I have a friend, no, a good friend, no, a devoted friend who, whenever a month elapses between our get-togethers, he emails me with a date to go walking, the same walk we always take in a beautiful, tourist-laden southern California coastal town beside the Sunset Limited Amtrak and Coaster rail line, ending up, hot and sweaty, our knees aching, at a vegetarian restaurant.
One Sunday he brought a copy of M’s latest short fiction, his favorite author. He’s read the man’s oeuvre. I don’t think he knew that I was too cheap to buy the book since my profession pays me next to nothing (you can guess what it is), and I knew he’d lend me his. But then, what the text presented me with has haunted me more than most literary fiction—the worst (or best): Jude the Obscure—and I need to “open up” as the movie stars are wont to do about their personal lives, to sell more tickets. My reason is to capture the story and its voice, a kind of two-way confession, suggesting that what’s true matters as much as what could be.
First, to what’s true. Between pages 32-33, lining the gutter—the sinking-in midsection where the pages marry the binding—there were crumbs. Crumbs! Seldom have I found crumbs. Hairs, yes. Dandruff, yes. The occasional gnat, yes. Maybe a crumb. But crumbs? Many more than a few. What kind? Toast, I thought. They were small, slightly soiled or charred, ridiculously obvious in the opacity of the book’s white space, dotting its sacred interior, which hides whatever’s there, including the text, when closed.
Maybe, though, not toast. Maybe Grape Nuts, nutty little oat/bran morsels, crushed or mushed in “selected passages” of the book. Which struck me again: Not only had my friend devoured the Grape Nuts as he read, he also may have lingered and munched more attentively as he reread the occasional elegant sentence, the nuggets, consequently, getting more time to stick to the page. But then I had an alternate idea. Not nuggets they were but flecks. I didn’t microscope them for substance-analysis; rather, I read on, now managing my disgust.
The pattern of smushed material (you can call it the evidence) was odd: Not just the gutter of pages 32-33, but pages 56-57, pages 70-71, the eleven pages between pages 78-99, then globs between pages 110-117. (I won’t say which story the latter run involved because that would give too much away, but you can look it up.) More guttural evidence between pages 122-123, pages 146-147, and pages 212-213. That long gap between 146-147 and 212-213 captivated me. The gap implied the tale was either so profluent that my friend stopped munching or, perhaps, skipped it out of boredom.
People who love to read love also to mindlessly eat as it seems to make them more mindful readers. Like me, the habit survives childhood—scouring the daily newspaper, the ball scores, the gossip column, the funnies, slurping up Frosted Flakes or Cap’n Crunch, and untangling tricks and games on the carton back. I (like you) love the Zenish absorption of reading and eating, the No-Mind Emptiness of breakfast these days with CNN.com or, for fun, Fox News.com, which soon fills me with an end-times’ despair so debilitating I beg myself to quit. In essence, the twin acts of bread and text are a sort of breeze-and-bicycle pairing, a parallelogram of sorts. Isn’t this the truth? Books as food for the mind and morsels of (choose-your-own adventure) as food for the body.
When I came upon the first vertical stack, pages 32-33, I held the book up and shook the unstuck iota loose. That mostly worked. But then I expected the crumbs each time I turned the page. I flicked the matter away to home in on the stories themselves of which several, but not all, were philosophically engaging in the ways the characters wandered on and off the stage, like a Tom Stoppard play, their dilemmas meaningful and meaningless at the same time. The characters’ quirks and the unlikely plots of M’s writing were like a surreal commentary on the foreign invaders, added fodder for “deconstructing the text.” I couldn’t believe my luck. Here was a bona fide illustration of what deconstructive theorists had in mind when they reinvented reading a generation ago.
I don’t think nubbins stuck in the gutters in a collection of short fiction would have been significant for those postmodernists and poststructuralists of yore. Their cause had to do with the infinite number of interpretive possibilities every text contains and leaves out. Infinite interpretations. I’m reminded of Camus’s notion in The Myth of Sisyphus that in previous ages people believed that a single idea (nation-state, God, patriarchy) explained the unexplainable but now, he wrote, we have “an infinite number of essences giving a meaning to an infinite number of objects.”
Here it needs to be said that this existential chatter has nothing to do with my friend. He is the sweetest of men, best of pals. In his essence, he’s as strange a chronicler as I am. He has very long, very thin, very gray hair that, carting along the days of his hippie youth, he keeps rubber-banded in a ponytail. Fittingly, he has old legs, varicose veins; they slow his stride. I walk fast and must slow down. But, as I get overagitated from my jabbering, I start hustling along, and he stumbles a bit to catch up. It’s as if he’s moving with a different narrative pace.
He always asks about my work, and he lets me rage on about the sinkholes of whatever piece or book I’m in the middle of writing. What’s more, he gives me his honest assessment after he’s read me. Years ago, he told me after finishing a rather high-minded tale, he didn’t buy its exaggerations. He thought it over-purpled. What? I said. (No writer ever forgets a negative critique, despite its innocent offering.) I realized, however, because his critique was evidenced, thoughtful, and without rancor, I need not defend the work or myself. I listened. Maybe he was right. Maybe I’d convinced myself that when published, print marked my work’s deservedness. And then he said something I treasure: “You know, Tom, how much I admire your essays. But not this one.”
So long as writing requires praise, you will never be who you think you are.
What is a text? I don’t mean a message sent by phone. I mean, as I learned it in grad school, the system of deconstruction, founded by Jacques Derrida, the French/Jewish philosopher of language. A text is an unfinished testament. A work in progress. An attempt. A successful failure. What is a text not? A text is not a prescribed unity. A text is not “a whole.” Which is easily rephrased: A text is unified by its instability. A text is imperfect, although few, I think, before Derrida ever thought a given text was always that. Madame Bovary seems rather flawless to me. Apparently its flaws include Flaubert’s ambivalence toward women trapped in bad marriages for whom the author displays no empathy, only satiric disdain, stripping his heroine, Emma Bovary, of any feminist agency.
Any wholeness in a text’s construction is an illusion because a structure can always be shown to be porous or corruptible just as every government program, delivered to its target, like the homeless or the military, arrives in a leaky bucket. This scaffold of unity gets projected into most texts by readers. It’s not there, though it seems to be, which is one of those unhelpful weasels language loves. To quote J. Hillis Miller: “Deconstruction is not a dismantling of the structure of a text, but a demonstration that it has already dismantled itself.”
I love Miller’s idea. It suggests that contrairement à la stratégie de l’artiste, the text has a mind of its own. As it composes itself, a text “mantles,” or “hinges” itself only to dismantle or unhinge its narrative or thematic or explanatory or hybridized self as it accumulates “meaning” and “failure” and gets to its end. A text is built so it’ll fall apart. But the author does not “create” the failure; rather, she channels it unconsciously as she writes.
In the early aughts, I saw a documentary entitled Derrida, which was completed not long before he died. In it, he gets the follow-him-around treatment, a cameraperson and an off-screen inquisitor pecking at him like doltish pigeons on the sidewalk. The scenes seem random but they’re not. They’re staged, which Derrida himself points out. He’s on his way to a lecture; he’s making toast in his kitchen; he’s drinking wine at a restaurant while companions listen to him absorbedly; he’s touring like Rick Steves his massive, many-roomed home library. “No, I haven’t read all these books, though, I’ve read some very well.” He’s before a class or conference audience, espousing his recursive philosophy, mazy sentences like ouroboroses.
Meanwhile, one of the filmmakers asks questions or reads from his work, a voiceover. These are accompanied by dizzying images, the streaming-back wake water from a boat’s engine or Derrida gazing out the window of a speeding car. Once, he speaks of his mother who recently had a stroke but did not die. After visiting her, he says, “She will never know anything, will never know nothing” of what just happened. It’s a poignant moment—never anything, never nothing. The statement sounds “textual,” to which I’m drawn, syncing person and perplexity. Eventually, mid-doc, he admits he’s not sure what perspective he’d like the film to take. The medium’s artificiality is, well, too artificial. He says he wants “not to naturalize what isn’t natural.” He realizes that his cinematic “comforters” want him to perform, that is, grumble, tell a joke, bristle at their prying, get (not emotional but) confessional, for which he does and doesn’t hesitate. He seems to perform what he’s not saying and then explains what he just didn’t say.
When he says he won’t answer dumb queries, he takes the odd questions apart and answers them anyway. One such example is, what would he like to see covered in a documentary film about Hegel or Heidegger? “If you want a quick answer–their sex lives because they never talk about that.” His answer frustrates him. He says that good answers require long thought (writing’s genius) and that’s not what film does. In short, Derrida is deconstructing his own filmic profile. Which, going a step further, he says is not about him but the filmmakers’ personal choices of what to keep and what to discard.
In an eighty-five-minute movie, the filmmakers like to camera-stare at his silences. During which, we see him, with the silvery white hair and embrowned skin, come back from deep space, though he’s not moved off the couch. Such scenes are tenderly revelatory to me. They capture an arresting aspect of his character. His metamorphic irony. It’s not his talking or the quotations from his books that purloin my interest. It’s the portrayal, typically after he has stretched his verbal legs through a provocative query, and the camera lingers on his distrustful face, the back of his hand resting against his mouth or the flag-flapping of his eyelids. (In such moments I recognize him thinking the same as I do, as any of us does.)
Two things are revealed. One is that he weighs the comeback he gives, as if the matter of his mind is being penetrated and its morsels are in the process of spilling out, forming a line or narrative we can follow. Two is that what we see on his face, that is, what registers on our eyes, seemingly with candor and without disguise, as he thinks through his response, is impenetrable. And it’s this impenetrability that haunts me—how others read what we read similarly and differently, how their anxiety falls onto the page (as crumbs, real or imaginary) about what’s there and what isn’t there in the text, and how lucky I’ve been, thanks to Derrida, to scoop up evidence that may confirm something I never expected would be there, which is there as well.
A month on, I met my M-loving buddy for our Sunday walk and returned his book. He didn’t ask for my opinion of the stories; maybe he was ashamed, realizing in the interim, that what he’d given me to read was so freckled with the remains of his munching, he was mortified to have his messiness uncovered.
So, I offered, “M is a trip, isn’t he? His stories happen in a surreal world, which abuts the real world. He pushes this world into the fantastic or the unlikely. There’s an otherness to it, as though to confound. He wants us to choose where we think we live.”
“It’s true of his novels,” my friend said, his voice a bit hoarse as if it hadn’t been used recently. “And it’s typical of his stories. But I didn’t finish them.”
“I only barely got started,” he said and coughed twice, clearing some phlegm out. “I read just a couple. My wife asked what I was reading, and I said M’s new book of stories, and she said she wanted to read it. Like right then. She demanded, so I gave in. She read them quickly. They were delightful, she said. Not great, but good. Very good.”
I was in a double-bind. On the one hand, I wasn’t going to say anything about the gutter matter. I had rid the book of its testimony; when he opened it, there’d be nothing left. Had I not cleaned the scene, he might have decided I was the filthy eater-reader. But only if he wasn’t—more mystery. Perhaps, forgetting his own clutter, he’d say I had desecrated his book, though that would be unlike him. I don’t want him to be blamed for something he didn’t do. He might never lend me a book again, a shame, because we share a passion for literature. And then I wouldn’t lend him a book either; I didn’t want mouse turds to stain my books. And yet, I need to remember, it is just a damned book.
I said, “Sounds as though she likes M’s stories a lot.” Sunday morning, around eleven, and we were passing the Church of Spirituality, which advertised on its little notice board a service called, “Healing Yourself Without God in Seven Easy Steps.” The place was shuttered, the doors were padlocked, and there was parking right out front.
“Yes, she likes M. Do you know how I can tell?”
“I’ve told you before, she has a skin disease. She . . . what’s the word”—his memory failed him, so I supplied the word: “exfoliates?”
“Bingo!” he said.
Now, I remembered. It’s a rare genetic condition, “peeling skin syndrome.” (I looked it up yesterday.) The genes fail to encode a protein that bonds cell-to-cell adhesion points, in effect, causing areas of the skin, hands, feet, neck, arms, and more, to lose their structure, to separate, to flake or peel, to fall off, the skin constantly repairing itself, the exposed dermis replacing the epidermis and becoming, conveniently, the new epidermis, the next skin to shed. I wondered how many iterations of her there were.
“I can tell when she’s absorbed in a book or a TV show,” he went on. “She begins picking at her feet, picking at the skin. It’s not painful. But it is obsessive. The skin starts to flake, and she plays with bits like this,” and he rubbed an invisible glob between thumb and forefinger, “into a little ball. And the ball gets smaller the more she massages it. I used to bitch and moan about it. But I stopped because one day I said if she didn’t stop, I’d leave.”
“Really, you’d leave, because of that?”
“I couldn’t stand it. I was going crazy. But you know what she said?”
I had no clue.
“‘Go on. Leave.’ There were things she wouldn’t change, so I needed to get in line or else. Was it worth me going to the wall for?”
“I don’t know. Her disgusting habit, which she can’t stop, and which gives her a perverse pleasure. In my mind. I deal with it, or I leave. At least, I know the parameters.”
My friend was saying both what he was saying and something else. Her habit is no different from any private, potentially repulsive routine we all possess—catalepsy, it’s called—waking up our partner with a screaming nightmare, for instance. No one really knows how to live with another or, for that matter, what to make of a half-surreal story.
“You know how I can also tell she likes a book?” His throat cleared, his voice was as clear as a bell like talk radio. “I’ve told you before—because of her condition—I’m the caregiver in the house, cook and chief bottle-washer. After days of her shedding, I tidy up with the hand-held vacuum. There on the leather sofa where she’s been with the book or bingeing CNN all day are the remnants of her reading or idling, speckled like beach sand. She goes to bed, knowing I’ll clean it up, if not right away, then the next morning. And I do. Which is why I can’t leave.”
We were now far from the allure of M’s fiction. Or we had crossed over and entered one of his delightfully ambiguous stories, picking at it, peeling back its layers, until literature seemed as important as life, which sounds right, but I wish I were more certain that was the case. And then, steps away from our vegetarian breakfast, wanting to be less of a fault-finder myself, I thought of my friend’s wife—I imagined her reading Jude the Obscure, and her horror at the tragic fate of a father whose child murders his siblings and hangs himself because of his dad’s despair—the prose intensifying her picking and peeling, her balling the flecks, wanting to turn away from the tale but macabrely unable to, exemplifying the cornered nervousness the best literature traps us in, the flaying it does to our emotions, the kind of writing you think is flawless, perhaps, irremediably good, so good, in fact, that you wouldn’t change a thing, not one word, which in this moment, for her, is so enthralling and unstoppable that finally, closing the book, indelibly changed, she stands and holds the book up and dumps the gutter matter from her lap onto the floor where my friend, as good as he is devoted, is already loudly nozzling up her errant flesh and reminding himself of his fate: Here I am sweeping up what she’s left, her daily exfoliation, and here I am preparing for her next incarnation, a new woman slowly coming into being before my eyes. I’ve made my bed. This is how I’m going to last with her. I’m OK with it. It doesn’t matter whether I’m happy or not. I’ve chosen. I’m in for the long haul. There’s no turning back. There’s no other life I could have led. Not anymore. There’s only the next embodiment of her, the woman I have pledged myself to, though as whom I have no idea she will be.