My sobriety had abandoned me. I sat with my back to the bar looking at an empty lot beyond a quiet street. Normally I deemed a big window in a tavern to be analogous to a horseshoe mounted on a wall with its prongs pointing down: it lets all the magic seep out. But this view filled me with thoughts, as though they had been waiting and would not have found me elsewhere.
After a delightfully digressive telephone conversation with my mother wherein I became au courant with the latest adventures of Zeus, I studied the field from my stool while the sun slid down the sky. My ghost joined me at twilight, staring back from the window, more vivid than the vacant lot but not as interesting. The barkeep’s ghost joined him and together they watched us.
“Someday all the grass will look like this,” the barkeep said. “When there’s no one round to cut it, it’ll just grow and grow, all long and messy.”
“Please do not feel that you are in any way obliged to regale me with quaint colloquialisms or synopses of your Farmer’s Almanac,” I said. Earlier, the brash and dour lout interrupted my telephone conversation during a particularly enchanting anecdote to remind me that I had been using his phone for over an hour.
“All long and messy,” he said. “No one to cut it. Doesn’t that bother you?”
To what galaxy must a man travel to enjoy his own company? I turned around and braced my elbows on the bar and my feet on the rail. “Very well, would you prefer a discourse pertaining to sports or the weather?”
“You like a stool with a view.”
“Don’t let me disturb you,” he said and took a sip of red slush that reeked of strawberries. His eyes, white lights in dark craters, bounced between the window and me. The tributaries surrounding them suggested that he perceived the world with reckless humor. Short black hair stood straight up in places and lay matted in others, as though Lilliputian and misguided aliens had inscribed a crop circle on his head. The red ring around his mouth conspired with his raccoon eyes to give him the lineaments of a macabre clown.
Visions of Zeus emigrated to accommodate expansive but enigmatic thoughts conducted by the empty field in the key of the Petronius Sensation: reflections slipping through the stubby fingers of language despite the itching allure of their existence. Though strongly tempted to deny and ignore the indescribable, I could not turn them away.
“It is too dark in any event. The view is ruined,” I said, slurring my thoughts, each bleeding into others like the colors on a slick of oil, few remaining distinct long enough to name. One notable exception was the concern of suffering from a dizzy-spell. A marathon bout of abstinence had wreaked havoc on my health, my legendary tolerance in particular. The possibility that my thoughts might soon be lost forever, buried in a landfill of cocktail napkins and swizzle sticks, instilled a most peculiar trepidation.
“If the sun never again rises on these reflections, they might as well not be here now,” Reason blurted. “What is the difference?”
My preemptive summation involved the necessity of seizing the moment. After all, a dizzy-spell is a paltry debt when measured against the immeasurable boons of so wondrous an elixir.
The barkeep watched me think about the precarious nature of thinking. “From around here?” he said, leaning on the bar with his beefy arms. His breath emblazoned a strawberry on the oil slick. Oleaginous eddies annexed its borders and morphed it into hundreds of dark eyes peering from a red cloud.
“Passing through,” I said.
“You and your better half?”
I nodded. Sandy’s face, contorted in a furious scowl, flashed atop the puddle. Her flesh became red from the barkeep’s breath, then dark green as she transmuted into a dragon before dissipating into a field of grass. I prayed she would be sound asleep when I returned to our motel room.
“Where you headed?” he asked.
An orange rectangle and a blue rectangle appeared against a dark background. They collided and bounced away undiminished, each striking invisible boundaries and caroming again and again with trajectories predictable in principle but not in actuality.
“Enjoying the scenery,” I said.
“Not all the scenery, I hope. Aren’t some sights more important than others?”
It felt as though the thoughts in the field behind me had accumulated and I could not possibly attend to them all. Since most men spend their lives fleeing their ideas, perhaps others are obliged to contend with them. This responsibility often made me thirsty. I studied a tiny glass containing a brown potion. The sight would have sent Ovid running home for his pen. Reflecting on the greatness of Epicurus, I flicked my wrist and it vanished, warming my face and body like a mouthful of liquid sun. I basked in the warmth like a lizard on a rock until the door opened and everything changed.
The petite twins had brown skin and curly blond hair. A green dress and a blue dress tightly wrapped wonderful things. At the behest of an instinct honed and perfected long before elaborate gizmos like consciousness were even a twinkle in Mother Nature’s eye, I followed them to the other side of the bar and negotiated a stool between them. The barkeep stood before us, scowling at me. His crossed arms formed a barrier between the lesser bulge of his chest and the massive monument to Bacchus below.
“This is how a book must feel,” I told him with a wink. “Drinks for everyone.”
The green sprite touched my forearm and smiled. “We have been spoken for.”
“You most certainly have, and I am the luckiest man alive,” I said, returning the caress. One type of Ovidian musing supplanted another: all metamorphoses solidified into the granite conviction that the redundant nature of this conquest would in no way detract from it.
The blue sprite put her purse on the bar and turned to me. “Speaking of books, there’s one you have to read. It’s at a book party.”
My head, suspended by their heavenly scent, hovered far above my shoulders until I moored it with a cigarette. “Book? Are you familiar with Gargantua?” I said, confident my double entendre could scarcely fail to amuse a lady with literary inclinations. “How thoughtless of me. I should show you rather than tell you.”
The barkeep brought two glasses of water and another of the brown elixir. “Don’t forget to read it,” the green sprite whispered, her lips touching my ear. I inhaled my shot and turned to her and a gelatinous strawberry lagoon shimmered in the moonlight. A zebra approached the edge and stood beneath a palm tree. In the distance a police siren howled. The zebra, his stripes blurred by a neon moon, looked left and right before lowering his head and slurping up the sticky jelly, globs of which dripped off his snout. As he entered the lagoon, the wind picked up, rustling leaves and creating waves. Tires squealed in the distance. After paddling halfway across he stopped, ensnared by something lurking below. The rising jelly splashed against his head and he brayed, “Help me you coward. No one is seeing this but you.” The struggle made a sloshing sound, which soon muzzled his denunciations as the lagoon consumed him. All I could smell was strawberries.
I sat up in the dark, scared and confused. Why did I not do something? I could have saved him. These concerns receded as a more pressing terror barged into the foreground: Where am I?
I was in a motel room. A beam of light dissected the drapes, erecting a paper-thin wall of gold mist. Sandy slept beside me, her snores as unique as fingerprints. I composed a hymn to the Persistence of Memory. I addressed a prayer, “To whom it may concern, please, no dizzy-spells.” And I undertook the arduous archaeological excavation of unearthing the previous evening, brazenly beginning with the question of how poor Odysseus made it home.
I caressed my temples and raced down the streets of the prior night with no steering wheel or brakes and a peephole for a windshield, careening off things I could not discern and never stopping long enough to permit a reconstruction. I should have started with a less ambitious question: Under what circumstances did Odysseus leave his home?
My thought process, normally analogous to a crystal temple where irrationality withers from the radiance of Reason like moss in the sun, resembled a swamp crowded with haphazardly situated funhouse mirrors. As often as a recollection flashed behind a dense patch of foliage, I splashed after it and lost it amidst teeming vines and vertiginous reflections.
My survival instinct chimed, “Shower, coffee, breakfast, swim, sun, perhaps a revitalizing elixir — No! We must return to the road as soon as possible.”
This improvident desire evinced mathematical certainty that I had suffered a dizzy-spell. Assuming the continuity of the self (which Buddhists deny, perhaps correctly, though for the sake of narrative cohesion it shall be granted asylum in my annals), a dizzy-spell has six primary effects, eleven secondary. In addition to the ravages withstood by the recollective faculty, the prioritizing faculty undergoes states of discombobulation. At times it is as though a change of command has occurred: an emperor was poisoned at dinner and his successor has drastically different plans for the empire. In extreme cases, one could just as well have a Siamese twin afflicted by chronic flatulence and Tourette’s syndrome. Some mornings, graciously sparse, it is akin to being conjoined to a huge tarantula when one is deathly afraid of spiders.
I stood. The change in altitude popped my ears and churned my stomach. Shallow breaths forestalled fainting. Using four packets instead of one, I prepared a formidable brew in the coffee machine next to the sink. By bending over to remove my shoes, I provoked the anaconda coiled around my head to constrict, which splattered the white tiles with gray soup. I found my way back to an upright position and resolved to proceed with greater vigilance.
Keeping my head and neck perpendicular to the earth, I disrobed and examined my body for bruises and other clues about the ancient past (a good archaeologist always checks his knuckles first). Reaching for the shampoo, I unwittingly knocked it on its side. The translucent gel oozed down the wall to the floor of the tub where it came in contact with the water and generated a multitude of bubbles. They persisted for a moment before disappearing down the drain. Generations formed and perished. Though labyrinthine passages characterized their brief existence, their destiny remained fixed and remorseless. I watched the absurd little procession until it ceased. I do not know why. After seeing it once I extracted what little essence the insipid phenomenon contained. Based upon studies in physiology, I suspect my sensitive condition augmented my perception, calling my credulous attention to stupid and monotonous details.
I dressed, inspected the tar-like consistency of my ferocious distillation, located my Ovals, and tiptoed to the balcony with wistful dreams of exhuming the previous evening without any prompting from Sandy. Like many of her fragile gender, she did not comprehend the hearty and rambunctious training a man requires to vivify his being. This was not her fault, as she saw only the coarsest by-products and not the inestimable blessings.
The chlorine from the pool below, redolent of idleness, bathed me in wonderful memories, a cascade of bikinis and martinis. Beneath the warmth of the sun I read the depth markings and shuddered upon realizing it was not even open yet. “Impossible. I have been awake for aeons,” I cried.
I lit an Oval, leaned on the rail, and tried to resuscitate my memory: I sat with my back to the bar, looking out a large window at an empty lot beyond a quiet street — that much was clear. Wild grass and an ogre-like creature reverberated around the funhouse mirrors, evading a persistent view. Someday all of the grass will look like this, all long and messy.
After days of backbreaking toil, digging through ruins without finding any noteworthy artifacts, I summarized my excavation thus: consign it to the underworld. After all, what is the difference between what has happened and what never happened? At first there is a superficial discrepancy, which historians strive to clarify. But as the days flow past it becomes less and less clear. The difference starts to fade. Eventually it is bleached clean. With repeated washings the fabric itself disintegrates until there remains no difference at all. Besides, I will never return to that tavern.
Satisfied with my findings, despite their uncanny similarity to other excavations of this sort, I sipped my coffee and stared at the cloudless sky, perplexed by its misleading appearance of proximity. Looking over a cliff fills a man with dreadful insecurity, a fear of falling, but when looking at the sky he feels calm, as though he can only find succor from the sight of his essence, which is not the substance of earth but the nothingness of space. “Between now and the drain, what to do?” I said. After a wave of vertigo, I fixed an uneasy gaze at the endless blue. “Just swish around for awhile.”
The door slid open and Sandy stepped onto the balcony wearing a baseball jersey that revealed legs muscular and long relative to her height. Hair veiled half her face. The other side twitched in silent contention that regarding the previous evening there was indeed a difference between what had happened and what never happened. Like a condemned man with amnesia, I stood at the gallows and waited for a list of crimes to be read before the trapdoor opened.
“So when did you come in last night,” she said quietly, trying to disguise and delay the impending explosion.
She was testing for echoes, trying to determine if I had suffered a dizzy-spell. Once she determined this, she could exaggerate (or even embellish) details until her malevolent little heart was content. By means of evasions and ambiguities, I hoped to conceal that my comprehension of the previous evening was characterized by anything other than clarity and self-assurance. “I do not recall looking at a clock. You were quite exhausted when I left.”
“When did you slink away?”
“I did not slink away. I wanted to enjoy an invigorating drink while I listened to the latest adventures of Zeus. I then wanted to enjoy a drink or three while savoring the news, the way a man relishes an enjoyable story he has read.”
“The way a man relishes his little bookends!” she screamed and began crying. “You, you asked me if your little bookends could come back to the room with us, so they could see Gargantua. But let me guess, let me fucking guess: you don’t remember.”
“I spoke of literature. It is Rabelais’ masterwork,” I said, receiving what felt like a snap from a towel behind my eyes and a flash of blue little blond and green little blond. Another snap consoled me: thank the gods they did not return with us; to forget such a tryst would be beyond tragic.
“It sounds as though I fell victim to a dizzy-spell,” I conceded thoughtfully. “A man can scarcely be faulted for his reflex-like actions and words when helplessly in the throes of one.”
“They’re called blackouts. You introduced me as your spicy little egg roll. I’ve never, never been so humiliated.”
“You certainly have,” I said, thinking quickly but not clearly. “At your sister’s birthday party, at the Christmas party in your dorm. These girls were strangers, mere bar wenches. Who cares what they think?” But at this she burst into sobs and left the balcony.
I peered down into the cloudless, almost blue sky, a little queasy, but transfixed by the view.
The Anticipation and Refutation of an Utterly Incorrect Objection to Part IV
We strive to harness our thoughts so they resemble the linear clarity of the written word. Concise segmentation is a presupposition of rationality. We toil with the futility of Sisyphus, however, to reproduce the chaotic bric-a-brac of our inner lives by these same means. An asymmetric relationship exists between them. Consciousness is, beyond certainty, the most inexplicable phenomenon in all of existence. Just as the essence of Rachmaninoff’s piano concertos cannot be captured with oil paintings, the ineffable nature of consciousness eludes transcription to markings on paper.
If only this asymmetry had served as a deterrent, a grim sentinel barring entrance to all. Instead, it has inspired waves of scribblers. The history of the written word is as checkered and stained as a tablecloth at an Italian wedding, but the darkest blotch by far is the reviled literary technique known as stream-of-consciousness writing, where normal rules are dispensed with to provide the reader with an allegedly perfect view of a character’s inner world. That this migraine-inducing stunt has been attempted is not surprising. To a modest extent, most writing hopes to frame images from that strange land within. What is objectionable can be divided into eight parts, the most serious of which is the Reader’s accusation that I employed the notorious gimcrack in Part IV.
First of all, stream-of-consciousness is a misnomer based on a stillborn metaphor. It is far from clear what, if anything, consciousness can be likened to, but a stream is preposterous at best. The non-linear, too-many-things-happening-at-once nature of it slays this metaphor in its cradle. Cleary, an overwrought writer coined the phrase, not a philosopher.
The phenomenon could more accurately be compared to an exotic growth that arises under special biologic conditions, a mushroom for example. Now, mushroom-of-consciousness has the dual virtues of accuracy and prophylaxis: no writer, no matter how unbounded his ambition, would inflict on us a novel based on a mushroom-of-consciousness technique.
Another metaphor submitted for the Reader’s contemplation: consciousness is a chaotic gaggle of geese. They rarely fly in unison. Some fly north as others go south. Their characteristic feature is a perpetual state of commotion, not unity or linearity. Indeed, the only sense in which they are an undivided unit is conceptual. It is convenient for us to speak of them as a single entity, just as it is convenient for us to speak of “consciousness” rather than the motley flock of ideas, sensations, memories, and all manner of what-nots perpetually fluttering about inside our heads.
Second, we are inclined to believe that our language mirrors our thoughts, from which it appears to follow that language can paint accurate pictures of them. In fact, it is the latter that occasionally mirrors the former, simply because we are often forced to think according to its rules. This does not work in both directions. Thoughts are lawless gangsters roaming a wild frontier, behaving themselves only when the sheriff is nearby.
Does this explain the pretension of forgoing the rules of language to unveil the nature of consciousness, its very mirror image, page by page? Nay, a realistic account goes as follows. Twentieth century writers, unable to compete with their betters from the eighteenth century, resorted to all manner of shenanigans. Their rationale was simple: in lieu of a good book, stupefy the reader, confound and disorient him, induce in him a profound sense of his own stupidity and unworthiness and he will be unable to stand in judgment of your masterpiece. After all, not understanding something is an admission of ignorance. Contrariwise, through feigned understanding and enjoyment of inscrutable tomes one joins the esoteric enclave of the cognoscenti.
One reason we turn to great writing is to free ourselves, however fleetingly, from the burden of consciousness with its peculiarities and uncertainties. A good book offers us a glimpse of a fabled world where effects can be traced to causes, conclusions follow from premises, complex situations have a unifying meaning, and a moral can be derived from any bundle of circumstances. Now why would a man pick up a book whose contents are more incomprehensible and higgledy-piggeldy than consciousness is in the first place?
The Reader’s accusation that I used the abhorrent gimmick in Part IV shall not stand. What need have I of experimental techniques? The following formula is the only one my purely Objective narrative follows: 1) X happened. 2) I write that X happened.
Regarding the passage in question: one moment I spoke with a set of comely twins, hoping to initiate an act of libidinous redundancy with them. The next moment I dreamt of a zebra drowning in a lagoon of jelly. Then I awoke beside Sandy. How much more clearly, how much more objectively could this have been conveyed? Would the Reader prefer a timeline, a flowchart perhaps? If he wishes, he may return to the sequence that so befuddled him and number (with different colored crayons) the events one, two, and three respectively.
Regarding other parlor-tricks the Reader suspects I foisted upon him: the oil-slick simile provided a consummate description of intoxication. If the Reader has a superior one he should send it to my publisher and we will incorporate it in the next printing. I shall not hold my breath.
And the hyperbole used to describe my dizzy-spell? Given its ferocity I am scarcely convinced my description was exaggerated. Instead of brandishing baseless accusations, the Reader should take comfort in my principled refusal to stain my hands with any modern ruses. Imagine every thought expressed throughout my annals appearing and dissolving, just to make the sophomoric point that consciousness per se is an oily puddle. Clearly some gratitude is in order.
To diagnose the cause of the Reader’s inappropriate attribution, we need look no further than the septic standards of contemporary writing. Lobotomized by intellectual lacerations from an onslaught of pulp regarding lawyers, serial killers, wizards n’ witches, family sagas, and celebrities, the Reader became unduly dazzled when confronted with the scintillating, but not experimental, prose of Part IV. All is forgiven, dear Reader. And what an excellent lesson has been learned. The freak shows of modern books cannot compete with the Big Top of Truth.