Nick Wolven’s stories have appeared in the New England Review, Asimov’s Science Fiction, and other publications.
Pynchon Me, I’m Oneirophrenic
Someone was speaking: this was the surmise of internationally acclaimed boy wonder and celebrity wordhound Trip Etchemendy. Someone was speaking, and if he were a socially competent, sane, relatively well-functioning human being, he would be speaking back.
Trip Etchemendy could not see the speaker. He could not see her because his eyes were closed. His eyes were closed because they hurt like an axe in the head, and they hurt that way because they had been strained, horribly strained, mercilessly strained and seared and abused to the extent that they would perhaps never be optimally useful again. Trip Etchemendy wanted to weep over the state of his poor strained eyes. Of course he couldn’t do that, daren’t do that, excessively violent weeping having been, in fact, one of the factors responsible for the straining.
“… very pleased, Mr. Etchemendy,” a woman was saying, “to have you with us on our show tonight. I have to confess, I’m still working on getting through your novel, but I hope you’ll be able to tell us …”
Weep for me, Trip Etchemendy wanted to say. Weep for me, unseen woman, and my poor, abused, weeping-incapable eyes. He forced his lids to rise. He forced himself to focus. He forced himself to consider his surroundings, however overwhelming and punishing and unpleasant they might turn out to be.
Trip Etchemendy was sitting in a TV studio. It resolved blackly around him, it rushed darkly upon him, it assailed and oppressed and stupefied his senses. He tried not to have an outsized nervous reaction. He failed. The four big cameras on their staged pneumatic pedestals, two slotted for easy sliding into black rails that rose like volcanic rock from the solution-dyed nylon carpeting, the Triax cables roping this technospectatorial fleet to the distant authority of the CCU, the lighting rig splendid and scary with its assortment of gargoylish shapes, the glow of halogen gas from a box rocked in a trunnion arm’s psychotic smile—
Trip Etchemendy pressed his palms to his head. The show’s hostess leaned toward him from her deliberately unarresting armchair, smiling, her whitened teeth blazing in the glare of heated tungsten.
“… have to say, Mr. Etchemendy, even though I haven’t quite gotten through your new novel, yet, I find it absolutely amazing so far. An amazing feat. Your knowledge is simply … vast, is the only word. And your mind, it must be such a fascinating place. You know, it’s kind of surprising to me, I have to admit, but I’m actually sort of looking forward to the next three thousand pages.”
Interesting sound, Trip Etchemendy was thinking, this woman’s voice. How it jumped almost a third in pitch every four, five syllables, but with a weird and almost imperceptible tendency to sustain back vowels, creating an odd race of tone and stress that reminded him at once of the looping polyrhythms of Indian percussion and an f(x-2) mapping of Ancient Greek hexameter—
No, no, no! Trip Etchemendy pressed his temples, struggling to compact and contain the explosively busy space between his ears. No, he couldn’t think that way. Not now, not here. He had to focus, listen, talk.
“Let’s talk,” said the hostess, “about your novel.” She lifted the novel by one of its convenient microfiber straps from the pine coffee table between their catercorner chairs. Trip Etchemendy couldn’t prevent his mind from noting that her skirt seemed to be peach cotton-nylon brocade under all-cotton tulle, a faint spirance of synth fiber underlining her untelegenic grunt as she eased his opus into her lap, carefully positioning, not without strain, the big block of paper so that its irreverently angled and glitter-dusted title faced the zooming-in cameras and studio audience.
“Pynchon Me,” the hostess read, “I’m Oneirophrenic. Where did you come up with such an unusual title?”
I didn’t, Trip Etchemendy thought. Udo Masters did. Aloud he said, “It’s uh, you know, meant to be at once a sort of pomo ode to a kind of literary father figure as well as, you know, like an instance of the ideal he’s come, perhaps unfairly, to represent as well as also, you know, like a sort of hiply distant but not entirely ironic comment on the ironies of same.”
Good God, what was he talking about? The cushion on Trip’s chairback chafed his nape. The wire coils curling above looked to him like a linear weft warped in a Riemannian manifold. A studio footman’s shoe scuffed a carpet-covered riser. The brigade of cameras wired into their RDM hive-mind put Trip Etchemendy in mind of the academic subdiscipline that treats cyborgs as a pop metonym for Deleuze’s Body without Organs, or of the idea, so deeply French that even thinking it practically filled his mouth with a flavor of fleur-de–tilleul-tinctures, that a person’s basically a product of what he produces, be that laws or ideas or, Thoth-have-mercy, novels—
Trip Etchemendy wanted to put a drill through his head.
“Now, in this remarkable first novel,” the hostess said, “published just after you turned nineteen, you brilliantly braided the politics of Polynesian ethnographics with statistical efforts to taxonomize MesoAmerican logograms”—she was reading off a teleprompter, Trip Etchemendy divined from her shifty eyes—”spicing this delectably erudite mix of subjects with humorous riffs on the Popsi Twins, the subculture of fanatical snack cake enthusiasts, a magical-realist reimagining of the Nazi attack on Yugoslavia, and a delightful dollop of DeLillo-esque social commentary. Reviewers said your book was”—here she read from a card in her hands—”‘a gooey, salty, carbohydrate-rich feast for the frontal lobes’; ‘the kind of variegated masterpiece that would emerge if Richard Feynman, Diogenes, Spinoza, and Donald Duck got drunk on absinthe and recorded themselves playing Cranium for forty straight days’; ‘the greatest display of verbal resourcefulness since mankind invented a word for love.’ The Village Voice called it ‘a sucker punch to the diaphragm of every OED-toting, Gaddis-reading, faux-mo post-meta Wallace wannabe this side of Avenue C, irrefutably the most daring and momentous collation of data since the emergence of eukaryotic cells.’ What do you think of the response your book has generated?”
Trip Etchemendy felt rather as if, right now, he were going through all of puberty again in the space of five seconds.
“For me, I’ll say one thing,” the hostess said. “You know you’re in for a thrilling reading experience when you have to look up just the title of a book in the dictionary.” Her buccinators contracted, relaxed, contracted.
“It’s not really a very felicitous usage.” Trip Etchemendy squirmed in his chair. “Oneirophrenia. From the Greek for ‘dream-minded.’ Meaning a hallucinatory state brought on by lack of sleep or drugs or like sensory deprivation or, you know, some other mind-bending thing. So the idea is if you call yourself oneirophrenic you’re basically saying, ‘Hey, I’m hallucinating. Help!'” He carefully recrossed his legs. “The thing is, though, it’s sort of become the definitive modern American experience, I think. Because of the bombarding of stimuli, et cetera. Because of the blurring of fantasy and reality, et cetera. So the irony is, while I’m asking for this kind of pinch to wake up, the book is itself, underneath, you know, kind of an effort to contribute to the essential dream-mindedness from which we’re all now suffering.”
“Dream-mindedness,” said the hostess. “Is that what you’d call your theme?”
Trip Etchemendy was thinking that the weave of lashes when he half-closed his eyes converted the studio glare to a Bocklin background. Trip Etchemendy was thinking that the seemingly uniform murk contrived by half-closed eyes perhaps results from something akin to an alias in optical singles produced by the mesh of two interfering fringes. Trip Etchemendy was thinking about the illusory switching of time’s arrow and smearing of space to one dusky shiver in the spokes of spinning bicycle wheels, about the logo-like swoops of light that result from the eye’s blurring of rasterized drops suspended in the grid of a rained-on wire screen, about how the streaky shimmer of such rainy runes often has, in certain weather, the glossily innerlit look of the milky whorls within oyster shells.
“Yes,” said Trip Etchemendy. “Dream-mindedness. That’s it.”
“Let’s go on,” the hostess said, “and say a word about your competition.”
Trip Etchemendy’s posture became minutely more tense.
“Textual analyses,” the hostess said, “indicate that your novel Pynchon Me, at 3,176 six-by-nine pages, contains an average of seven facts per page with an esoterica score of six or better, ten exotic words per page with a sixty-five percent rate of derivation from Greco-Latin roots, an average sentence length of 307 words, and one remarkable typographical innovation—that is, having each book printed in ink that contains a tiny quantity of your own blood.”
“Technically …” Trip Etchemendy said, and mumbled inaudibly about Avogadro.
“And yet, only a few months after you published your book,” the hostess continued, “a young man named J.O.P. Whippleton, at the age of seventeen-and-a-half, published a novel five percent longer than yours, with six typographical innovations, including two hundred pages printed by cognitive induction, a fifteen percent G-L derivation index, a five percent Persian derivation index, two chapters written entirely in an invented Korean dialect, eight unusual facts per page, and an average sentence length of 1,656,747 words; in fact, the entire book is one long sentence. What do you make of these statistics?”
“Um,” said Trip Etchemendy. He suspected he was currently sweating at a high, for a human, sverdrup fraction.
“Whippleton has said that his book,” the hostess continued, “is an effort to remedy the disaffection of the postmillennial pop aesthetic by recasting it in the natural idiom of Western culture’s collective unconsciousness. Do you see yourself as having a similar goal?”
“Urp,” said Trip Etchemendy.
“Not only that,” the hostess said, “but Whippleton called your book Pynchon Me an affected pastiche, clearly nothing more than a derivative DFW riff. To which you replied that his method of cognitive induction—that is, of thinking thoughts near a page instead of writing them down—was an abstruse contrivance. Whippleton then accused you of being a philistine opposed to the creation of challenging literature and, by extension, to all human expression. Do you have any rebuttal to these allegations?”
Trip Etchemendy held his head. His lips moved. His chin went up and down. “Whuff,” he said.
“Do you think you still have it in you,” the hostess said, “to top Whippleton’s latest achievement while in the prime mediagenic years of your life? Do you believe that, as you enter your twenties, you’ll have enough hunger to compete aggressively in the literary game?”
Trip Etchemendy got to his feet.
“Trip Etchemendy,” the hostess said, standing also, turning to the cameras and dim slope of live studio audience in the way TV personalities do when making a scheduled but ostensibly astonishing announcement, “do you think that you’ll be brave enough to take up Whippleton on his recent challenge to a head-to-head live read-off, on this very channel, before a studio audience, on international TV?”
The hostess, still facing the cameras and the world, winked sidelong at Trip Etchemendy from beneath a silicone-sprayed Anna Wintour coiffure. His head was filled with humming like an A/C transformer. Sweat spilled down the specially tailored moisture-shedding seams of his Hugo Boss sport shirt and J. Crew pants. He opened his mouth.
“My hippocampus hurts,” Trip Etchemendy said, and fell off his polystyrene riser.
“What the hell happened in there?”
Udo Masters, perched on the corner of Trip’s desk, looked down with admonitory eyes. They were in Trip’s office, deep in the book-publishing department of the Zeit-Life media conglomerate, and Trip Etchemendy was in huge, huge trouble.
“I’m not talking about the collapse.” Udo Masters picked at a tiny pill on the knee of his otherwise immaculate suit. “Collapsing is fine. Collapsing on TV? Better than fine. You’re a troubled genius. You’re supposed to have collapses. The thing is, you’re also supposed to say things before you collapse. Saying things, Trip, that’s your job, right? You’re a writer. I mean, hello? Words? Remember those?”
Trip pressed the heels of his hands to his smarting eyes. It was mostly the light of this office that had burned them out. The premillennial LCD monitor. The overhead fluorescents. An eblouissante brew of agitated rare earth and crystal-filtered backlight: a most potently toxic optical cocktail. Some kilim or carpet might have cut the glare, but the cell was Zen-bare. No décor, not even a plant. No distractions allowed. The walls asylum white. The single window was high up, small, and showed two gray stripes: one of building, one of sky.
A desk, an old computer, a coffeemaker … a pair of earplugs and a drawerful of dextroamphetamine … that was all Udo Masters wanted to see in here. These were the permanent features of Trip’s life.
“You’re supposed to be hyperarticulate.” Udo Masters was gently holding his own hand. “You’re supposed to be near pathologically eidetic and youthfully voracious for life and knowledge, throwing off regular flares of radiant intellectualism. You’re supposed to inspire a world of underperforming dreamers with transcendent fantasies of superhuman ability. I mean, isn’t this what we’ve been training you for, Trip? Isn’t this what I’ve taught you?”
Trip lowered his hands from his eyes. Udo Masters looked down with the death’s-head suavity of a high-culture Hugh Hefner. Udo Masters was, for Trip, what a Dickensian Freudian might have interpreted as a surrogate father figure. Udo Masters was his dextroamphetamine supplier. Also his mentor. Also his editor.
It all went back to a windy June day in the bus roundabout outside Trip’s Des Moines middle school, six years ago. It had been a difficult time, or so people said, smack in the middle of the informational riot that was the twenty-first century, and Trip had been twelve and alone and scared. He’d been alone because he was always alone. He’d been scared because his parents had come to pick him up from school, and now here with his parents stood a weird dapper man in a fitted suit who kept looking at Trip in a manner characteristic of men who are usually kept far away from twelve year-old boys.
“Trip,” Trip’s dad had said, “this is Mr. Masters.”
“I’m honored to meet you, son,” Udo Masters said, shaking hands.
At the table of the local P.F. Chang’s, over the course of the next two hours, Udo Masters had asked Trip many questions.
“So. Trip. You like to read? All on your own? No one makes you do it? You pick up a book like, say, Slaughterhouse Five, and you read it, just for fun, cover to cover?”
“Trip’s teachers tell us,” said his mother, “that his motivational matrix is very self-engaged.”
“And grades,” said Udo Masters. “I’ve seen your grades, Trip. Tell me the truth. You get those kinds of grades on your own? All natural? No cheating? No drugs? No prep? No implants? You sit in class, and listen, and take notes, and you get these grades?”
“Trip’s always had an above-baseline brain,” said his father.
“And now listen.” Udo Masters leaned over his Tuna Tataki. “Listen up, Trip, because I’m about to say something important and possibly a little weird. Do you like thinking, Trip? Consider your answer carefully. Do you actively enjoy the pastime called thinking?”
Trip had hastily filled his mouth with crab wontons. He could tell this was one of those occasions on which adults gathered to ogle, for reasons as impenetrable as all adult motivations, the spectacle of his freakishly oversized intelligence. What made these moments so awkward and speech-stifling was that Trip Etchemendy had been alive and conscious for a fair number of years, now, had spent more time than anyone else interacting with his own mind, and had never noticed that his mind was responsible for anything spectacularly dazzling. What his mind mostly was, it seemed to Trip, was lonely, and because his mind was lonely he tried to distract and occupy it, and the things he did to distract and occupy his mind, mostly reading, were things that seemed to make adults think he was supersmart.
As for grades, Trip’s older cousin had long ago told him the secret to getting good ones, which was never to take notes in class, because if you were taking notes you weren’t looking at the teacher, and if you weren’t looking at the teacher you weren’t reading the teacher’s body language, and if you weren’t reading the teacher’s body language you weren’t picking up on what particular three facts that teacher found to be the most exciting and egosyntonic facts in the world, and knowing what authority figures found to be exciting and egosyntonic was the single indispensable key to success in school and, in fact, all of life.
As for self-engagement, for Trip that mostly took place in the upstairs bathroom late at night and was decidedly not of a scholastic bent.
Udo Masters, however, seemed deeply excited about the products of Trip’s mental life to date.
“The fact is, Trip,” Udo Masters said over his beef a la sichuan, “I’ve had my eye on you for a long time. The drawings you did for Ms. Applechip’s advanced nursery school prep seminar. Your winning recitation of the binary string for the Icelandic word skylmingakappi in the second international Unicode spelling bee. The poem you wrote for your third-grade Send-a-Felon-a-Poem project. This stuff gets around, Trip. There are no secrets, not anymore. People have been tracking you. People have been reading your permanent record. People have noticed some promising signs.”
“And you think—” Trip’s father leaned forward, holding his chopsticks in front of his heart like two clashing swords. “You think Trip might have what it takes—”
“I don’t want to make promises.” Udo Masters, patting the steam above his beef, cautiously tamped down expectations. “The truth is, with only two big fiction publishers left on the block, stakes are high and competition is fierce. You’ll be part of an in-house stable, Trip, of some of the best minds in the English-speaking world. Zeit-Life will personally take charge of your education. It can be grueling. But with the proper training, with enough dedication, with the right performance-enhancing regimen …”
Udo Masters’s eyes leapt briefly to the grinning presenters on a nearby TV before settling admiringly on Trip’s face.
“Trip, I think you just might have what it takes to be a writer.”
In the single small window of Trip’s monkish office, the two gray stripes that made up the view had been dustily invaded by one another’s shades: the pale stripe of the sky with dark gray flecks, the dark stripe of the building with pale flakes.
December’s first snow was falling.
Udo Masters set a hand on the stubble that dusted his head.
“This is a disaster, Trip. I’m not going to mince words. An utter disaster. Do you know how you looked up there on TV? You looked weary. Do you know how you looked? You looked worn. You looked replete with ennui over the suberabundance of modern life. You looked like you wanted to retreat to a clean, well-lighted place and sip something mildly poisonous until you passed out on the pages of a foreign newspaper. You looked beat.”
Udo Masters hopped from his perch and began to pace the bare cement floor.
“Burned out. You can’t be burned out. Not yet. This company has invested the endowment of a small liberal arts college library in your study-drug regimen alone. What the hell have you been doing in this office, Trip? Have you been doing what I told you never, under absolutely no condition, ever to do? Have you been reading reviews?”
He spun on one Armani heel as Trip whispered, “No.”
“We’ve got this bastard Whippleton breathing down our necks, here. This is the final furlong. There’s only one thing we can do. You’ve got to take him up on his challenge. You’ve got to face off. Live. On international TV. A read-off. It could work. But here’s the trick, Trip. You’ve got read something new.”
“Something … new?” Trip closed one eye, then the other, trying to figure out which hurt less.
“You’ve got a second book in the works, don’t you? You told me you did. Hell on a biscuit, Trip, you’ve had two years of editing and marketing and post-production to start turning that superhuman noodle of yours toward a sophomore effort. You’ve got to have some follow-up work. Where’s the beef?”
Trip found that he was reaching involuntarily toward his desk.
“I do … I mean, I am … I mean, I have been … but it’s not …”
“I knew it.” Udo Masters’ palms smacked together. “What’ve you got for me? Kabbala? The Goldbach Conjecture? Cryptographics? LaPlace?”
“No!” Trip fell defensively across his computer. “I mean, I have something—it’s done, but—it’s not ready. Not yet.”
“Well, you better darn rootin’ tootin’ get it ready, bucko. ‘Cause I’m sending the word over. We’re taking this dare. Things like this don’t just distil out of the ether. By which I mean, well-publicized feuds. By which I mean, the most capital marketing opportunity that ever dimpled talk-show chairs. By which I mean, if you’ve got an audience showing up to watch a couple of writers cross words, boy, you damn well better sharpen your tongue.”
“Maybe …” Trip still half-hugged his grubby computer. “Maybe I could just pick up Pynchon Me and you know … kind of swing it around by one of its microfiber straps and you know … kind of just hit Whippleton over the head.”
Udo Masters knuckled his upper lip. “Hmm … clash of the literary titans … gladiatorial … a kind of David and Goliath engagement … no doubt, it’d be great TV. But terrible press. Better keep those cajones cool for now. We’re set to minimal Mailer, max Vidal.”
Udo Masters signaled the end of the argument with a fingersnap.
“Tell you what. Send me what you got. I’ll choose a killer passage. Something technical. Something lyrical. Something to really knock their socks off. We’re going to beat this upstart down. We’ll hit him where it counts: right in the reputation.”
Trip had never wanted to be a writer.
From the glass overpass that joined the two new towers of the Zeit-Life media complex, he looked down into the shopping crowds of Rockefeller Center. The old Art Deco piles with their gray limestone steps were overtopped now by Hadid-style curves of heat-strengthened glass on tapered frames, but classic Christmas colors still milled in the plaza below. This year’s tree was tin, huge, and heroically lit. Trip always found the holiday season to amount to some pretty tough livin’.
In the pocket of his jogging-suit sweatpants, Trip’s fist wrapped around his phone. With only a flick and tap, the whim of an instant, he could send his file, his sophomore opus, his second fictional work—the labor of a year—to Udo Masters.
Trip Etchemendy let his phone go.
He put both sweaty palms to the breezeway’s arched annealed glass.
What Trip was fantasizing about right now was what he always fantasized about after a public or promotional or televised appearance. He fantasized about the absence of the glass his palms now pressed. He fantasized about the swanning arc of an expert dive. He fantasized about a controlled and perfectly plumb descent through shearing December air. He fantasized about his body lying pulped on midtown pavement, spectators amazedly indicating to one another with gloved fingers the line of his dive even while semiconsciously shuffling to keep toes clear of his blood.
Trip had long ago decided that suicide by an awesome fall was the best kind of suicide of all. It wasn’t the public aspect that appealed, the high-momentum last hurrah, the superhero descent through shrieking scenery. No, it was the terminal head-first strike, the image of his wunderkind mind, supposedly so puissant and impressive, encountering at violently high speed something far more puissant and impressive than itself. It seemed a fine final conflict: one hot mind vs. one very hard planet. Who wins?
Across the square, on the facing tower of the Zeit-Life media complex, a face had coalesced in a two-story screen. It was a face with all the beamish cheek of precocious expertise. The teeth large, the eyes small. The smile merry and a trifle buck-toothed. The effect: winsomely boyish, a touch intimidating. It was the face of J.O.P. Whippleton, as of this morning Trip Etchemendy’s declared literary arch-rival.
No shopper in the plaza seemed to notice the screen. No shopper in the plaza seemed inclined to lift eyes skyward. But Trip Etchemendy noticed, with all the rods and cones of his mightily overtaxed eyeballs. Across the screen’s bottom scrolled a news-style ticker.
UPDATE: Viacom’s wonderboy author J. Whippleton to face Zeit-Life’s veteran genius T. Etchemendy in televised head-to-head live read-off!
The gauntlet had been undeniably thrown. No mere news crawler could sum for the public the flurry of preparations now taking place. Zeit-Life’s publicity office would already be emailing press releases. Zeit-Life’s two hundred streaming television providers would have their offerings shuffled to make space for the event. Contractual agreements and licensing arrangements were no doubt currently descending on J.O.P. Whippleton’s people like so much seasonally appropriate snow.
Trip could picture it. Trip had been through it. The head honchos of the Zeit-Life and Viacom conglomerates would mobilize every legion of their multimedia empires to ensure that awareness of such a potentially dramatic face-off reached saturation in its small but devoted target audience. Flame-bordered blazons would explode from the banner ads of a thousand web properties. Etchemendy and Whippleton: epic meeting of the pomo megabrains. Tune in 12.21 to learn which of today’s haut-lit wizards wields the most awesome wordsmithing chops. Teasers would intercut the streams of A-list shows. A prize would be announced: a golden pen, a scarlet letter. Meanwhile the viral marketers would seed literary venues with carefully confected trash talk. Branding Etchemendy a poseur. Calling Whippleton a fake. Spreading rumors of shoddy research and excessive recourse to thesauruses. Accusing both authors of doping, which of course both authors did. The word pretentious would make appearances. Reviewers would be impressed to write columns for the fiction fanboys to troll.
Sure, Etchemendy’s got a Lexile score way past 1600 but his lemmatized homograph-corrected manifest-vocab count’s only like 20K vs. Whippleton at 30+. Any comparison here? plz!
Whippleton=all brainz no soul. plus cognitive induction wtf? sry but its true suck it
As buzz built, network honchos, head and otherwise, would knock together the components of a one-off televised event. Backroom lackeys would arrange for suspense-building pre-show performers: a star of teen-romance TV shows plugging her teen-romance fiction debut; a new college phenom in supertight jeggings reading the racier bits of a tell-all memoir; army vets reciting lines round-robin style from NEA-sponsored postwar poetry officially priced at supra two hundred tax dollars a line. A panel of celebrity judges would be convened. The Wintour-coiffed talk-show hostess’s schedule would be checked. Finally a literary luminary (a plant) with credibility to burn would post an op-ed in a prestigious media-maven publication lamenting that the whole Etchemendy-Whippleton thing had been ridiculously overhyped. (Hyping the hype, Udo Masters called this tactic.) Udo Masters himself, puppetmaster of the blitz, would complain publicly of the stress excess publicity was causing his house’s most promising writer.
The fanboys would gather their stats.
The commentators would hone their comments.
Trip and J.O.P. Whippleton would polish their choicest bits of new material.
And from the pages of every high-culture publication, the question would ring out:
Etchemendy or Whippleton: who rulez?
Through the glass of the Zeit-Life breezeway, Trip looked longingly down at crowded cement.
His pocketed phone fibrillated his thigh.
We’re on for 12.21:1800, Udo Masters texted. So kid, tell me—where’s the work?
Trip Etchemendy had not always been a boy who dreamed of long falls onto hard surfaces.
Anyway, he didn’t think so.
Unlike his purported forbears, Trip believed, he was psychologically not innately deranged. Unlike Wallace, not innately depressive. Unlike Pynchon, not innately aloof.
Celebrity author Trip Etchemendy had once held a feeling reminiscent of candleflames flickering in the haunted caves of his heart.
I.e. been inspired. Inspiration was a critical faculty, Udo Masters said, for all Zeit-Life authors to cultivate. As important as vocab. As important as French. As important as cliché-aversion of virtually allergic reflexivity. Not quite as important, maybe, as the consistency and charisma of a distinctive literary brand. But close.
The publishing arm of the Zeit-Life empire even had a room devoted solely to the cultivation of this important-but-all-too-often-overlooked faculty. It was the only such room, Udo Masters said, in all the known edifices of contemporary publishing. It was called the Inspiration Room.
On the occasion of twelve-year-old Trip’s arrival, duffel on shoulder, tween nerves atremble, exactly eight years ago next August eighth at 10:05 PM, at the Port Authority Bus Terminal where Udo Masters was waiting personally to induct him into the rigors and splendors of the writer’s life, Udo Masters had alluded to this room as substantive evidence of what made Zeit-Life’s print department different and attractive and noble in today’s often Hobbesian mediaverse.
“I want to make this clear, Trip. We’re not just some plot-generating sweatshop, here. We train the whole writer. Inside to out.”
Udo Masters, Trip noticed, was the sort of pre-autodrive driver who still kept two fingers habitually on the wheel. The inside of his Lincoln Mercury smelled like pipesmoke: a special feature of the bespoke AC.
“What you’ll be doing, son, this isn’t like those little computerized pub-shops that mock up some content with plot-generating algorithms and bring in live homo sapiens only to tweak the slang. Zeit-Life plays that market, sure, but we also make space for the finer things. I’m talking this.” Two fingers left the wheel briefly to tap Trip’s chest. “I’m talking you, kid. Your heart, your mind. Your hopes and morals and passions and ideas. I’m talking dreams.”
The car bumped out of the midtown traffic over a recessed drainage grating and down the echoing grade to an underground garage. With Udo Masters’s hand on his shoulder, Trip humped his duffel from the trunk. Inside were ten changes of clothes and boutique paper versions of his ten favorite books.
“You smoke?” said Udo Masters. “Drink? Take drugs?”
“Well, don’t worry, son. We’ll show you how.”
This was before surplus doses of prescription study pills. This was before seven years of six-day weeks of twelve-hour days, ODing on prose and ambition and caffeine. This was before daily lessons in Greek, Calc, coding, vocab-cramming, mnemonic techniques, and rock guitar, all with the best teachers corporate money could buy. This was before company-chaperoned forays into New York’s round-the-clock party zones, whuffling up expense-account coke in table-service cellars below the Hudson River from tablet screens spread on the laps of young artistes, waiting to be apprehended in scenes of squalid excess by whatever lit paparazzi Udo Masters tipped off. This was before Trip’s persona of superhuman genius paid for with supersized inner turmoil had been conceived of, much less expensively calibrated.
Twelve-year old Trip Etchemendy, books bouncing against his back, followed Udo Masters through the carpeted halls of the Zeit-Life complex. They came to a locked room. The air through the opened door smelled stale but not at all damp. Udo Masters clicked on a lamp.
“This is it, Trip. Where we keep the flame lit.”
Trip lowered his duffel as Udo Masters made his way around the walls.
“I won’t lie, Trip. Times are tough for the printed word. This isn’t your granddad’s literary scene. It’s a razzle-dazzle age, decade of distraction, and the grim truth is, fiction’s getting killed. I’ve had to fight some epic fights. But let me tell you something about myself, Trip. Me, I’m a kook. I’m an old-school romantic. Me, I can’t help but believe in the power of literature.”
Trip silently followed as Udo Masters talked.
“Power, Trip. Yeah, I mean that. Real power. Warrior power. Like Hercules. Like Hector. Like that Apache fellow, what’s his name, Geronimo. There’s a big bad world out there, and it’s getting crazier and faster and less accommodating of the poor old human soul than I think just about any world’s ever been. You, my boy, you’re not only writing books. You’re marching into battle.”
One wall of the room was a single big window looking out over the spired city, miles of Mondrian streets and polyethnic crowds. Pictures adorned the other three walls, each a famous writer. Trip, not knowing faces, read labels. Pynchon, Gaddis, Vollmann, DeLillo. Bellow, Amis, Mailer, Joyce. All the way back to Tolstoy, Balzac, Shandy, even Shakespeare. Udo Masters rapped a walnut frame.
“Take a look into their wretched eyes, Trip. Look at their twitchy and nail-bitten fingers. Look at their pitted and sallow cheeks. Their wanting grooming and reprehensible teeth. Look at the bloat and bags and the broken blood vessels inflicted on these poor paragons of imaginative excess. Battle scars, Trip, that’s what you’re seeing. War paint. Badges of valor.”
Trip looked at the rows of beleaguered faces that hung staring down the city’s abundance.
“These are the guys who show the way, Trip. Did they let infosaturation get them down? Did they care about the ubiquitous distractions served up by technological advance? Knuckle-under to popular culture? Surrender to radio, film, TV? Trip, they opened their minds and they swallowed it all. Gobbled it up with a big side of history, chased it down with three cheap shots of J&B, burped up a line of McLuhan and asked for more.
“They didn’t have your advantages, Trip. No marketing department at their backs. No vocab coaching, no memory aids. They fought their fight the hard way, with booze and black coffee and pure sick obsession. Fought with the keen brilliance of sanity and the dull blackness of insanity and every wretched state of awareness in between.”
The pictured figures, ten feet high or more, hoary and unsmiling, faces bashed in and dragged down by drink, were uniformly white and male.
“A warrior, Trip, that’s what the people pay to see. A crazy man with a big bold brain, offering his pug-ugly mug to every sucker punch modernity can throw. That, Trip Etchemendy, is what you’re going to be.”
One picture, Trip noticed, bucked the sallow standard. Udo Masters, spinning on the wide-plank floor, posed with a hand beside his head, pinky pointing at a poppy-crowned youth of Olympian beauty, skin velour-soft, homoerotically muscled, arms out to the inkhorn host as if bestowing blessings.
Trip didn’t have to ask.
“Morpheus, son. God to the Templars in whose crusade you’re about to become one reverent tabard-wearing member. Take a moment, now. Close those million-dollar peepers. Take a long trip down deep inside. Sink Lethe-ward, sip from that underground river, find the secret fountain of inspirational power. Zeit-Life’ll give you the arms, the armor, the ordnance, the pageboy, the horse, the tactical training. But you, Trip, the power, only you can bring that. You are now officially in boot camp to build one narrowly bounded superhuman aptitude. You are in line to become the world’s next, great heroic dreamer.”
Trip stood, eyes closed, until Udo Masters seized both his shoulders. Trip’s eyes flicked open on his editor’s face. The face was sunken. It was seamed. It was battle-scarred.
“Did you find it, Trip?” Udo Masters gently squeezed. “Did you find the source?”
Could any twelve-year-old boy, at such a moment, after such a speech, possibly do anything but nod?
Udo Masters patted his shoulders. “Let’s get to work.”
In the elevated breezeway of the Zeit-Life media complex, contemplating the appeal of deadly plummets, Trip noticed his phone piping its factory preset ringtone and lifted Udo Masters’ voice to his ear.
“Still waiting on that file, son. What’ve you got for me?”
Trip was silent.
“I can’t stress enough how important this is, kid. Remember how I told you our department was getting squeezed? Remember how I said things were tough for the fiction division? Remember how I said print was fighting for its life in the all-or-nothing economy of a razzle-dazzle culture?”
Trip was silent.
“Now, I don’t want to alarm you, kid. I don’t want to put any pressure on that already hard-pressed and precious brain. But I may have just slightly understated the severity of our situation. Fact is, Zeit-Life’s hanging a lot on this read-off. I’m talking an event of big-blowout proportions. I’m talking, if you knocking noggins with Whippleton doesn’t make us competitive with the other divisions …. Let me put it this way. And I say what I’m saying, you should know, as a man with a lifelong language-lover’s hardwired aversion to hyperbole. The future of authorship could be at stake here, Trip. Dare I say it? The future of the book.”
Trip was silent.
“When I say I need that file, son, I mean I need that goldurn file. We’ve got to go over this new work together till the thing’s coruscatingly splendid. This is not some workaday hack job you can wonk up and waltz out and mumble through. I want you digging deep. I want you tapping the source. The source, Trip, the source, remember the source?”
Trip Etchemendy, verbal skirmisher par excellence, practiced jouster in tantivying print, heroic dreamer on behalf of humankind, reflected that there was a certain something he really ought to have told Udo Masters many moons ago.
“You hear what I’m saying, son?”
Trip closed his eyes, breathing fast. “I promise, Udo, I swear, I’ll have it ready. I just … I need a little more time.”
The Winter 2032 Etchemendy-Whippleton Live Read-Off took place at 11:30 EST on the thirty-fifth-floor TV studio of the Zeit-Life New York media complex. This was where web activists opposed to Hollywood racism had been invited to challenge shock-and-schlock white comics to sumo-suit face-offs on daytime TV. This was where conservative statesmen had sought to boost their youth-poll numbers by bandying prepared quips about extraordinary rendition with satirico-liberal news-show hosts. This was where fourth wave feminists had gamely given evidence of their much-questioned sense of humor by joining in vajayjay-themed sing-alongs with Meaty-Ball, the Zeit-Life branded CGI talking testicle whose parodic pop commentary was currently trending hard.
It was where, as the slogan spread across the lobby’s four stenciled-glass doors proclaimed, the present was made.
Trip Etchemendy sat backstage, in a molded plastic chair in a dressing room across from a counter covered with makeup containers and citrus fruits. It was three weeks after his talk with Udo Masters, and Trip’s time had decisively run out.
On the far side of the counter was a mirror. In the mirror was Trip’s face, and it resembled a face that had been pressed against the unwashed bed of a very old scanner and saved as a filetype with a poor compression algorithm and printed on flimsy paper and glued unevenly to a plywood paddle.
Trip did not look battle-scarred. Trip looked like a child who had dived blindly off a high diving board and just arrived at the realization, halfway through his descent, that there was no water in the swimming pool below.
Behind Trip, also visible in the mirror, half-seated on the coffee bar, one Berluti-shod toe just touching the floor, Udo Masters held his head in a hand.
“We’re doomed,” he said.
A speaker above the door emitted the stormy sounds of a studio audience. Trip knew what was waiting for him out there. He could picture it the way seven year-old boys picture scenes from horror movies they haven’t yet seen. The strip lights, the spot lights, the tri-color LEDs. The resin stage dazzling with skating specularity. The congregant cameras. The racked blue screens. The judges at their brightly painted swoop of a table. The general air of glitzy significance sealed in any glossily surfaced space.
And of course, the spectating, champing live crowd.
Udo Masters put out a hand.
On the coffee bar’s spill-proof paint, between a dribble of milk and an unused filter, sat the simpaper ebook, the show’s required prop, machine-tooled to mimic an old-time tome, into which the show PAs had loaded Trip’s new novel.
“You promised me genius.” Udo Masters pressed his palm to the book’s worked leather cover. “You promised me glory. You promised me a work that would wow the world.”
Two-chord keyboards announced the show’s official opening. A PA’s hand, thrust through the open door, mimed the number of minutes remaining.
“You assured me,” Udo Masters said into the hanging cuff of his sleeve, “that if I only gave you a little more time, you’d put into my hands a work of resoundingly inimitable literature. I seem to recall the word ‘deep’ appearing not once but thrice in the ardent promises you made while all but clutching my lapels. You told me that if I only let you put off submitting the work until it was finally, undeniably ready, you would turn in a book to make jaded New Yorkers mewl and kick like tickled babies. You said all this, Trip, and I believed you.”
The hostess’s voice, helped by pumping music, cued the judges’ introduction. Udo Masters, standing, offered the ebook to Trip on an open palm.
“You promised me genius, Trip, and you gave me this. Greil Marcus said it best, so I’ll just say it again. What is this shit?”
Trip’s lips moved silently. He choked up sound. “You said to go to the source.”
“I have one question for you, son.” Udo Masters touched a finger to his ear. “One question, before you head out there to mock and sabotage both our careers.”
“You told me to sip from the underground river.”
“You know what you are, Trip. You know because I taught you. And you know that I know that I’m a darn good teacher.”
“You told me to tap the power of true inspiration.”
“You know, Trip, what for seven years we’ve been working and slaving and planning to accomplish. So I have one question, and then I’m done. What kind of sick, sad, depraved little joke,” and Udo Masters’ hands pressed, as if praying, the ebook, “are you playing, here?”
Trip gave no answer. The PA reappeared. Trip pushed back his chair. Udo Masters’s praying hands parted. The ebook dropped into Trip’s extended palm. Aides and techs in soft-soled shoes were already waiting to march him to the set. He trod on studio carpet. He skirted scattered wire. His buttonhole mike and earpiece monitor popped as he waited at the edge of the stage. Across that eternal gulf of glitz, Trip saw the show’s hostess smile.
Was he doing this? He was doing this.
A tennis-serve gesture from the PA dispatched Trip into the studio’s glowing cave. He was walking, spacewalking, on reflected lights. A backwash of sound from the stageside speakers mostly muffled the crowd’s applause. Onstage, life was always duller, rougher than Trip expected: scuffs in the buffed floor, backstage spills, smudges of maquillage on celebrity cheeks, all close up and mundanely salient.
Trip Etchemendy had been through this a hundred times. That didn’t make it any easier to breathe. The hostess guided him through the show’s prepared patter. Trip’s mouth opened and closed, supplying answers. Stage-left, J.O.P. Whippleton stood watching from behind the painted plywood scrollwork of his podium. Diffuse reflection from the blue set furniture gave his skin a subaqueous cast. Whippleton’s face, Trip saw, so arrestingly beamish in ads, wasn’t so very beamish now. An overbite usually obscured in press photos made a gapped white part between his lips. Sweat and tension of the zygomatic muscles caused breaks in his makeup through which sickly color showed. The normal hazelnut brown of his skin seemed grayishly sheened like bad breakfast sausage. His wide eyes almost visibly quivered. He looked to Trip about ten years old and already half dead.
“All right, everyone, Trip Etchemendy!”
Trip crossed the stage to his waiting lectern. The hostess, hands clasped, fixed her eyes on the green beacon designed as a guide for the gazes of those onstage.
“Well, I hope you’re all psyched for tonight’s big battle of live prose. Before we get started, a quick review. Each participant will read three short excerpts, taking turns. While they read, our specially designed stat-tracking system will be running a realtime analysis of every aspect of their writing. You’ll see those results on these screens back here. We’ll also be showing live reactions from the audience, so don’t be shy about cranking those approval dials. After each reading, our judges will give comments, and then it’s time for our insta-response click-in voting. Everyone excited?”
“All right, OK, now just one more thing. By agreement, our brainy boys here will be reading only completely new works. That means never before published material. So not only are we hearing America’s two biggest novelists go cranium-to-cranium, tonight, we’re also getting a once-in-a-lifetime preview of today’s hottest, smartest, most mind-busting prose. So tune your ears, tweak those dials, and most important, enjoy the writing!”
Music crashed. Spotlights swung. The synth chords leading into Whippleton’s reading subsided to a drone that, as he began, fingers tapping into his prop book all the stuttering tension his voice repressed, seemed to lend his words the vatic timbre of sound from a void. The judges spun their space-age chairs. Forest-like lighting sprinkled the stage.
“The currying functions of lambda calculus,” read J.O.P. Whippleton, “into chains of parenthetically refined abstraction recall the waves a motion in any element drives and drags, respectively, fore and aft. The undulant exponents of Goodstein’s theorem supply a profile view of a sinusoid lemma: the sinuous recursivity of all self-reflection. Meaning, wavelike, dips and rises. Thought, fluidic, fluxes. Life, my friends, per Berryman’s everyman, is boring, from vagitus to last rattle little but repeat repetition, memory’s endless swanning down old ways sending aproning out or lapping back, for every thought of lost time, redoubled ripples, our mnemonic eternal return sadly transfinite, memory forever in remembering remade, as a Nietzschean gnosis lifts the mind from time’s flatline continuum into breathlike swells of systoles and rests, seizures and sighs, whose breaking combers of musing sweep beyond the finite sets of lived experience, or even, descending scales below the staves of sensory feeling, pluck the hidden strings subtending time …”
Trip Etchemendy, as of that evening America’s top-ranked author in six magazine polls, winner of three tournament-style online battles against the current leading lights of the bibliocosm, famous enough among certain subspecies of big-brain fetishists that bearded young men in badly fitting trousers outfitted with hidden mikes had been known to record him in public giving voice to such innocuous forms of self-expression as phone commands and orders for burritos, with a name now so familiar as an icon of savoir-savoir in the elite tranches of nerdy urbanity that Italy’s newest chic designer had licensed the rights to release a purse designed to perfectly simulate the weight and appearance of the boutique paper version of his book—Trip stood there, listening to this stuff. Jaw hanging, he heard J.O.P. Whippleton read. Trip slumped. He was grateful for the support of his lectern, or rather not grateful for it because he had no consciousness with which to experience the feeling of gratitude, because his mind for the moment was not his own, because his mind had been leased, lost, alienated like some untethered boat to ride the crests and falls of J.O.P. Whippleton’s prose.
It was something, this prose. It was compact, rhythmic, erudite. It referenced Derrida. It used adverbs—artfully. It employed puns depending on a deep appreciation of reconstructed original pronunciations of Shakespearean verse. It proposed novel techniques of signals processing. It featured genuinely poetic passages in colloquial Arabic, Welsh, Chinese.
The story seemed, so far as Trip could tell, to be about a brilliant alcoholic marimba-player’s meditations on the jump-cut cadence of modern life. The pace was disorienting, but not unpleasant. The story employed theories of past-life regression, couched in a redeeming irreverence. The fragmented narrative moved among multiple eras, weaving arcane info and affectionate humor by means of a cymatic leitmotif.
J.O.P. Whippleton’s prose brought the past alive with well-chosen and deeply researched details. It made prophetic statements so bold you felt any future would be remiss that failed to fulfill them. In its pattern of stresses it employed shifting meters that subtly echoed its narrative polyphonics. It had passages of heart-contracting beauty married to awesome intellectualism and packed the emotional punch of Proust, the puns of Joyce, the polymathy of Pynchon, into five minutes of musical sesquipedalianism.
Trip Etchemendy stood with both hands veritably bonded to the figured side panels of his lectern and had no awareness whatsoever that he was standing in a TV studio sweating under hot lights holding two scroll-cut pieces of painted wood in the presence of dozens of people. He had lost himself. His mind had voluntarily, instinctively, joyously submitted to be overcome by another mind. He stared unblinking through his burned and weary eyes at the gopherish boy who shared the stage, a boy who, though sweating, shaking, telegraph-tapping some code of secret nervosity into the tooled and brummagenly quaint cover of his prop ebook, nevertheless drew from that ebook with his eyes and mulled with his mind and gave channel through his buck teeth and coached tongue and tight lips into the droning quietude of the studio the great involute object of words he seemed to have not so much architected or compiled or—need it be said?—in any way written as uncovered, preinscribed, in the fiery chatoyance of the grain of life. Trip couldn’t believe it: that he himself was standing here, now, so full, so dissolute with pure belief. He believed J.O.P. Whippleton could do anything. He believed J.O.P. Whippleton was, in terms of talent and technique and sheer ballsy dedication, untouchable. He believed J.O.P. Whippleton was infinitely more than the frail compilation of cells standing eleven feet away drizzling with self-consciousness under a cracking cortex of sweat-resistant cosmetics. He believed J.O.P. Whippleton, this ectomorphic tittle of palsied fingers and fribblous appearance, had somehow, for him, for Trip Etchemendy personally, stood stoically athwart the ego-drowning abundance of existence. He believed—Trip couldn’t believe it, but he believed—that it was somehow no longer necessary for Trip himself to struggle, to strive vainly and restively and eye-searingly to make sense in print of an apparently senseless world, because here, in unlikely flesh, stood a braver, more capable, more stubborn and obsessive struggler. Trip wanted to sigh for all to hear. He wanted to sigh with tone and volume and sustain, to signify to all people present how sated he was, how satisfied with the certain knowledge that there was no final bound, no upper limit, to the amazing, transcendent, ever-increasing scope of human ability.
Whippleton finished. His fingers rose, shuddering, up the slope of his nose, as if to straighten glasses where there were no glasses. The judges praised his ambition, his enthusiasm, his hair. They gave him, unanimously, a B+.
Out in the dim drifts of the studio audience, seven dozen hands lifted from rows of mood-registering dials. Software averaged the crowd’s recorded input. A cartoon fist, complete with upthrust thumb, appeared on a rearstage screen and wagged metronomically along a cartoon gauge, finally settling at an angle of forty degrees.
The public approved.
It was Trip’s turn.
Trip tried and failed to take a deep breath. His fingers played feebly over the cover of his prop ebook. Into the leather, he noticed just now, had been carved a rampant dragon, painted gold, as if only fairytales were read on these shows. The binding creaked with newness. Trip turned the three pages deliberately left blank, the curling papers audibly crisp. The spots flared hotly through his sprayed, sculpted bangs. It seemed to Trip that studio engineers were artfully amplifying, as he handled the e-paper, the old-fashioned rasping, the dusty shuffling, the whispery music of an opened book. Preponderant speakers throughout the studio crackled with papery noise. The whole dim space, rear rows of attendant eyes to scintillant set, ruffled briefly, as Trip turned pages, with the dusty voices of old libraries, siffling drafts, the sirenic sigh of that particular lonesomeness found between bound papers. Small nozzles, Trip realized, mounted on the space’s foam-cement pilasters, were at that moment spraying over the spectators’ heads a distinctive scent, woody and sweet, the distilled and nostalgic essence of old books.
The words Trip had spent a year of painful effort writing coalesced under his hands in electrowetted e-paper.
“Kim was happy,” Trip read. “Christmas was here. Hooray for Christmas! Christmas was fun.”
No sound disturbed his reading save a strange submusical drone. The crowd had hushed save for every crowd’s obligatory loud male cougher. The spotlights on Trip’s head converged at a point where their joint light felt like a contraction of his scalp. A corner of electrowetted paper caught pinprickishly in his thumb’s whorled papillae. A human finger as large as the earth, Trip had once read, could detect the tip of a single Norway spruce.
“Kim loved Christmas. She loved angels. She loved candles. She especially loved Christmas trees.”
Somewhere in the studio, Trip knew, invisible computers were parsing his prose, converting it to figures and stats that today’s technoliterate audience would more easily understand. Racked monitors behind him displayed the results of their calculations. Tickers tracked, in Atari colors, his average sentence length. Bar graphs, eighties-pink and ectoplasm green, tallied word frequencies rated by lexeme. Live sentence diagramming ramified and glowed. Esoterica and accuracy grades, blazing cross-screen in speedy animations, scored his story’s significant facts. Six screens had been reserved for foreign-language translation. Simulated neural networks trained on tested subjects evaluated his euphoniousness, their conclusions communicated onscreen by smiling or frowning cartoon cats, while proximate dogs expressed the results of statistical NLP.
“She loved fires and Santa Claus,” Trip read. “She loved Jesus.”
The judges’ faces were meticulously still. The hands of the audience held their dials. Above, center stage, glaring down at Trip, a green line tracked the crowd’s reactions.
“Every year,” Trip read, “Mommy and Daddy put up the decorations. Kim was happy. Kim liked to help.”
Trip read. His feet flexed in their Ashton Grey Oxfords. He read under the eyes of his declared literary arch-rival. He read before the judges, the cameras, the world. He read among incrementing counters, chomping pie charts, infinitely sophisticated data visualizations. He read, and to either side, stage right and left, an animate digital décor, a snow of ghostly letters, drifted down two plasma screens: English, disintegrated into its pale components, softly descending like a typographic ash.
“Daddy put lights on the house,” Trip read. “Kim helped.”
Trip wasn’t fooling. Trip had gone to the source. After the clamoring success of Pynchon Me, the tours, the parties, the tours of parties, the interviews about things he’d said in other interviews, the festivals of public playacting so bizarrely, Trip thought, described as “exposure,” after the toil of being other than himself, Trip had needed no prompting to return to the inner caves of his soul where dwelt, he’d been told, the ghosts of inspiration. Trip had gone deep.
“Daddy bought a tree,” Trip read. “Kim helped.”
Trip’s source of inspiration wasn’t found in the Zeit-Life complex’s Inspiration Room. Trip’s source of inspiration wasn’t circumscribed by a ring of hangdog, hallowed male authors. Trip’s source of inspiration had nothing to do with Udo Masters and his warrior cult.
Trip’s source of inspiration was located in Vermont.
In that state, in the living room of the house on his grandmother’s farm, Trip had spent many seasons as a kid, breathing deeply of the Pine-Sol-scented air that pressed up warmly against muntined windows. Barnyard views had mingled pleasantly in that house with baking smells. Drafty rafters, corn-husk crafts, creaky floorboards, and pictures of Jesus had made up the backdrop to a scratchy wool-upholstered couch on which, each Christmas, Trip and his grandma would sit, hip-to-hip, and spread on their laps a faded paper book. It was a luxurious artifact, this book—lovingly crafted, hand bound, with deckle-edged rag paper, leather binding, a little oeil-de-boeuf window in the cover to show a painting on the page underneath. The calligraphic title, deeply embossed, retained occasional flakes of gold paint.
Christmas Classics, it read: A Treasury of Tales.
Trip Etchemendy loved that book. He loved the pictures. He loved the cover. He loved the thick, soft paper of the pages. Most of all, he loved the stories. He loved sugarplums, gingerbread, and long-tailed stars. He loved sugar cookies and angelophanos. He loved Victorian sledders with scarlet-fever cheeks, elf bellies shaking like bowls full of jelly, gods in mangers and smiling cows, choral singing, grumpy people learning lessons, gluttonous feasting, the old-fashioned pleasure of chopping down trees without feeling any trace of guilt. He loved worrying about whether or not little children would get presents. People love what they love, and the truth was this: Trip Etchemendy loved Christmas.
“Last of all, Mommy baked hot cross buns. Kim wanted to help. Kim tried to help. But Kim was a very, very bad baker.”
Yes, Trip Etchemendy, literary prodigy, wizardly wielder of ironic jabs, author of the day’s most pumped and steroidal meganovel—through all the long years of cramming and Advil and hand-cramps, of data-dump diving and ‘drine ODing, of lucubratory feats so eye-strainingly exacting he could no longer weep for the damage they’d done—the truth was that Trip, for as long as he could remember, had only wanted one little thing.
“This year was different. Mommy and Daddy were away. Kim was alone. Kim put dough in the pan. She put in sugar. She put in icing. Kim put the pan in the oven. She turned the oven on. She turned it all the way. Later, Kim was playing. Kim smelled smoke. Oh, no! Oh, no!”
Trip Etchemendy wanted to write a simple, heartwarming story about the true meaning of Christmas.
Trip read. He read, and in his mind was a vision, and it was a vision refined over months of panicked pacing, odysseys of insomnia and epic caffeine highs: a simple tale, no more than a fable, purged of irony, totally uninformative, a story that would improve absolutely no one’s understanding of astrophysics or Algerian art. A story composed of sentences ground down by Joseph Grandish effort to the merest nubs of rudimentary narrative. A story undistinguished by exotic syntax, shrunk by narrative discipline to haiku-like clarity, a consommé of plot. A story that had nothing to do with the graphs and displays that now flashed numerical measures of his creative excellence, but would rather touch people directly, even the impervious souls of postmodernity, with the plight of a little girl who’d overcooked a pan of hot cross buns.
Trip read, intent on the page, and, at last, he could no longer stand it.
He looked up.
Trip was ready for a host of possible responses. He was ready for tears, for jeers, for jibes. Her was ready for laughter, boos, walkouts, holdouts, for radical and disorienting swings of opinion.
He was ready, and he looked into the studio, and he was met with nothing.
Absolute zero on the scales of human and mechanical response.
The line graphs were flat. The pie-charts were whole. The bar graphs hadn’t risen a single pixel.
The counters for scoring Trip’s prose had stalled. The parsing and translating screens were blank. The sentence diagrams looked like stripped twigs.
The cartoon cats and dogs were asleep.
At their swoop of table, the human judges sat like mannequins, eyes wide, mouths open, no longer even swiveling in their frictionless space-age chairs.
The hostess, offstage, had one unmoving finger curled into a tip of her Wintour coiffure.
The live studio audience, with their prompts and coaching and approval-registering dials …
The audience was dead.
The people who’d gathered to hear to Trip read—they languished, now, in a state of collective catatonia. They looked almost artificially inert, like a memory of human beings formed in the mind of a bored and inferior robot. They made no sound. They shed no tears. Their hands rested limply on their reaction-registering dials.
The whole TV studio had stalled, halted, hung up, jammed. The graphs at Tripp’s back, the people before him, the prose-parsing software, the celebrity judges: all had crashed like a bad application.
Trip hadn’t only made a fool of himself. He hadn’t only written a piece of bad writing. He’d broken the machinery of literature itself.
Udo Masters, hunched in the shadows, covered his face with both gnarled hands.
Trip tried to read.
“Kim took out the pan. She put it on the counter. She …”
The words broke in his mouth. Trip couldn’t remember what it meant to speak. The scrollcut sidepanels of his lectern, he saw, had pale lines of paintlessness tracing each edge, as if life had worn down under his hands to its structuring armature, its wire frame.
“She picked up a … excuse me, sorry. She picked up a breadknife and … I’m sorry.”
No use, no use. A hangnail on Trip’s toe had snagged his sock. He felt weirdly oppressed by the knowledge that his feet were trapped in shoes. On the indigo-tinted epoxy stage, the light of the center-rig Fresnels, isoluminous to Trip’s bleared eyes, diffused to ripples like elongated stars. Could it really be true that only seconds had passed? His over-employed eyes, dried like Indian corn in the HVAC air, refused to even attempt to focus.
“She … I’m sorry, lost my place. She … I’m sorry, guys … she picked up a bread knife, and … Jeez, I’m sorry. Give me a sec. I’m sorry, I’m sorry, God, I’m so sorry.”
The air was like a shell in which silence curled. What the hell had he been thinking? How he longed for any hint, any peep, any decibel of sound to deliver him from the non-time of this horribly frozen moment. Why had he ever agreed to come here? What had he been trying to prove?
Trip rubbed his burning eyes, and suddenly one question rose above all others: why, in all these years of Gregorian routine, had he never bothered to look after his eyes? His eyes, his eyes, his poor destroyed eyes. God knows, it wouldn’t have taken much. Daily saline bathings. A minute in twenty of middleground focus. Wasn’t that all the pros prescribed? Regular foveal realignment. Healthy habits as per blinking, rubbing. He could have done it, if he’d made the time. Even a simple check on bad habits. No marathon saccades. No monsoon-scale weeping. Jesus, he could have managed, if he’d tried. A total abeyance of stop-and-go lachrymation. Regular extraocular exertion. Thirty minutes triweekly of controlled exercise. All ducts and puncta toughened. RICE or MICE, repeat. He could have given his eyes their due. Cared for them. Strengthened them. Achieved gains by stages in muscular function. Driven his tear ducts to a steady increase of secretional efficiency. Jesus, God, forget about fiction, what about that ancient, original blessing, suddenly, to Trip, now, the most primal of all human pleasures, what about the joy of having healthy eyes?
Please, God, just get me through this, Trip prayed, just end this moment, and I promise, that’s it, that’s all I’ll do ever again, I’ll stay home and do nothing but cherish my eyes.
“I’m sorry, guys, I’ll get this. Hold on. I’m sorry. She picked up a bread knife, and … Jesus, I’m sorry.”
Trip shut his eyes and mouth and book. He couldn’t do it. Like a newborn sucking breath for its first big scream, he only wanted what was happening to end.
The set’s electrics made amniotic noise.
And in that null moment, Trip heard a voice.
It was a boyish voice, fresh and friendly, and it said:
“Picked up her Wusthof classic 8-inch bread knife.”
Trip opened his stinging eyes.
On the far side of the stage, J.O.P. Whippleton peered at Trip through the nuclear lights.
“Picked up her Wusthof classic, high-carbon, precision-forged bread knife,” J.O.P. Whippleton said, “and curled her fingers tightly around the full-tang, triple-riveted handle.”
The studio hummed like the space between stars.
Whippleton ran two fingers up his nose.
A hidden lever jerked in Trip’s brain. A shaft engaged. A mechanism inside him that he’d never noticed shifted incrementally toward motion. Like a man adjusting binoculars, Trip screwed both fists into his eyes.
“Slipped dexterously from its slot in the fruitwood block,” Whippleton said, “her grandma’s trusty Wusthof classic, high-carbon, precision-forged breadknife, curling all four fingers under the triple-riveted and full-tang polypropylene handle, index flush to the bolster, fingertips firm on the machine-stamped pebbling, lifting slightly from the elbow as recommended on Baby Kimball’s Lifelong Cooking Show to avoid undue stress to the scalloped edge, drawing with a long rasp of quality metal on quality wood the laser-calibrated blade of her grandmother’s favorite kitchen implement from its slot.”
The rearstage screens glimmered. The charts twitched. The Atari colors of the stacked displays twinkled briefly with digital interest.
Trip licked his lips. Slowly, almost unconsciously, he mirrored J.O.P. Whippleton’s smile.
“No,” Trip said. “Try this. Slipped dexterously, but with her sinistral hand.”
At the rear of the stage, the insouciance indicator bounced. The wit meter waggled. The cartoon cat who tracked clarity smiled.
Whippleton, still smiling, pushed nonexistent glasses up his nose—and winked.
Daring a glance over his lectern, Trip saw the slope of the studio audience sparkle with scattered smiles.
Trip returned his rival’s wink. Leaning on the lectern, he tapped his temple. His mind’s machinery grudgingly moved. His brain’s relational files of facts, paradigmatic encodings, memorized OED entries, autonomic habits of Augustinian sentence formation, once again began to grind.
“Left hand engloved in the prickling cotton lining of the fiberfill, diapered oven mitt,” Trip said, “that Kim’s mother still used despite the very prominent male-genital-shaped teriyaki-sauce stain between the eyes of the cartoon cow with a chef’s hat dyed into the dorsal side, firmly holding the clay-colored pan down on a three-footed trivet of Celtic-knot pewter, Kim angled the tanto-length blade of the bread knife, mercury bright in December’s snow-silvered light, across the hot cross buns’ now uniformly crozzled crust.”
On the screens, a cartoon dog smiled at this access of analyzable language. A pie chart chomped the fresh feast of prose. Bar graphs leapt as it were for joy as electric colors quickened, software chugged, bonus points appeared for improvisation.
Whippleton, laughing, also tapped his temple, thumping his brainpan like a stuck machine. “The crozzled crust,” he suggested, “at the tip’s incision, puffed into Kim’s nose a pumiceous cloud of booger-accreting carbonized particulates. The hot cross buns, through Kim’s clutzy baking, had been thoroughly and utterly Pompeiied.”
“Fire-bombed,” Trip countered.
Trip and Whippleton laughed at once. The eyes of grinning cats on the screens behind them rolled and sparkled with each verbal volley. Trip saw the judges conferring. The hostess patted her palm. The screens were blazing at disco speed. Audience members jerked their dials. The line graph tracking audience approval jagged sharply upward.
Trip rattled out a riff. Whippleton countered. They riffed on Kim’s kitchen, her Christmas décor. They riffed on angels, pine resin, mangers, the curious science of ginger drops. The facts came fast, the puns: hyperbolic. They bandied wordplay, ploce to ploce, packing Trip’s little story with big words.
Trip was laughing. Whippleton, too. Sparring, feinting, striking, scoring, language jolted between them, bullet-hot. Million-dollar vocab flew so fast the tracking graphs could hardly keep up. The judges grinned. The speakers sizzled. The audience members jerked their dials. The graphs rode high at the limits of their ranges. The cartoon fist tracking popular approval trembled, ataxic, at the top of its gauge, thumb so resoundingly, achingly up it looked like a rocket about to take off.
Udo Masters, slumped stage-right, was dabbing his eyes with a J.C. Penny handkerchief.
Trip touched his face. He marveled, swooned. He felt moisture. Warmth. A rush of luscious lubrication that his mind, requickened into prodigalities of delighted lexical excess, acclaimed with a prayer-like profusion of words, this delicious film of lysozymous secretions, these salty trickles of meibomian balm, these gushes of delicious lipocalin-laden torrents running and washing down each dry cheek.
Tears. Yeah, he was weeping them: real-deal tears. And not the harsh tears of panic, not the hot tears of frustration, not the tears he’d been crying for six long years, but the rich and restorative tears of relief.
Trip saw no faces, right then. He saw no graphs. He saw no numbers, no scores, no letters. Only a blur like the blur of speed, as if he were riding some smooth machine, running cool at peak performance, wires sparking, steam escaping, cogs connecting like well-chosen words as it reached up with arms as engineered as expert sentences to grapple down angels, sky, stars.
So Trip battled on in front of them all, as if telling his oldest and best-loved story, as if relating his strangest dream.