After Silenceby Jonathan Carroll
Carroll joins the literary mainstream with a novel as original and provocative as the tales of magic and wonder that made him a cult phenomenon admired by writers from Pat Conroy to Stephen King.
- The Doubleday Religious Publishing Group
- Publication date:
Read an Excerpt
By Jonathan Carroll
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1992 Jonathan Carroll
All rights reserved.
A ROSE IN THE THROAT
"With you I am the woman everyone thinks I am."
How much does a life weigh? Is it the product of our positive or worthwhile acts, divided by the bad? Or is it only the human body itself, put on a scale—a two-hundred-pound life?
I hold a gun to my son's head. He weighs about one hundred and thirty pounds, the gun no more than two. Another way of thinking about it: My son Lincoln's life weighs only so much as this pistol in my hand. Or the bullet that will kill him? And after the shot will there be no weight?
He is smiling. I am terrified. I'll pull the trigger and he will die, yet he's smiling as if this fatal metal against his head is the finger of a loved one.
Who am I? How can I do this to my own son? Listen—
Mileage meant cloud ears. If it had been a good day, full of long fares and chatty customers, my father often treated me to a meal at Lee's, the Chinese restaurant across the street from our house. Two dollars for the works, including a dish of cloud ear mushrooms on rice. Mom and Dad hated the place and would never go because everything there tasted "like grease pudding." But he was nice enough to trade me the two bucks for a hug and a kiss. I got the best of both deals because I loved hugging my father. Both of my parents were great hug givers, as opposed to many parents who accept them as either their due or a necessary evil of living with children.
I was lucky. My father taught me generosity, how to live with a calm person when you are not, and ventriloquism. He delighted in the art of throwing his voice, of putting words in someone else's mouth.
My mother was just like her maiden name, Ida Dax. Short, up front, no nonsense. To her dismay, my father nicknamed her "Daisy" on one of their first dates and refused to call her anything else. He said both she and her name reminded him of Daisy Duck. You can imagine what he had to do to win her offended, practical young heart after that. But he did, because in spite of her seriousness, she loved to laugh and Stanley Fischer liked nothing more than to make her laugh. Unfortunately, my father was also a man destined to be a mediocre-to-rotten businessman. By the time I became fully aware of him, he had bombed at a large number of jobs, so both he and my mother were satisfied that he'd become the town's only (and thereby "successful") taxi owner. Mama, although shorter-tempered and less forgiving than Dad, was luckily not one who cared very much about wealth or material things. As long as bills were paid, there was sufficient food and clothing for the family, and a little was left over for each of our "vices" (my eating Chinese food, their buying a television set or going to movies every weekend), then life was okay. I cannot remember her ever badgering him for ending up where he did. In retrospect I don't think she was proud of him, but she loved him and considered herself wise for having chosen a man she liked talking to, one who smiled with genuine delight on seeing her every night when he came home.
My childhood memories are rather vague, but that's probably because I was safe and content much of the time. I remember sitting in Lee's Restaurant and looking out the window at our house. I remember playing catch with a Wiffle ball with Dad. When the white ball floated through the air toward me, he made it talk. "Outta my Way! Here comes the Wiffler!"
My father always had time to play, my mother bought only the best colored pencils and paper when she understood how important drawing was to me. They loved me and wanted me to be whole. What more can we ask from another human being?
When my brother Saul was born, I was already twelve years old and more on my parents' side of the fence than his. As a result, he grew up with two parents and an intermediary, rather than a full-fledged brother who gave him noogies or made his life happily miserable. By the time I went to college, Saul was only six and beginning elementary school. It was not until a decade later when he was a teenager and I was working in New York that we developed any kind of relationship.
A writer friend recently published an autobiographical novel that was badly reviewed. She told me, "I'm not angry because it flopped: I'm angry because I used up my childhood on that book."
The idea is amusing, but I find it hard to believe anyone could "use up" their childhood on anything, no matter how old we get. Like some kind of personal Mount Olympus, our youth is where the only gods we ever created live. It is where our imagination and belief were strongest, where we were innocent before turning gullible, then cynical. Whether we remember in detail or only small bits, it is inexhaustible.
Luckily for my father, we lived in a town full of hills. Commuters getting off the train in the evening would take a look at the two-hundred-step staircase up to the town center and plod tiredly over to Dad's black four-door Ford. He knew many of the people by name and, leaning over the top of the car, would greet these rumpled men with a thump on the roof and a "Come on, Frank. Last thing you need now is to climb those stairs."
I often rode with him and was assigned the job of jumping out when we'd arrived and opening the back door for the customer. Sometimes they'd tip me a dime or a quarter, but more than the tip, I enjoyed being there to hear what was said during the ride to their homes. These were successful people, owners of big houses with river views, two cars, sometimes even a tennis court or a swimming pool. I knew their kids from school, but generally they were a snobby, aloof bunch. In contrast, their parents, because they were either tired and in the mood for comfortable small talk or just plain adrift in their well-appointed lives, talked to my father about many surprising things. He was a good listener and at times unusually perceptive. All the way across these years I think, by their remembered silences and nodding heads, that he might have helped some of them with what he said.
Once while home on vacation from college, I was with him when he took a woman named Sally O'Hara from the station. She had a notorious husband who slept with just about any woman in town with a pulse. Unfortunately, Mrs. O'Hara was one of those people who would tell anyone within hearing distance about their problems. That day was no different, but she also said something that stuck in my mind and later shaped my success.
"Stanley, I've decided what I need most in life is a detective of the soul."
My father, who was used to backseat philosophers, knew how to play the straight man.
"Tell me about it, Sally. Maybe I'll get Max here to go into the business."
"It's simple. All you've got to do is track down the people who know the big answers, Max. Find the man who can tell us why we're here. There's gotta be someone out there who can. Or the person who can tell me why my husband would rather spend the evening with Barbara Bertrand than me."
I was already doing cartoons for the college newspaper, often using a geometric form I'd created named "Paper Clip" to make zingy comments and complaints about life on campus. They were mildly successful and funny, and the editors allowed me to draw whatever I wanted. But when I returned from that vacation, I gradually began to turn "Paper Clip" into a whole new world.
Before, it had simply been a geometric figure standing in the middle of a drawing with perhaps an object or two nearby that related to the caption. Now that strange character continued on one side of the frame while a new one, a man, appeared on the other. In between them was a large drawing, very realistically rendered. It looked like they were both staring at this "photograph" and commenting on it. The first cartoon with this new format was of the figures looking at a very large hand applying mascara to the lashes of a giant eye. The caption read, "Why do women always open their mouths when they're putting on mascara?" We don't know which one of them is saying it, and there is no response.
I refined as I went along. The photograph part of the cartoon grew more and more realistic, but also more obscure. Sometimes it took a while for the viewer to even comprehend what was shown there. For example, a cigarette butt stuck into a partially eaten doughnut, but I'd gone in so close that seconds went by before you'd figured out what they were. Apparently that became part of the fun of the new "Paper Clip"—people would first decipher the snapshot, then go on to the caption.
Sometimes the two figures would be placed on the same side of the picture, sometimes behind it with only their heads showing, sometimes moving in or out of the frame. They dangled from strings like grade school angels, or sat in seats with their backs to us and looked at the photograph as if it were a movie. They rowed by the picture, jogged across the top and bottom, shot arrows at each other across its face. But always the same format—the two dissimilar figures, the ever more realistic but mysterious photo "between" them.
I thought of Mrs. O'Hara and her "detective of the soul" often because after drawing the new strip some months, I realized what I was trying to do was address some of the cosmic, albeit small, questions she'd wanted her detective to answer. Not that I had solutions, but it was clear from the reactions and letters I was receiving that my work was on target more often than not.
That is who I am. Yes, "Paper Clip" took me right into adulthood, slight celebrity status, and a comfortable life. As a cartoonist, you learn to cut to the bone of language. If three words say it better or funnier than four, great, use three. It would be easy to indulge myself here and ramble on about my various years, but there is really only one important time and that began the day I met Lily and Lincoln Aaron. So I will stop now and fast-forward the story of my life twice: Once to my thirty-eighth year then to my forty-fifth.
Picture a man walking toward the door of the Los Angeles County Museum. He has thick black hair cut short, wears trendy eyeglasses with blue frames, is dressed in weekend clothes—khaki pants, old gray sweater, expensive running shoes. Comfortable and colorless, it is his uniform when he works at home. You think you might have seen him before. You have, because there have been some magazine articles about him. But it is his work that has made him known, not his face or personality. He thinks he has the face of a high school science teacher or a knowledgeable stereo salesman.
It was three weeks after his, my thirty-eighth birthday. I had a great job, some money, no girlfriend but that didn't bother me so much. In retrospect it was a time in my life when I was calm and on top of things. I would like to have been married and had children to take to the museum, I would like to have had "Paper Clip" syndicated in more newspapers than it was. But it was certainly possible for both to happen. In retrospect it was a time when the only things I desired from life were not only possible but quite probable.
I saw the Aarons almost as soon as I entered the building. Because her back was to me, my first impression was that the two were brother and sister. Both short, both in jeans and T-shirts. Maybe five foot two or three, Lily was taller than the boy but not by much. Her hair was swept up in a girl's ponytail. They were arguing. She was louder than she knew because her voice, very feminine and adult, carried clear across the lobby to where I was.
"No. First the museum, then lunch."
"But I'm hungry."
"That's too bad. You had your chance before."
Although she turned then and I saw she was attractive, I already had an unpleasant image of her: one of those pretentious, superficial women who drag their kids around to "culchah" and force their noses into it like a puppy's into its own shit. I turned away and walked into the exhibition.
I have a nasty, sometimes gothic imagination. Perhaps those are a couple of the requirements needed to be a cartoonist. Whatever, that imagination carried a picture of bitch mother and hungry child around the museum with me that afternoon. I couldn't shake the whine in the boy's voice or the woman's closed eyes when she loudly told him tough luck. Why not just buy him a hot dog, let him wolf it down in five minutes as kids invariably do, and then go to the show? I was no expert, but had had a few girlfriends with children and I'd gotten along pretty well with them. In several cases, better than with their mamas. In my experience, you played a kid like a fish once you have it hooked. Let it run with the line a ways, then reel it slowly back in. You know you've got control; the trick is to finesse the fish into thinking it does.
I had been looking forward to this show for a long time. The title was "Xanadu" and the subject was visionary cities. There were works by artists, architects, designers ... There were even some by cartoonists like Dave McKean, Massimo Iosa Ghini, and me. I'd been invited to the opening a couple of nights before, but at openings you don't get to look at the work. People push you out into a crowd of beaming piranhas and oglers trying to play it cool but also show off their new dresses, or cut or deal, or sidle up to a movie star. I liked to amble, take notes, and not talk to anyone.
"Hey, Max Fischer! 'Paper Clip,' right?"
Blank-faced, I turned toward the voice. A young couple stood there smiling.
"Hi. How are you?"
"Fine. I don't want to bother you, Max. Only wanted to tell you how much we love your strip. Read every one of them. And we saw your piece here. Terrific! Right, honey?" He looked at his wife, who nodded vigorously.
"Well, thank you very much. That's kind of you."
"It's nothing. Thanks for all you've given us !" Both gave shy waves and walked off.
How nice. I stood there watching them disappear into the crowd. "Paper Clip" came so easily that part of me was always vaguely ashamed at my good fortune. Other people worked so hard at what they did but received so little in return. Not to mention those born damned, afflicted, handicapped. Why had my bread fallen butter side up so many years?
Thinking about this when I should've been smiling over the compliment, I came out of my haze on hearing a child's voice say, "You know what really scares me, Mom? Thin statues."
I took a pen out of my pocket and wrote "thin statues" on the palm of my hand, knowing I'd have to use the phrase somewhere in the strip in the future. What would his mom reply to it?
"I know exactly what you mean."
That was enough to make me turn around. Bitch mother and her hungry boy. She saw I was looking at them and directed her next sentence at me.
"Thin statues and thin people. Never trust a thin person. They're either vain or on the run."
"I never thought of it that way."
She scratched her head. "Because this isn't a thin society. We put such a premium on it because we've been told to, but then we turn around and enjoy our fat: fat homes, fat meals, fat wardrobes. What kind of car do you buy when you're rich? Rolls-Royce. A small house? Nope. No matter how little money you have, the point is to buy as big as you can afford. Why's that? Because deep in our hearts, we love fat. People come into the restaurant where I work and pretend to like nouvelle cuisine, but they don't. You can see when they look at the bill that they feel cheated having to pay so much for such small servings. That's all nouvelle cuisine is anyway—a clever new way of cheating a customer out of their money's worth. Give 'em a couple of spears of asparagus, artistically arranged, and you can charge more than if you gave them five. Jesus Christ, I talk too much.
"I'm Lily Aaron, and this is my son Lincoln."
As we were shaking hands, the man who'd complimented me a few minutes before returned, holding a catalogue of the show.
"I'm sorry to bother you again, but would you mind signing this? I should've asked before, but I felt kind of funny invading your privacy. Is it okay?" Assuming Lily Aaron was with me, he looked from one to the other, as if asking both of us for permission.
Now, bitch mother or not, there is nothing nicer than being publicly recognized right in front of a pretty woman.
"Sure it's okay. What's your name?"
Listen to our silence after he said that.
I looked helplessly at Lily. She smiled and grew a look on her face that said, "Get out of this one gracefully, big boy."
"I'm afraid you'll have to spell that, Newell."
He did while I slowly took his dictation. Then we shook hands and he walked away. "There goes a man who should be required to wear a name tag at all times."
"Your work is in this show?"
"Yes. I draw the comic strip Paper Clip.'"
"I don't know it."
"Have you heard of the restaurant Crowds and Power on Fairfax?"
"I'm afraid not."
She nodded. "Then we're even. That's where I work."
"Mom, are we going in or what?"
"Yes, sweetie, right now. But would you show us your piece, Max? I'd like to start that way. Okay, Lincoln? You don't mind, do you?"
Excerpted from After Silence by Jonathan Carroll. Copyright © 1992 Jonathan Carroll. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Meet the Author
Jonathan Samuel Carroll (b.1949) is an American fiction writer primarily known for novels that may be labelled magic realism, slipstream or contemporary fantasy. He is the author of over a dozen novels including The Land of Laughs, The Wooden Sea and White Apples. His novel Outside the Dog Museum was named the best novel of the year by the British Fantasy Society, and has proven to be one of Carroll’s most popular works. Carroll currently writes and lives in Vienna.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
See all customer reviews