19 July 2011


This will be my last post for a couple of weeks. I'm taking some time off to travel with my family.

This is most likely the last bit of my unpublished novel I'll be posting here. It takes us up through about page 30 of the mss., roughly 8000 words into a ~100,000 word mss. I am grateful for all the comments you all have been kind enough to proffer so far. If you have the stomach, tear into this little set piece as well. Revisioning, recasting, redoing may follow—I'm questioning, e.g., the consistency of tone. Thanks, again, all. See you in a couple weeks.
My father pushed as I pulled the hospital bed out into the night sky of the backyard. Its wheels etched trails through the tall, moist fescue. It was late, long past midnight, and the rest of the world slept. My leather-soled shoes—the only ones I'd thought to bring—skidded across the dewy lawn, but I kept myself from falling by gripping the metal headboard.

"She wants it there," he said, "by the fountain." It was her favorite spot, he told me, summer and winter, day or night.

"Sure," I said. I dragged the plastic Adirondack chair out of the way and lifted my end of the bed over the rock rim of my mother's flower bed. My left foot slipped from under me in the damp mulch. I twisted out of the way to keep from dropping the bed on my toes. A thunderbolt ripped up the left meridian of my spine into my forehead and behind my eyes, blinding me for a shattering instant. Half bent over, half trying to stand, I pressed my hands against the back of my hips and yelped.

I had nearly fractured my back in the same place early on in my relationship with Nina. Her family kept horses at their farm in Connecticut, and she had been riding since before she could walk. She had wanted me, as a token of my commitment to her and all things hers, to adopt this lifelong passion. We had been seeing each other for several months and things were going well enough, so we decided to take half-shares in a house in Amagansett for the summer. As we left the lawyer's office building after signing the share agreement, Nina handed me a sealed envelope.

"Don't open it until you get back to work," she said. "I want this for you. For us." She surprised me with a moist kiss full on the lips and a deft, covert squeeze just under the front flap of my jacket, then spun on her heel and disappeared into the February afternoon sidewalk crowd. I opened the envelope: riding lessons.

That summer was glorious. We abashed our housemates, strangers all and still, with our long, loud bouts of blunt lovemaking. By the end of the fourth weekend of progressively less sore thighs and deeper golden afternoon sunlight, I had gotten used to the hornless, sensitive English saddle Nina preferred. She wanted to celebrate my accomplishment on our fifth, and last, weekend—Labor Day—with a trail ride. We trotted our horses through rows of melons and late corn, their broad hooves thudding the soft ground, their heavy chests and knees parting the tall wild grasses surrounding the fields with a whisper. My saddle creaked and groaned beneath me. Mid-afternoon, we stopped under a broad locust for sandwiches of fresh tomatoes and goat cheese and kalamata olives and grainy French mustard on thick brown bread. We kissed chastely on a bluff that commanded a view of white-bellied sails—one of which looked remarkably like Brad's, Nina pointed out—in the slate-gray Sound and afterward mused over a new white wine and fresh-picked strawberries while the horses bent their bulging necks to graze.

As we headed back to the stables just before twilight, something in the woods—a snake, a rabbit, a quail—darted across the narrow path and spooked my horse, Blaze or Snow Cone or Star or whatever cutesy horsey name she had been given to denote the solitary patch of white on her narrow forehead. She screamed and reared, nearly unseating me, and bolted off in an ungaited run, bucking her hind legs wildly every few yards. The reins slipped from my fingers. I lurched sideways, my head barely dodging a tree limb, then somehow managed to right myself by grabbing the horse's mane as it whipped my face. Falling forward, I clung to her racking, lathery neck; the reins were useless. My feet and knees hugged to her big belly. I shouted her insipid name and Nina's. From behind me, I heard Nina's voice—preternaturally commanding—trying to calm her own horse as mine shot off the path and into the forest. I ducked my head under low-snapping branches as the horse made for what daylight she could find. She stopped short as we burst into an open field and flung me over her broad neck. My head missed the large rock my back landed squarely on by mere inches.

"We could've moved the rocks," my father said. He laid a hand on my shoulders and tried to raise my stooping body.

"Jesus Christ, Dad, don't touch me," I said. "Just don't touch me." I hobbled around the bed and side-stepped back across the rocks and eased myself down onto the grass. Sharp stabs of pain checked my every movement. "I need to stretch. I've got to do this before we can carry her out here. Could you help me?" He glanced back toward my mother's bedroom window. The cool, damp grass prickled through the backs of my cotton shirt and woolen pants as I lay down.

"What do you want me to do?"

Painfully, I hugged my knees to my chest and felt the muscles in my lower back stretching. I twisted my knees toward my outstretched right elbow. "Now I need you to sit down on my knees." He couldn't seem to fathom what I was saying. "It's all right. It's a yoga move. I learned it from my osteopath. I'm going to use your weight as a counterforce to try and force my back into place."

"You know, I do something similar to this before I play golf."

"That's great, Dad."

"I didn't know it was yoga, though."

"It doesn't matter." I didn't want to argue. He sat on the side of my knees, pressing them into the moist ground. I turned my head to the left, chin to shoulder, pressing both my shoulder blades into the ground. I twisted against his entire weight. "That's great. That's how Nina does it."

"I'll bet she doesn't weigh as much as I do."

"Ow. You can say that again." I laughed, wincing at his comment, at the pain, at the absurdity of the moment, and felt a dull crack deep in the bowl of my pelvis. "That's it." A wave of relief gushed up my spine. I knew this feeling. The immediate injury repaired, I would still be hobbled by the insult—the echo of the pain—until I could see Dr. Green back in New York.

That Nina stayed with me after that little episode on horseback proved something to me then, I reminded him as we headed back into the house. "It's a basic design flaw of the human body anyway," I said. I could nearly stand straight.

"Hmmm?" He seemed distracted.

"An evolutionary flaw, Dad. Practically everybody experiences lower back pain at some point." I stepped gingerly in the wet grass. "In most people it's chronic. It happens to me when I do something stupid." There had been a time when I could goad him out of a dour mood by picking an argument about religion, but that time had long passed. He said nothing. "No matter. Listen, do you have anything I can take for my back?"

"There's bound to be something left." He led me into my mother's cramped bathroom and slid open a mirrored cabinet door. I caught a glimpse of my face, contorted with pain. My hair was matted on one side. From the smudged glass shelves, I examined a series of plastic bottles with progressively later expiration dates that revealed the pilgrimage of my mother's pain and the increasingly urgent measures they had employed: aspirin, Tylenol, Advil, Darvon, Vicodin, Percocet, Oxycontin, Dilaudid. I took something from roughly her middle passage: two Vicodin. Though they had, effectively, expired, I figured they wouldn't yet have turned into cyanide or something worse.

My mother, or what was left of her, now lay on a small cot in their bedroom. She was dressed in a new robe of quilted Chinese silk, patterned in red and gold panels of dramatic mountain scapes. Dad had bathed her, he told me, with the delicate lavender soap she had grown fond of over the years. I had forgotten it, but Nina had sent her the first bars from our honeymoon in France to thank her for helping plan—read interfering with—our wedding. Mother had pestered her local apothecary for months until he finally special-ordered more for her. The faintest hint of lilac and dried honeysuckle seemed to have banished the antiseptic smell from her cramped room. She appeared placid and incongruously coiffed.

Earlier in the afternoon, Dad had asked 'Cinda, my mother's hairdresser, to come over. While she was beautifying my mother, he had driven over to see Dr. Milton. He returned with a small, white cardboard box just as 'Cinda was finishing up. He set the box on a shelf in his closet.

"Don't you look pretty," 'Cinda was saying as she bent over to pinch some color into my mother's flaccid cheeks. Dad sat next to Mother and took her hand. I escorted 'Cinda to the front door and gave her a twenty-dollar bill. "I'm holding your momma's regular appointment open, you know," she said. "For when she gets better."

"I'll tell her."

"She talks about you all the time," she said. "She is just so proud of you." She shook her head for emphasis.

"You did a great job. She looks..." I fumbled for the right word. "Beautiful," I said, settling, to hustle her along. "I mean, the way you fixed her up."

"Why thank you. She'd be so proud. She always was. She likes to get done up for your father."

Indeed. My mother had always prided herself on her appearance. I don't think I ever once saw her hair unkempt or her fingernails unpainted—and I'm not sure my father ever did either, at least until their later years when she took up gardening. She always rose before he did to "put her face on" and, as best as I could tell, she always went to bed after he did—after the lights were out, with her tissue curlers in and her cold cream on. And she always smelled of fresh soap and perfume and hair spray. To this day I shied away from eating fresh salads because the memory of the soapy taste of her perfume on the lettuces she handled lingered in some inaccessible region of my brain.

After 'Cinda had gone, my father drew back the drapes above my mother's bed. The last light of the sun glowed red in the sky above the silhouette of the willow tree in her garden. Her hair was darkened auburn at the roots, thickened like mascaraed eyelashes, and I could see clumps of dried henna flaking on her pale scalp between the sparse follicles. Her eyebrows had been plucked and drawn back in at a quizzical angle. What once had been wrinkles of pale skin now lay caked and rouged across her blunt cheekbones. Her lips, which she once wore brightly puckered and red, now seemed thin and pale as if they were curling inward. She wore a pair of red velvet slippers embroidered with golden seahorses. I had never seen them before. "Are you ready, honey?" my father said to her. "It's nearly time." Her eyes appeared to roll underneath her blue-painted lids.

We let her rest while my father and I ate a silent meal of canned soup and buttered white bread and strong coffee in the kitchen and later watched the evening news and an early-season college basketball game on the small television set in my mother's room. She liked basketball. He held her hand the whole time. We drank more coffee. He spoke some close words to her, reminding her of a trip they had taken or a meal they had shared or telling her not to worry, that he would be okay now that I had come back. She lay quietly on her cot with only an occasional click from the morphine drip or a slight catch in her breathing that caused my father to start.

Finally, after midnight, Dad rose and wordlessly bent down to take her in his arms. He seemed to be struggling. "I can carry her," I said.

"No, no. I can do it," he said. "I want to do this." He groaned as he lifted her body a couple inches off her cot, but he could not straighten up. He eased her back down.

"It's not a problem if I lift with my legs. Really," I said. "Here."

He rose, resigned, perhaps thankful. Perhaps shamed.
The Vicodins had kicked in; the stiffness in my lower back was merely an echo of the blinding pain that had nearly struck me down outside. I took my mother's hands in mine. Her skin was translucent and cool and covered with khaki spots. 'Cinda had painted and buffed her nails a wholesome pink, the color the skin on her fingers should have been. The tips were white crescents. The muscles in her palms gave way with my grip, and her long carpal bones seemed to float by each other beneath her loose skin.

I took hold of her feeble wrists and raised her limp body up from the cot. She offered no resistance. Her head lolled forward and to one side, but my father caught it gently amid the clear tubes running to her nose and arm. I let her body collapse across the tops of my shoulders, and though I felt a dull pain I tried not to show it. Dad took the clear plastic bags off their metallic stand and snaked the tubes around and over my head. I leaned forward and lifted her into the fireman's carry, her thinned haunches grazing my ear. Steadying myself, I made sure my back could handle the strain. She was insubstantial. I eased her up the hall and out the broad glass patio door, careful not to bang her head on the walls or doorjambs. Dad trailed us with the tangle of tubes and bags and oxygen tank.

In the cool, night-time yard, we lay her gently on the inclined hospital bed, my father cradling her head, like a newborn's, onto the pillow. I tried to raise up but her hand clutched at my lapels. Our faces were nearly touching. Her eyelids were closed, but I sensed something behind them, in the straining muscles around them. A pleading? Sorrow? Pain? I could not tell. I felt the stiffness in my back from my awkward posture and reached around to press my hand against my hip. With the other hand I balanced my weight on the mattress. Soon I felt the strength flow from her fingers and she loosened her grip.

Dad set up the steel stand for the drip bag. I cranked the bed to elevate her head further, each turn an exercise in evading further injury to my back. My father tucked a comforter up under her chin. He kneeled beside her, leaned his folded hands across her legs, and said a tearful prayer—Jesus's prayer in Gethsemane—asking that this cup be taken from him. "Nevertheless not what I will, but what Thou wilt." What moonlight there was shone blue on his face.

A deep silence came over him, and he rested his head on the edge of the bed.

"Looks like she's going to get her wish," I said after a few moments.

"Hmmm?" He looked up at the sound of my voice and began to rise.

"Remember the night you spoke to Nina and me about marriage?"

He gazed into a distracted distance, perhaps indulging a memory, or grasping after one.

"You made us answer that question about which one of us we felt should be the first to die."

He nodded his head. "I did that with all the couples I married."

That night, sitting around my parents' living room, perhaps sensing our discomfiture, Mother had jumped in: "Every couple needs to resolve the issue for themselves," she'd said. "But for your father and me, there was never any doubt. It's a simple matter of faith, really. I am sure of my salvation. I know I have been saved. So when I die I am going to a better place. A place where there will be no more suffering or grief, beyond this vale of tears."

"How can you talk like that?" I asked her.

"I have hope," she said flatly. "Look, in First Thessalonians, God tells us that the dead in Christ shall be raised first. And what a day of rejoicing that will be, eh, honey?"

"Mrs. Bethune, these are the best brownies." Nina interrupted. "Did you make them from scratch?"

"Mary Helen. Please call me Mary Helen. And yes, dear, I made them from a recipe given to me by my mother." She indulged Nina's diversion then arched an eyebrow in my father's direction. "And, Lord knows, Joseph loves them," she said.
My father ignored her fond dig and reached for another.

"Rapturous indeed!"

"What? My brownies or the Second Coming?"

He had laughed. "Both. Leastways," he took up Mother's point, "we figured that, of the two of us, I was the stronger," he said. "If I were to be first to go she would be left here all alone. We're not sure she could handle it. You know, the grief, the finances."

"Oh, heavens no. I couldn't possibly." Mother nodded her automatic assent.

"Don't be preposterous," I said. "What about me?" Nina slid an ebony strand of hair behind her right ear and turned toward me, catching my eye in her cool gaze. The better corner of her mouth curled up into a soft, supportive smile I recognized as ironic even then. She placed a silent hand on my knee.

"You have your life in New York now." My mother nodded toward Nina. "Besides, I would never want to be a bother."

Well, she was no bother now as she lay motionless on the hospital bed in her night garden.

My father patted my mother's hand and delicately kissed her forehead. His back trembled with restraint. Her breathing faltered for a beat, maybe two. He clicked the morphine drip four times, five times, then removed the tube from the catheter in her arm. He took a bag of clear liquid from the cardboard box he'd brought back from Dr. Milton's and reached to hang it on the metal stand beside the bed, but his arm failed him. The bag dangled from his hand. "Please," he said.

Its weight seemed to pull him down. I slid the grommet over the cool steel hook. He took the clear plastic tube dangling from the bag and tried to slip it into the catheter in her arm. The tremors in his hands made that impossible. "Here," I said.

A few rolls of the dosage wheel, a fizzle as I turned the valve on her oxygen tank, a brief audible sigh, a catch in her throat as if she were trying to say some last something, and quite possibly a desperate grimace behind her eyes, a slight stiffening—perhaps a last instinctive struggle she was quickly able to stifle—and it was over. Her entire body collapsed in on itself. Even her eyes seemed to sink deeper into their sockets. Who would have thought such violence could seem so easy? The taking of a life so casual?

My mother expired in her garden, as she wished, beneath the fingernail moon and the pin-prick stars in the liquid indigo sky, the wheels of her bed sunk like the bulbs of the stinking irises she loved till the last in the soft blue soil, and the low, leafless canopy of her favorite willow, to the incessant dribbling of her beloved wedding-cake fountain.

We sat silently, my father and I, two distinct bodies. Two separate minds complicit in this act, in this moment, yet no closer now across the span of my mother's deathbed than we had been this last decade across the span of miles that separated us. We stared after the sounds of the distant stream of late night truck traffic whisking down the interstate and out of town.

I would not miss my mother. I had let go of her years ago. Distance and Nina had come between us, had further loosed the ties that bound us. And now she was dead, consigned permanently to the past, to the walks of my memory. In a sense, I was free, though I did not feel it; I was too exhausted from a lack of sleep, too numb from the Vicodin to feel anything. I allowed my thoughts to drift, in the haze of that animal moment, to the obstacles that stood between me and whatever sleep awaited me that night: her body would need to be untethered from the apparatus of her death; the bag of barbiturates my father had gotten from Dr. Milton disposed of; her bed wheeled in—its trail of muddy grooves...would anyone notice? would anyone care? My head ached with the pressure, my back too. The doctor would need to be called. And the morticians. There would be yet more coffee. It all seemed endless. And then there was the flight back to New York tomorrow, and the hearing. My shirt and trousers were heavy from lying in the damp grass; they clung to my skin. I shivered in the chill night air and tried to close my eyes for an instant.

Then, through all that haze of possibility, the thought struck me with a jolt as crippling as the one that had wrenched my back. I shot upright, eyes wide. What if all was not as my father had promised? How could this act possibly go unremarked? What the hell had I been thinking? What had we—no, what had I done?


17 July 2011

Flaneric Suggestions?

I'm leaving this week for a six-city European trip avec famille. I've purchased a small journal exclusively for keeping a log of my travels. Over lunch last week, I mentioned this to a friend and sometime commenter here, Sandi. I said I was thinking about keeping it as an exercise "in character"; that is to say, as if a potential novel character were keeping the journal. Method writing, if you will. Brilliantly, she suggested I think about using a female protagonist. It sounds like a great exercise, at a minimum, for fictioneering.

What motivation, oh brainstorming blog-friends, might such character have for visiting Amsterdam, Köln, Heidelberg, Paris, Edinburgh, & Londinium? [par example: BDR (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, & Done) blogged his recent vacay using his blog-voice. With pictures. Randal frequently lets his persona frolic about Clevelandia with a camera as well.]

My flâneur should be just that:
As a member of the crowd that populates the streets, the flâneur participates physically in the text that he observes while performing a transient and aloof autonomy with a "cool but curious eye" that studies the constantly changing spectacle that parades before him (Rignall 112). As an observer, the flâneur exists as both "active and intellectual" (Burton 1). As a literary device, one may understand him as a narrator who is fluent in the hieroglyphic vocabulary of visual culture. When he assumes the form of narrator, he plays both protagonist and audience--like a commentator who stands outside of the action, of whom only the reader is aware, "float[ing] freely in the present tense."

Walter Benjamin posits in his description of the flâneur that "Empathy is the nature of the intoxication to which the flâneur abandons himself in the crowd. He ... enjoys the incomparable privilege of being himself and someone else as he sees fit. Like a roving soul in search of a body, he enters another person whenever he wishes." (Baudelaire 55). (Mellencamp 60).
Let your imaginations roam and let the suggestions roll in.

Merci. Maybe I'll name her Flannery.

Le Flâneur (music by The XX) from Luke Shepard on Vimeo.

12 July 2011


More shittiness. [NB: Rhymes with 'eaten'.]


My father leaned his head forward to sip more scorched black coffee and let it fall back again onto the headrest of his recliner. "Dr. Milton says she could be in this condition for weeks. Maybe longer." We stared in unison at the blank, liquid-gray window of the console television, the focus of the room's furniture, trying perhaps to peer into it, behind it. Avoiding eye contact.

"That's no way to live." The cushions on my parents' couch sagged and the frame of the pullout bed beneath cut into my thighs. My legs were numb. I crossed them under me. "But can't he help you?"

"He has his license to think about." I glanced at my father and accidentally met his eyes. They were as dark and blank as the TV screen. There was an animal sense about them, weary of the past, fearful of the future. I had to look away.

My mother had insisted, before we got married, Nina and I spend an evening with the two of them. A sort of family council. I had been living with Nina in New York—'in sin' as it were—for nearly a year. My parents had managed to overcome their qualms—they pretended to accept our saving-on-ungodly-high-rent-for-two-apartments argument—and overlook this effrontery, though my mother had made it clear they did not like, much less condone, it. Nina had balked at the idea of any sort of pastoral counseling—we were bright, modern, aware adults; we knew what we wanted, knew what we were getting into. Religious issues were mere afterthoughts. Quaint. But I owe them that much, I had said, after all, they are my parents. She acquiesced.

The two of us had huddled together on this same tweed sofa—even then the stuffing in the cushions had begun to give. Nina leafed through the thick scrapbook of snapshots my mother had plopped onto her lap: there I was mewling and stupid in a fat diaper with an ankle tag and an inky foot; there in a series of Halloween costumes: a bunny suit with lopsided ears and a black eye of unknown origin, a black mask and fedora and Zorro cape with a plastic foil, a Frankenstein's monster menacing a group of teenage girls; there I was in a series of pointy paper hats blowing out an increasing number of candles on various birthday cakes; there in different sets of pajamas on numerous Christmas mornings riding a hobbyhorse or playing with some forgotten mechanical toy; there I was standing with my father in front of our old Rambler station wagon or the new Dodge in the gravel driveway of the parsonage in Fallstone Trace; there I was in a new Johnny Carson Spring suit with my arm around Amy Bowen's shoulders after church one Easter; there, in the same suit, strutting across the stage as the lead in the high school play, long-haired and mustachioed; there, again in the same jacket, pounding a wooden podium as captain of the debating team. And there I was, gowned and tassel-capped, graduating from college. I suspect that for my mother this scrapbook was as much a marketing tool as memento; I never knew her to be so rankly sentimental. But, as Nina chuckled her way through the faded and browning pictures, I winced with the feeling that they were no more than an advertisement for my meager upbringing.

Mother's eyes that evening had reflected the gleam of the silver urn she'd set out for us alongside a napkin-lined plate of homemade brownies after dinner. It was the only time I could recall her using the silver service, which she reserved for special guests, for me. We had eaten a dry, baked chicken with wild rice, over-boiled broccoli, and sugar-glazed carrots off her mother's bone china. She kept our crystal goblets sweating throughout the meal with sweet tea so cold it made my teeth ache. Still sporting her lap apron, even though our meals had been cleared away, she took the scrapbook from Nina, measured out our coffees, then sat down in the side chair she always sat in—the one with the blue toile print of a shotgun-toting hunter and his dogs jumping a brace of pheasants—smoothed the creases in her flared skirt, and crossed her ankles.

My father looked directly at Nina across the top of his coffee cup, arched an eyebrow over his horn-rimmed glasses, and said, "So, which of you is it going to be?"

"Joseph Bethune!" my mother said. She rarely used his first name, even in my presence, choosing to refer to him in the royal third-person: Reverend Bethune. "Now, you be polite. We just sat down to coffee. Give the kids a moment to get settled. Here, have a brownie." She thrust the plate at him.

Nina fluffed a kidney pillow behind her back. I stared at the silent, coffin-sized console stereo that took up half of the opposite wall in those days. Even then, though it had not worked in a dozen years my parents refused to junk it. Instead, they used it as a television stand and an occasional sideboard.

"Nina?" My father chose to ignore my mother's upbraiding. "Why don't you tell me what you think?"

"I'm sorry?" she temporized.

"Which of the two of you do you feel should be the first to die?"

She stared at him as she might a sales clerk who had just informed her she'd tapped out credit card limit. "With all due respect, Reverend Bethune, that's hardly a fair question."

"I know it's not a pleasant subject but it's a serious one. I always ask it of the couples that want me to marry them," he said. He turned to me "What about you, Joshua? Any thoughts?"

"Let's not do this tonight." I had known this was coming, had told Nina to expect an ambush—even though my father, much to my mother's chagrin, would not be performing our wedding.

"We've thought this through, Son." My mother's words surprised me. "And your father feels you should as well. Every couple who wants to get married should. Remember, the vow says: 'til death you do part.'"

"So...?" I looked at her. "What did you two decide?" A favored tactic of my youth that still worked well at my job, putting my inquisitors on the defensive.

"There is no one right answer," my father said. "But as a matter of faith, there is one way of looking at it. Mary Helen and I discussed it at length, didn't we dear? Before our wedding."

She nodded and smiled. "More coffee?" She leaned forward and laid her hand on the curving silver handle of the coffee pot, examining each of us and our cups in turn. Nina and I shook our heads. "Another brownie, dear?" She picked up the plate and handed it to my father. He took two.

"When we were engaged—we were much younger than the two of you at the time—we had this same discussion with our pastor, Dr. Griggs. Remember him?" He caught a crumb tumbling off his chin.

"Sure, didn't he have a farm out in the country?" I milked my first cow there, rode my first horse, plucked my first chicken, picked my first boll of cotton. "A sort of gentleman's farm," I added for Nina's benefit.

"Right." My parents' living room was paneled in knotty pine. A thick brass eagle, wings wide spread, a patriotic shield in its talons, hovered over the wide brick fireplace they never used. Vases of dried, brown flowers bracketed the mantle. A clumsy, primary-color portrait of the three of us, done in oil by one of my father's parishioners when I was a round-headed baby, hung (still hangs for that matter) behind the sofa. "And I think it is fair to say we were just as surprised as the two of you by the question." He smiled at my mother.

"No, we had never thought about it," she said. "Who does at that age? You think you're going to live forever. But Dr. Griggs gave us time to think about it. We talked about it practically every night for a month. Remember how we used to sit out on the porch swing at your mother's house every evening after dinner?"

"Yes, that's right, dear. And normally I would ask this question the first time a couple comes to see me so they can think about it before the next session. But we don't have that luxury since y'all live in New York." He peered over the tops of his glasses at Nina. "But you're a bright couple..." He smiled. "What do you think?"

Nina filled her and my coffee cups, holding down the top of the pot, and wadded a paper napkin to mop up a small drop that had trickled onto the salver. She glanced at me as she dribbled in a few drops of cream, her smile masking what I took from her eyes to be a certain imploring desperation. "More cream, J.?"

"Thanks. Just a tad." I took a sip: coffee, cream, and air. "Okay, so, Dad, what did you and Mom decide?"

He looked at me, then at my mother. "Well, that's really between us," he said. I looked back and forth from one of my parents to the other.

Mother had nodded. "You two need to resolve it for yourselves first."

11 July 2011

The Eyes Have It

In graduate school, I entertained (albeit briefly) the idea of doing an extended study on Barth, Barthes, & Barth (Karl, Roland, & John). It was silly. I still read a bit in all of them, though. Recently, I picked up my old copy of Roland's The Pleasure of the Text. A few quotes jumped out at me. I post them for your delectation.
"Here, moreover, drawn from psychoanalysis, is an indirect way of establishing the opposition between the text of pleasure and the text of bliss: pleasure can be expressed in words, bliss cannot." (21)
"Emotion: why should it be antipathetic to bliss (I was wrong when I used to see it wholly on the side of sentimentality, of moral illusion)? It is a disturbance, a bordering on collapse: something perverse, under respectable appearances; emotion is even, perhaps, the slyest of losses, for it contradicts the general rule that would assign bliss a fixed form: strong, violent, crude: something inevitably muscular, strained, phallic. Against the general rule: never allow oneself to be deluded by the image of bliss; agree to recognize bliss wherever a disturbance occurs in amatory adjustment (premature, delayed, etc.): passionate love as bliss? Bliss as wisdom (when it manages to understand itself outside its own prejudices)?" (25)
"No object is in a constant relationship with pleasure (Lacan, apropos of Sade). For the writer, however, the object exists: it is not the language, it is the mother tongue. The writer is someone who plays with his mother's body (I refer to Pleynet on Lautréamont and Matisse): in order to glorify it, to embellish it, or in order to dismember it, to take it to the limit of what can be known about the body: I would go so far as to take bliss in a disfiguration of the language, and opinion will strenuously object, since is opposes 'disfiguring nature.'" (37)
"Death of the Father would deprive literature of many of its pleasures. If there is no longer a Father, why tell stories? Doesn't every narrative lead back to Oedipus? Isn't storytelling always a way of searching for one's origin, speaking one's conflicts with the Law, entering into the dialectic of tenderness and hatred? Today, we dismiss Oedipus and narrative at one and the same time: we no longer love, we no longer fear, we no longer narrate. As fiction, Oedipus was at least good for something: to make good novels, to tell good stories…" (47)
"(The monument of psychoanalysis must be traversed—not bypassed—like the fine thoroughfares of a very large city, across which we can play, dream, etc.: a fiction.)" (58)

[The potato should have had eyes.]

07 July 2011

Ur-Story: Burning Man, Part 8

Finally. Finally, we reach the end of my extended take on Elias Canetti's monumental novel Auto-da-Fé. I will admit it's taken some of the wind out of my sails. It is dense, difficult, harsh, and pointed. It's ruined me for further in-depth reading for awhile. If you click here, you will find the previous posts in this series (plus this one and any that come after). As always in blogland, they scroll from the bottom of the page upward.

As I've noted, the last chapter of the book throws our understanding of the novel into utter disarray. Brother Georg (-e, -es) Kien, gynecologist-cum-psychiatrist, has lately come to the rescue of our hero, Peter Kien, re-ensconced him in his apartment keep amidst his vast collection of books of Eastern wisdom, and returned to Paris—like a true deus-ex-machina. We now feel we can breathe a sigh of relief and relax our way through the final denouément, the bad guys having been duly ushered off-stage. Though no justice was properly done, all is okay: Peter will get on with his solitary, scholarly life only somewhat worse for the wear.

So we come to the last, short chapter "The Red Cock." Essentially, Kien here recounts the long, long string of his delusions—all very much still crackling despite the blandishments of his brother's pseudo-psychoanalytic psychotherapy. He still fears the ghost of Therese; he fondly recalls the "loyal" dwarf, Fischerle; he is haunted by the guilt of the murder he never committed, and he fears his imminent arrest; he tries to burn imaginary blood stains out of the carpet; he still hears the voices of the burning books in the Theresianum and the knocking of the police at his door; and he still imagines Pfaff is his friend—even as his war council library again comes to life, only this time conspiring against him. Paranoia sets in. The external world threatens break into his own. He takes refuge behind a book:
"A letter detaches itself from the first line and hits him a blow on the ear. Letters are lead. It hurts. Strike him! Strike him! Another. And another. A footnote kicks him. More and more. He totters. Lines and whole pages come clattering on to him. They shake and beat him, they worry him, they toss him about among themselves. Blood. Let me go! Damnable mob! Help! George! Help! Help! George!

But George has gone. Peter leaps up. With formidable strength he grasps the book and snaps it to. So, he has taken the letters prisoner, all of them, and will not let them go again. Never! He is free. He stands up. He stands alone. George has gone. He has outwitted him. What does he know of the murder? A mental specialist. An ass. A wide-open soul. Yet he would gladly steal the books. He would want him dead soon. Then he'd have the library. He won't get it. Patience! …

Kien seizes the book on the table and threatens his brother with it. He is trying to rob him; everyone is out for a will, everyone counts on the death of his nearest. A brother is good enough to die, thieves kitchen of a world, men devour and steal books. All want something and all are gone, and no one can wait. …

The books cascade off the shelves to the floor. He takes them up in his long arms. Very quietly, so that they can't hear him outside, he carries pile after pile into the hall. He builds them up high against the iron door. And while the frantic din tears his brain to fragments, he builds a mighty bulwark out of books. The hall is filled with volume upon volume. He fetches the ladder to help him. Soon he has reached the ceiling. He goes back to his room. The shelves gape at him. In front of the writing desk the carpet is ablaze. He goes into the bedroom next to the kitchen and drags out all the old newspapers. He pulls the pages apart, and crumples them, he rolls them into balls, and throws them into all the corners. He places the ladder in the middle of the room where it stood before. He climbs up to the sixth step, looks down on the fire and waits.

When the flames reached him at last, he laughed out loud, louder than he had ever laughed in all his life." (463-64)
Expectations are that Canetti should have given us a sympathetic hero in Peter Kien, the ascetic scholar as a unifying consciousness, someone who could ennoble and educate those with whom he comes in contact. In Therese, we would have expected to see the ignorant peasant as noble, educable. In Fischerle, the low-life aspirational dwarf as an American success story. In Pfaff, the former cop as righteous defender of the state. And in Georg Kien, the psychiatrist as selfless and effective. Canetti gives us none of this. Therese is brutishly ignoble. Fischerle is comically villainous. Pfaff is abusive. Georg is a buffoon. And Peter is delusional, paranoid: Insane. Thus the satire.

Indeed, if there is any consistent voice here, it is the voice of the misanthrope. Misogyny, anti-semitism, anti-humanism—the preponderant themes throughout—are all forms of misanthropy. There is nothing redeeming in any single character. All are unlikeable. The narrator whom I have called "Canetti", though he articulates their very essences, does not like any of his characters. And Canetti, the writer, draws them as two-dimensional caricatures, figures, stereotypes—each of whom is misapprehended and imagined as yet another sort of stereotype by each of the other characters. "Canetti" wants us to see how ridiculous each of these characters is, how prejudicial, limited, and insular. And Canetti wants us to agree with that.

But what to make of this carnival of grotesques? Is there some sort of intelligible, enduring message—beyond the specific context of Weimar Vienna—that can reach us here in the early 21st Century? Or is this all mere fun and games at the expense of the folks in Canetti's own place and time?

It would be too facile a hypothesis to assert, as many have, that Canetti is saying the integrity of the intellect is sapped and ultimately destroyed by forces of self-righteous ignorance and venal commercialism and brutality. Or, conversely, that the disengaged life of the intellect is no guard against the forces of what Canetti some decades later called the "mass man." (This, of course, was the Nobel verdict.) Canetti does not portray his scholar/protagonist in so sympathetic a manner as to justify such an easy reading.

We might, in homage to that foremost Sinologist, Peter Kien, assert in Confucian fashion: A man made out of words easily burns. Whatever the hell that might mean. It does, however, have the virtue of taking into account the whole of the story.

And, of course, that brings us back round to my own little pocket view: that of the Ur-story. I've used this analytical tool here on this blog to examine a number of crucial texts. (You can find most of them by looking on the right hand side of the page here, under the Pages heading, "Ur-story: Jim's Book Club.") Briefly and baldly restated, we recognize in the Ur-story aspects of our own essential mortality and the sense of loss and insecurity that entails, and the literature—and, frankly, anything worthy of the name—I've examined encompasses the varied and all-too-human responses to this fundamental existential situation.

Satire is certainly one mode of literary fiction. It is Canetti's here. In Auto-da-Fé, we note the loss inter alia of community, of rationality, of common sense, of basic communication, of human decency, of sympathy. Each character is out for him/herself, using each other character for her/his own ends. In this convention of solipsists, we have the clashing of many mutually exclusive worlds. Civilization itself, it seems, is at stake.

And the proper response to this situation of loss? According to Canetti: Ridicule. Unalloyed, unabashed ridicule.

Indeed, if there is anything to be drawn from this monstrous, difficult, monumental novel, it is that ridicule is the only proper response to the absurdity of the human situation—the proper response to the Ur-story: Life is meaningless and short. Hah! Hah! Hah! People are mean and low. Hee! Hee! Hee! Civilized culture is falling apart. Ho! Ho! Ho! Fuck you all!

So saith Canetti. So saith I. And this is why this is a great novel.

03 July 2011


Yet another agent rejection of EULOGY. Not that it was unexpected. Alas. Therefore, out of spite, here's the next chapter. Lambaste away, knaves, you can't hurt me. Happy Fourth.


The thick, floral-print draperies in the cramped room my parents shared were drawn against the crisp afternoon. A small lamp, crafted from a poorly painted porcelain Chinese figurine my father had picked up in the service, shed a dim bubble of light in one corner. The air was stifling, as though they were trying to keep the last of the sun's failing heat from escaping. Their room smelled of stale camphor and soiled clothing. The carpet felt moldy slick under my feet.

My mother's frail body reclined on the rented hospital bed, her head and legs elevated slightly, a tube of clear liquid shunted into her arm, a smaller hissing tube hung just below her nostrils. Machinery hummed in the corner. She was dressed in a flimsy, tangerine gown from another era—the sort of burnoose she had worn her whole life. A pair of tidy, colorless mules waited futilely on the small oval rug at her bedside for her feet to slip again into them. Her eyes were closed, her face at peace.

"Mother?" A beat passed. Another. Around her there was an absence of human smell as if her pores had clamped down to trap her perspiration—her vitality—inside her skin. The bed around her body felt cool. The muscles beneath her papery skin tensed, her thin lips dissolved into a grimace, and with what seemed like enormous strain she pried apart her eyelids. I remembered her eyes as a warm hazel, but now they appeared dull, soupy, nearly consumed by her graying pupils. I lowered my face into what I thought was her field of vision. "Hello, Mother. It's me, Josh." Her lips retracted, and she gritted her small, filmy teeth in a sort of smile. Her stomach contracted with the effort. Her weak breaths were odorless.

"Joshua, dear. It's been so long. We've always been so proud of you." She stopped, the effort clearly immense. Her tongue poked around in the cavern of her mouth. I felt a slight twitching in her hand. I took it in mine. It was rubbery, neutral. "Listen to your father. Do what he says." She parceled her words out carefully. "It will be hard for you," she quivered with the strain, "but it's even harder for him."

"What are you talking about?"

"And promise me you'll find something good to say about me." She collapsed back into her pillow the fraction of an inch the tension in her stomach muscles had lifted her and exhaled audibly. "I'm tired. Give Nina my love." Her eyes shuttered and it was like she had fallen a great, great distance.

I squeezed her hand and felt the bones crackle under my grip. "Mother? What do you want from me?" A clicking sound came from her other hand. "Tell me."

"Why don't you read to her?" My father's voice startled me from my contemplation of my mother's inarticulate pain as she lay motionless in the stultifying room she shared with him. She was rotting from the inside out.




"She always loves the Bible. The Psalms. Ecclesiastes. The Sermon on the Mount. Or you could try Shakespeare. There on her table beside the bed. She likes to hear the sonnets."

I riffled the worn, gilt edges of my mother's blue, leather-bound collected Shakespeare.

"You know, when she was growing up, these were the only books her parents had in the house. She was very bright. She learned to read from them."

"Do you think she can hear me?"

"She'll know the sound of your voice. And maybe the rhythms of the words as well. It will be comfort enough for her." The book flopped open and my eye lighted on the first line of one of the poems.

"I'll give it a shot."

"That time of year thou mayst in me behold…"

"Yes, that one," he said. "It's one of her favorites."

I began again:

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin'd choirs, where late the sweet birds sang. …

"Bare ruined choirs... ." Indeed. I looked up from the text and saw my father, a white handkerchief in his hand, leaning over her body, dabbing at what might have been a drop of moisture glistening in the corner of her eye, and read on.


01 July 2011

The Avant-Garde: A Gass-eous Typology

In "The Vicissitudes of the Avant-Garde," (found in Finding a Form) William Gass asserts that the term 'avant-garde' was first applied in a literary context in the sixteenth century to Pierre de Ronsard and Joachim du Bellay.
Their strife the Fates have closed, with stern control,

The earth holds her fair body, and her soul
An angel with glad angels triumpheth;
Love has no more that he can do; desire
Is buried, and my heart a faded fire,
And for Death's sake, I am in love with Death.
Ronsard, "His Lady's Death" (1550)
So long you wandered on the dusky plain,

Where flit the shadows with their endless cry, 

You reach the shore where all the world goes by, 

You leave the strife, the slavery, the pain; 

But we, but we, the mortals that remain 

In vain stretch hands; for Charon sullenly

Drives us afar, we may not come anigh 

Till that last mystic obolus we gain.
du Bellay, "To His Friend in Elysium" (1550)

Gass then identifies three kinds of avant-garde
"One, such as the architectural modernism of the Bauhaus, of Gropius, Le Corbuier, and Neutra, aims to improve man and his life; it naturally allies itself with other forward-looking agents of change (the machine, for instance), and it preaches progress with the sort of rosy-cheeked optimism characteristic of metaphysical Rotarians. It tends to be impatient with the past, maintaining that little can be learned from history but its errors, and fearing nostalgia above all other passive emotions. Although the members of this avant-garde are largely arty intellectuals, there is a sense of common cause with the impoverished and downtrodden—a shared powerlessness. This is what I call the liberal avant-garde. Its influence is strongest among the arts that have a public posture (architecture, theater, cinema). When the liberal avant-garde wants to become doctrinaire, it embraces the fascism of the Left. Picasso, Le Corbusier, and Brecht are characteristic types.

The avant-garde of Gautier, Degas, and Flaubert, however, has nothing but scorn for these pimps of progress. The talismanic word here is "original," and the focus of the group tends to be on individual and artistic freedom, on disengagement and withdrawal. Artists in this second group are ready to take from tradition and often oppose the present by looking to the past. They have a natural affinity with the aristocracy, and in general their movements are marked by an extreme dislike of the masses. Their image of the artist is the individual in his isolation. This is the conservative avant-garde, the avant-garde of Rimbaud, Lawrence, Eliot, Pound, Yeats, and Celine, and it is most prevalent among poets. When it wants to become doctrinaire, it embraces the fascism of the Right, and often shows, alas, a racist face." (202-03)
"The existence of a third avant-garde is more problematic. The activities of any such "group," whether artistically oriented or socially focused, are so determined by the times that to call one sort permanent seems to court contradiction. Yet I believe there are works to which habit won't have a chance to get us comfortably accustomed; works that will continue to resist the soothing praises of the critics, and that will rise from their tombs of received opinion to surprise us again and again. These works may pay a dreadful price for the role they have chosen to play, but if they are going to be a permanent part of "the" avant-garde (that avant-garde common to all kinds), they must remain wild and never neglect an opportunity to attack their trainers; above all, it is the hand that feeds them which must be repeatedly bitten. They have to continue to do what the avant-garde is supposed to do: shatter stereotypes, shake things up, and keep things moving; offer fresh possibilities to a jaded understanding; encourage a new consciousness; revitalize the creative spirit of the medium; and, above all, challenge the skills and ambitions of every practitioner. Such a pure avant-garde must not only emphasize the formal elements of its art (recognizing that these elements are its art); its outside interests must be in very long-term—if not permanent—problems. It may have to say no to Cash, to Flag, to Man, to God, to Being itself. It cannot be satisfied merely to complain of the frivolities of a king's court or to count the crimes of capitalism or to castigate the middle class for its persistent vulgarity. The avant-garde's ultimate purpose is to return the art to itself, not as if the art could be cordoned off from the world and kept uncontaminated, but in order to remind it of its nature (a creator of forms in the profoundest sense)—a nature that should not be allowed to dissolve into what are, after all, measly moments of society." (205)
In Lieblicher Blaue(in Lovely Blue), Hölderlin
In lovely blue the steeple blossoms
With its metal roof. Around which
Drift swallow cries, around which
Lies most loving blue. The sun,
High overhead, tints the roof tin,
But up in the wind, silent,
The weathercock crows. When someone
Takes the stairs down from the belfry,
It is a still life, with the figure
Thus detached, the sculpted shape
Of man comes forth. The windows
The bells ring through
Are as gates to beauty. Because gates
Still take after nature,
They resemble the forest trees.
But purity is also beauty.
A grave spirit arises from within,
Out of divers things. Yet so simple
These images, so very holy,
One fears to describe them. But the gods,
Ever kind in all things,
Are rich in virtue and joy.
Which man may imitate.
May a man look up
From the utter hardship of his life
And say: Let me also be
Like these? Yes. As long as kindness lasts,
Pure, within his heart, he may gladly measure himself
Against the divine. Is God unknown?
Is he manifest as the sky? This I tend
To believe. Such is man’s measure.
Well deserving, yet poetically
Man dwells on this earth. But the shadow
Of the starry night is no more pure, if I may say so,
Than man, said to be the image of God.
Is there measure on earth? There is
None. No created world ever hindered
The course of thunder. A flower
Is likewise lovely, blooming as it does
Under the sun. The eye often discovers
Creatures in life it would be yet lovelier
To name than flowers. O, this I know!
For to bleed both in body and heart, and cease
To be whole, is this pleasing to God?
But the soul, I believe, must
Remain pure, lest the eagle wing
Its way up to the Almighty with songs
Of praise and the voice of so many birds.
It is substance, and is form.
Lovely little brook, how moving you seem
As you roll so clear, like the eye of God,
Through the Milky Way. I know you well,
But tears pour from the eye.
I see gaiety of life blossom
About me in all creation’s forms,
I do not compare it cheaply
To the graveyard’s solitary doves. People’s
Laughter seems to grieve me,
After all, I have a heart.
Would I like to be a comet? I think so.
They are swift as birds, they flower
With fire, childlike in purity. To desire
More than this is beyond human measure.
The gaiety of virtue also deserves praise
From the grave spirit adrift
Between the garden’s three columns.
A beautiful virgin should wreathe her hair
With myrtle, being simple by nature and heart.
But myrtles are found in Greece.
If a man look into a mirror
And see his image therein, as if painted,
It is his likeness. Man’s image has eyes,
But the moon has light.
King Oedipus may have an eye too many.
The sufferings of this man seem indescribable,
Inexpressible, unspeakable. Which comes
When drama represents such things.
But what do I feel, now thinking of you?
Like brooks, I am carried away by the end of something
That expands like Asia. Of course,
Oedipus suffers the same? For a reason,
Of course. Did Hercules suffer as well?
Indeed. In their friendship
Did not the Dioscuri also suffer?
Yes, to battle God as Hercules did
Is to suffer. And to half share immortality
With the envy of this life,
This too is pain. But this also
Is suffering, when a man is covered with summer freckles,
All bespattered with spots. This is the work
Of the gun, it draws everything out.
It leads young men along their course,
Charmed by rays like roses.
The sufferings of Oedipus seem like a poor man
Lamenting what he lacks.
Son of Laios, poor stranger in Greece.
Life is death, and death a life.