Fiction: The Desperate Debut

Hawley believed in magic because magic was taking things as they were. Magic was discovering black holes, not harnessing them. It was observing the disparity of wealth, not inflecting it.

He wanted food. Noodles in umami that could be drawn into his mouth without a pause for breath. He left his home and his family, absorbed in a shattering riot of TV color, for the corner.

What was a home? Six unlike bipeds under roof and on camera. This was also a family. When the producers sat Hawley down and asked about his family, he included the producers, anonymously, in his description.

The lead producer had had another life as a regional network executive. Consolidations later, his facade perforated and peeled. He was paid the same as the associate producer, a green media studies major who had just finished her degree. One’s mortgage and child support was the other’s rent and student loans. Each always tried to skimp on their share of the takeout bill.

“But what about your parents?” they asked.

“What about your wife?”

Losing his job, the producer’s face said, had been like being disconnected from 911. He preferred to keep to himself. He never looked in mirrors; he knew he had no heart.

At the corner, traffic signals were against Hawley. And the train came through.

A Grand Am with more rust than trunk roared into view – faulty muffler. It did not stop. The bank’s front windows excused themselves gracelessly.

Bank security drew guns, but too slowly, and succumbed.

Magic. Hawley held this thought, from behind a bench. Magic was when you couldn’t inflect the world.

He was the fifth person to call 911. Immediately after, he called the producers. They were his family too.

The whole household came down to gawk. He joined them at the police barricade. He was intact, but hungry. Family shared a loaf of bread.

In their era, there were no great wanderings or tales of heroic exile. There was only glue. They would keep vigil for as long.

Read-(Still-)in-Progress: Doris Lessing, The Golden Notebook

Now we’re beyond Anna’s days as a young leftist and into her years as a disillusioned leftist whose friend’s son (spoiler) shoots himself. She’s also a moderately successful novelist who can’t finish her obviously autobiographical book. And that’s a problem.

A while back I mentioned that I avoided books about writers, but never followed up on why. So here goes. As usual, all roads lead back to Stephen King. His numerous author-heroes (Jack Torrance in The Shining, Bill Denbrough in It, and two of them in the atrocity that was The Tommyknockers) get a pass because their occupations were incidental; King’s books are mostly about people exploding in showers of pus. But as King drifted away from horror and toward the literary – I’m thinking of the first hundred-odd pages of Bag of Bones – his author-heroes became a problem. Bag of Bones‘s evocation of writer’s block may not have been King’s own neuroses put to page, but as with Jennifer Weiner and her heroine’s and her bad experience in TV, it’s hard not to take it that way.

Look, 2015 isn’t the Dark Ages. Writing is neither scarce nor in need of patronage to exist (the economics of literature are another thing entirely). Not only does this situation radically reduce the value of any individual book, it also makes it nigh-on insufferable to read about the travails of the writing life. I can tap as many words into this laptop as I want and world hunger will still exist, so if I’ve got that big a problem with my hobby I should probably get out of the house every once in a while. Similarly, making a main character’s writing life a main part of the novel is probably a sign that Lessing had too much time on her hands.

The Golden Notebook is still a book to finish, both because Lessing is a Nobel laureate and because the evocation of mid-20th-century British communism is still right in my wheelhouse. But I’m assigning demerits for Anna’s occupation, and I don’t think the book can recover.

The Centennial: March 10, 1915

Load shell. Fire. Burn hand on gun.

Load shell. Fire. Hope ears stop ringing.

Load shell. Fire. Check time. Only five minutes?

Load shell. Fire.

Between shots, Christopher held his fingers apart. Better that his blistered skin touched nothing but what it had to – the gun.

(Transports hadn’t seemed like something Eran would ever learn – but then he learned them. Now, it was like dropping in on a movie theater, running a film Eran had seen a thousand times. He knew the names without asking. The sounds of the trench were like home.)

Christopher kept well away from the 4-5 when it was firing. Last week, the recoil from the breech had broken Charley’s leg. Then again, that meant Charley was back in hospital, probably having a time with the nurses. He could be invalided home. He didn’t have to sleep in the trenches.

Artillery was better than going over the top. Then again, if the line folded, Christopher would be left behind and the Germans would have a clear path to him at his gun.

“They want us to conserve,” Lawrence reminded him. His face was black with smoke, some from the gun, some from his pipe.

“Take a longer breath between?”

Load gun. (Breathe.) Fire.

“Longer than that,” Lawrence insisted.

Load gun. (Breathe.) (Breathe.) Fire.

“See? It’s like clockwork.”

“Was that another one?” Mildred asked.

Eran was there in the Purple Onion. Marveling that Mildred took his story of transports at face value. Wondering what she said about them when he wasn’t around. They were still meeting. He was still assembling a dissertation outline. Outside, it was weather for short sleeves. Winter was over.

“Neuve Chapelle,” Eran said. “It started this week. I guess that was the kickoff bombardment.”

“Did the flashback match up across time zones? Like, is the clock’s now in Minnesota the hundred-years-later equivalent of the clock in Europe?”

“You know, I’ve never tried to figure that out.”

March 10, 1915: The Battle of Neuve Chapelle opens with a bombardment from British artillery. The bombardment lasts thirty-five minutes; in it, according to Martin Gilbert, more shells are fired than were fired in the entire Boer War.

It Made the Shelf: Tayeb Salih, Season of Migration to the North

Given that I liked the first half and it’s a short book, all Season had to do in the back half was stick the landing. It pulls this off in three ways:

  1. Maintaining control of the prose (still don’t know if this is the author or the translator, but it works either way)
  2. Saving the postmortem reveal of the mysterious elder’s crime for the end
  3. Killing lots of people

I’d give slight demerits for the very end. If Victorian serials hew to the marriage plot and Stephen King likes to have small-town folk defeat a great evil, literary fiction has as a default climax the irrelevant personal crisis. It tends to get chatted up on the back-cover blurbs: “Her journey brings her to a turning point that will forever change her.” After filling in the last piece of Mustafa Sa’eed’s story, our hero has one of these. It lasts about two pages and it ends in a Kostya Levin epiphany: Guess I’m not gonna change. Gondor Calls for Aid, and we’re done. A good in medias res ending ought to mean something to the book. This one didn’t need to be longer, but it would have been better if it had had a point.

The Centennial: March 3, 1915

Downstairs, Rosamund was crying. Eran listened for footfalls. Ian or Cam? Ian. His bulk shook the house. Then, through the vent, he heard Ian singing the one song that suited his voice: “I smell sex and candy…” Soon the crying stopped.

The attic was lit with the diffuse light of a Minnesota night on the verge of dawn. It might have snowed, or it might not have. The weathermen hadn’t been able to make up their minds.

Awkwardly, as if he hadn’t done it for fifteen years – which he hadn’t – Eran lifted the comforter and felt around inside his pants.

He was going to need a tissue.

On a damp March evening a hundred years ago, the shy, gangling Bertie, a Kitchener’s Army recruit and possibly underage, left camp for his billet. He felt chilled to the skin, and had a long walk ahead. It was one of those days when everything had gone wrong. Bertie had the new blue trousers for training but one of the musty old red jackets, so that he looked like a jester. In addition, while his schoolmate Peter had a dumpy old relic of an officer who cut their walking drills short because he couldn’t be on his feet for more than ten minutes at a stretch, Bertie suffered under a stern poetic type who sentenced him to clean all the mock cannons for the crime of an inadequate salute. His neck and shoulders ached, and he would have liked to throw himself down on the nearest patch of cold mud. Instead he had to take to the road.

At the cottage, Mrs. Armstrong was waiting for him. She lived alone and took in sewing, but the rumor in camp was that her husband had gone to France, not to serve, but with a woman. She was past thirty, but still young, if angry sometimes. She often stayed up to discharge her billeting duty with a cup of tea. But that evening she was waiting in Bertie’s room.

“Have you been warm enough, these nights?”

Eran remembered, from his dream, Bertie’s vivid flush. It seemed likely that Bertie’s parents had never given him The Talk. Their faces had appeared as if before him – elderly, kindly, nonverbal village folk. Then there was an image of a sunny field, a stallion, and a mare.

“I was just wondering if I could do anything for you.”

Bertie stood stock still. She reached for his hand. And…

Well.

“At least he enjoyed himself,” Eran grumbled. As for himself, he’d be trying to sneak his own laundry through the wash that week.

British mobilization suffered from a lack of resources in the early stages of the war. Officers were called out of retirement to train new recruits using improvised military materials. The recruits themselves often overwhelmed the camps’ housing or shelter supply. Eventually, as a solution, they were billeted in local residences with varying results.

Read-in-Progress: Tayeb Salih, Season of Migration to the North

This is a pathetic Read-in-Progress. Season of Migration to the North is only 169 pages long; I should just “progress” straight to the end. Oh well, whatever, never mind.

The blurb on Goodreads describes Season as “a rich and sensual work of deep honesty and incandescent lyricism.” What’s worse in that statement – the racism or the marketing BS? Help me out! Anyway, while reading I found myself thinking instead of Natsume Soseki’s Kokoro. Both Season and Kokoro feature young university graduates (in settings where a degree seems an uncommon commodity) paired with older, equally educated men whose biographies are slowly revealed. There are violent events and great emotion, recounted in a dispassionate tone. Season‘s prose, at least in Denys Johnson-Davies’s translation, is clean to the bone. And though I haven’t finished Season yet, I’m hoping that the novel’s brevity is a sign of a tight focus maintained until the end.

Salih wrote very little other than this, so there isn’t much for me to follow up on, unfortunately.

The Centennial: February 25, 1915

It was a girl. They named her Rosamund, after the Gone Girl. And with Cam still in the hospital and Ian there most of the time, Eran found other things to do with his time. Like telling Mildred he wanted to quit.

“I’m not surprised,” Mildred said, tipping up her cappuccino. “I’d rather work with Xiaoyu than Stefan, frankly. There’s just not much to him.”

“Wait, so you thought I might leave? Why?”

It was a week when the Twin Cities had trouble staying above 0 degrees for twenty-four hours straight. Only the prospect of March, the literal light at the end of the tunnel, kept people going. People said, as if it were an unfathomable gift: soon it will be forty.

“I mean, you’re here because you have a slightly higher than casual interest in history and you didn’t have other options, right?”

“Right. Whereas you’re here because you have a slightly higher than casual interest in history and you didn’t like the other options.”

“Right. That’s not much of a commitment. Makes sense to leave if the offer doesn’t meet expectations.” Mildred rolled her eyes. “So what else would you do?”

Eran cursed not getting a degree in engineering, or medical laboratory science, or some other field that corresponded to a job. He had vivid memories of reading European social theorists in college, and thinking that his deep thoughts would someday translate into a raise.

“I have the skills employers claim their new hires aren’t learning. Critical thinking, communication, all that. I just don’t have any of the skills they’d actually hire for. I guess generic office work. Kind of like my last job.”

“When are you going to go?”

“I don’t know that I’m decided. The benefit of grad school is that it’s easier to be weird here than anywhere else.”

“Why does that matter to you? You’re not that weird.”

An example presented itself.

“Did you see how my eyes went unfocused? For just a second?”

“Right.”

Why not tell her? If he left, he was probably never going to see her again. “I was on a ship in the Dardanelles. February 1915. Preparations for the Gallipoli campaign. It was cold. The seas had been churning. I was some kind of newbie sailor; I had been doing a lot of puking. But finally the weather had cleared. We had done an initial bombardment of the Turkish forts; it was on pause until the water flattened out, but finally we were heading back into action. We had been firing from sea, but we were planning to actually head into the straits this time. We were trying to target individual Turkish guns, to take them out of commission, and to land some parties on the shore. In the end it wasn’t going to matter, the campaign was still doomed, but I was just a sailor and I didn’t have the authority to tell anyone anything, let alone have them believe me.”

“You mean you had a dream?”

“I mean I had a past-life regression done and now I’m having flashbacks into the lives of people from World War I.’

Mildred looked at him for a long moment. Her cappuccino cooled.

They said, in unison: “That’s pretty weird.”

February 25, 1915: British ships conduct a second bombardment of the Turkish forts in the Dardanelles, in preparation for the Gallipoli campaign.