| THE LAST GREAT AMERICAN SCI-FI / FANTASY NOVEL
I sit in the solitude of my prison cell and brood upon the ironies of
fate. Had I not repented of my first, despicable deed (the forgery of
a painting that now hangs in the Chandrigarh Museum) I'd never
have felt compelled to commit a second, wholly honorable crime
(the spectacular though unsuccessful attempt to remove that
fraudulent work under cover of darkness). Were I purely evil I'd be
rich, simply good and I'd at least be free. As it is I'm misunderstood,
ambivalent and incarcerated.
Also a little fuzzy in the head. Having but recently awakened from a
vast and dreamless dark, I cannot say for how long I have
languished in captivity, nor imagine what lies beyond the damp and
crumbling walls of my confinement. My dilemma is like that of
those blind, giant worms that swim in the oceans of Europa,
Jupiter's moon, who must wonder in futility about the nature of the
universe outside the icy borders of their world (that is, if indeed
they exist, as some scientists speculate, and are possessed of
intelligence and reason).
In the midst of these ruminations, suddenly and out of nowhere,
Skinny the Elephant appears.
Is this a sign that I've become unhinged? An incursion to our
quotidian world of a being from some higher dimension? A reuss
by my college chums who bribed the guards and squeezed into an
I venture to speak.
"So Boethius gets Sophia and I get you?"
Skinny the Elephant responds with a silent gaze.
Ancius Manlius Severinus Boethius was a philosopher from late
Antiquity, like me, unjustly accused and unfairly imprisoned. During
his incarceration he wrote The Consolation of Philosophy wherein
he relates his vision of a radiant woman who instructs the prisoner
on the transience of fame and fortune, and on the value of virtuous
deeds. The book was much read and highly influential during the
Middle Ages, though Boethius himself was tortured with ingenious
cruelty and died far from family and friends.
Now you don't have to be Sigmund Freud to figure out why a man
in such a plight would hallucinate a lady, wise and beautiful. Nor
need you be Slavoj Zizeck to understand why I should find myself in
the presence of a female elephant, mute, implacable and staring -
that is, once I explain that I had been drawn to India some months
earlier as a critic and painter, specializing in abstract art. My recent
work had focused on the influence on modern painting of primitive
art, the art of children, and animal art. I had seen the lovely
squiggles purportedly executed with enthusiasm and intent by
certain celebrity elephants, but I needed to verify the authenticity of
such work first-hand.
So it was that I met a number of those large and gentle creatures,
and discovered (as you might have guessed) the slick deception by
which, paintbrush in trunk, they were enticed to follow the
promptings of their hidden masters, who whispered promises of
popcorn in their ears.
Disillusioned and dismayed, I was preparing to return home when,
suddenly, I conceived the idea of creating some elephant art of my
own. At first I justified this plan by assuring myself that, once my
work achieved acclaim, I would reveal the hoax and proceed to
expose the larger fiasco behind this lucrative and burgeoning
industry. But arrogance can be kindled in the exercise of creative
power, and in the end I was loathe to reveal my scheme, content
with my cleverness at having pulled one over on the art
community. Also pleased to collect a pretty penny on behalf of a
slim and diffident young beast I befriended, one Skinny the
But guilt and remorse, begotten of her silent stare, her helpless
innocence, got the better of me, and late one night, dressed in a
black ninja outfit, I slipped through the gates of the sleeping
museum, intending to remove the blemish of my pseudo-art. I
tripped an alarm, banged my head on a pole, and awoke in this
room, detained without trial, uncertain of the charges against me.
From fraud to heist, from frying pan to fire. How bogus fame begets
regrets! How hubris will be humbled! I close my eyes, breathe
deeply, then open them. Skinny the Elephant is gone. I sit alone in
my prison cell, contemplating the ironies of fate.
It will be apparent by now that the tale being told has been given a
misleading title, unrelated as it is to the events so far described. I
freely admit to this shameless ploy, whereby I promise something
quite different from what I can deliver.
For (to consider each word of the title in reverse order) this is no
novel in the accepted sense of the term, but an interior monologue
(one in which the seemingly free association of ideas masks an
intricate weave, as you'll see).
As for science-fiction, while that's a genre I adore, I lack the
technical know-how to write convincingly about space travel or
alien environments. (Though at least I managed that bit about the
giant worms of Europa - did I mention there's a molten core that
warms the sea beneath the frozen surface?)
I also love America, or at least the principles of democracy, and the
freedom to work in the peace I've found there, though I'm probably
not what you'd call patriotic in the conventional sense, having as I
do an antipathy to fervent nationalism and any other type of
worship that discourages critical thinking. In any case there isn't
much of a regional feel to my style, and the story takes place (so
far) in an Indian prison.
Is it great, this story? I don't mean great like Don Quixote or Moby
Dick - heaven forbid! But is it great like the books of Victor
Appleton ll (whose Adventures of Tom Swift Jr. brightened my
youth) or like those of Boris Pasternak - sometimes spelled
Pasternek - whose Doctor Zhivago made a splash back in the
1960's? When I was ten years old I filled a page of manuscript
paper with notes, called it an opera, and stuffed it into the radiator
in my bedroom, along with a letter bequeathing the contents to a
future generation which, I hoped, would recognize posthumously
my talent, and sing my praises the louder for having let me die
unknown. Forty years later I began to place my life's work on a
website that provides universal access while safeguarding my
anonymity, allowing me, as I put it, to work "unencumbered by
encouragement and criticism alike." Which would suggest I've risen
above the silly concerns of childhood. But at the (not very secret)
bottom of my (not very deep) being I dream of vindication from
years of neglect: a night when I appear on the PBS newshour, the
next morning when the guy in the candy store recognizes my face...
Is it great? it seems I want to know.
And last? Well maybe this word does fit, considering the Death of
the Author, rumours of which began late in the previous century.
He perished - let's be clear - not from illness, nor from lack of
attention, but in all probability because he became convinced he
really didn't exist. And anyway it's impossible to say something
new: all the stories have been told. And so, having begun this tale,
I pause and consider: how shall I go on?
Startled by the sound of a familiar voice, I look up. Outside the
barred window on the door of my prison cell, Suzy is standing on
her toes, squeezing as much as she can of her sweet, sad face into
my little room.
Softly, yet with urgency, she repeats, "Peter!"
And instantly I realize that I've died, that in the desperation of love
she has found me here, and that the story I began, whose end I
couldn't imagine, was but a dream whose purpose I would need to
ponder. But at the moment...
"Never mind how, or how long," she replies, even as her face
makes clear she's been searching for aeons through myriad
worlds. You'll note how she threw in that bit about " how long" -
though I didn't ask - in order to draw attention to precisely the thing
she asks me never to mind. No matter: overwhelmed with
gratitude, I leap up and approach the prison bars, delighted to find
my dismal life reflected so brightly in her generous gaze.
Our faces meet; our fingers find one another's.
"Can you get me out of here?"
"I think so."
"But...there's no place to go."
"You mean this jail is guarded? Don't worry: I'll James Bond us out
Have you noticed that in dire circumstances we sometimes act and
speak in ways that are completely uncharacteristic of our usual
selves? As in my reference to James Bond, whose antics I deplore,
and whose name I would never think to employ as a verb.
"You don't understand," Sue persists. "There is no jail, just this cell
and the hallway I’m standing in. Beyond that is...nothing."
"Nothing? Then how did you get here?"
"I'm not sure. I just kept on looking for you, calling your name,
sniffing around for signs of you. And once I dreamed of a creature
standing on a distant planet, pointing his finger, nodding his head.
Finally I sensed you faintly, far away. So I closed my eyes and sort
of pushed against the darkness until it began to soften, and
brighten, and yield. "
I don't really know what to make of this, but I feel I should act
decisively, if only to reciprocate for Sue's efforts on my behalf.
Besides, who would want to spend the afterlife in a dingy cell?
"Well," I say, grasping her hands through the bars and forcing a
smile, "let's both close our eyes, and try pushing together."
"Just don't let me go," says Sue, her sweet breath in my nostrils.
"Not on your life," I answer.
Sunday morning finds me strolling the streets of Norwalk, a sleepy
suburb of Los Angeles. It's August, so already warm; the distant
mountains shimmer in the haze. A van packed with well-dressed
church-goers, folks in pajamas hauling sacks to the laundromat,
palm trees struggling through the concrete.
A middle-aged gentleman approaches me, reticent but determined,
half John the Baptist, half Man of la Mancha. He hands me a small
pamphlet: judging by the font it was produced many years ago on
one of those ancient typewriters and copied on a "rexo" machine;
the paper is wrinkled and soiled in certain places. In a soft and
halting voice, he asks that I consider the message it contains. I
accept, and glance at the title: God's Plan for the End of the World
. When I look up a moment later he is gone.
So I sit down on one of those benches that are always empty
because in southern California the buses never come, and, in the
arid center of this spiritual wasteland, I read of the final conflict
between good and evil, according this modern prophet, the
anonymous gentleman from Norwalk, CA.
In the future, when time comes to an end, when Man has mastered
the hours, and achieved the state of cybernetic immortality, the
world as we now know it will cease to exist. Each person will
reside in a fantasy world of his own making, a private paradise,
populated by imaginary beings whose sole purpose will be to
entertain the master of their domain. Finding such virtual realities
preferable to the difficulties of one world, humanity will abandon
all attempts at cooperative enterprise, while those qualities
formerly cherished - industry, fidelity, courage, compassion - will
lose all meaning.
At first the inhabitants of these worlds will flit from one adventure
to another in a frenetic quest for novelty. But soon such virtual
escapades will be revealed as the extraneous vestiges of an
antiquated model of existence and, like those 19th century
symphonists who renounced the trappings of programmatic music,
preferring the ineffable sublimity of wordless, imageless
discourse, these modern hedonists will put aside the pretenses of
their fantasies, sacrifice their selfhood at the altar of pure
pleasure, and drown in a bottomless ocean of pure sensation, so
many jumbles of circuitry quivering on velvet cushions.
This vast and virtual multiverse will be supported and maintained
by an underclass of proto-humans enslaved to the wills of their
masters, marooned in mere reality and sentenced to death and
oblivion - a ragged rabble that, far from condemning the lifestyle of
their superiors, only envies their good fortune, while aspiring to
overthrow them and enjoy a reversal of their fates.
But lo! there shall arise a Redeemer, clothed in the weakness of
the workers, whose miraculous incursion into the Land of the
Immortally Lost shall awaken those who sleep. And there shall be
a great and final battle...
Here the text is smeared and indecipherable.
...And we shall be saved in the Second Coming of the Organic
Jesus whose secret wisdom, finally revealed, shall set us free: the
God of Destruction is the Lord of Creation; the passing of all things
brings new life...
The summer sun, now high in the sky, begins to overwhelm me at
this point: I doze on my bench...
...And dream that I am back in New York, walking, as I often do,
across the George Washington Bridge to my home in New Jersey.
The magnificence of the Palisades grows as I approach; beneath
my feet, the Hudson River churns.
About halfway across, I come upon a strange man leaning against
the guard rail. In one hand he is grasping a cellophane bag filled
with water. With the other hand he is plucking little goldfish from
the bag and tossing them, one at a time, with great enthusiasm, into
the river far below, accompanying this action with what seem to be
exhortations and encouragements. He is speaking in Spanish, so I
cannot be sure: perhaps he is congratulating the little fish on their
imminent arrival in paradise. He notices me, but appears oblivious
to my consternation, and so he nods with an air of complicity, and
resumes his miniature, aquatic apocalypse.
Behind his mustache and luxurious hair is the face of the diffident
prophet of Norwalk, CA. Abruptly I awake and look about me. Or
try to, but meet with an impenetrable blackness. Who turned out
I float in a watery darkness, guided by the keen sensitivity of my
epidermis, drawn toward those geysers that erupt, intermittently, on
the ocean's floor, spilling forth a welcoming warmth at which my
soul rejoices in unison with my body.
My body? A blubbery, blind, worm-form, wriggling in hot methane
on a frozen moon. My soul? Some part of me more me than this
or that or any body, something elemental and elusive, indestructible
and transmigratory. Robert Schumann wrote that, were J.S. Bach
alive in the author's 19th century, he'd compose music not in a
Baroque but in a Romantic manner. But in what sense, then, would
he anymore be Bach? Behind this face, beneath this complex
persona, is anybody home? The answer given by Slavoj Zizeck is
no, and so we pretend, and from that primordial lie a vast, interior
world does really arise. A fiat - like Let there be light! - by which
God made the world out of nothing.
By which I mean not only the world of Europa with its sensitive
monsters and boiling seas, but the world called Earth, with its
preachers and prison cells, its bus stops and Boethiuses, not to
mention Suzy the Fair and Skinny the Elephant.
Or is this world but a copy, fraudulent and imperfect, of some finer
world, a bogus creation perpetrated by a demiurge lacking the skill,
the imagination, the integrity of a true artist?
The problem with such questions is that it's hard to imagine, when
you're stuck down here, what the outside of the universe might look
like. Unless, that is, we're not just fragments, little floating bits of
the world, but microcosms, in which case knowledge of the
universe may be possible through contemplation of the self. But if
the self is a lie, a magnificent fiction, can the same be said of the
world? Does the cosmos exist only as we imagine it? And do we
waste our lives wondering whether there's a god, asking if life has
meaning, when the answers are staring at us from out the mirror?
I float in the dark, warm waters of Europa, contemplating the nature
of the universe.
There was an earlier heist, a prototypical heist, that I attempted
long ago, and which I had forgotten. And there was an earlier
fraud, perpetrated about the same time, which recent events have
brought to my remembrance. There was also a first wife, prior to
Sue, though I won't describe her as a prototypical wife, but
nevertheless there's no denying she was chronologically my first,
and it was she who committed the earlier forgery to which my
recent crime bears so uncanny a resemblance.
She told me about it herself, soon after we met. At the time of the
incident she was perhaps nine years old, chubby and unpopular.
Her school teacher had assigned everyone in the class the task of
drawing a picture. M. (for that is my first wife's initial) completed
her work, and then decided to sign it with the name of another
student, a very well-liked boy. The drawings were collected and
put on display and, predictably, the one signed Johnny received
critical acclaim - until dear M. revealed the hoax and accepted the
unintended praise of her reluctant classmates, whose surprise and
embarrassment soon turned to indignation.
As for the original, proto-heist, in this case the protagonist is me. I
was thirteen years old and disgruntled, having just come to the
realization that the record album I purchased, which pleased me so
much, was stigmatized by the cognoscenti of pop as appropriate
only for pre-adolescents, since a number of the songs it contained
were being aired on AM radio. Immediately I wished to dissociate
myself from such nonsense and replace this record in my collection
with something from the ranks of more sophisticated "concept
albums" that could be heard on those FM airwaves favored by
slightly older teens whose musical judgements I held in such high
But what was my offense? Having developed, by that age, beyond
the point where I could steal with impunity, I formed a plan that
would improve my record collection while satisfying my moral
compunctions. The fact that society might sympathize with neither
my motives nor my actions I thought unimportant, and it strikes me
that here I established a pattern of behavior to which I've adhered
ever since, and from whose consequences I now suffer.
And so, one Saturday morning, I sauntered into a record store, put
my recent purchase, still neatly wrapped in cellophane, back on the
shelf, and took into my possession the album I preferred, assuring
myself that this was actually generous, since the item I returned
cost more than the one I removed, and I wasn't asking for change.
I exited the store, surprised at the ease with which I had pulled off
this little trick - and immediately I was apprehended by two plain-
Not exactly Bonnie and Clyde, M. and I, but, you'll admit, not
without a certain flair.
On the sands of a barren planet, a Traveler gazes across the
cosmos. His frame, small and thin, seems weighed down by eyes
the size of bowling balls, sad witnesses to centuries of suffering.
At the moment he is looking at earth, though his sympathies and
interests are as multitudinous as the stars that surround him. His
spaceship resembles a big, empty soup can; it lies inert nearby. He
hasn't been on a voyage in a very long time, having come to prefer
the contemplation of events from afar.
In the old days he was always bustling from one galaxy to another,
forever fueling up, finding secret landing places, concocting
disguises through which he'd blend with the natives - now tucking
his tail discretely into his pants, now powdering his scaly skin (or,
as the situation might require, appending a second tail, or
enhancing the armored brilliance of his exoskeleton). So much
work! when all that ever was needed was a little tolerance, a little
But those days are over, he muses. And who could say whether
any of that galavanting, that well-meant intervention, that patient
instruction, had made the universe a better place? This much was
certain: he could never go home. His planet was struck by a comet
during one of his sojourns, and he returned to find its dusty
remains, in which were contained all he loved best, orbiting in
silence round an indifferent sun.
All he loved best? Do aliens have feelings? Experience had
shown him the answer is yes - even those foolish children of distant
Earth, when they were not busy maiming and torturing, or stealing
and cheating, were capable of compassion and empathy. Earth -
his adopted home, where he found a degree of solace in his
He had strolled there, with friends and family, on the weekends,
through the shopping malls of New Jersey, accosted by the
spectacle of ubiquitous deception. Behind each smiling face, the
greedy hope of gain; behind each promise of happiness, the
accusation of inadequacy. At the root of it all he found fear, as old
as the species, unconscious and unreasoning. Fear of loss, fear of
loneliness, fear of death - how little they knew!
But he had wandered as well through winding streets of Dehli,
where the flies love the smell of urine, and the yogis love the flies,
and travelled southward through the Indian subcontinent, where
the generosity of the people increased with their poverty, and
where, in quiet majesty, large beasts with skin the color of sea-
beaten stone chewed the leaves of eucalyptus trees and meditated
on the deeds of their ancestors.
(That was actually on his second trip to the Blue Planet. His first
attempt to meet the earthlings had resulted in an embarrassing
fiasco. Arriving with but scanty information on this new world (for
even with melon-sized eyes, at the distance of several light-years
you miss the details) he made the completely understandable error
of assuming that a colony of cockroaches he encountered
represented the acme of our civilization, and so he wasted several
tedious hours in the attempt to communicate with these insects
whom he found as mindlessly industrious as they were impervious
to reasonable discourse. When the group was assaulted with the
noxious spray of an exterminating company, he interpreted this as
proof his comrades were at war, and was on the verge of wielding
his powers in their defence when, luckily, he happened upon a
short story by Franz Kafka lying open in the damp basement of a
public library, and suddenly, everything became clear.)
A strange race, these humans. At times they showed the promise
from the muck and soaring into undreamt dimensions. Other times
they could bring him to the end of his wits, and once he had even
considered putting an end to their misery by transforming his little
ship into an invading armada, and imposing a world-wide martial
law whose main injunction would read: Be nice! No fighting! But
he had watched enough episodes of Star Trek to know better: the
blessings of peace must be freely elected and cherished with
vigilance. Better to appear to the victims of cruelty, in the depths of
their despair, as a radiant messenger of hope, offering the
consolations of philosophy.
Besides, he was no longer certain of the wisdom he'd have been so
eager to share in the rash certainty of his youth, so that, whereas
back then, passivity would have seemed inexcusable, now he
feared taking action, since it might involve him in consequences
he'd regret. And so, despite the occasional feeling of uselessness,
he had grown more peaceful over time as he relaxed his grip, and
he found pleasure now in secret little undertakings, such as
building delicate sand-castles that the morning's wind would
obliterate, and chirping along with the space-frogs when, in the
stillness of the evening, they passed by overhead.
So he stands on that barren planet, thinking about the past and
gazing at the cosmos. The ringing of his intergalactic phone rouses
him, abruptly, from his reverie. It's Skinny the Elephant, right on
So as you may have surmised by now, I did not die after all, but
was caught up in a nightmare (whose meaning I will need to
consider). How else explain my continuing narration of this story? -
which, by the way (perhaps to your surprise and certainly to mine),
is beginning to assume some responsibility for its brash title - this
story that, like some orphan child, lacks the guidance you'd think
necessary, but which insists, with admirable verve, on attempting
the impossible. Call it a fantasia, even a lie, if you wish, a lie that
sustains me, that breeds hope, that could even become the
foundation of something true.
For I was, before the commencement of this tale, like one of the
disciples as they are pictured toward the end of Luke's gospel,
traveling along the road to Emmaeus, their leader gone, their hopes
dashed, and their futures uncertain. And lo: a stranger appeared
along the road, and spoke with them as they walked. And their
eyes were opened and their hearts were burning. And in that
miracle was their mission born.
But what if there was no stranger? What if there was no miracle,
only a lovely fabrication which, once told, inspired a new religion?
Can a lie in the past become, in the future, a retroactive truth? And
what of my orphan story - in wandering through the world can it
create a path that attains inevitability? Let's not forget whose story
this is: the man without a face, the guy who isn't here, whose
posings are a mask over emptiness, who creates himself in the
telling of the tale.
We write so that we do not disappear.
It's not that Skinny the Elephant hated painting. She just didn't like
being told how. In fact she enjoyed the sensation of grasping the
brush in her trunk, and applying the wet bristles firmly to the canvas
in a graceful, sweeping gesture. And the popcorn treats were
always welcome though, secretly, she felt a blush of shame at how
easily she could be coerced, an embarrassment that would turn to
anger and sadness as ephemeral pleasure yielded to sleepy
indolence and ennui.
Still, an elephant had to eat, and there are worse ways to make a
living - just ask her cousin Belle in the circus.
In any case the real dilemma for Skinny lay not in the act of
painting, but in its significance. The colorful streaks and daubs
she dutifully deployed began to assume for her an aesthetic quality,
and this complicated things since, with experience, she began to
develop preferences, to imagine forms. Where did they come
from? To claim they were expressions of her feelings, symbolic
translations of her innermost self, would have struck even an
elephant, by this point in history, as an oversimplified cliche. She
would feel, at times, a giddy excitement as one good brushstroke
called forth another, so that the process of painting progressed
from the arbitrary to the necessary. And then there were times
when fortuitous brushwork formed unintended images - of flowers,
even of what seemed self-portraits - as much to her amazement as
to that of her curious fans.
She began to see the world in a new way. Whereas, before she
began to paint, all things had for Skinny the Elephant a practical
value - plants were for munching, males for procreating - now life
became mingled with art, so that she dined with regret, unable to
ignore the destruction of such lovely foliage, and she fell in love
with her mate, who could not comprehend why she hung about him,
sheepishly swishing her tail.
Her guru, the hidden master who sought to guide her movements,
could not fail to see the change, but he interpreted the elephant's
assertion of artistic independence as mere recalcitrance. Perhaps,
were he less intent on exploitation, he'd have marvelled at the
blossoming of an aesthetic consciousness. Perhaps, at a later
stage in her development, she'd have welcomed his suggestions as
liberation from the angst of subjectivity, and surrendered gladly to
the promptings of that hidden hand, as Schoenberg did to the
dictates of number, as Cage did to the vagaries of chance. In the
end she was deemed unfit, and her paintbox was taken away.
Then I show up, with my headstrong plan of copying her style and
exposing the scam. Imagine her frustration: first celebrated for
paintings she didn't make, then condemned in a scheme she had
no willing part in, and ultimately denied the freedom to paint, which
is all she really wanted. Such were the precarious circumstances
under which our relationship, Skinny's and mine, began.
And so, while Boethius suffered an unenviable and violent death
but took to his grave the satisfaction of the just, I am condemned to
live under the shadow of guilt cast by an innocent elephant.
Christmas morning, 1966: we stumble out of bed and rush to the
living room where, beneath the glittering tree, we find our presents,
neatly wrapped and waiting. Amidst the socks and other such
practical things mothers feel compelled to include, I find two shiny,
The bright red volume is entitled, How to Punt, Pass and Kick.
These were the good old days, when men were men or, as we'd
say now, when gender roles were more rigid than they are today.
Had mom become alarmed when I expressed an interest in learning
to play the harp? Her ingenious, if somewhat impractical response,
had been, "How about the harpsichord?" Then came the book
But it's the other, brilliant yellow book, that grabs my attention this
morning. On the cover, a pair of teenage boys is struggling in an
alien environment with what seems to be a mechanical monster,
while, above this image, the title reads, Tom Swift Jr. and the
Visitor from Planet X.
It strikes me now that mom chose for me the Tom Swift Jr.
adventure series in preference to the more popular Hardy Boys
detective books, reasoning, I suspect, that I'd be incited to become
not merely a do-gooder, but an inventor. (Easier to break things -
like crime syndicates - than to make things - like the
Electromagnetic Geotron - easier, but ultimately less satisfying.)
But did any of this actually take place, way back on Christmas
morning in 1966? The more carefully we attempt to excavate the
essence of the past, the more layers of remembrance we find, like
those mediating rings of demigods imagined by the Gnostic
theologians, that cosmos of concentric circles that served to
separate the unknowable God from his distant Emanations - with
the result that what I'm remembering now, in thinking about that
Christmas morning, is not the actual experience of long ago, but a
more recent memory of that memory: I remember only remembering,
while, for all I really know, none of those events ever occurred.
On the other hand I can vouch that the Tom Swift Jr. series is no
figment of my imagination: I found a couple of volumes, just a few
years ago, while browsing the shelves of a used bookstore in
eastern Long Island, and experienced what one always does when
encountering the artifacts of childhood: a measure of the
enchantment they held for our inexperienced minds and, inevitably,
the disillusion brought on by mature understanding. Just as that
Bruckner symphony, to whose crudities I was oblivious, served to
persuade me of the presence of another world, noumenal and
sublime, and just as the Gospel story of the disciples on the road to
Emmaeus, of whose dubious historical authenticity I was unaware,
rendered me susceptible to miracles, these space-boy adventure
books, whose formulas and cliches now distress and amuse me,
formed long ago in my juvenile soul the steadfast belief that there's
life beyond our planet.
And why not? Anything's possible, when you consider that Victor
Appleton II is actually a woman. Her real name is Harriet
Stratemeyer Adams, and she's the daughter of Edward
Stratemeyer, ghost-writer and publisher of the original Tom Swift
Which goes to show that while, back in the good old days, a boy
could play the trumpet but not the harp, or learn to punt, pass and
kick but not how to dance, a girl could dream of boyish escapades,
so long as it was the Toms and the Bud Barclays who sallied forth,
while the Sallies themselves were content to ooh and ah, and the
Aunt Idas to provide their men with ample apple pie.
Where are the unnumbered dead of the ages? Where the
multitudes of humankind stretching back into the darkness of
prehistory? Where the little fetuses born breathless and bright
blue? Where have the fools gone, the bullies, and the gentle
lambs, the kind, the brave?
Where are the glorious ancestors of Skinny the Elephant? Where
now are the millions of bright eyes that once bulged atop slender
necks on that comet-cloven world become dust in the fingers of a
solitary survivor? Where do we go?
We never had a child together, Sue and I, but many years ago she
was pregnant, briefly, and miscarried. At the time we were not very
happy together, so the accident brought a certain relief. And in the
aftermath it's easier not to think about that embryo, short-lived,
mute and miniscule. What terror, what suffering, did it know? And
what has that to do with me, and with the world?
We, the living, are like winners in a gruesome lottery, dancing upon
the unknown dead, and our existence is bought at the price of all
who must not be.
Far from this graveyard earth, in the soft and cloudy places
between fact and fancy, a spaceman shepherds his flock in the
vast, penumbral orphanage of the unborn, reading to them the
poems of Paul Celan.
And elephant and a Russian walk into a bar. The elephant, a
retired artist, orders a bag of peanuts; the Russian, a former
novelist, orders vodka. The bar is crowded and noisy, and this
makes conversation difficult. So in an effort to be heard, the
Russian climbs on the elephant's back and begins to shimmy
upward, hoping to speak directly into the large and sensitive ears of
The bartender, witnessing this, approaches the pair and protests:
"Hey, can't you read the sign? NO CLIMBING ON THE BACKS OF
ELEPHANTS IN THIS BAR. "
The former novelist pauses in his laborious ascent and glares at
the bartender. "Do you have any idea whom you're talking to?" he
shouts. "I'm Pasternak, Boris Pasternak. Sometimes spelled
"I don't care," the bartender rejoins, "if you're halfway up her snout.
There's no climbing on elephants in this bar!"
Scattered guffaws, a little applause, and a few rude remarks greet
the punch-line. Behind his smile the young comedian is a jangling
set of nerves. He's new on the intergalactic circuit, and he's been
warned how tough it can be to please this crowd of aliens, with
tastes as various as the diddly-boppers with which nature has
adorned their heads. There are large, lumbering monsters with
sensitive diamond-eyes, and rasping lizards with rainbow-scales,
and thin, translucent beings shaped like flames, their insides a swirl
of raspberry and apricot. How many of them have ever seen an
elephant, or read Doctor Zhivago? The more diverse the audience
becomes, he muses, the more difficult it is to employ local humor.
But the comic's anxiety has deeper roots: he is actually a secret
agent from a foreign government, assigned to this remote outpost
on an information-gathering mission at a time when the safety of his
planet - nay, of the entire solar system to which he claims
allegiance - is in danger.
He looks out through the shimmer of smoke at the motley crowd
with its clinking drinks, its confused murmur of voices. And in a
blaze of sudden insight he realizes that none of this is real, that the
tired cliche he is enacting is but one piece in a patchwork loom, a
fragment among fragments, jostling for position in a Post-Modern
nightmare concocted by an author without a plan, who is searching,
through literature, for his own face.
What would they say, those people seated out there, were the
comic to reveal to them the vanity of their passions, the
meaninglessness of their lives, their insubstantiality? He feels the
emptiness of the orphan, but also the giddy lightness of a man
without a history. He could climb down off the stage right now, quit
the job, abandon the mission, and walk through the door, out into...
what? What lies beyond the world as he knows it? Are there other
stories, finer tales, awaiting his appearance?
Or could he tell a story on his own? Could walking through the
door create a new space, his space, where he'd be master of his
Or would he simply disappear? Only one way to find out...
Sophia, for all her wisdom, is something of a pedantic bore. This is
ultimately the fault of Boethius for imagining her that way, captive
as he was not only to a paranoid, barbarian king, but to the habits
of his subconscious. She's a know-it-all, she's never told a joke in
her life, and at any moment she's liable to break into verse.
Which is fine, but how about a little levity, considering the
circumstances. Why not change the mood with something like:
Thucydides had knobby knees
And wrote a famous "Histories".
Herodotus, that wily cuss,
In research was omnivorous.
But both, encountering lacunae,
Would shrug, and make stuff up, I'd say.
Well, maybe that would hit too close to home. For while Boethius
deserves credit for translating much ancient Greek wisdom to the
Latin-speaking Middle Ages, he did so with broad liberty, by the
standards of modern scholarship, creating, in effect, paraphrases of
And sometimes he just got things wrong, as, for example, when, in
translating the treatise on music by Pythagoras, he read the notes
of the modes in the wrong direction, re-creating thereby a world in
which everything has a false name.
But the Greeks would have been the last to complain: for them the
line between history and myth was fuzzy. And with myth you could
almost create a formula: the more real the story, the less truth it
contained. So, for instance, in recounting the Persian Wars, if
Herodotus indulges in some slight exaggeration, or has recourse, in
the absence of fact, to a little flight of fancy, or accepts with eager
credulity some unlikely rumor (as in his description of the unicorns
of Asia), what harm, we might ask, is done?
But Boethius didn't tell tales (except the one about Sophia, radiant
didact): he composed translations in the manner of paraphrases.
Had he lived in the 19th, rather than the 5th, century, he could have
attended a recital by Franz Liszt at which the pianist performed his
fantasy on themes from Mozart's Don Giovanni, or his rendition of
Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique, transcriptions in which fidelity is
less crucial than imagination. Perhaps, for Boethius, literature was
like music: the naked facts required the raiment of poetry. With
music, of course, things are simpler: the truth is in the beauty of
Had Boethius lived in the 19th century, Sophia might have recited
Keats' Ode on a Grecian Urn or When I Have Fears That I May
Cease to Be. (She'd find him in a prison cell, along with the rest of
the aristocracy, his circumstances transposed by time, as in an
imaginative paraphrase, to another key, but his misery
Now, in the interest of historical accuracy (the importance of which,
in the present story, fluctuates ambiguously) I should specify that
the latitude associated with Boethius' writings is in fact
characteristic only of his translations of pagan writers. When it
comes to Christianity he's a stickler, just like those other Patristic
writers obsessed with dogmatic orthodoxy, quite comfortable in
consigning to flames the inspired heresies of Origen, that broad-
minded thinker of the Early Christian Period, whose bold theology
incorporates elements of Egyptian and even far-Eastern thought.
Those fragments of Origen which have survived exist mostly in
Latin translations by the scholar Rufinus, who paraphrased the text,
cleaning up the errors, reigning in the speculation, and excising
those passages he deemed hopeless.
But what goes around comes around (which is something you hear
all the time on sports talk-shows, but which also can be understood
as a colloquial paraphrase of Origen's doctrine of the cyclical
nature of the universe and the transmigration of souls) - and on a
warm Sunday morning in southern California, a diffident gentleman
unlocks the secrets of the Apocalypse and the end of time. And
though he needn't fear the censure of the church in this age of free
expression, his work may fall into oblivion as surely as the writings
of his adamantine master, not by fiery destruction but through the
neglect and indifference of this modern, godless world.
And yet- orthodox or not - where was Christianity in Boethius' hour
of need? In the entire Consolation of Philosophy there is not a
single mention of Christ. Some have suggested that, in a purely
philosophical context, faith is extraneous, and reason sufficient.
But the simple, ugly truth, for which neither philosophy nor religion
affords sufficient consolation, is that the man was tortured with
cruelty, and cried out, like Jesus on the cross, and received no
Speaking of harmless exaggeration, I should admit, before we get
any deeper, that way back in the first chapter I stretched the facts
just a bit when I described myself as an art critic and painter. I
mean, it's true I have opinions and paintbrushes, but I've never
been paid to express the one or use the other, and so, as my
mother-in-law is fond of pointing out, such activity is more in the
nature of an amusement than a vocation. As if the value of one's
work could be measured in dollars and cents! But let's not get
The truth, which you might actually find more interesting, is that
Sue and I were drawn to India in belated fulfillment of a long-held
wish to throw ourselves headfirst into a world of poverty and need.
Unfortunately, we discovered that we lack the requisite skills, and
so, reduced to carrying around a lot of heavy buckets, we
developed arthritis which rendered us useless, incapacitated and
But though that mission ended in failure, it was the means through
which I became acquainted with the phenomenon of elephant art
and, eventually, came to meet my friend Skinny and appreciate her
work. So like the poet in the Schumann song, I'll Not Complain
(who complains, in fact, quite a bit), I'd better not complain.
But just as, foreshadowing the recent heist and fraud from whose
consequences I know suffer, I find earlier, prototypical examples of
those crimes in my distant past (so that, across the years an
unplanned pattern emerges), I discover as well that this impulse to
leave the world behind and dedicate my life to the service of the
poor can be traced all the way back to my childhood. At the age of
twelve I began a short story (whose incompleteness anticipates
another life-habit) - a story about a pair of friends, one of whom
wore his life like a fine-fitting glove, while the other brooded over
the fate of starving children in Biafra.
As literature that little tale was worthless, but the questions it raises
have not gone away. What are our responsibilities? I throw away
enough food each day to keep another human being alive. And
while moving to Africa and being as hungry as everyone else there
wouldn't solve much, it would at least acknowledge that, in the
family of mankind, our destinies are linked.
And what of art? Is the pursuit of beauty legitimate in the face of
practical need? Even if nobody knows or likes what you do? And
has it ever been established that painting, or literature, or music,
make us better people? The symphonies of Anton Bruckner were
broadcast in the streets as instruments of propaganda by a Nazi
regime whose sensitivity to the sublime proved no obstacle to the
performance of their ghastly business in the death camps.
The paradoxical answer that history gives is that, in fact, the most
important art springs from the direst need, that the worst
circumstance bring out the best in us, a greatness unimaginable
from the perspective of a comfortable existence, like the Holocaust
poems of Paul Celan with their black milk, their twisted syntax, and
their invented words, that wring from language a cry expressing
what real words cannot, while remaining poetry - poetry! - because
only by insisting on a beautiful form can we indict what has been
done and speak of tragedy.
So while no sensible person would welcome misfortune for the
sake of art, it may be that the lonely prophet of Norwalk has a point:
if humanity should ever rise above need, if our destiny is immortal
ease, then heroism, love, and beauty may disappear.
But the world I inhabit is neither the sensual paradise of our
cybernetic future nor the living hell of the Holocaust: like you, I'm
somewhere in the middle, with more to do than time will allow, so
that this imprisonment enforces on me a freedom from those tasks
to whose bondage I owe my happiness - the same happiness
lovers know when the invisible hand of necessity draws them along
unthinking, dreamy actors in a mysterious tale, liberated from the
burden of choice, twin melodies in a musical round, like that canon
at the end of Cesar Franck's sonata, where violin and piano
surrender to the law of the chase, endlessly pursuing, never
attaining, seeking through their imitations to dissolve their wills, but
prevented by those irreducible differences which drew them to one
another in the first place.
Bereft as I am of those activities I love, I close my eyes and listen,
with my inner ear, to the music of Franck's last movement, feeling,
at the same time, my fingers moving across imaginary keys in
motions I've traced through blissful hours of rehearsal. An image
comes to mind - of concentric circles, and with it, the thought of
those mediating rings in the theology of the Gnostics, so many
cosmic barriers, alienating us from our home in the mind of God.
There's music trapped inside my head, and like a winged
messenger, like some Prince of Light from Beyond, it beckons me
to wake from my slumber.
But where am I? Can it be that I've been placed here, isolated from
all that's familiar, until I finally begin to remember: the world beyond
these walls is but another, larger prison men call earth, and we -
that is, my people and I - fell here in some kind of crash-landing,
aeons ago, far from home...
For a moment, not only my cell but the larger world I inhabit begin
to break apart, and behind them I glimpse a glowing, I hear strange
music; familiar voices call to me in an unknown language. And on
my finger a golden ring appears.
From the ravages of war, from utter destruction, our ancestors fled,
taking their children in their arms without a backward glance, as
flames engulfed their kingdom. In long, fluted ships they plowed
the solar winds, slipping between the grasping claws and
snapping jaws of the Archons, fearsome guardians of Darkness,
while proud king Uthra stood upon the mountains of the moon and
fought unto death against the legions of doom.
Down, down, into the dark they fell, lost in time, lost in space. And
floated in a void for generations, carrying their heritage in their
hearts, transmitting to their children a tale that changed, with the
passing of centuries, from history into myth.
And landed, with rejoicing, on this hospitable earth, for all anyone
could say, back where their journey had begun. Here they found
animals, plants and stones, and into these infused their spirit. And
also into those soulless cybernetic husks, inspiring in them, as of
old, confusion and doubt, excitement and curiosity.
Bewitched by the sensual charms of the world, they forgot about
their distant home, except in troubled dreams. And so, over time,
stories arose, of a Traveler from a distant world who would come
to awaken a slumbering people and lead them to a place of Light,
rekindling the glory of their past..
...Or something like that is what I heard, or felt, or understood,
when the walls came down round my prison cell, when the borders
of the world fell open, when Chandrigahr and Earth dissolved
around me. But I took off the ring and, in order to avoid the
corruption, inevitable and absolute, that results from the use of
such power, chucked it down the toilet, and flushed for good
measure. An explosion ensued, and alarm went off, and I was
covered with wet stone and mortar.
Gradually the dust cleared. The strange light, the voices, were
gone, replaced by acrid fumes and wisps of smoke: now my prison
cell surrounds me again, and suddenly I realize I'm hungry. The
transparent beauty of that revelation has faded, along with the
urgency to recall it aright. Hastily, in its place, I scribble a cheap
paraphrase. Surrounded by familiar appearances, I let reality slip
What was I doing in Norwalk, CA, on that hot summer Sunday when
a prophet stepped into my life?
I was looking around for an art supplies store, in order to paint a
picture for my newborn granddaughter, starting with neat
rectangles in bright colors which I'd smear, with the paint still wet,
making an image of
geometry in the throes of destruction, or else of clarity emerging
from confusion - you’d never be sure which, since the canvas
would hold but a frozen moment in the process - but it wouldn't
matter, so long as the picture conveyed the idea of a relationship
between form and chaos, and suggested that we live in the rhythm
of that flux.
It seemed important to me back then to accomplish this right away,
before the little babe became enmeshed in a tangle of words and
ideas - so many signs we learn to substitute for what's real in order
to manage the world around us - as an emblem of the magic of her
passage, a reminder of her mysterious origin.
A few years later she began to reward my efforts with watercolors
of her own - free of all technique and stylistic pretension, the messy
dabblings of a curious little hand in a world of wonders - paintings
whose blessed innocence the mature artist can but dimly echo
through aleatory's elaborate strategies.
Or by copying the art of enlightened elephants. After all, my
granddaughter and Skinny are two of a kind: warm-hearted and
trusting, shy but inquisitive, and doomed.
Artistically, I mean, to failure. For over time we cease to believe
we'll ever say what we mean, and when our optimism withers we
devolve into cleverness, wasting our skills in useless imitation, or
surrender to epicureanism and, like Rossini (who from a childhood
of poverty rose to preeminence in the operatic world through
prodigious effort in his early years), retire prematurely - famous, fat,
and spiritually bankrupt.
For all creation groans, as St. Paul has it: unsatisfied with what we
are, we yearn for transformation. Yeah, even in the silence of the
vegetative world this suffering is evident: the lumberjack hews a
tree trunk from its roots - and behold: those concentric rings, now
dark, now light, by which we count the age of the newly slain giant,
they dance in squiggly shapes suggesting faces, limbs and torsos,
so many proto-humans struggling upon that strange interior
landscape in a wordless and arcane mythology. As if in growing it
were not enough to be a plant and thrive, but it were necessary to
aspire to a higher condition, as animals aspire faintly to the dignity
of human awareness, as we ourselves, embarrassed at our animal
origins, aspire to the blessedness of angels.
What was I doing that morning in Norwalk, amidst the church vans
and the drowsy launderers?
I was looking for a special kind of donut that, years ago, was
ubiquitous, but that you might now have to travel across the
continent to find. The interior is your typical donut cake,
indescribable and amorphous, cheap and delicious, the foundation
on which all else depends. From its depths springs the crimson
lava of sweet, moist jelly, in what seems a perpetual state of
imminent eruption, while all about, the walls of this mighty edifice
are fortified by a thick, transparent glaze - all of this made with such
respect to proportion that every bite you take, from any angle, can
include, in some measure, a taste of all these ingredients at once.
That's not to say I travelled those thousands of miles with the
primary purpose of locating this tasty treat, that the opportunity to
visit my granddaughter occupied a secondary position in the
hierarchy of my wishes. Far from it! For I knew beforehand that
once I clove that cake in twain (pausing to admire the lovely marble
swirls, now dark, now light, that graced its secret interior), and, like
some senseless animal, bit and chewed and swallowed in a private
little epicurean orgy, I'd feel betrayed, humiliated, unredeemed...
Whereas, on the contrary, the hours I've spent with that little girl
seem bathed in an aureole of light. In her trust I find myself
ennobled, capable of love, and in her presence the world is heaven
But did I find it? - that donut that I dreamed of? Did I discover,
beneath the glass counter of a Vietnamese bakery, the object of my
desire, lying in silence, patiently waiting, that noumenal apparition,
descended into the world, through whose nourishing sacrifice I'd
rise to fuller life?
Or did the wily prophet hound my steps, protecting me from the dire
influence of false gods, and intercept me even as I reached the
bakery door, diverting me from the snares of the sensual world with
his stained and seedy pamphlet? What did you expect to find in the
desert - a reed shaken by the wind?
Even the silent stones, immobilized in their crystalline symmetry,
yearn to break free into the messiness of all that grows and dies -
see how they lie upon the sands and drink the milky moonlight from
the midnight sky!
And all that never was, and ne'er will be, dreams only of becoming,
as surely as all that ever was is fated to return to the land of what is
What was I doing amongst the palm trees and cement on that hot
summer morning in Norwalk?
I was painting a picture about the mystery of birth and death, the
kinship of order and chaos. I used swirls of burnt sienna and dark
umber, and streaks of violet glistening in amber. I surrendered my
conscious will to the flow of divine inspiration.
And when I was done it was the image of a jelly donut.
A typical Tuesday in early March: the last winds of winter are
howling their protestations at the bold little buds of incipient spring.
I stride along the path that leads me from work back home. Home -
a word that means Sue waiting, and salads, and sunsets out our
big living room window, and a hundred other details that together
mark the fond, familiar rhythm of my day.
As I enter the building I pull off my hat, straightening, in the same
motion, what hair is left on my head. I exchange greetings with the
doorman, pop into the waiting elevator, and press 16. Already,
during the climb, I'm unzipping my jacket, loosening my necktie, and
thinking about that hot shower that will dispel the chill which has
formed on my skin since the perspiration from my jaunt turned cold
in the open air.
A bell rings, signalling my arrival. I step out and approach the
apartment, feeling the doorknob. As usual, and against my
remonstrances, Sue has neglected to lock the door. I turn the knob
Immediately to my left, in the kitchen, a woman I've never seen
before is holding a steaming tray of lasagna. Or rather, a
cybernetic imitation of a woman, which I can tell by the lack of any
imperfection, as well as by a certain vacancy in her gaze.
"We thought you might be hungry," she says.
“Where’s um, Sue?” I ask stupidly.
“Sue?” she echoes, as if she’s never heard the name. She lifts the
tray of lasagna up under my nose, smiling all the while in a slightly
"Thanks," I say, and hasten toward the bedroom.
But instead of Sue I find there another perfect stranger, also
female, another exquisite robotic copy. This one is lying down in a
casual manner, with her left ankle resting on her raised, right knee.
"God, I thought you'd never get home," she purrs.
What's going on?
But instead of asking questions I smile, and, in what I hope is an
offhand tone, I say, "So, what's new?"
"Oh, nothing,really," the recumbent android responds. "We've just
been hanging around, waiting for you to get home."
By now I've seen enough to get the idea. I've fallen into one of
those alternate realities which I inhabit, apparently, along with the
one I remember, wherein some aspects of my existence (such as
my home address and occupation) are familiar, while others (such
as my circle of friends) are surprising.
I decide to fall right in and play along - but not for the reasons you
might imagine. In the first place, it would be as futile for me to
object to these circumstances as it would be for a visitor from
another reality, entering ours, to convince us that picking your nose
in public is the height of good taste. And secondly, I know this state
of affairs won't last very long: ever since we encountered that
turbulence on the plane ride back from California, I've been
bouncing in and out of parallel worlds every few minutes. I'm
getting used to it, almost enjoying the little shocks, but the
contradictions are piling up, and I'm beginning to lose my way.
Mind you, it hasn't all been fun and games. Just a few hours ago I
tumbled into a post-apocalyptic dystopia where mobile, mutant
soda-machines pursue the human survivors through the smoking
streets, spewing hot Doctor Pepper with just a hint of lemon.
And then there was the universe where I found myself president of
a small Latin American country whose government was so riddled
with corruption, so impervious to reform, that all I could do was puff
on cigars and deliver empty promises to a wary populace while, just
out of range of the cameras, grim soldiers trained their rifles at my
But at the moment, I'm surrounded by beauty, and desire thickens
the air. If I act according to expectation, I'll be repudiating the
behavior of a lifetime, substituting indiscriminate lust for true love.
And however tempting this might seem, I know that I'll come out the
other end of this confused, disappointed, and unhappy with myself.
Suddenly I'm fifteen years old, riding on the subway with my high
school pal and a pretty girl we barely know and whom we find
attractive. My friend is clutching a sad little bouquet he has
purchased for his Peggy, whose charms, alas, cannot compare with
those of our new companion. Somehow she knows this, and
teasingly asks whom the flowers are for. For an agonizing moment
my buddy hesitates, torn, as I am torn, between what he knows he
should do and what he wishes, unable or unwilling to shake the
mad, mistaken impression that those pleasures which are forbidden
are superior to those which are allowed, and that those things
we've not experienced are qualitatively different from those we
know. Madness indeed, for however many times experience
manifests the folly of this belief, we persist, with eternal optimism, in
hoping that the next time will be different, that we'll discover, in the
enjoyment, a life more real and true.
He hesitates, this confused, excited adolescent from my past, and
then, thrusting the bouquet toward the girl with the defiance of one
who would throw common sense to the winds in the name of love,
he declares, :"For you!"
For me? In my bedroom, the mingled scents of the women are
intoxicating. The walls are closing in on me; I'm losing control of my
I hear a rumbling as of thunder. The floor beneath me begins to
tremble. The lights go out, a voice commands us to take our seats
and, in the darkness, a fasten seatbelts sign appears.
Here we go again.
Are we unwitting actors in a play? The puppets of a Mind we
cannot know? Does an invisible Author ordain our destinies so that
what seems our choice is but the dictate of his pen?
If so, how would we rate him, this cosmic story-teller? His tale
seems not to have a form: its beginning is obscure, its design
haphazard, and its conclusion is nowhere in sight.
And does he know we live within his dreams? Or is the history of
our world for him a mere diversion? We live and die, bleed and
breathe, like him, but at his whim. We worship him unwittingly by
following his commands, and flatter him in the imitation of his craft,
considering that activity closest to the divine which involves our
But if we live by virtue of his words, then what of those poor
creatures that we make? Caught in the vise of our turgid tales, do
they suspect the truth, despise us from afar, and harbor an
unattainable wish to climb from out the pages of their world and
accost us in this three-dimensional splendor, tearing the pens from
our shaking hands, breaking the ancient bondage, and beginning to
live, at last, the story that they'd choose?
Peace! If they - if we - if each is but the fiction of another, there's
reason still for us to all take heart, for someone out there's reading
about us: before the eager eyes of an invisible cosmic audience our
lives unfold as great dramas, so that Don Quixote, humiliated in
Spain, is Don Quixote,beloved of World Lit., and the ruinous wrath
of Ahab can serve to instruct each new generation in the virtues of
temperance and moderation.
But then, the books we write should be most wise! Else it may
happen, in the far future, that an astronaut from earth, sent on a
rescue mission to a distant star system, following the trail of an
earlier, lost ship, may land on a purple planet seething gases,
discover there an artificial habitat formed by the hidden but
compassionate indigenous population to welcome their unexpected
guest, complete with a miniature civilization built entirely on the
lines of the only literary reference available - the one book found in
the unfortunate pilot's cabin (presumably brought for sentimental
reasons): an adventure tale of Tom Swift Jr.
He'd find the man he was looking for in a coma, induced by years of
exposure to platitudes, cliches, and stereotypes of race and
gender. He'd meet the insufferable boy genius in the flesh, and
receive an impromptu lecture on aerodynamics. Bud Barclay would
slap him on the shoulder and challenge him to a friendly game of
ping-pong. Mrs. Swift, demure and petite, would say, "You must be
starved, after such a long and dangerous journey!" while Tom's
saccharine sister smiled at her side.
Shrugging them all aside with impatience, the rescuing astronaut
would bend down at the bedside of his comatose comrade, to
whisper in his ear that help from home had finally arrived.
But his words would be drowned by a clamor of voices with strange
accents, and the sound of shattering glass. The Brungarians, led
by the merciless Samson Narko, were invading, intent on stealing
the secrets of the Swifts, hoping, as ever, to undermine the safety
of the free world...
I wouldn't want to give the impression that my ex-wife is a criminal.
But having left her, many chapters ago at the age of nine, suffering
the inevitable abuse that comes from exposing the foibles of one's
peers, I've no idea what concept you may have formed about her
subsequent life. And nothing could be more unfair than to paint a
unkind picture of another human being with whom we've had our
disagreements and whom we now find in the helpless position of
appearing, on our terms, in our story, without a voice of her own.
So let me state without equivocation that, so far as I am aware,
after that third grade fiasco, never again did she use her artistic
skill with any fraudulent design: indeed, she grew into a woman
respected for her integrity and honesty.
It's taken me many years to arrive at a state where I'm able to write
that last bit, about honesty and integrity. There are people we'd
wish, for one reason or another, would just go away - disappear
from the planet - because their continuing existence is uncongenial
to the stories we'd like to tell. You see what I mean about that ring
of power? Trapped as we are in this needy, fearful condition,
without the threat of censure, without consequences for our acts,
we'd behave monstrously, and justify it all with fancy
philosophizing. The world stinks, but it's still better than it would be
if I were king.
And so the need, over the years, to come to terms with our ex's,
our rivals, our embittered siblings, our obnoxious neighbors,
provides an opportunity to cultivate patience, wisdom and
compassion - and, when you think about, you'll probably admit, as I
do, that we need as much to be forgiven as to forgive.
But there's another M. that I met years ago, that I never got to know
- the M. who strolled with me in early March amidst melting snows
as we tried, with words, to breach the impenetrable barrier that
separates one person from another, that barrier without which there
can be no I and thou.
She lived but briefly, this other M., the product of ephemeral
impressions and lots of guessing by which I'd tried to fill in the
blanks. And it was only months later, after I had formed an image, if
not of the true M., then at least of an M. more clearly defined (not,
perhaps, the real M., but an elaborate construction by which I
sought to apprehend her essence) - it was then, when the earlier
M., the sketchy M., had ceased to exist, that I was able to find her
in my memory; and I saw then that she was another person entirely,
purely fictitious, the product of my imagination, but as real, in my
experience, as the M. with whom I'd become acquainted.
Memories are paraphrases of the past, transpositions whose value
resides not in their fidelity to our experience but in the aesthetic
pleasure they can bring. The mind is an artist who paints with time
the colors of what was.
But art's not life, Schumann's Davidsbund notwithstanding, and
what we'd condemn in the latter we'd condone in the former. From
music, it's beauty that we ask; from people, something no less real
for being even more elusive: truth.
Truth - anathematized by Post-Modernism, and with a measure of
good reason: loving ourselves as we do, we make the most
unreliable witnesses to our lives, while the opinions of others suffer
each from the distortions of its own perspective. What is truth?
asks Pontius Pilate, in what is perhaps the first recorded statement
of radical skepticism.
And yet the implications of this kind of relativism lead beyond the
blessings of tolerance and diversity to Holocaust denials and the
evasion of all accountability, so that I find myself a kind of reluctant,
equivocal Post-Modernist, rejecting our culture's meta-narratives
with regret, waving a tearful goodbye as they sail into the sunset,
cherishing towards them a fondness which subverts the premises
through which they've been discredited.
For truth (I might have proffered to Pilate, as I stood alone at
the arm of Jesus in the hour of his trial) - truth has little to do with
my opinion of the merits of my actions, nor with the judgement of
others. Truth is the indestructible loom of what we've thought and
done, and against this, all the delusions of the world are as
nothing. (And in truth I'd more likely have behaved, on Maundy
Thursday, like cowardly Saint Peter, skulking in the shadows,
warming my hands at the fire, thrice denying my savior and friend.)
What would M. think if she could see me now, if she were aware of
my plight, and knew of the circumstances of my captivity? Of
course, when I speak of M. I refer not to the imaginary M. I hastily
constructed in my imagination in that distant spring, nor to the M.
whom I eventually married and lived with many years ago - no, I'm
talking about M. of the present day, about whom, really, I know
Would she laugh and say I got what I deserved? Or would she
recall her own youthful flirtation with fraudulent fame and
sympathize with my lot? Perhaps she'd be amazed to find how
daring I've become, how different from the cautious young man she
But what's the use of such thoughts? I am here because my
choices have put me here, because the man I've made of myself
And that's the truth.
Cesar Franck, the composer of that violin sonata with the
bewitching finale, presents us with a paradox. The image that
history gives us of this elderly gentleman, improvising at the organ
of Sainte-Clotilde, disdainful of worldly fame and fashion, caught up
in the throes of divine inspiration, is hard to reconcile with the
voluptuousness of his late works. What has the man to do with the
Like most child prodigies then and now, he was exploited by a
fortune-seeking father. Endless hours of tedious practice, constant
travel, the pressures of performance - all this engendered in the
youth resentment that culminated in the decision to break from his
family, to pursue a course of his own choosing, even to marry a girl
against their wishes.
It was a moment of giddy elation, and though, at first, the lovers
were penniless and without prospects, their future loomed endless
and bright. But families, even difficult ones, are too complicated
simply to dismiss. That transcendental virtuosity the musician
possessed had been acquired at the demand of his tyrant father, to
whom, in a sense, he owed everything. Still, he resolved, early on,
to avoid the path of Liszt and so many of his followers, who
fashioned flashy, superficial show-stoppers for a gaping Parisian
public. No, his art would always be consecrated to a higher aim,
and you can hear, beneath the sensuous surface, something of the
spirit of Johann Sebastian Bach in the virile counterpoint of this
latter day polyphonic master.
Boethius would have approved. Following an ancient treatise on
music which he translated (or paraphrased, or corrupted), he states
that there are three levels of musicianship. At the bottom of the
heap is the performer, who is like a circus juggler, capable of
impressing the rabble with his tricks, but innocent of any knowledge
of that invisible world of numbers of which his art is but an outward
sign. In the middle is the composer. He’s got some brains, but his
mind is mired in the world of sense and his talents are
compromised through the seduction of sonorous beauty. At the
pinnacle is the theorist, who alone is capable of discerning, beyond
ephemeral appearances, the imperishable principles of his art.
Cesar Franck was something of all of these, but a reluctant
performer, a thoughtful composer, an extraordinary theorist.
Not a very practical fellow, though. He should have known that in
choosing the path of church organist he was asking for trouble.
Between the demands of a clergy insensitive to his art, the
complaints of the congregation, ever ready to find, in any harmonic
experiments, the very devil in the organ pipes, and the choir,
hopelessly out of tune and addicted to gossip, the job has driven
more than one promising talent to despair, to the abuse of liquor,
even to question the articles of their faith.
On the bright side he had devoted students - a whole coterie of
followers who found in the music of his last years a high
seriousness combined with a touch of something modern that
seemed to point in a new direction. Perhaps the most promising of
these was Ernest Chausson, whose reverence for his teacher
warmed over time into friendship. The old gentleman with his pants
hiked up too high would visit the household of the young composer,
and sit and the table with beautiful Mrs. Chausson, displaying his
bony ankles. As the conversation became animated he would take
her hand, in an absent-minded way, into his own - a practice that
vexed her husband, the more with each repetition, until, unable to
abide it any more, he seized the hand of his master, separating it
from that of the startled woman, and placed it, with a symbolic
aptness that would have delighted Freud, in the nearby cookie jar.
But the one who gets lost in this story is Mrs. Franck, whose
youthful charms instilled in her lover the courage to find his own
way in the world. Her husband’s biographers paint an
unsympathetic portrait of a shrewd and distrustful woman, whose
conservative musical taste, combined with concerns for her
husband’s career, made her antipathetic to the interests of his
Yet she was no fool, and with an infallible instinct she sensed that,
behind the facade of canonic structure, there lurked, in the
wayward wandering of those fatal progressions, a decadence that
threatened their orderly existence, that transgressed a moral
boundary and opened a door into a godless, hedonistic world. She
heard, in the twilight of her husband’s ouvre, the coming of The
Afternoon of a Faun.
He flattered himself, to be sure, that everything was under control,
and even went to the extravagant length of cloaking his desultory
thoughts in time-honored and respectable forms. But the strain
made him melancholy each night as he trudged home, having
lingered until the church was closing, for he knew that the love he’d
be required to profess had been betrayed in the secret language of
He was in very good company: all the great Romantics enjoyed, at
level, being miserable - it helped them to compose in the mode
pathetique. Chopin, for instance, suffered from an unappeasable
sadness that we rejoice to discover in his Nocturnes, his Ballades,
even in dancing Mazurkas. Liszt, who composed a sort of
biography of his Polish friend (a work made more of fancy than of
fact but for all that eloquent of the times) - found a single world - zal
- for which he substitutes a few dozen approximations - that
expresses this doom, this anger, this morbidity (etc. etc.) while Liszt
himself was bullied by his princess-girlfriend (she a religious fanatic
and author of a voluminous history of Christian dogma) into
becoming, quite against his grain, a maker of masses and
oratorios. Ah, but he got his revenge, albeit in a cowardly manner,
by imbuing these works with a disturbing dissonance that seems to
undermine the faith professed in the text - a paradox that Slovoj
Zizeck, that latter-day Freudian, would enjoy (and I do not hesitate
to throw in little tidbits like this on the subject of psychology since
Zizeck, who knows so much about that, does not hesitate, in his
books, to comment on music, a subject about which he seems to
know much less).
Alas, the great composers of the 19th century shared more than a
love of misery and a taste for beautiful women: they also had in
common the dangerous habit of day-dreaming under circumstances
that demanded their full attention, such as crossing the busy streets
of Paris or cycling downhill at high speed in the countryside. At the
height of his powers Franck was struck by a carriage and never
fully recovered, and on the verge of finding his voice, Chausson
crashed into a brick wall and died on the spot.
What am I doing here? - struggling to fit together the pieces of this
novel, pretending all the while I'm imprisoned in the bowels of
Chandrigahr? When did the delight of improvisation become a
wearisome entanglement in necessity? And to what end? I can
no longer remember how I got started - so must I persevere? Does
my happiness hinge on the fading hope of somebody's approbation?
I already know that I will fail: each time I achieve the semblance of
formal coherence a host of new ideas will arise, clamoring for the
chance to be heard. And so the more I write, the more distant
looms the specter of an ending.
Like my life, this story has become too complicated to complete.
And its skin is wearing thin, as you can see by how easily I've
popped through to address you directly. Like the soul that
awakens only when the vicissitudes of aging render its corporeal
habitation inhospitable, I long to separate myself from my work,
even disavow my authorship.
But my tale won't let me go so easily: it seizes me by the wrist,
knowing full well that our destinies are twined. For I'm no less a
fiction than the story I tell, and, as for pretending - well, that's what
And so, like my protagonist-self in the novel, trapped in his dingy
jail, I find myself prisoner to my own story, and do what Boethius
did: I dream of things to brighten the days of my captivity, and write
them down for someone else to read.
I once took Skinny the Elephant to an exhibition of paintings by
Gerhard Richter. It was after hours, of course, and before our
friendship was marred by misdeeds and misunderstandings. Sue
came along, as usual, and my little granddaughter rounded out the
You should have seen us! - walking four across the wide and
empty aisles, talking all at once, in excited whispers, trailing muddy
footprints that ranged in size, like Richter's works, from small to
Sue and I both loved those huge canvases across which the artist
has dragged his giant squeegy, one colored layer after another,
with results as surprising to the painter as to the viewer. But
Skinny the Elephant and my granddaughter agreed on preferring
his more traditional still lifes and portraits. Which goes to show that
we all aspire to a change in our condition. The little girl and the
elephant yearn for the control of the medium, while those of us who
can paint want nothing more than to forget our cleverness, free
ourselves from the burden of technique and tradition, and lose
ourselves in spontaneous expression.
I suppose it's not surprising, given the animated behavior of our
group, that eventually our presence was detected, and our lovely
outing was interrupted by wailing sirens, flashing lights, and the
cries of swarming policemen.
Just when it seemed our geese were cooked (for how could we
explain our presence, how persuade the uncomprehending public
of our innocence?), something extraordinary occurred. The gallery
fell silent, and everyone who, a moment before, had been
scrambling about, stood frozen in space.
Or, more precisely, everything slowed down so much as to give the
impression of immobility, while in fact, things continued to move,
like the hour hand on an old-fashioned clock, at a pace so
deliberate as to be imperceptible.
Then the Traveler appeared, and gently beckoned us toward his
ship, which was parked right outside the museum. We clambered
in - there was just enough room - and sped off, leaving behind a
befuddled crowd, moving again at normal speed, uncertain of what
had transpired. As the police chief put it to the news reporter the
next morning, "It all happened so fast!"
The ship kept going, deeper into the unknown, while one at a time,
each of its passengers faded away, starting with me, followed by
Sue, and then Skinny. Then the Traveler set down just outside my
granddaughter's bedroom. Together, very quietly, they slipped in
through the open window. He tucked her in, and melted into the
land of dreams.
Years ago, before the advent of their intergalactic space program,
his people loved to argue about the possibility and nature of
extraterrestrial life. Some were convinced that an encounter with
aliens would prove fatal to their civilization. Others countered that
life-forms clever enough to sail through the stars would necessarily
have evolved beyond the kind of aggressive impulses that would
threaten a people less advanced. And many on both sides agreed
that, given the distances between habitable planets, and the time
needed to get back and forth, it was unlikely they'd be making new
friends or enemies any time soon.
That was before their conquest of physical laws, thanks to which
they approached something like immortality and omnipotence,
whereupon they split into factions of differing ideologies. This had
serious cosmic implications. A dualistic universe emerged, with a
Kingdom of Light confronting a Kingdom of Darkness in a
primordial conflict, echoes of which are contained in the Gnostic
myths - tales told and retold over the aeons, like the diminishing
reverberations of some great gong-stroke, down to the present age,
in the corrupt and juvenile stories of Tom Swift Jr. and his battles
with the Brungarians.
But there was a third option, taken by our friend with the big, bright
eyes - a middle road, scorned by the multitude that chose either to
escape into spiritual dimensions, merging their identities in an
ocean of blissful non-being, or to pursue dominion of the universe
in an endless campaign of imperialism - a middle road that he took,
along with a fragment of the population, inspired by the example of
those large and rubbery worms who swim down under in Europa,
with whom a kind of telecommunication had been in existence for a
long time. These enlightened few choose to remain at home,
declining to evolve out of sight while refusing as well to spread out
across the neighborhood. Like the Boddhisatvas of India, like the
Changchub Sempas of Tibet, they lived in a state of philosophical
detachment, from which they were frequently roused to action by
the sufferings of less fortunate beings.
For their trouble they were annihilated by a stray comet that left no
trace of their ever having existed, except for Bright Eyes, who never
spoke of them. And so I've made this story up - to be safe, that is,
so that they should not be forgotten, just in case they ever were.
From the frozen streets of Philadelphia, from the biting winds and
the stares of the bleary eyed beggars, we escape, through big,
brassy doors, into the warmth of the Reading Food Court.
It's one of the attractions we've been advised not to miss when
visiting this town, and, sure enough, immediately on entering, Sue
begins to brighten.
A friendly hubbub, a counterpoint of clashing aromas, girls in Amish
outfits proffering homemade delectables - a motley paradise of
With admirable patience Sue finds the perfect breakfast venue, and
carefully selects a pleasing and healthy balance of proteins, carbs
and vegetables. I grab a donut. We squeeze into a pair of metal
chairs at the edge of a dining area, and it's now I realize that,
mingling with the confused polyphony of a thousand voices, is the
sound of an electric piano.
By chance we've find ourselves right next to the man who's playing,
so that, while for most of the people seated in this area, the music
is but a faint glimmer of sound, like the intermittent cry of a gull at
the beach on a stormy day, nearly drowned by the rumble of the
surf, for Sue and me the tones of the instrument are clearly audible,
and, as I settle into my seat, I realize that I know every note.
It's a Nocturne by Frederick Chopin that the pianist has chosen,
and, at first, that's ok. By which I mean that this piece, being a sort
of apotheosis of salon music, designed to entertain without
obtruding, is well suited to the background role it finds here, in this
bustling environment. In fact it's probably mistaken, by most, for
one those "easy-listening" transcriptions in which rock songs are
domesticated, like those kittens who have their claws removed and
their reproductive functions neutered so that their owners can enjoy
a taste of the wild without risking damage to their upholstery.
But soon something starts to go wrong. A modulation to the minor
key, a crescendo, a flurry of notes like a passionate outcry - and
Sue looks up from her steaming coffee, puzzled and annoyed. The
music is clamoring for attention, and in its morbid insistence,
transgresses the boundaries of good taste.
The sounds of the food court become muted, as the melody rises in
eloquent complaint, singing of another world, far from here.
I look about me and for the first time, in this jumble of humanity, this
confusion of hopes and fears, loves and hates, I can see traces of
order and beauty, bearing a promise of peace. Suddenly I think of
the Traveler, looking upon this world as I gaze upon this gathering,
seeing in our bloody history what I see in this scene. The music
does not condemn, but reveals our princely heritage. Sleepers,
The opening theme of the Nocture returns, as if nothing had ever
happened. As if the sky had not, for a moment, been rent apart, as
if no messenger had come! Even the pianist seems blithely
unaware of the significance of his performance.
The piece comes to an end; it's followed by a transcription from a
Puccini opera. Time to go.
Back outside, the streets are still cold, and the homeless are
shivering. Clearly, the heavens didn’t open, or they, so hungry for
deliverance, would have noticed. Which means those patterns we
sense, like the music we hear, are of our own making, and the
promises we feel come from within our own hearts.
And I suppose that will have to suffice.
When the Martians attacked I was completely in the dark. The
walls of my prison cell shook, and the ground trembled from the
impact of super-powered phaser cannons. This confirmed my
suspicion that I was being held deep beneath the earth’s surface,
and while this realization provided me with a degree of comfort
regarding my personal safely, it did nothing to alleviate my fear that
the rest of my species was in deep dog-poo.
The bombing continued for what seemed an eternity, the trembling
increased, and then, suddenly, the roof came tumbling down on my
head. I pulled myself out of the rubble and, for the first time in God
knows how long, gazed beyond the fallen walls of my confinement.
That was last night, I think. I’ve been wandering about since then
in semi-darkness, in what seems a maze of tunnels, torn between
the fear I’ll never find a way out and the prospect of emerging onto
a conquered planet.
There’s cool, fresh water here and there, seeping from the cavern
walls, and little roots growing out of the ground. (And you’re
thinking, Now, after all these pages, he begins to explain how he
gets his sustenance! But you’re forgetting that this is big Part Two
of The Last Great American Sci-fi Fantasy Novel, and so you
should consider that, while in Part One, for the most part things
only seemed to happen - so that it really wasn’t necessary to
explain such mundane details as how I ate and drank, or for that
matter, where and how I relieved myself - here, in Part Two, maybe
things are actually happening, such as me escaping from the ruins
of my prison - which may or may not have large scale metaphorical
connotations, but which, quite apart from that, would justify the
realistic details I’m providing about grubbing roots and water. But
this does not convince you, since you’re skeptical about this whole
“Big Part Two” thing. How can there be a Part Two without a Part
One? - which of course there is, but retroactively. That is, when I
reached the end of Part One and felt the possibility of something
new and different and important, I chose to call it Part Two, which
automatically made of everything written earlier Part One. This is
what happens when you begin a novel without a plan: the form
emerges in the telling. And if I choose not to go back and inscribe,
above Chapter One at the beginning, PART ONE, then the creative
process I’m exploring is manifest in the technique I employ. The
real subject of modern literature is writing itself.)
But you want to get back to the story. The tunnel forks; I choose
the brighter path, fairly certain now that I’m ascending. Despite my
many misgivings I hasten toward my story’s denouement. I
stumble, I tear my black and white striped pajamas, I continue with
dogged resolution. And suddenly, in the distance, I see a point of
light that must be an opening leading to the surface!
Whatever happens, nothing will surprise me. I’ve had ample time,
over the past several hours, to prepare myself for every imaginable
scenario: a lifeless earth, rife with poison gases, a state of martial
law imposed by hostile yellow blob-creatures - I’m even ready for
things to appear unchanged - except for those strange little knobs
on everyone's necks, thanks to which they only seem to be their
normal selves (“Hello, we are fine!”) while in fact their actions, their
speech, their very thoughts, are controlled by invisible forces.
I reach the opening at last, take a deep breath, and pop my head
And though it’s impossible, I find myself completely caught off
guard, amazed by what I see.
So I’m stuck here, right at the biggest moment in the novel. Can
you help me? For the life of me I can’t think what to write! I’ve
painted myself into a corner, and any advice you might have would
What’s that you say? You payed good money for this book and
you want me to do all the work? After all, if the shoe were on the
other foot, and you were the one experiencing an emergency at
your job, would call on me to bail you out? You wouldn’t even
know how to reach me, and besides, if you could, you doubt I’d be
of any help.
Or do you reject my request on aesthetic grounds? It’s
ridiculous, you say, to be writing, in the twenty-first century, about
Martian invasions. Everybody knows the planet is uninhabited, and
even if NASA finds irrefutable proof there was life in the distant
past, there's not much hope that it ever was sentient, much less
blob-shaped and bent on interplanetary conquest.
Ah, but you’re forgetting that what we’re writing, you and I, is not
science, nor even science-fiction, but sci-fi / fantasy, somewhat
along the lines of Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles. Or David
Lindsay’s Voyage to Arcturas. Stories in which objective space
melts seamlessly into subjective space, where aliens and angels
intertwine - a genre that expresses with perfect fidelity the difficulty I
have in separating the outside world from the one within my head.
But I’m not going to argue with you. In fact the more I think about it
the less I desire your opinion! Tell you what: I’ll promise never
again to surrender my responsibility as author if you’ll promise to
keep your ideas to yourself.
So I climb out from that hole in the ground and find myself inside
the novel, Moby Dick.
A great opportunity! For I’ve always cherished a wish to dip into
the past and change things for the better, a secret desire to mend
the wrongs, to alleviate the grief, that lies so heavy upon the pages
of history. But a prime directive forbids time travelers, under any
and all circumstances, to interfere with what was. For, when it
comes to the past, change one thing and you change everything,
and before you know it things have been altered in such a way that
you don’t even exist (in which case you couldn’t possibly have
changed them in the first place - a real headache and a
But literature is different, or at the moment I choose to believe so,
and I rejoice at the prospect of entering into the world of make-
believe, and becoming a player, affecting, with impunity, the
course and outcome of famous novels which, once altered, will
probably seem always to have been that way.
Quickly, I find the world of fiction as intransigent as my own. Ahab
is not to be dissuaded in his hunt, even by the semi-miraculous
apparition of a soothsayer from a higher dimension. And the White
Whale, bloodied by Queequeg’s harpoons, is mad with pain and
thirsts only for destruction. Just like back home, I find here that
once violence is unleashed, and hatred grown out of control,
nobody is interested in listening.
So like Gumby I slip away from that ill-starred ship and find my way
into the town of La Mancha. And while Quixote sleeps in the field
(lightly, with his wooden lance at his side) I hold whispered
conversation with his squire, Sancho Panza, doing my best to
convince him, not so much that his master’s quest is madness (for a
little derring-do, even if misguided, is not such a bad thing) but that
it’s inadvisable to disappear without notice on his wife and children.
But it’s no use: his head if filled with promises of fortune and of
fame. Like my teenage pal in the subway who gave his girlfriend’s
flowers to a beautiful stranger, this simple peasant is prepared to
forfeit all he knows and loves for a truly impossible dream.
I walk away, shaking my head. I’m in a bad mood now: at first
glance I was ready to thank the Martians for transforming our planet
into this giant, animated library, but now I’m not sure how I feel. It’s
an old story - an enlightened being enters into a troubled world,
bubbling with good advice - and nobody pays him any heed.
Maybe I need to adopt a new strategy: perhaps if I act more
decisively, perhaps, even, if I provide just a little demonstration of
And I know just the place to try this out.
I find the boy inventor hard at work, building some kind of machine
that can communicate with distant star systems while ending world
hunger here on earth at the same time.
“Isn’t it past your bedtime, junior?” I say.
The slender youth with close-cropped blond hair looks up from his
“Excuse me, sir?” he says pleasantly.
“It’s time for your diaper change,” I persist, doing my best to irk this
unflappable paragon of virtue.
At this point Tom’s father, the elder genius scientist, enters the
scene, his brow wrinkled with paternal concern.
“What’s seems to be the problem?” he wants to know.
“Shut up,” I answer.
The man is taken aback, and momentarily speechless. I feel like an
idiot, insulting these cardboard caricatures. And though I’m
ashamed of my behavior, bad manners (as we’ve seen) have a way
of spinning out of control. I’m on a roll.
Then Bud Barclay, Tom’s dark-haired chum, appears. Not as
bright, but happy-go-lucky, faithful as a Saint Bernard, and always
ready to wield his formidable fists in defence of his friends.
Before he can even get warmed up, I sucker-punch him in the jaw,
sending him reeling. Tom Swift leaps up from his desk and barrels
toward me, hoping to ram me into next week. But I sidestep his
charge and shove him into a case of glass phials filled with
Is this what the Martians had in mind? Have they set us loose upon
our legacy, and are they enjoying the show as we repudiate the
things we’ve made, doing their dirty work for them, leaving an
empty husk of a burnt-out planet for them to claim without having to
lift a finger?
Mayhem, flames and screaming voices. Suddenly, from the
kitchen, Tom Swift’s mother comes running in with his sister Sallie
at her heels. The elder woman catches me by surprise, and sends
me flying with a drop-kick. Her teenage daughter lands on top of
me with her elbow in my esophagus. Mother grabs my ankle and
begins to twist in a most unnatural manner.
“Say Uncle!” Sallie hisses, “or we’ll break your bones!”
In the heat and the choking smoke, in the midst of my pain, I start to
lose consciousness. And as I fade to oblivion I realize that my
mission is fulfilled: my actions have provoked these women to rise
from the stifling stereotypes of their inheritance, to ascend beyond
the trivial fate intended for them by their author, to enter, through
their own efforts, into a life more real and true. It is my fate in this
world to be misunderstood - to be taken for the evil one, while in
fact it is through my sacrifice that others can live more fully.
Uncle! I croak, and with my last word I wonder: will they build
around me, once I’m gone, a new religion?
So for the second time in this novel I find myself dead. Of course
the fact that I’m awakening to notice this is already good news: it’s
generally to be preferred to oblivion (although last summer when
my tooth was aching and the dentist was away I yearned, with my
whole heart, for oblivion).
My eyes are shut and, like the child with frozen toes coming home
from sleighing, who hesitates for a moment before stepping in from
the cold, the better to enjoy the contrast, I pause at the gate of the
great unknown, savoring one last time the possibilities over which
I’ve mulled, and wonder, in the dark, about the nature of the
afterlife. Onto what scene shall my eyes alight?
A world I used to know and now remember? A new existence
where I am a cow? The places of my dreams, become
substantial? This one, same life, eternally replayed?
To say the suspense is killing me would be a tautology. I open my
And of course, the first thing I see is Sue, leaning over me. Her
look of deep concern brightens into a smile as I awaken.
“Sue, you’re everywhere!” I exclaim, in genuine surprise.
“Where else would I want to be?” she responds. “I love you!”
I love you, quoth Sue.
Let’s consider that - let’s think about that hackneyed, obscure and
precious phrase that, like its speaker, stubbornly persists and finds
itself providing the only possible ending to the Last Great American
Sci-fi Fantasy Novel (a novel, I guess, more like a novella in size,
with an odd structure as it turns out - with a long Part One, and a
short Part Two that includes this little epilogue - maybe not such a
bad form after all, sparing the reader the kind of tedious, drawn-out
ending so commonly found in true novels!).
Let’s consider those words, just as, toward the beginning of this
story, we considered each word of our title: one at a time.
I is how Sue identifies herself, which, for her, I’m sure, has some
concrete meaning. But for me, who, exactly, is she? A perfect
stranger, despite the times we’ve shared? And stranger still for
wearing the mask of familiarity? Our relationship is in the form of
an asymptote: the more I learn about her the more there remains to
know, so that I move, over time, ever farther from grasping her
essential nature. And yet with blithe confidence she tosses this
word in my direction, as if to assure me that she (whom she calls I)
is no great mystery.
Then love, she says: this unfathomable companion describes her
feelings for me with the l-word. And though I disavow any
knowledge of her innermost nature, and can attest, as well, to her
ignorance of all theological subtleties, I think I can tell you what
she means by this word.
Sue loves me in the way that God loved the world into being out of
nothingness. Sue loves me the way the restless, surging ocean
loves the deep blue skies of summer. Like an unborn babe in her
mother’s womb, like tawny bird who’s chosen her mate for life, Sue
loves me helplessly and unreasonably, now and forever.
Finally, there’s me. Someone about whom I’d guess you’ve heard
enough by now - maybe you’ve even decided that my greatest flaw,
both as writer and as protagonist, is my inability to muster genuine
enthusiasm for any topic other than myself. You’ll grant me a
certain amount of credit for the ingenuity I display, in thinking about
myself in so many ways, but in the end the real prison I’m stuck
inside is my head. (And so if you’ve had enough, how do you think
All the more strange, then, to acknowledge that I really don’t know
much about myself. I find it easier to pose and quip, to invent
myself in words, to pretend I’m not real, than to look myself in the
eye. I’m easily pleased with myself yet endlessly disappointed.
And you? - you’re softening, as you read this, thinking, Aw hell, I’m
no better; it’s the way we’re made. Thanks for that, but can we
possibly do better than to lament the human condition?
I look into the eyes of my wife, portals to otherness, windows
beckoning outward. Can it be my salvation is staring me in the
Hopeless failure, self-centered and vain, maybe even non-existent -
none of these excuses will do. Because she needs me - to be, and
to be good. And I cannot let her down.
I pick myself up from the ground where I awakened. We’re
standing on the shore of an ocean that melts into the distant
horizon. A breeze kicks up; the sun is just beginning to rise, there -
in the east.
I think of the disciples at Emmaeus, and before I know it I’ve broken
into a run. I can sense, up ahead, where the day’s about to dawn,
that someone or something awaits me - a prophet, a messiah,
someone who pities our orphaned state, our desultory wandering,
who will explain what we need to know, give meaning to our lives,
and hope to our burning hearts. I’m filled with excitement and
A brilliant sliver of orange sky emerges from the sea, and by its light
I think I see two figures up ahead, one large, the other small. I’m
running now in a reckless way, stumbling in the seaweed, stones
and sand, gulping mouthfuls of crisp, salty air, and I can hear Sue
following behind, shouting into the wind.
Now I can see the figures clearly: it’s Skinny the elephant and my
granddaughter. As I reach them the sun spreads gold across the
waters of the world, and suddenly I understand - it’s they who are
looking for me. There’s no mysterious stranger out there, on the
brightening horizon, no ready-made explanation. There’s only our
children and the children of our children, each new generation
looking to the old, and they’re asking the questions, not answering.
Yes, the person we’ve been looking for is me - it’s me, it’s you, dear
Sue, it’s you, my patient reader: we are the retroactive gods, the
ones who invent the stories that will be told, and in the telling will
become true, will always have been true. Because our children
need us to, and we will not let them down.
Granddaughter climbs on my shoulders, and Sue hops up on top of
Skinny. With the wind at our backs, we proceed into the sunrise.
And so ends The Last Great American Sci-fi Fantasy Novel.