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City of Truth
By James Morrow
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1990 James Morrow
All rights reserved.
I no longer live in the City of Truth. I have exiled myself from Veritas, from all cities—from the world. The room in which I'm writing is cramped as a county jail and moist as the inside of a lung, but I'm learning to call it home. My only light is a candle, a fat, butter-colored stalk from which nets of melted wax hang like cobwebs. I wonder what it would be like to live in that candle—in the translucent crannies that surround the flame: a fine abode, warm, safe, and snug. I imagine myself spending each day wandering waxen passageways and sitting in paraffin parlors, each night lying in bed listening to the steady drip-drip-drip of my home consuming itself.
My name is Jack Sperry, and I am thirty-eight years old. I was born in truth's own city, Veritas, on the last day of its bicentennial year. Like many boys of my generation, I dreamed of becoming an art critic one day: the pure primal thrill of attacking a painting, the sheer visceral kick of savaging a movie or a poem. In my case, however, the dream turned into reality, for by my twenty-second year I was employed as a deconstructionist down at the Wittgenstein Museum in Plato Borough, giving illusion its due.
Other dreams—wife, children, happy home—came harder. From the very first Helen and I wrestled with the thorny Veritasian question of whether love was a truthful term for how we felt about each other—such a misused notion, love, a kind of one-word lie—a problem we began ignoring once a more concrete crisis had taken its place.
His sperm are lazy, she thought. Her eggs are duds, I decided. But at last we found the right doctor, the proper pill, and suddenly there was Toby, flourishing inside Helen's redeemed womb: Toby the embryo; Toby the baby; Toby the toddler; Toby the preschool carpenter, forever churning out crooked birdhouses, lopsided napkin holders, and asymmetrical bookends; Toby the boy naturalist, befriending every slithery, slimy, misbegotten creature ever to wriggle across the face of the Earth. This was a child with a maggot farm. A roach ranch. A pet slug. "I think I love him," I told Helen one day. "Let's not get carried away," she replied.
The morning I met Martina Coventry, Toby was off at Camp Ditch-the-Kids in the untamed outskirts of Kant Borough. He sent us a picture postcard every day, a routine that, I realize in retrospect, was a kind of smuggling operation; once Toby got home, the postcards would all be there, waiting to join his vast collection.
Dear Mom and Dad: Today we learned how to survive in case we're ever lost in the woods—what kind of bark to eat and stuff. Counselor Rick says he never heard of anybody actually using these skills. Your son, Toby.
Dear Mom and Dad: There's a big rat trap in the pantry here, and guess who always sneaks in at night and finds out what animal got caught and then sets it free? Me! Counselor Rick says we're boring. Your son, Toby.
It was early, barely 7 A.M., but already Booze Before Breakfast was jammed to its crumbling brick walls. I made my way through a conglomeration of cigarette smoke and beer fumes, through frank sweat and honest halitosis. A jukebox thumped out Probity singing "Copingly Ever After." The saloon keeper, Jimmy Breeze, brought me the usual—a raspberry Danish and a Bloody Mary—setting them on the splintery cedar bar. I told him I had no cash but would pay him tomorrow. This was Veritas. I would.
I spotted only one free chair—at a tiny, circular table across from a young woman whose wide face and plump contours boasted, to this beholder's eye, the premier sensuality of a Rubens model. Peter Paul Rubens was much on my mind just then, for I'd recently criticized not only The Garden of Love but also The Raising of the Cross.
"Come here often?" she asked as I approached, my plastic-wrapped Danish poised precariously atop my drink. Her abundant terra-cotta hair was compacted into a modest bun. Her ankle-length green dress was made of guileless cambric.
I sat down. "Uh-huh," I mumbled, pushing aside the sugar bowl, the napkin dispenser, and the woman's orange peels to make room for my Bloody and Danish. "I always stop in on my way to the Wittgenstein."
"You a critic?" Even in the endemic gloom of Booze Before Breakfast, her smooth, unpainted skin glowed.
I nodded. "Jack Sperry."
"Can't say I'm impressed. It doesn't take much intellectual prowess, does it?"
She could be as honest as she liked, provided I could watch her voluptuous lips move. "What line are you in?" I asked.
"I'm a writer." Her eyes expanded: limpid, generous eyes, the cobalt blue of Salome's SoSo Contraceptive Cream. "It has its dangers, of course. There's always that risk of falling into ... what's it called?"
There were no metaphors in Veritas. Metaphors were lies. Flesh could be like grass, but it never was grass. Use a metaphor in Veritas, and your conditioning instantly possessed you, hammering your skull, searing your heart, dropping you straight to hell in a bucket of pain. So to speak.
"What do you write?" I asked.
"Doggerel. Greeting-card messages, advertising jingles, inspirational verses like you see in—"
A grimace distorted her luminous face. "I should say I'm an aspiring writer."
"I'd like to read some of your doggerel," I asserted. "And I'd like to have sex with you," I added, wincing at my candor. It wasn't easy being a citizen.
Her grimace intensified.
"Sorry if I'm being offensive," I said. "Am I being offensive?"
"You're being offensive."
"Offensive only in the abstract, or offensive to you personally?"
"Both." She slid a wedge of orange into her wondrous mouth. "Are you married?"
"A good marriage?"
"Pretty good." To have and to hold, to love and to cherish, to the degree that these mischievous and sentimental abstractions possess any meaning: Helen and I had opted for a traditional ceremony. "Our son is terrific. I think I love him."
"If we had an affair"—a furtive smile—"wouldn't you feel guilty?"
"I've never cheated." An affair, I mused. Scary stuff. "Guilt? Yes, of course." I sipped my Bloody Mary. "I believe I could tolerate it."
"Well, you can drop the whole fantasy, Mr. Sperry," the young woman said, a declaration that filled me with an odd mixture of relief and disappointment. "You can put the entire thought out of your—"
"Call me Jack." I unpackaged my Danish; the wrapper dragged away clots of vanilla icing like a Band-Aid pulling off a scab. "And you're ...?"
"Martina Coventry, and at the moment I feel only a mild, easily controlled desire to copulate with you."
"'At the moment,'" I repeated, marveling at how much ambiguity could be wedged into a prepositional phrase. In a fashionably gauche move I licked the icing off the Danish wrapper (The Mendacity of Manners had recently hit the top slot on the Times best-seller list). "Will you show me your doggerel?" I asked.
"It's bad doggerel."
"Doggerel is by definition bad."
Martina's pliant features contracted into a bemused frown. "There's a great deal of sexual tension occurring between us now, wouldn't you say?"
She reached into her purse and pulled out a folded sheet of crisp white typing paper, pressing it into my palm with a sheepish smile.
First came a Valentine's Day message.
I find you somewhat interesting,
You're not too short or tall,
And if you'd be my Valentine,
I wouldn't mind at all.
A birthday greeting followed.
Roses drop dead,
Violets do too,
With each day life gets shorter,
Happy birthday to you.
"I have no illusions about earning a living from my doggerel," said Martina, understating the case radically. "What I'd really like is a career writing political speeches. My borough rep almost hired me to run his re-election campaign. 'Cold in person, but highly efficient'— that was the slogan I worked out. In the end, his girlfriend got the job. Do you like my verses, Jack?"
"I'm going to burn them." Martina kissed an orange slice, sucked out the juice.
"No. Don't. I'd like to have them."
"You would? Why?"
"Because I'm anticipating you'll write something else on the page." From my shirt pocket I produced a ballpoint pen (Paradox Pen Company—Random Leaks Common). "Like, say, the information I'll need to find you again."
"So we can have an affair?"
"The thought terrifies me."
"You are fairly attractive," Martina observed, taking the pen. Indeed. It's the eyebrows that do it, great bushy extrusions suggesting a predatory mammal of unusual prowess—wolf, bear, leopard—though they draw plenty of support from my straight nose and square jaw. Only when you get to my chin, a pointy, pimply knoll forever covered with stubble, does the illusion of perfection dissolve. "I'm warning you, Jack, I have my own Smith and Wesson Liberalstopper." She signed her name in bold curlicues across the bottom of the page, added her address and phone number. "Try to force yourself on me, and I'll shoot to kill."
I lifted the doggerel from the table, flicking a Danish crumb from the word Valentine. "Funny—you've almost told a lie here. Roses don't drop dead, they—"
"If I were you, Martina, I wouldn't take such chances with my sanity."
"If you were me," she replied, "you would take such chances with your sanity, because otherwise you'd be someone else."
"True enough," I said, pocketing Martina Coventry's stultifying verses.
Galileo Square was clogged with traffic, a dense metallic knot betokening a delay of at least twenty minutes. I flipped on my Plymouth Adequate's radio, tuned in WTRU, and began waiting it out. Eighteenth Street, Nineteenth Street, Twentieth ...
"... fact that I accepted a fifty-thousand-dollar kickback during the Avelthorpe Tariff Scandal should not, I feel, detract from my record on education, the environment, and medical ..."
Twenty-fifth Street, Twenty-sixth Street, Twenty-seventh ...
"... for while we do indeed divert an enormous amount of protein that might help relieve world hunger, the psychological benefits of dogs and cats have been proved almost beyond the shadow of a ..."
Thirtieth Street, Thirty-first ...
"... displeased with the unconscionable quantities of sugar we were putting into children's cereals, and so we're happy to announce a new policy of..."
At last: the Wittgenstein Museum, a one-story brick building sprawling across a large concrete courtyard, flanked by a Brutality Squad station on the north side and a café called the Dirty Dog on the south. The guard, a toothy, clean-cut young man with a Remington Metapenis strapped to his waist, waved me through the iron gates. I headed for the parking lot. Derrick Popkes of the Egyptian Relics Division had beaten me to my usual space, usurping it with his Ford Sufficient, so I had to drive all the way to the main incinerator and park by the coal bin.
"Channel your violent impulses in a salutary direction—become a Marine. Purge your natural tendency toward—" I silenced the radio, killed the engine.
What had life been like during the Age of Lies? How had the human mind endured a world where politicians misled, advertisers overstated, clerics exaggerated, women wore makeup, and people professed love at the drop of a tropological hat? How had humanity survived the epoch we'd all read about in the history books, those nightmare centuries of casuistic customs and fraudulent rites? The idea confounded me. It rattled me to the core. The Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, Santa Claus, Frosty the Snowman, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: staggering.
"You're late," observed the chief curator, bald and portly Arnold Cook, as I strolled into the front office. "Heavy traffic?"
"Yes." I slid my card into the time clock, felt the jolt of its mechanism imprinting my tardiness. "Bumper to bumper." Every so often, you'd experience an urge to stop short of total candor. But then suddenly it would come: a dull neurological throb that, if you didn't tell the whole truth, would quickly bloom into a psychosomatic explosion in your skull. "I also wasted a lot of time getting a young woman's address."
"Do you expect to copulate with her?" Mr. Cook asked, following me to the changing room. Early morning, yet already he was coated with characteristic sweat, droplets that, as I once told him in a particularly painful exercise of civic duty, put me in mind of my cat's litter box.
Denim overalls drooped from the lockers. I selected a pair that looked about my size. "Adultery is deceitful," I reminded the curator.
"So is fidelity," he replied. "In its own way."
"In its own way," I agreed, donning my overalls.
I followed a nonliteral rat-maze of dark, dusty corridors to my workshop. It was packed. As usual, the items I was supposed to analyze that day divided equally into the authentic objets d'artifice unearthed by the archaeologists and the ersatz output of the city's furtive malcontents—its "dissemblers." For every statue from ancient Greece, there was a clumsy forgery. For every Cezanne, a feeble imitation. For every eighteenth-century novel, the effluvium of a vanity press.
The dissemblers. Even now, after all I've been through, the word sends a cold wind through my bones. The dissemblers: Veritas's own enemy within, defacing its walls with their oil paintings, befouling its air with their songs, and, most daringly, turning its pristine streets into forums for Sophocles, Shakespeare, Ibsen, and Shaw, each production a ragged, jerry-built affair frantically staged before the Brutality Squad could arrive and chase the outlaw actors into their holes and hideouts. Only once had a dissembler been caught, and then the Squad had bungled it, clubbing the woman to death before they could ask the crucial question.
How do you tell lies without going mad?
What I loved about this job was the way it got my head and my hands working together. True, the raw existential act of deconstruction was rather crude, but before that moment you had to use your mind; you had to decide that the piece in question, whether original or forgery, was indeed inimical to the public good.
I turned toward a piece of classical mendacity labeled Nike of Samothrace. A lie? Yes, manifestly: those wings. Merely to behold such a creature nauseated me. No wonder Plato had banned artists and playwrights from his hypothetical Utopia. "Three removes from nature," he'd called them, three removes from factuality. ART IS A LIE, the electric posters in Circumspect Park reminded us. Truth might be beauty, but it simply didn't work the other way around.
Like an agoraphobic preparing for an indoor picnic, I spread my canvas dropcloth on the concrete floor. I took down a No. 7 sledgehammer. The Nike had arrived headless, and now, as I wielded my critical apparatus against her, she became wingless as well—now breastless, now hipless. Amorphous chunks of marble littered the dropcloth. My overalls stank of sweat, my tongue felt like a dried fig wedged into my mouth. An exhausting enterprise, criticism; grueling work, analysis. I deserved a break.
A note lay on the desk in my coffee cubicle. "Dear Mr. Sperry: Last Friday, you might recall, you offered to write a letter on my behalf," I read as the water boiled. "I hope Mr. Cook might receive it by the end of the week. Fairly sincere regards, Stanley Marcus."
I took down my mug, dumped in a heaping teaspoonful of semi-instant crystals— Donaldson's Drinkable Coffee, my favorite brand—added hot water from my kettle, and began mentally composing a recommendation for Stanley. He'd been assisting in my sector for over a year now, servicing a dozen of us critics—sharpening our axes, fueling our blowtorches, faithfully sweeping up our workshops and cubicles—and now he was looking to get promoted. "In all honesty, I believe Stanley would prove reasonably competent at running the main incinerator. Of course, he is something of a drudge and a toady, but those qualities may actually serve him well. One thing you'll notice about Stanley is that he farts a great deal, but here again we're not talking about a characteristic that would hinder ..."
I glanced at my Beatoff Magazine calendar—and a good thing, or I might have forgotten about meeting my wife for lunch. "Helen," said the July 9th square, "1 P.M., No Great Shakes." No Great Shakes on Twenty-ninth Street had marvelous submarine sandwiches and terrific Waldorf salads. Its shakes were not so great.
Miss July—Wendy Warren, according to the accompanying profile—leered at me from the glossy paper. "Being an intellectual," ran her capsule biography, "Wendy proved most articulate on the subject of posing for us. 'It's at once tawdry and exhilarating, humiliating and energizing,' she said. 'If not for the quick five thousand, I never would've considered it.' When we learned how smart she was—that Interborough Chess Championship and everything—we almost disqualified her. However, we knew that many of you would enjoy masturbating to ..."
Excerpted from City of Truth by James Morrow. Copyright © 1990 James Morrow. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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