Tuesday 31 July 2012

Short Story: "Something Fishy"

John Morgan peered through his dark attic window. In the streetlight outside, he spied his daughter Kelly stepping out of her boyfriend Blake’s car. The June night was balmy; both of the seventeen-year-olds were in short sleeves. Kelly glanced toward the house, but John knew she couldn’t see him. After a few seconds, Blake followed her out of the car and she bounced onto her toes to kiss him.
            “Well that’s not so bad,” John mumbled.
            Blake plunged his fingers into Kelly’s blonde hair.
            “Watch yourself,” John added.
Blake slipped a hand around Kelly’s waist and cupped her bum.
            John felt his chest tighten. “Alright. Over the line, kid.”
            Finally, Blake reached into the car’s passenger seat and pulled out an eighteen-inch salmon, which looked to be fresh from the nearby harbour. He held the fish by its tail and grinned, performing a few bicep curls. Then he presented it to Kelly with both hands in a mock bow.
            “What the hell?” John Morgan spun away from the window and fell to the floor like a sack of dirty laundry. When he heard the front door open and shut, he stumbled to his feet and snuck back out of the attic, beating the dust from of his slacks. When he’d reached the head of the house’s main staircase, he spotted Kelly at the door. She was taking off her knee-high boots. The salmon was no longer in her hands.
She glanced up and caught him furrowing his brow. “God, Dad. It’s before nine-thirty, you know.” She checked her watch. “By a long shot.”
            John shook the gloom from his face and snorted. “No no no, I’m not mad. I was just trying to remember where I left something.”
When Kelly had moved out of sight, John stalked down the stairs and made for the kitchen. When he got there, he threw open the freezer’s stainless steel door and searched inside. There was no smell of fish in the house, only the simulated, flowery scent of Glade plug-ins.
            “What’re you looking for?” Kelly said from behind him.
            John was startled, but he collected his wits and threw a glance over his shoulder. “Is there something I should be looking for?”
            “Anything but ice cream. Mom said you can only have one bowl a night, and we all watched you eat one after supper.”
            He shut the freezer and shuffled along the kitchen counter, keeping his back to his daughter. “I’m not a child, Kelly. I know what your mother said.”
            Kelly shrugged and left the kitchen. When John heard her moving back upstairs, he retrieved his shoes from the hallway closet and left the house through the front door. Once outside, he checked the hedges in front of their windows to see if Kelly had hidden the salmon there. But there was no sign of it.
            John spun from his house and looked to the road, where he saw Blake rolling past in his rusted Sunfire. The kid’s head was sticking out the window. 
            “How’s it goin’, Mr. M?!”
            “Why are you still on this street?!” John shouted back.
            “Pffft! It’s a cul-de-sac, bra!” Blake said before speeding away. John cursed and stomped back into his house. Next time he saw Blake, he planned on giving the kid a solid chewing-out about speed limits in suburban areas.
Inside, his wife Marion awaited him with a smile. Her curly black hair was tied back in a loose bun, showing her grey roots. 
“What is it?” John said.
            Marion recoiled at his gruffness, but quickly steeled herself. “Sheesh. I want to defrost something for supper tomorrow.” She turned her back to him and made for the kitchen. “What do you want?”
            John glanced up the staircase and saw Kelly descending. “Salmon,” he said. But his daughter didn’t so much as glance at him as she continued down the steps.
            That night, John found himself hiking through a dank jungle, which eventually led into a well-lit clearing that had a Tyrannosaurus Rex standing at its centre. The ridiculous giant didn’t seem to notice him, but it stood at rigid attention, sensing something wrong in its surroundings. Then, without warning, a donkey rushed out from the underbrush and sank its teeth into the dinosaur’s leg. The Rex tried to attack its assailant, but for some reason the move proved too awkward. The donkey persisted in biting the dinosaur’s leg until it opened a wound the width of a medicine ball. Then the ass forced its head through the wound, then its midriff, and finally its hooves, until its body was fully inside the leg like a burrowing tick. John gaped in disbelief as the Rex went mad with anguish and crunched its jaws down in its own leg, desperate to kill the donkey. After several bloody chomps, the leg came completely off, and the poor lizard fell shrieking to the ground. John Morgan turned to retreat, but felt like there were thousand pound weights in each of his legs.
Sweat was beading down his forehead. It was morning, and John was shocked to find that everyone except him was already out of bed. Strange dreams were supposed to wake you early, he thought, not make you sleep in.
            When he entered the kitchen, he was struggling to slip his green necktie into a half Windsor. Marion twirled away from the countertop in her bright yellow sundress and sang, “Guess what I went out and got this mooooorning?”
            John shrugged, trying to pick some balled crust off his eyelashes.
            “Salmon! Fresh from the market.”
            John felt his legs turn to jelly. He lifted his watch and read 8:15. “Superstore isn’t even open yet.”
            Marion waved a spatula at him with a tut-tut-tut and turned to scoop some bacon out of a pan. “I went to the market,” she called over her shoulder, “and bought it straight from the men who were unloading it from a truck. Fresh as you can get!”
            John winced. “So you bought the salmon whole?”
            Marion turned her head and winked at him.
            “Hey Dad!”
He spun around and saw that Kelly was already set for school, wearing a tanktop that looked like it belonged in the eighties. One side of it hung properly over her shoulder, while the other slid down to mid bicep. “What?” he asked.
            “We’re gonna’ be late.”
            “We’ll be fine.”
            “God! You’re always raggin’ on me for getting up late, and now I actually am up, and you wanna’ take your sweet time.”
            “Since when are you so eager to get to school?”
            Kelly heaved a sigh and stormed out of the room.
            Marion laid a hand on his shoulder. “You should take her,” she said. “Getting out the door a little earlier wouldn’t be the worst habit for her to pick up.”
            John sighed, nodded, and kissed her.
            “Hungry?” she asked, offering a well laden plate.
            “I guess I should grab something at work, if Kelly and I are going to go now.”
            “Nonsense!” Marion gathered a fistful of bacon strips and stuffed it into his mouth. The tangle of meat and gristle formed a ball in his right cheek that felt like a wad of chewing tobacco. He worked it down as fast as he could, making enough room to mumble I love you before he left.
            “You’re sweet,” Marion said, handing him a warm mug of coffee.
            As he stepped toward the driveway, John suspected that his wife’s cheerfulness had been exaggerated that morning. The thought nagged him until he got into his green Buick, where Kelly was already waiting on him. When they pulled into the street, she reached forward and flipped the radio to a channel that was blasting club mixes.
            “Do you mind?” he asked. “I didn’t sleep well last night.”
            Kelly folded her arms and turned away.
            “Is something wrong?”
            “I can’t tell you.”
            John tightened his fingers around the steering wheel. “Is it about last night?”
            “Why would it be about last night?” She flashed a hard look at him. 
            They stopped at a red light, but John still looked ahead as he spoke. “You were out with Jeff.”
            “ And do you think we were up to something bad, Daddy?”
            He kept silent and put Marion’s coffee to his lips.
            “Of course we had tons of unprotected sex. But that’s not what’s bugging me.”
            His brown mouthful exploded onto the windshield and dashboard. “Jesus Kelly! Your seventeen goddamn years old!”
“Chill out. I’m just messin.’”
He turned to yell at her, but the traffic light turned green and the car behind them drowned him with its horn.
“Why would you talk like that?” he asked once they were back underway.
“To remind you that you have no clue what I do with my life.”
He stared ahead once more, but he could tell that Kelly’s eyes were now burning a hole through his temple. “What is it?” he asked.
“I should ask you the same thing. You’re acting all weird today.”
He ground the meat of his palm into each eye socket. “Like I said, I didn’t sleep well.”
“Bad dreams.”
            “About what?”
“Dinosaurs and donkeys.”
Kelly shook her head, pulled out her cellphone, and started writing a text-message to a friend. “You’re fucked,” she said.
“Hey! Watch the language. And if you don’t want to know about my dreams, don’t ask about them.”
They rode the rest of the way to Kelly’s school in silence. When she finally stepped out of the car, she motioned for him to roll down the passenger window.
“Hey dad. I forgot to tell you that Jeff and I were out on the pier last night.”
John gave a defeated nod. “That’s great, Kell. And what was going on there?” He didn’t want to hear the answer.
“Well of course we were making out, but that’s not the point. The point is that both of us had fishing lines in the water, and Jeff pulled up this huge thing he said was a flounder. You should’ve seen how huge it was.”
John tilted his coffee to his mouth and pursed his lips as he swallowed. “And why are you telling me this?”
For the first time that morning, a look of uncertainty spread across Kelly’s face. “Well, isn’t that what’s been bugging you? The fish?”
John suddenly felt a golden wave of relief wash over his heart. But he fought off the smile that was tugging at the corners of his mouth. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said, knowing now that Kelly hadn’t seen him in the attic window the night before. He told Kelly he loved her and pulled away from the curb. He checked the rear-view mirror and saw her on the sidewalk, watching him leave. Now he allowed himself to grin.
But something was still nibbling him when he sat down at his desk that morning. It was muggy in the insurance office, and the lazy ceiling fan above him was doing nothing to improve things.
“Hey,” he called to one of his colleagues, an obese claims processor named Bill Waters who was ambling past his office. “I've got a quick question for you.”
Bill turned and entered the office without a word. His upper lip dangled slightly over his lower.
“You ever fish down at the harbour?”
Bill nodded.
“Ever catch any flounder down there?”
Bill needed a moment, but eventually nodded again. Now John felt his discomfort lessen significantly.
“And how big can those things get?”
Bill puckered his lips and made a couple of farting sounds. “‘Bout seven pounds, if they’re big.”
John smiled and lowered his head to his morning’s work. Bill waited for him to give some explanation for the questions, but it never came, so he eventually moved away from the door.
“Bill, wait!” John called.
The man slunk back to the door.
“Does a flounder look anything like a salmon?”
Bill threw back his head and hooted. His posture snapped straight, and it seemed as though he'd suddenly grown three inches taller. “Not even close, John,” he said, then turned to vanish from the doorway.
John sat in silence for the next minute or so, then surrendered to a fit of violent giggling.

Wednesday 25 July 2012

Two Poems from 2007: "Migrations" and "The Trailhound"


It’s drifted south
and leaned a little west.
The haunting once prized as intuition, or even faith –
Pushed away, disenchanted,
But not destroyed.
Because we can see it settling again
In the guts of a growing,
dead certain devout.

There is no destruction when it comes to spirit,
Only banishment.
There can be no destruction when it comes to spirit,
Only exorcism
From which the ghost wafts onward,
Toward the souls of some new Bethlehem –

A recent report from the Washington Post indicates that over sixty percent of Americans believe in the literal truth of Noah’s Ark. Contrary to popular belief, this number has grown in all demographics since 1970, including that of the self-professed “non-religious”

Intellects might some coming day
Curb their doubt, breathe deeply, and pray
For the chance to prepare a safer dwelling
In which faith will stay.

"The Trailhound"

His snout is the soft, black mushroom
and  mucus-mingled dust 
that crusts it over.
No telling particle must escape his notice,
No false trace may stray him.

Peeping from his brown, fleshfolded face,
The pooch’s view has cataracted over the several Springs
Through which his project still draws him.
Not a big deal, though,
Since it’s the scent that matters,
The ground, reliably known before his lowered face.

Toward what this trail might tend – uncertain,
Though certainly something worth his while.

The tracker loathes distractions, abstractions,
Having even snapped once at the fingers
Of a caretaker who no longer bothers
To beckon him into the warm house at nightfall.

Tuesday 17 July 2012

Stephen King's "Duma Key" and the Pleasure of the Uncanny

“I realized the shells were talking in a voice I recognized. I should have; it was my own. Had I always known that? I suppose I had. On some level, unless we're mad, I think most of us know the various voices of our own imaginations.

And of our memories, of course. They have voices, too. Ask anyone who has ever lost a limb or a child or a long-cherished dream. Ask anyone who blames himself for a bad decision, usually made in a raw instant (an instant that is most commonly red). Our memories have voices, too. Often sad ones that clamor like raised arms in the dark.”

Stephen King’s Duma Key centers on Edgar Freemantle, a professional contractor who nearly dies when his truck is crushed by a crane. The accident results in the amputation of Edgar’s right arm and causes him chronic difficulties with his speech, vision, and memory. As an added side effect, Edgar experiences near-psychotic mood swings and eventually attacks his wife, who promptly divorces him. On the advice of his psychologist, Edgar rents a beach house on Florida’s Duma Key for a year of rest, relaxation, and recuperation. During his time there, he rediscovers his love of drawing. He eventually finds out, however, that his artwork has broken into a world beyond his own making.

As much as any novel, Duma Key reveals Stephen King’s uncanny ability to harness – well, the uncanny. King understands the craft of storytelling as well as anyone, but what makes his fiction so ghoulishly gripping is the ability he shares with other masters of horror: the ability to seek out the dark corners of human uncertainty and exploit them in ways that are eerily convincing. Take, for example, The Shining, in which a father is driven insane by isolation and the evil that is supposedly inherent in a remote hotel. In this book, King pinpoints an aspect of human experience that is poorly understood by science and logic – that is, the effect that architectural spaces have on people. It is fairly well established that manipulations of space can have profound effects on human consciousness, yet these effects are virtually impossible to quantify or arrange into any stable body of knowledge. So when we accept that spaces deeply affect us, yet cannot specify how they affect us at a given moment, how close do we come to admitting that a building can truly be “haunted?” This is the kind of question that King’s fiction forces us to ask.

Similarly in Duma Key, King focuses on an aspect of human experience we take to be a given, yet do not fully understand – the phenomenon of the phantom limb. If I may, let me walk you through King’s magical plot point surrounding Edgar Freemantle’s amputated arm. After he loses his arm, Edgar experiences a phantom limb sensation. Then, once he rediscovers his love of drawing, he realizes that his phantom limb is actually trying to sketch something. Since this missing appendage cannot physically do the job, Edgar must roughly interpret what he is trying to draw with his remaining left, or “sinister” arm. Finally, the pictures that he creates through this process of translation turn out to have a psychic, prophetic power. At the risk of gushing, I must ask: how freaking cool is that? (Shout-out to nerds: I imagine that any Arts & Humanities major studying the philosophy of Maurice Merleau-Ponty or body theory in general might be drooling right now). Once again, King manages to isolate and explore a realm of human experience we take to be real, but have difficultly articulating in rational terms. And this is where ghosts are born.

If I have one quibble, it is that Duma Key indulges King’s Hitchcockian tendency to stretch out a story’s climax until it becomes exhausting. In King’s case, you can see this habit in stories like ’Salem’s Lot and even 11/22/63, while in Hitchcock’s case you have Strangers on a Train and North by Northwest. That said, Duma Key is without doubt an extremely thrilling read from beginning to end. The book’s opening two-thirds, in particular, just happen to contain some of the best horror writing I've ever read.


Tuesday 10 July 2012

Alice Munro's "Lives of Girls and Women" and the Pleasure of Faces, Places, and Traces

“My mother was not popular on the Flats Road. She spoke to people here in a voice not so friendly as she used in town, with severe courtesy and a somehow noticeable use of good grammar. To Mitch Plim’s wife—who had once worked, though I did not know it then, in Mrs. McQuade’s whorehouse—she did not speak at all. She was on the side of poor people everywhere, on the side of Negroes and Jews and Chinese and women, but she could not bear drunkenness, no, and she could not bear sexual looseness, dirty language, haphazard lives, contented ignorance; and so she had to exclude the Flats Road people from the really oppressed and deprived people, the real poor whom she still loved.”

Lives of Girls and Women is Alice Munro's only novel, although one could take issue with calling it a novel at all. It is really a cycle of short stories centering on Del Jordan, a witty and observant girl who comes of age in the fictional town of Jubilee, Ontario in the 1940s. Before moving inside the boundaries of Jubilee proper, Del spends her youngest years living at the end of the Flats Road on her father’s fox farm. Her mother, a frustrated intellectual, believes that human worth is founded on a person’s ability to question the institutions, norms, and assumptions into which she has been born. Del, however, deeply disappoints her mother when she develops a strong attraction to the mysteries of religion. Beginning from a point of childish naivetĂ©, Del eventually enters adolescence and forms deepening relationships with people outside of her family. As this happens, she must cope with the confusion, excitement, and anxiety that accompany her budding social and sexual awareness.

Many online reviewers have written that Lives is a profoundly boring book until it deals explicitly with Del’s sexual curiosity. Cosmopolitan, for example, writes that in this book, “Alice Munro has put the sexually awakening female under glass as Salinger once did the male.” For the most part, I think that this sort of comment makes an apt and interesting point. But with respect to the reviewers who say that sexuality is the primary source of interest in this book, I think there is far more to appreciate in both Munro’s style and content. Her prose is exquisite, her construction of character nearly incomparable among North American writers. For an example of her genius in this regard, I direct your attention back to the passage with which I opened this post. I find little wonder in the fact that Jonathan Franzen has expressed such deep admiration for her work. That said, it is important to note that this book is very much interested in the Lives of Girls and Women. Munro’s male characters are often portrayed from an agnostic distance. This is not always the case, but when you stack Del’s mother and aunts up against her father and brother, you find that the latter are drawn in much sparser terms. I do not fault Munro for this, for by the time I finished reading this book, I was content to think that men were simply less interesting than women.

Munro, like Franzen after her, is brilliant at creating characters; but where she surpasses Franzen is in her ability to weave these characters into a fully fleshed-out and singular sense of place. We walk alongside Del as she travels from Flats Road to the grocery store in Jubilee. We lick our thumbs and bend to clean our shoes when the road coats them with dust. But most importantly, we become engrossed in the inner lives of the women Munro portrays. We sympathize with their faults and hope that they will overcome whatever mental roadblocks are making them unhappy and inhibiting their personal growth. To this extent, I think that Munro’s book warrants an emotional comparison to Middlemarch. Unlike Eliot, however, Munro does not conjure up a fictional world in order to manifest a godlike sympathy that is only possible inside the boundaries of a novel. Rather, Lives of Girls and Women strongly hints that Munro writes in order to preserve traces of people and places – gestures, habits, street names – from the eroding forces of time. As readers, we first receive this hint in an early chapter entitled “Heirs of the Living Body,” in which Del describes her Uncle Craig, who “[when] not working on the township’s business…was engaged on two projects—a history of Wawanash County, and a family tree.” A young Del, interested only in matters of glory and greatness, goes on to describe her uncle’s boring and futile obsession:

“[It] was daily life that mattered. Uncle Craig’s files and drawers were full of newspaper clippings, letters, containing descriptions of the weather, an account of a runaway horse, lists of those present at funerals, a great accumulation of the most ordinary facts, which it was his business to get in order. Everything had to go into his history, to make it the whole history of Wawanash County. He could not leave anything out. That was why, when he died, he had only got as far as 1909.”

By the time she matures into a young woman, however, Del has embarked on her own project of salvage historiography, writing a novel that she hopes will capture the people and places in Jubilee before time takes them away from her forever. Toward the end of the novel, she says of her own work:

“It did not occur to me then that one day I would be so greedy for Jubilee. Voracious and misguided as Uncle Craig out at Jenkin’s Bend, writing his History, I would want to write things down. I would try to make lists. A list of all the stores and businesses going up and down the main street and who owned them, a list of family names, names on the tombstones in the Cemetery and any inscriptions underneath… The hope of accuracy we bring to such tasks is crazy, heartbreaking.”

Although it falls into the dubious category of biographical criticism, I cannot follow this change in Del without imagining it to reflect Munro’s own desires in writing this book. Yet regardless of motive, Lives of Girls and Women is a beautiful work, not only for its wonderful tone, setting, and characters, but for the sympathy and patience it requires of readers before it will fully make its pleasure available. At this point, I can only quote Franzen in saying, “Read Munro!” 

Friday 6 July 2012

Short Story: The Warm Comforts of Java

It was ten o’clock already. The exam was only eleven hours away, and his heart was pounding against his sternum like an undisciplined boxer. Words and diagrams spanned the pages of his Economics textbook, but they no longer meant anything. He ran the back of one hand across his greasy forehead, and with the other punched numbers into his fat, graphing calculator. A curved line materialized on the screen, but after a brief glance at it, he shook his head and blinked twice – hard.
Outside his dorm, a group of girls stood in the illuminated courtyard and filled the evening air with talk and laughter. He peered out the window and recognized all of them, especially one slim brunette named Meghan, whom he’d noticed countless times at the campus bar. She was older than him by a year or two, and athletic-looking. Not toned, but firm like a volleyball player. As far as he knew, she didn’t have a boyfriend.
 There was a knock at the door. A guy named Jeremy poked his head into the stale room and sniffed the air. “Hey Pat,” he said. “Derek around?”
“Haven’t seen him,” Pat answered, kneading his eyes. “I think he’s with that little redhead down the hall.”
“Nice.” Jeremy grinned, and paused to admire the Reservoir Dogs poster above Patrick’s bed. “Well if you’ve got the place to yourself, maybe you should have girl over.”
 “Not likely.”
Jeremy checked the pit stains on Patrick’s grey t-shirt and the unwashed stubble on his cheeks. “Not a ladies’ man these days, eh?”
“You could say that.” Pat turned back to his textbook and tapped the page with his pen.
The other followed his eyes and nodded. “Yeah, I should probably do some studying myself – clack.” He opened a fresh can of beer and turned to go, closing the door behind him. Pat shook his head, scratched his jaw, and picked up his phone.
“Hi, Mom.”
“Oh hi Patrick, how’s the studying going?”
“Brutal, Mom. It’s all I do. I don’t even have time to eat. Every day I just get up, study, then go back to bed.”
“Well, you’ve only got a week to go. Just try to push through it, and you’ll feel better in the end knowing you lived up to your potential.”
He covered the phone and sighed. Why couldn’t she, just for once, tell him he was working too hard? He could imagine her back in their family home, standing by the kitchen phone. The smell of a roast beef supper thick in her nostrils. Pat felt his stomach gurgle, and he reached across the desk for an energy bar; but his hand came up with nothing but empty wrappers. A bouquet of hunger-ache bloomed at the back of his skull. He took a long pull from his tepid coffee in hopes of wilting the pain.
“But what more can I do, Mom?” he demanded. “How can I work any harder than I am now?”
“I know things can be discouraging, but you just have to keep pushing forward.”
Was she even listening to him? Did she even know what he was asking for? Tell me to stop working so hard! He wanted to scream. Stop making me feel lazy. “I’m not happy, Mom. I’m completely miserable, and marks aren’t everything, right?” Please God, he thought, let her agree that marks aren’t everything.
Again, she wouldn’t give the answer he wanted. “These feelings are just temporary,” she said. “Exams only last two weeks out of the year, and trust me, you’ll feel a lot worse if you come home this summer knowing you didn’t do your best.” She wouldn’t do it; she would never excuse him from work. She would give him all the there-there’s he could handle, but would never tell him to take it easy, no matter how much he claimed to suffer. Hell, he could’ve told her he was going to kill himself, and she would have probably told him to keep on "pushing forward."
“Mom, I don’t want to care about good marks anymore. They don’t make me feel good when I get them. They just make me feel bad when I don’t. ”
“I understand how you feel right now. But you have to keep your doors open, Patrick. Without good marks, you’ll lose a lot of opportunities, and you might end up one day with a job you really don’t want.”
He set his coffee cup down on the desk, alongside the ten half-empty ones that already cluttered the area. A free hand wandered behind his head, itching to tear his hair out. How am I supposed to live, thinking that way?! What you’re telling me is that good marks don’t make new opportunities. They just keep old ones from closing down. His mom said something, but he couldn’t hear her. Good marks aren’t keys, he realized, just doorstops.
“All right, Mom,” he cut her off. “I’ll talk to you later.”
“Is anything wrong?”
“Nothing, apart from you guilting me into getting high marks, no matter how horrible I feel.”
“I’m not guliting you into anything. Don’t put this on me, Patrick. It’s you who care about strong marks, and I just happen to know that.”
“Then why won’t you tell me to relax? Why won’t you tell me not to work so hard?”
“Because that’s something you need to decide for yourself. If you want to give up, go ahead. But don’t ask me to make you feel good about it.”
“Whatever. I’ve got to get back to the books.”
“Okay, Patrick. I love you.”
“Yup,” he said, and hung up the phone.
There wasn’t a single sign of trouble until he opened his exam booklet. But the moment his pen hit that blue-ruled page, his bowels purred for evacuation. Despite the mild April day, the building’s heaters were still pumping at January levels. Sweat trickled diabolically down his sides and tickled his love handles. Ten minutes into the test, he laid both palms against the desktop and rose from his chair with a delicate clench.
Leaving the gymnasium, however, was not as simple as getting up and going. As was the case with all major exams, there were proctors stationed at every exit, serving as bathroom escorts. Pat lifted his eyes to the nearest door and approached the female proctor who sat there, wearing the blue vest of a geriatric Wal-Mart greeter. She had a novel in her hands, but after noticing his approach, closed the book and stood to open the door. Pat choked when he saw that his appointed bathroom-buddy was Meghan from the campus bar.
He didn’t speak a word as she accompanied him to the bathroom, but moved as quickly as possible, checking his watch every few seconds. Meghan went about her job mechanically on this first trip. But Pat was not back in his exam seat for two minutes before his intestines ordered him to his feet again. By the time he’d made his third trip in twenty minutes, he knew that something was horrifically wrong, and that his sudden incontinence was going to drain a significant amount of his exam-time. Economics was not something you could just vomit onto the page; it required every spare minute. But he knew there was no one but himself to blame. It was his fault for not eating enough real food and drinking too much coffee in the past two weeks. After all, there was only so much warm, brown java you could pour down your throat before it started coming out the same way on the other end.
On the toilet, he stared down at his watch as time itself seemed to bleed out of him. He spoke aloud to himself, trying to calculate how much a B-minus would affect his grade in Economics, along with his overall GPA. Keep pushing, he told himself. You’ve always got to keep pushing. You don’t want to feel guilty tomorrow, do you? For a moment, threads of popping light flashed across his vision. He almost fainted.
When he approached Meghan’s proctoring desk for the fifth time, she met his eyes with a twinge of her chestnut eyebrows. “Everything all right?” she asked, putting her book down once again.
This time, he wasn’t sure if he’d make it to the bathroom in time. “Yup. Ship shape.”
Meghan stuck close to him in the hallway now. As they walked, he shot another glance at the clock on the wall. Beneath it was a sign that read “Academic Wall of Fame,” and he couldn’t help but let his eyes linger on the hundreds of brass nameplates that adorned the area. His hand travelled unconsciously to the sheet of glass that separated him from them.
Meghan walked up behind him and laid a hand on his shoulder. “I’m supposed to make sure you go straight to the bathroom,” she said.
He glanced back at her, then returned his gaze to the wall.
“Gotta go,” she repeated with a tug, “or else I have to tell your professor.”
He straightened and went with her, realizing for the first time that Meghan was almost taller than him. “Do they think we’ve got answers written all over the hallway?” he asked.
“Believe it or not, it’s already happened once this year.”
On his sixth trip to the toilet, Meghan shed her suspicion. By then, she could see the ashy death in his face, and the glinting beads of moisture pouring into his unshaven jowls. Their only communication came when Pat re-emerged from the bathroom, and she offered him an unmistakable look of pity. He tried to meet her with a self-deprecating smile. There was only half-hour left now, and he still had to finish an entire section in his exam, a supply and demand problem that required fully drawn graphs. His hand trembled as he took a pull from his plastic water bottle. You couldn’t make shortcuts with a problem like that. It would take more than forty-five minutes to complete, and there was no getting around it. The churning inside him returned almost instantly, and he felt hot, fat tears in his eyes as he looked toward the front of the gym, where his professor sat. The man was glancing through an exam booklet that someone else had already turned in.
Now there were only twenty minutes left, and all he wanted to do was feel good about himself. But he couldn’t let go. He had to keep pushing – always. His pen scuttled furiously across the paper, emptying his head and expelling every bit of knowledge he had ingested in the past two weeks.
            “Why can’t you relax?” he demanded. “Why can’t you just let go? Just stop what you’re doing and let g—”
 Without warning, a paralyzing shock coursed through him. His body went limp down to his fingers and toes, and he could feel something warm slide between the chair and his bum. He stared ahead, eyes frozen. It was all just a bad dream, and his mind was playing tricks on him. The stress had finally gotten too hard to bear, and he was hallucinating. He couldn’t possibly have… he shifted from cheek to cheek to confirm it. Yup, the load was there alright, and it wasn’t small. 
That was it. He let his head fall back and stared up into the white ceiling lights. The throbbing in his head faded, and the voice of anxiety was gone, dissolved in the insanity of what was happening. The gymnasium had descended into infinite silence.
When he reopened his eyes, the flushing tears were gone. He surveyed the people around him, and glanced down at his booklet as though he no longer knew what it was. His pen lay flat against the desktop.
            “This is stupid,” he said aloud. “I’m going to get something to eat.” He slapped the booklet shut and got up from his chair. Despite the warm squish in his pants, he headed down the row of desks with a decisive step. Others glanced up at him as he passed. When he reached the end of the line, he tossed his booklet onto the professor’s desk.
            The man looked up over the rims of his grey, wire-frame glasses. “How was it?” he asked.
            “Not great.”
            “Well that’s a shame. You’ve done so well up until this point.”
            “I’m not too worried,” Patrick answered with a shrug. “It’s nothing that’ll keep me awake at night.”
            The professor showed concern. But as he opened his mouth to speak, his attention shifted to the queue of twenty other students that had already formed behind Pat. “Well, have a good summer,” he said.
            “Likewise,” Pat answered. He turned to go, hearing someone sniff from behind him.
“Do you smell something?” the professor asked the next student in line.
            Pat marched directly toward Meghan, who was collecting her things from the proctor station. She smiled at his approach.
“That seemed rough,” she said.
            “Yeah,” he answered. “But I’m not going to get all worked up about it.”
            “God, I wish I could be as loose as you after writing an exam. I’ve got one in English Lit tomorrow morning, right here in the gym, and I’m sort of freaking out about it.” She held up her novel – Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf.
            “Well either way, life goes on,” Pat said. The two of them walked through the gymnasium doors. Once they were in the hallway, he pointed toward the hundreds – no, thousands – of names on the Academic Wall of Fame. “You’d never notice any names on there,” he said, “unless it was your own, and you spent a whole morning looking for yourself.”
            Meghan followed his finger and nodded.
            “So would you ever want to hang out sometime before the summer break?” Pat asked.
            She paused, but her eyes drifted back toward his. “Uh – I guess I could go for a cup of coffee.”
            A chill shot through his body. “Coffee hasn’t been great to me lately,” he said, “but how about lunch?”
            “Aren’t you pushing your luck a bit?”
He shrugged.
“Fine, but my parents are picking me up after my exam tomorrow. We’d have to do it now.”
            “Uhh, right now?” The pudding in his pants was now spelunking down the back of his right thigh.
            “Yeah.” Meghan smiled and tilted her head to one side. “But if you need to drop something off, we can stop at your place along the way.”

Tuesday 3 July 2012

Italo Calvino's "If on a Winter's Night a Traveler" and the Pleasure of Reading about the Pleasure of Reading

“You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino's new novel, If on a winter's night a traveler. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade. Best to close the door; the TV is always on in the next room. Tell the others right away, "No, I don't want to watch TV!" Raise your voice--they won't hear you otherwise--"I'm reading! I don't want to be disturbed!" Maybe they haven't heard you, with all that racket; speak louder, yell; "I'm beginning to read Italo Calvino's new novel!" Or if you prefer, don't say anything; just hope they'll leave you alone.”

Italo Calvino’s If On a Winter’s Night A Traveler is, among many things, a polarizing book. Some people love it; some hate it. The former accuse the latter of not properly understanding the book’s merits; the latter accuse the former of being pedantic jerks. And so on…

Structurally, the book is a mixture of genre novel and extreme metanarrative. Put more simply, it is a book about reading books. It opens with the aforementioned lines, “You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade.” When you first read this, you might think that you have stumbled onto a Translator’s Introduction. Yet there is something uncomfortably intimate about the speaker’s tone. It is only after flipping forward a few pages that you realize the book has begun, and that its protagonist is YOU, the reader! Its primary storyline unfolds from a second-person perspective, thus implicating “you” in the plot the way you might find in one of those old “Choose Your Own Adventure” novels. As you continue to read, you discover that a publishing error has ruined your copy of Calvino’s book, and replaced it with the opening chapter of another novel, Outside the Town of Malbork by a fictional author named Tazio Bazakbal. As a reader, you grow irritated, but now that you have become invested in Bazakbal’s story, you no longer care about Calvino and his missing novel. It is now Bazakbal’s book that you want to continue reading, and you set off on a quest to find a full, intact copy of it.

Confused yet?

As the plot unfolds, you enter into a relationship with a mysterious woman named Lumilla, a fellow reader who is also desperate to find a copy of Tazio Bazakbal’s novel. Then you are constantly faced with books that profess to be the ones you wish to read, but all you manage to acquire are the opening chapters of ten different novels of varying style, genre, and subject matter. The overall effect of Calvino’s narrative is to stimulate your desire to the point of ecstasy, breaking off every one of these fictional novels at the very point you most desperately wish to know what happens next. To put it more bluntly, he brings you to the verge of narrative climax, only to withhold it and force you to start anew. Over and over again, your reading of each new story is interrupted, whether it be through the theft of your book, an author’s suicide, or your being arrested. And over and over again, you begin some new story with an incredibly evocative opening:

“The novel begins in a railway station, a locomotive huffs, steam from a piston covers the opening of the chapter, a cloud of smoke hides part of the first paragraph. In the odor of the station there is a passing whiff of station cafĂ© odor. There is someone looking through the befogged class, he opens the glass door of the bar, everything is misty, inside, too, as if seen by nearsighted eyes, or eyes irritated by coal dust. The pages of the book are clouded like the windows of an old train, the cloud of smoke rests on the sentences. It is a rainy evening; the man enters the bar; he unbuttons his damp overcoat; a cloud of steam enfolds him; a whistle dies away along tracks that are glistening with rain, as far as the eye can see.”

It is very difficult to describe Calvino’s book without making the thing sound insufferably erudite and heavy-handed. But I truly believe that the book's primary effect is to remind us of how much pleasure we gain from reading. Calvino treats narrative pleasure like a muscle that exists inside each of us, and then uses his truncated stories to prick that muscle over and over again, causing it to swell until we can’t bear to do anything but read on! For anyone who has ever aspired to write a novel, the book provides additional titillation by only offering the opening chapters of ten different novels, each one more engrossing than the last. What aspiring writer has never written a perfect opening sentence, paragraph, or page of a novel, only to give up once the initial promise and enthusiasm of writing has faded? In If on a Winter’s Night, Italo Calvino traces a path through this impasse, and it is an incredibly pleasurable experience to follow him along it.

In short, Calvino’s book is experimental and sometimes verbose to a fault, but not in the service of any patently intellectual concerns. In fact, his book contains several passages that parody the eccentric academics who might try to impose thematic patterns onto books, thereby endangering the pleasure of being carried along blissfully by a well-told story. As a book about the pleasure of reading books, Calvino's succeeds wonderfully. You might not always enjoy the feeling of being cut off the moment you start enjoying a new novel, but the long-term payoff of this experience is well worth the read. To this end, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler is a book to be enjoyed not only for its own sake, but for the enthusiasm that you will bring to all the stories you read after it.