We've reposted this story from our archives in advance of this month's edition of the Truth & Fiction podcast with guest James Greer. This very funny and insightful episode airs Thursday, May 9. More info here.
Even the sun runs late in Paris. In the pre-bloom dark, from an unshuttered window five stories above the street, Thomas Early could hear the Turks on the sidewalk arguing about attar of Damask rose. In Turkey the production of attar is strictly regulated by a state-run collective, but these guys were rogue producers, distilling in moist cellars the fragrant oil that had, in the past, both started wars and ended them.
But now the world was coming to a natural conclusion, so the arguments that drifted on currents of metropolitan air to Thomas Early's ears were not merely pointless (they had always been pointless) but distracting. He had work to do. He had to finish his manuscript. The ostensible subject of his manuscript was "The hardened sap, or gum resin, excreted from the wounds of the American Sweetgum," but the important part, the part that had to be finished before day's end, was a record of the last words spoken by Caeli Fax before she left for the countryside, where Thomas would join her when his work was finished.
Thomas turned away from the window and moved towards his desk, which was really a table, made of black alder (Alnus glutinosa) taken from the pilings of the now-collapsed Rialto in Venice and varnished dark brown. Before serving the Rialto the wood had been chopped from a copse in Clapham Commons and taken from there to Brighthelmston for use on its famous pier. But the pier, in fact a disappointed bridge, was already finished, so the wood was shipped to Italy. How it came to the atelier of Jakob Friedlander, ébéniste, in the 4eme arrondissement in Paris is a mystery, and possibly a scandal.
The table was piled with books and a confusion of manuscript pages, all covered in Thomas Early's tidy handwriting in black ink. He was wearing a dark blue polo shirt, short-sleeved, and black tennis shorts. His hair, cropped closely and without care, was dirty blonde. He was tall, 188 centimeters in his bare feet, and he was barefoot. His curiously ovoid face was covered in a week's worth of stubble, flecked with gray, and his small watery blue eyes were set back in their orbits, so that it was difficult to detect movement of corneas. His eyes had an acuity of 50 cycles per degree, which gave Thomas an extraordinary ability to distinguish fine detail from long range.
The room was small, approximately five meters square; and on the floor lay a faded 17th century Persian rug of excellent design. The light from the table lamp spilled over into a silvery semicircle on the rug, revealing an intricate rosette pattern that, although Thomas did not know this, predicted with uncanny accuracy not just his future but all of his futures. The tightly-woven wool fibers of the carpet comforted his feet the way a sweet caress will stop a lover's tears, in Norse mythology (see: Helmskringla).
We had always had hopes for Thomas Early. We had thought he'd be the one to stop the spread of World Fever, to find a cure, to save us. If anyone could, it would be him. We had not considered that, having found the cure, he would refuse to use it. That he would refuse to save us. Out of love. Out of the kind of over-whelming love that offers insight, that understands: the cure is not a cure.
The intervention of Caeli Fax proved crucial in this respect. She explained to Thomas Early the disastrous effects a plague of love would have on the human race; that far from mitigating World Fever it would in fact drastically increase the speed of its spread. Thomas was not easily persuaded, but because his mother had known Caeli's aunt in their shared hometown — Dayton, Ohio — he at first granted her his attention and after some time his trust. She brought him books: Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy; Blanchot's L'arrêt de mort; a biography of Salamander Pi. These were useful in his work, and too expensive for him to buy. She would arrive after midnight, and Thomas would light two fat candles (a gift from the Ecuadorian writer Charles Panic) that were now little more than hard pools of wax with furled edges impaled on the rusted wrought iron candle-stand (a gift from Oscar Delacroix). Thomas and Caeli often talked until dawn, or until Thomas fell asleep, at which time Caeli would slip out the window while Thomas drowsed, slumped in his leather club chair.
Caeli was slim, with delicate features, and graceful hands that she rarely used to emphasize a point. She would lay her left hand on Thomas' table, lightly drumming, and occasionally wave a lazy finger through the nearest candle's flame. Her right hand rested on her knee. Her large, long-lashed eyes, caramel brown with flecks of green, seemed black by candlelight, and sparkled when she talked, and sparkled more when she listened to Thomas talk. Most often she wore a tan trench coat over a blue cotton belted V-neck dress, and heavy leather boots with laces, though she would sometimes show up in old jeans with a white blouse, untucked. Thomas thought her very glamorous, precisely because she lacked any pretense to glamor. That she was not human only added to this perception. Her black hair was cut boyishly short, and she smiled often, which softened the angles of her pale face.
Her voice was light, especially in contrast to Thomas' rheumatic rasp, which for some reason had only deepened and thickened when he quit smoking, two years earlier. His septum had cracked in a snowball fight when he was eight years old, and never healed properly; as a result his nose was visibly crooked, and he had chronic rhinitis which, compounded by an allergy to dust mites, had eliminated seventy percent of his sense of smell.
—If only one of those compacted globes of winter had not made contact with my face, at such a time, in such a way. Maybe now, all these years later, I would be able to breathe.
—If you could build a time machine, by which I mean another time machine, obviously, would you go back and dodge that calamitous ball?
Most of the conversation between Thomas and Caeli was conducted in French, because they both felt more comfortable, or more at home, at least, in that language, though it was not their native tongue. "We are both exiles," Thomas had remarked, early on. "Everyone is an exile," said Caeli.
We had first begun to notice World Fever at the end of the last century, though at first we misunderstood both the symptoms and their underlying cause. When, a few years later, Under An Azure Sky (Expanded Edition with Notes) by Eddie Incognito was published, it was widely ignored. Thomas had been staying near Nice back then, looking for the soldier poet Gardner Stout, who was rumored to be living in an old farmhouse in a small hamlet somewhere in the neighboring countryside. He read Under An Azure Sky in one go sitting under the glossy leaves of a strawberry tree on the edge of a meadow and immediately recognized its importance. Within a decade, everything Incognito outlined in his book would come true. Within fifteen years, we would all be infected. World Fever is that powerful, that attractive; no one stood a chance. No on except Thomas Early. That, at least, was the hope.
Having finished the book, he put it aside and lay down in the shade of the small tree. He noticed a butterfly fluttering around the tree's hermaphrodite, bell-shaped white flowers, and recognized it as a Chapman's Green Hairstreak. Watching the little green imago, he realized that Gardner Stout must be very close. But he no longer cared.
That was probably a mistake, Thomas considered, sitting down at his table and shuffling some papers, looking for the heavily marked-up Wikipedia printout about the Rose of Castille. Gardner Stout had many bad qualities, but he would have recognized the importance of Under An Azure Sky. And unlike me, he would have done something about it. He would not have wasted his time undermining the Collective, or trying to find a publisher for his novel. These were both worthwhile pursuits, in themselves, and I'm not sorry I chose to do either, nor do I regret the time I spent on my two small volumes of poetry, but had I instead turned my attention to World Fever, I might not have proved such a disappointment to my friends.
The Collective had started out, as most things do, with good intentions. Literature was moribund. Books were not dying: writers were simply not writing anything anyone wanted to read. It was suggested that by pooling resources and ideas, a select group of the most talented young writers might come up with something fresh, something appealing, something that would enchant an entire generation of new readers.
Unfortunately, the select group of talented young writers could not agree on a new direction, a fresh angle. It could not agree, in the first place, on its membership. Who was talented? Who was not? What is talent? What is literature? What does it mean "to write"? What does it mean "to live"? What does it mean "to mean"? What does to what does what mean to what? And first of all, who?
The initial group was culled from a much larger group by a committee of older writers selected by another group of old men and women [that included writers, politicians, academics, journalists, critics, and (for the sake of inclusivity) schoolchildren, Catholic priests, Anabaptist ministers, Muslim clerics, vagrants, chimney sweeps, photographers, athletes from several sports, the wheelchair ping pong champion of Saint-Ours, a few circus freaks, a professional hypnotist, three psychiatrists, a man who could not pronounce the word "orange," a Freemason who denied he was a Freemason, which proves that he was a Freemason, a potter, a shoemaker, the CEO of a multinational bank headquartered in Paris and her husband, a bad painter, a very intelligent Labrador retriever, the head of the local Falconer's society, an imperious Nepalese woman from the tax department, a deaf and mute chess prodigy who communicated by spitting in Morse code, an ex-lion tamer, an artisanal AOC-rated goat cheese farmer, a troupe of mimes, an insurance salesman, a notoriously bad plumber, a leper, a giant sand crab, several species of fern, a barn swallow, a trained black bear, the ghost of Malcolm X, Jean-Luc Godard (who participated via Skype), the entire Swiss army, a Russian spy, and the Crown Prince of Sweden, all of whom were color-coded and ranked according to a complex rating system devised by a team of string theoreticians while walking towards (or away from) the Jardin des Plantes], all of whom had received their invitations by regular mail in unmarked envelopes, with the result that half the recipients simply threw their invitations into the trash, unopened. When the selection of older writers to select young writers of talent committee had achieved a quorum (there was a last minute panic that not enough Jews had been included, which received a strong objection from the grandson of an SS propaganda officer who had taken the Labrador retriever's place after shooting it in the head, but his objection was voted down, and he was beaten to death, after which three Hasidic men were coaxed from in front of the UGA Theater on the Champs Élysées), a vote was taken.
After the vote, over half of those elected to the Young Writers of Talent Committee declined to participate, necessitating three further rounds of voting until enough Young Writers of Talent could be convinced to form a committee and begin to formulate corrective measures designed to set a course for the drunken boat of contemporary fiction. Which is when the real trouble started.
One faction insisted that literature had become irrelevant to the lives of ordinary people, and that in order to remedy this, new work should strive not just to relate but to prove useful to the man or woman on the street. This was the Utilitarian Faction, to which Charles Panic belonged. Another faction stressed the importance of multiculturalism (the Pluralist Faction); still another pushed the notion that in order to engage, stories must excite the senses (the Satis-Faction). This last group was dismissed as pornographers, and quit the Collective in a huff.
The last, most powerful, and most secretive cadre of the Collective consisted of only five members, all of whom had joined with the aim of preventing the Collective from doing anything substantive. This faction called itself (albeit only among its members) the Anti-Collective Faction, or more informally the Antis. Meetings were held monthly in a small flat in Montreuil owned by Jérôme Soubeyrand, formerly president of the French Screenwriter's Guild, though he had left the movie business in disgust and vowed never to return "until they learn to respect the writer's work." Jérôme was a disheveled, professorial type with a graying beard and similarly graying, shoulder length hair. His flat was similarly disheveled. Books were piled on every available surface, with no sense of order or purpose. Dust balls the size of mice and mice the size of rats (because they were rats) roamed freely the few available avenues between the piles of books. You couldn't walk without tipping over a stack, which inevitably precipitated a chain of collapsing stacks that raised such a cloud of particles and waves you couldn't see, or breathe, or accurately measure the passage of time for some time.
Jérôme was very generous with his extensive wine cellar, and was always popping downstairs to retrieve this or that hand-labeled bottle of particular interest which he insisted on pairing with a specific cheese, also hand-labeled, or unlabeled, bought directly from some tiny cheesemaker in Brittany. He had very little money, but had managed to pay off the mortgage on the house, and what little he did make from sales of his books, or the occasional act of journalism, he spent on wine, cheese, and sausages that he would obsessively track down from the producer, wherever he or she might be situated. Thus every monthly meeting would begin late, and end later, and the next day no one could remember anything that was discussed, specifically, though everyone agreed that many things had been discussed, and with vehemence, and moreover that whoever had been tasked with taking notes had done an excellent job given the circumstances, and the fact that no one had remembered (or would admit to having remembered) to bring a pen. The thoroughness with which the Anti-Collective Faction accomplished absolutely nothing was taken as a grand success by its members.
Jérôme himself was a very fine writer. Not a major talent, but there were passages in, for example, Plain Air, that Thomas admired for their elegance of construction. Thomas had always found it puzzling that a writer capable of accessing the higher realms of his or her art did not do so always. Was it a question of not trying or inability? Once the imagination's unlocked, how do you stuff it back in its box? Or is it more like a current, that can be turned on and off with a switch, but sometimes you forget where the switch is, or you find a switch and flip it repeatedly but nothing happens, because it’s the wrong switch? Perhaps certain people had the ability to tune out the radio air, to ignore the torrent of voices and noises sluicing down the wind, and thus withstand the impulse to document everything.
Thomas did not have that ability, and furthermore were he to develop that ability, it would leave him still with the problem of sight. The unparsed scumble of colors that narrowed into focus when he concentrated his unusually sharp eyes on a swath of sunlit carpet in his office; the many-hued sky; the dirt painstakingly collected under his fingernails: all these and more, much more, commanded Thomas Early’s attention to the point where, in order to finish a job like the one currently under construction, he had to try not to listen, not to see. He didn’t think his powers of concentration were inferior to others, but he was afraid of his powers of distraction.
Not everyone can carry the weight of the world. Only those born to do so, and even then only with proper training and a willingness to sacrifice, can make the merest attempt. The world is heavy, and getting heavier each day. Its borders are folding in on itself: the world is getting smaller every day. And the speed of things! Thomas had a great deal to say about the speed of things, but just at the moment he was in too great a hurry to elaborate.
He looked down at the paper on which he’d been writing in his smooth, almost calligraphic left-handed cursive. Picked it up in one hand, blowing lightly on the paper to dry the ink, even though the ink didn’t need to be dried. An old and stupid habit, he thought. An affectation. When and where he’d picked it up he could not remember, but on the list of things Thomas disliked about himself, his habit of blowing dry the ink on a paper (which he did even when writing in pencil) was not even in the top one hundred. Nevertheless. It starts with the little things, he had been taught. A policy of tolerance toward skewed details will inevitably gather size and momentum until that policy comes to dominate the larger contours of your life: a lapsus calami becomes a lapsus linguae; and then life itself becomes one big lapsus, a descent into torpor where everything slides or is let slide by uncaring eyes.
Thomas had a horror of laziness, a physical repulsion at the thought of himself becoming lazy. In rare moments in between projects his limbs would seem to twitch, and his jaw clenched tight first on one side, then the other. He would knit his fingers together and wiggle them reflexively, neither church nor steeple nor see all the people but a squirmy sea creature yearning to break free from the ocean floor. He had refused to join any faction of the Collective in part because he feared that doing so would interfere with his work (which of course was the point of the Collective, so his fear in that respect was well-founded) and in part because he considered all but a very few of his peers extraordinarily lazy. When Jérôme asked him to join the Anti-Collective Faction, he had initially considered accepting, because the idea of interfering with the interferers appealed to him, but he began to suspect, even before their first meeting, that the Anti-Collective Faction was if anything lazier than any other faction, and further that their antagonistic pose was derived as much from apathy and arrogance as from as from any genuine alarm at the potential for harm resident in the very notion of a Collective.
He read again the words he had just finished writing down, the words spoken by Caeli Fax. A shudder passed though his neck on its way to the base of his spine as he read:
Darkness inside the muted light of sunset: when you stand in front of the window and stare at the far hills. These are the bad angels, gathering in gloomy bunches like poisonous grapes, parmite with blood. The leafless trees scratch with upstretched arms at scudding clouds, and in the growing mist barn owls perch on lower branches, scanning the radio air for the slow heartbeat of approaching doom. The bad angels grasp in their grasping claws the agenda of nightmares, larded with entrails of dead shrubs and bits of styrofoam and brick. You roll the heavy door across its track and fasten tight the locks. You know that nothing made of something can stop the angels, who are nothing. You've looked them in the eye and seen the end of time, and the end of time was a mirror. And still you roll the door, and still you light the fat candle, and the wax drips forest green on polished marble floor: you turn and find yourself inside a tomb, which is where you keep the rain, for safety.
But you are not safe. The rain cannot keep you bright for long, and your tears will only fall, unseen. There are corridors in this place that lead to holy places, but all the holy places have been destroyed, out of love, out of a desire to love that burns without burning — a plague of love, a cholera of kindness. Dig a ditch and wait for pistol shot in back of neck. Or is that too romantic? Would you prefer a meaner death? Shriveling for years in the data basement, in an old hard drive, dispersing bit by bit on the ocean floor of knowledge, frozen, unexplored, blind, pressed flat by calamitous gravity.Recursion is certainly the central metaphor for the text’s operation. But we quickly see that precise repetition does not occur; rather, variation emerges, creating comedy.
I did not expect this sadness, thought Thomas, shuffling the papers into order. Nor this fear.