Escape!

Taken from the Guardian

There should be a sheet suspended from the washing line in front of the safe house: the white all-clear is missing. Probable the sign has been neglected, an enemy would try a false flag to lure you in, but the position could be watched. NEMESIS’ absence has been noted by now, at most you had a five-minute lead before they realized he would never return from the bathroom; no doubt sentinels are prowling the city. Drive on past. One block. Anonymous townhomes pressed together. Scattered lights. Parked cars. No heads. A cobbler. No sign of activity. Two blocks. Shopping corridor. Closed for the night. Empty. Pull in. Circle the lot. Attorney. Dentist. High prole boutique. Optics. Framer. Photo developer. Oriental cuisine, still open for business. Exit left. Double back abruptly, tires shriek out. Quick J-turn. Accelerate hard. Decelerate. Observe. No visible tail. Follow a lonely access road toward airport. Occasional articulated lorries rush past, connected to their cargos with coiled plastics. No passenger cars. No motorbikes. No one follows. Behind, NEMESIS lights another cigarette. Neon red on the horizon. Pull into a motor inn. Courtyard access. En suite bathrooms. Color television. Two motorway exits. Ample parking. Airport shuttle. Check in. Continental breakfast option ticked. Non-smoking rooms, two, to muddle the trail. Nemesis waits in the car. No one must see him. You must act as if they will. Return. Remove contents of ashtray. Unscrew Corps Diplomatiqué plates. Scatter ashes in hotel room. Find estate wagon owned by family. The American make with the inflatable balls, plush animal dolls, and sand pails will suffice. Switch plates. Catch an early commuter bus back to the capital. Stop at train station. Not the Grand Station, but an exurban one, on the outskirts, when the train has already filled. Standing room only. NEMESIS coxed along, tired and complaining, promised a dollop of jam dissolved in his tea (i.e. the way it ought to be.) Ride north to the border. Step off into a seaside town flocked with bargain hunters from the north. A docked fishing trawler waits. Diesel. Liberian registry. Suspicious. Singapore or Grenada is better. Ten thousand dollars currency pressed into a soot-blackened palm. Included in the price: a single knit sweater and two merchant marine certificates. You expect NEMESIS to comment, but he remains mute, gripping the handrail and gazing out at the rolling grey water.

Dominion (draft #1)

Rishikesh

It was horrid and bright to open his eyes. Better to stay enshrouded in ruddy darkness. But other signals were… penetrating too. His gullet came unfastened, pulsing and melting, and a sour bulge of liquid rose and – oh fuck, he sat up too late – popped and disgorged into his cupped hands. This liquid inch he cradled between his palms, it had weight and mass, and the gluey but slippery consistency of watered cornstarch. He considered, as the sweet smell of ketones, sickly and artificial rose, how much like an offering it was with its grains of rice and bilious yellow tint (plus he was bent on his knees in the sand). That smell quickly became a shriek. A nostril twitched. Revulsion clenched him, and he flung it in the pit.

Oh… oh, ugh… please don’t do that. Please. That’s where we eat.

A female and Western someone said that, one of the other rafters, a voice he recognized, the bossy freckled one who paid for her own holiday. He looked at her. She looked at him. She scorched wood in the fire pit and turned it. Sparks twisted loose and rocketed upwards.

Food glued to fingertips felt repulsive. He plunged them in the damp grains before him and yanked them out again. Red and grey filled crannies, nooks and wrinkles, and fell in tiny streams. Shining mica particles tumbled in the threads and winked in the light. Most stayed stuck. Even as he rubbed. A hollow in the sand remained without crumbling.

His freckled interlocutor, with her wide fleshy cheeks, dark eyes, prim little frown and dismayed expression pointed to his hands:

You are disgusting. Why wouldn’t you rinse them… in the river?

He considered the grit on his hands, and the bloated carcass swirling down the rapids.

Their rafting guide lifted his head. He held a pan he was grinding silt against to clean the grease from.

Plus… plus… here is this point, sahib: you may wash your sins away in this river. May I walk you to this bank?

No, no, I can manage. Thank you.

He lifted himself from the sand. Grey poured from his smoke-steeped clothes and tumbled from his poisoned flesh. His insides sloshed and gurgled. He surveyed his domain. Where he lay was a mark. Where he thrashed and rolled there were flat scuffs in the wind-blown undulations, and a long smear leading from where he crawled to the pit.

How easily he could chart his progress. But on the periphery were signs he could not decipher so easily. As fresh as his they were – maybe fresher and certainly crisper – a wobbling trail that circled him twice then led back up the tall slope and disappeared into the woodsy tangle of trees and spiny brush.

He dropped to his knees to look. Ebb tides of sludge sluiced through him and collided.

You gonna barf again? Do it away from the communal area – please.

He did not respond. There was an interior pad about the size and shape of his balled fist – but the ground was punched in far deeper than a boot-print. Radiating out on one side were four nubs as long but much more substantial than a thumb. They were tracks, animal tracks from an animal at least as large as he. He felt someone walk up beside him.

The guide crouched. He studied the tracks. He beckoned a closer look with one hand.

These are small for tiger.

With the other he pressed a palm beside the print to steady himself and measure.

But perfect for leopard.

*

The circuit around the sleeping American was not so far off the leopard’s usual route. Each evening’s prowl had its tripartite purpose: To find food and squirt urine jets – that is to re-inscribe the boundaries of his domain where they abutted against the other leopards’ (and tigers’, and feral cats’ – though he thought of these more as nuisances than peers, indeed the dank smell of their urine and mere thought of their scat piles made his whiskers crumple in disgust) – and if he felt like risking internecine conflict, he might to nudge his boundaries forward and theirs backwards with his jets. But his final task was the one he took the most pleasure in. On his midnight prowls, before he left his own mark he took a moment to sniff deeply and consider the boundary scents of others; to steep in the pheromone tags of his brethren and sift through them hunting for signals, for must, for weakness, for the continued survival of his peppery brood – three cubs, two males, one female, each marking their own little worlds now – whom he knew only from a fierce rut from a splendid ruddy bitch who padded into his domain one lonely afternoon. She was long gone.

(Some would have say there was a fourth purpose too – to patrol his area for danger – but leopards are afraid of nothing.)

He came away with his domain freshly mapped each night. And as he slept through the day, and his body twitched and his whiskers wiggled with dreams, he roamed his lands again and again. Gliding above them sometimes or sometimes plunging in, weaving in and out, plotting escape routes, points of ambush, lines of sight, lines of communication; learning his scoop of land so intuitively it became a part of him, the shape corresponding roughly to the hollow hemisphere of his paw as he spread it swipe.

Some contours within were always the same and always would be the same, unless the river shifted, which it not yet had. The spines of rock that pleased him would stay the same, as would the tributaries feeding the great river below that he could lap from, the general shape of the gorge and the slope down to the riverbank. Those never changed. Other elements were fluid. The sand lining the river. Depth of cover. Colonies of rats. Mud puddles filled with biting fleas, scorches left by lightning strikes. The trails to and from the water sources, romped by every creature – these always existed, but shifted, at the whim of the mass of them. He charted the monkey blinds, those foul tempered, foul tasting things who posted lines of sentinels who screamed alerts as they saw him, and pelted him with shit if he came to close. There were caches of food, kills he hoisted and hid the better to let them linger in their juices before he sank his fangs inside; the meat risked spoiling the longer it hung but the risk of a writhing mouthful of maggots thrilled him too.

But his maps were not just functional. They had their flourishes too. Flat patches of dirt he enjoyed rolling around in as a freshly whelped cub. The shaded copse his mate first prowled into and howled for his seed. The scent marks of ancient leopards he kept alive with his own squirted palimpsests. And finally he plotted the strange encroachments of man. The terrifying black strip they laid that smelled faintly of sun-baked bowel. The swift screaming things that traversed it were somehow associated with them, leaving clouds of flatulence and peculiar flotsam and jetsam in the gullies running along side.

Their most recent arrival was less dramatic yet somehow more beguilingly sinister.

As the great river receded and the grey sands were revealed beneath, a single smoke belching beast would one day lumber down the gentlest part of the slope. Like an elephant it was averse to steepness. (This message was encoded for posterity.) Four men clambered out and built flimsy nests and dug a great burrow they filled with fire.

That night as he made his rounds he chanced upon a mark he never sampled before. A faint trace left on unusual oblong dome that felt as if it had been ground down by man many years before. The scent was barely alive. He placed his nostril close. Some weren’t worth preserving otherwise his nightly rounds would take an eternity. But this one addressed man. In a whisper of soft reeks it spoke of a wounded was stranded on a sandbank during one monsoon. All he had to eat were corpses. And the only corpses that washed ashore were men. They were astringent, sour metallic, and rank all at once. Yet he developed a taste eventually. And when the waters receded he slaughtered hundreds. Then disappeared, leaving his dominion empty.

As the fire died down, he slunk down across the cool, dense, sand. The air was moist and vivid, stirred by the churning of the waters. The nests billowed in the breeze. How easily he could rip one apart but as he approached the perimeter of one his paw snagged on a thin line. Like a massive cobweb. He shrunk back from it, afraid a sentinel would screech the line would stick to his fur but it only twanged. Still he strayed well away. He approached a strange oblong that wasn’t made of stone. He dragged his muzzle against it, taking in a whiff dried river minerals and then a choking sent that made his fur bristle. He was about to leave and return to his route when he found a lone sleeper by the dying fire.

*

Water dried and left crusts of minerals on his skin. His fingers tasted of salt. The sun stung his goose-puckered flesh. The last of the rapids. The river spread out before them and became languorous and slow. Ahead of him in the raft the freckled one took off her helmet. And she turned to him and as she did a beam of light fortuitously ignited her hair, which roared a more crimson shade of copper and as she leaned forward, her blocky lifejacket pulled away from her, revealing a plunging chasm of cleavage, sunburned pink and freckle dusted flesh that disintegrated into shadowed scoops of pure white. She held her helmet in her hands. The straps hung off. Frayed and grayed with sweat. She leaned off the boat and dragged the helmet in the river. She pulled it out again and held it before him. An inch of water drained through the circles of polystyrene – masses made up of millions of bubbles – that pulled and twisted the curled copper hairs she had left behind.

Hold this, will you? She said.

She scooped a long cord of damp red hair over her shoulder revealing a long length of speckled neck. He caught her smell as she took it from him again. Milk and salt and musk, it drew him closer. His muscles ached from rowing but bathed him in a dopey soup of soothing relief.

But for the rush of current against the rubber sidewalls the raft was silent.

A squat stone marker sailed past. The Interlocutor pointed.

Say. Now what is that? She said.

That is one commemoration to the Great White Hunter. The guide said. He pulled his mouth back and shuddered with laughter, revealing blazing enamel and bubblegum pink gum that charred to well-done burger on its periphery. For this man! Panar leopard – he ate 400 men. Very cunning cats! Monsters! They lift the roof, drop in, scoop up baby and snatch her in his jaws!

Why do you say that?

He was very nearly eaten.

Were you very really nearly eaten?

He nodded. Circled and sniffed, he said.

She placed a freckled finger on his wrist. It pleased him.

In The Red Room – Paul Bowles (re-re-reading experiment)

Here’s a link to In the Red Room if you feel like reading along….

First gloss: story of a man escorting his elderly parents around Sri Lanka. His mother meets a strange young man in the botanical gardens, who invites them all (quite forcibly) up to his villa. They spend a few tense moments alone in a peculiar red room before leaving. On the parents’ last day in Sri Lanka the narrator finds out who the young man was, a deranged young man who shot his young bride and her lover in the room and likes to relive the scene. The narrator agonizes over whether to tell the story and decides not to. But he realizes his mother may well have known the whole story all along.

Second read: Markup I marked sections in the beginning, where the young man began speaking — and I started paying particular attention to what he was saying — then I marked the description of the red room itself, which I’d glossed over, the young man’s actions really are weird, he coaxes them out by offering to sell the house and then offers a personally inscribed book of poetry. He becomes pushier and bossier, much more realistic; the sensation of being trapped in someone’s horrid little chamber is much louder on a second read, the climax of the second scene (with Sonny) comes as he returns to the room after leaving them alone for a long time:

Again we sat in silence, Dodd now shielding his eyes from the glare. When Sonny Gonzag returned, he was carrying a glass of water which he drank standing in the doorway. His expression had altered: he now looked preoccupied, and he was breathing heavily.

They hurry out soon after seeing this. They take a frightening walk back through his garden, which seems exponentially more dangerous — and I’m still snaring a little on this part, and then they are removed progressively from the scene; first by an evening, and then by the length of the trip (several weeks) which is when Sonny’s story is revealed. Finally the last scene is the narrator deciding not to tell his sensitive folks (a callback to the beginning) and then realizing his mother had already sussed out Sonny’s story (and had presumably been thinking about it ever since).

As I’m about to embark on a third read, the structure of it becomes really compelling. This is a reported event told in the first person. [ I [My parents’ trip to see me in a strange place [[the strange encounter with Sonny] parents thinking about the strange encounter with Sonny]] – Thinking about mother’s strange reaction to thinking about Sonny]. The title is “In the Red Room.” So this is really intricately structured. If it were Sonny all by himself in the third-person, or even 1st, it would just a re-telling of that weird incident, but by being about the parents reaction, and then his reaction to the parents reaction, it scoops out a sort of mis en abyme, nesting interpretations like Russian dolls.

Third read focuses on the last few pages: I’ll read it from the moment they leave Sonny’s place. Immediately the never-named narrator’s perception of his mother Hannah leaps out. I didn’t realize Sonny had followed them to the gates through the creepy jungle! They don’t mention the experience at dinner. But they parse it the next day (“we felt sufficiently removed”):

I kept waking up in the night and seeing that awful bed, says Hannah. [The narrator says it] was like watching television without the sound. You saw everything, but you didn’t get what was going on. The kid was completely non compos mentis, you could see it a mile away, Dodd declared. Hannah was not listening. It must have been a maid’s room. But why would he take us there? I don’t know; there’s something terribly depressing about the whole thing. It makes me feel a little sick just to think about it. And that bed!

Stop thinking about it, declares the father. And she does (in scene). They don’t return to Colombo. The trip passes by quickly. Strange repetition of the gas metaphor, that’s a powerful one that keeps coming up, the clove tree, the smokey room. Maybe just emphasizes the claustrophobia. “I was thinking of the crimson blazer and the botanical gardens” — is this just a callback? Why does the Indian lawyer immediately complain about the stale air? Penultimate scene follows, the parents reflecting on their trip, and Hannah suddenly figures it out – it was like being shown around a temple — she says and then the hinge of the whole story:

No, I’m serious. That room had a particular meaning for him. It was like a sort of shrine.
I looked at her. She had got to the core without needing the details. I felt that, too, I said. Of course, there’s no way of knowing.
She smiled. Well, what you don’t know won’t hurt you.

The son reflects on her statement and acknowledges that even though her stock phrase (what you don’t know won’t hurt you) seems so patently untrue, for once it was. The story end in scene (leaving the frame unclosed): I nodded my head and said: That’s right. (Giving the mother the last word, or leaving an ambiguity open, reflecting the unknowability that exists between all human beings.) Giving credence to the last interpretation, the mother and father are presumably dead from this distant vantage point.

Read Four, the first few pages: “I had underestimated their resilience, they had made a greater show of adaptability than I thought possible;” “not tempted by the distant or more inaccessible points of interest”… “(Many of the Sinhalese found it strange that I should call my parents by their first names, Dodd and Hannah; several of them inquired if I were actually their son or had been adopted.)”… repetition of the parents need for comfort is repeated over and over. They are fragile, I think is the point, content to observe. Just as they are about to venture into the outer wild (i.e. the botanical gardens) is this graf:

As usual, the events were late in starting. It was the spectators, in any case, who were the focus of interest. The phalanx of women in their shot-silk saris moved Hannah to cries of delight. The races themselves were something of a disappointment. As we left the grounds, Dodd said with satisfaction: It’ll be good to get back to the hotel and relax.

It was the spectators… who were the focus of interest. Okay, here’s something weird, because it puts them in a tourist position and then reflects on what Sonny makes them do, which is observe them observing the room and their growing discomfort. “We’ll look inside and come out again, she promised,” Hannah says of the botanical gardens. And is that what the point is? That experience, witnessed events and the perception of them change people?

Fifth read – taking apart the mechanics : Sonny is so manipulative! Makes them sit down for a beer and then he’s been watching and talking to their driver. Sonny complains about the birds. Mornings they are singing.

We huddled in a short corridor while he opened a door, reached in, and flooded the space inside with blinding light. It was a small room, made to seem still smaller by having given glistening crimson walls and ceiling. Almost all the space was filled by a big bed with a satin coverlet of a slightly darker red. A row of straight-backed chairs stood along one wall. Sit down and be comfy, our host advised us.

We sat, staring at the bed and at the three framed pictures on the wall above its brass-spoked headboard: on the left a girl, in the middle our host, and on the right another young man. The portraits had the imprecision of passport photographs that have been enlarged to many times their original size.

Hannah coughed. She had nothing to say. The room gave off a cloying scent of ancient incense, as in a disused chapel. The feeling of absurdity I got from seeing us sitting there side by side, wedged in between the bed and the wall, was so powerful that it briefly paralyzed my mental processes. For once the young man was being silent; he sat stiffly, looking straight ahead, like someone at the theater.

This is the core of the story, in the red room. Everyone is silent and the young man is stiffly staring. Then the narrator asks if Sonny sleeps on the bed. Sonny leaps up and hurries away, then spends time away. He returns long after, holding a glass of water. Hannah is still expectant! Why? Did she engineer this whole thing? And then the narrator’s perception of the mother. Okay, so the whole thing is about the mother and the son. Specifically the son’s perception of the mother’s perception. And now the parallels between Sonny and the narrators are coming apparent:

[Westin on Sonny} He’s mad as a hatter, but there he is, free to do whatever he feels like. And all he wants now is to get people into that house and show them the room where the great event took place. The more the merrier as far as he’s concerned.

This is such a tight, complicated story… here’s the paragraph about his perception of their perception of the incident although the unpleasant incident in question is really his memory of his parents’ perception of the event, I think:

I myself felt a solid satisfaction at knowing the rest of the story. But being old, they might well brood over it, working it up into an episode so unpleasant in retrospect that it stained the memory of their holiday. I still had not decided whether to tell them or not when I went to their room to take them down to dinner.

He decides not to. But the mother has actually figured out the story. But I still don’t get the ending: Well, what you don’t know won’t hurt you. So is this just about how much Hannah knew in the red room? It’s confounding! Another gloss, this sentence jumps out: “They had no interest in taking photographs, and this spared me what is perhaps the most taxing duty of cicerone: the repeated waits while the ritual between man and machine is observed. They were ideal guests.”

A cicerone is a tour guide. Oh, wait. So glancing through this again I’m seeing the “adopted” sentence again. So there’s some vexing unanswered question between the narrator and his folks. I guess. Red room, womb, seems sort of a weak read… the dad is really castrated, weak and withering in the sun, unable to catch up to his wife, forced to send his son out to protect her from Sonny the Singhalese. Why was Sonny telling their driver the only thing that was going too far? And what one earth does Sonny do when he rushes out of the room. Something gross: Drinking a glass of water… His expression had altered: he now looked preoccupied, and he was breathing heavily.

Sonny was the son of a major official and stayed out of prison for his crime, and existed now as a sort of creepy, threatening presence, coaxing people into his house. And what is a bhikkhu? A Buddhist mendicant showing people around the temple, so there’s a connection back to the narrator calling himself a cicerone. I guess that’s what the story is, the tension between why he brought his parents out, what he wanted them to see, what they did see, what they took away from it versus what he wanted them to take away from the experience… so it’s about tourism on multiple strange levels, and showing people things, and the half-baked reason why and never being able to penetrate into the consciousness of your own family, let alone the motives of some bizarre foreign country.

Takeaways from Second Semester of my MFA

  • After experimenting with a new medium (digital video), I remain convinced that writing conveys character and complexity better than any other I’ve encountered thus far (and I’m including CAVE writing in that). But after watching a couple of television series back-to-back on pirate television stations, I think the best plot-writers are probably working in television these days.
  • Developing a more rigorous reading process – specifically re-reading stories – will be the next big challenge of my writing career. For decades I’ve read like a journalist, sifting swiftly through text to find nuggets of information. But if I’m going to learn how to really draft my own work I have to learn how to slow down and process what I’m reading. I will plunge myself into the great works of short fiction this summer, as recommended by my workshop leader – DH Lawrence, Raymond Carver, Rudyard Kipling, Sommerset Maughm, Paul Bowles, Isaac Babel… am also going to plunder from next semester’s short story seminar whose reading list includes:
    Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy: Great Short Works of Leo Tolstoy; Anton Pavlovich Chekhov: Forty Stories; “Ward No. 6”; Joseph Conrad: Great Short Works of Joseph Conrad; The Shadow-Line; Edith Wharton: Roman Fever and Other Stories; “Bunner Sisters;” Willa Cather: Collected Stories; D. H. Lawrence: The Complete Short Stories; Isaac Bashevis Singer: The Collected Stories; Philip Roth: Nemesis.

  • I will skip the Willa Cather.
  • The “multiple scripts” metaphor (imaging different, conflicting perceptions of a scenario) for writing dialogue.
  • Transcribing while editing video and cutting when things get boring.

    More to come…

  • Jim Shepard on Close Reading

    Suggests a structured process of reading and re-reading. The first read is reading as a human, the second as a writer (marking it up), the third re-read is of the last few pages and the fourth focuses on the beginning. Finally the fifth read will hopefully unravel the work’s internal mechanics: the nerves of the story, the most urgent moments.

    Ugh, re-reading stories…

    Robert Coover

    A History of the Future of Narrative: Robert Coover from Scott Rettberg on Vimeo.

    Robert Coover came to speak with us last week. He’s a writer’s writer for sure, someone who burrows deep into text and wiggles around with it. He lectured on electronic writing, an obscure discipline he’s become an unlikely patron saint of. Unlikely in that he’s fairly old (he hit his stride in the 1960s) and that he’s a writer rather than a computer programmer or other operator. [Print is now a subset of digital literature, says Coover, since all but the print itself is produced digitally.] Coover thinks multimedia and hypertext have yet to mature as media, and made an analogy to American literature. Right now we are in the equivalent of the pre-Revolutionary America, adrift in a new medium, and just like Ben Franklin and Thomas Paine we are all amateurs cranking out our little pamphlets. It took a hundred and fifty years of American publishing to create Moby Dick, and since no one in our program had grown up completely saturated in digital media, we were doomed to flounder in the new medium.

    Coover's CAVE system

    We also got to look at Coover’s CAVE writing work — this is an immersive three-dimensional writing program that lets you have complete control over every aspect of the experience. CAVE writing is really just [x,y,z] coordinates tagged with XML, but it’s a powerful ensemble effect; albeit one beyond the limits of a single human being to create a work (such as novel or symphony) bigger than themselves.

    Reading with emptiness/Entering the protocols

    Joshua Ferris (of And We Came to the End fame) spoke in class yesterday. He described his reading and writing process and it seemed diametrically opposed to my own. Ferris takes an enormous pad and writes little chunks all over, assembling a narrative from the fragments. Just thinking about writing that way made me uncomfortable (which likely means I should try it). The traditional method of writing, according to Ferris, is to build an idea (he called it a platonic ideal) in your head and then try to get it down on paper. I see writing as more of a thread, and as I write I’m trying to build something up from a spool of text. Ferris isn’t much of a world-builder, and admitted as much, saying there was no way he could get away with such an exotic narrator (a plural “I”) without setting his novel in such a familiar setting (i.e. an office). Another takeaway: Ferris talked about his MFA, saying that the only lesson he really took from Irvine was figuring out how to read without imputing his own aesthetic onto other people’s work. I have been struggling with how to read critically but correctly and that seems to be the key. Our professor suggested John Updike’s Rules for Reviewing (which seem to have vanished in its original form, leaving only bloggy traces):

    Review the book, not the reputation. Submit to whatever spell, weak or strong, is being cast. Better to praise and share than blame and ban. The communion between reviewer and his public is based upon the presumption of certain possible joys in reading, and all our discriminations should curve toward that end.

    Submission to the spell… if only it were easy