Frankby R.M. Berry
An excerpt from the novel just published by Chiasmus Press.
Why did this nightmare continue? Nothing held the slightest allure for me, but I was incapable of rest. Often I thought of the grave and might have purchased a how-to book on mercy killing, had the thought of reading it not been too painful. How I longed to evaporate! But at the same time I was also filled with an infuriating resolve. It was as though no remnant of me persisted, neither lust nor repulsion, soul nor bone, except this conviction, deep in my sinews, that with such a balked outcome I could not yet be over. As my restiveness became more and more intolerable, I decided to entrust my father’s mansion to a real estate agent, liquidate all my family’s possessions and, depositing my assets with a former Andy Young campaign worker, a successful banker now, set out to travel—or perhaps merely to wander, since I had neither origin nor destination.
Over the next three years I rarely remained in any location for more than a few nights, never as long as a week, and often would change my accommodations daily, as if fleeing some assailant or persecutor. My movements appeared capricious, governed by whims, but in reality, I felt driven. I developed the habit of scanning my surroundings before entering any unfamiliar room, as though anticipating I could hardly say what, and often riding in some cab or limousine, I would compulsively scrutinize the cars behind us like one pursued. Gradually I came to recognize that it was not fear compelling me but wistfulness. I longed to be sought, hunted down, arrested by some inflexible, imaginationless enforcer of the right. My whole being had become an escape, a flight from nothing, and the vacuum this created behind me seemed to demand filling. I did not sleep often, but whenever I lay in bed at night, I constructed meticulous fantasies of the manhunt I must be spawning. Somehow, somewhere, I sensed, reality would supply the figure my fleeing lacked. In Chicago, exiting a hotel elevator one morning, I abruptly found myself surrounded by police. They carried pistols, shotguns, assault rifles, and seemed, despite their tense readiness, as startled by my appearance as I was by theirs. Dreaming I’d been apprehended at last, I thrust up my arms, closed my eyes, and tensed to receive their bullets. There was silence. Then suddenly I heard guffaws, shuffling, breathy plosives. Opening my eyes, I saw grinning officers aiming their weapons at me and making childlike shooting noises, while others sprawled on the lobby floor in exaggerated postures of anguish and dying.
I had happened upon a movie set, and my captors, all extras for a shootout in the adjoining ballroom, had seized upon my confusion to divert themselves while awaiting their cue. After that, I began to feel more doubtful about the form my ending would take. I consulted my precursor’s paperback and found its concluding pages unprecedentedly vague. There seemed to be a pursuit, some preposterous imitation of consuming vindictiveness, but no apparent motives or aims and an abiding uncertainty about who was chasing whom. Whereas every action to now had unfolded from necessity, compelled by the reproductive secret at its start, the present action seemed random, almost as though succumbing to arbitrariness. I might go anywhere, do anything, but I could be sure there’d be no change. It was as though my precursor’s plot had become as big as all outdoors, and although this meant I could never feel constrained by it, for that very reason there could be no escaping. I lapsed into a deep funk. I have difficulty recalling now where I went, what I saw, or who in the world I still imagined I could be.
Then one day in a moist city—Portland? Seattle? San Francisco?—I underwent the encounter that, from that moment to this, has imparted to my movements their last semblance of direction. I was walking back to my hotel when, in a downtown park, I stumbled onto what must have been a bookseller’s convention. Everywhere I turned, stalls continuously lined the sidewalks, and under their green awnings I could see rows upon rows of shiny spines stretching out of sight. Well, as you will surely appreciate, this spectacle was anathema to me. To be engulfed in innumerable lives, countless pleas for understanding, each one beckoning as I passed! I could not postpone returning to my room, and I was too unfamiliar with the environs to locate an alternate route. So ducking my head and lifting a hand to shield my eyes, I plunged ahead. I was making rapid progress in this way, having managed to take little notice of the lurid hues and zany print on all sides, when the sidewalk apparently turned, or perhaps I veered, but anyway I felt a change in the surface underfoot, and next I knew I had collided violently with a young browser, strewing her duffels of precious tomes across the plaza. I will not detail the humiliating scene that ensued, knowing it can only amuse you at my expense, but suffice it to say that the victim was incensed, in not a little pain, with her eyeglasses smashed and one sandal missing. I, of course, could offer no explanation. I don’t recall how long I labored futilely to repair this wreckage, but it seemed that aeons passed.
By the time my casualty had uttered her final invective, shook a finger beneath my nose, and hobbled away forever, I was distraught. It seemed pointless now to protect my beleaguered vision, let alone to hurry, and so I proceeded the remaining distance at a subdued pace with my head up and eyes alert to the print-congested surroundings. As I neared the end of this gauntlet, my gaze was assailed by a stripe of garish color at the back of a row of volumes in the penultimate stall. I cannot say that anything about these covers initially struck me as noteworthy, nor did I attach any particular significance to their sulfurous aura, but I found my steps slowing, and as I drew nearer, for no evident reason, I paused. There beneath my astounded eyes sat a half-dozen yellow copies of my life, still in the printer’s wrap, marked four dollars for the lot. It was the first time in nearly nine years I’d encountered my creation, and although I was no longer horrified to find it, or it me, so far from its place of conception—having long since recognized the power of its words to move—I could not but marvel at the distanced we’d both crossed. I purchased them, and later that evening beside a barbecue grill in a remote RV camp, I read again every barbarous morpheme, savoring all the strangeness, each taint of alien violence, before ripping the page from its binding and flinging it into the fire. I cannot express the joy of seeing my countless black marks returning to the ether. By the next morning I’d begun to imagine how my life would turn out.
I returned to the convention site, where I obtained from my book’s vendor the number of the wholesaler who’d supplied him. I then made several increasingly vehement phone calls before a weary voice informed me that a dozen copies of my book still rested on a shelf in a regional warehouse outside of Louisville, Kentucky. I flew there at once. The dozen copies turned out to be forty-three. There was a minimum order, so the forty-three copies cost me a vital organ, and I had to bribe a shipping clerk, since I had no retailer’s license or tax number, but I got them. Within hours I had incinerated these mortal disfigurements as I had the others. After this foray, I began to work more methodically. Although the crackpot’s former publishing house still existed in name, it had been gobbled repeatedly and was now the print marketing subsidiary of an entertainment division of a Japanese communications conglomerate controlled by a Saudi oil company. It took me a week to locate an employee who knew what a book was and another to find out where my corpus had been entombed. However, at the end of much frustration, I was able to obtain for a pittance all twenty-six unopened cartons of my life that a fulfillment subcontractor had, through either miscommunication or sheer incompetence, failed to pulp, as well as the printer’s film and archived business and production files containing, among other documents, the edited MS and proofs.
Next, having consulted the subcontractor’s shipping records, I identified the major North American wholesalers and chains responsible for my aberration’s dispersal and set about reacquiring, initially at discount but eventually at list, more than three hundred of its still publicly available avatars. I then tracked down and reacquired sixty-seven of the eighty bound galleys and ninety-three of the one hundred nineteen complimentary review copies that, according to records in the promotional file, had been sent to newspapers, journals, and various literati, and then managed to verify as reliably as possible the trashing of the others. Finally, I wrote off for catalogues from virtually every rare book and out-of-print dealer, availing myself of their sophisticated research services wherever available, with the result that over a period of only eight or nine months, I had retrieved, in smaller quantities and at higher prices than formerly, another seventy-plus volumes, many used and disconcertingly well-read.
It was 1987. By now I calculated that I had accounted for nearly sixteen hundred of the three thousand plus copies of my life that the publisher had never destroyed from the original press run of twelve thousand. At this point I began the arduous process of locating individuals. Those in libraries turned out to be easiest. Having been among the first institutions to computerize, libraries had by now made their holdings widely available through international data banks. Within only eighteen months I was able to find all two hundred thirty-six available loan copies and steal them. Next I took out a series of full-page advertisements in the publications most widely consulted by book collectors and netted an immediate thirty-nine responses. However, the ensuing six months produced only seven more, and my highly visible appeals were beginning to exert a potentially disastrous effect on my creation’s value. My last respondent demanded $1300! Recognizing that such inflation would quickly produce hoading and, even worse, bidders, I decided to discontinue use of these specialized organs and appeal to my readers directly. I ran a series of notices in the Sunday arts and entertainment sections of various local newspapers, offering fifty dollars for any copy, regardless of condition, but by now my uncouth experience had acquired a costly reputation, and I received few takers.
However, I did receive a postcard from Mrs. Lois Sturm in Sudbury, Ontario, saying that she was in possession of a copy, in good condition if I didn’t mind highlighting, but that someone in her reading group had said it was a priceless work of art. She’d tried to read the book herself and found it, well, odd, but still she never liked to part with anything once she’d highlighted it, and so she was writing me to find out more. I immediately phoned and explained to Mrs. Sturm that I was, to my eternal shame, the disorderly creation’s author, that I appreciated how alien to her discriminating taste its chaos must seem, that since its release I’d suffered untold remorse over its brutality and now scarcely knew the sadly estranged being who’d formed it, that my one remaining wish was, within my severely limited financial means, to recompense all those who, like herself, had been innocently defrauded by this unwitting outrage to public decency, critical intelligence, refined sensibility, and precious time. $500, she said. $200, I replied. I paid $375.
Despite its costliness, this encounter revealed to me my future course. For Mrs. Sturm’s postcard, in addition to its monetary subtext, had borne on its surface two eye-catching solecisms, each of which immediately struck me as familiar: a passing reference to herself in her first sentence as creative and autistic and a later description of her reading group as nine retired babliophiles. Of course, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, but it occurred to me that these marvelous infelicities might comprise a link to my past. For the first time in years, I began to read. I scoured literary quarterlies, letters to the editor, local arts flyers, community newspapers, self-published memoirs, recreational circulars, hand-printed poetry, and any other documents likely to manifest literary ambitions in haphazardly proofread print. Wherever among their multitudinous typos, misspellings, and grammatical inanities, I thought I descried the deformed print of my creature, I would track down the oblivious innovator and inquire discretely into his or her reading. Sometimes this initial inquiry produced others, revealing a chain of verbal contamination, or even a network of infection spreading throughout an entire literary community. On other occasions, of course, I just found aphasia, poor education, or Tourette’s. That was over a decade ago. Since then I have spent virtually every waking hour and the last resources of my inheritance attuning my ear to the sound of my nemesis, and I can now report that just under two-thirds of the wretched puns, orthographic corruptions, savage malaprops, and ludicrous non-sequiturs in which I’ve imagined his murderous inflection have eventually, if only through a circuitous sequence of happenstance, led me to some forgotten version of my life.
I am here before you now, narrating this very instant of my narrating, having during these intervening years rummaged all fifty states, four Canadian provinces, significant portions of the U.K., Australia, New Zealand, and various Caribbean nations, and if my calculations are reasonably accurate—and be assured, I’m nothing if not certifiable—I have tracked down and incinerated, or verified the prior destruction of, more than twenty-seven hundred replicas of my fateful mistake. The ultimate object of my decline now seems within my grasp, the recovery of my original innocence—just imagine, a blank slate!—and I anticipate, or did until presently, that within but two or three more years I would be able to confirm my being’s virtual erasure. And yet, poised upon this cusp now, I feel no joy. On the contrary, I am all but overcome by leadenness and despair, as though regardless of how long my form endures I will never, never, attain my end. I ventured into this teeming waste I cannot say how long ago—lifetimes, it now seems—having in a coastal tavern one day overheard the briefest broadcast of a cracker auctioneer and talk-show host capable, so other listeners assured me, of spontaneous tour-de-force renditions of flamboyant barbarities. It was his gibberish I had set out to find when our vessels collided. But now I see that I was never prepared for these bewilderments and feel I may have ventured thus far out, an unforeseeable distance, merely to expire.
Oh, what a disaster I am! My dream seemed so ordinary, so unexceptionable: to create a life for myself, to have experiences I could call my own. And yet it now appears this dream, or perhaps what I made of it, was corrupt from the beginning, brutally tyrannical, blind. Was it overreaching that trapped me in another’s plot? Is sublimation the inevitable fate of discovering words? All I know is that since that day in Boston when I first heard my life being recounted by another, my meaning and I have never been the same. To be my meaning, every act complete, utterly exhausted in the instant, and so to have none, live meaninglessly, emptied out, lacking nothing—this, it now seems, should’ve been my dream. But from that moment I witnessed the poet’s fall, or perhaps earlier, ever since I first opened Heidegger, first suffered the thought of human origins, my meaning has traveled its own trajectory, inescapably mine but never comprehended by me. I still shudder at its violent path: Will, Teeny, Mark, Father, Liza, myself. Was that what genius came to? It seems mad, to strive for what, once grasped, can only be its own perversion. And this primordial blank I seek now, is this last object any different? My final holocaust of words, the incineration of all those lives I’ve composed, of every copy, perhaps this destruction merely deforms my innocence yet again, just as my former creation deformed its predecessor. I purify the spirit by mutilating the flesh. Who can say but that this fanatical crusade now is my ultimate illusion? Who can tell whether, in abolishing these past defacements, I repeat myself?
A strange expression: who can tell?
R.M. Berry is the author of two collections of short stories, Plane Geometry and Other Affairs of the Heart, chosen by Robert Coover as the winner of the 1985 Fiction Collective prize, and Dictionary of Modern Anguish (FC2). His novel, Leonardo’s Horse, was selected as a New York Times “notable book” of 1998. His literary criticism has appeared in Philosophy and Literature, Narrative, Soundings, Symploke, The American Book Review,and numerous other venues. Since 2000 he has been the publisher of Fiction Collective Two.
Berry is the author of Leonardo's Horse, a New York Times "notable book" of 1998.