A few pages from an abandoned novel, circa 2003
Sunday morning, this beautiful empty winter in Wisonsin Dells. Neon vacancy signs in front of a hundred 50s motels go pastel in the crystalline sun. A few old pickups outnumbered by leased minivans prowl the parkway towards church or a sleepy buffet of powdered eggs and maple-flavored corn syrup. Matchbox-flimsy roller coasters cut cubist arcs against the frigid blue, icicles glinting from the cross-ties. The outdoor water parks are barren but for their enormous cartoon sculptures grinning down at summer’s absent children, and across drained blue pools like bedpans of molded plastic, kidney or pear-shaped, the twigs and leaves and beer cans gathered around the drains in frozen halos of inconsequence. Transports hum on the interstate behind the Wal-mart and Home Depot at the town limits. There is everything to buy, but spending begins again in spring, in preparation for Memorial Day, which should be called something else.
Look in the mirror. See how your own eyes are strange to you; see if you can hold your own gaze. Feel time passing like humans with nothing in common except the suspicion they’ve nothing in common. Look in the mirror: allow yourself no comparisons, no weighing of circumstance, no judging of situation versus expectation. Life is a luminous absence of meaning. The hard-disc whines and zings its memorization of binary essences. It spins and whines as his eyes loll shut, backing up his soul.
At times he has felt on the edge of satisfying answers, balanced cadences to rich prose. But the edge has disappeared, and there’s no big drop-off — just a generalized sinking, buoyed up at moments of inadvertent participation in a culture he no longer has the energy to critique. And there’s a lot of waiting-room, pause-button time, both desired for and created by pawning the real questions off on somebody else, and then pretending to be open to new answers.
All very liminal, o so post, and that’s all great, whatever, but goddam it, help. He’s an unmedicated possibly clinically depressed stalled-out novelist with fresh abandonment issues, working for reality television, the grind of which puts the great themes out of his focus, out of his reach. And yet the great themes focus on him, they reach him, they reach right inside, unbidden and matter-of-fact. Answer the question. At night he feels the hand of a sculptor around his heart.
You are born into a body and a place that you do not and will not ever understand. (Intervening happy moment: something impressionistic in the nursery.) You learn through pain and fear to accept the logic and permanence of pain and fear. (Intervening happy moment: Cookie Monster.) Your mother and father are as kind to you as they are able, but in their eyes you see the reflection of the outer dark into which you are slowly hurtling. (Intervening happy moment: there are walks in the park, a petting zoo.) You form relationships in order to share and verify your fragility, and even these ones betray you, to form alliances with those more or less fragile than you (Intervening happy moment: sitting with Marcus in a cineplex, agape at the Star Wars matinee. His hand is big around your own.) (Question: is agape meaning agog related to agape meaning love?) The perpetual and monstrous danger of the physical world shadows your days and floods your dreams. (Intervening happy moment: you have 20 bucks and you’re on the downtown train with your best friend, at the age of 14.) The web of interpersonal betrayals through the adolescent years makes your malaise more specific, and you look for things to blame. Sitting bolt upright in bed, you are one of billions, each unknown to each, and everything that everyone is doing is insane. There’s government, money, money, authority, money, the “way things are”, older people who are smug in their achievements, war-mongering, your peers enlisting in the military for college scholarships, a burning pile of tires, young conservative parties, sell-outs of all persuasion especially artistic, disposable plastic shit, people who seem to like their lives, the growing fatigue of your parents that you call apathy to their faces. (Intervening happy moment: meeting a girl one night at closing time. You went to her place and she had a white cat. She said I could fall in love with you. It was perfect because you didn’t screw. You don’t even know if she had a regular vagina – could have been a tunnel of pearls.) Because the world is hopeless, you answer with the idea of personal apocalypse; undying death, day after day.
He’s always been a dramatic thinker. Absolute this, absolute that. If you’re not for me you’re against me. It’s nothing if it’s not everything. A perpetual fencing with definites, under an ambivalent sky.
Now a new self-judgement was dawning inconspicuously. After this lifetime of self-obsession, this stormy impostering of Narcissus, a thousand contracted nights of pornography and Leonard Cohen, this searching through modern literature for the novel that his deep reserves of deeper experience would surpass, all the late-night viewing of classic French films rented from the local betty boop and granola dvd shop, after all of this serious pursuit of self-knowledge, he was finally beginning to wake up of the mornings with a eerie blank light around his head. A halo of no big deal. The cat gazes at him from the end of the bed and his heart rips open with mute love that makes his buried suicidal thoughts peal and list like a happy sea. New snow on the lake, cross-country ski tracks giving evidence of normal goings-on, white smoke over the ice-fishing huts, rumours of people doing things that he would never waste his precious self-examination time on — all of these things were normal and around him and inviting him to a brighter world of less importance. Other folk seem to live their lives quite just-so. Perhaps nothing was in the way of the sun. Waking up relaxed, with nothing to overcome. Creation was never your competition. There are billions of cats like this one. Billions. Not one of them burdened with the need to achieve something beyond being furry and yogically comfy. Death cannot stop this or anything, nor should it be avoided. Goddam who knows what to do.
As an imposter of Narcissus, he was failing in one respect. Narcissus was honestly enraptured with himself. Out of control, beyond the basic morality of even knowing about other people. But he knew of other people, to be sure. In fact his self-interest was built on an awareness of other people, and a jockeying into line with them before his internal judge. The fact that these other people were not as self-interested as him amounted to points in his favor. Always comparative was his self-interest. Somehow impure, because it was based on the premise that his own mind was actually more interesting than anything else on the periphery of his sphere of possession. So the shocker was: ‘Maybe I’m actually not an extraordinary person. Maybe I’m not even that intelligent. Thinking for three decades that I am intelligent does not make me so.’
And let’s just revisit the phrase, ‘a thousand contracted nights of pornography and Leonard Cohen’, which you dashed off in a spasm of needing to express ‘a long time, full of wasted passion and secret communiques from our better angels’. Brush aside the poetry like dust from a skull on a fossil dig: nobody was counting, but it really was close to a thousand nights. And you really did spend the minutes and hours and breaths and heartbeats on meaningless luminous pursuits. And how many nights are there in your life, between the age of mastering the basic skills of being a person, and the age at which the great denouement of personhood begins. The window of who you are as distinct from others is an opalescent sea of ten, fifteeen thousand nights. You spent them doing this, and that. They are gone, and now you’re spending time remembering them, confused about their relevance. Moments of pride, nostalgia, regret, and boredom. This is your material, your characters are in your heart. We have some idea of where the heart is. But where is the story?