New York Times Book Review
Dictionary of Modern Anguishby Ralph M. Berry
Fourteen enactments of radical undoing. Reviews of unwritten novels, prefaces to fraudulent books, narratives of dictionary entries, and one interminable sentence, all written in a style as strewn with landmines as everyday speech. In "Mimesis" a semi-literate surveyor struggles against metaphysical abandonment in a Florida swamp; in "Torture!" an anthropologist leaves his lifelong study of cruelty mysteriously unwritten; and in "A Theory of Fiction" a ruined man finds revenge in misrepresenting every injustice he's ever suffered. Nothing seems the matter. Everything appears to be wrong. From first word to last, these are fictions of impossible everydayness, where the telling of what's happening proves the unlikeliest feat of all.
New York Times Book Review
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a theory of fiction
Living with a secret, you measure time differently. Solitude becomes a still point, worlds pass at the speed of light. Perhaps it's feeling so immaterial that makes me want to speak, now that whatever I say is futile. I don't know. But approaching the end, I keep insisting, I was there! Or simply, I, I, I! But these words don't express these words. I'm writing as badly as I know how. I'd implore you to doubt everything, but you already do, and it isn't enough.
It has been nearly half a century since I invited Schreiber to lecture on my campus. We'd known each other briefly at Minnesota, but since graduation, I'd followedand been deeply impressed byhis early articles on Gil Blasand Quixote. Schreiber's account of the novel was, of course, anathema to mine, but I was astonished that such alien procedures could share common grounds. I suppose I made his publications my personal test. Anyway, I was teaching seminars in what we then called the novel's "social history" and had introduced my students to his work. I knew he'd be eager to come. We exchanged calls and letters; I agreed to play sponsor in the affair. More importantly, I offered him a place to stay in my home. I was living alone at the time, as I am nowmy too brief but reasonably satisfying marriage having filled the intervening yearsand I had a spare room for guests.
When Schreiber got off the plane, I was surprised by how unimpressive he looked. At Minnesota we'd been part of a groupmostlyoverdue doctoral candidates and the nervously untenuredthat drank itself blind every Saturday night. I recalled him as an ordinary sort, clumsy, a little introverted, but with a cleverness that could surprise you. But seeing him clutch the rail of the exit ramp now, his head bobbing out from behind a woman's purse, I felt embarrassed. Some of this was undoubtedly his stature. During the intervening years, I'd come to think of Schreiber as the author of his writings, my adversary. I suppose I'd made him larger than life. But standing head to shoulder with ordinary mortals now, he seemed the picture of helplessness. His beard was ridiculously long. His trousers were miserably cut. Although my admiration for his genius has never waveredI say this even nowhis dismay at commonplace things was hard to accept. I recall in particular his bewilderment at the practice of checking luggage, some bitter remarks about his bag having been "confiscated" by the airline, and his subsequent amazement when I retrieved it from the baggage return. Perhaps I'm making too much of this. Anyway, Schreiber was only five feet tall.
I took him home, fed him, gave him a room. He put away his clothing, and then over brandy and a fire we settled down to discuss the subject we both lovednovels.
Schreiber's theory was as simple as it was audacious. He was convinced fiction didn't exist. The concept of fiction was created in the seventeenth century to distract us from our own absence. All storiesfrom the farthest-fetched to the most carefully documentedwere actually confessions, and novelists were continually discovering this. Narrative genres could be differentiated by degrees of indirection, the modern novel being of all classes the most devious, but in Schreiber's view, nothing untrue had ever been told.
In my view, Schreiber's theory was reckless and naive, even socially irresponsible. Oh hell, I thought it was just crazy. Like virtually all of my contemporaries, I'd been impressed by the advance of science. Psychology, linguistics, historicism, were the vocabulary of intellectual seriousness. I suppose I had a vague notion of myself as a progressive. But Schreiber treated the material world as just another abstraction. I didn't want to challenge this view. I wanted to shake him back to his senses, jeer, C'mon, man! Not that I thought this would make any difference. Hadn't I read his essays? Couldn't I see how unbalanced he was? But that was just the problem! All I remember now is how little of what I said that night sounded like what I meant to say, as if my words were my words only as long as I didn't say them, or as if they were the words I wanted to say but never to hear myself say.
Anyway, I have little memory of our conversation. I think I chattered on about population shifts and the spread of commerce. Schreiber made some remarks about Locke but was plainly bored. Thank God for the brandy. However, I do remember one exchange. I don't know what had provoked me, but I'd started table-banging. I must've wanted Schreiber to admit that root canals in novels were preferable to root canals in dentists' chairs, or some such poppycock. Like I said, it wasn't me speaking. Finally I burst out with, "You aren't making me up, for Chrissakes! This"and I struck myself on the chest"this isn't fiction!"
Schreiber's face took on the queerest expression, His eyebrows dipped. His forehead wrinkled. He leaned forward and patted me on the arm. "You know," he said, "it's nothing to be ashamed of."
Eventually we gave up and went to our rooms. I fell immediately asleep. Several hours must've passedI never checked the timebut I remember waking to the consciousness of someone very nearby. Suddenly, I heard my name called. Turning on the lamp, I saw Schreiber standing beside my bed, but with his features so exaggerated in theatrical horror that I almost guffawed.
"Catastrophe!" he blurted, and started jabbing his finger toward the guest room.
I must acknowledge a weakness. I am temperamentally averse to melodrama and, when confronted with histrionics, find myself inclined to sarcasm. Seeing the diminutive Schreiber in his nightshirt, his hair mussed, beard askew, eyes dilated, lips blathering, well, it was all I could do not to make a joke. "Bad dream?" I asked.
Schreiber merely grabbed my arm, said, "You must come.... Here, here!"
I allowed him to drag me to the guest room, where he halted in the doorway and gesticulated at the bed. I regarded his wadded up bedclothes with incomprehension. Schreiber offered no explanation. He merely stood there pointing at the sheets in a kind of magisterial rigidity, as if expecting me to understand. It was ludicrous! I was on the verge of losing all patience, and of telling him so, when I noticed something peculiar about his bottom sheet. I leaned forward, observing a slight transparency, flatness. I reached over, touched the place with my finger, sniffed. Then I knew. Schreiber had wet his bed.
Or rather, my bed. Well, it was a case, as Henry James would have said. I couldn't imagine how to react and would certainly have reacted badly had Schreiber not been there to show just how unpleasant a bad reaction in these circumstances could be. He was hopping from one foot to the other, wringing his hands, panting, making little snuffling noises, and generally looking like a candidate for euthanasia. A glance in his direction and I knew what I must do.
I swept up the bedclothes in my arms, admitting no flinch of repugnance, and instructed Schreiber to get rags and a sponge from the kitchen. I then stuck the sheets into the tub, turned on the water, wrung out the urine, soaped the affected areas, and tossed everything into the drier with the rest of the day's undried wash. I next set to exuberantly soaking and stanching the mattress, using the sponge and absorbent rags, and finally mixed a teaspoon of vinegar in a bowl of water for the coup de grace. I even sprinkled on a little baking soda, sweeping up the mess with a whisk broom, and finally covered over the dampness with a plastic bag. All this while I kept barking instructions to Schreiber. Fresh sheets in the hall closet! Deodorizer under the sink! Spot remover in the pantry! Of course, these activities were just diversions. I knew nothing of domestic chemistry and couldn't have said what, if anything, my measures were to accomplish. But so much bustle had the desired effect. Our attention remained fixed on the goal of reparation. Neither of us had to look the other in the face, neither had to admit that Professor Schreiber had just transgressed the most infantile of prohibitions.
By the time we stopped, everything was back to normal. To avoid awkwardness, I kept our parting crisp, mentioned the upcoming lecture, need for rest, etc. Since the business was so mundane, it could be treated as ordinary. We each returned to our room, and I tried to return to sleep, but my mind was now racing. I kept wondering whether this accident was habitual, whether Schreiber possessed some physical or psychic disability, like palsy or stammering, and if so, why he hadn't taken precautions. Why, knowing the possibility of such an embarrassment, would he agree to stay in my home? Why not safeguard himself with a hotel room? And if his failing were not habitual, how bizarre that it had occurred just now, while away from the bed in which he passed virtually every other night. Eventually I did get to sleep, but my rest was disturbed by a dream. In the dream I was seated at a game board in a huge auditorium playing a game no one had invented. My opponent countered my moves like an experienced player, and none of his moves seemed to perplex or startle me. However, whenever I studied the board, I saw only randomness and confusion. All at once I heard a loud voice: This day your shoes will be required of thee! I looked down at my feet and discovered I wasn't touching the ground. What has happened to Mother? I cried out. But the only reply was a thunderous laughter resounding in every direction. Then I realized: this too was part of the game! I turned back to the board, but my opponent was already completing his final move. You have lost, he announced. With a pang in my heart, I looked up to see who had defeated me. But I was alone.
I didn't decide, or not in the way one imagines making a decisionwaffling, weighing alternatives, plopping down for this instead of thatI didn't decide how I should behave with Schreiber the next morning. It seemed a foregone conclusion that neither of us would bring up the previous night, a grotesque breach of decorum even to allude to it. But I suppose I expected some acknowledgment: a look, a pause before not saying what went without saying, or a vague remark that might be taken two ways. But no, there was nothing. We had the same breakfast, the same conversations, the same practical discussionswhen to be where and could Schreiber use my carrel and would there be a chalkboard at the lecturethat we would have had in any case. I introduced my distinguished friend to colleagues and students, just as planned, and Schreiber displayed no unexpected reticence, none of the sinking equanimity that, really, you might have expected him to display. If anything, he seemed more self-possessed, less befuddled than the day before. Queerest of all, he seemed at ease with me. He was the center of attention, of course, while I was now in the supporting role. But for the first time I noticed the slightest tone of condescension in a few of his remarksespecially when senior colleagues were presentand at moments my invisibility felt strange.
Not that patronizing was unfamiliar to me. My friend's achievements were more impressive than mine, and gradations of scholarly respect were as much a fact of my life as differences in human height and longevity. It was just that towering a full foot above this person who, for all his deftness and precocity and gifts and verve, would never again be for me anyone who wasn't a bed-wetter ... well, I suppose I found his insouciance to be fantastic. I felt an impulse to burst out laughing. Sitting beside him at the podium, it was all I could do not to nudge him in the ribs. I seemed hyperconscious that, at any moment, I could say, You'll never guess what happened to Professor Schreiber last night! I imagined the color draining from his face, his blathering lips, animal grunts, trembling hands. It was as though his dignity now appeared fraudulent, as if the previous night had revealed the truth, had stripped this impostor naked. The whim was crazy, but I had a powerful feeling that to be brought down was what he deserved.
Nothing else happened during Schreiber's visit. The lecture went off as planned, although I was personally disappointed. Schreiber's text was Moll Flanders, but his only contention seemed to be that Defoe's preface could be taken literally, that the novel was a pseudonymous autobiography just as its "editor" claimed. He made some extravagant remarks about Descartes, about discovering that one's own body could prove dubious, but his conclusions weren't surprising, and nobody appeared enthusiastic. Of course, my colleagues were polite. From the applause you might have thought Schreiber had been a hit, but watching my peers watching my friend, I wondered for the first time if I'd been taken in. My schoolmate was a witty and skilled raconteur, had a flair for sophistry, and possessed impressive learning, but his theory now struck me as shallow. I felt embarrassed for us both. Afterwards, we dined with a few faculty members at a local restaurant. Points from the talk were mentioned, but discussion never became vigorous. When I returned Schreiber to the airport, we spoke exactly as we would have spoken had his visit been a triumph. We parted vowing to stay in touch. I recall an unfamiliar feeling of lightness as I drove home. During a stretch of deserted highway, I rolled down my window and sang.
I never saw Schreiber again. Although we continued for several years to be members of the same organizations and to subscribe to the same journals and even to attend some of the same conferences, ours remained a phantom relation. I never ceased to be aware of him for a moment, and I have strong evidence that for many years, perhaps even until the end of his life, Schreiber thought about me viciously and often, but the climax of my tale has already passed. Throughout the prolonged denouement, my protagonist is absent, and this gives the plot a frustrated, intangible quality. By classical theories, it's broken-backed. If I'd been free to write as I pleased, of course, I wouldn't have plotted so ineptly. But whatever the case, the unraveling of my yarn got under way as soon as I returned from the airport and began to strip Schreiber's mattress.
He'd left no trace. Not that this seemed extraordinary in itself. I knew that, having been diluted, Schreiber's stain would be very slightperhaps only a little urine actually passed through the sheetbut I did expect something: a slight discoloration, some dampness or watermark. I don't know. But the mattress was unblemished. Even the odor was indiscernible. I pressed down on the foam, cupped my hands about my nose, tried each nostril separately, finally pressed my cheek against the spotor the supposed spot; exactly where, after all, was it located?tried everything short of licking it, and still, no scent, no sign, nothing. Then it struck me. Schreiber had turned the mattress over! I flipped it, only to realize my explanation was impossible: the underside was ripped. I had purchased the mattress as a first year assistant and had taken advantage of a damaged merchandise sale. Had the mattress been turned over I would have seen, either last night or tonight, the duct tape I had used to contain the tiny crumbs of deteriorating foam. I dropped it back on the springs, but with a new misgiving. Why all this concern with details? It wasn't as if anyone were going to contest what I knew, or would even suspect it. I was behaving as if I were gathering evidence, trying to prove a point. I reminded myself that I could despise whomever I wished, was free to scorn Schreiber or Albert Schweitzer or the Buddha himself, if it struck my fancy. No justification would be required.
I went to bed, slept soundly, and thought no more about Schreiber or his preposterous accident for twenty-two hoursthat is, until the very next evening while scanning an exhaustively researched and perfectly unreadable paper on Hamlet and the Irish wars, when I remembered: the sheets! I rushed down to the dryer, flung open the doorthere was a ping of metal that later turned out to be the hinge snappingand hauled out the linen. This time I had no difficulty locating a large stain, not clearly outlined but definitely yellowish, and of a plausible size, right in the middle of an otherwise unmarked top sheet. I will not describe how good this discovery made me feel, or how strange I felt to feel so. Even while undergoing my elation, still standing there before the machine with the sheet in my fist and the stain held triumphantly to my eyes, even as I all but skipped around the cellar with satisfaction, even as I now fear I actually did skipeven at that moment, I already heard the stranger who'd taken up residence in my consciousness hectoring me with questions about why, for Chrissakes, I was so worked up over a stain. I confess that I descended to the base ploy of arguing with him. I said that human curiosity was perfectly normal and that every natural phenomenon demanded an explanation. I also noted that, as a homeowner, I was responsible for all household damages and needed to replace any less than comme il faut appurtenances with new. Finally, I observed that anthropologists considered the ancient concern with cleanliness to be a ritualized behavior unrelated to modern theories of disease and that the human heart had reasons reason didn't know. I then told the stranger to shut up and leave me the fuck alone. I yanked the rest of the linens out of the dryer and began folding. I was ready to put Schreiber behind me.
It was then that I saw the second stain. Not on the fitted bottom sheet that made a pair with the first one, but on a second top sheet. Slightly more mustard-toned and faintly brown at the edges, it nevertheless looked interchangeable with the first stain, and seemed to be positioned in virtually the same place. The disturbance that came over me then is difficult to convey. I thought I would rip the fabric to bits. I feared I would do violence to myself. I longed for the sound of shattering glass, heard my teeth grind. I offer no explanations, but I know I experienced the kind of paroxysm that can be fatal to future repose. It was a crux. I felt frightened. I carried all the sheets from the dryertwo bottoms, three topsinto my living room and spread them out on the carpet. I had to move some furniture and place one corner over the threshold of the kitchen, but I finally managed to arrange the five side by side so that I could examine the data. I brought in the drafting lamp from my desk, turned on all the overheads.
The inspection required the larger portion of the night. No need to go into details. But my conclusion was that there were two stains, not entirely identical, but neither clearly announcing itself as urine instead of something elsecoffee? dye? blood? jism? (I apologize for such frank excursions into the grossly physical, but reliable knowledge often demands nothing less.) Anyway, there were obvious differences but no difference that made the identity of either stain obvious. Both could be recent or old, both could be from food or excrement, both could be Schreiber's or mine or another's. The bed on which Schreiber slept had a top sheet and a fitted bottom oneI recalled this with clarity, or believed at the time that I recalled it with clarity, or believe now that I believed at the time that I recalled it with clarityand so, had there been two stains, one should have been on a top sheet, the other on a fitted. This meant that either of the two stains before me could have been from Schreiber's mishap, consequently either could have been from an unrelated mishap, so that both could be cited in support of my case, so that neither could be cited in support of my case. At any given moment I might be staring at Schreiber's stain or at another stain whose origin was unknown. Moreover, inasmuch as neither bottom sheetI am absolutely certain there was a fitted bottom sheet!neither bottom sheet showed any stain at all, there was no sure evidence that Schreiber's urine had left a stain! It was quite possible that both stains were old, were mine, were peanut butter. In short, I knew nothing.
I got up from the floor and walked into the kitchen. It was five a.m. I cannot accurately convey my mood, but I recall feeling the proximity of a threat in its least mistakable form. I had to make a choice. There seemed to be an absolute but reasonless demand for action. My future hung in the balance. I gathered up all five sheets, loaded them into the trunk of my car, carried them to a supermarket three blocks away, and carefully stuffed them into a trash bin. I then returned home without resolving to act any differently, without reflecting on my intentions at all, but merely confirmed in a pattern of life from which the acknowledgment of Schreiber would be missing.
Two years passed during which I can say with frankness that I was at peace. Schreiber's visit was no more than a fact and so, like all facts, could be ignored. My life duplicated the life I would have lived if Schreiber had never entered my door. I continued revising my dissertation, a materialist poetics of eighteenth century genres (Defoe was my specialty), and published three chapters of it. In a single year I married my late wife, Dora, completed my manuscript, and received enthusiastic support for promotion and tenure. As long as the past could be restricted to my private knowledge of it, it differed in only trivial ways from a hallucination. Or as Schreiber would say, it passed for bad fiction. For it seems the real contribution of Schreiber's theory to draw attention to a familiar but unappreciated fact: that the best examples of fiction are inept ones. The classic novels, our paradigms, invariably confound and deepen our concept, often depriving us of recourse to it altogether. As a result, Schreiber maintained, we're continually falling back on pedestrian fabrications to reassure us that we're more palpable than a book. In my own case, I had transformed Schreiber's visit into a third-rate short story and so deprived it of any power to undo me. The only alteration in my otherwise unaltered existence was that I no longer read my adversary's writings. I couldn't have said whythat way madness beckoned. I merely accepted that my former friend's works were now among the plenitude I passed over.
If it wasn't the following year, then it was soon afterwards, that my fortunes took the downward plunge from which they've never recovered. Perhaps that way of introducing my denouement seems melodramatic. Of course, only my words can overcome the distrust my words arouse. If I forge on, it isn't blindly. I recognize the potential for self-defeat. I ask merely to be granted my self-awareness, my dignity. But then, why should you grant me anything?
Shortly after submitting my manuscript to a respected scholarly press, I received two enthusiastic, albeit not uncritical, reviews by senior scholars whose work I admired. Although revisions were requested, I sensed that a contract was in the offing and had begun a rewrite, when to my surprise a third set of criticisms appeared. As is customary, the author remained anonymous, but I was supplied with a copy of his remarks. Reading them made me dizzy. It wasn't any facts he (I always knew my adversary was male) ... it wasn't my facts he disputed, or even my conclusions. His criticisms were fantastically trivial, a matter of mere diction, and at the same time so basic that I couldn't begin to accommodate them. He said I wasn't writing English. My "knowledge," he insisted, wasn't knowledge; when I spoke of "experience," I didn't mean experience; "material" in my text was immaterial; none of my references to "romance" or "idealism" referred to anything; I didn't know how the word "novel" was used, etc. It was as though nothing I wrote were anything I wrote, as though my text were a phantom of itself, unsentenced, or its own retraction.
I was outraged. This wasn't criticism! I insisted. It was annihilation! And my editors at the press were sympathetic. They encouraged me to submit a detailed and carefully reasoned refutation of the third reader, to urge the editorial board on defensible grounds to set his comments aside. I have difficulty explaining why I never did this. Perhaps it was my impatience at such distractionsI was deeply immersed in my rewriteor perhaps I'd lost faith in the whole process, felt the press's respect for such a fool was damning. In retrospect, I suppose I should've followed the editors' advice, but I can recall how at the time such sensible suggestions only perfected my despair. For I didn't want to "refute" my third reader. I wanted him manacled. My overwhelming impulse was to wink at my scholarly peers, turn my finger in little circles beside my temple, join with them in an uproarious belly-laugh at this madman's expense. But "refute" him? Either it was just obvious that by "fiction" I meant fiction, not something else, or if it weren't obvious, then what could I say?
And so began the spiral of self-doubt that has kept me in revision for nearly fifty years. I submitted my manuscript to three more presses, each time receiving one or more favorable readings before my tormentorI never doubted he was always the samereappeared to silence me. It was, of course, Schreiber. Or if not Schreiber per se, then it was Schreiber in effect, virtually Schreiber. For even though the author's name was stricken from each review; even though my old schoolmate may not have been in the most doggedly literal sense "there," still my undoing could've been the work of no other. I often felt anger, even betrayal, but my feelings would never translate into an energetic defense. My experience never altered. After the rage subsided, after the confusion, well.... Schreiber's criticisms were ludicrous, mad, blind, wild, childish, inane, but what sense could there be in saying they were "wrong"?
I sound more bitter than I intend. In the end, the failure of my life's work wasn't Schreiber's fault. Contrary to what some claim, scholarship is no death struggle. In it there can be winners on many sides, and losses are rarely final. Although the confession causes me pain, I know that, had I persisted, had I risen to my tormentor's challenge, I might have emerged victorious in my own way. What defeated me wasn't Schreiber's theory. It was nothing. But that, I suppose, was Schreiber's theory.
For I simply couldn't believe the man's audacity: to challenge the one before whom his shame had been revealed! How was I to accommodate such brazenness, especially from someone so easily dismayed, someone as insubstantial as Schreiber? And then I began to be gnawed by what seemed obvious, that Schreiber really was small, smaller than I had ever dreamed, a desiccated little homunculus whose negligibility might prove infinite, in whose miniscule form the absence of vitality had produced longings so gnarled and inverse, so infantile, so loathsome.... The truth of it took my breath away: Schreiber had ruined me because I knew he was a bed-wetter! It was astonishing. And then the depth fully opened, the pit of my undoing. For I could see that to meet Schreiber's challenge I would have to preserve what would never bear repeating, to cherish my soiled sheets, dwell on the crudest, least significant corporeal remainsexactly as my madness had urged me to do years ago in the silence of my kitchen. I knew I wouldn't do it, that I would die with Schreiber's secret untold, that if I must choose between the facts and what mattered, I would always choose the other. And so I have protected Schreiber with my life.
And it is for this reason that, although Schreiber has died and my own public achievements ceased decades ago, I have been careful in telling my story to conceal Schreiber's true name. My last hope that someone somewhere will accord my misery the respect it craves, the respect that revealing it would have made impossible, is that I've given no one the power to injure my adversary with anything I've said. This has been proof of my faith. And it is for the same reason that I have carefully suppressed my own name in this account, so that no one could retrace through the neglected shelves of a forgotten library the sequence of events and identifies I've been forced to relate. And I've even gone so far as to change the substance of our disagreements and the fields of inquiry in which we struggled, so that no one coming behind me might claim, oh, but he was only trying to win his grudge fight at the last, trying to blacken the name of his conqueror, smear the better reasoning when it could no longer respond. In reality, my enemy was six feet tall. And last, it has been in order to avoid the whole humiliating business of denial and deceit that I've disguised this true account of my suffering as the clumsiest of fictions.
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