Fyodor Comes to Breakfast

The first thing Elmer Fiddle saw when he woke on his couch one morning at first light was a shabbily dressed man with greasy black hair and an unkempt beard streaked with gray sitting at his dining table. The thin light, his drowsiness, and his not recollecting what happened the night before did not make this seem incongruous. The man was reading the manuscript for Elmer’s novel, which always lay on the dining table.

“Hello, who are you?” Elmer asked.

“I’m Fyodor Dostoevsky,” the man replied.

“What are you doing here?”

“I’m reading your manuscript. I’ve been waiting for you to wake so I can talk to you about it.”

Elmer’s eyes began to focus in the dim light. Fyodor seemed to be a figure in a black and white photograph. When Elmer looked past him and out the window at the city, the city too seemed to be an object filmed in black and white.

“This is the worst novel I have ever read,” Fyodor said.

“It’s only a first draft and I wrote it in kind of a rush.”

“I know all about that.”

“Would you like some coffee and breakfast?”

“I’m starved. Make breakfast and then we can discuss your book. You need lots of help.”

Elmer busied himself in the kitchen making coffee, bacon, eggs, and toast, and pouring orange juice. He delivered the breakfast to the dining table. Fyodor ate ravenously. They ate in silence. Heavy dark clouds prevented the sun from brightening the sky and city. However, as the sun rose, Fyodor faded to lighter shades of black and gray.

They smoked cigarettes and drank coffee after they finished eating.

“You know, it helps to be a mad genius when you write one of these things,” Fyodor said.

“I’m not a genius and I don’t want to be mad even though it sometimes feels I am mad when I work on it.”

Fyodor laid his hand upon the manuscript sitting by his plate. The ash of his cigarette missed the ashtray when he flicked it.

“In that case, it will take you a long time to make this mush a novel. It could take years.”

“How many years? That is, if I work hard on it each day.”

“You can never tell. Sometimes, it takes decades.”

The black and white photograph that was the city began to fill with dull colors. Fyodor continued to fade into the morning light.

“What shall I do? I don’t have decades. I don’t even have several more years.”

“You could accept the fact that you are neither mad, nor a genius, nor most likely a writer.”

“I’ve tried that several times, but some voice keeps urging me on.”

“Then you are mad,” Fyodor said before completely fading into the early morning light.

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Published in: on February 28, 2005 at 1:18 pm  Comments (1)  

Grammar

I finished reading Haruki Murakami’s Kafka by the Shore and Alice Flaherty’s The Midnight Disease last night, snapped off the light by the easy chair, and sat in the dark thinking about writing until I dozed off. Flaherty’s book about the neurological and psychological basis for hypergraphia and writing in general fit nicely with my preoccupation with writing the past two months. Murakami’s novel, his usual blend of the metaphysical, magical, and modern, fit well with my belief that a fiction writer can interest anyone in anything if she has mastered the right or correct fictional technique and grammar. But what is the right fictional grammar? Does such a thing exist?

Early yesterday morning, while I was drinking my coffee and reading some blogs, I tried to formulate a new very short story. An idea came to me. I won’t say what it was, for to say it before I have written it is to lose it. All day long as I traversed part of the city, I worked on the story. When I returned home, I found that working on a short story while trying to accomplish other things had exhausted me. The correct fictional grammar eluded me. I picked up my books for a good night’s reading.

The questions about fictional grammar remain with me this morning.

Fictional grammar first came to me while I was drinking Budweiser at my local bar two Friday’s ago, trying to discover an idea for a short story. I sat catatonically in the noisy and crowded bar among acquaintances busy talking away. One person happened to remark that I was not saying much. By the time he said it, I had drunk a lot of beer and my silence was my gift to the world. In my inebriated state I arrived at the conclusion that there must be a correct fictional grammar for each story. Not only that, there must be a method for producing it, a sort of computer program one could run in the mind to produce the correct result. The program could replace waiting around for the Muse to arrive.

Anyway, I still have this idea for a very short story I thought about yesterday, but have not discovered its grammar.

I read a posting on a blog last night that discussed politics and religion and their relationship via some historical events. I found its argument fuzzy and confused and the evidence for its major claim contrary to the point the blogger was trying to make. The article was written well enough though. I would never have spent the time arriving at conclusions about it if it had not been. Blogs, even the most popular and best of them, have an element of hypergraphia associated with them. If they are to remain popular, there is also an element of “publish or perish” to them. The arguments that arise between bloggers and mainstream media editors and columnists about the importance of blogging seem odd given the same elements are associated with newspaper Oped columns as with blogs.

Articles produced and published under pressure, no matter where published, have a different sort of grammar than the well wrought essay or fiction, or a relaxation of the correct grammar. We forgive them for that, for we often want to talk, hear the buzz, and let someone else critic our thoughts and writing without going to the trouble of doing it ourselves. The trick is not deluding ourselves about what mode we are in when we write these things.

Published in: on February 27, 2005 at 10:46 am  Leave a Comment  

Fyodor and Katie

A couple of weeks ago, Katie, a waitress at my local bar, approached me.

“You read a lot of books. Have you read Crime and Punishment?” she said.

“I’ve read it a couple of times.”

“May I borrow the book if you still have it?”

“Of course, I’ll bring it tomorrow.”

I gave her the book the next day.

“I’ll have it back to you in a couple of days,” she said.

“Take as long as you like.”

I saw Katie the following week at the bar.

“How’s the book going?” I said.

“I read the first page and started crying. I have not picked it up since.”

“Don’t hurt yourself. You are supposed to derive some enjoyment or pleasure from it even though it does portray some disturbing and unpleasant things.”

I did not bother to ask her exactly what made her cry after the first page. This weekend I have become curious about it. Not having the book, I went to Gutenberg.org to read the first couple of pages of the Constance Garnett translation. The opening lines are disturbing, but they are not lines to make me cry.

It has me thinking about the power Dostoevsky has had over me since I first started reading him. He has always excessively excited and confused me. I first read Dostoevsky when I took a literature class on his works in college. We read The Double, Notes from Underground, The Idiot, The Possessed, Crime and Punishment, and The Brothers Karamazov during the semester. I loved reading him and enjoyed the course, but I recall the agitation accompanying it. He made me wrestle with politics, religion, philosophy, poverty, redemption, alcoholism, family strife, and mental disease in a way no other writer had.

I reread some of his books over the past thirty plus years. My emotional reaction to his writing remained the same. It’s like his temporal lobe epilepsy translated itself to my mind from his writing. I don’t mind. I want fiction to move my emotions. Loss and coping matter to me.

I was sitting at the bar one day when Katie was working. She was talking about her current boyfriend, who is a student and poor. She remarked he often does not have enough money to take the bus to see her. She was planning on dumping him, not because he was poor, but because he didn’t seem to care. I think it hurt her to say it.

Raskolnikov was a poor student. Dostoevsky explains in the opening pages of Crime and Punishment the squalor in which he lived. I wonder if that is what made her cry.

I guess I’ll have to ask her. I need to know.

Published in: on February 26, 2005 at 10:28 pm  Comments (1)  

The Library

When Jarred Flynn moved from Chicago to Galveston, he lost his library. The moving company did not deliver his books. He immediately called the moving company.

Marie Haversmith, a customer service representative, answered his call.

“Don’t worry, Mr. Flynn. Your books were merely misplaced while in transit. We recover almost all missing goods and deliver them to you right away.”

Jarred set about unpacking and putting his new house in order. The house was made of cinder block and his study looked out onto the Gulf of Mexico. The floors of all the rooms were covered in linoleum tile. It felt a little like a barracks, but it could well withstand tropical storms. Jarred threw the boxes of manuscripts containing his writing into the study closet, setup his desk and laptop computer, and put up his bookshelves in the study. He contented himself with reading “The New Joy of Cooking”, he had packed it with the pots and pans, and Montaigne’s “Essays”, he had taken it along for the drive to Galveston.

After a week, Jarred still had not heard from the moving company. He called Ms. Haversham.

“Mr. Flynn, I am sorry to tell you your books are lost.”

“I know they’re lost, but when will I get them back?”

“We have exhausted our resources trying to find them. We suggest you claim them on your insurance. Sometimes, when goods have been shipped to the wrong address, the receiving customer informs us of the error, but that has not happened.”

Jarred was at the point of shouting a string of obscenities into the phone.

“OK, thank you, for your help.”

Jarred had insured part of his library, but nothing near what it would take to replace the whole thing. He had acquired books for over forty years and they were not catalogued. He had no idea what it would take to replace books such as the twenty-five cent James Bond novels he first read while in high school.

He fell into a depression similar to the ones felt when losing a close family member or lover. He would sit for hours on his patio and watch the waves roll onto the beach. He remained unconsoled. He could not bring himself to buy a single book, so he contented himself with reading articles and books on the Internet. He found it difficult to read this way, for after a spell of reading, his mood darkened when he thought about once owning the book he was reading in electronic form.

He wrote a lot. Manuscript pages piled up beside his desk, but he did not have the energy or desire to edit them into something publishable. He eventually located a small bar nearby his house and began spending a few hours each afternoon there when it was mostly deserted.

He met Joan at the bar. She lived close by and liked to stop at the bar for a couple of cocktails every now and then. Joan read a lot of books. It gave them a lot to talk about. He told her the story of his lost library.

Jarred was physically attracted to Joan. One night, they lingered at the bar longer than the usual. Jarred invited her home, an invitation Joan accepted.

The next morning Jarred made breakfast while Joan sat at the kitchen table drinking coffee.

“All those empty bookshelves must haunt you?”

“Yes, I suppose you are right.”

“Why don’t you start to fill some of them again?”

“I have not had the heart to go near a bookstore since it happened.”

“I suppose it is like driving by a nursery after one has lost a young child.”

“Yes, something like that.”

Jarred and Joan fell in love. One day, they went to an antiques store just to browse. The store had a small collection of books. Jarred looked through its meager contents. He spotted “The Collected Dialogues” of Plato on the bookshelf. He took it in hand. He opened it, riffled through the pages, and checked the condition of its stitching and spine. The book was in pristine condition as if he was the first person ever to have opened the book. He did not notice Joan approach him.

“Feels good doesn’t it?” she said.

“I used to own this book. I used it for many classes I took in Chicago. God, I loved this book.”

Joan took the book from him. She walked to the counter and bought it. Jarred stood there watching her until she returned.

“There, the start of your new library.”

They returned to Jarred’s house. He placed the book next to Montaigne’s “Essays” on the bookshelf. After they made love that night and Joan had fallen asleep, Jarred went to the patio to listen to the sea and the night.

Joan would never marry him. She wanted her independence. In fact, one day she might well desert him if only because that is the way things seemed to happen in his life.

His library was like that.

Published in: on February 23, 2005 at 11:44 am  Comments (1)  

Mr. Hunter S. Thompson

When I woke this morning and logged into the Internet, the first piece of news to greet me was that Hunter S. Thompson had committed suicide. I decided the first thing I, a person who admired his work immensely, should do was to write a little something.

I read “Hell’s Angels” in the Sixties when I was in high school. Many movies about biker gangs played at the drive-in theaters then. Hunter’s book was entirely different than the movies. The book appealed to me, an outsider at a large Midwestern high school. Hunter S. Thompson confirmed my suspicion there was something more out there than what I had experienced.

I read “Fear Loathing on the Campaign Trail” when I was in college in the early Seventies. Mr. Thompson once again confirmed the world was not the way I pictured it. Then I read “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” several times, the last time just last summer. The book was as refreshing as ever, a testament to exuberant talent.

What more can we ask of a writer than his writing live with us from adolescence to old age, always shock us into new ways of viewing the world, delight us with its uniqueness, and give us a place to return when the world seems too much?

Published in: on February 21, 2005 at 11:39 am  Leave a Comment  

Three Writers and a Chimera

I went to my local bar Friday night. I drank beer with a number of the regulars who gather there after work. I’d been writing all day and I could not disengage my mind from my writing. After a few beers, while listening to the hum of voices around me, an idea for a short story came to me. I spent the weekend trying to write that story, not making any progress on it, even though its target length is only 500 words.

That’s the way it goes sometimes. The plot, emotion, and detail for a story shine vividly through its images, but the words and the sentences don’t come out right.

Since the beginning of the year, I have read Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley, most the new Haruki Murakami novel, Kafka by the Shore, and a many of William Trevor’s short stories. I wonder if I am trying to write a 500 word short story that is stylistically a combination of all three writers? I might be chasing a chimera.

Put it on my tombstone: he chased chimeras.

Published in: on February 20, 2005 at 7:14 pm  Comments (1)  

Artichokes

Billy Miller sat in the easy chair of his library reading the latest addition to his book collection, Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami. His library was really all of the small apartment he lived in. The sky was low and obscured the taller buildings in the neighborhood. A light mist fell from the low clouds, yet the temperature was mild for February.

Billy had been ill for over a week with a respiratory cold. He had not slept long or well in over a week except for last night when his body, finally overcome by complete exhaustion, gave way to a deep and dreamless sleep early on Sunday morning. Sleep instead of refreshing him made his body thirst for more. He felt it as a mental and spiritual exhaustion as much as a physical need.

He was bewitched by the fantastic world created by Murakami. The first duty of a novelist is to suspend the belief of the reader and immerse the reader in a dream world. The novel and the short story were perfect forms for doing this. The novel as a form of imagining and entertaining will not die Billy thought. There would always be many people who desired to have their imaginations jogged and set into motion.

Billy thought himself a fortunate man as he looked down at the people scurrying along the street beneath their umbrellas. He owned a nice library for reading. A library that marked him as a person who possessed a naïve erudition and intellectual curiosity. He often wondered if he had lived a silly and meaningless life because of this. He had spent a lot of hours reading books and what was the good in that if it was just words that went into his mind and then lay frozen and inert never acting or reacting against the world outside his mind? This question came to him all too often, but he always gave up trying to answer it. Books were a love, a mania, and obsession he acquired when he first learned to read. Breaking the habit of a lifetime was beyond the weakness of his will.

Billy thought of the London broil steak in his refrigerator he would eat this evening and the artichoke hearts which would accompany the steak. He grew thirsty for a glass of orange juice. Odd memories flitted across his mind, failed love affairs mostly, for what failure could be more catastrophic and sad than a failed love? He supposed that was the worst that could happen to a person if they possessed the other necessities of life: food, shelter, clothing, education, friends, and a position in society.

Billy had the basics. Books and a computer and printer with which to write the odd reflection or thought. He wanted for imagination and a grasp of the details of reality, but that was no handicap. Imagination and a grasp of details were not highly prized in the mundane world. People would often say they were, but mostly people were preoccupied with making do for themselves and their families. Today, making do was the steak and the artichokes and overcoming the sadness caused by memory.

Published in: on February 13, 2005 at 2:19 pm  Comments (1)  

Bittersweet

It was a road he’d driven long ago,

Bitter like tea,

Except for the sugar of memory

Which made it bittersweet.

Published in: on February 8, 2005 at 11:26 pm  Comments (1)