Read “Waterspider,” a goofy postmodern time travel story by Philip K. Dick

“Waterspider”

by

Philip K. Dick


I

That morning, as he carefully shaved his head until it glistened, Aaron Tozzo pondered a vision too unfortunate to be endured. He saw in his mind fifteen convicts from Nachbaren Slager, each man only one inch high, in a ship the size of a child’s balloon. The ship, traveling at almost the speed of light, continued on forever, with the men aboard neither knowing nor caring what became of them.

The worst part of the vision was just that in all probability it was true.

He dried his head, rubbed oil into his skin, then touched the button within his throat. When contact with the Bureau switchboard had been established, Tozzo said, “I admit we can do nothing to get those fifteen men back, but at least we can refuse to send any more.”

His comment, recorded by the switchboard, was passed on to his co-workers. They all agreed; he listened to their voices chiming in as he put on his smock, slippers and overcoat. Obviously, the flight had been an error; even the public knew that now. But —

“But we’re going on,” Edwin Fermeti, Tozzo’s superior, said above the clamor. “We’ve already got the volunteers.”

“Also from Nachbaren Slager?” Tozzo asked. Naturally the prisoners there would volunteer; their lifespan at the camp was no more than five or six years. And if this flight to Proxima were successful, the men aboard would obtain their freedom. They would not have to return to any of the five inhabited planets within the Sol System.

“Why does it matter where they originate?” Fermeti said smoothly. Continue reading “Read “Waterspider,” a goofy postmodern time travel story by Philip K. Dick”

Melville’s Bartleby, but just the punctation

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Melville’s Bartleby, but just the punctuation.

I wanted to be a painter | Fragments are the only forms I trust (Donald Barthelme)

You’ve noticed the wall? I pin things on it, souvenirs. There is the red hat, there the book of instructions for the Ant Farm And this is a traffic ticket written on a saint’s day (which saint? I don’t remember) in 1 954 just outside a fat little town (which town? I don’t remember) in Ohio by a cop who asked me what I did. I said I wrote poppycock for the president of a university, true then.

You can see how far I’ve come. Lunar hostility studies aren’t for everyone.

It’s my hope that these . . souvenirs . . will someday merge, blur–cohere is the word, maybe-into something meaningful. A grand word, meaningful. What do I look for? A work of art, I’ll not accept anything less Yes I know it’s shatteringly ingenuous but I wanted to be a painter. They get away with murder in my view; Mr. X. on the Times agrees with me. You don’t know how I envy them They can pick up a Baby Ruth wrapper on the street, glue it to the canvas (in the right place, of course, there’s that), and lot people crowd about and cry, “A real Baby Ruth wrapper, by God; what could be realer than that!” Fantastic metaphysical advantage. You hate them, if you’re ambitious.

The Ant Farm instructions are a souvenir of Sylvia. The red hat came from Cardinal Y. We’re friends, in a way.

I wanted to be one, when I was young, a painter. But I couldn’t stand stretching the canvas. Does things to the fingernails. And that’s the first place people look.

Fragments are the only forms I trust.

From “See the Moon?” by Donald Barthelme.

Pierre Senges’ Ahab (Sequels) (Book acquired, mid-September 2021)

Ahab (Sequels) is the latest English-language translation of a Pierre Senges novel—and. Again, the translation is by Jacob Siefring (who’s brought us couple of Senges’ marvelous oddities) and Tegan Raleigh and is published by the good people at Contra Mundum. Their blurb:

The reader will find here the true aftermath of the adventures of Ahab, self-described captain, survivor of his last fight against a giant fish. We will see how this retiree with a wooden leg tried to sell his whale story to the highest bidder — in the form of a Broadway musical, then a Hollywood script. Along the way, we will encounter Cole Porter and his chorus girls, but also Cary Grant, Orson Welles, Joseph von Sternberg and Scott Fitzgerald, drowned in his alcohol, as well as a host of producers, shady to varying degrees. We will remember the passage of young Ahab embarking at seventeen for London in the hope of playing Shakespeare there, and the circumstances which presided over the meeting of the librettist Da Ponte with Herman Melville in 1838. We will learn, ultimately, the best way to make the Manhattan cocktail a success and with what tenacity the indestructible Moby Dick seeks revenge on his nemesis.

At 550 pages, Ahab, like Moby-Dick, is a big boy, but I’m looking forward to digging in.

As Goethe said, theory is gray, but the golden tree of life is green | Donald Barthelme

I know a painter who feels the same way about being a painter. Every morning he gets up, brushes his teeth, and stands before the empty canvas. A terrible feeling of being de trop comes over him. So he goes to the corner and buys the Times, at the corner newsstand He comes back home and reads the Times. During the period in which he’s coupled with the Times he is all right. But soon the Times is exhausted. The empty canvas remains. So (usually) he makes a mark on it, some kind of mark that is not what he means. That is, any old mark, just to have something on the canvas. Then he is profoundly depressed because what is there is not what he meant. And it’s time for lunch. He goes out and buys a pastrami sandwich at the deli. He comes back and eats the sandwich meanwhile regarding the canvas with the wrong mark on it out of the corner of his eye. During the afternoon, he paints out the mark of the morning. This affords him a measure of satisfaction. The balance of the afternoon is spent in deciding whether or not to venture another mark. The new mark, if one is ventured, will also, inevitably, be misconceived. He ventures it. It is misconceived. It is, in fact, the worst kind of vulgarity. He paints out the second mark. Anxiety accumulates. However, the canvas is now, in and of itself, because of the wrong moves and the painting out, becoming rather interesting-looking. He goes to the A&P and buys a TV Mexican dinner and many bottles of Carta Blanca. He comes back to his loft and eats the Mexican dinner and drinks a couple of Carta Blancas, sitting in front of his canvas. The canvas is, for one thing, no longer empty. Friends drop in and congratulate him on having a not-empty canvas. He begins feeling better. A something has been wrested from the nothing. The quality of the something is still at issue-he is by no means home free. And of course all of painting-the whole art-has moved on somewhere else, it’s not where his head is, and he knows that, but nevertheless he-

-How does this apply to trombone playing? Hector asked.

-1 had the connection in my mind when I began, Charles said.

-As Goethe said, theory is gray, but the golden tree of life is green.

From “City Life” by Donald Barthelme.

The world is unsatisfactory | Donald Barthelme

We are left, I submit, with the problem of her depressions. They are, I agree, terrible. Your idea that I am not “supportive” enough is, I think, wrong. I have found, as a practical matter, that the best thing to do is to just do ordinary things, read the newspaper for example, or watch basketball, or wash the dishes. That seems to allow her to come out of it better than any amount of so-called “support. ” (About the chasmus hystericus or hysterical yawning I don’t worry any more. It is masking behavior, of course, but after all, you must allow us our tics. The world is waiting for the sunrise.) What do you do with a patient who finds the world unsatisfactory? The world is unsatisfactory; only a fool would deny it. I know that your own ongoing psychic structuralization is still going on-you are thirty-seven and I am forty-one-but you must be old enough by now to realize that shit is shit. Susan’s perception that America has somehow got hold of the greed ethic and that the greed ethic has turned America into a tidy little hell is not, I think, wrong. What do you do with such a perception? Apply Band-Aids, I suppose. About her depressions, I wouldn’t do anything. I’d leave them alone. Put on a record.

From Donald Barthelme’s short story “The Sandman.”

A long sentence in which the miracle of surrogation is performed before your eyes | Donald Barthelme

From “Daumier” by Donald Barthelme.

Donald Barthelme’s Sixty Stories in reverse, Part V

I am rereading Donald Barthelme’s Sixty Stories, starting with the sixtieth story and working my way to the first and writing about it.

Previous entries:

Stories 60-55

Stories 54-49

Stories 48-43

Stories 42-37

This post covers stories 36-31.

36. “The Captured Woman” (Amateurs, 1976)

Simultaneously creepy and funny, “The Captured Woman is narrated by an unnamed man who has, as the title suggests, captured a woman. The story begins with a double capturing: “The captured woman asks if I will take her picture.” The narrator shoots four rolls of film and develops them in his darkroom. He and the woman have consensual sex. She demands to go to church. She writes a letter to her husband, offering him a once-in-a-lifetime chance to rescue her on a white horse. The husband refuses, and the angered captured woman commands the narrator to “Take me to my room and tie me up…I’m going to hate him for a while.”

In the meantime, the narrator commiserates with his pals who have also captured women. He lays out their techniques:

It is true that Q. will never get one. His way of proceeding is far too clumsy. He might as well be creeping about carrying a burlap sack.

P. uses tranquilizing darts delivered by a device which resembles the Sunday New York Times.

D. uses chess but of course this limits his field of operations somewhat.

S. uses a spell inherited from his great-grandmother.

F. uses his illness.

T. uses a lasso. He can make a twenty-foot loop and keep it spinning while he jumps in and out of it in his handmade hundred-and-fifty-dollar boots — a mesmerizing procedure.

C. has been accused of jacklighting, against the law in this state in regard to deer. The law says nothing about women.

X. uses the Dionysiac frenzy.

L. is the master. He has four now, I believe.

I use Jack Daniels.

Is “The Captured Woman” a faintly-sexist satire? Barthelme’s metaphor for his own repeated failures with women? No clue, but one of the story’s late punchlines suggest a depressive view of relationships:  “The trouble with capturing one is that the original gesture is almost impossible to equal or improve upon.”

35. “Rebecca” (Amateurs, 1976)

“Rebecca” is another melancholy “love story.” It begins with poor Rebecca Lizard “trying to change her ugly, reptilian, thoroughly unacceptable last name.” She then visits a dermatologist who can’t help her skin’s greenish hue, before going home to her girlfriend, Hilda:

Hilda is a very good-looking woman. So is Rebecca. They love each other–an incredibly dangerous and delicate business, as we know. Hilda has long blond hair and is perhaps a shade the more beautiful. Of course Rebecca has a classic and sexual figure which attracts huge admiration from every beholder.

Hilda’s been out for a drink with another woman—just a friend—spiking an argument between the pair that’s not ameliorated by drinking too many busthead cocktails. The resolution is simple and domestic—unusually sweet by Barthelme’s standards. He punctures it with a final note:

The story ends. It was written or several reasons. Nine of them are secrets. The tenth is that one should never cease considering human love, which remains as grisly and golden as ever, no matter what it tattooed upon the warm tympanic page.

34. “At the End of the Mechanical Age” (Amateurs, 1976)

Like“Our Work and Why We Do It,” another story from Amateurs, “At the End of the Mechanical Age” is another riff on Walter Benjamin’s seminal essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Both stories are successful, but “Mechanical Age” is divine—a phantasy-romance that turns the mundane into the heroic. The narrator meets Mrs. Davis, who owns a Mexican restaurant, in a supermarket. The pair takes up with each other, becoming first lovers, and then married partners. Meanwhile, God is in the basement, measuring the electric meter. There’s a flood, but our heroic couple survive it. They sing songs to each other recounting enormous mythical figures to come—giants with the mundane names Ralph and Maude. Like “Rebecca,” this story is a love story, but a melancholy one:

“The mechanical age is drawing to a close,” I said to her.

“Or has already done so,” she replied.

“It was a good age,” I said. “I was comfortable in it, relatively. Probably I will not enjoy the age to come quite so much. I don’t like its look.”

“One must be fair. We don’t know yet what kind of an age the next one will be. Although I feel in my bones that it will be an age inimical to personal well-being and comfort, and that is what I like, personal well-being and comfort.”

“Do you suppose there is something to be done?” I asked her.

“Huddle and cling,” said Mrs. Davis. “We can huddle and cling. It will pall, of course, everything palls, in time…”

Huddle and cling is an elegant, simple, and perhaps sad solution.

In Hiding Man, his Barthelme biography, Tracy Daugherty points out that Barthelme viewed an exhibition at the MoMA in 1968 called “The Machine, as Seen at the End of the Mechanical Age,” which likely influenced the title and content of the story.

 

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33. “A Manual for Sons” (The Dead Father, 1975)

“A Manual for Sons” is the second-longest piece in Sixty Stories (after “The Emerald”), and reads like an oddity among oddities. It’s an excerpt from The Dead Father, but feels ancillary to that novel (possibly Barthelme’s best). And yet, like its progenitor novel, “A Manual for Sons” is a big fat webbed up concretization of the oedipal anxieties that course through so much of Barthelme’s work. There’s a section with three “sample” voices of fathers, all stern, cruel even. One of these fathers enlists his son’s aid in building a deck—an echo perhaps of Barthelme’s architect father:

Now run me a line down that form with the pencil. I gave you the pencil. What’d you do with the goddamn pencil? Jesus Christ kid find the pencil. OK go in the house and get me another pencil. Hurry up I can’t stand here holdin’ this all day. Wait a minute here’s the pencil. OK. I got it. Now hold it straight and run me a line down that form. Not that way dummy, on the horizontal. You think we’re buildin’ a barn? That’s right. Good. Now run the line. Good. OK, now go over there and fetch me the square. Square’s the flat one, looks like a L. Like this, look. Good. Thank you. OK now hold that mother up against the form where you made the line. That’s so we get this side of it square, see? OK now hold the board and lemme just put in the stakes. HOLD IT STILL DAMN IT. How you think I can put in the stakes with you wavin’ the damn thing around like that? Hold it still. Check it with the square again. OK, is it square? Now hold it still. Still. OK. That’s got it. How come you’re tremblin’? Nothin’ to it, all you got to do is hold one little bitty piece of one-by-six straight for two minutes and you go into a fit? Now stop that. Stop it. I said stop it. Now just take it easy. You like heppin’ me with the patio, don’tcha? Just think ’bout when it’s finished and we be sittin’ out here with our drinks drinkin’ our drinks and them jackasses ‘cross the street will be havin’ a hemorrhage. From green envy. Flee from the wrath to come, boy, flee from the wrath to come. He he.

The chuckle after the line Flee from the wrath to come is particularly menacing. For the most part though, “A Manual for Sons” balances the seriousness of its subject with humorous absurdity and swelling rhetoric:

Fathers are teachers of the true and not-true, and no father ever knowingly teaches what is not true. In a cloud of unknowing, then, the father proceeds with his instruction. Tough meat should be hammered well between two stones before it is placed on the fire, and should be combed with a hair comb and brushed with a hairbrush before it is placed on the fire. On arriving at night, with thirsty cattle, at a well of doubtful character, one deepens the well first with a rifle barrel, then with a pigsticker, then with a pencil, then with a ramrod, then with an icepick, “bringing the well in” finally with needle and thread. Do not forget to clean your rifle barrel immediately. To find honey, tie a feather or straw to the leg of a bee, throw him into the air, and peer alertly after him as he flies slowly back to the hive.

 

32. “Nothing: A Preliminary Account” (Guilty Pleasures, 1974)

In a 1982 interview, Barthelme described using this story in his writing classes:

Occasionally I’ll read something that has some pedagogic value. For example, there’s a story called “Nothing,” which I also use as an assignment. When somebody is stuck, I’ll say, well, do me a piece that describes “nothing.” Sometimes if I give that to a whole class, when they’re finished reading theirs, I’ll read mine just to show how I dealt with it.

“Nothing” is a list that tries to describe “nothing.” It begins thus:

It’s not the yellow-curtains. Nor curtain rings. Nor is it bran in a bucket, nor bran, nor is it the large, reddish farm animal eating the bran from the bucket, the man who placed the bran in the bucket, his wife, or the raisin-faced banker who’s about to foreclose on the farm. None of these is nothing.

(Rereading the lilt here, I’m reminded of Big Thief’s jam “Not.”)

The list is a mix of absurd fun, a few great punchlines (“Nor is it lobster protected from its natural enemies by its high price”), and a heavy dose of Barthelme’s beloved existentialists:

Heidegger points us toward dread. Having borrowed a cup of dread from Kierkegaard, he spills it, and in the spreading stain he finds (like a tea-leaf reader) Nothing.

Like much of Barthelme’s seventies stuff, “Nothing” is a piece that strives to find meaning in failure:

But if we cannot finish, we can at least begin. If what exists is in each case the totality of the series of appearances which manifests it, then nothing must be characterized in terms of its nonappearances, no-shows, incorrigible tardiness. Nothing is what keeps us waiting (forever).

31. “Eugénie Grandet” (Guilty Pleasures, 1974)

Eugénie Grandet” is the only story included in Sixty Stories that uses literal images—photographs and drawings—incorporating them into a collage distillation of Balzac’s 1833 novel of the same name. The story offers a parodic summary of a 200-page novel in just a few paragraphs, including this notorious one:

Butter butter butter butter butter butter butter butter butter
butter butter butter butter butter butter butter butter butter butter
butter butter butter butter butter butter butter butter butter butter
butter butter butter butter butter butter butter butter butter butter
butter butter butter butter butter butter butter butter butter butter
butter butter butter butter butter butter butter butter butter butter
butter butter butter butter butter butter butter butter butter butter
butter butter butter butter butter butter butter butter butter butter
butter butter butter butter butter butter butter butter

Here, the conflict between Eugénie and her miserly father over Eugénie’s using too much butter in preparing her cousin’s eclairs is compressed into 78 butters. 

“Eugénie Grandet” isn’t just a parodic summary though. It’s also a send-up of middle-twentieth century values. In Hiding Man, Daugherty spends two whole pages on the story, arguing that it should be read within the context of its composition—namely, after the fall out of May ’68.

Daugherty writes,

In parodying this particular novel in the context of May 1968, [Barthelme] composed a potent political document. It not only touched on the rebellion’s seminal issues, but invoked the reinvigorated Sartre…[the story], firmly attached to modernist history, and appearing, as it did, in a mainstream weekly, tucked among ads for glittering cars, watches, and diamonds, is a remarkable American artifact.”

Ultimately though, “Eugénie Grandet” is a strong enough story that one can appreciate it without any knowledge of Balzac or May ’68.

Summary thoughts:  “The Captured Woman” is apt for misreading and “Rebecca” is a bit of a trifle, but it’s a tender trifle. “At the End of the Mechanical Age” is as good as anything Barthelme ever wrote. “A Manual for Sons” is wonderful, and I guess I’m glad it’s included in Sixty Stories, but it does feel out of place–but maybe that’s just because I’ve read The Dead Father. “Nothing” might make a great starting place for anyone interested in Barthelme.” “Eugénie Grandet” is great stuff.

Going forward (in reverse): The next six stories are all from 1972’s Sadness—including a favorite of mine, “Daumier.”

 

“Fanged, etc.” — Donald Barthelme

2020-08-02_185600_1

Fathers are like blocks of marble-giant cubes, highly polished, with veins and seams-placed squarely in your path. They block your path. They cannot be climbed over, neither can they be slithered past. They are the “past,” and very likely the slither, if the slither is thought of as that accommodating maneuver you make to escape notice, or get by unscathed. If you attempt to go around one, you will find that another (winking at the first) has mysteriously appeared athwart the trail. Or maybe it is the same one, moving with the speed of paternity. Look closely at color and texture. Is this giant square block of marble similar in color and texture to a slice of rare roast beef? Your very father’s complexion! Do not try to draw too many conclusions from this; the obvious ones are sufficient and correct. Some fathers like to dress up in black robes and go out and give away the sacraments, adding to their black robes the chasuble, stole, and alb, in reverse order. Of these “fathers” I shall not speak, except to commend them for their lack of ambition and sacrifice, especially the sacrifice of the “franking privilege, ” or the privilege of naming the first male child after yourself: Franklin Edward A’albiel, Jr. Of all possible fathers, the fanged father is the least desirable. If you can get your lariat around one of his fangs, and quickly wrap the other end of it several times around your saddle horn, and if your horse is a trained roping horse and knows what to do, how to plant his front feet and then back up with small nervous steps, keeping the lariat taut, then you have a chance. Do not try to rope both fangs at the same time; concentrate on the right. Do the thing fang by fang, and then you will be safe, or more nearly so. I have seen some old, yellowed six-inch fangs that were drawn in this way, and once, in a whaling museum in a seaport town, a twelve-inch fang, mistakenly labeled as the tusk of a walrus. But I recognized it at once, it was a father fang, which has its own peculiarly shaped, six-pointed root. I am pleased never to have met that father…

A chapter from “A Manual for Sons,” itself a chapter of Donald Barthelme’s 1975 novle The Dead Father. 

Huddle and cling | Donald Barthelme

…God was standing in the basement reading the meters to see how much grace had been used up in the month of June. Grace is electricity, science has found, it is not like electricity, it is electricity and God was down in the basement reading the meters in His blue jump suit with the flashlight stuck in the back pocket.

“The mechanical age is drawing to a close,” I said to her.

“Or has already done so,” she replied.

“It was a good age,” I said. “I was comfortable in it, relatively. Probably I will not enjoy the age to come quite so much. I don’t like its look.”

“One must be fair. We don’t know yet what kind of an age the next one will be. Although I feel in my bones that it will be an age inimical to personal well-being and comfort, and that is what I like, personal well-being and comfort.”

“Do you suppose there is something to be done?” I asked her.

“Huddle and cling,” said Mrs. Davis. “We can huddle and cling. It will pall, of course, everything palls, in time…”

From “At the End of the Age of Mechanical Age” by Donald Barthelme.

A gathering impossible/General merriment (From Pynchon’s Against the Day)

A DAY OR TWO LATER, Lew went up to Carefree Court. The hour was advanced, the light failing, the air heated by the Santa Ana wind. Palm trees rattled briskly, and the rats in their nests up there hung on for dear life. Lew approached through a twilit courtyard lined with tileroofed bungalows, stucco archways, and the green of shrubbery deepening as the light went. He could hear sounds of glassware and conversation.

From the swimming pool came sounds of liquid recreation—feminine squeals, deep singlereed utterances from high and low divingboards. The festivities here this evening were not limited to any one bungalow. Lew chose the nearest, went through the formality of ringing the doorbell, but after waiting a while just walked in, and nobody noticed.

It was a gathering impossible at first to read, even for an old L.A. hand like Lew—society ladies in flapper-rejected outfits from Hamburger’s basement, real flappers in extras’ costumes—Hebrew headdresses, belly-dancing outfits, bare feet and sandals—in from shooting some biblical extravaganza, sugar daddies tattered and unshaven as street beggars, freeloaders in bespoke suits and sunglasses though the sun had set, Negroes and Filipinos, Mexicans and hillbillies, faces Lew recognized from mug shots, faces that might also have recognized him from tickets long cold he didn’t want to be reminded of, and here they were eating enchiladas and hot dogs, drinking orange juice and tequila, smoking cork-tip cigarettes, screaming in each others’ faces, displaying scars and tattoos, recalling aloud felonies imagined or planned but seldom committed, cursing Republicans, cursing police federal state and local, cursing the larger corporate trusts, and Lew slowly began to get a handle, for weren’t these just the folks that once long ago he’d spent his life chasing, them and their cousins city and country? through brush and up creek-beds and down frozen slaughterhouse alleyways caked with the fat and blood of generations of cattle, worn out his shoes pair after pair until finally seeing the great point, and recognizing in the same instant the ongoing crime that had been his own life—and for achieving this self-clarity, at that time and place a mortal sin, got himself just as unambiguously dynamited.

He gradually understood that what everybody here had in common was having survived some cataclysm none of them spoke about directly—a bombing, a massacre perhaps at the behest of the U.S. government. . . .

“No it wasn’t Haymarket.”

“It wasn’t Ludlow. It wasn’t the Palmer raids.”

“It was and it wasn’t.” General merriment.

—Thomas Pynchon’s novel Against the Day.

 

“Imagination Dead Imagine” — Samuel Beckett

“Imagination Dead Imagine”

by

Samuel Beckett

No trace anywhere of life, you say, pah, no difficulty there, imagination not dead yet, yes, dead, good, imagination dead imagine. Islands, waters, azure, verdure, one glimpse and vanished, endlessly, omit. Till all white in the whiteness the rotunda. No way in, go in, measure. Diameter three feet, three feet from ground to summit of the vault. Two diameters at right angles AB CD divide the white ground into two semicircles ACB BDA. Lying on the ground two white bodies, each in its semicircle. White too the vault and the round wall eighteen inches high from which it springs. Go back out, a plain rotunda, all white in the whiteness, go back in, rap, solid throughout, a ring as in the imagination the ring of bone. The light that makes all so white no visible source, all shines with the same white shine, ground, wall, vault, bodies, no shadow. Strong heat, surfaces hot but not burning to the touch, bodies sweating. Go back out, move back, the little fabric vanishes, ascend, it vanishes, all white in the whiteness, descend, go back in. Emptiness, silence, heat, whiteness, wait, the light goes down, all grows dark together, ground, wall, vault, bodies, say twenty seconds, all the greys, the light goes out, all vanishes. At the same time the temperature goes down, to reach its minimum, say freezing-point, at the same instant that the black is reached, which may seem strange. Wait, more or less long, light and heat come back, all grows white and hot together, ground, wall, vault, bodies, say twenty seconds, all the greys, till the initial level is reached whence the fall began. More or less long, for there may intervene, experience shows, between end of fall and beginning of rise, pauses of varying length, from the fraction of the second to what would have seemed, in other times, other places, an eternity. Same remark for the other pause, between end of rise and beginning of fall. The extremes, as long as they last, are perfectly stable, which in the case of the temperature may seem strange, in the beginning. It is possible too, experience shows, for rise and fall to stop short at any point and mark a pause, more or less long, before resuming, or reversing, the rise now fall, the fall rise ,these in their turn to be completed, or to stop short and mark a pause, more or less long, before resuming, or again reversing, and so on, till finally one or the other extreme is reached. Such variations of rise and fall, combining in countless rhythms, commonly attend the passage from white and heat to black and cold, and vice versa. The extremes alone are stable as is stressed by the vibration to be observed when a pause occurs at some intermediate stage, no matter what its level and duration. Then all vibrates, ground, wall, vault, bodies, ashen or leaden or between the two, as may be. But on the whole, experience shows, such uncertain passage is not common. And most often, when the light begins to fail, and along with it the heat, the movement continues unbroken until, in the space of some twenty seconds, pitch black is reached and at the same instant say freezing-point. Same remark for the reverse movement, towards heat and whiteness. Next most frequent is the fall or rise with pauses of varying length in these feverish greys, without at any moment reversal of the movement. But whatever its uncertainties the return sooner or later to a temporary calm seems assured, for the moment, in the black dark or the great whiteness, with attendant temperature, world still proof against enduring tumult. Rediscovered miraculously after what absence in perfect voids it is no longer quite the same, from this point of view, but there is no other. Externally all is as before and the sighting of the little fabric quite as much a matter of chance, its whiteness merging in the surrounding whiteness. But go in now briefer lulls and never twice the same storm. Light and heat remain linked as though supplied by the same source of which still no trace. Still on the ground, bent in three, the head against the wall at B, the arse against the wall at A, the knees against the wall between B and C, the feet against the wall between C and A, that is to say inscribed in the semicircle ACB, merging in the white ground were it not for the long hair of strangely imperfect whiteness, the white body of a woman finally. Similarly inscribed in the other semicircle, against the wall his head at A, his arse at B, his knees between A and D, his feet between D and B, the partner. On their right sides therefore both and back to back head to arse. Hold a mirror to their lips, it mists. With their left hands they hold their left legs a little below the knee, with their right hands their left arms a little above the elbow. In this agitated light, its great white calm now so rare and brief, inspection is not easy. Sweat and mirror notwithstanding they might well pass for inanimate but for the left eyes which at incalculable intervals suddenly open wide and gaze in unblinking exposure long beyond what is humanly possible. Piercing pale blue the effect is striking, in the beginning. Never the two gazes together except once, when the beginning of one overlapped the end of the other, for about ten seconds. Neither fat nor thin, big nor small, the bodies seem whole and in fairly good condition, to judge by the surfaces exposed to view. The faces too, assuming the two sides of a piece, seem to want nothing essential. Between their absolute stillness and the convulsive light the contrast is striking, in the beginning, for one who still remembers having been struck by the contrary. It is clear however, from a thousand little signs too long to imagine, that they are not sleeping. Only murmur ah, no more, in this silence, and at the same instant for the eye of prey the infinitesimal shudder instantaneously suppressed. Leave them there, sweating and icy, there is better elsewhere. No, life ends and no, there is nothing elsewhere, and no question now of ever finding again that white speck lost in whiteness, to see if they still lie still in the stress of that storm, or of a worse storm, or in the black dark for good, or the great whiteness unchanging, and if not what they are doing.

“The Tale of the Two Hunchbacks” | An excerpt from Fernanda Melchor’s novel Hurricane Season

And Norma nodded and apologized and washed her blood-soaked knickers in secret so that her mother wouldn’t throw her out, so that she wouldn’t discover that her worst fear had come true, until finally one day Norma realized she’d been wrong all that time: the Sunday seven wasn’t the blood that stained her underwear but what happened to your body when that blood stopped flowing. Because one day, on her way home from school, Norma found a little paperback book with a ripped cover and Fairy Tales for Children of All Ages written across it, and on opening it at random the first thing she saw was a black-and-white illustration of a little hunchback crying terrified while a coven of witches with bat wings stabbed the hunch on his back, and the illustration was so strange that, ignoring the time and the ominous rain clouds, ignoring the dishes waiting to be washed and her siblings who needed feeding before their mother got home from the factory, Norma sat down at the bus stop to read the whole story, because at home there was never time to read anything, and even if there were she wouldn’t be to, with her siblings’ racket, the blare of the TV and her mother’s constant yelling, not to mention Pepe’s fooling around or the piles of homework that awaited her each night after washing the pots, which she herself had used at noon before leaving for school; and so she pulled the hood of her coat over her head and folded her legs under her skirt and she read the whole story from start to finish, the tale of the two hunchbacks, that’s what the fairy tale was called, and it was about a hunchback who lost his way one evening in the woods close to his home, dark and sinister woods where witches were said to meet to do their evil deeds, and that was why the little fellow was so frightened to find himself lost there, unable to find his way home, wandering blindly as night fell, until suddenly he spied a fire in the distance, and thinking it might be a campfire he ran towards it, convinced that he’d been saved. So imagine his surprise when he arrived at the clearing with the gigantic fire only to realize it was a Witches’ Sabbath: a coven of horrifying witches with bat wings and claws instead of hands, all dancing around the blazing fire in the most macabre fashion while they sang: Monday and Tuesday and Wednesday, three; Monday and Tuesday and Wednesday, three; Monday and Tuesday and Wednesday, three, and they were cackling their terrible witchy cackles and howling up at the full moon, and the hunchback, who, still unseen, had taken cover behind an enormous rock not far from the fire, listened to that cyclic chant and, unable to explain how, unable to explain the overwhelming urge that came over him, took a deep breath as the witches sang their next Monday and Tuesday and Wednesday, three, jumped onto the rock and shouted at the top of his lungs: Thursday and Friday and Saturday, six! His cry resounded with surprising force in that clearing, and on hearing him the witches froze where they were, petrified around the fire that was casting horrible shadows on their beastly faces. And seconds later they were all running around, hovering between the trees, shrieking and hollering that they had to find the human who’d said that, and the poor hunchback, once again crouched behind the rock, trembled at the thought of the fate awaiting him, but when at last the witches found him they didn’t hurt him as he’d imagined, nor did they turn him into a frog or a worm, or much less eat him. Instead, they took the man and cast spells to conjure enormous magical knives, which they used to cut off his hunch, all without spilling a drop of blood or hurting him at all, because the witches were pleased that the little fellow had improved their song, which, truth be told, they were beginning to find a little boring, and when the hunchback saw that he no longer had a hump, that his back was completely flat and that he didn’t have to walk hunched over, he was happy, enormously happy and contented, and as well as curing his hump the witches also gave him a pot of gold and thanked him for having improved their song, and before resuming their Witches’ Sabbath they showed him the way out of that enchanted part of the woods, and the little man ran all the way home and straight to his neighbor, who was also a hunchback, to show him his back and the riches he’d received from the witches, and his neighbor, who was a mean, jealous man, believed that he deserved those gifts more, because he was more important and more intelligent and those witches must be real fools to go around giving away gold just like that, and by the following Friday the jealous hunchback had convinced himself that he should copy his neighbor, and as night fell he entered the woods in search of that coven of cretinous hags and he walked for hours in the darkness until he, too, lost his way, and just as he was about to collapse against a tree and cry out in fear and desperation he glimpsed, in the distance, in the thickest, gloomiest part of the woods, a fire surrounded by witches dancing and singing: Monday and Tuesday and Wednesday, three; Thursday and Friday and Saturday, six; Monday and Tuesday and Wednesday, three; Thursday and Friday and Saturday, six, and with that the jealous neighbor scurried towards them and hid behind the same enormous rock, and at the next round of Monday and Tuesday and Wednesday, three; Thursday and Friday and Saturday, six, the vile little man – who, despite believing himself more intelligent than his neighbor, was not the smartest of fellows – opened his mouth, took the deepest breath he could, cupped his hands around his lips and shouted: SUNDAY SEVEN! with all his might. And when the witches heard him they froze on the spot, petrified in the middle of their dance, and that dimwit of a hunchback emerged from his hiding place and opened his arms to reveal himself, thinking they’d all flock to him to fix his hunchback and hand him a pot of gold even bigger than the one they’d given his neighbor, but instead he saw that the witches were furious, clawing at their chests and yanking out great clumps of flesh with their own nails, scratching their cheeks and pulling the flowing hair that crowned their horrific heads, roaring like wild beasts and screaming: Who’s the fool who said Sunday? Who’s the wretch who ruined our song? And then they caught sight of the mean little man and zoomed towards him, and with hexes and jinxes they conjured the hump they’d removed from the first man and put it on him, and as a punishment for his imprudence and greedthey placed it on his front, and instead of a pot of gold they pulled out a pot of warts that hopped out of the container and immediately stuck to the body of that despicable man, who was left with no choice but to return to the town like that, with two humps instead of one and warts all over his face and body, and all for having come out with his Sunday seven, the book explained – and in the final illustration of the story the jealous neighbor appeared with those two humps, one deforming his back and the other making him look pregnant, and that was the moment Norma finally understood how silly she’d been to think that the fateful Sunday seven was the blood that stained her knickers each month, because clearly what it referred to was what happened when that blood stopped flowing; what happened to her mother after a spell of going out at night in her flesh-colored tights and her high heels, when from one day to the next her belly would start to swell, reaching grotesque proportions before finally expelling a new child, a new sibling for Norma, a new mistake that generated a new set of problems for her mother, but, above all, for Norma: sleepless nights, crushing tiredness, reeking nappies, mountains of sicky clothes, and crying, unbroken, ceaseless crying. Yet…


From Fernanda Melchor’s novel Hurricane Season. English translation by Sophie Hughes. From New Directions (US)  and Fitzcarraldo Editions (UK) .

“I learned my realism from Kafka” | Art Spiegelman and Robert Coover have a conversation at The Believer

There’s a nice conversation between Art Spiegelman and Robert Coover at The BelieverThe pair have collaborated on an illustrated “novelette” called Street Cop. 

Their discussion begins with Street Cop but expands much further, touching on postmodernism, realism (“Our Zeitgeist has left us mostly with shards of media as our reality,” says Spiegelman; “When people ask me, I say that I learned my realism from Kafka,” replies Coover”), time and space, the desire for happy endings, and more. But like I said, it begins with Street Cop:

ART SPIEGELMAN: So first: why a street cop?

ROBERT COOVER:Well, I wrote Street Cop in 2019. It emerged, like everything I write, from anxieties about the present. I had written about private eyes, but the dumb street cop was something new. I liked the idea of a guy who would be technologically inept. It’s about a bumbler who began his career as a crook and drug dealer, before accidentally becoming a cop who stumbles his way through a techno-city where the landscape changes daily thanks to 3D printing—blurring past, present and future. His job is to convict suspects rather than solve crimes, but all he wants, really, is to return to the old part of town, a seamy noir-like zone where his urges, and their many flaws, are permissible.

AS:When I first read and signed on to illustrate your story early in 2020’s quarantine, I was grateful to dive into a Dystopia Next Door and escape the one that surrounded us even in the bucolic bunker in the woods we’d retreated to from NYC. Choking on an overdose of toxic news, and compulsively “doom-scrolling”—I really love that phrase—I found the Covid-free air of Street Cop breathable because at least it didn’t have the twin viruses of the Covid pandemic and Trump directly confronting me. Still, the very first picture I drew had Covids in it—it was inevitable that they found their way into the prescient present of the story.

Read the rest of the conversation here.

There’s a nice long profile of Ishmael Reed in this week’s New Yorker magazine

There’s a nice long profile of Ishmael Reed in this week’s New Yorker magazine.

The profile is by Julian Lucas, who does an excellent job covering both Reed’s extensive literary output as well as his biography. While Lucas’s profile is generally sympathetic, he doesn’t shy away from Reed’s many (many) battles (Lin-Manuel Miranda, Alice Walker, Ralph Ellison, the New York literary establishment, etc. etc. etc.).  The print edition of the article is titled “I Ain’t Been Mean Enough,” which comes from a line from Reed’s 1973 poem “The Author Reflects on His 35th Birthday”: 

For half a century, he’s been American literature’s most fearless satirist, waging a cultural forever war against the media that spans a dozen novels, nine plays and essay collections, and hundreds of poems, one of which, written in anticipation of his thirty-fifth birthday, is a prayer to stay petty: “35? I ain’t been mean enough . . . Make me Tennessee mean . . . Miles Davis mean . . . Pawnbroker mean,” he writes. “Mean as the town Bessie sings about / ‘Where all the birds sing bass.’ ”

Lucas’s Reed is not a cantankerous caricature though. We get a nice survey of the man’s works situated against his ever-evolving politics and aesthetics. Nor does the profile dwell too long on Reed’s earlier novels (which I confess are my favorites—the most recent long work of Reed’s I’ve read was 2011’s Juice! I had absolutely no idea before reading the profile that Reed has a new novel out this summer, The Terrible Fours)

There’s a measure of defiance to his late-career productivity. Wary of being tethered to his great novels of the nineteen-seventies, Reed is spoiling for a comeback, and a younger generation receptive to his guerrilla media criticism may be along for the ride. “I’m getting called a curmudgeon or a fading anachronism, so I’m going back to my original literature,” Reed told me. “In the projects, we had access to a library, and I’d go get books by the Brothers Grimm.” Now, he says, “I’m reverting to my second childhood. I’m writing fairy tales.”

 

Traveling Salesman — Stuart Dybek

“Traveling Salesman”

by

Stuart Dybek


He finds himself stepping off the bus in some burg he’s already bored with. Picking his teeth for 200 miles—here’s where he spits the toothpick out. Past Holiday Inn the neighborhoods get dark. All-night laundromats where women with circles under their eyes press laundered underwear, warm as bread, against their sinuses. Finally, he’s signing the register at a funeral home where he knows no one, but is mistaken for a long-lost friend of the deceased, for someone who has dislocated his life to make the hazardous journey on a night when the dead man’s own children have avoided him. Once again instinct has taken him where he’s needed; where the unexpected transforms routine into celebration. He kneels before the corpse, striking his forehead against the casket.

“Cities and Eyes 4” — Italo Calvino

Cities and Eyes 4.

When you have arrived at Phyllis, you rejoice in observing all the bridges over the canals, each different from the others: cambered, covered, on pillars, on barges, suspended, with tracery balustrades. And what a variety of windows looks down on the streets: mullioned, Moorish, lancet, pointed, surmounted by lunettes or stained-glass roses; how many kinds of pavement cover the ground: cobbles, slabs, gravel, blue and white tiles. At every point the city offers surprises to your view: a caper bush jutting from the fortress’ walls, the statues of three queens on corbels, an onion dome with three smaller onions threaded on the spire. “Happy the man who has Phyllis before his eyes each day and who never ceases seeing the things it contains,” you cry, with regret at having to leave the city when you can barely graze it with your glance.

But it so happens that, instead, you must stay in Phyllis and spend the rest of your days there. Soon the city fades before your eyes, the rose windows are expunged, the statues on the corbels, the domes. Like all of Phyllis’ inhabitants, you follow zigzag lines from one street to another, you distinguish the patches of sunlight from the patches of shade, a door here, a stairway there, a bench where you can put down your basket, a hole where your foot stumbles if you are not careful. All the rest of the city is invisible. Phyllis is a space in which routes are drawn between points suspended in the void: the shortest way to reach that certain merchant’s tent, avoiding that certain creditor’s window. Your footsteps follow not what is outside the eyes, but what is within, buried, erased. If, of two arcades, one continues to seem more joyous, it is because thirty years ago a girl went by there, with broad, embroidered sleeves, or else it is only because that arcade catches the light at a certain hour like that other arcade, you cannot recall where.

Millions of eyes look up at windows, bridges, capers, and they might be scanning a blank page. Many are the cities like Phyllis, which elude the gaze of all, except the man who catches them by surprise.

From Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino; translation by William Weaver.