Monthly Archives: August 2013

Ad absurdum

If Craigslist’s “missed connections” had existed in the day, it might have been the publisher of Baudelaire’s frenzied, desperate poem of transitory urban longing, “To a Woman Passing by.” Today the Atlantic reprinted one of Craigslist’s ads that showed off some kind of similar literary ambition.

I saw you on the Manhattan-bound Brooklyn Q train.

I was wearing a blue-striped t-shirt and a pair of maroon pants. You were wearing a vintage red skirt and a smart white blouse. We both wore glasses. I guess we still do.

You got on at DeKalb and sat across from me and we made eye contact, briefly. I fell in love with you a little bit, in that stupid way where you completely make up a fictional version of the person you’re looking at and fall in love with that person. But still I think there was something there.

Several times we looked at each other and then looked away. I tried to think of something to say to you — maybe pretend I didn’t know where I was going and ask you for directions or say something nice about your boot-shaped earrings, or just say, “Hot day.” It all seemed so stupid.

At one point, I caught you staring at me and you immediately averted your eyes. You pulled a book out of your bag and started reading it — a biography of Lyndon Johnson — but I noticed you never once turned a page.

My stop was Union Square, but at Union Square I decided to stay on, rationalizing that I could just as easily transfer to the 7 at 42nd Street, but then I didn’t get off at 42nd Street either. You must have missed your stop as well, because when we got all the way to the end of the line at Ditmars, we both just sat there in the car, waiting.

I cocked my head at you inquisitively. You shrugged and held up your book as if that was the reason.

Still I said nothing.

We took the train all the way back down — down through Astoria, across the East River, weaving through midtown, from Times Square to Herald Square to Union Square, under SoHo and Chinatown, up across the bridge back into Brooklyn, past Barclays and Prospect Park, past Flatbush and Midwood and Sheepshead Bay, all the way to Coney Island. And when we got to Coney Island, I knew I had to say something.

Still I said nothing.

And so we went back up.

Up and down the Q line, over and over. We caught the rush hour crowds and then saw them thin out again. We watched the sun set over Manhattan as we crossed the East River. I gave myself deadlines: I’ll talk to her before Newkirk; I’ll talk to her before Canal. Still I remained silent.

For months we sat on the train saying nothing to each other. We survived on bags of skittles sold to us by kids raising money for their basketball teams. We must have heard a million mariachi bands, had our faces nearly kicked in by a hundred thousand break dancers. I gave money to the beggars until I ran out of singles. When the train went above ground I’d get text messages and voicemails (“Where are you? What happened? Are you okay?”) until my phone ran out of battery.

I’ll talk to her before daybreak; I’ll talk to her before Tuesday. The longer I waited, the harder it got. What could I possibly say to you now, now that we’ve passed this same station for the hundredth time? Maybe if I could go back to the first time the Q switched over to the local R line for the weekend, I could have said, “Well, this is inconvenient,” but I couldn’t very well say it now, could I? I would kick myself for days after every time you sneezed — why hadn’t I said “Bless You”? That tiny gesture could have been enough to pivot us into a conversation, but here in stupid silence still we sat.

There were nights when we were the only two souls in the car, perhaps even on the whole train, and even then I felt self-conscious about bothering you. She’s reading her book, I thought, she doesn’t want to talk to me. Still, there were moments when I felt a connection. Someone would shout something crazy about Jesus and we’d immediately look at each other to register our reactions. A couple of teenagers would exit, holding hands, and we’d both think: Young Love.

For sixty years, we sat in that car, just barely pretending not to notice each other. I got to know you so well, if only peripherally. I memorized the folds of your body, the contours of your face, the patterns of your breath. I saw you cry once after you’d glanced at a neighbor’s newspaper. I wondered if you were crying about something specific, or just the general passage of time, so unnoticeable until suddenly noticeable. I wanted to comfort you, wrap my arms around you, assure you I knew everything would be fine, but it felt too familiar; I stayed glued to my seat.

One day, in the middle of the afternoon, you stood up as the train pulled into Queensboro Plaza. It was difficult for you, this simple task of standing up, you hadn’t done it in sixty years. Holding onto the rails, you managed to get yourself to the door. You hesitated briefly there, perhaps waiting for me to say something, giving me one last chance to stop you, but rather than spit out a lifetime of suppressed almost-conversations I said nothing, and I watched you slip out between the closing sliding doors.

It took me a few more stops before I realized you were really gone. I kept waiting for you to reenter the subway car, sit down next to me, rest your head on my shoulder. Nothing would be said. Nothing would need to be said.

When the train returned to Queensboro Plaza, I craned my neck as we entered the station. Perhaps you were there, on the platform, still waiting. Perhaps I would see you, smiling and bright, your long gray hair waving in the wind from the oncoming train.

But no, you were gone. And I realized most likely I would never see you again. And I thought about how amazing it is that you can know somebody for sixty years and yet still not really know that person at all.

I stayed on the train until it got to Union Square, at which point I got off and transferred to the L.

“The story needs a good editor and several more drafts,” The Atlantic suggested. True, no doubt. Reading the ad one can’t help wondering, What if? What if the author had spent some more time with the text? What if he’d met the perfect reader? What if — and here’s the missed connection — he’d encountered Julio Cortázar’s “The Southern Thruway”?

Cortázar’s story develops a similar plot as our anonymous author’s, extrapolating ad absurdum from the simple idea of a horribly long traffic jam in order to perform a number of temporal sleights of narrative; the stranded motorists, who have been trying to return to Paris after their summer holidays, find themselves battling not only hunger and thirst, but also colder and colder evenings and eventually snow, while several secondary characters even die off, one of them presumably of old age. Meanwhile, the protagonist gradually develops a bond with the girl in the car next to his, and we learns that she has gotten pregnant before the whole highway camp-out episode suddenly begins to unravel. And here Cortázar performs one of his magic tricks: everything inverts toward the end, when the motorist, so long fixated on his destination, which is ironized proleptically (“Paris was a toilet and two sheets and hot water”), finds himself regretting all that is going to be lost once the network of friends, neighbors and lovers begins to break up, which it does, ineluctably, the cars accelerating, separating, disappearing into the night.

What if? But that’s fiction in a nutshell.



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Summer reading

Midway through his catastrophic second term in office, George W. Bush left Washington for his annual summer retreat in Crawford, Texas. It was August 3, 2006. Air Force One was presumably carrying the books on the president’s summer reading list, which, his press secretary helpfully noted, included two biographies of Abraham Lincoln. The Lincoln volumes were an understandable choice, given Bush’s concern for his legacy and the parallels between the two controversial wartime presidents. More perplexing was the news that leaked out later: Bush had taken time during his vacation to read Albert Camus’ L’Étranger.


Meursault’s alibi

The irony was staggering. Bush, after all, was known as a man of unrivaled verbal infelicity and pinpoint parochialism, openly contemptuous of Europe in general and France in especial. When an American reporter once flaunted his grasp of the French language in Bush’s presence, the commander-in-chief mocked him for being “intercontinental,” a term usually attached to nuclear armaments. How to explain the Texan’s interest in the philosophically-inclined Camus, the existentialist era, and avant-garde narrative? Did the president identify on some level with Camus’ anomic, alienated anti-hero? Did the novel’s plot — “killing an Arab,” in the Cure’s neat synopsis — speak to the president in a special way?

Theories abounded. Whatever the case, Camus’ novel seemed diminished as a result. Singled out by the president, it parted company with its literary peers, even those lumped into the “absurdist” camp, books less amenable to summer entertainment, less of a “quick read.”

A comparison may be instructive. In the following quotes, the first is from Camus’ 1942 novel (in Matthew Ward’s translation); the second is from Beckett’s 1955 Molloy (as translated by Beckett and Patrick Bowles). These are the texts’ opening lines.

Maman died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don’t know. I got a telegram from the home: “Mother deceased. Funeral tomorrow. Faithfully yours.” That doesn’t mean anything. Maybe it was yesterday.

I am in my mother’s room. It’s I who live there now. I don’t know how I got there. Perhaps in an ambulance, certainly a vehicle of some kind. I was helped. I’d never have got there alone. There’s this man who comes every week. Perhaps I got there thanks to him. He says not.



The parallels are striking, but so are the differences. George W. Bush may have been willing to entertain the ambiguities of the Camus, in which the telegram suggests alternative meanings (today? yesterday? — a confusion soon cleared up, moreover), but he would not have been patient for long with the interpretive conundrums raised by Beckett’s novel. Unlike Camus’ Meursault, Molloy is a character who often can’t establish basic facts or fundamental distinctions, such as between male and female, for instance, even when he’s involved in the sexual act itself (stupid? brilliant? — we’ll be forever in the dark). “Don’t be tormenting yourself, Molloy, man or woman, what does it matter?” Throughout Beckett’s story, self-reflection and interpretation veer quite reliably into aporia and undecidability. For all its merits, then, Camus’ novel is “recuperable,” as the nouveaux romanciers used to say, by conventional frames of judgment and understanding. George W. Bush, the “decider,” can stand as the ultimate figure of the leveling force of ideological recuperation. Happily, no US president is ever likely to get through Beckett’s trilogy. This unreadability is a dependable measure of its value.

To be fair, though, Camus’ later novel The Fall is more nuanced, the narrator more deeply complex, and the man’s merciless atheistic self-condemnation would have been far beyond Bush’s powers of apprehension. Tellingly, in its closing pages the French author’s final novel touched a Beckettian chord: “I haven’t finished; I must go on. Continuing is what is hard” (p. 111); “in certain cases, carrying on, merely continuing, is superhuman” (p.114, Justin O’Brien, trans.).

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