whisking surety of death. And the shooter can discern almost point-blank the brick face of the pilot, hands at the controls, stern, grim, impassive, as if wheeling suicidal into a vast nullity, and the shooter channels the directive and turns the AK to purpose once more and sprays the entire clip, pain rioting through his body with each rifle spasm, bullets fizzing in the region of the chopper’s windshield which splinters so fast and so totally it’s like a soap bubble bursting as if it had never been, and as a unit, a solitary integer of mortification, the bullets pummel the body of the pilot, which absorbs them with a cool unfussed rocking of the shoulders, with something like aplomb in the steadying embrace of his pilot’s harness. Likely didn’t have time to pull out of the dive anyway, the shooter reflects, words whirling at the speed of chopper blades, the only kamikaze in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and he’s at the wheel of this fucking RESCUE CHOPPER with a conical snub nose like a bomb? There was something almost majestic, a kind of scalding beauty in the extent of the shooter’s rotten luck, and the body of the pilot slumps forward, mouth smeared with a death grin, as if he discovered therein something delightful, some secret abiding joy, some cheatcode euthanizing grief, and through the wind and fury of the whirring blades—cycling so fast that they seem to stand still, pinning the shooter in down-tilted crosshairs, a towering palladium X—the shooter perceives the rippled, unbeseechable silhouettes of the riflemen still leaning from the bomb bay doors like identical twins in identical headgear, but no longer firing. They make no attempt whatsoever to jump clear of the down-barreling whirlybird and pull ripcords or whatnot and, you know, SURVIVE to enjoy the hero’s welcome of this desolate Wisconsin principality, but instead, they still cling fiercely to the sides of the doomed fuselage as if they have hefted in unison the dying rig on their brawny shoulders, as if to hurl the whole apparatus through the last few yards of spacetime and slam it down with EXTREME PREJUDICE directly on top of, and thus squashing flat, the blanched and palsied figure of the shooter. The shooter only has occasion to think that this was probably gonna hurt a little, because with the first slice of the Cuisinart blades the shooter and both of his shooter’s ears and all of his shooter’s pores and longsuffering follicles would be chopped into a puff of assassin confetti, and in the next few microseconds of game time, his remains would grade from a thin human slurry to a fine pink mist like a vapor trail retaining maybe sentience for one last gush of awareness, one final gasp of amazement before it devolved to just a blur of imperceptible motes, each no bigger than a pixel, until the whole stain blew away into nothing, wiped clean from the frame—just like the concomitant explosion would surely void most of the school, with all of his shooter’s handiwork and low-def biography, from the plane of the earth, strike it from the archeological record of memory, leaving only the ass-end of the helicopter to protrude from the wreckage, plumes of black smoke streaming skyward to etch upon the clouds the shooter’s last will and testament—furred cataract of an impact crater, fingerprint fissure on the firmament, skid mark on the underwear of being, alchemical symbol of the nullity—and let that be the final lesion, the thorny crown, his shallow grave.

—Bruce Stone


Bruce Stone is a Wisconsin native and graduate of Vermont College of Fine Arts (MFA, 2002). In 2004, he served as the contributing editor for The Art of Desire (Oberon Press). His essays have appeared in MirandaNabokov StudiesReview of Contemporary Fiction and Salon.  His fiction has appeared most recently in Straylight and Numéro Cinq. You can hear him talk about fiction writing at Straylight Magazine. He’s currently teaching writing at UCLA.


Nov 082014

Frank Richardson bio pict 2The author outside a bakery in Bamberg, Germany


For a long time, as I read, I paid no more attention to the length of sentences than I did to their grammar or syntax. It wasn’t until I discovered Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu that I learned to appreciate how long and short sentences can be juxtaposed for emphasis and how syntax can mimic the flow of thought and action. Of course, Proust is famous for his long sentences, some of which extend well beyond 200 words; these sentences intrigued me the most. The closest analogy I can imagine is that discovering Proust’s long sentences was like discovering a new genre of music, as if I had lived my life without knowing there existed such things as symphonies. If prose is like music, then some types of writing must resonate with particular people just as we have different musical tastes, and Proust’s swirling syntax certainly resonated with me. Eyes opened, I pursued the subject and discovered the rich variety of ways other writers employ long sentences to dramatize the actions and thoughts of characters.

But why labor to construct a 200-word-long sentence when a dozen shorter sentences can communicate the same information and not task the reader’s attention and patience? A sentence is greater than the sum of its propositions. A sentence’s syntax – the order in which the words of the sentence are arranged – affects its emotional impact, e.g. placing a proposition at the end of a sentence engenders suspense. But the possibilities extend far beyond this simple example. In Artful Sentences Virginia Tufte limns an incredible range of syntactic arrangements that function symbolically. She describes “syntactic symbolism” as when “syntax as style has moved beyond the arbitrary, the sufficient, and is made so appropriate to content that, sharing the very qualities of the content, it is carried to that point where it seems not only right but inevitable” (271). In the following excerpt from the novel Correction, Thomas Bernhard uses repetitive syntax to symbolically represent the protagonist’s mania for perfection, viz. he corrects himself while explaining the process of correction:

We’re constantly correcting, and correcting ourselves, most rigorously, because we recognize at every moment that we did it all wrong (wrote it, thought it, made it all wrong), acted all wrong, how we acted all wrong, that everything to this point in time is a falsification, so we correct this falsification, and then we again correct the correction of this falsification . . . (242)

Tufte cites many examples to illustrate the diversity of emotional and mimetic effects of syntactic symbolism. What Tufte calls syntactic symbolism, David Jauss calls “rhythmic mimesis” and notes that “sometimes the syntax does more than convey the appropriate emotion; sometimes it also rhythmically imitates the very experience it is describing . . .” (70-71).[1] The rhythm of the syntax in Bernhard’s prose conveys the protagonist’s exasperation while simultaneously informs on his character. But the “experience” Jauss refers to can mean movement, whether physical action or the more nebulous movement of human thought. I’ve found these types of motion mimesis to be particularly effective applications of the extended syntax of long sentences.

Thomas.BernhardThomas Bernhard

It is important to note that neither Tufte nor Jauss restrict their examples to long sentences; rhythmic mimesis can be conveyed by sentences of all lengths. But given my penchant for longer sentences, I began looking for how they might be used in the manner Jauss and Tufte describe. After surveying a wide range of fiction (different time periods, genres, narrative modes, etc.), I noticed a pattern whereby authors applied long sentences effectively to create a rhythmic mimesis of motion, speech, consciousness, and even character. In the last category a long list can be used to communicate a fictional character’s character, as exemplified by Nicholson Baker’s obsessive memoirist in The Mezzanine. Motion mimesis – using prose to imitate actions – is an excellent use of long sentences with stunning examples found in such diverse works as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, many of Faulkner’s stories, and the fiction of David Foster Wallace. Spoken language is no less rhythmic than written, and the Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal demonstrates that long sentences can be used to capture the personality and style of a teller of tall tales in his 1964 Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age. In the depiction of the conscious mind in fiction, James Joyce’s achievement in Ulysses still exemplifies how the syntax of long sentences can mimic the rhythm of thought. Two contemporary writers who answered the challenge of capturing the mind’s stream of consciousness include: David Foster Wallace, who in Infinite Jest takes the reader into the realm of the subliminal, of dreams and drug-induced states; and the French writer Mathias Énard, who pushes the boundaries of what we call a sentence even further than Joyce, with his book-length sentence in his 2008 novel Zone.


The List

The most obvious reason to add propositional content to a sentence is to increase the amount of descriptive detail, and long sentence constructions often contain lists. But the point isn’t to string together a random catalogue of items just to fill the page: lists can elucidate character.

Nicholson Baker’s novel The Mezzanine is a daydream, a meditation on life, on questions large and small. The story, presented as a memoir, is told in first-person point of view by Howie, a thirty-year-old factotum obsessed by his childhood. The novel is short, 135 pages, composed of fifteen chapters, many of which have long, detailed footnotes wherein the narrator indulges his love for digression. Howie’s conflict is with himself. He wants to achieve what he calls a “majority,” that is, a moment when he will have “amassed enough miscellaneous new mature thoughts to outweigh and outvote all of those childish ones” – the age of forty, by his calculations – but his obsessive recollections, his seeing the world through the screen of childhood memories, remains his primary obstacle (Baker 58). The novel’s plot is built around a single event – an escalator ride – during an ordinary day five years prior to the novel’s present (its fictional time of writing). At that time, Howie worked at an unnamed corporation and takes us from his lunch break back to his office on the building’s mezzanine, with the escalator ride serving as the focal point. In a narrative where there are more tangents than forward motion, a reader might become overwhelmed with the apparently superfluous anecdotes, but these memories, meditations, and observations – and Baker’s seamless segues between them – are the real magic of The Mezzanine.

Nicholson_BakerNicholson Baker

The story begins as the Howie’s lunch hour is ending and he is approaching the escalator leading to the mezzanine of his office building. Howie is an obsessive, voracious observer of the world around him and delights in sharing his observations in this “memoir.” Mid-way through the second paragraph he digresses to inform us about his activities during his lunch hour, including a two-page-long footnote on the history of drinking straws. Thus, it becomes clear early that this escalator ride is going to take some time to complete; indeed, it will take the remainder of this engaging and richly imagined novel. By chapter five Howie hasn’t even stepped onto the escalator; the story has focused on his past. The first paragraph of chapter five is composed of three short sentences and one long cumulative sentence (341 words) that enumerates Howie’s favorite “systems of local transport” as a child, including rotisseries, rotating watch displays, hot dog cookers, and, of course, escalators:

Other people remember liking boats, cars, trains, or planes when they were children – and I liked them too – but I was more interested in systems of local transport: airport luggage-handling systems (those overlapping new moons of hard rubber that allowed the moving track to turn a corner, neatly drawing its freight of compressed clothing with it; and the fringe of rubber strips that marked the transition between the bright inside world of baggage claim and the outside world of low-clearance vehicles and men in blue outfits); supermarket checkout conveyor belts, turned on and off like sewing machines by a foot pedal, with a seam like a zipper that kept reappearing; and supermarket roller coasters made of rows of vertical rollers arranged in a U curve over which the gray plastic numbered containers that held your bagged and paid-for groceries would slide out a flapped gateway to the outside; milk-bottling machines we saw on field trips that hurried the queueing [sic] bottles on curved tracks with rubber-edged side-rollers toward the machine that socked milk into them and clamped them with a paper cap; marble chutes; Olympic luge and bobsled tracks; the hanger-management systems at the dry cleaner’s – sinuous circuits of rustling plastics (NOT A TOY! NOT A TOY! NOT A TOY!) and dimly visible clothing that looped from the customer counter way back to the pressing machines in the rear of the store, fanning sideways as they slalomed around old men at antique sewing machines who were making sense of the heap of random pairs of pants pinned with little notes; laundry lines that cranked clothes out over empty space and cranked them back in when the laundry was dry; the barbecue-chicken display at Woolworth’s that rotated whole orange-golden chickens on pivoting skewers; and the rotating Timex watch displays, each watch box open like a clam; the cylindrical roller-cookers on which hot dogs slowly turned in the opposite direction to the rollers, blistering; gears that (as my father explained it) in their greased intersection modified forces and sent them on their way. (35-36)

Howie follows this long catalogue with a short sentence, telling us that the escalator shared qualities with these systems with one notable exception: he could ride the escalator. This telescopes his childhood obsession into adulthood – he can, after all, still ride escalators – where the escalators stimulate Proustian involuntary memories of childhood including, he tells us, memories of his and his father’s shared “mechanical enthusiasms” and of the specific memory of his mother taking him and his sister to department stores and instructing them on escalator safety. This memory, in turn, stirs his concern that he spends too much time (in the present of his writing, not the time of his riding the escalator) thinking of things exclusively in terms of his childhood memories, an epiphany that sets up the last paragraph, a précis for the novel:

I want . . . to set the escalator to the mezzanine against a clean mental background as something fine and worth my adult time to think about . . . I will try not to glide on the reminiscential tone, as if only children had the capacity for wonderment at this great contrivance.[2] (39-40)

True to his digressive tendencies, however, the escalator won’t be mentioned again until chapter eight, and it is not until the midpoint in the novel that Howie actually boards the escalator.

Baker’s long list sentence adds character detail to this dense tale. First, note his eye for specifics: the “blistering” of the hot dogs, the “men in blue” at the airport. Second, he uses metaphor and simile: the “new moons of hard rubber” and watch boxes “like open clams.” Thus, the list not only informs on Howie’s whimsical, yet poetic and reflective nature, but also shows us, by example, his obsessive behavior. Howie acknowledges he likes the things other children liked, only he liked something else more, something odd, something unusual; and then he shows us how much it all meant to him with his detailed recollection. Once Howie begins his recollection, he becomes lost in it; his list goes on and on and he can hardly break free from its hold on him as new things are added and elaborated in fractal-like digressions. Howie spirals into many such lavishly detailed memories and the long sentences convey his sense of being lost in contemplation. Despite his continuing attempts to escape the gravitational pull of his childhood, Howie keeps being drawn deep into memory. A convincing stylistic choice, this long list sentence adds detail while simultaneously revealing character through syntactic symbolism – the long, uninterrupted flow of Howie’s list shows us his obsession with his childhood.


Motion Mimesis

Syntagmatic extension of a sentence always has one consequence: it keeps the reader in the moment. Except for perhaps sentences that run for pages, most readers will read to the end of a long sentence before making a full stop at the period. Dwelling on the action can have several effects depending on the subject, including heightening the emotional impact of the moment, whether that is grief or joy, ecstasy or terror. When actions are depicted by the sentence, the rhythm of the prose can lend itself to mimicking the character’s movement. An excellent example of such motion mimesis is found in the climax of William Faulkner’s 1939 short story “Barn Burning.”

“Barn Burning” is a coming-of-age story set in the post-Civil War American South. The 23-page story has a linear timeline, is written in the past tense, and covers six days, from a Monday through a Saturday. The third-person limited point of view focuses on the thoughts of the protagonist, the ten-year-old Colonel Sartoris “Sarty” Snopes, youngest of the four Snopes children. The paterfamilias, Abner Snopes, is a violent sociopath, and at the beginning of the story he is a suspect in the burning of a barn. After being found not guilty, he loads up his family for the twelfth time in ten years and moves to the next hamlet to find a work on a farm. The day they arrive Snopes indulges his hatred and jealousy by going to the house of the landowner Major de Spain and deliberately soiling an expensive carpet with horse manure. When asked to clean the rug, Snopes destroys it in the process. In court for the second time within a week, Snopes is fined ten bushels of corn; enraged, that night he sets out to burn de Spain’s barn. When he sees that Sarty is shocked, he becomes worried that his son will thwart his plans and has him held back by his mother. After Snopes and the older son leave, Sarty breaks loose and runs to the de Spain mansion where he bursts in and warns them of the imminent arson. Sarty flees down the road toward the barn and is soon passed by de Spain on horseback. Hearing three shots, Sarty believes his father dead and runs away, leaving his family forever. The primary image of “Barn Burning” is “blood,” which Faulkner uses eight times and always in the context of Sarty and his father or family. In the climax Sarty must choose between his father, his blood, and what he feels is the moral, right choice of warning de Spain.

lg-portrait-of-william-faulkner-896William Faulkner

Young Sartoris has an apparently instinctive sense of right and wrong that jars with his father’s violent, malicious behavior. In the opening scene when his father is before “the Justice,” the boy knows his father is guilty: “He aims for me to lie, he thought, again with that frantic grief and despair. And I will have to do hit” (Faulkner 4); and two days later, after his father is told by Major de Spain that he’ll have to pay twenty bushels of corn for destroying the rug, Sarty, working in the field, hopes that this will mark the end of his father’s reign of terror; he thinks: “Maybe it will all add up and balance and vanish – corn, rug, fire; the terror and grief, the being pulled two ways like between two teams of horses – gone, done with for ever and ever” (17). He can’t believe it when his father tells him to get the oil; he knows what his father intends to do. As Sarty is fleeing down the road after warning de Spain, his “blood and breath roaring,” he is in a semi-fugue state:

He could not hear either: the galloping mare was almost upon him before he heard her, and even then he held his course, as if the very urgency of his wild grief and need must in a moment more find him wings, waiting until the ultimate instant to hurl himself aside and into the weed-choked roadside ditch as the horse thundered past and on, for an instant in furious silhouette against the stars, the tranquil early summer night sky which, even before the shape of the horse and rider vanished, stained abruptly and violently upward: a long, swirling roar incredible and soundless, blotting the stars, and he springing up and into the road again, running again, knowing it was too late yet still running even after he heard the shot and, an instant later, two shots, pausing now without knowing he had ceased to run, crying “Pap! Pap!”, running again before he knew he had begun to run, stumbling, tripping over something and scrabbling up again without ceasing to run, looking backward over his shoulder at the glare as he got up, running on among the invisible trees, panting, sobbing, “Father! Father!” (24)

The motion described by the sentence begins with de Spain’s galloping mare gaining on Sarty and continues with him flinging himself into the ditch. After the stunning pause with the juxtaposition of “furious silhouette” and “tranquil . . . night sky (“stained” as blood stains), the motion then gathers momentum as Sarty resumes his sprint. What follows are sixteen more verbs, mostly action verbs, expressed as present participles[3] (as opposed to the past definite). This creates a sense of simultaneity and continuous motion. Faulkner repeats “running” four times and “run” twice within the second half of the sentence; this emphasis extends beyond the motion it is describing to become a metaphor for Sarty and his future. Following the gunshots, he pauses briefly crying the familiar “Pap! Pap!” – his blood; his blood now severed he resumes his run but now he is running away as he had imagined when his father asked him to get the oil: “I could run on and on and never look back . . .” (21). This horrible moment, the defining moment of Sarty’s life, when the choice he made results in the death (at least as far as he can tell) of his father, this desperate race, is captured wonderfully by the Faulkner’s long sentence. The reader is held in suspense as the Sarty runs toward his father and as de Spain rushes to defend his property and is finally swept along with the boy as he runs and runs, never to look back.


The Never-ending Story

As anyone who has ever listened to a speech knows, there is a rhythm to the spoken word. A speaker may drone on and on and put the audience to sleep, or he can be dynamic, lyrical, and modulate his tone to keep the audience’s attention. Generally we need pauses in a speech; they are necessary moments of reflection and break the monotony of an unchanging cadence. Aside from soliloquy, fictional characters rarely have unmitigated speech; otherwise the writer, like the droning speaker, might lose his audience. So it is intriguing to find a writer who is willing to take up the challenge of writing a continuous monologue without chapters, without section breaks or line breaks; indeed a monologue as a single sentence that captures the rhythm of language while still entertaining the reader. Such is Bohumil Hrabal’s Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age.

First published in Czechoslovakia in 1964 and in an English translation by Michael Henry Heim in 2011, Hrabal’s single-sentence book defies categorization. His friend and reviewer Josef Sǩvorecký called it a “long short story” (Sǩvorecký 7). Adam Thirlwell, who wrote the introduction for the 2011 edition, called it a “novel in one monologue” (Hrabal viii). Semantics aside, this unique story, or collection of tall tales, is a wonderful example of how a writer can sculpt a very long, yet engaging sentence that mimics the spoken word. Hrabal developed his style of story-telling, what he called páblitelé – which Sǩvorecký translates as “tellers of tall tales” and which Thirlwell translates as “palavering” – based on the free-association rambling of oral story-tellers in his life. But this is not a form of automatic writing or free writing – genuine craft is expressed in Hrabal’s prose; the narrator’s monologue (it isn’t really a speech – speeches are organized logically and are intended to communicate specific information – neither of which applies here) is by degrees whimsical, ribald, lyrical, poignant, and profound.

Bohumil-HrabalBohumil Hrabal

Superficially, the book represents the uninterrupted speech of a septuagenarian shoemaker named Jirka who is regaling a group of sunbathing women with his stories of being a soldier during the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, his sexual exploits, his opinions on the church and religion, and his humorous digressions of tall tales. It is told in the first-person, mostly in the past tense, and follows real time in that the amount of time it takes to read the 117 pages approximates the time it would take to actually listen to the narrative. Jirka’s desire is to be listened to, to flirt with the ladies; his conflict is keeping his listeners’ attention. But unlike a random, garrulous old man droning on and on, one who won’t let you go until you hear every variation of the same big fish story, Jirka keeps us listening:

neither Havlíček nor Christ ever laughed, if anything they wept, because when you stand for a great idea you can’t horse around, Havlíček had a brain like a diamond, the professors went gaga over him, they tried to make him a bishop, but no, he chose justice, a little coffee, a little wine, and a life for the people, stamping out illiteracy, only perverse people dream of rolling in manure (better days ahead) or of chamber pots (your future is assured) because the thing is, dear ladies, you’ve got to rely on yourselves, take Manouch, who thought he had it made because his father was a jailer and all he did was drink and pick up bad habits, which leads to fights like the quarrel in the days of the monarchy between the social democrats and the freethinkers and clerics over whether the world comes from a monkey or God slapped Adam together out of mud and fashioned Eve from his insides, now He could have made her out of mud too, it would have been cheaper, though nobody really knows what went on, the world was as deserted as a star, but people twitter away like magpies and don’t really care, I could set my sights on a charmer, a prime minister’s daughter, but what’s not to be is not to be and could even take a bad turn, Mother of God! the crown prince had syphilis and that Vetsera woman shot him, but then she got shot by the coachman, though any young lady will tell you you might as well be buried alive if the man in your life has a faulty fandangle, when I was serving in the most elegant army in the world I told our medical officer, Doctor, I said, I’ve got a weak heart, but all he said was, So have I, boy, and if we had a hundred thousand like you we could conquer the world, and he put me into the highest category, so I was a hero . . . (3-5)

For the purposes of this essay I’ve selected this 340-word excerpt of the 117-page long sentence so that a sense of the rhythm can be appreciated. In the book as a whole, after the comma, the most common punctuation mark Hrabal uses is the question mark, then the dash, then the exclamation point; there are no colons or periods (even at the end) and only one semicolon.

In this relatively short passage there is an astonishing variety of subjects. He begins with philosophizing about the writer Havlíček and Christ (a favorite subject); then makes an aphoristic statement (a common habit); he reflects on Havlíček’s history with clear parallels to his own (Jirka’s) values; he quotes ironic entries from his favorite book of dream interpretations, refers to his audience, and then drops another aphorism. He interrupts himself at one point with the exclamation “Mother of God!” (another habit) indicating that he has just remembered something that he absolutely must tell the ladies right away. Note that Hrabal doesn’t let us forget the scene: more than a dozen times in the book Jirka refers directly to the women he is speaking to, but here he also says “though any young lady will tell you,” an indirect nod in their direction and a preface to his flirting. He concludes this part of his never-ending sentence with a tale of the absurd, a lampoon of his time in the military (another favorite subject).

Sǩvorecký writes that Hrabal’s importance “lies predominantly in this language, in how his stories are told” (8). The book’s forward momentum is carried by Jirka’s engaging voice and the bizarre, often humorous tales he tells. Narrative voice isn’t carried by subject matter and diction alone, but by the order of words, i.e. the syntax with which those words are arranged.


The Persistence of Thought: Mind Mimesis

One of the most elusive subjects in fiction, as in life, is the nature of human consciousness. Philosophers have been arguing about how we know (or think we know) what we know and how we know what others know since the emergence of language. Epistemological questions aside, how can a writer convey – or attempt to convey – the nature of human thought?

Methods for representing a character’s thought span the range of narrative modes. Consider first-person. It seems straightforward enough: have the character simply tell us what he is thinking. When addressing another character, this is dialogue, or if alone, a soliloquy. Soliloquy typically follows the rules of grammar and is logically organized. And soliloquy, although spoken alone, is presented as if to an audience, which requires it to be more coherent (Humphrey 35). But what if the language is internal self-address, i.e. the language we “speak” only to ourselves? The narrative mode used to describe this is variously called free direct thought, internal monologue, or autonomous monologue. Interior monologue, in contrast to soliloquy (or dialogue) is more associative; prone to spontaneous, illogical shifts; and is rich in imagery (Cohn 12). The acme of internal monologue in literature is found in the “Penelope” chapter of James Joyce’s Ulysses.

James Joyce’s 1922 Ulysses is the ur-text for modernism. Published in 1922, this canonical “stream of consciousness” novel is the story of the lives of three principal characters, Leopold Bloom (who works in advertising), his wife Molly (a professional singer), and a family friend Stephen Dedalus (an aspiring poet) on a single day: June 16, 1904. The book is divided into eighteen sections and is organized according to Homer’s Odyssey, with Bloom in the role of Odysseus (Ulysses in Roman myths). Bloom’s journey takes him from home, through his day in Dublin, and then back again; along the way he is joined by Stephen. Almost all of the chapters focus on Bloom, but the last chapter, commonly referred to as “Penelope” in reference to Odysseus’s wife, takes place in the mind of Molly while she tosses and turns, unable to fall asleep after her husband returns home and joins her in bed at approximately two in the morning. “Penelope” is divided into eight “sentences,” although the only reason for designating them thusly are line breaks with indentation; the chapter has no punctuation except for two periods, one at the end of the fourth sentence; one at the end. The run-on nature of the chapter is the point, that thought doesn’t stop; it keeps flowing in an endless stream until you either fall asleep (except for dreaming) or die, i.e. you can’t turn thought off.

james-joyceJames Joyce

Molly has had a singular day: she has had an affair with her manager Hugh “Blazes” Boylan. Lying awake in bed, her thoughts roam: she thinks about Boylan and compares his sexuality with Bloom’s; she thinks about her marriage and that she and “Poldy” (whom she suspects has had an affair too that day) haven’t have sex since their son Rudy died shortly after he was born eleven years prior; she thinks about the future and is worried about their finances, she fantasizes about the twenty-something Stephen; and she thinks about her past, including the men she has known, her childhood in Gibraltar, and (famously) when Bloom asked her to marry him and she said yes. The only indication of an external world is a train whistle she hears; the only action, when she gets out of bed to use the chamber pot. Molly’s character is highly nuanced and through her unedited stream of consciousness the reader empathizes with the conflicts she faces in her life. After her fantasy of seducing Stephen concludes, her thoughts turn back to Boylan, then to Bloom as the last sentence of the chapter begins. She is annoyed with Bloom for having kissed her bottom after he crawled into bed. Her annoyance leads to sexual fantasies with other men until she is distracted by Bloom crowding her on the bed; she thinks:

O move over your big carcass out of that for the love of Mike listen to him the winds that waft my sighs to thee[4] so well he may sleep and sigh the great Suggester Don Poldo de la Flora if he knew how he came out on the cards this morning hed have something to sigh for a dark man in some perplexity between 2 7s too in prison for Lord knows what he does that I dont know and Im to be slooching around down in the kitchen to get his lordship his breakfast while hes rolled up like a mummy will I indeed did you ever see me running Id just like to see myself at it show them attention and they treat you like dirt I dont care what anybody says itd be much better for the world to be governed by the women in it you wouldnt see women going and killing one another and slaughtering when do you ever see women rolling around drunk like they do or gambling every penny they have and losing it on horses yes because a woman whatever she does she knows where to stop sure they wouldn’t be in the world at all only for us they dont know what it is to be a woman and a mother how could they where would they all of them be if they hadnt all a mother to look after them what I never had thats why I suppose hes running wild now out at night away from his books and studies and not living at home on account of the usual rowy house I suppose well its a poor case that those that have a fine son like that theyre not satisfied and I none was he not able to make one it wasnt my fault we came together when I was watching the two dogs up in her behind in the middle of the naked street that disheartened me altogether I suppose I oughtnt to have buried him in that little woolly jacket I knitted crying as I was but give it to some poor child but I knew well Id never have another our 1st death too it was we were never the same since O Im not going to think myself into the glooms about that any more . . . (778)

This 392-word excerpt depicts the silent, unmediated self-communication of a fictional mind saturated with thoughts that transition associatively with dizzying speed. She is annoyed at Bloom for hogging the bed; she compares his wheezing (or perhaps snoring) with a song called “The Winds That Waft My Sighs to Thee” (remember, she is a professional singer; she doesn’t “say” to herself “His snoring sounds like X, rather the association pops into her consciousness as she listens to him breathe); she invents an epithet for Bloom; she thinks about the card reading she did for him; she’s aggravated about agreeing to fix him breakfast; she philosophizes about what a better world it would be if “governed by the women”; she reflects that men are ungrateful and then thinks of Stephen, whom she worries about in a maternal way; she speculates that Stephen’s parents don’t appreciate him and that they are ungrateful which leads to her thoughts of her dead son Rudy and that she should have given the coat she knitted for him to a needy child; and she reflects that she and Bloom haven’t been intimate since Rudy’s death, which she then resolves not to be depressed about. She uses the imperative (“O move over”), indicative (“I dont care what anybody says”), and subjunctive (“if he knew”) mood. She uses the past, present, and future tense. And all of these grammatical forms are switched between with the fluid rhythmicity of thought.

The first and most obvious feature of this excerpt that adds to its verisimilitude as internal monologue is the fact that it is uninterrupted; there are no gaps in the text as there are no gaps in our thoughts. Another feature of “pure” internal monologue that makes this example (and the entire “Penelope” chapter) successful as speech-for-oneself is the use of non-referential pronouns, i.e. “he” refers to Bloom, Stephen, and Rudy at different places in the stream of thought, and, significantly, there is no immediate reference to whom of the three she is thinking about. After all, Molly knows who she is thinking about and doesn’t need to explain it to anyone – this isn’t a soliloquy, this isn’t a speech, and this isn’t dialogue. Finally, the thought mimesis isn’t disrupted by Molly reporting her actions using action verbs and the first-person pronoun. This last quality doesn’t apply particularly to this passage, but it is important to the success of the chapter as a whole. The only action she takes is to use the chamber pot and Joyce is careful to address her kinetic perceptions without action verbs (q.v. sub).


Mathias Énard’s Zone, published in France in 2008 and in an English translation by Charlotte Mandell in 2010, is a novel that parallels Ulysses in many ways. Like Joyce, Énard borrowed his structure from Homer, this time: The Iliad. Also like Joyce, Énard explores consciousness with internal monologue. With Zone Énard follows the tradition of novel-length sentences such as those by Bohumil Hrabal, Jerzy Andrzejewski, and Camilo José Cela. Zone is presented as a single-sentence internal monologue by the protagonist Francis Servain Mirković, a former spy for French Intelligence, now fleeing to a new life aboard a train from Milan to Rome. However, the sentence is interrupted by twenty-four, numbered chapter divisions (loosely reflecting Homer’s epic), and three chapters are devoted to a tale-within-the-tale (a book Francis is reading in which the plot parallels his own). Neither the parallel story, nor the chapter breaks detract significantly from the continuity of Francis’s roaming thoughts, and the stylistic choice of an internal monologue allows Énard great freedom in creating an intricate network of associated images.

The novel begins in media mentum in Francis’s mind as the train is leaving the Milan station: “everything is harder once you reach man’s estate, everything rings falser a little metallic like the sound of two bronze weapons clashing . . .” (Énard 5). Two bronze weapons clashing. Énard’s war imagery begins immediately and doesn’t relent. Francis, Croatian veteran of the Bosnian War, amateur historian, spy, has fled France with a suitcase full of war crimes information. He plans to sell the documents to the Vatican for $300,000, his nest egg for retirement under an assumed identity. The story of a man trying to escape his past, Zone is told from Francis’s point of view in internal monologue, but with the psychic distance shifted toward autobiography and reportage, i.e. with thoughts organized more logically than Joyce presents Molly’s meditations. Francis, in his recollections, tells a story, or many stories, during his trip. Francis never leaves the train, although the locations he passes serve as segues for his mental peregrinations through history (personal and otherwise), especially of wars in the Mediterranean region.

Dorrit Cohn, in her 1978 seminal work Transparent Minds, notes that “unity of place . . . creates the conditions for a monologue in which the mind is its own place . . .” (222) and compliments Joyce on his decision to place Molly in bed where she doesn’t need to address her kinetic perceptions. Of course, that isn’t entirely accurate since Molly does get out of bed to use the chamber pot. Énard also places his character in a position of stasis, the train seat he occupies for the trip, and, like Molly, Francis will get up and move about only briefly. However, Énard gets to have it both ways: yes, Francis is static (most of the time) but he is also on a moving train passing through the Italian countryside and through Italian cities – opportunities for Francis’s thoughts to segue between subjects. Sometimes Francis only notes the city without comment, such as when he passes through Parma and Reggio Emilia, but other times he uses the location as a platform to digress about history, or to facilitate his meditations. As the train pulls out of Florence, Francis thinks:

I’m facing my destination, Rome is in front of me, Florence streams past, noble Florence scattered with cupolas where they blithely tortured Savonarola and Machiavelli, torture for the pleasure of it strappado water the thumb-screw and flaying, the politician-monk was too virtuous, Savonarola the austere forbade whores books pleasures drink games which especially annoyed Pope Alexander VI Borgia the fornicator from Xàtiva with his countless descendants, ah those were the days, today the Polish pontiff trembling immortal and infallible has just finished his speech on the Piazza di Spagna, I doubt he has children, I doubt it, my neighbors the crossword-loving musicians are also talking about Florence, I hear Firenze Firenze one of the few Italian words I know, in my Venetian solitude I didn’t learn much of the language of Dante the hook-nosed eschatologist, Ghassan and I spoke French, Marianne too of course, in my long solitary wanderings as a depressed warrior I didn’t talk with anyone, aside from asking for a red or white wine according to my mood at the time, ombra rossa or bianca, a red or white shadow, the name the Venetians give the little glass of wine you drink from five o’clock onwards, I don’t know the explanation for this pretty poetic expression, go have a shadow, as opposed to going to take some sun I suppose at the time I abused the shadow and night in solitude, after burning my uniforms and trying to forget Andi Vlaho Croatia Bosnia bodies wounds the smell of death I was in a pointless airlock between two worlds, in a city without a city, without cars, without noise, veined with dark water traveled by tourists eaten away by the history of its greatness . . . (330-331) [Énard’s italics]

 One of the first things to note is that the internal monologue is more conversational, more dialogic than Molly’s internal speech. Joyce’s style eschews active verbs and punctuation, giving it a less edited and more organic feel. But such a style would be difficult to maintain for the 517-page journey Zone follows; “Penelope” is just over 40 pages. Énard’s more coherent syntax is more readable and more forgiving. Nevertheless, the sentence (fragment) succeeds in capturing the flowing thoughts of the character using many of the same techniques used by Joyce including: omitting punctuation (in places), rapid and spontaneous free association, staccato rhythms, and poetic imagery.

Francis’s thoughts flow in free association when the thought of torture triggers a list of torture techniques including strappado, the use of water, and thumb-screws; here the absence of commas, definite articles, or other grammatical devices helps create the stream of consciousness effect. In this 286-word excerpt Francis then: generalizes ironically about the past (“those were the days”), has doubts, observes his fellow travelers, thinks of the languages he knows and once spoke with a friend and his ex-girlfriend, reflects on the present in generalizations, and finally returns to his past where the names of his fellow soldiers and friends run together with locations, trailing off in poetic imagery.

menardMathias Énard

There are three notable differences between this monologue and the type of pure internal monologue seen in the Joyce example. First, it is broken up with punctuation. Second, Énard uses referential pronouns, e.g. Xàtiva/his and pontiff/his, and people have proper names. Third, the thought mimesis is interrupted by Francis’s declaring his perceptions using action verbs and the first-person pronoun, e.g. “I hear Firenze Firenze” – Molly hears a train, but she never tells the reader. This last difference is significant for action depiction as well.

Both Molly and Francis act in their memories, whether it is Molly musing about her first sexual encounter in Gibraltar or Francis reliving the horror of watching his friend get shot in Bosnia. But for movement in the narrative’s present, internal monologue can be difficult to manage without disturbing the reader’s perception, i.e. if the reader has accepted that they are “listening in” to someone’s thoughts then describing external events can be as jarring as changing the point of view. For example: one of the distinctive features of pure internal monologue is that thought isn’t disrupted by characters reporting their actions using action verbs and the first-person pronoun. In the following excerpt, Molly gets out of bed to urinate and find a sanitary napkin, but we only read her impressions:

O Jamesy let me up out of this pooh sweets of sin whoever suggested that business for women what between clothes and cooking and children this damned old bed too jingling like the dickens I suppose they could hear us away over the other side of the park till I suggested to put the quilt on the floor with the pillow under my bottom I wonder is it nicer in the day I think it is easy I think Ill cut all this hair off me there scalding me I might look like a young girl wouldnt he get the great suckin the next time he turned up my clothes on me Id give anything to see his face wheres the chamber gone easy Ive a holy horror of its breaking under me after that old commode I wonder was I too heavy . . . (769)

In the first line, where we expect the word “bed,” we find the interjection “pooh” – a word that has spontaneously popped into her consciousness. There is a missing copula in “this damned old bed too jingling.” She never “thinks” she is walking to the chamber pot, only wonders where it has gone. Compare this with the following passage from Zone where Francis describes going to the toilet:

I’d like to go have a drink at the bar, I’m thirsty, it’s too early, at this rate if I begin drinking now I’ll arrive in Rome dead drunk, my body is weighing me down I shift it on the seat I get up hesitate for an instant head for the toilet it’s good to move a little and even better to run warm non-potable water over your face, the john is like the train, modern, brushed grey steel and black plastic, elegant like some handheld weapon, more water on my face and now I’m perked up, I go back to my seat . . . (54)

Note the first-person pronoun and action verb use: “I shift it,” “I get up,” and “I go back.” There are three constructions using copulas (or implied copulas): “it’s too early,” “it’s good,” and “the john is.” As a result of the action verbs and copulas, what should be internal monologue feels like reportage.

Nevertheless, Énard demonstrates the versatility of a long sentence internal monologue. I agree with Mary Stein, who wrote in her 2011 review of Zone: “Énard’s ambitious prose functions as a structure necessary to and inseparable from Mirković’s narrative identity.” The stream of consciousness fluidity of the long run-on sentence mimics Francis Mirković’s disturbed mind, and if some verisimilitude of consciousness mimesis is sacrificed, his narrative identity still supports a web of imagery that rises to the level of great art.


Altered States

Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace’s sprawling 1996 novel, opens during the Year of Glad (ca. 2008) in an imagined future where the U.S., Canada, and Mexico have been combined into the Organization of North American Nations (O.N.A.N.) and corporations purchase naming rights to each calendar year. Three interwoven plots follow separate groups of characters, including: the protagonist Hal Incandenza and his schoolmates at the Enfield Tennis Academy in Boston, a group of men and women in a drug rehabilitation house nearby, and a Québécois terrorist group.

Most of the action of the novel takes place one year prior to the opening scene and is narrated in the past tense by, arguably, Hal. The novel, told primarily from a third-person point of view, has numerous examples of first-person intrusion, and it is always Hal. Hal is a linguistic prodigy, and his way of interpreting the world is revealed in a stylistic manner consistent with his consciousness, i.e. with elevated diction and complex syntax. Hal is also a drug addict. In fact, many of the characters have substance abuse issues and Infinite Jest is in many regards the epic of addiction. During Hal’s senior year at his private high school he struggles with marijuana addiction while, simultaneously, Joelle Van Dyne struggles with cocaine. Joelle is the ex-girlfriend of Hal’s older brother Orin and, after her near-fatal overdose, becomes a resident of the rehab house near Hal’s school.

dfwDavid Foster Wallace

Although Wallace depicts the consciousness of his characters almost exclusively using third-person narration, he still achieves a stream of consciousness effect in many scenes. The problem with first-person presentation of characters in drug-induced states of altered consciousness is that, as readers, we neither expect them to speak in coherent language, nor can we imagine any coherence to their thoughts at all. Thus, Cohn writes that “the novelist who wishes to portray the least conscious strata of psychic life is forced to do so by way of the most indirect and the most traditional of the available modes” (56), what she terms “psycho-narration” (or third-person narration). Wallace makes effective use of long sentences to depict altered conscious states in the scenes of Joelle’s overdose and Hal’s nightmare.

Joelle, who has a late-night radio show, was disfigured some years before when acid was thrown in her face. She now wears a veil and is a member of the “Union of the Hideously and Improbably Deformed.” Early in the primary timeline, Joelle[5] returns to the apartment she shares with Molly (who is throwing a massive party), locks herself in the bathroom, and proceeds to commit suicide by smoking freebase cocaine. The following 449-word long sentence is from her point of view and takes place after her second dose from her homemade pipe:

The voice is the young post-New Formalist from Pittsburgh who affects Continental and wears an ascot that won’t stay tight, with that hesitant knocking of when you know perfectly well someone’s in there, the bathroom door composed of thirty-six that’s three times a lengthwise twelve recessed two-bevelled squares in a warped rectangle of steam-softened wood, not quite white, the bottom outside corner right here raw wood and mangled from hitting the cabinets’ bottom drawer’s wicked metal knob, through the door and offset ‘Red’ and glowering actors and calendar and very crowded scene and pubic spiral of pale blue smoke from the elephant-colored rubble of ash and little blackened chunks in the foil funnel’s cone, the smoke’s baby-blanket blue that’s sent her sliding down along the wall past knotted washcloth, towel rack, blood-flower wallpaper and intricately grimed electrical outlet, the light sharp bitter tint of a heated sky’s blue that’s left her uprightly fetal with chin on knees in yet another North American bathroom, deveiled, too pretty for words, maybe the Prettiest Girl Of All Time (Prettiest G.O.A.T.), knees to chest, slew-footed by the radiant chill of the claw-footed tub’s porcelain, Molly’s had somebody lacquer the tub in blue, lacquer, she’s holding the bottle, recalling vividly its slogan for the last generation was The Choice of a Nude Generation, when she was of back-pocket height and prettier by far than any of the peach-colored titans they’d gazed up at, his hand in her lap her hand in the box and rooting down past candy for the Prize, more fun way too much fun inside her veil on the counter above her, the stuff in the funnel exhausted though it’s still smoking thinly, its graph reaching its highest spiked prick, peak, the arrow’s best descent, so good she can’t stand it and reaches out for the cold tub’s rim’s cold edge to pull herself up as the white-party-noise reaches, for her, the sort of stereophonic precipice of volume to teeter on just before the speakers blow, people barely twitching and conversations strettoing against a ghastly old pre-Carter thing saying ‘We’ve Only Just Begun,’ Joelle’s limbs have been removed to a distance where their acknowledgment of her commands seems like magic, both clogs simply gone, nowhere in sight, and socks oddly wet, pulls her face up to face the unclean medicine-cabinet mirror, twin roses of flame still hanging in the glass’s corner, hair of the flame she’s eaten now trailing like the legs of wasps through the air of the glass she uses to locate the de-faced veil and what’s inside it, loading up the cone again, the ashes from the last load make the world’s best filter: this is a fact. (239-240)

Joelle’s overdose results in an altered state of consciousness. Wallace begins the descent into her mind with a complete sentence of indirect internal monologue: she hears someone asking if the bathroom is occupied The voice . . . in there”). Rather than ending this sentence with a period, Wallace creates a run-on sentence with several clauses that describe her perceptions using vivid imagery (e.g. adjectives like beveled, warped, steam-softened, raw, and mangled). About halfway through the sentence she thinks of the nickname Orin gave her. The next clause is a complete sentence and internal monologue: “Molly’s had somebody lacquer the tub in blue,” followed by a single-word thought (“lacquer”), and then the narration shifts back to third-person (or perhaps indirect internal monologue) with “she’s holding the bottle.” There are memories, then more sensory descriptions (sound is now white noise); she regards her limbs as distant, has lost her shoes, is lost in hallucination (“twin roses of flame still hanging in the glass’s corner”), and finally reloads her pipe for another dose. The long, run-on nature of this sentence; the free associations; the irrational switching between perceptions, actions, and thoughts; and the poetic imagery all contribute to creating a stream of consciousness effect in this passage.

Conveying a dream state presents the writer with the same problem of drug-induced states: it is subliminal thought. Hal’s nightmare of finding “Evil” in his dorm room is a tour de force of long-sentence syntax engendering suspense and depicting the process that takes place in a dreaming mind.

A subchapter begins with first-person narration during an indeterminate time, i.e. it could be outside the narrative while the implied author is writing. The narrator feels he is coming to a realization about nightmares. After letting this thought trail off in ellipsis, the narration resumes in second-person (heightening our identification with the character) as Hal (“you”) dreams that he is lying in bed in his pitch-dark dorm room. In the dream, Hal pans the room with a flashlight, listing what he sees:

The flashlight your mother name-tagged with masking tape and packed for you special pans around the institutional room: the drop-ceiling, the gray striped mattress and bulged grid of bunksprings above you, the two other bunkbeds another matte gray that won’t return light, the piles of books and compact disks and tapes and tennis gear; your disk of white light trembling like the moon on water as it plays over the identical bureaus, the recessions of closet and room’s front door, door’s frame’s bolections; the cone of light pans over fixtures, the lumpy jumbles of sleeping boys’ shadows on the snuff-white walls, the two rag throw-rugs’ ovals on the hardwood floor, black lines of baseboards’ reglets, the cracks in the venetian blinds that ooze the violet nonlight of a night with snow and just a hook of moon; the flashlight with your name in maternal cursive plays over every cm. of the walls, the rheostats, CD, InterLace poster of Tawni Kondo, phone console, desks’ TPs, the face in the floor, posters of pros, the onionskin yellow of the desklamps’ shades, the ceiling-panels’ patterns of pinholes, the grid of upper bunk’s springs, recession of closet and door, boys wrapped in blankets, slight crack like a creek’s course in the eastward ceiling discernible now, maple reglet border at seam of ceiling and walls north and south no floor has a face your flashlight showed but didn’t no never did see its eyes’ pupils set sideways and tapered like a cat’s its eyebrows’ \ / and horrid toothy smile leering right at your light all the time you’ve been scanning oh mother a face in the floor mother oh and your flashlight’s beam stabs jaggedly back for the overlooked face misses it overcorrects then centers on what you’d felt but had seen without seeing, just now, as you’d so carefully panned the light and looked, a face in the floor there all the time but unfelt by all others and unseen by you until you knew just as you felt it didn’t belong and was evil: Evil. (62) [Wallace’s italics]

The five words “the face in the floor” (following “TPs”) are embedded 26 items into the list of things Hal sees in his flashlight beam. The reader is bored when they reach “the face in the floor,” i.e. they pass right by it – as Hal does – only for it to dawn on them later (at word 224, the italicized “no”) that floors don’t have faces. Just as Hal “sees without seeing,” we read without reading. When it dawns on Hal that he has seen something that doesn’t belong, the narration shifts to a fast, frantic pace using polysyndeton and no commas (in stark contrast to the long list of comma-delineated items) as Hal searches the room for what he thinks he saw, and when he finds it, he recognizes it as “Evil.” A pictorial representation of the cat’s eyebrows adds to the subliminal quality of this part of the sentence. A short, eight-word sentence set off as a separate paragraph follows: “And then its mouth opens at your light.” The emphasis placed on this short sentence mimics the shock of being attacked in a nightmare; it is the climactic moment when dread finally becomes acute horror. Again, Cohn reminds us:

the language of . . . psycho-narration is meant to elucidate rather than to emulate the figural psyche. The narrator builds a symbolic landscape as a kind of theoretical correlative for a subliminal stratum that can never emerge on the conscious level or the verbal surface of the figural mind. (55)

Wallace shows that either the third-person or the second-person narrative mode is effective for depicting consciousness; perhaps even more so than first-person, for those modes can stretch to subconscious altered states.


Are long sentences necessary for every work of fiction? Absolutely not. There are many examples of beautifully written stories containing only short, simple sentences; however, the power of long sentences is undeniable when you consider the numerous ways they can be effectively applied. Capturing the rhythm of motion – whether of actions or thought or speech – using linear prose presents a challenge for every writer. Virginia Tufte and David Jauss describe an elegant solution: use syntax symbolically; allow the syntax to mimic the rhythm. Faulkner, Hrabal, Joyce, Énard, and Wallace, achieve subtle and poetic effects through the syntax of their long sentences. But their achievements with long sentences, and those of writers like Nicholson Baker, also extend to character elucidation and conveying emotional content.

In my search for examples of long sentences, I found sentences greater than 150 words in the work of over fifty authors. Some of them stay within conventional grammar (like Baker and Faulkner), while others depart from those conventions radically. The standard rules of grammar are followed for a reason, they bring coherence to our prose; too severe a departure from these rules and the text’s meaning is lost. Nevertheless, there are justifiable reasons for coloring outside the lines; especially if, in the end, you can create sentences as effective and poetic as those by the writers I’ve surveyed. Jauss counsels that “the more we concentrate on altering our syntax, the more we free ourselves to discover other modes of thought” (68), and building long sentences is certainly a dramatic way to alter our syntax.

Looking back on my meditation on the long sentence, I find it remarkable that I didn’t find a place for the writer who set me on this path, M. Proust. Turning the pages of the volume of À la recherche I’m currently rereading, Proust’s narrator describes the musician Vinteuil as:

drawing from the colours as he found them a wild joy which gave him the power to press on, to discover those [sounds] which they seemed to summon up next, ecstatic, trembling as if at a spark when sublimity sprang spontaneously from the clash of brass, panting, intoxicated, dizzy, half-madly painting his great musical fresco . . . (Proust 233)

A fitting description for the wild exuberance some writers seem to have for their long, “panting,” “intoxicated,” “dizzy,” and sometimes fully-mad sentences – writers like Proust. Too bad I didn’t have more space to write about him. Perhaps next time.

—Frank Richardson

Works Cited

Baker, Nicholson. The Mezzanine. New York: Grove Press, 1988. Print.

Bernhard, Thomas. Correction. New York: Vintage-Random, 2010. Print.

Cohn, Dorrit. Transparent Minds: Narrative Modes for Presenting Consciousness in Fiction. Princeton: Princeton UP., 1978. Print.

Énard, Mathias. Zone. Trans. Charlotte Mandell. Rochester: Open Letter, 2010. Print.

Faulkner, William. Collected Stories of William Faulkner. New York: Vintage-Random, 1995. Print

Hrabal, Bohumil. Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age. Trans. Michael Henry Heim. New York: New York Review of Books, 2011. Print.

Humphrey, Robert. Stream of Consciousness in the Modern Novel. Berkeley: U of California P, 1959. Print

Jauss, David. On Writing Fiction. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books, 2011. Print.

Joyce, James. Ulysses. New York: Random House, 1961. Print.

Proust, Marcel. In Search of Lost Time: The Prisoner and The Fugitive. Ed. Christopher Prendergast. Trans. Carol Clark and Peter Collier. Vol. 5. London: Lane-Penguin, 2002. Print.

Sǩvorecký, Josef. “Some Contemporary Czech Prose Writers.” Novel: A Forum on Fiction 4:1 (1970): 5-13. Print.

Stein, Mary. “This Ancient World, A Review of Mathias Énard’s Zone.” Numéro Cinq 2.18 (2011): n. pg. Web.

Tufte, Virginia. Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style. Cheshire: Graphics Press, 2006. Print.

Wallace, David Foster. Infinite Jest. Boston: Little, Brown, 1996. Print.


Frank Richardson lives in Houston and is pursuing his MFA in Fiction at Vermont College of Fine Arts. His poetry has appeared in Black Heart Magazine, The Montucky Review, and Do Not Look At The Sun


Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Jauss’s italics.
  2. Despite wanting to divest himself of childhood memories, he never does; even the last page includes a reference to “when I was little.”
  3. Q.v. The Mezzanine excerpt wherein eleven present participle action verbs describe the motion of the various systems of local transport.
  4. Reference to a song: “The Winds that Waft My Sighs to Thee,” by W. V. Wallace.
  5. She is known also by the epithet “The Prettiest Girl of All Time” or “P.G.O.A.T.,” a nickname given her by Orin.
Nov 072014

Death Mask paper copy PushkinPushkin’s Death Mask


Pechal moya svetla

My sadness is luminous, is bright.



A true Russian pastime. How best to conduct oneself in the hours and then minutes leading up to one’s destiny? The sleepless nights, and pallid skin were necessary; one could carouse and fornicate showing no signs of fear; at the barrier itself one might eat ripe cherries from one’s hat and spit the stones at one’s adversary, or lying in the snow at Chornaya Rechka, already struck in the bowels with the lead which would kill you, you could prop yourself up on your elbow and return fire at your fellow duellist, shouting “hurrah” when your bullet seemed to find its mark. A cuckold, a fool, a poet, a man, a failure. But there is beauty in the arrangement of words, these words I shore against my ruin, a beauty which struggles against the tragedy of existence. Let me tell you how it began . . . . The Nigger of Peter the Great . . . . I inherited the full lips and hot blood of my ancestors. I must tell you frankly: “proper women and lofty sentiments are what I fear most in the world. Long live tarts! . . . I may be elegant and proper in what I write, but my heart is completely base and vulgar and my inclinations all third-estate.”

To my life then. . . . I had married Natalia Alexandrovna, and her beauty was my downfall. In my lifetime I had met many beautiful women, some who gave off a certain maddening perfume, who quivered in a certain way at the final moment, and others who thrashed and moaned until I was glad to finish and take my leave, those who feigned shame and forced tears to their shadowed eyes and covered themselves with silken underthings, and still others who were grateful as if some ethereal gift had been given; of them all, in bed at least, I preferred the women of certain professional houses, those who knew the secrets of the body, took matters in hand, and explored the terrain with professional interest. But never had I encountered a woman such as Natalie: elusive, cold, like a distant star surrounded by its own magnetic field. Beauty beyond explanation or criticism. At the court balls she loved so much, charming women would turn pale with envy, and guardsmen lapse into painful silence. I made love to her as a mountaineer climbs the coldest, most remote precipice. The fevered kisses of my thick lips caused only sighs and accusations, a withholding and turning away, a body which in its whiteness seemed more a statue than a living vessel, the stillness of which nearly drove me mad with desire, her lips which reminded me of those whom I had caressed this way before, of those who had moaned and lost themselves to my whispered entreaties, the probing insistence of my hands. I hold “your long, elastic form” dear Natalie, in memory now, “but all you give me, my sweet friend, / Is a mistrustful smile” . . . You must know that for me no more “the madness of the flesh, the wild embrace, / the sobs and screams of a young bacchante / Who, writhing like a serpent in my arms/ . . . Hastens the moment of decisive spasm.” Natalie, my wife, I eternally seek your rejection beyond all raptures, your unwilling moan, drawn from your throat at the moment I seek purchase, and fall, upon your remote, immobile slopes.


At the Winter Palace during the frigid nights a woman, no longer my wife, dances effortlessly with the guards, the blood racing to her flawless shoulders, her happiness with other men a palpable fact and a right. In the shadows, alone, a man who comes to other’s shoulders, whose legs are bent, whose heart is broken, whose face is dark and lips are thick. A monkey, a tiger. A poet standing alone by the columns. And this was me—Gentleman of the Chamber, in a plumed tri-corn hat and patent leather boots, occupation for a fumbling adolescent, not a poet . . . But poetry is not life no matter how much one might wish it so; it simply goes grinding on, the sheets always soiled by those who come before . . . by those who must come after.

And then, from across the room, comes the one whom I have been waiting for; the one whom I know I shall have one day to kill; he arrives with the curling mustaches of an adolescent, blondly gleaming in the hall of mirrors, the one who dances so well; the one who will not leave my wife alone. I stand alone in the shadows of the colonnades, watching them make love to one another, and in my impotence, my legs grow weak, poetry becomes a lie, and I am a slave standing on twisted legs. My wife dances in a world I can never enter. The story is boring except for those caught within its snares. In the forest there is a melancholy song, tolling out the hours of our days: Cuckoo, cuckoo.[1] There are “two types of cuckolds in this world: some are so in fact, and they have no uncertainties about their position; others are made so by public opinion, and their position is far more difficult; I am one of those”. . . .

And so D’Anthes and I must duel—for that is the given name of a bastard. Everyone now will have heard of it; the details remain dull, overly romantic, as so many ends are. So then, if we must, I am yours, at Black River, on the road to Pargolovo, near Odoevsky’s Estate . . . . with the light failing.

The final day: First things first, clean linen and bathed—preparations against the worst. Then to business: response to a lady writer. “I am very sorry that I shall not be able to accept your invitation for today.”[2] Silly, but even poets are not given to choose their final words.

In search of a second on the streets of the capital: a dangerous business, finally I pluck Danzas from just over the Tsepnoy Bridge near Millionaire’s Row and, old friend that he is, he may not deny me; the pistols, embraced in oiled wood and soft velvet,      lovely; at Wolff’s pastry shop on the Nevsky, the sound of tinkling glasses, lemonade, bitter in my throat, laughter, cold breath, coffee and sugared pastries; back in the carriage on the Nevsky with the winter light already raking low on the horizon; we might have seen Natalie and the children pass if we had looked, or if she had thought to wear her spectacles, the vanity of beauty. Nothing else for it, with carriages already coming back from the islands we cross the river at Trinity Gate, glide past the Fortress onto Kamenovstrovsky Prospect, then along the Rechka toward the “slides” and “the commander’s house.”

Impending death will concentrate the mind wonderfully, cause the spittle to cake in one’s throat. In a lonely field I sat while they stamped down the thigh deep snow. D’Anthes, already with pistol in hand on the far side of the barrier. And I turned away.

“Is the site well chosen?” someone asks.

“I don’t give a damn, just hurry up and finish.” My voice, it seems, far away.

“Ca m’est fait egal, seulement tachez faire toute cela plus vite.”

“Eh-bien! Est-ce fini?”

In the moments before our meeting, I stand facing the trees and notice small things: an animal track in the crusted snow, my cracked and shaking hands, already cold, a Hebrew signet ring given me by Countess Vorontsova slipping off my shrunken fingers, hands that in a moment will hold the pistol and decide our fates; Eliza, the one who had made love to me in the southern surf like a slippery seal, a great lady who went down in the sand, and her husband a knowing cuckold, much as I was at this moment, and thus this ridiculous duel between overgrown boys, whose honor isn’t worth one line of real poetry, of life. Just as I stood I wondered about the meaning of my wretched existence, the women who were like poetry to me and as dangerous, the undying love which was already dead as it was uttered, the debts, the cynical crowds around the throne, my attempts to be a writer, a poet, and what else? . . . yes, Natalie, her opaque mind and her irresistible beauty which led me to this place. She was not to blame, others never are. It is always our choice, our heart. A poet, a failure, a . . . . I had tried “all genres . . . and at the very end even the genre of life seemed not enough.” With guns at the barrier then we would put an end to words, compel silence to speak. Thank god for that.

And so, I stand to face my foe—odd word, foe, as if blood in the snow, a ball pushing through one’s intestines, shattering one’s hip, were in any way romantic.

Everything happens very quickly then. We move toward the barrier, but before reaching it D’Anthes raises his arms and fires first. Why didn’t I take my chance? I don’t know. Perhaps I thought he would miss. He didn’t. Who knows why. The sky is cobalt above my head as I fall in the snow. At first nothing, and then pain as big as the world. Danzas comes to me with an odd look on his face; the snow melting on my face, and I shivering. Somehow, I am able to raise myself on my elbow and raise the pistol.

“Attendez! Je me sens assez de force pour tirer mon coup.”

“I may take my shot.” I fire, and the blonde one staggers and falls.

I hear someone yell: “Yes, I have him.” “Hurrah!” My voice muffled in the endless whiteness. “The bullet? Where?”

“Have I killed him?”

“No, but he is wounded in the arm and chest. “

“It’s strange, I had thought it would give me pleasure to kill him but now I feel it would not. And yet it’s all the same; if we recover it will all start again.”

A cuckold will always be a cuckold, will never triumph in that ageless duel. D’Anthes stands again, a pillar of ignorance and desire untouched by any poet’s phrase. The ball has only penetrated the soft part of his arm, and raked across his ribs. I see him then with Natalie, locked in that mindless embrace that makes fools of us all, and the pain washes over me in waves, in ways I cannot explain, and I do not know how they get me to the road, or home . . . . Back past the Fortress in the darkness, the lights of the city, blood weeping from my body in cold tears, my life, through the muffled winter streets of our capital, and I know that “on such a night as this to toss and turn in one’s bed is better far than to stand unmoving, immortal upon a pedestal.”[3] It seems, though, we have little choice where we will come to rest, and the story will have already begun; the living , not long for this world themselves, will already have begun to package up my death like a poorly written novel. Our frolic in the snow with the light failing. In two years it, and I, will be completely forgotten. . . . Mistaken, as it seems.

They bring me home to the Moika already dying. Through the servant’s door and up to the mezannine, the crowds already gathering, whispers, tears. A woman’s voice: “No, he shall not die”. . . . And my own: “No, I do not want to die, my friends! I want to live, in order to think and to suffer”. (Elegy)

Oh, Natalie, I loved your ivory beauty too well: a continent I would never conquer, a gift I could not receive, and did not deserve. Poems written for that which I could not touch: “I loved you once, nor can this heart be quiet . . . What jealous pangs, what shy despairs I knew! A love as deep as this, as true as tender, God grant another may yet offer you.” These words at least were beyond reproach.

The bullet had passed merrily through my abdomen, searing the intestines, finding rest in my fractured hip bone. Two days in dying, until only the opium kept me sane. And all I wanted were blackberries in syrup given by Natalie’s hand—no my dear you are not to blame, not to blame. You mustn’t cry. Only listen . . . “Try to be forgotten. Go live in the country. Stay in mourning for two years, then remarry, but choose somebody decent.” Everything has turned out for the best.[4]

Last words of a poet:

“Why this torture?   Answer me: is it fatal?”

“Do not hold out any false hopes for my wife. She is no actress.”

“It seems life is coming to an end. . . . Please close the shutters.” A classical observation, perhaps, though rather obvious.

“It’s nothing, everything has turned out for the best.”

“If I must die then, Il faut que j’arrange ma maison. I must put my house in order.”

To Dahl: Come let’s fly together, up the bookshelves, but I am dizzy and cannot fly, and must fall. I cannot breathe, something is crushing me.   Finis.

 To a lady writer once more: “. . . I am very sorry that I will not be able to accept your invitation for today . . . or ever if it comes to that.”

The autopsy: “Small intestine affected by gangrene. That is probably where the ball entered. In the abdominal cavity there was not less than one pound of black, coagulated blood. . . . The ball traversed the abdominal integument two inches above the right spina iliaca anterior superior, passed along the surface moving downward, and, upon encountering the resistance of the sacrum, fractured it and lodged nearby.” The faithful Dahl again.

All very neatly said, a poetry of a kind itself. And now the time approaches. Stray strands of poetry rise up to greet me. My friends, let us walk together a while. . . . “Along a noisy street I wander; and beneath the eternal vaulting someone’s hour is drawing near, for growing youth must have its own good place, the one to fade the other to bloom” . . . Welcome darkness now, “I only ask that at the entrance to my grave, young life may be at play, and that nature unconcerned with mortals may shed its beauty’s timeless ray”. Even dying becomes a little easier with this consolation.

And the Tsar said: Your family is mine. Do not worry about your wife and children. They will be my children and I will take them in my care . . .

I knew a sadness then which was luminous . . . and my being grew calm and still because this heart beats, is alive, and cannot but love. . . . At earliest morning, I dreamt my love had turned to me, her breath sweet with sleep . . . and I knew a happiness given only to the blessed. . . Then sweetly, softly, ever so softly, dawn crept out of the night in Pieter . . . and I walked into the light.

29 January 1837 2:45 in the afternoon

By anonymous sledge my body was borne to the north. They lay me in the cold ground of Svyatigorsk—the monastery of the holy mountain—next to my people, the descendents of Hannibal, the negro of Peter the Great.

* * * *

A Dream     Early Evening 15 July 1841. Outside Pyatigorsk

By hot noon, in a vale of Daghestan,
Lifeless, a bullet in my breast, I lay;
Smoke rose in a deep wound, and my blood ran
Out of me, drop by drop, and ebbed away.
She dreamed she saw a vale of Daghestan . . . .
on the slope a well-known body lay;
Smoke rose from a black wound, and the blood ran
In cold streams out of it, and ebbed away.

(Mikhail Lermontov)

Does a fatal bullet wound really smoke in one’s breast? It was raining, as if the heavens were yielding, as I lay dying beneath Mashuk’s slopes. Muffled thunder and sodden earth. My body, my corpse, carried back to the town of five mountains, Pyatigorsk. God, what a country! Cherry trees and mountains—five peaked Beshtau, Mount Mashuk, the snowy summits of Mount Kazbek, the distant shadow of Elbruz. At earliest dawn the window open and the perfume of flowers draws me from the happiest of dreams; the branches of cherry trees in bloom reach in at my window, a lover’s caress, and the wind occasionally strews my desk with their white petals. A joyful feeling fills my veins to overbrimming. Is there any need here of passions, desires, regrets? (81-82).

Twenty-six years by the grace of God, in a dale of Daghestan. My life oddly reminiscent of a novel I had written not long earlier. Geroi Nashovo Vremeni—A Hero of Our Time which was, I said: “a portrait of all the vices of our generation in the fullness of their development. . . . However, do not think after this that the author ever had the proud dream of becoming a reformer of mankind’s vices. . . . He merely found it amusing to draw modern man such as he understood him, such as he met him— . . . Suffice it that the disease has been pointed out; goodness knows how to cure it.”

I believed only in poetry . . . that and the blood of the poet. Smert’ Poeta; “The Poet’s Death” they called it, and mentioned my name in the same breath as that of Russia’s fallen poet. Immensely flattering, and somehow completely irrelevant, a romantic lie that might help poets rest quiet in the ground if they were in the business of purveying meat pies at Kuznetsky Most, which they were not. I wrote:

And you, proud sons of famous fathers – you,
Known to the world for vileness unsurpassed,
………………………….. . .
You greedy crew that round the scepter crawl,
Butchers of freedom, genius, and renown! . . .
Law, truth, and honour—in your steps cast down!
………………………….. . .
In vain your viper’s tongues with poison dart,
And all your black blood will not wash away
The godly lifeblood of the poet’s heart!

These lines composed as Alexander Sergeevitch lay dying on the Moika; I had never met him, had only seen him pitched like black thunder from across glittering rooms, watched as they destroyed him, as they despised his poet’s blood. Somehow the words seemed far away from my life as soon as they were written, much better than my life, somehow already foreign to my deformed existence. And yet history it seems had a place for me. For my pains they exiled me to the Caucasus, my beloved, lonely Caucasus. I should have read my destiny in the stars, fatally embedded in the window glass of eternity, just as it was for my brother poet, words would be silenced by the gun, and the world would just go grinding on in its drunken, lascivious waltz.

God, what a country!! To never see it again.

To ride out on the virgin steppe, saber at my side, to climb up to the Mountain of the Cross and gather the stars in one’s hand at Dariel Pass. I sought this freedom, this life, and found only a prison. I felt my skin begin to constrict about my soul, and with “Mongo” Stolypin I sought escape.   There was riding out on the line with cutlass and sash, exposed to the hidden rifles of Kabardins, Circassians, hill tribes who did not yet know the saving grace of Christ. Cordite, blood and excrement. Something like roulette, a Russian fatalist, with one fatal chamber loaded. Apparently it was not my time. No bullet reached me. Nor were cynicism and cruelty beneath me; women’s innocent tears moved me to yawning boredom; and I did not need their bodies; as for the silly fools who drank the sulphur waters, who limped and ambled and played at being plaster soldiers, well, the romantic melancholy was really not in their line. My hand twitched and reached for my pistols. Words would no longer serve.

I really could not take the Monkey seriously, the montagnard au grande poignard[5] I called him, and this allusion to his manhood caused the ladies to cover their faces with their fans. And then I had made love to his sister years ago; no, I really couldn’t take him seriously, though he was the very devil with the ladies in his Circassian costume. Certainly there would be no duel, and if there were, well, there would always be the fatalist’s coin toss, interesting at least until it fell to the ground. I thought of women I had known, who while embracing another, might begin to laugh at my memory so as not to make their new lovers jealous of a dead man; and I didn’t give a damn about any of them. Perhaps I should die on the morrow. “The loss to the world would not be large and, anyway, I myself was sufficiently bored.”

Martynov, the fool, insisted on satisfaction. (“How many times have I asked you to abandon your jokes, at least when the ladies are present?” he said.)

Yes, really a very large dagger, I thought to myself; this is nothing, tomorrow we’ll be drinking the waters together as friends again.

But, as always, my tongue was my worst enemy. I said: “Really, Monkey, are you going to get seriously angry and challenge me to a duel for this?”

The Circassian warrior of the drawing room drew himself to his full height: “Yes, I am calling you out.”

There was more to him than I had thought. So be it. The barrier was set at 30 paces, and we were to approach 10 paces closer. What silliness. I had no intention of firing on anyone on such a fine day—and I remembered Alexander Sergeevitch’s story in which the duelist refused to use his weapon but instead spat cherry pits across the barrier. But there were no purple cherries to be had on this fine day. I raised my pistol to the sky and for some reason could not stop myself from one final bitterness in this world: ya v etovo duraka strelyat ne budu, I shall not fire on that fool. A worm twisted in my body, searching through the left side of my strawberry shirt—strawberries for luck—passing though the willing flesh of heart and lungs, and out into empty space again. Then, darkness. And no more pain.

I lay in the rain, in my strawberry shirt, red-on-red in a dale of Daghestan; I dreamt of mountain precipices, of crimson peaks, of a solitary sail seeking distant lands—and my blood grew cold and ran away. A fool of time.

And the Tsar said: A dog’s death for a dog.

Two years later, my grandmother took me to the family tomb at Tarkhany, where you may visit me as you please.

—Myler Wilkinson


Selected Reading

Pushkin, Alexander. Pushkin Threefold: Narrative, Lyric, Polemic, and Ribald Verse. Trans. Walter Arnt. NY: Dutton, 1972.

______. The Captain’s Daughter and Other Stories (contains “The Shot”). Trans. Natalie Dudington & T. Keane. NY: Random House (Vintage Books), 1957

Binyon, T. J. Pushkin: A Biography. London: HarperCollins Publishers. London: 2002

Edmonds, Robin. Pushkin: The Man and His Age. London: MacMillan, 1994.

Troyat, Henri. Pushkin. Translated from the French by Nancy Amphoux. Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1970.

Lermontov, Mikhail. A Hero of Our Time. Trans. Vladimir Nabokov in collaboration with Dmitri Nabokov. Garden City, New York: Doubleday Anchor, 1958.

______. Major Poetical Works. U of Minnesota Press, 1983.

Kelley, Laurence. Lermontov: Tragedy in the Caucasus. New York: George Braziller, 1978.

Vickery, Walter N. Mikhail Yurievitch Lermontov. His Life and Work. Munchen: Verlag Otto Sagner, 2001.


Myler Wilkinson

Myler Wilkinson—author of numerous articles and essays on Russian culture and literary history, and has spent extensive periods of time over the last 25 years in Russia. He has published three books—Hemingway and Turgenev: The Nature of Literary Influence, The Dark Mirror: American Literary Response to Russia, and Russian Journal: A Personal Journey—all of which explore imaginative and cultural crossings between Russia and North America. He is the anthologist and co-editor, with David Stouck, of two volumes of British Columbia writing—West by Northwest: BC Short Stories and Genius of Place: Writing about British Columbia. In addition to his non-fiction work, Wilkinson has also published award-winning short stories in journals such as Prism International (25th  Anniversary Anthology) and Pierian Spring. Currently he is working on a story cycle which explores the lives of Russian writers. “The Duel” is one of those stories: it follows Alexander Pushkin and Mikhail Lermontov on their ways to the duels that end their lives; this work is linked to the story “The Blood of Slaves,” which was winner of the Fiddlehead Fiction Prize for 2014, based on the life and death of Anton Chekhov.




Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. The society of cuckoos, to which many belong but none aspire. The letter that set everything else in train, and finally sealed my doom arrived by anonymous hand in early November:  “The Most Serene Order of Cuckolds, meeting in plenary session”, it began and I already smelled cordite in the air, “have unanimously elected Mr. Alexander Pushkin Coadjutant to the Grand Master of the Order of Cuckolds and historiographer of the Order . . .” 
  2. My last letter to Alexandra Osipovna Ishimov—children’s author and translator (27 January 1837).
  3. A poet I could never have known—Joseph Brodsky—who was also driven from his homeland, wrote these lines of elegy 150 years after my death. I thank him.
  4. Natalie, dear, you did stay in the country for a year, and when you came back to our fair capital you stayed away from the court altogether, until one day you met the Tsar—almost by chance?—in the English shop at Christmas. He kissed your hand, bowed to your still unfaded charms, and began to think how he might do something for you. And so the game began again. Introductions were made to Lanskoy, thirteen years your senior (you always liked older men), mediocre talent at best with no particular prospects; suddenly he found himself appointed Major-General to the Horse Guards, fortunate man, and marriage was not only possible but convenient.  You scarcely cared about the flesh anyway, and he said he loved you.  There were children, and thank god no poetry.  And you died in the autumn of 1863 choking with consumption—how is it possible?—and your husband followed you a full 15 years later, and you are both buried under the same stone in the Alexander Nevsky Monastery. I am alone now, Natalie. I miss you.

    As for the blonde one: he married Natalie’s sister—Ekaterina—and repaired in disgrace to Berlin, then Soultz in Alsace, Haut-Rhin; did he make love to Natalie’s marble body while he held her sister in his arms? They produced children together and poor Ekaterina died just five years after this marriage of the heart (hers) and convenience (his). D’Anthes lived a long life, a political life—so unlike a Russian poet—with residences and business in Haut-Rhine and in Paris, and died in his bed in 1895, the father of many children, a councilor, a chevalier, a senator, and is remembered chiefly as the one who killed Pushkin at Black River.

  5. The mountaineer with the big dagger, if you must know. And the Monkey: otherwise known as   Martynov, decommissioned officer, poseur, spa town ladies man.
Nov 062014


The narrator depicts a Milan where everything is a carefully constructed series of symbols, never representing anything more profound than the artist who made them, the store they were bought from. It’s a Milan that “exists only as much as the name of a city stamped on a luxury brand shopping bag,” where self-actualization isn’t any sort of expression of a fundamental self, but a recurring fashioning and refashioning. —Charlie Geoghegan-Clements

Nicola Milan

Nicola, Milan
Lodovico Pignatti Morano
Semiotext(e) Native Agents, 2014
$14.95, 127 pages

Lodovico Pignatti Morano’s Nicola, Milan is in many respects a coming-of-age novel, but it affects less a traditional bildungsroman and more a postmodern shrug. A novel about a young man who moves to Milan “to steal someone or something’s cultural authority,” it is a search for meaning in a milieu made up of only surfaces, where identity appears to be little more than a snakelike change of skins. The dubious triumph of Nicola, Milan’s narrator amounts to a forfeiture, a realization that his feelings of emptiness and barren insignificance which characterize the book’s world are indicators that the present is thinning at the elbows, pointing toward the next attractions in postmodern capitalism’s perpetual changing vogue.

Restless and unnamed, Nicola, Milan’s narrator is a twenty-five year-old expatriate from London, who works as a “brand strategist,” but this is mostly titular since he never seems to work at all. The narrator meets Nicola at a party, and quickly becomes obsessed with him. Nicola, in his thirties, is the creative superior to Morano’s narrator. He has access to all the parties, drugs, and new artist; he has age, experience, and connections that the narrator doesn’t. Almost immediately the narrator imbues Nicola with mystery and power. Indeed, Nicola has the “cultural authority” the narrator covets, and the older man becomes a role model of sorts. Early in the novel, the narrator begins consciously aping Nicola’s behavior: “I try to familiarize myself with [Nicola] descison-making process, to get comfortable with his intuitions…I try to find situations similar to his and superficially behave the same way I observed him behaving.”

And much of the book continues this way. Nicola moves, and the narrator follows, watching his every move, puzzling over who he is, what his motivations are, and what, if anything, they mean. In the way that echoes the Existentialist fiction of the earth 20th century, Nicola, Milan is a novel of a young man’s experience of meaninglessness and alienation. But unlike the existentialists’ discovery of authenticity in profound freedom and individual responsibility, Morano’s narrator comes to the realization that there’s no essential self to be alienated from, and no significance more meaningful that pulling off a daring new fashion.

In 1967, French social theorist Guy Debord described our world in his influential text Society of the Spectacle as one where “everything that was directly lived has moved away into representation.” Morano’s world could just as accurately be described in this way, and it comes as no surprise that Morano’s publisher is Semiotext(e), which has been long at the forefront of publishing writing on capitalism and the individual under the shadow of Debord and other likeminded theorists. Morano’s description of Milan seems to draw directly from Debord’s understanding of the contemporary world—what he called a “spectacular society.” For Debord, all individual activity is mediated by capitalism and the to-and-fro of commodities. Finding meaning outside of the market is impossible. For Morano’s narrator, this takes the form of his inability to find any sense of himself or Nicola as an individual outside of purchase and affectation.

Mid-way through the novel, the narrator and Nicola discuss a jacket that Nicola is having custom made. The jacket will have “all my personal references, the things people know me by, my hotel room number I always take, my old nickname, the logo of my more famous blog from when I was in L. A….” Nicola’s jacket is emblematic of the spectacular form of identity itself. He is attempting to create some stable sense of self through designing his own commodity. And soon, after this discussion, the narrator imagines himself wearing the jacket, becoming Nicola, but in doing so, realizes that there’s nothing beneath the symbolic spectacle that Nicola uses to represent who he is, that his life is no less a playacting than anyone else’s: “‘Anything he can do I can do,’ I tell myself, believing it sincerely, somewhat moved by the truth of the statement I’ve made to myself…It is true, a profound realization, another shifting of the ground bboreeneath my feet.”

This fundamental hollowness of the individual is mirrored in Morano’s dispassionate style of writing. At times his prose reads like the disengaged notes of an ethnographer writing a study of the moneyed and schmoozing members of Milan’s creative class: “He’s wearing a white suit, it probably cost a million euros.” There is a semiotic allowance made for these Tweet-like observations of who’s present at dinners, bars, and parties, what they are wearing, what Nicola is doing and with whom as Morano shows how each person who populates this Milan has carefully crafted their exterior personas. Morano never gives away any more than the characters do, never dips into omniscience. As the narrator says when describing Nicola’s apartment: “Things appear as signs, they exist in a descriptive capacity.”

In this way, the narrator depicts a Milan where everything is a carefully constructed series of symbols, never representing anything more profound than the artist who made them, the store they were bought from. It’s a Milan that “exists only as much as the name of a city stamped on a luxury brand shopping bag,” where self-actualization isn’t any sort of expression of a fundamental self, but a recurring fashioning and refashioning. To read Morano’s short, sharp book is to follow a narrator in a fruitless quest for something more, some kind of agency beyond the spectacular world. In a sense Nicola, Milan is a search for a round character in a sea of flat ones, which makes for somewhat disconcerting reading, as the emptiness of everything is described literally, and yet through the seeking eyes of Morano’s narrator, potentially hiding significance. This terseness, combined with the narrator’s suspicion that there is some depth beneath the façades resemble the tension and suspense felt in the best literary thrillers.

Late in the novel, the narrator stalks Nicola online, finding pictures from Nicola’s mythic time abroad—in Mexico, China, and Los Angeles. Despite the narrator vividly imagining Nicola in these places, the pieces never fully fit together to form a whole person. The narrator’s obsessive Goggle-ing also leads him to a blog that refers to a man whom he presumes to be Nicola. The blog outlines a sadomasochistic relationship between Nicola and the blog’s author:

The girl writes about things that, as far as Nicola’s image is concerned, never happened—and this makes me nervous as I sit in front of the computer, reading material freely available to the public, with nothing but a genuine curiosity; they are the zones one never sees in him. It dawns on me that these things she describes actually happened with him, in Milan. And later, as I begin to attach his face to the action, I grow perturbed.

After so long seeing only surface it finally seems the narrator has found some sort of hidden self to Nicola: an identity or a core, an essence. Like a ball of mud rolling down a hill, as the narrator obsesses over Nicola’s online artifacts, imagining him in all manner of situations beyond his ken, the Nicola-fetish picks up more and more significance completely independent from reality. In studying Nicola, the narrator begins to see how the styles and affections don’t cohere and form a whole, cogent identity. When, beneath it all, the narrator discovers a private life to Nicola—a somewhat transgressive one, but still essentially common love affair—he is thoroughly disappointed and quickly begins to fade away from Nicola’s circles in Milan.

It is perhaps no accident that Lodovico Pignatti Morano has made his narrator a brand strategist. After graduating from London’s Goldsmiths University, where he studied Fine Arts, Morano moved to Italy to work in the cycling industry, working with such legendary Italian bicycle brands as Cinelli and Columbus. Although Nicola, Milan is his first novel, Morano is the author of the book Cinelli: The Art and Design of the Bicycle and the editor of a monograph on the Italian Sportswear pioneer Massimo Osti. As Morano explores the emptiness and ciphers of the Milanese creative class in his identity thriller we sense that he knows firsthand the banality of corporate branding, the fiction behind commodities, all of which he dramatizes in Nicola, Milan. These fictions, these banalities are at the core of Nicola’s betrayal because it isn’t that there was another hidden and more significant life, but that it was just as lacking in depth as the surface life which Nicola publicly enacted. When the fetishized commodity is truly viewed up close, it can be seen as the imperfect object it is.

Morano’s narrator’s dissatisfaction that beneath the surface of Nicola is nothing less quotidian than secret sex is also at the heart of the fast changing, never significant, setting of the novel. Fundamentally, dissatisfaction is built into the world of this book, for if a brand (or identity) were to satisfy, the consumer would never need to buy another, or another, or another. Nicola, Milan is a search for the unmediated, and the acceptance that doesn’t exist. And this tense and somewhat fatalistic book is a bored sigh, the resignation that in a world structured by the fickleness of postmodern identity there is no “self” putting on the clothes, just a person-shaped rack.

—Charlie Geoghegan-Clements

Charlie Geoghegan-Clements‘ work has been published with theNewerYork, Marco Polo Quarterly, Tin House, 3:AM Magazine, and Versal. His short story collection Superhero Questions is available from ELJ Publications. More information can be found at


Nov 052014


“Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement…
get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing
for granted. Everything is phenomenal. To be spiritual is to be amazed.”
– Rabbi Joshua Herschel


If you have ever stood before a Paul Sattler painting, no doubt you’ve been sucked into it with a feeling not unlike the marvelous, yet uneasy sense of vertigo you get when standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon. There are no guardrails. You step back, but here you are, dizzy and drawn again to the edge and into the abyss. You know there is someplace more sensible to be, safer. You’ve been glued here far too long. Someone will think there’s something wrong. You cannot move. Your senses are heightened. Figures advance, and then, ghostlike, retreat. Perspective keeps shifting on you, swept into the pulsing vortex, as gravity (or is it radical amazement) pulls you with ever more strength.

Bring It In_Take It Out - 63x59_ - o_c - 2013Bring It In/Take It Out, 63 x 59 inches, oil on canvas, 2013

Sattler’s images are notoriously densely packed. Count upwards of 10 birds in one painting. Often, but not always, there is a central tree, a hole or passage going underground, and a view to a lit blue sky. There is an overall intelligence, an art historical reference you cannot always put your finger on. The artist appears in many of his own works, as does the figure of his wife. But having spelled out this “recipe” for some of the large paintings made by Sattler in the last decade, there is also nothing about them to be expected. In fact, it is this quality of the unexpected that makes them so rich, so exciting. His use of light, space, and color and the way these paintings reveal themselves to the viewer over time make them masterful. Indeed, he has won numerous prestigious awards, including a 2006 fellowship from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation.

Most recently, Paul Sattler was named the first inaugural recipient of the Consortium Artist/Scholar Residency from the Studio Art Centers International (SACI) of Florence, Italy. He spent the month of June in Florence, one of the world’s greatest art cities, interacting with faculty and students, joining them on field trips to Pisa, Lucca, San Gimignano, Siena, Fiesole, Arezzo and other important sites in Tuscany… where buses toot their horns around hairpin turns up mountain roads, fit for one lane of traffic only. And where, pulling into dusty dirt driveways of one room churches in the middle of nowhere, one puts coins into a box for lights to come on revealing: O! Giotto Frescos covering all the walls!

FlorenceView1-OilBoard10x7Florence View 1, oil on board, 10 x 7.5 inches, 2014

FlorenceView2-OilBoard10x8Florence View 2, oil on board, 10 x 8 inches, 2014

Sattler also delivered a visiting artist lecture at the International Centre for the Arts in Monte Castello di Vibio, Italy. But mostly he devoted time during the residency to observational painting in and around Florence and Tuscany. He was, however, thwarted in his second goal, to research and produce preparatory work for a series of paintings inspired by the life and music of the composer Carlo Gesualdo (1560-1613). According to Sattler, “Gesualdo was an extremely innovative late-Renaissance composer of madrigals of tremendous beauty and power. Revered by the likes of Igor Stravinsky, he was also a very controversial figure, riddled with violence, paranoia and personal demons – including a jealousy-fueled murder of his wife and her lover. During my stay, I wanted to make a sojourn to the town of Gesualdo, Campania, to visit the ‘scene of crime,’ his castle and the surrounding landscape. One of the most provocative Gesualdo myths involves him single-handedly chopping down acres of trees surrounding his castle to keep an unobstructed view of potential intruders.” Understandably called ‘The Prince of Darkness‘ by some, alas, the Gesualdo castle was undergoing renovations and was closed to visitors.

FlorenceView3-OilBoard10x8Florence View 3, oil on board, 10 x 8 inches, 2014

FlorenceView4-OilBoard9x6Florence View 4, oil on board, 9 x 6.5 inches, 2014

So what does an artist in love with light and art history do instead? He goes to Paris of course! And the Grand Art Tour continued. Paris was the perfect choice for Sattler. He had never been there. And to many of his admirers, Sattler’s drawings are not unlike Daumier’s: as revealed in the freedom and repetition of his marks, brush strokes in lights and darks measured masterfully to direct the viewer’s attention, and in washes laid with purpose, yet with seeming abandon. So Paris it was. And the fruitful sketches and plein air paintings begun in Italy continued.

OnTheMove11x14Ink2013On The Move, 11 x 14 inches, ink, 2013

Remedy(_Do You See This__)9x13Ink2013Remedy (“Do You See This?”), 9 x 13 inches, ink, 2013

Of his remarkable journey, Sattler himself writes: While I have always worked with a will to look into rather then at life, I am always confronted, when traveling away from my studio, with the challenge of being drawn into the fabulous world and stories told by the master painters of the past and being intoxicated by the radiant beauty of the foreign settings, architecture and light. These two experiences are so overwhelming that there really does not seem to be any room left for my own personal narratives and imagination. Thus I dedicate myself to empirical, observational works (in situ landscapes, self-portraits, etc.) to take advantage of my eyes wide open while my mind meditates on the day’s sights, paintings seen and places visited.

Self-portrait-gouache12x9Self-portrait, gouache, 8 x 11 inches, 2014

More than anything, this mode of observational painting promotes close attention. The experience stresses asking myself ‘how’ as a meaningful exercise in being present and mindful during the creation of the artwork. Of course, my inquisitive, controlling, ego-driven mind still wants to ask ‘why’ but, as someone once said, “The eye goes blind when it only wants to see why.”

ViewFromArezzo-pencils9x12View from Arezzo, graphite & chalk, 8 x 11 inches, 2014

The ‘how’ and ‘why’ merge for me while experiencing the great works that can only be seen in Italy and France. This trip delivered a memorable experience in front of Simone Martini’s Annunciation (Uffizi). I sunk into a passage of decorative togetherness that included Mary’s knee, cloak, hand, fingers, bookmarker and various decorative patterns, and the way that they all lead up through her sinuous figure. And yet the painting is not overwhelmed by a decorative visual mode. For, the artist was so aware of a pacing and spacing needed to convincingly tell the story, beautifully and profoundly. I was, thus, noticing, similar modes of ornamentation in service of narrative communication in France – in front of masterworks by Bonnard, Braque and, especially, Cezanne.

View from Monte Castello di Vibio, 6x11, watercolor, 2014View from Monte Castello di Vibio, 6 x11 inches, watercolor, 2014

In my own humble way, I hoped to at least be aware of such balance of forces while working on my little landscapes from my apartment window. Bonnard said, “One always talks of surrendering to nature, but there is also such a thing as surrendering to the picture.” While I admit that my empirical mission was paramount, I, when finishing them back home, became aware of where the pictures wanted to go. Hopefully, such exercises will also have lasting impact on my predominant home-base modes of painting my imaginative worlds as well as a new respectful place of painting the natural world.


—Mary Kathryn Jablonski


Paul Sattler is a Solomon R. Guggenheim Fellow in Painting and Drawing. He has had solo exhibitions at Alpha Gallery in Boston and Gerald Peters Gallery in New York and many other one-person and group exhibitions around the country including the National Academy of Art and Design where he was awarded the Wallace Truman Prize. His work is represented in public and private collections including the Albany Institute of History and Art, The Arkansas Art Center, and Wellington Management, among others, and has been written about and reviewed in the ArtNews, Hyperallergic, the Boston Globe, The New York Times, Art New England, and The Art Collector. Sattler is currently Director of the Schick Art Gallery and Associate Professor of Art at Skidmore College. He received his MFA from Indiana University, Bloomington, and BFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He lives and works in Saratoga Springs, New York.

Mary Kathryn Jablonski

Mary Kathryn Jablonski is a gallerist in Saratoga Springs, a visual artist and a poet, author of the chapbook To the Husband I Have Not Yet Met (APD Press, 2008). Her poems have appeared in numerous literary journals includingSalmagundi, Slipstream, Beloit Poetry Journal, and Blueline. Her artwork has been widely exhibited throughout the Northeast and is held in private and public collections.


Nov 042014


With the publication of her intensely moving debut novel, Solace, Belinda McKeon quickly established herself as an important new voice in Irish literature. While we eagerly await the arrival of her second novel, Tender (to be released in March 2015), Uimhir A Cúig is delighted to feature her remarkable new story, “Route.”

Annie and Brendan have emigrated to the US from Ireland; however, as Annie recognises, “what they are is immigrants rather than emigrants.” A couple not so much leaving as arriving, but leaving what and arriving where? A couple who married in a church not necessarily because they wanted to but because they felt obliged to for their elderly relatives’ sakes – “just do the damn thing.” And what role does duplicity play in all of this – long ago lies, imaginary friends? Just what is left to believe in? The past, might be one answer, even if it is, perhaps, an imaginary past. McKeon takes us on this journey too. Where we came from and where we end up is just as uncertain as we, like McKeon’s characters, struggle to grapple with “the plentiful and illogical absurdities of the world.”

—Gerard Beirne


In a quiet moment, of which there are precious few, Brendan takes care to speak out of the side of his mouth. “Our table is very loud,” he says, flickering his gaze onto Annie’s, and Annie is proud of how good they have become at this surreptitious communication; is it marriage, she wonders, or is it just the whole emigrant business? Though, actually – and, if she’s honest, much less pleasingly – what they are is immigrants rather than emigrants, as their friends here are never slow to remind them, albeit always in the velvet case of laughter, always with the understanding that, since they are such good friends, they can poke fun at one another over anything at all. So: nothing like one immigrant population bitching on another. That was Rob – grad-school Rob, now barman Rob – to Annie, a few weeks ago, after she had said something about the Polish women in Greenpoint, about the way they glared. The way that sometimes, you caught them staring at you, sweeping their eyes over what you were wearing, as if to say, this has gone beyond a joke. As if to say, you people: how can you go out like this? And Annie sees something else in their eyes, too, something which, maybe, it takes one cor-faced Catholic woman to read in another, which is, You’re a bit long in the tooth for this messing, aren’t you? When are you going to cop yourself on?

“Don’t worry about it,” Annie mutters back to Brendan now, as they both pretend to be listening to whatever turn conversation is taking at the other end of the table. “People don’t notice it here in the same way.”

From his throat, a low, sceptical chord. He sips his Bloody Mary. “I don’t know,” he says. “I’ve seen a few people wince.”

Annie shrugs. “Let them wince. Nobody knows us here. So who cares?”

Brendan glances at her, and when he speaks, his tone is colder. “What’s that got to do with it?” he says. Brendan has views on this; Brendan does not think Annie should care about this thing about which Annie cannot cease to care.

“Nothing,” Annie says, shaking her head, but he knows, and she knows he knows, and so on, ad infinitum, and down where Martha and Jack are sitting, the decibel level is once more steadily climbing, as Martha teases Jack about something to do with football, something to do with the Jets, and it’s evidently a killer blow, a comical blow, because up goes the cry – EH-OH! – like something from a television show, and meeting it – AIYKK! – is a second roar of approval, of commendation, of glee. Jack holds his hands in the air as though defeated, and Martha bumps fists with Jessica, then with Tasleen. Opposite Annie sit Meghan, the birthday girl, and beside her, Liz, the only person at the table who has experienced parenthood, and who talks about it enough for all of them. That’s not fair, Annie says to herself, as soon as this thought arises. You had to ask her to see the photos. Hold your horses. Drink your drink.


Escarole salad, chilaquiles, pork and grits, baked eggs with leeks and truffles; this is brunch so elaborate that it might have come from some computer programme. And yet, so utterly par for the course; this is Smith Street, on a Sunday afternoon in October. The ten-dollar gin thing in front of Annie is called a Sleepy Hello, and she could tell from the first sip that she would need three if she was to get anywhere close to drunk. Which means that she is probably safe, as far as confessions go – though since confession is the word which has most readily come to mind, possibly not.

What would he say, Brendan, if she told him that less than an hour ago, as she headed for the subway after the gym, she walked up the steps of a church and she went right in? An instant previously, she had been admiring a stained-glass window, thrown open to the street, and the way it looked against the golden yellow brick of a building; but it had been an abstract, hazy sort of admiration – the smugness had still been uppermost, her real attention had been on the subway entrance across 7th Avenue, and on whether the lights would stay green long enough for her to get over there. And then, somehow, she had been on the steps. And then, somehow, she had been in the hall. She had been at mass. Near to it, or within reach of it, or lurking in the background of it, but however she put it, she had been there. Mass.

Or, service, actually, which makes it easier to take. It was a Methodist church, something Annie discovered herself to have already known as she walked into the hall, something she must have picked up from a sign or a noticeboard in between the yellow brick and the stained panes of glass. Methodist Church of Whatever. Methodist Church of The Village, she thinks it might have been, now. Or Village Methodist Church. One of those. Village, she imagines herself saying to Brendan.

So, it’s fine, she hears herself continue. It was Methodist. Or, better still, it was only Methodist; how about that for a nice spot of distancing and evasion? It was only Methodist, and I only stood in the hallway even though a woman – smiling, dreads, floral dress – invited me to go all the way in. I only stayed for ten minutes, and the preacher, who was female, and in her twenties, and wearing a Madonna headpiece, namechecked the Gay Men’s Chorus in her sermon, and I only stayed even that length of time because I could see that there were singers and a pianist on the altar, and I was curious to hear what they might sing, and when it turned out to be You Raise Me Up, I got out of there, and really, I only went in because I had a few minutes to kill.

The worry, of course, would be that he might not mind. Or, worse still, that he might somehow, actually, approve.

Annie stood in front of an altar with this man two years ago; beside this man she knelt there, on what turned out to be the excruciating-to-kneel-on beads of her dress; beside this man she prayed the prayers and rolled out the vows. They did this. They went there.

But everybody understands what this kind of thing is about. Everybody understands why this kind of thing is, sometimes, unavoidable. There are parents, some of them elderly, and elderly is code for just do the damn thing; everybody knows that. There are arguments, and because of just do the damn thing, you are too cowardly to get into those arguments, and besides, there is an aisle, and some part of you is hard-wired into thinking that only an aisle will do for walking up and for walking down. None of this is admirable. None of this is brave. But. There is no need to get carried away.

“How are the grits?” Brendan says, just seconds from finding out for himself, given that he is sliding a fork into the creamy mush on the side of Annie’s plate.


“Want to try?” he says, gesturing towards his own.

She shakes her head. “Stuffed,” she says. “Already. Here.” She pushes the small bowl of potato cakes towards him. He glances at her as though he does not dare hope.


“Potatoes,” Annie says, giving the word the thick-tongued intonation she and Brendan give it when they say it here, as a joke. A joke that only they get, given that to everyone else, their accents probably sound exactly the same as always. “I’m sure.”

“Yay,” her 36-year-old husband says – her smart, sarky, word-whirring husband, he actually says “yay” – and he polishes them off.


Meghan and Liz are talking about children. Meghan earns money for taking care of them during the day, and Liz pays money to other versions of Meghan to do the same thing. They have been talking, they tell Annie, about how extremely good their kids – Meghan’s charges and Liz’s daughters – are at lying. They are pros, apparently; unblinking, unwobbling pros, and already Liz’s youngest, at sixteen months, is showing signs of being the slyest of them all.

“I’m doomed!” she says, smiling as though this is the most delicious prospect in the world. “I’m completely doomed!”

“But every child lies, don’t they?” Annie says.

Meghan looks at her blankly.

“Come on,” Annie says. “Didn’t you?”

Meghan opens her mouth as though to respond, then just twists her lips and gives Annie a slight shake of the head.

“I don’t believe you,” Annie says. “I think you’re lying now.”

“Uh-uh,” Meghan shrugs, twirling her straw and casting her gaze out to the street. “I’m not. I just never needed.”

She is blonde, and petite, and pretty the way a girl on a poster for dental floss is pretty. When she is not minding children, she writes essays on urban space and eco consciousness and on the city of the future, which is a place, from the way she’s described it, in which Annie is not sure anybody is going to want to live. Who, Liz’s little liar, grown up to be ultra-cognisant of others? A likely story.

“I lied like a sailor,” she says, aware that the simile is wonky, and she takes a big swig of her elderflowered gin. “It came to me so naturally that a couple of times I actually shocked myself.”

“Like when?” Brendan says, beside her, and she almost jumps; she had, somehow, almost forgotten that he was there. Not that it would have made any difference, not that she would have told a different story, but still. Her declaration was for Meghan’s sake, and for Liz, who has still not shown her own hand where duplicitousness is concerned, but who scarcely needs to; wee Victoria has not licked it off the ground.

“Like, too many times to remember,” Annie says, giving Brendan a playful nudge. “But a long time ago. Not lately.”

Brendan arches an eyebrow at her. Then he laughs, and they all sip their drinks and make what headway remains to be made of their food, and as Brendan puts some chorizo on Annie’s plate – she has to try it, he says, to her protests, she has to take just a bite – he asks whether either of the girls ever had any imaginary friends.

Liz shakes her head, exhaling a light laugh, but Meghan’s expression suggests that she regards this as a trick question. “Imaginary?” she says, and she tilts her head to one side. “Like, people you pretend are there?”

“People you pretend are there,” Brendan confirms, nodding, and suddenly, Annie realises where this is going. “Or,” he says, “people that other people think you’re pretending about. Until they discover otherwise.”

“What the fuck are you talking about?” Liz says, deadpan.

“No, no,” Annie says, shaking her head at Brendan. “We’re not…”

“Come on,” Brendan says. His grin is boyish, enthused.

“What’s going on?” Meghan says, holding her fork in mid-air. “Is something going on with you two?”

“Annie has a story about an imaginary friend,” Brendan says, still grinning.

“Jesus,” Annie says to him. “I haven’t thought about that story in, I don’t know, fifteen years.”

“Tell us!” Liz says, looking to Meghan for back-up, but Meghan just continues to switch her gaze from Brendan to Annie.

“It’s stupid,” Annie says. “I don’t even think I believe it anymore.”

“You said you knew the girl, didn’t you?”

“She was a friend of a friend,” Annie shrugs. “But I heard something since…I don’t know,” she says, shaking her head. “I can’t even remember it properly.”

“You can remember it perfectly bloody well,” Brendan says, and he turns to Meghan and Liz. “So,” he says. “A friend of Annie’s. A friend of a friend.”

“In Ireland?” Liz says.

“In Dublin,” Brendan nods.

“Ok,” Liz says, as though this somehow adds an extra layer of credence. “Ok.”

“She was babysitting,” Brendan says, and he nods towards Meghan, whose face twitches as though she has been outrageously accused in the wrong, “looking after this little boy. And…” he nods towards Annie. “And…”

“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” says Annie, and she takes a mouthful of Sleepy Hello, and she gropes for the story as she was told it by her flatmate Gemma in Phibsboro twelve or thirteen years ago, one night when they’d had whiskey and when every story about everyone they’d ever known seemed to be pushing to the surface and heaving itself out onto the floor between them. Gemma; where is Gemma now? Married too, and with a couple of kids, and with the negative equity that is as tightly woven into their generation’s existence as email, or Ikea, or kale. “I didn’t really know this girl,” Annie says, and Brendan makes a noise that says, get on with it, don’t be trying to wriggle out of it, and Liz looks at Meghan and Meghan looks down the table towards the other conversation, the conversation that is still, impossibly, about football, and she looks back.

“So, she was minding this kid. And his parents told her, you know, little…”

“Jasper,” says Brendan, nodding very gravely.

“Jasper?” says Annie. “Jasper was not the child’s name. But anyway. The parents told her everything she needed to know about looking after him. Where his food was. Whatever.”

“Where his food was?” Liz says, laughing. “Are you sure she wasn’t looking after a cat?”

“She saw the imaginary friend,” Meghan says abruptly. She shrugs at Annie. “Right?”

“She saw him?” Liz says, holding up a hand for silence. “Sorry, explain this to me. She saw what?”

Meghan is frowning. “Isn’t this a movie?” she says. “Doesn’t this…”

The Sixth Sense?” Liz says impatiently. “But nobody saw him!”

“This is pointless,” Annie says to Brendan, and she lifts her glass. It is almost empty. She sucks loudly through the straw.

“You might as well finish it,” Brendan says. “The story, I mean.”

“I’m not going to finish it,” Annie says. “They know what happened.”

“I don’t know what happened!” Liz protests, a hand on Meghan’s arm. “I want to hear the rest of the story!”

Annie sighs. She remembers the shock of this, from when Gemma told it to her in that basement flat where the heating always took forever to come on; she remembers the genuine chill which dropped down her spine when Gemma came to the big reveal. A gunk, that was what her mother would call it; she got a gunk, and for weeks afterwards – it was so silly, so embarrassing, she was afraid to look at a window after dark, for fear of what she might see reflected there. A broom handle, a cheap old table, a fridge door covered with novelty magnets and unpaid utility bills; that was what she would see. But she didn’t look. Not for ages.

“The parents told this girl that the child had an imaginary friend, just so she’d know, if she saw the child talking to himself, not to worry, that this was the reason, and it was perfectly normal, and cute, and blah,” she says. “And sure enough, she did notice the kid making occasional comments to the space beside him, and she tried to be nice, to interact a little bit with the…friend – to ask him questions, or to ask the kid questions on the imaginary friend’s behalf. That kind of thing.”

“Bad move,” Meghan says. “Never patronise the imaginary friend.”

“Yeah, well,” Annie says, suddenly determined to maintain control. “That’s as it may be. So. She gets through the evening, and the kid is well-behaved, and he puts his pyjamas on, and he gives her no hassle, no hassle at all, and he’s quite content just to go up to bed. And as she’s reading to him – “

“Oh no, no, no, no,” Liz cries, covering her ears.

“Hang on,” Annie says, pointing to her. “Not yet. As she’s reading to him, the kid is making occasional references to the friend. Asking him questions, explaining stuff to him, that kind of thing. And it’s fine, and she goes along with this, a bit, and when she’s saying goodnight, she makes sure to say goodnight to the imaginary friend as well. And.”

“Oh god,” Liz says, hands to her ears again.

“Oh, for Christ’s sake,” Meghan says.

“And later that night,” Annie says, and now she realises that she does not want this story to end, that she wants to keep stringing them along like this, even Meghan, who is trying so hard to look as though she does not care for a word of it. There is more of her father in her than she thought, Annie realises, her father who loved nothing more than to keep them all up at night, scaring the life out of them, telling ghost story after ghost story, her father who was never as happy as when he had an audience, attention, an atmosphere that felt like approval, even if it was only actually a hunger for distraction. Lately, it has felt as though she is having discoveries like this every day. Lately, too, she has been opening her mouth, and saying something – something to Brendan, usually, because it is with him that her intonation is at its less contrived – and hearing, quite clearly, that it is not her own voice, but her mother’s voice which has come into the room. It is not a mystical thing, this phenomenon; it is to do with aging, and timbre, and genetics – nothing more mysterious than that, nothing more poetic. And yet.

“Later that night,” she says, “the babysitter goes upstairs to check, say at 9 or 9.30 or something, whatever time a four year old boy is meant to be long asleep by, and she hears him chatting in his room. And she says to herself, right. Enough is enough. And she opens the door. To say, time to go to sleep now…Jasper. Time to say goodnight to friendy there and close your eyes.”

She pauses. Even if the story is ruined, there is nothing wrong with a pause.

“And he’s there.”

“Oh my fucking God,” Liz says, hands to her mouth. “Who’s there?”

“The friend is there,” Annie says, and she laughs with true delight at Liz’s reaction. “Sitting at the bottom of the bed, looking around to see who’s disturbing their conversation. Looking her right in the eye.”

The people at the next table register only mild irritation at the jump in noise levels; Liz’s shriek is at least over with quickly. Beside her, Meghan is adamantly shaking her head, talking about how this is a movie, how it is definitely a movie. Brendan drapes his arm around Annie’s chair, and she leans into him; they are laughing, they are enjoying themselves, this is effortless, this is fun. Which is how Annie comes to sit up straight, suddenly, and look at Brendan, and say, while the soundtrack of Meghan’s cynicism and Liz’s horror is still unfolding, that they should tell them the other story, the one about the guy on the road, and she knows as soon as she has said it that Brendan has gone into a different place now, that Brendan is not interested in playing this game anymore, that Brendan does not want to be at a brunch table with the Annie who would tell this story – but no, it is not even that, she sees, pushing her hair back from her face and looking, unsmiling, at him as he looks, unsmiling at her; it is that he does not want her to be an Annie who would believe this story, who would drag it up again and thereby prove to him that she has not listened to him when he has told her to let go of it, to see sense on it, to understand that it is not, and cannot be, the story she for some very worrying reason so fervently maintains it to be.

She gets it; he looks at the Annie for whom this story is a real one and he wonders if he knows her at all. If he is right about who she is. If he did what was wise, after all, standing with her in front of that altar, listening to those prayers for their future blessedness and fecundity, tolerating the doggedly old-school priest who told them to keep the Blessed Mother and her saints in their home always, to make a place for her, presumably, in between the imitation Eames and the Crate and Barrel lamp and the black and white films they send flickering up onto the wall from their fancy, ugly, clunky projector, that horrible piece of office equipment which allows them to bring Bogart and Hepburn and Jimmy Stewart into their living-room, large as the night, whenever they please.

Annie, Annie hears her mother’s voice say. Watch what you’re saying. But Annie is angry with her clear-sighted husband, by now, and Annie will tell the story of the old man on the side of the road if she damn well pleases. So she tells them, and this time, Meghan does not disguise her interest, and this time, the noises that Liz makes are of a different kind, and this time, the others at the table listen too, and if Annie is not mistaken, the couple at the table beside them are angling their ears in her direction as well.

It lays its track down easily; their last week in Ireland before moving here, the pressure to visit everyone, to say to cousins, and aunts and uncles these formal goodbyes, as though they would see them any less often than they had while living in the same country as them. This was before the recession, so the term had not yet come back into currency, the term that everyone who emigrates is using now – the American wake, or the Australian one – fair enough, Australia is a long bloody way away – or the London wake, which is just silly, which is clearly just an excuse for a piss-up and a chance at a few good luck cards stuffed with twenty-euro notes. Annie and Brendan had used the term too, but with what they thought of as hilarious irony; nobody really saw it that way, they knew, and all of that was so long ago now, all of that suffering and misery, that it was absolutely fine to joke about it, and their going-away party was a laugh and a bit of a bragging opportunity all at once. But the visits; the visits were a chore. Driving to Galway and Cavan and Roscommon; cups of tea and ham-and-tomato sandwiches, and beer that Brendan could not drink because he had to drive back again, and the same questions, and the same answers, and the same old lines. They had done it because their parents had expected them to do it. It had not occurred to them to say no, no thank you. The inkling of such a possibility was only beginning to occur to them now. Now that it only half-mattered anymore; now that their parents were one-half gone.

It was August, so it was still light out at half-nine or so, which was when they were heading to Annie’s cousin’s house, and this cousin lived up the Arigna mountain, so the roads were tight, and steep, and winding, but Brendan knew this country well – Brendan had grown up close to here, had come these roads with his father and the cattle lorries – and Brendan was driving as Brendan usually did. They were talking, letting off steam about whatever visits they had been required to undertake already that day, and they were listening to the radio, to the arts thing on Radio One. And it was on a straight stretch of road that they met him, and he was just as she remembered him, insofar as she could remember him at all.

He was then, perhaps, twenty-five years dead.

She knew it was in and around that, because of the way the memory of his funeral was held in her mind; it was all angles and shadows, with no sense of human expression, no trace of how an emotion had looked, taking over an adult face, which was something she could remember from later funerals, the strangeness of a man’s weeping, or of her mother’s weeping, for that matter. This one, though; too early for that. Those pictures in her mind were made up of pew backs and of knees and of the slant, high up, of the ceiling; that had been her perspective on the world then, which meant that she had been three, maybe four years old. Jodie had been their neighbour; her neighbour, the old man who lived in the tin-roofed house up the lane, who chatted to Annie, who treated her like a neighbour no matter how tiny she was, how frightened she was of his greyhounds. Annie’s mother brought her up to visit him almost daily, and the three of them talked – it was like that, it was not Annie’s mother and Jodie talking over her, or down to her, it was the three of them talking, and then Annie and her mother talking some more as they walked down the lane again afterwards, or sometimes, Jodie walking her down. And when she saw him on the mountain road that evening, she had recognised him instantly, before ever it entered her mind that such a thing was an impossibility.

“I said to Brendan, long before we went around that corner, I said to him, hey, that’s Jodie. I hadn’t even registered that it couldn’t be him: I just saw him, and that was that.”

“You never know with these things,” Brendan says now, and his voice is wary. He tries to touch Annie’s hand.

“I saw him,” Annie says, almost savagely, and she pulls her hand away.

Someone says it: “Eh-oh!”.

“He lifted his hand, as though he was telling us something, and I said to Brendan, I said, Jodie, and he said, Jodie who? And I said, slow down. And he said, why, do you want me to stop? And I said no, just slow down, just slow down. And he did. And when we came around the next corner…if we had been going any faster…”

“There was a guy in a tractor, cutting a fucking hedge,” Brendan says with a grimacing shake of his head. “With a hedge-cutter; he was taking up our whole side of the road…but…there was room – I would have been able to brake…”

“You would not have been able to brake,” Annie says, and she looks to Meghan and Liz, to the others at the far end of the table, for support. They stare back at her, eyes wide, faces deadly serious.

“He saved you?” Liz says, right on cue.

“He saved us,” Annie nods, and to the noise of Brendan’s heavy sigh, she does not even turn her head.

“Irish roads,” says Meghan, reaching over Liz for the water jug. “Rather you than me, by the sounds of things.”


Presumably, Annie thinks as she sits on the bus later – alone – these recorded messages are played over the tannoy at random; presumably, the driver has nothing to do with it. The driver is just making his way from Greenpoint to Prospect Park, doing battle with all those shining, chubby SUVs, watching as his passengers haul themselves up his steps, as they dip their Metrocards into his machine; listening for the right kind of beep. He’s doing his thing, and then somewhere along the line – he doesn’t know where – the recording jolts itself on, and the bus is filled with the voice of a guy who could be at the Academy Awards, asking the audience to please welcome some hugely famous, greatly beloved actors, such is this guy’s drama and intensity, such is his sense of this as a moment when all ears ought to be his, all attention locked with full focus and reverence on what he has to announce: that assaulting a New York City bus driver is a crime. Annie looks around, but nobody else on the bus seems to be paying the voice the slightest heed; they are still absorbed in themselves, or in one another. Gazing out the window at Crown Heights, as it slugs past, all bodegas and clothes stores and worship halls and hair salons. Listening to each other; debriefing one another after another day. Listening to their music, whatever it was; nodding so deeply, so slowly that no degree of dead-eyed stare could convince the observer that here was anything less than vivid life, engaged and excited life. Annie looks at them, her fellow passengers, and she realises that what she is trying to do is to catch someone’s eye. To find someone, in that instant after the syrup-voiced warning has played over the speakers, with whom to connect laughingly, wryly, with whom to make wisecracks about the announcement and how comical it is, coming the way it does, coming with that camp flourish, that elegant timing, as the bus slams and rattles its way along Utica or Nostrand.

“Sure, we’re not going to do anything to him,” Annie imagines herself saying, pulling her face into a comical expression, while her interlocutor nods, and laughs, and sends her eyebrows high towards her hairline. Her interlocutor will be a woman, a woman in her 50s, Annie decides: a teacher, or someone who works in a hospital, something like that. She will be black, because everyone on this bus is, except Annie, and she will take absolutely no shit; she will be in full agreement with Annie about the plentiful and illogical absurdities of the world. Sure, we’re not a bit interested in you, love, Annie hears herself continuing, and the woman will nod and laugh and move her head in accord. That’s right, maybe she will say – That’s right, Annie feels reasonably sure, is a good approximation of what a woman like this would say – and she will smile a purse-lipped smile – not unlike Annie’s mother’s smile – and her eyes, her eyes will be beautifully bright. Mmm-hmmm, she might then say – another sound that Annie can hear in her head, a sound she feels sure to be the right sort of one, at least – her agreement emphatic, her enjoyment of the joke intense; Sure, we have better things to be doing than assaulting that lad, Annie might go on to say. “That lad”: so Irish, so much of Annie’s part of the country, but these kinds of descriptions are the same the world over, and she is certain the woman will see her meaning without any snag. Then the woman will laugh in a final confirmation of pleasure and approval, and Annie will shake her head and say, Oh, well, and the two of them will go back to their business. And, have a nice day, or you have a nice day, now!, whichever of them – probably Annie – will be first to stand up and press the cord for the stop to come.

—Belinda McKeon


Belinda McKeon is the author of Solace, which won the 2012 Faber Prize and was named Irish Book of the Year as well as being shortlisted for the James Tait Black Prize. She has contributed to publications including the New York Times, the Paris Review and the Guardian, and is also a playwright. Her second novel, Tender, will be published by Picador in April. She teaches at Rutgers University. Her website is


Nov 032014


Six Russian soldiers. Young, maybe nineteen. One of them is calling for his mum, all of them are begging for their lives. They are butchered one by one. The way one of them twitches when the blade cuts his neck, the sound of the blade sawing through bone and artery. Or Mihai Antonescu, facing the firing squad in 1946, turning around to get rid of his hat, to throw it behind the pole where he will be shot – a man about to die and yet worried about his hat. Hussein not finishing his rant. The anonymous guy in a hanging video, shitting himself. An American’s politician’s brain dripping through his nose. It’s always in the details, the details always catch you unaware. The punctum of these moving images, the things not necessarily anticipated by the camera. The ones that stay with you.


short sequence in Antonioni’s The Passenger stands out from the rest of the film. Shot on 16 mm, in saturated colours, the grainy footage depicts a public execution on a faraway African beach. We see the prisoner handled by guards, then tied to a pole by the sea, a priest having his final say, locals gathered to witness the spectacle, a coffin waiting. A firing squad is in charge of taking this man’s life and soon the first volley of shots hits his body. The camera zooms in, to an out of focus close up of his face. In comes a second burst of fire. Clearly in pain he raises his hands, slowly, perhaps trying to stop the bullets. His body shakes, departs. A jump cut takes us away from his death and into a convertible with Jack Nicholson and Maria Schneider, the main characters in the film.

stillStill from the execution scene in The Passenger..

The Passenger, from 1975, is a work of fiction. Yet this scene has all the hallmarks of the mondo film: brutality, a black body dying on camera, Africa. This genre – quite popular at the time thanks to films like Mondo Cane[1] and Africa Addio[2]– is renowned for its constant flirting with death (forged and real), sensationalism and erotic exoticism. The black body, semi-naked, in pain, dying, already dead, in all its alienness, perceived brutality and essentialist sensuality is one of its main attractions. Perhaps Antonioni was criticising the genre, yet in narrative terms this execution is introduced in The Passenger with the intention of providing a realistic seal and a geopolitical context to the main character’s misadventures during the tumultuous process of decolonisation in Africa. That said, what makes this sequence stand out from the rest of the film is that it is indeed documentary. This is no fiction, this is the real thing, the execution of a Nigerian petty thief fictionalised as the execution of a political leader[3]  – not that it is possible for an execution to be apolitical. Antonioni puts reality in the service of fiction in order to deliver a realistic narrative. It is complex, and problematic.

I have long been haunted by this scene, and not only by the ethical implications of turning death into entertainment. There’s a mechanics of dying on camera that keeps my mind busy. This man is alive, he is being killed, his death is being captured frame by frame. He is always still alive and always already dead. As every photograph, as every film, it reminds me an oft quoted moment in Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida, when upon looking at the image of Lewis Payne – sentenced to death for his part in the conspiracy to kill Lincoln, Seward and Johnson –  he claims: “He is dead and he is going to die”. In the case of film we could perhaps say “he is dead, he is going to die, he is constantly dying”. For as long as there remains a physical copy of the film, every time we press play we kill this unknown Nigerian man. Twenty-four frames per second we kill him. We stretch his unnatural death over time and repeat it at will. Yes, every image is sooner or later the image of death, but there are proximities and intersections – it isn’t the same to film a baby than a man being shot. An image of actual death has a power that no other image can claim for itself. Bare life (Agamben) doesn’t get any barer than this..

pic 2 deathtubeLewis Powell, Lincoln assassination conspirator.

1024px-Execution_Lincoln_assassinsExecution of Mary Surratt, Lewis Powell, David Herold, and George Atzerodt on July 7, 1865. Via Wikipedia.

And how is a celluloid death different from a digital death? I think about film and those twenty-four frames per second. I think about a particular frame in which the victim is still alive. There is a frame afterwards in which the dying person is already dead. If we had the actual film roll in front of us we could easily mark these moments, we could easily perform a cinematic autopsy. Frame 374, the subject is still alive; frame 375 the subject is now officially deceased. Nothing of this sort can be carried out on video. Digital death is a more ambiguous transition, harder to locate. You can freeze the image, yes, but how do you know how many pixels of death and how many pixels of life there are? Digital death is confusing, immaterial therefore deadlier – and yet more common. I guess something of this happens with analogue death transported to digital as well. Adopted by a new medium it becomes ungraspable. One more thing to lament from the digitalisation of everyday life


You wouldn’t bump into death on the screen by chance, not too long ago. I had heard about the mondo films and there were rumours of snuff flicks doing the rounds, supposedly shot during the – dictatorial –70s in Latin America, but I had never seen any of these. I had also heard about Vic Morrow, who used to play Sergeant “Chip” Saunders in the series Combat!, about his death on camera together with two child actors, shooting a dangerous scene for a John Landis’ movie, the three of them torn to pieces by a helicopter blade. I used to watch Combat! with my grandpa in the mid 1980s – Morrow’s death was the stuff of legend. For years the thought of his head flying in the air tormented me, and the lack of closure – the lack of an image – was disturbing. All these moments of celluloid were mythical, for death on camera was invisible. I was born before the VHS, cable TV, and the internet; I was born even before colour TV in Argentina. Now you can find Morrow’s death on camera with a simple Google search..

pic 3 deathtubeVic Morrow in Combat.

The execution scene from The Passenger was my first. I might have been fourteen or fifteen when I saw the film. It was a rare, raw, and quite unique experience. Particularly because I saw it at an underground cineclub in my hometown Rosario you couldn’t press pause back then. You never fully owned the image; you were always lagging one step behind, constantly losing your grip over what was playing out on the screen. Was it a real execution or just a very well performed fiction? It was impossible to tell. I trawled the local library trying to find information about this scene; I interrogated my cinephile friends. Yes, it is; no, it is not. The uncertainty remained for a while and then, yes, it was real, some scholar discussed this scene in an obscure film journal. Supposedly Antonioni had decided to use it after receiving some film rolls through the post, sent by who knows who. Patrice Lumumba’s execution was mentioned in the text – apparently the “educated” viewer would connect this murder with that other one. I often wonder if anyone ever made that connection.

It would be years until I saw another death on camera. This time it was an American politician shooting himself in the mouth. It had happened in the 1980s, but in Argentina we only learned about it in the 1990s – death on camera, when visible, used to be a delayed spectacle. This one didn’t take me by surprise, for it came with all the warnings and at 9pm on a very popular caught on camera show. Death on camera was making its first steps into primetime television and then along came the internet. Is there a medium more inhabited by death than the world wide web? You don’t need to stray too far from your familiar territory to dive headfirst into death. The internet is the deathtube. The images are up online while the body is still warm – digital death is immediate. Digital death is also death on demand: you can order a pizza or someone’s beheading, but only the latter is free.

CaptureStills from a video no longer available at

pic 4 deathtube

Death documented, filmed, scripted. There’s an aesthetics of digital death born out of repetition: different angles, the recurrence of certain facial expressions, animal howls, pixelation, camera jumps. Different genres: people filming other people being killed for the camera, people killing other people, people filming already dead people, people filming their own deaths. A register of every wound, every shot, every severed head or limb removed from its trunk. Mass produced and streamlined for the audience, who have grown so accustomed to these necroaesthetics that they barely even flinch when someone’s brains end up against a wall. Experts: read the bottom half of any of these videos, the detachment, the lack of empathy, the dark jokes, The Ranking of Shocking Deaths. We haven’t all been that audience but we have all been loitering around the dark side of the internet, asking ourselves how far are we willing to go? How much curiosity is too much? How much can we desensitise ourselves? There you go, someone else has just been beheaded. Are you willing to watch?

From Ciudad Juárez to Raqqa, from New York to South Africa, the corpus of death on camera expands day by day. It would be possible to write an alternative history of the 20th and 21st centuries just by looking at its evolution, at the way its aesthetics have been bumped with the arrival of digital technologies, the way each one of these moments of death are received.  As the cameras multiply, as the catalogue of the visible extends to the infinite, the victims continue to walk into the spectacular abattoir. We are destined to reach the moment where every death has its visual counterpart. Until even digital images turn to dust, or until there is nobody else left to watch.

 —Fernando Sdrigotti


Fernando Sdrigotti

Fernando Sdrigotti is a writer, cultural critic, and recovering musician. He was born in Rosario, Argentina, and now lives and works in London. He is a contributing editor at 3am Magazine and the editor-in-chief of Minor Literature[s]. His new book Shetlag: una novela acentuada, has just been released by Araña editorial, Valencia. He tweets at @f_sd.


Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Jacopetti, Cavara & Prosperi, 1962
  2. Jacopetti & Cavara, 1966
  3. Walsh, M.(1975) The Passenger: Antonioni’s Narrative Design, Jump Cut, 8, pp 7-10.
Nov 022014


Notes on Metanoia

I had a job that I did not like. It was a perfectly good job as a parliamentary editor in the Hansard office of the provincial legislature. The office was in a gorgeous heritage sandstone building and my coworkers were good smart hard-working people who had put their faith in me and needed me but I knew from the get go that it was all wrong. I was bored. I know how that sounds.

I lasted six months. What got me through that time was T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. “And the end and the beginning were always there/Before the beginning and after the end./And all is always now.” “We shall not cease from exploration/And the end of all our exploring/Will be to arrive where we started/And know the place for the first time.”

Every morning, the first thing that I did at work was open an online version of Four Quartets on a tab on my computer and an email message to myself. Throughout the day, I surreptitiously read bits of Four Quartets whenever the dreardom overwhelmed. As lines and images materialized, I jotted them down in the email and, at the end of the day, dispatched the message to myself at home. Those lines and images became Metanoia. Its form was dictated by circumstance.

I was not slacking off. I was a good producer and, when I did quit, the supervisor said that I could come back any time. This was comforting and I told her so. We get our comfort where we can and then we fare forward. “Not fare well,/But fare forward, voyagers.”

—Sharon McCartney

Like Jesus, I was born in the desert,
the barrens under Camelback Mountain.
That emptiness has dogged me all my life,
an arid wind clawing my sundress
on the gravel playground.


I banished the banker forever. Told him I wanted to be alone.
I didn’t really want to be alone. I just didn’t want to be with him.

The banker said, great.
Being with no one is better than being with me.


Mother said, smile. Learn to cook swiss steak. Sew a French seam.
Be a good wife.

I think, now, that she should have known better.


How I told myself that I loved
the husband more than he loved me.
So self-serving.

I loved him so much
I wanted to be him.
I thought that was love.
He did not want to be me.
I saw that as a lack.
And left because of it.


No man in my life, nothing to worry about. No one to disappoint.
A failure of nerve, perhaps, but peaceful.


All of that effort to make myself loveable only made me unloving.


When the married man rebuffed me, I was worthless.
In this way, I discovered my worth.

How crushed I was if he did not respond to an email.

Then furious.


Eternity is not time everlasting, but the absence of time.
When we created time, we created death.


I do not believe in death anymore.
For you people, perhaps. But not for me.


The man in New Mexico said maybe the secret
is to find someone with matching neuroses.
But I want him to be hot as well.


I am not alone.
I am in an exclusive relationship with myself.


I knew that the fat man was wrong,
not immediately, but soon enough.
The way he crowded me on the sidewalk.
Yet I hoped that it would work.
I wanted to love him.


A warm rain in the lime tree.
Pigeons fornicating under the eaves.
My sad neighbour feeds them. I wish she would not.


When I say that I do not want anyone but the husband,
I do not mean that I want the husband.
What I mean is that I do not want to want anyone else.


The banker said, my life is a shambles.
I said, everyone’s life is a shambles.
Why do you think you are different?


When the husband was younger,
I loved his broad shoulders, particularly
when they were above me.

Now that he’s older, his shoulders
have gone soft, annular, sloping
tenderly under his mandarin collar.

And I love him again for being one of us.


The banker snored outrageously and twitched in his sleep.
I could not sleep beside him.
This became an “issue.”
That last night, I snuck away to the spare bedroom,
hoping for an hour or two.

At 5 a.m., I heard him downstairs, loading
his vehicle, the door slamming, his shoes,
angry. He tromped upstairs, perched on the edge
of the bed in the dark, saying, darkly,
I didn’t want to leave without saying goodbye.

No, I thought, you didn’t want to leave without hurting me.


I pleased the banker. He didn’t please me.
I withdrew myself. He was no longer pleased.


Eliot says, to get to where you are not, you have to go
by the way in which you are not.
I want to love again.


The Mayan was the best.
No prudishness, no hesitation.

I said, could you please teach that
to every man on earth?

If he had wanted me to come to Vancouver, I would have.

In pain, I locked the door, turned out the lights,
so he would return to a dark house,
myself in bed, my back to him.

All of this calculated to push him away,
when his leaving was what I feared.


I strung the fat man along, not voicing my reservations,
thinking that I was sparing his feelings.

A lie. I was sparing myself.

Because I waited too long to speak,
I became revulsed.

The last time we had sex, I said to myself,
this is the last time.
I did not say that to him.


How to live then?
Honour my mother.
Honour what is in me that is her.

Don’t cultivate relationships as panaceas for loneliness.
Be true to my loneliness.

That scares the shit out of me.


I always loved the husband. Oh when I first saw him,
six pack slung on his back, in hiking boots.
How he flirted with me the first time, poking my shoulder.

What I did not love was myself with him.


The task is not to find god or a new man.
The task is to find wholeness, magnitude.
Having that, all other needs fall away.


I used alcohol as a way of masking insufficiency.
Ditto men.

Alcohol has become too complicated for me.
Ditto men.


The body is time, yet our selves are timeless.
We can only know time through timelessness.


Eliot says the ocean is us.
We cannot think of a time that is not oceanless
because it does not exist.


California resides in my memory as the occidental
aroma of exhaust and brine.


In grieving the marriage,
I grieved the loss of an abode for my love.
I was taught not to love myself.
A girl should accommodate.
A girl should not love herself,
or no one will like her.
This was the supreme hell. To be unliked.


I am continually struck by the oddity of the mirror.
Who is that visage? I do not feel so contained.


And there it is again, inexplicably, the fear
that I have nothing if I do not have the husband.
That is the fear that I have to stride toward.
Walk into it even though my stomach is upside down,
even though I would rather not.


If you’re not nervous before training,
you’re not training hard enough.
That’s what the crossfitters say.


Younger, I wanted to obliterate myself,
the emptiness.

Older, I want to uncover myself,
the emptiness.

No longer preying on the emotions of others
to satisfy my need for approval.
What I did to the banker was unkind.


If I seek wholeness, I am entirely unwhole.
Therefore, seek emptiness.


More light snow falling.
No wind. All of the acute angles softened,
corners blunted, discordances resolved.

Nine years ago, when I was mired in despair,
disillusion, believing that I had been betrayed,
I found snowbanks seductive, imagined laying myself
down in their albino deeps, never to rise.

This was ridiculous.
Further, no one had betrayed me.


All of life is a learning to let go
until life lets go of us.

Grace is the time to do this.

The banker wanted me beside him all night,
no matter what.


Let the husband go to his beloved blonde,
strumming her 12-string.
That would have been better.
Not my dire meddling. Even my rejection
of him was grasping.


Language bridges the gap that it creates.
Words isolate us; we connect through words.


The excitement of the unknown waned and then
there was nada. The banker’s tongue down my throat,
but I just wanted to watch Friends.


Marrying was escaping my mother,
her life of diminishment,
her Colonial furniture and braided rugs,
her Tennessee Ernie Ford.
Anything but that, I said.
And so she continued to control me.


The pain is not the pain of losing the husband, of seeing him
with another, trying to please her, but a deeper,
more fundamental pain
that engendered the original need.

What was I trying to avoid?
Mother, supping alone in her enormous house.


In the dream, I wanted lights installed on my bicycle.
The guy at Savage’s showed me that they were already there,
front and back.


The owl looping through the black willows,
backlit by the group home’s spotlight.
The owl is process. I am process.

Clinging not so much to life, but to life as it is now.


I hope the owl kills some of the pigeons.


The fat man thought that he knew what I wanted.
I shied from that. It’s too much to ask,
to be someone whose wants can be known.


The horse shied, not at the fence,
but at the absence of the fence, where one section
was removed for repairs. The opening, the break
in the rhythm of fence, fence, fence, as startling
to the horse as any fleeing rodent or green garbage
bag torn and flapping.

We only wake up where there is discrepancy.


The body is a convenience.
In order to perceive a world, we have to stand outside of it,
in the stand-alone body.

The price we pay for convenience
is loneliness.

The fall being that into the body, the perception
of a world that is outside.

Like the dog in his crate, what first appeared to be a prison
becomes, with time, a refuge.
Comfortable old crate. A soft rag for a bed,
a rawhide to gnaw.


The troll at work demurred, “We are not trying to demoralize you.”
Percheron man insisted, “I am not controlling.”

Whatever they said, they meant the opposite.
It was in their minds first, not mine.


I want to think well of the future.
Better not to think of the future at all.


That lesion on my chest may well be murderous.


Language is born in loneliness,
the lapdog howling for the pack to return.

All writing is about loneliness.
Miscreance, misadventure.

Consciousness is the zone of evolution,
the struggle with one’s self the fundament.


Coffee, cigarettes, asthma puffers, anti-depressants,
cookies, pie, donuts. He could not walk past sugar.


To get to where you are not, you have to go
by the way in which you are not.
Go by the way of loneliness, fear,
to get to where there is no loneliness, fear.


Why did Mother hate Father so much?
I do not know. It was not spoken of.


If we can only know the world through our own experience,
then everything that we see in the world is within ourselves.

Look for beauty in the world to find it in myself.
Look for goodness in the world to find it in myself.

A thaw, rain before dawn, syncopation of the leaf-clotted eaves,
my morning tunes.


Always the tendency toward mortification.
Starving myself as a teenager.
Quitting the comfortable job.
Walking out of the perfectly adequate marriage.
Let all of that go, all aspects of self-importance.
The world is mortifying enough.


What I learned from the married man:
to love without wanting to deprive
anyone else of the beloved,
without wanting to exclude. So difficult.
The grasping is fear, a failure
to love one’s self, the false conviction
that if someone else has what I
want, I am diminished.


The husband and I drove to Cut Bank, Montana, on Friday nights
and drank at the Winner’s Circle for hours.
There were others there. Railroad workers.
The dollar store clerk. A woman offered to buy a round.
She dumped nickels and dimes on the counter.


I dreamt of horses swimming underwater,
myself rolling over their tumbling haunches,
incipience just under the surface.


I could have loved the fat man but his stomach got in the way.


I loved the husband but what I loved in him was what I wanted to love in myself.
What I thought was the death of love was only love coming home.


All shyness, all anxiety is an excess of self-love,
a mistaken belief in how much we matter
in the minds of others.

Let that go.
Nothing can touch me because I touch nothing.


The basswood is budding. The morning dogs are unleashed.


When I told the Mayan that he made me feel like a fuck,
he said, That makes my eyeballs burn if you feel that way.

Rubbing his eyes.

And then he left.
There was Rogers Cup tennis on the HD at his sister’s house.


The banker said, I feel like an imposter.
Then he said, I meant imposer,
not imposter.


On an operating table again, under surgical lights.
The lesion on my chest is basal cell carcinoma
if I am lucky, melanoma if I am not.

A needle goes in for the freezing and then I am left alone.
I’m thinking about 12 years ago, my mastectomy.
How frightened I was, my world gone cuckoo.

I lay myself down under the globular lights
and breathed down to my heart as the anesthetist
leaned over me. When I woke up in recovery,
I could see sideways a row of beds. Nurses.

One came over and said, you were crying.
You were crying for a long time.
When we asked you what you wanted, you said,
I want my husband.


The husband’s overt scorn for the hoi polloi.
What was he so afraid of?


I dreamt that a passenger jet crashed into a bay
right in front of me, the wings narrowing
as it dove, like a petrel. At the same time, nearby, a ferry
capsized and sank. I could see the faces of the people
climbing out of the sinking ferry. Wet hair.
Pulling on the railings as they climbed the sinking stairs.
Gasping. Who were those people?


Jung says what we deny inwardly
will come to us outwardly as fate.

I denied my mother. I have become her.


That abyss of loneliness that I saw yawning before me
was Heidegger’s openness of being.


Still a little fluish, my throat rough.

The dog skulks when I cough,
as if he has been rebuked.


The banker was always in my face, wanting to kiss me
while I chopped onions, while we waited for the elevator.
Aggressive. Tongue. Did he think that I liked that?
I shrugged him off. I need someone who doesn’t need me.

What I mean is I don’t want to need anyone.


The world is my representation.
I shall not want.


More snow in the forecast.
This year’s plowing bill is going to bankrupt me.


The sun comes up so late these days,
sometimes I fear it won’t.


The woman next door says, I am going to feed
the pigeons and no one can stop me.
She says, This is who I am. I am very passionate about this.

She’s in my driveway, shouting at me.
All I can hear is I, I, I.


Sin is a refusal to grow, to change, to love.
One’s self, mostly.


The last child leaves for good and the house is empty.
A predictable sadness but also a wholly unexpected sense of peace,
relaxation, wholeness. I am that emptiness in the house.


The husband was a way to get out of myself,
out of the emptiness. As were children.
I thought that I could fill it with other people.

Only woe can come from that.
Emptiness is what I am,
what I remain.


Pain is born from the effort to abjure the emptiness,
to be what we are not.


Don’t you hate it when Buddhists get all emptier than thou?


What I felt so many years ago in the Grade 9 English classroom,
how I lost my sense of membrane, of containment, my self
leaching into the Bermuda lawn beyond the sliding glass door,
into the eucalyptus, the succulents, the Birds of Paradise.


The ocean is emptiness.
The ocean is us.


The good thing about the husband
was that he was never really there.

This was also the bad thing,
or so I thought.

—Sharon McCartney


Sharon McCartney is the author of Hard Ass (2013, Palimpsest), For and Against (2010, Goose Lane Editions), The Love Song of Laura Ingalls Wilder (2007, Nightwood Editions), Karenin Sings the Blues (2003, Goose Lane Editions) and Under the Abdominal Wall (1999, Anvil Press). Her poems have been included in the 2012 and 2013 editions of The Best Canadian Poetry in English. In 2008, she received the Acorn/Plantos People’s Prize for poetry for The Love Song of Laura Ingalls Wilder. She lives in Fredericton, New Brunswick.


Nov 012014

Gonzalez Park



The season of scrambled eggs came upon us on January 6, Three Kings Day. Perhaps it was the holiday spirit–the gifts, the piñata, the candy–that reminded my mother’s younger sisters that it was time to start planning for Holy Week, only three months away. Their appeal, made just when the day’s excitement quieted down over dinner, made my body stiffened because it was an announcement of the labor to come.

“Don’t forget everybody,” tía Luz said. “Start saving eggshells.”

“Please,” tía Chata added.

A few heads nodded in acknowledgment and this seemed to satisfy my aunts. The evening’s meal progressed as if nothing had changed, but in fact it had changed breakfast every morning. No more hard-boiled eggs or eggs served sunny side up until enough shells had been collected for the cascarón sale. My fingers twitched because they still carried the memory of the times the sharp edges pricked their tips.

On the way home I held my bag of candy, too distracted to eat any of it. My mother walked in front of me with a plastic bag over her shoulder, my toys inside. I pictured her standing at the stove, tapping the end of the egg in order to make an opening large enough to coax the contents out yet small enough to insure that the egg preserved its oval shape. Once we had enough of them, my aunts would come over with the art supplies: scissors and construction paper to make the confetti that would be stuffed inside the shell; tissue thin paper to glue over the opening; and food coloring to paint the shells pink or blue or green. Each of the tasks demanded patience and skill that I was too young to handle, but my aunts insisted–cascarones were an Alcalá family tradition, and although I was actually a González first, I was the only grandchild on the Alcalá side so far. My father had objected in the beginning, on the grounds that this was woman’s labor, but my mother didn’t take long to remind him that until I became a man I was under the care of the Alcalá women, who seemed to come around too often and stayed too long–so I heard my father mumble many times.

Making cascarones was just one of the Alcalá women enterprises. In the summers they made bolis–flavored ice, in August they made paper doves for the church’s celebration of the Virgin Mary, in the winters they made tamales and champurrado, a hot cornmeal drink. All of these items they sold at the town plaza, where citizens of Zacapu, Michoacán converged in the evenings, particularly before and after church. My aunts sometimes made commemorative keepsakes for birthday parties and weddings and brought over the materials to our house then too. I half listened to them giggling and gossiping with my mother while I played at their feet. They didn’t ask me to be part of the circle of bodies around the kitchen table and I didn’t miss it. I knew my time would come, and when it did, I wouldn’t like it.

What was more maddening than cutting paper into tiny little pieces to make confetti and then sticking them into the tiny little holes, which is how I hurt myself on the pointy edges, was adding the signature detail to the Alcalá cascarones: at the intact tip of the eggshell, I would have to dab a little drop of glue and then sprinkle just the smallest amount of glitter. Many of the clients who bought cascarones missed this detail because they were so anxious to break them on top of someone’s head–which is why they had been made in the first place. No one held the cascarón in his hand and admired the artistry, the tell-tale signs that this was an Alcalá cascarón, not just one of those sloppy ones that had obviously been made in a rush. I think this is what upset me most of all. That it took so long to make one of these and in one fell swoop it was gone–turned into trash in an instant.

I remember starting to color an eggshell once and tía Luz ordering me to stop doing so immediately.

“Why?” I asked.

“The opening is too large,” she explained. “Throw it away.”

“Who’s going to notice?” I said.

“We will. It’s going to look vulgar and cheap. We don’t make vulgar and cheap.”

I looked closer at the opening. Compared to all the others, this one looked like the egg had been cut in half, not carefully tapped open by my mother’s hands. The tissue covering would have to be wide. More glue would have to be used. She was right. It was going to look vulgar and cheap. I set it aside and moved on to another, which now looked elegant with its smaller opening.

I suppose that my aunts were also teaching me pride in my work. And although I still wasn’t looking forward to months of scrambled eggs, I was more comfortable with the idea. By the time my parents and I got home on Three Kings Day, I had all but convinced myself that I couldn’t wait to make cascarones.


A few weeks passed and the eggshells were accumulating in a small box next to the stove. I caught a glimpse of it once in awhile when I played near my mother when she was cooking. When my aunts arrived they always entered without knocking, so I was never caught off guard when the front door suddenly flew opened and they burst in with their art supplies.

“We’ve got a cute order, Avelina, wait until you see this,” tía Chata said.

“I’ll help you mop so that you can sit down with us,” tía Luz said.

And in no time the three sisters were sitting around the table, giggling and gossiping like usual.

This time, however, my mother brought the reverie to a halt when she made an announcement about my father that even made me stop to listen.

“Rigoberto’s going to the north to work,” my mother said.

“Really?” tía Chata said. “Leaving you and the babies all alone?”

I only became the baby when someone wanted to highlight my vulnerability. At seven years old with a bicycle that had no training wheels I hardly felt like a baby anymore. My little brother Alex, who still ate from a high chair, was the baby.

“Do you want one of us to move in with you to keep you company?” tía Luz suggested. But I knew even then that this would never happen. If my father tolerated the long visits by my mother’s family, he would definitely not tolerate any of them moving in. It wasn’t so much his objection but pressure from the González side of the family, who didn’t seem to take a liking to the Alcalás–they were too religious and too forthright. The Gonzálezes were drinkers and cussers.

“I’ll be fine,” my mother said. “It’s better this way.” And we all knew what she meant.

In the coming weeks, I didn’t really notice my father’s absence too much, perhaps because I rarely spent any time with him. Once in a while I would dream about him and I would casually ask my mother where he was and what he was doing.

“Working,” is all she would answer.

What I did notice was that my aunts stopped coming around. Suddenly the house did appear too empty and quiet without their laughter. When I asked about them, my mother would look away and make some dismissive remark. But most noticeable of all was that we had stopped having eggs for breakfast. My mother started feeding me farina, which I didn’t like much because it tasted gooey and grainy.

“I want eggs,” I said to her in protest one morning. And so my mother burst into tears.

I didn’t know how to respond. So I ate my farina without further complaints and each morning after that I was careful not to let her see how displeased I was with my breakfast. I caught a glimpse of the box of eggshells and thought longingly about those days when the dreaded scrambled eggs graced my plate. What I wouldn’t give to have them again.

And then the farina ran out and I longed for it as well because now my mother was feeding me tortillas and salsa.

I understood the word “poverty” but I had never experienced hunger. I didn’t realize they came hand in hand. At school, I recognized children who had less than I did. I could tell by their shoes, their notebooks, which were always smaller than mine. But so too I recognized children who had shinier shoes than I did and even thicker notebooks. Suddenly it made sense why my aunts and my mother would gather to make their arts and crafts–they were not just entertainment or excuses to socialize, they were economic necessities, proper ways for god-fearing women to make a little extra money. All those coins in the can they brought back from the plaza paid for staples like bread and milk and eggs. Now that my aunts were not coming around for some inexplicable reason, now that my father was gone, it was just my mother, my baby brother and me, consuming very little or nothing at all. And when something is gone it is eventually forgotten and no longer missed.


A group of boys started playing marbles in front of the house one afternoon after school and that was my cue to run into my room to grab my cache. I eased my way into the next round. I played with my lucky white cat’s eye, which other boys coveted. Half way into the game, one of them wanted it enough to cheat, so I called him on it.

“I’m not cheating,” he said. “The cat’s eye is mine now.”

“You leaned in too far,” I said. “You didn’t shoot behind the line.”

“Yes I did,” he insisted.

I picked up my cat’s eye and pocketed it. “I’m not letting it go.”

“Oh, now who’s the one cheating?”

The other boys didn’t step in to defend either one of us. This was the law of the game. Contentious calls had to be resolved by the two parties involved. I held my stance, remaining motionless until his next move, which seemed to be evidence enough of my accusation because the boy withdrew but not before letting out a cruel remark.

“I’m letting you have it,” he said. “Because your father left you.”

I looked around at the other boys’s faces. They seemed to be complicit in this knowledge that up until that moment I didn’t have. Red-faced I ran into the house. By the time I reached my mother, I was in tears.

“What happened?” she said. “Did someone hit you?”

“Where’s my father? Did he leave us? Did he really leave us?”

My mother’s eyes began to water immediately. She had this devastating ability to cry instantly and it bothered me because that excused her from verbalizing her pain. There was nowhere to go but into silence after that. I was seven years old. What did I have to know about our broken home except that it was now as empty as my stomach, something else to get used to.


And then my father reappeared. It could have been a few days later or a few weeks, maybe months, certainly long enough for me to push him out of my mind. But there he was, smiling down at me as if he had only gone to town for an errand. And just as easily as I had buried him I unburied him, pleased that his absence could not be used against me on the streets or at school. My mother must have felt the same because she paraded him down the block, their arms locked, for all the neighbors to see. Even the kitchen went back to normal. Even my breakfast plate because there, glorious as gold, were my scrambled eggs again.

No one mentioned my father’s disappearance or subsequent reappearance–not in front of me anyway, and I didn’t ask about it. The more it remained unsaid the more it became undone this painful period of my childhood. And cascarón season came to a close with a successful sale at the plaza during Holy Week. It seemed everything was back in its place, and I even set a few cascarones aside for myself, which I had never done before. I broke one on my father’s head and he laughed as the confetti rained over him. I gave him my second one and he broke it over my mother’s head. At the end of the night I remember my little brother sleeping over my father’s shoulder as I fought drowsiness to watch the highlight of the festivities–the burning of el Castillo de Chuchurumbé, an intricate fireworks structure with firewheels and sparklers that was all whistles and explosions, a castle that shrieked and cried on our behalf so that we didn’t have to.

If happiness had come back to our house it didn’t last longer than three years. Three years later the González family was living in California, squeezed into a single house with our grandparents, my uncle’s family, and my aunt’s–19 bodies in one tiny space–a complete shift from our household arrangement in Mexico, where the possibility of having tía Luz or tía Chata move in with us for a spell was not even an option. But as usual, there was no questioning the why or how of things, there was just surrender and moving forward with the decisions of the grown-ups.

Unlike my older cousins, I was having an easier time adapting, probably because I enjoyed school and learning English. One of my first friendships was with a girl named Eve. She was half-Panamanian, and her mother spoke fluent Spanish, but Eve was monolingual. She also had a little dog named Peanut, which they kept in her backyard.

One summer, Eve went on vacation with her family, so she enlisted me to feed Peanut once a day. All I had to do was unlatch the gate, scoop half a can of dog food into the plastic dish and fill the second dish with fresh water. I accepted the responsibility, not because I cared much for Peanut, who barked too much, but because I liked the idea of a pet. We had dogs in Mexico, but they had functions–to guard the house from the rooftop–Peanut was a fat little critter who couldn’t even guard her own dish. It was an entirely different relationship with animals that intrigued me, yet I had no fantasies that we would ever have a pet, and we never did.

Eve gave me two cans, and Eve’s father gave me money to buy more dog food later in the week. I waved at the family as they drove away and then I sauntered back home. I announced to everyone in the kitchen that I would be storing the dog food in the refrigerator and no one batted an eye.

A few days later, Abuelo opened the refrigerator and asked about the can. I explained my role as animal caretaker and he simply shrugged.

“What’s it made of?” he asked, inspecting the can.

I was surprised by the question. “Meat, I guess,” I said. I read the ingredients more closely and translated what little I could.

“Meat,” Abuelo repeated. He placed the can back into refrigerator and went about his day. As did I.

The next time I took a can over to Eve’s house, I became curious about the dog food. It didn’t smell like any meat I had ever tasted, but this was the U.S., there were foods here I had never smelled or eaten before. As Peanut ate her fill I dared to take a pinch of food out of the can and place it into my mouth. I didn’t swallow it, but the taste lingered. My curiosity satisfied, I knew I’d never do that again, yet I still blushed, embarrassed at my own bravado.


Months later, as Christmas season approached, I recognized something familiar was happening in the kitchen. I knew that hollow sound of pots and pans ringing without purpose, of the refrigerator light glaring at its ribs, of the desperation in the voices of the grown-ups as they fought over supplies to feed their young. For dinner Abuelo cooked these greasy stews that filled us up with hot water, but later that night my mother called my brother and me into her bedroom and she sneaked a slice of Spam into our mouths. On those occasions, I only pretended to brush my teeth. I looked forward to going to bed with that taste locked in my mouth, swirling my tongue around and around until sleep defeated me.

School lunch was another reason to look forward to school days, and I don’t remember if we were coached or not but we didn’t reveal to anyone that we showed up without having breakfast. It was all temporary–that’s what we were told at home. No sense letting anyone else in on our shame. It was the same silence we had to keep about how many people were actually living at home. Since many of us were undocumented, we didn’t want to invite any scrutiny from neighbors, teachers, post office workers–any one of them was a phone call away from the immigration authorities. We allowed no one to look in and we certainly didn’t leak anything out.

At about this time Abuela started feeding us vitamins, huge red pills the size of a toy car–or so we joked. It was also a thing of humor to stand in a line with my brother and my eight cousins, each one of us taking our turn as Abuela shoved that monster pill down our throats. “Don’t choke, don’t choke!” the others chanted as Abuela made sure the pill was swallowed.

I can only imagine what the grown-ups went through to protect us children from really seeing what was happening in that household. If my older cousins understood they didn’t share it with us younger ones. And when I figured it out, I also went to lengths to keep my knowledge a secret from those younger than me. That moment happened when Abuelo prepared a casserole he called lasagna. It was an Italian dish, he bragged, and he was particularly proud of this because he used the oven, which was a feature of the stove none of the women in the family had occasion to operate.

As we gathered in the living room to watch TV the smell wafted among us and that made our mouths water. I thought that perhaps this might be the turning point we had all been waiting for, the sign of better times to come. It was customary for the children to eat first, so all ten of us squeezed around the table to receive a serving of this fancy lasagna dish Abuelo had made.

I didn’t admit it to myself at first but there was a familiar smell on my plate. I couldn’t quite place it so I thought that perhaps it was my mind reaching back to a flavor I had not had the pleasure of enjoying since the kitchen went bare. But when I took the first bite, I remembered: it was Peanut’s food from the can. The others didn’t know this. Their responses to the food were mixed. Some took a few bites and then started to eat around the meat, and others ate the meat willingly. It was lasagna, it was Italian food, it was supposed to taste funny. But the pasta was soft and the tomato sauce was tasty. It would do.

The sound of chewing around me was deafening, and it took me back to that moment I had experienced hunger once before, when my father disappeared. Suddenly it all came back to me–how it felt as if my guts were tying knots around each other, how I came across a candle on my mother’s bureau, the one that released the scent of cinnamon, and how I couldn’t figure out how those teeth marks had gotten there, but now I did. I had always heard the grown-ups say that I would never be able to tell when my body was stretching because it happened gradually. But something inside me grew in an instant and I felt like shattering.

Abuelo was standing at a distance. His face appeared pleased somehow, maybe curious about how effectively he had deceived us. I wanted to detect some cruelty in his gesture but I didn’t find any. Instead, I saw sadness in its pure form for the very first time. It was a look of defeat, as if he had wanted us to reject this food, to spit it out and cry foul, to accuse him with fits of anger that he had fed us dog food. It would be a moment of truth for all of us, to finally admit that this moving from one country to another had not solved our problems, had not delivered on a promise to lift us out of poverty, to satiate our hunger. And that would have meant that all this sacrifice, all this hope we had packed into our bags, all this hiding and secret-keeping, had been for nothing. I could either rip this whole theater apart and end the dream for all of us, or I could triumph over the test that had been set before me. Eat it or beat it back to Mexico.

“Are you going to eat your food?” one of my cousins asked.

I looked down at my plate. I had scarcely touched it. My fork was still buried in the entrails of the dog food lasagna. The moment of reckoning was in my hands. I was no longer the boy who belonged to the Alcalá women, I was now a young man who had joined the hardscrabble lives of the González family. Yet I knew that I had abandoned the stage of innocence even before I left Mexico, I just wasn’t ready to see the impoverished world as it really was, as it would continue to be. And so, without any further fear, I scooped out a generous portion of the lasagna and stuffed it into my mouth.

—Rigoberto González


Rigoberto González is the author of fifteen books of poetry and prose, and the editor of Camino del Sol: Fifteen Years of Latina and Latino Writing. He is the recipient of Guggenheim and NEA fellowships, winner of the American Book Award, The Poetry Center Book Award, The Shelley Memorial Award of The Poetry Society of America, and a grant from the New York Foundation for the Arts. He won the 2014 Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize for his book Unpeopled Eden (Four Way Books, 2013). He is contributing editor for Poets & Writers Magazine, on the executive board of directors of the National Book Critics Circle, and is professor of English at Rutgers-Newark, the State University of New Jersey.


Oct 312014

Richard Farrell


There was no indication that day would be the one, no sign that I was ready, no ceremony or ritual to mark the passage, no warning, no karmic winds blowing, nothing to differentiate the routine of that particular flying lesson from any other. We were forty-five minutes into the hour-long flight, shooting touch-and-goes into a small airfield, when Mark—my taciturn three-pack-a-day instructor pilot, who heretofore had betrayed no confidence in my ability to handle an airplane alone—ordered our next landing to be a full-stop. Under Mark’s watchful eye, I lowered flaps, flared the nose, and squeaked the tires more or less on centerline. We taxied off the runway and onto a parking apron. Mark opened his door and a rush of cool air filled the cockpit. He grinned, slid from his seat, and with one foot on the wing strut, leaned his head back inside and asked if I was ready to try one on my own.

I thought he was joking. I’m quite sure I didn’t answer. I worried that I’d misheard his question. But I must have nodded, or blinked my assent, because a heartbeat later, Mark had closed his rickety door, stepped from the wing’s shadow, and walked away. And for the very first time in my life, I was utterly alone inside an operational airplane, sputtering at the end of a taxiway in Marlboro, Massachusetts. It was 1986 and I was a sixteen year-old boy who did not yet drive a car. I was still a virgin, and would soon likely die as one. I had not, in fact, even kissed a girl yet, but I’d just been handed the controls of a sixteen-hundred pound Cessna, and told to take ‘er up. I’d been put in charge of its ailerons, engine valves and avionics. I’d been given permission to haul it aloft and bring it back to the ground, with the tacit understanding that I wouldn’t kill myself or anyone else along the way.

The Cessna-150 cockpit was thirty-five inches wide and less than five feet front to back. Crammed into a space smaller than an average dining-room table were two sets of flight controls, engine throttle, fuel mixture valve, and an array of instruments, fuses, navigation equipment, radios, lights and compasses. Not an inch of space was wasted. Only moments earlier, I’d sat knee to knee with my flight instructor, whose nicotine and stale-coffee breath provided a comforting if somewhat nauseating reminder that I had competent company. With the sudden absence of a man whose thousands of flying hours were meant to counteract my insipid twenty, that cramped space felt downright lonely.

The cockpit air smelled of low-lead gasoline and panic. I held the plane’s brake pedals with rigid feet. My biggest fear was that the plane would careen off into frost-browned fescue grass that bordered the taxiways. Dotting the surrounding hillsides, sugar maples and Dutch elms had already dropped their leaves and stood bare and gray against the late autumn sky. I pressed harder against the brakes.


Earth-bound for some fifty-thousand years, modern man is a recent habitué of the skies. The rapid advancement of flight, from Kitty Hawk to Cape Canaveral, occurred in a flash, though perhaps the real curiosity hides behind how quickly we adapt to such miracles. Hardly anyone notices airplanes zooming overhead, whereas a hundred years ago, such sights would have been a dazzling spectacle. To me, it was still a spectacle. I was a gazer. Countless hours of my youth were spent staring at vapor contrails scratching the sky, or identifying airplane silhouettes, or listening to the bassy whir of a turboprop descending into Logan Airport on a winter’s night. With a lover’s desire, I had dreamed of that moment when I would join the marvelous procession of machines and pilots.

The physics of flight is relatively simple: as an airplane gains speed, pulled or pushed along by an engine, a decrease of pressure builds along the upper surface of curved wings, the famous Bernoulli’s Principle. In a sense, flight is achieved by suction, by a force of low pressure over the wings siphoning the airframe aloft. Given enough wing-surface area and enough speed, a football stadium could fly. The pilot’s job, simplified to its barest bones, is to maintain the right mix of airspeed and attitude. Transitions are the most critical: earth to sky, sky to earth. The greatest danger in flight occurs closest to the ground, during takeoffs and landings.

It is hardly surprising that aviation invented a mythology that evolved alongside its technology. Even the earliest depictions of aviators showed swashbuckling men with scarves, leather jackets and adoring females draped on their shoulders. I admired these mythical heroes growing up, and internalized depictions of pilots in a profound albeit overly romantic way.

In the summer of 1986, when my flying education began in earnest, Top Gun shattered box office records across America. But Tom Cruise’s portrayal of the man I dreamed I might one day become was far from confirmatory. Rather than inspiring me, the movie violated the sanctity of my most private dreams. Flying for me was soul-work. I had wholesale invested my identity and my future in the notion of pilot-hood. Then, overnight, pop culture co-opted my deeply revered ambitions. Thanks to Tom Cruise, everyone wanted to be a pilot, and I felt violated.


I didn’t realize at the time why I resented that movie so much. But looking back, I see that the movie commercialized and distorted many of the spiritual aspects of my dream. Top Gun also amplified the pilot stereotype. Flying looked glamorous, easy. Jets zoomed against brilliant blue skies without effort or strain. While Maverick and Ice Man dueled across silver screens in their sleek F-14 Tomcats, I spent the summer of ‘86 coming face to face with my own ineptitude as a pilot-in-training.

Though I’d been a diligent student, no amount of book learning could make up for what, in aviation lore, is called a seat-of-the-pants feel for the sky. When I started taking flying lessons, I had imagined I’d be a natural from the get go, a student so adept at the skill of flying that I would zoom through the curriculum and immediately be recognized as the heir apparent to Lindbergh, Yeager and Armstrong. Instead, I struggled with even the most rudimentary of skills. I couldn’t keep the plane straight-and-level. My airspeed control was for shit. I landed long, struggled when pulling the plane out of a stall. My steep turns were never steep enough and my lazy-8’s resembled an asymmetrical snowman in the sky. The only thing I felt in the seat of my pants was clenched terror.

My original goal, to solo on my 16th birthday, the earliest legal age, had come and gone six months before. While teenage boys donned flight jackets and Ray Bans and serenaded teenage girls with “You Lost that Lovin’ Feelin,’” and while Tom Cruise buzzed the tower fifty feet off the deck, I came to the clear understanding that I wasn’t much of a pilot.

A previous flight instructor, a grumpy aviator with a fu-manchu mustache, once told my mother that I flew like a doctor. The only thing I gleaned from this strange violation of teacher-student trust was a veiled reference to sloppy handwriting.

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Of course I wasn’t supposed to be a good pilot with fewer than twenty hours of flight time. The stumbles, setbacks and mistakes were supposed to teach me. But in the pilot myth, as well as in the movie, difficulties were glossed over. The legend left no room for failure, no room for growth or learning or progress. So every miscue, every clumsy maneuver and failure felt keenly personal. Surely the great pilots didn’t start this way, I told myself, not realizing that they most likely had.

Mark stood on a nearby grassy hillock, smacking a package of Marlboros against his wrist. I waited. I prayed. Climb back into this Cessna and tell me it’s all a big joke. Ha ha, kid, I’ve got the controls. Go back to algebra class. But he didn’t move. In fact, Mark lit up a cigarette, his sandy hair flapping a bit in the breeze. A breeze? Where did a breeze come from? I checked the windsock again, which stretched out into the shape of a Day-Glo ice cream cone, indicating the wind had increased and swung around a bit from the southwest, adding a complicated crosswind to my still-not-so-imminent takeoff. Any attempt to leave the earth just became that much more difficult.

I tried to wrap my head around what was happening while searching for the before takeoff checklist. I pulled the laminated sheets from a door pocket, only to fumble the checklist between the seat cushions. My hands were shaking.

“Jesus,” I said out loud, more curse than prayer. How long had I been sitting there? I needed to act, to do something. The longer I waited, the worse my fear became.

As I fished the checklist from a between the seats, a thought slammed through my brain: I’m going to die. The only question was how, not when. From incompetence? From shame? From failure? With every second passing, the certainty of my untimely end came nearer. I worried I might drop from sheer terror right there, idling on the taxiway. The other possibility seemed to involve a blazing ball of fire at the runway’s end.

Needing to resuscitate my brain, I tried to recall the plane’s takeoff procedures. The checklist was useless now since on top of everything else I’d lost the ability to read. It appeared to tell me that I needed to adjust the trim, set the fuel mixture, and somehow force my hands to push the throttle forward, dumping 80-octane fuel into the plane’s normally-aspirated, direct-drive, air-cooled, horizontally-opposed, four-cylinder engine, thereby accelerating the McCauley fixed-pitch propeller to 2,500 RPMs. If I could manage to free my hands to perform these tasks, if I could follow all the steps, in more or less the correct sequence, and release the breaks and speed down the runway without veering off into the grass, if I could summon the strength from my flaccid arms to pull back on the control column, all while tapping rudders to keep the plane coordinated, and if I could remember to check the airspeed, the wind and the engine oil pressure, then, in theory, the plane would fly. I would fly. I would solo.

The first solo is a consecrated ritual—a baptism and wedding rolled into ten minutes of sheer terror a thousand feet over an airfield. Some thirty years have passed and I still remember the disintegrating sensation somewhere southwest of my heart. The fear hollowed me out, an erasure that scoured the insides of my body, leaving only a shell. My skin became acutely sensitive. My mouth went chalk dry.

I remember the way light fell on indifferent hillsides. I remember spinning propeller blades, whirring gyros, a tremble in the wings, perhaps caused by my shaking hands reverberating back through the flight controls. Face to face with reality, the magnitude of fear surprised me. The heroic architecture, so long associated in my mind with brave pilots laughing at danger, came crumbling around me.

A gray cloud deck scattered above the airfield. The runway, scuffed with rubber skid-marks and brake dust, tumbled off into the somber horizon. Behind the controls of that Cessna, alone and uncertain, I searched desperately for a way out.

Once more, I glanced at Mark, hoping for a reprieve. He took a long drag on his cigarette.

I hated him. I hated his parents for bringing him into this world and hated mine for doing the same. I hated Isaac Newton and Daniel Bernoulli and the Wright brothers and Clyde-fucking-Cessna too. The universe had ripped open a hole into eternal darkness, manifest in an empty seat where my instructor belonged. Like in a falling nightmare, the emptiness of that seat, the haunted, horse-without-a-rider sense of a pilot-less plane—unoccupied rudders, uncontrolled control column, unlatched seat belt—these things most surely represented my imminent demise. Except that airplane had dual controls, and my feet rested on the rudders, and my sweaty hands clutched the control column. I was the one strapped into that saddle, a bucking bronco of wires and avionics assembled in Wichita, Kansas, waiting for me to spur it into the air.

The runway was clear, almost mocking me with its emptiness. Fly or don’t fly, the asphalt seemed to say. Live or die. It makes no difference.

For a moment, I thought I might throw up, not an uncharacteristic response from my body when faced with stressful situations (like asking a girl out for a date). The propeller twirled and the fuselage rattled. Only two choices remained: grow a pair and get going or pull the parking brake, open the door and run screaming for the woods. Gasping for breath at the end of the runway, this couldn’t have been how Yeager got started.

Where once strength and bravery seemed embodied in the very word, pilot, the word and the act suddenly lacked meaning, because I could not remember how to do the very thing the word implied, which was to fly the airplane.

Time elongated. Each propeller revolution re-radiated doubt and fear. It felt like an hour passed while I decided. But Mark’s cigarette had barely burned down. I reflected on the absurdity of the scene, my instructor pilot watching me do nothing, the engine whining, position lights blinking, the whole airport on hold, waiting for me. At the same time, there came an awareness that I was not cut out for this sort of thing. Better to survive a coward than die a fool. But what choice did I really have? The way out certainly was no less complicated than the way through.

The metamorphosis that was about to occur was entirely lost on my teenage brain. I didn’t realize what a privilege I was being granted. On that November day, there was no way to foresee the future, or to comprehend how life decouples, like ill-fated box cars, throwing certainty and meaning off a track that then seemed iron-clad. I had no way of knowing that seven years later, my wings would be clipped for good, and that I’d be diagnosed with epilepsy and told I could never pilot an airplane again. I didn’t realize that deep fear often accompanies life’s most extraordinary moments. I had no way to realize that the minutes that terrify and most rattle us are the ones that will stand out. Like a bas-relief of memory, those moments become enshrined by their height and importance: the first girl I would eventually kiss, the first time I would fall in love, the birth of my children, and the so-many unimaginable losses and joys that would mark the path. How could I have even glimpsed a hint of that on the tarmac?

Finally, something inside flickered. The hollow sensation of fear gave way. My body and brain stirred back to life. Was that sensation what bullfighters call the moment of truth? If so, the feeling was not a triumphal one, more like resignation combined with a pinch of anger. Fear yielded to reluctance which surrendered to inevitability. Hardly a heroic procession.

I lowered a notch of flaps and picked up the mike. I called out the plane’s tail number and announced an intention to fly.

“Marlboro traffic, November-seven-one-four, Charlie Pop, ready for departure.”

The intent was for my voice to sound defiant and serious, but the words came out as a barely-whispered squeak, a child’s final desperate plea for help. Then, after a glance heavenward, and one last check of the wind, I advanced the throttle and released the brakes. The engine whirred louder. With a press of right rudder, the plane twirled around and lined up with the runway centerline. My breathing evened out. On the windscreen, the compass lagged before it confirmed my heading. This next part may not have happened, but my memory registers a shaft of sunlight piecing through cloudy autumn skies.

I pushed the throttle to the firewall and the engine revved. Torque drove the nose wheel into the ground and the plane lurched forward. The nose yawed left, which I counteracted with more rudder as the semi-monocoque fuselage reverberated atop rough asphalt with echoes and thumps.

The plane accelerated and the abyss receded. Where did the fear go? What replaced it? I don’t understand how I climbed inside the moment. I don’t quite comprehend how a timid, frightened teenager managed to fly.

I pulled back on the wheel and the wings began to generate lift. The plane entered its transition to flight, where gravity succumbs, a transition not only of the physical machine but also of the body. I may have even felt that sensation in the seat of my pants.

After that, I continued to climb out, the needle steady at 70 knots. My gut wobbled as I pushed the nose over and gained speed, a thousand feet of altitude, the propeller high against the gray horizon, trees and hills falling away. The world shrank. The runway appeared small and distant, the clouds large and close. The temperature cooled. Downwind, I aligned the port wingtip perfectly with the runway margins, and I recognized calmly, in an almost holy way, with a certainty and confidence that was entirely new, that I was actually flying, alone, no longer terrified, ass-unclenched, hands dry and not choking the wheel, and how in those few minutes of flight, all the fear and confusion receded into the background, and all that remained was flight, the pure dream man had yearned to achieve for millennia.

The transcendental feelings ended quickly. There was work to be done. A moment later, abeam the numbers, I lowered the flaps like a real pilot, and throttled back, slowing, descending. I checked the windsock and announced my intentions again—this time with a voice a sixteen year-old boy borrowed from the gods—that I was coming in to land. l turned to base and then to final, scanning airspeed and altitude, nudging the plane’s nose to line up with dashed white stripes painted down the runway, anticipating wind vectors, adjusting for turbulence, steadying the wings. Just over the numbers, I pulled back gently on the controls and cut the throttle. The nose lifted. The plane floated a second or two, caught in the magical buoyancy of ground-effect, that final transition, just before the main landing gear returned to earth, two shudders beneath me, two chirps of rubber kissing earth. Then I caught the plane’s yaw, holding the nose straight and true, and in that final moment, before the nose wheel touched down, in that final instant when the transition from air to ground remained ever so slightly in jeopardy, I realized that I’d done it, that I’ve soloed, and that nothing would ever be the same again.


—Richard Farrell

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 Richard Farrell is the Creative Nonfiction Editor at upstreet and a Senior Editor at Numéro Cinq (in fact, he is one of the original group of students who helped found the site). A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, he has worked as a high school teacher, a defense contractor, and as a Navy pilot. He is a graduate from the MFA in Writing Program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. His work, including fiction, memoir, essays, interviews and book reviews, has appeared in Hunger Mountain, New Plains Review, upstreet, Descant, and Numéro Cinq. He teaches at Words Alive and the River Pretty Writers Retreat in the Ozarks. He lives in San Diego.