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Thursday, May 24, 2001
By Paul Ford
I suck so bad.
Oh, it's bleak. A moderate green bleak in your mouth and all over your hands, and spreading. The only way to clean out the bleak is scrub it with words.
For a few days your phone didn't work, and the day it's fixed, your desk chair breaks, so you whine more, your third straight day of whining. You bought the chair a few months ago for $400. It's a luxurious green-and-black-plastic-and-metal adjustable symbol of professional pride. Around the time you bought it you decided to get regular haircuts, open a self-employed retirement account, buy new sheets, and make a grab for adulthood. Now you have to see if Mitzi at the office supply store really will make good on his promise of a lifetime guarantee. You remember you must call tomorrow before 2PM, because the store is owned by the Orthodox, and they close early on Fridays.
All you did, was you just, you leaned over to pick up a piece of paper and the left armrest gave way, with a loud crack of splintering plastic. Suddenly, the universe seemed made entirely of impermeable, unscaleable walls. You are ashamed of your pathetic frustration, your weak-kneed response to cracking plastic, your consumer angst - and yet, when you face real adversity you tend to prevail. You think back to the time when you were on the dirt road that cut through a jungle in Africa, trying to escape arrest by the local corrupt rebel junta on your stolen BMW motorcycle, using a rubber tube you'd snagged from the hut of a heroin dealer three weeks earlier in Morocco to suck gas from the tank of a Range Rover owned by the slave-trader's daughter, whose virtue you had just sullied roughly at her narcotized, Uzi-armed insistence, before she passed out in the driver's seat, and right when you needed only two mouthfuls more of gas to drive the five miles to the boat launch, a python coiled around your leg, so in a moment you produced a lighter from your belt and spit through the flame, pouring an orange blaze into the eyes of the monster; in another moment, as it sprung back in slithering rage, and as the well-armed slaver's daughter roused from sleep at the commotion, you mounted the bike and, motor chopping, burst onto the road in a muddy blast, the back of the bike fishtailing wildly until you balanced yourself just in time to pick up enough speed to jump a 15-foot ravine, landing with a scream of passion and pleasure as you gunned the engine through another four miles of rough terrain, until the engine sputtered from lack of gas. Then, ditching the bike, you'd run the remaining wet mile in 6 minutes, and finding the boat unmooring from the dock, leapt 10 feet from the pier onto the bow, to the acclaim and relief of your paramilitary cohorts, patting your thighs to make certain that your pants-pockets were still filled with microfilm and diamonds. So why, if you could handle that situation with barely a nervous shudder, is it so sad to see an armrest snap?
Perhaps it's the confluence of other events which leads you down this gray corridor, for not only did the chair break, but today you received yet another rejection in the mail, from the people at United Press International, who sent back your comic strip proposal with a terse, uncomfortable letter suggesting that your work is "not marketable."
Reading the letter, you'd reeled your mouth to the heavens, and let out a cinematic howl. Except it came out a squeak, and the heavens were a ceiling coated in stucco. This is fine. They can put in the black, star-poked sky with a computer; they can dub in the anguished howl of misunderstood brilliance in post-production.
Your Mom reads your Web site now, and tells her friends about it. You went down to West Chester to celebrate her 60th birthday, splitting the catering costs with your brother, and she asked you questions about a sex story set in an Israeli bathroom. “I was just reading Ftrain”, she said, “right before I came over to this party. Such a surprise!” You blink timidly to hear the name of the site spoken out loud in a small restaurant decorated in stencils and stuffed rabbits and paintings in wicker frames.
How are you going to relate to the anonymous throng when your very specific mother, who birthed your little naked pink body through a doctor-sliced stomach, is reading? How are you going to talk about sex acts with live partridges? Accounts of repugnant hedonism at ad agencies? You have secretaries, bookstore workers, graphic designers, and cubicle-dwellers to entertain. But now, a maternal interest surveys your prose.
She will just have to deal. You once wrote about wanting to see an annoying friend violated by a pony. You were scared to post it, but soon received an email from a 60-year-old woman thanking you for putting such work on the Web. Several times, you've heard how glad they were that someone else could write so movingly of a coprophiliac wrestling coach, in a piece called "Scat on the Mat," which you took down from the site after a lengthy email campaign by the Wrestling Coaches of America and Focus on the Family, and the related story about globetrotting lesbian gymnasts, long-lost in a hard-drive crash, titled "The Lickety Splits." Anyway, you can't help yourself; despite your pompous moral attitude, you take too much honest joy mixing the ugly and disgusting in with search for love and peace.
And this is how you washed up, big gut and small brain, half-satisfied by the circles of your small life, which widen and contract with your stormy moods, life viewed through the nested mirrors of past experience, thoughts bouncing up from some unseen core, distorting through the funhouse of compressed moods and memories. When walking, you tend to trip and fall. Your floor needs scrubbing; you chew your nails and sometimes gnaw pens with such force the ink bursts over your face. At times you have a waddle of flesh around your face, and you squint, but other times you're passable. You phone women late at night and they tell you about their bodies; you tumesce, the ridiculous red of your face gleaming up with pillows behind it, the smile of the beast on your thick lips as you squeeze the handset. You are foul, despicable, and normal.
After you have written all that, all that purgative prose, you look at the screen and your eyes focus more widely, and you realize that even as you thought you were doing better, you've plunged off a cliff, because you're writing in the second person present tense, the tense of the dedicated whiner. Second person present tense is the nadir of modern prose, the cheap and easy immediate voice of adventure games and teen-angst poetry, the narrator's needy attempt to suck the reader into their mental sphere without first asking permission, to implicate the reader's in the protagonist's - and obviously the author's - faults and stupidities.
It is a humiliating mode of expression to affect, and you should know better. You vow that whatever it takes, no matter how much suffering and self-exposure is engendered, you will now switch, forever and in perpetuity, into first person or third person omniscient past tense for all narrative prose. You must, if you are to make something of yourself, if you are to be able to inscribe life with any grace, with intelligent, elegant context.
So you bind yourself by some inner law, some native, emergent principle of basic soul, and proclaim to the empty room that you will free yourself from the literary boundaries of the eye-screen-mind feedback loop, to loose yourself from the cheap invocatory power of here-and-now style. You do this because you see yourself, pompously and grandiosely, as a kind of variable translucent material for language, some days as a window onto other methods of thought, and other times as a prism, taking mundane white light of everyday acts and casting it into a refracted range of shades. Other times you place a blue filter over the lens, giving prosaic urban edges a sharp, sad pall, or you switch the gels to find yellow or rose in dark corners. You must be more wise, you decide, in the application of your word-color-abilities, and you must detach and float above the world of most first-person and all second-person prose, divorce your body from the narrator's vision. Reading these words back to yourself, you surmise that these pathetic, self-absorbed literary observations are empty of real depth, but you know they also speak with as much truth as you can muster.
There was a moment of transition. The narrator lifted his hands from the keyboard and rose from the chair. No one came in to take his place. In the silence of the room, he thought of turning on the radio, launching electrons into the speakers and vibrating the air in the apartment, because the sound of some music is as good as touch. He tensed the muscles in his legs. It was 11 PM. He eyed the thin mattress and decided not to rest or read, but to go out and walk along the streets, to feed at some cheap restaurant, to head in one of 4 directions guided by clean asphalt lines of southwest Brooklyn, which lead, all of them, to water.