The Epiphany Machine

The Epiphany Machine

by David Burr Gerrard

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780399575433
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 07/18/2017
Pages: 432
Sales rank: 604,368
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

David Burr Gerrard received an MFA in fiction writing from Columbia University. His first novel, Short Century, was published by Rare Bird Books, and his work has appeared in The Awl, The LA Review of Books, BOMB, Guernica, and other publications. He teaches fiction writing at Manhattanville College, the 92nd Street Y, and the Sackett Street Writers' Workshop.

Read an Excerpt

***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***

Copyright © 2017 David Burr Gerrard

Things to Consider Before Using the Epiphany Machine

1.   The epiphany machine will not discover anything about you that you do not, in some way, already know. But think for a moment about surprise. What is surprising is never what is revealed but the grace with which it has been hidden.

2.   The unexamined life is often entirely worth living. If there is nothing gnawing at you, put this pamphlet down and never think of us again.

3.   If there is something gnawing at you, that means you’re delicious. That gnawing is the universe trying to get at the tasty juice inside of you. Your entire unsatisfying life is just the rind. When you look at our device, think of it as a peeler.

4.   When most people look at our device, it reminds them of an antique sewing machine. Others think it looks like the fossilized jawbone of some extinct, single-toothed great cat. We could sit around and psychoanalyze you based on what you think it looks like, but that would take decades and cost you tens of thousands of dollars. Using the epiphany machine takes about fifteen minutes and costs a hundred bucks.

5.   The machine does not tell your future, or even specific facts about your present. It does not know who will win the World Series or whether your wife is having sex with your neighbor. Or if it does know, it has yet to display any propensity to tell.

6.   We limit each user to one tattoo. The device’s value lies in its limits. Any more than one epiphany and you might as well consult the vast libraries that are already available to you and that have clearly not done you any good.

7.   CLOSED OFF is a common epiphany. This is often cited as evidence that we are charlatans. We would argue that many people are closed off.

8.   There is only one manner in which you may receive your epiphany: a tattoo on your forearm. The design demands it; the jaw, as it were, can open only so far. You may want your epiphany on your stomach, but no matter how much you diet, your stomach will not fit. You can argue that the machine is less than perfectly designed for the human body; you can argue that the human body is less than perfectly designed for the machine. You can argue, you can argue, you can argue.

9.   In no way is the placement of the epiphany tattoo on the forearm intended to mock or otherwise evoke the Holocaust.

10. We do not shy away from tough questions, including those about Rebecca Hart. Ms. Hart murdered her three children about a year after using our device. What the machine told her: OFFSPRING WILL NOT LEAD HAPPY LIVES. This was a logical deduction derived from a reading of Ms. Hart herself, and we certainly take no pleasure in deeming it an accurate one.

11. This case aside—and despite malicious rumors—there are absolutely no circumstances under which your epiphanies or any other personal information will be shared with law enforcement, direct marketing companies, or any other persons or organizations. Though we are generally agnostic on political questions, this is a principle that we consider sacrosanct. Your secrets are as safe with us as they would be with a priest, therapist, or lawyer, give or take the necessity of acquiring a wardrobe full of long sleeves.

12. If you believe that you do not need to use the machine, but that your husband or wife or mother does, you may be right. Are you?

13. Some of you are here because of a lover, parent, sibling, or child. You are here because someone you care about came to us and got an epiphany tattoo that changed or clarified his or her life. You are here to investigate our facilities and prove to this person that the epiphany machine is bunk, that he or she has been, in the term you will probably use, “brainwashed.” (We plead guilty to scrubbing the thick film of self-deception from the thoughts of our users, but this is probably not what you mean.) We welcome you as we welcome all other visitors. We merely encourage you to ask yourself: Why? Why am I so suspicious of the newfound happiness or self-knowledge of this person about whom I claim to care? Am I truly committed to this person’s well-being, or do I miss the comfort of feeling unshakily superior? These are uncomfortable questions to ask yourself, so you might consider asking the machine instead.

14. We have little interest in defending the device, and less in explaining it. If you are intent today on thinking of the machine as a kind of Magic 8 Ball, then today you will think of the machine as a kind of Magic 8 Ball. We will risk being cheeky by inviting you to ask again later.

15. One way to think about your life is as an extended freefall. An epiphany may help you see better as you fall. Rather than a meaningless blur, you will see rocks and trees and lizards. An epiphany is not a parachute.

16. If you believe that the epiphanies you have seen tattooed on the arms of your friends suggest that your friends are better, luckier, smarter, or more virtuous than you are, bear in mind that many disreputable establishments offer counterfeit epiphany tattoos that are no more indicative of a person’s innermost mind than is a vanity license plate.

17. Then again, your friends may simply be better, smarter, or more virtuous than you, though they are probably not luckier. It is unlikely, though certainly not impossible, that the machine will remark on this. While always bracingly honest, the machine does display a certain quality that we might anthropomorphically describe as tact.

18. Your epiphany may be removed as any other tattoo may, which is to say: imperfectly.

19. You already know what the machine will write on your arm. That lie you’ve been telling yourself—you know what it is. That blind spot is not really a blind spot—you’re choosing to look away. Perhaps more to the point, you already know whether you want to see it. You already know whether you’re going to use the machine. So why are you still reading this?

Testimonial #101

Name: Rose Schuldenfrei Lowood

Date of Birth: 12/19/1947

Date of Epiphany Machine Use: 01/06/1972

Date of Interview by Venter Lowood: 01/10/2017

In those days I had contradictory feelings about almost everything, so I was delighted to find that I was only delighted to be bringing bad news to Adam Lyons, the notorious huckster behind the epiphany machine. Even the potholes and the slush that the cab driver did not try to avoid made me feel like I was a bold adventuress on a dangerous road. Granted, instead of a sword I was armed with a manila envelope full of legal papers, but one makes do with the weapons of one’s time.

Usually, when I was delivering envelopes like this one, I couldn’t stop myself from thinking about how it would feel to be sued, how it would feel to be forced to stand respectfully before a judge who was probably going to take your money away for no better reason than that you were a sleazeball. I sympathized with sleazeballs, since if you didn’t sympathize with the sleazeballs you were left with the nuns, and years of Catholic school had taught me not to sympathize with them. But Adam Lyons combined the worst aspects of the sleazeballs and the nuns, so he unquestionably deserved what I was delivering.

The driver pulled up into a filthy winter puddle at the address the client had given. The client was suing Adam over the tattoo on her arm, GIVES AWAY WHAT MATTERS MOST. Her fiancé, having goaded her into getting the tattoo in the first place, interpreted it to mean that she was marrying for money, and he consequently dumped her—her family was almost as rich as his was, but somehow that didn’t seem to matter. The client’s father interpreted the tattoo to mean that she had been having sex with her fiancé prior to marriage, and was furious that somebody who lived in old converted maid’s quarters on the Upper East Side had scrawled this fact on his daughter. So the family was suing Adam Lyons for $40 million. A spoiled rich girl was certainly not someone I would have envisioned myself feeling honored to fight for, but I admired her refusal to go away without blood under her fingernails, and her father actually had the resources to go up against Adam Lyons, or more accurately whoever was propping up Adam Lyons, since nobody knew for sure how he could afford the legal bills from various lawsuits, or why he was permitted to run a tattoo business out of his apartment, even though tattooing was illegal in New York City at the time and you’re not supposed to run any business out of your apartment.

“Spending the morning with your boyfriend, Blondie?” This question from the cab driver confused me, because I had forgotten for a moment that I had dyed my hair blond. The driver was digging his thick fingers into the passenger seat and baring his yellow teeth at me. I said yes, I was spending the morning with my boyfriend. One of the worst things about men is that they make it dangerous not to lie to them.

I handed him a wad of bills, stuffing the five that was going to be his then generous tip back into the pocket of the fox fur coat I had bought for the same reason I had dyed my hair blond—because it was something I normally wouldn’t do. I was usually quite clumsy, but, maybe emboldened by the coat, I leapt from the cab over the puddle and onto the curb with an elegance that could only be described as foxy. Not a trace of slush on my coat or my shoes, not the slightest totter on my heels, a safe several inches from any of the dog shit that sits for weeks in the New York City slush.

The driver, seeing that I had stiffed him, called out the name of a body part that it was unlikely he had been permitted access to ever since he exited one, and he tried and failed to splash me as he pulled away. I gave him a little four-fingered wave and felt ready to make the wicked bleed.

Adam’s apartment was only one flight up, but the time it took me to climb that flight proved enough for all my self-confidence to evaporate. I think it was the sight of my coat against the dingy stairs. Something, anyway, turned me from feeling good about the coat to feeling horrible about the coat. Your grandmother had told me that the coat was a betrayal, a waste of what we needed to survive, especially given how little money we had with me going to law school at night. I could have answered that the reason I was going to law school at night was that I had, ahem, a mother to support, and that if we wanted to talk about bad money decisions we could start with her decision to marry a man who drank his salary every week for several decades prior to drinking himself to death at the age of fifty-seven. Or maybe we could start with her decision to give up the excellent radio-factory job she held during the war to become an ordinary housewife, forsaking the construction of complicated machines that fostered communication among millions so that she could spend her life talking to two people she would never understand: my father and me. But if I had said any of this, she would have pointed out that she had done all of this for me, which would have left me in the silly position of pointing out that I didn’t ask to be born, an unassailable point that only an adolescent would take seriously. Or she might have told me yet again that all of her friends had told her it was a waste of money to send a daughter to college, at least a daughter who wasn’t an obvious genius. Worst of all, I would have been inclined to agree, since it was humiliatingly easy for my mother to make me feel stupid and worthless. And if college had been good for anything, it should at least have given me the ability to outsmart a woman with an eighth-grade education. Rather than open any of this up, I just apologized for buying the coat, and then apologized again, and then apologized again. The conversation ended with my thanking her for forgiving me.

I arrived at Adam’s door raging at my inability to confront my mother, or at my inability to confront the extravagance and irresponsibility that she had diagnosed in me. I found myself hesitating to knock, overwhelmed simultaneously by a sudden rush of understanding for the anger and confusion that leaves people desperate enough to seek out a magic tattoo, and by an equally powerful and equally sudden rush of intense hatred for anyone stupid enough to actually go through with it.

I was still hesitating when the door opened to reveal a man who looked like an egg, an egg with a thick head of black hair, an egg with a beard—a beard better groomed than the Moses/Manson model—an egg with a short-sleeved, button-down shirt open two buttons to show a great deal of black hair on its eggy chest. He smiled, showing me the missing tooth that, he would later joke, was “the open window through which the truth rushes into my body.”

“Your name is Adam Lyons and you live in this apartment?”

“Two true statements. Let’s see if we can get you a third. Come in.”

He had confirmed his identity, so this was where I was supposed to just thrust the manila envelope into his hands and be on my way. But I followed him through the door.

The foyer of his apartment, which was also his shop, was overstuffed with books, mostly thick, well-thumbed works about philosophy and religion. There were a lot of books by and about Kafka, whom I had discovered at a bookstore when I was twelve, and who had made me want to be a writer for a few years until I realized that becoming a lawyer was a more practical way to spend your life staring at sentences.

Adam said that he would pour me some whiskey, gesturing to the bar that I was surprised to find at the center of a tattoo-parlor-cum-church. I responded that it was ten in the morning. Men need to be reminded often that it’s too early for oblivion.

“Have you ever gotten a tattoo before? It’s going to hurt. I’d suggest a drink.” He poured some whiskey and threw in a couple ice cubes with his tobacco-stained fingers.

“No, thanks.”

“Suit yourself,” he said, and put the glass down. “So what brings you here today?”

I knew that if I answered his question with any words at all, rather than with a manila envelope dropped silently into his hands, then sooner or later I would give him my arm. I started talking anyway.

Chapter 1

The first time I asked my father about the epiphany machine was also the only time that he hit me. What made an impression on me was not the actual physical contact, a gentle slap only slightly more abrasive than the wind that was blowing very hard for an October day. My father seemed no more likely to slap me than to slit my throat and watch me bleed out into the leaf-clogged gutter, so for all I knew that might come next. In my young mind, for him to have hit me at all meant that something must have been unlocked in him, something that would have remained boxed up had I not liberated it with the magic words “the epiphany machine,” and that would now never cease to pursue me until it had achieved my destruction.

He knelt down and looked me in the eye. “You have no idea how much I’ve gone through to protect you from that horrible thing.”

This made me sob.

“If you’re old enough to know about the epiphany machine, then you’re too old to cry.”

This only made me sob harder.

“Venter, you need to tell me who told you about the machine. Was it your grandmother? She promised me she wouldn’t say anything about it until we both agreed that you were old enough.”

“It wasn’t her. I just heard about it on TV.”

This was not technically a lie. One night, after I was supposed to be asleep, I had heard my grandmother weeping while watching an eleven-o’clock news report suggesting that the epiphany machine might be responsible for the spread of HIV, another thing I had never heard of. I connected this to the time when my father had made an excessively big show of not freaking out over the cover of a copy of a magazine that had been left on the table at a coffee shop: “Did a Tiny Cult in New York City Help Spread HIV?” But these events had happened weeks earlier—which might as well have been decades according to my sense of time—and were not why I had asked about the device. I had asked because, at recess that morning, I had heard one teacher whisper to another as I passed by, “His mother got a tattoo from the epiphany machine.” Now I wanted to know what it was. I was also wondering whether the epiphany machine had something to do with the tattoo on my father’s forearm—SHOULD NEVER BECOME A FATHER—that he had sat me down to talk about shortly before I was old enough to read it, claiming he had gotten it as a stupid prank when he was very young, long before I was born.

“On TV!” my father said, laughing. “My brilliant boy, I’m sorry I slapped you. Let’s take a walk.” We walked past the crematorium across from our house to the cemetery two blocks away. (Queens was and remains a city of the dead with some halfhearted gentrification from the living.) The cold October wind continued as we maintained silence for several rows of what my father and grandmother called “nails on a sum,” aping what they said had been my attempt, at the age of three, to say that gravestones looked like thumbnails. I got myself together and stopped crying, but then I suddenly realized that my father must be taking me to see my mother’s grave—that this was how he was going to tell me that my mother was dead, and had not merely run away. I started sobbing again. This time my father did not scold me, but he did not comfort me either. He just looked out at the traffic. Finally, he spoke.

“Do you know why your grandmother and I think that ‘nails on a sum’ is funny?”

“Because it’s silly?”

“Because it’s not silly. Because it’s actually exactly correct. They’ve told you in school what a sum is, right?”

“That’s in adding.”

“Exactly. Can you give me an example of a sum?”

“In two plus two equals four, the sum is four.”

“Good, my brilliant boy!”

This made me feel very, very good, as the fact that I hated him at the moment did not make me long any less for him to think that I was a genius.

“The sum is what things add up to,” my father continued. “Everyone wants his or her life to add up to something. All the people in this cemetery, all the people that we’re walking on, they all did lots of stuff, hoping to make the sums of their lives go higher and higher and higher. Maybe a few of them had sums that were very high, most of them had sums that were not so high. In every case, the gravestone is like a nail on that sum—not like the nail on your thumb, actually, but like the nails in a roof, the nails that say: no, house, you’re not going any higher. Gravestones are like nails on a person’s life, keeping the sum from getting any higher.”

Often, he couldn’t tell exactly at which level to speak to me, and so said things that made no sense on any level.

“I don’t understand,” I said.

“Okay. In a baseball game, there’s a score, right? At the end of the game, each team has gotten a certain number of runs. The sum that I’m talking about in a person’s life, that’s like a score.”

Something was stirring in me, a mature and morally serious version of the most childish emotion of all: impatience.

“Dad,” I said. “What is the epiphany machine and where is my mother?”

“I’m getting to that,” he said. “So the sum of one’s life is the sum of everything you’ve done. And as you get a little older you start to realize that sooner or later you’re going to end up here, in this cemetery or one exactly like it, and you want to make sure that your sum is as high as possible. The problem is that life is more confusing than a baseball game. In a baseball game, a run is a run and that’s that. In life, sometimes you’re not sure what counts as a run. Also, you don’t know what the teams are. Or whether you’re even playing. Sometimes you think you’re playing and you’re actually just sitting in the stands, watching other people play.”

“Dad.”

“Okay. All this means that you have to make up your own way of scoring. You have to decide what’s important. For a lot of people, it’s money. For a lot of other people, it’s some kind of religious fulfillment. You know what the most important thing is to me?”

I shook my head. I knew what he was going say, but I wanted to hear him say it.

“You are the most important thing to me. So whenever something good happens to you, or whenever I see you smile, or whenever you learn how to do something, that’s like a run for me. When something bad happens to you, that’s like a run for the other team. That’s why I had to do what I did just now. Even though I didn’t really hit you—it was really just a love tap, wasn’t it?—I still felt horrible while I was doing it. I felt much worse than you felt, believe me. But the epiphany machine is very bad and I have to do whatever it takes to keep you safe from it. It’s the sort of thing that could cause you to lose the whole game.”

“What?”

“I’m saying that figuring out what’s important in life and how to go about getting it is very difficult. Sometimes you get confused and you get tempted to just let other people make the rules. And some people are really happy to make the rules for other people. Adam Lyons, the man who runs the epiphany machine, is one of those people. There was a time when I let myself get confused enough that I let him write those words on me that you know aren’t true.”

“The epiphany machine writes things about people on their arms?”

“Exactly, my brilliant boy! I figured out that the machine was wrong. Your mother, on the other hand . . . well, Venter, it told her that she ABANDONS WHAT MATTERS MOST. You weren’t born yet so she didn’t know what matters most. Then you were born and she abandoned you.”

“Why did she listen to the machine if you didn’t?”

“That’s the first question you should ask her if you meet her.”

“I don’t ever want to meet her.”

“That shows that you are a very smart boy.”

If I had actually been a very smart boy, I probably would have kept asking questions. At the very least I would have recognized his persistent flattery as a shutting-down of my curiosity no less violent than the slap. But I wanted his praise more than I wanted the truth.

That night I went downstairs to see my grandmother, who had laid out pound cake, my favorite. She was sitting in her recliner, knitting an afghan.

“Grandma, what do you know about the epiphany machine?”

I was expecting her to stop knitting and look up at me with fury, but she didn’t even slow her rhythm. My father had obviously warned her. She was silent for a moment, filling the room with the sound of her plastic needles hitting each other.

“The epiphany machine is why I no longer have a daughter and why you no longer have a mother. It is for people who are lonely, gullible, and numb.”

“What’s ‘numb’?”

“‘Numb’ is when you can’t feel anything. People who can’t feel anything do weird things to get their feeling back. They spend money they don’t have on a fox fur coat. They want the coat to make them feel warm and elegant, they want the coat to make them feel like a real somebody. Then the coat doesn’t make them feel anything. So they let some stranger put a needle in them, hoping that will make them feel something. Then they can’t feel the needle. That’s when they decide they don’t care about anything. They don’t care if the sight of their tattoo makes their mother sick to her stomach. They don’t care if they leave their mother, their husband, their son. They don’t care about anything because they can’t feel anything. Do you understand?”

I didn’t say anything.

“Okay. If your tongue were numb, you couldn’t taste pound cake. So there would be no point in me giving you pound cake. You can either be a pound cake boy or an epiphany machine boy. Which is it going to be?”

“I’m a pound cake boy,” I said.

I ate pound cake every night for months afterward and never once asked about the epiphany machine. I even pretended that I didn’t know that parents, terrified of AIDS, were telling their children to stay away from me, though of course I started hearing this every day at school. I pretended, too, that I had no idea that this was why we moved away from Queens to an affluent town in Westchester, in the hope that no one there would hear of our connection to the machine. It’s even possible that I flattered myself about how good I was getting at pretending not to know things, one important life skill at which I was most likely outpacing my peers.

Chapter 2

When we arrived in Westchester, I was under strict orders never to say anything about the epiphany machine to anyone. I was supposed to tell anyone who asked that my mother had abandoned the family, and say that I didn’t know anything more than that. This worked, and I was avoided because I was weird rather than because I was dangerous. It often occurred to me that I would have preferred the latter to the former, but for years I never said anything. I didn’t want my father and grandmother to move us again. (There was not a chance anyone would discover the tattoo on my father, since he wore a suit on the Metro-North platform, a sport jacket to the grocery store, and stayed clear of pool parties.)

Throughout these same years I don’t think I asked my father or grandmother a single question about the machine. I had decided not only that I knew what it was, which I didn’t really, but that I knew what it meant, which I didn’t at all. The machine was for people who were lonely, gullible, and numb, and believed in by people who stayed that way. My mother was one of those people. I said the words “the epiphany machine” only to my father or grandmother, and only when I wanted to please them by saying: “The only people who use the epiphany machine are lonely, gullible, and numb.”

Those were the three words I used when I finally did mention the epiphany machine at school, on the playground in fourth grade. There were a few boys who liked to bother me about the fact that I didn’t know where my mother was, chanting things like “Venter’s mother is a slut,” a word they knew despite likely having no more than the dimmest idea what sex was. Eventually I said: “My mom’s not a slut, she’s lonely, gullible, and numb.” I felt superior when they didn’t understand that the word “numb” wasn’t just what novocaine made your mouth when you went to the dentist.

“It’s a figurative use of the term,” I said, having heard my father say “It’s a figurative use of the term” once and deciding that it applied here. (To taxonomize myself, I was one of those smart children who wishes he were much smarter, and so compensates with a smug attitude toward other children and a toadying one toward adults. Honestly, I was probably bullied less than I deserved.)

These kids and others kept pushing me to explain what I had meant, and finally I said: “My mother used the epiphany machine!” I think I feared that we would be tarred and feathered and sent out of town, “tarred and feathered” being a phrase I had heard in movies I watched with my grandmother. But the kids hadn’t heard of the machine. I discovered slowly, over the next few months, that some of the parents had heard of it, but for the most part thought it was something to snicker over, not to fear. (I later learned that the link between HIV and the machine had been definitively debunked—the institute that had posited the link in the first place turned out to be a right-wing Christian operation unhappy with the strange theology of Adam Lyons.)

I am not sure that I actually felt the absence of my mother, a woman I had never meaningfully met. To be honest, the times I missed my mother most intensely were when a teacher would ask me whether I missed her. And even then the emotion I felt was probably a desire to impress the teacher with the depth of my emotion, itself an emotion strong enough to cleave a child in two. And there were those moments when other kids, with varying degrees of subtlety, would harass me, first for not having a mother and later for having a mother who had joined a cult. Approval and protection were the only things I wanted from a mother. Maybe these are the only things a mother can give. I wouldn’t know.

Or maybe that’s a self-pitying way for me to describe my childhood. After all, I did have a mother in my grandmother, who cared for me by moving slowly but all the time. The signal sound of my childhood was of her shuffling feet, which would take her around the house with great noise and over the objection of her aching joints. She cooked goulash or lasagna or pot roast for us almost every night (resorting to spaghetti only when she was unusually tired), often changing a lightbulb or a roll of toilet paper on the other end of the house while the water was boiling. I should have helped, no question about that, although in my defense she adamantly refused my help on the (admittedly rare) occasions that I offered it. It didn’t take the genius I hoped myself to be to realize that doing everything for me was my grandmother’s way of redeeming herself for failing as the mother of my mother. Her more conscious attempts to revise her parenting style were less successful. “I gave your mother too much freedom and let her watch too much TV, so you can only watch three hours a week,” she often said, but in practice she gave me an essentially unlimited amount of freedom and let me watch an essentially unlimited amount of TV. We also watched a lot of movies together, mostly riches-in-the-midst-of-the-Depression musicals and gangster movies, as we tried to pretend that we truly enjoyed each other’s company and were not trying to distract ourselves from our mutual loneliness.

If my father was lonely as well—he appeared to have no social acquaintances—he did a remarkable job of channeling this loneliness into a stream of staggering productivity that would suggest a man operating at an unsustainable pace save for the fact that he sustained it. In addition to the infamous hours of a partner at a corporate law firm, Isaac Lowood worked obsessively on his private passion, privacy, and wrote an influential book on the subject, Polaroids, Pac-Man, and Penumbras: Technology, the Supreme Court, and the Future of the Fourth Amendment. He boasted of a colleague who had referred to him as “a legend in his spare time.” Other colleagues complained of all the time he spent on extracurricular pursuits, but he could always point to the fact that he billed more hours than they did. My grandmother made sure I knew that none of this would have been possible if she did not drive me to and from school and see to one hundred percent of household chores, but it also wouldn’t have been possible if my father slept more than five hours each night and worked fewer than sixteen hours each day. (His workday began the moment he stepped on the train in the morning, when he would remove files from his briefcase and start reading.)

It is also true that it would not have been possible if he had spent much time with me. I’m not sure what we would have done together, other than maybe watch sports that neither of us liked. My father did the best he could, which as a description of human behavior sounds like a tautology but is actually true of very few people.

Chapter 3

The epiphany machine only truly came into focus for me around the same time that I met Ismail. If one or both of us had not been assigned to Ms. Scarra’s ninth-grade Global Studies class, then you might be watching a play written by Ismail rather than reading a book written by me. I fell in love with Ms. Scarra as soon as I walked into class on the first day, and I was determined to lose my virginity to her, a goal I probably chose because I had seen the scenario in a few of the nudie movies I had only recently discovered on late-night cable. At the very least, I was determined to make her think I was a genius. So I was annoyed that her early favorite was another boy. Though unreligious, I had a great interest in the world religions we studied early in the year, and would have been the star of any other class. But Ismail’s command was undeniable. He was extremely knowledgeable about not only Islam, his own religion, but also Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, and particularly Zoroastrianism, of which his late father had been a scholar. When I say Islam was Ismail’s own religion, I mean it was his own religion in the way that Judaism and Catholicism were my own religions, ambiguously inherited from parents who had not themselves been believers. Ismail made it very clear one day that he thought that religion was “stupid” and that “anyone who doesn’t hate thinking knows there’s no God,” which angered a lot of the other kids, most of whom had already embarked on lifelong careers of believing in God whenever they needed comfort or forgiveness that they did not want to ask another human being for. The nasty tenor of his remarks gave me some hope that I would become the teacher’s favorite despite being outmatched, hope that was bolstered the next day when Ms. Scarra asked him to stay after class, maybe to lecture him about respecting the beliefs of the other students. Then she asked me to stay as well, so I got to listen as she praised Ismail effusively and he looked on with a barely respectful smirk, almost certainly harboring the same fantasies about Ms. Scarra that I did and appearing to have at least a slightly higher likelihood of fulfilling them. Finally, she turned to me and said a couple of nice things about me—not as nice, I thought, as what she had said about Ismail—and asked us to serve as copresidents of the Coexistence Club, an afterschool group that would be devoted to harmony among religions. Ms. Scarra said that religious intolerance was cultural intolerance, and that since between the two of us we had cultural ties to the three major monotheistic religions, we were the ideal copresidents. I think Ismail was as unhappy with the situation as I was, since there were strong flavors of tokenism, condescension, and illogic in the whole endeavor. We might have asked her about the arbitrary focus on monotheism and why she didn’t want to include a copresident who was actually religious—the idea of two atheists coexisting seemed strange. We might also have asked what she might possibly have thought the purpose of the club was. But Ismail and I both said yes, since the club was obviously going to look good on the college applications we were already looking forward to filling out. More important, Ms. Scarra was a female who was willing to talk to us.

In addition to copresidents, Ismail and I were also the only members of the Coexistence Club, so we would just sit in Ms. Scarra’s room after school on Thursdays, she would bring doughnuts, and we would talk, occasionally about issues connected to religion. I think we had been doing this for six weeks or so when she brought up the epiphany machine.

Not that the machine was an entirely random topic to bring up at the time. This was the fall of 1995, and the second Rebecca Hart killings had occurred the previous June. Even those who considered Adam Lyons nothing more than a huckster now felt the suspicion in the back of their necks that the man was touched with genuine black magic. Other kids’ parents who saw me at the grocery store looked at me like I had somehow cheated death, which was not something done by a trustworthy person.

“Venter,” Ms. Scarra said after she had said the words “epiphany machine” to me for the first time. “Your mother used the epiphany machine. What’s your opinion of it now?”

“It’s something that people resort to when they’re lonely, gullible, and numb,” I said. “That was my mother. Some people who are lonely, gullible, and numb are also capable of murder. That was not my mother.”

“I don’t think it’s much of a coincidence that the two women were named Rebecca Hart,” said Ismail. “The second one happened to be crazy, too, and she was probably obsessed with the first Rebecca Hart and decided to be just like her.”

“But then,” Ms. Scarra said, “how did she get the same tattoo?”

“I’m sure that whatever he says, this guy Adam Lyons will give you whatever tattoo you want if you pay him enough.”

Ms. Scarra gave Ismail a pitying smile that I found weirdly erotic. “That’s the skeptic’s perspective. Which is only one among many.”

“It’s the correct perspective,” Ismail said.

“A lot of people who aren’t crazy and who aren’t stupid have used the machine,” Ms. Scarra said. “John Lennon used it. You don’t think John Lennon was lonely, gullible, and numb, do you?”

“I have no idea what John Lennon was like,” Ismail said.

“You don’t think there’s any reason why people who are not lonely, gullible, or numb, but are as wise and full of feeling as any of the three of us, might realize that it’s in human nature to be self-deceiving, to not see important things in our own lives, and so seek external guidance to correct that?”

“I’m not self-deceiving,” Ismail said. I could see in Ms. Scarra’s eyes that she thought this was naive, but I admired how confidently Ismail had spoken. I said that I wasn’t self-deceptive either, though I may have stammered a bit.

Ms. Scarra retreated to her desk and picked up a manila folder, from which she produced two photocopies of two chapters from an idiosyncratic 1991 book called Origins and Adventures of the Epiphany Machine, written by a reclusive writer whose real identity was unknown and the subject of much speculation, but who went by the name Steven Merdula.

“Only the Desert Is Not a Desert is Merdula’s masterpiece,” Ismail said. “I read it last year and loved it. I hear this one is crap.”

“Just read what I photocopied,” Ms. Scarra said. “I’m going to get some coffee.”

I had been firmly forbidden by my father and grandmother from ever reading this book. But I was ashamed now of having complied, and I certainly wasn’t going to let myself look cowardly in front of Ismail and Ms. Scarra. So I read the strange and mutually contradictory chapters, feeling as I read each sentence as though I was being pulled by something malevolent into the sea.

From Origins and Adventures of the Epiphany Machine, by Steven Merdula (1991), Chapter 9

Let’s say that the epiphany machine was invented by a Nazi rocket scientist. Let’s call him Wernher, not because I’m thinking about Wernher von Braun, but because Wernher is the first German name that comes to mind. Wernher was sitting with his wife one night, trying hard to focus on the story she was telling about the time at their wedding—Hochzeit, or high time, is the German word, meaning that nothing will ever be as good again—when Wernher’s mother accidentally, or maybe on purpose, stuck her with a hatpin. But Wernher was not listening. He was too distracted by what he was always thinking about: rocket trajectory. His wife noticed that he wasn’t paying attention to her, so they quarreled, but he couldn’t pay attention to their quarrel, and naturally this made her even angrier, and she stormed off to bed.

Wernher was, despite making weapons for the Nazis, in no way a heartless man, and it upset him to upset his wife. He found that he could not concentrate on his work, and decided to clean the closet, on the pretense of making things easier for his wife but really as a way of doing what he was always doing: creating a certain kind of weapon. See what a good husband I am, I even do the work you are supposed to do, what do you have to complain about? He removed a few coats he would never wear again, and then he removed an old pair of rain boots from the floor, and underneath these he saw the sewing machine that his mother had given his wife as a wedding gift. This was the sewing machine that Wernher had spent many childhood hours watching his mother operate, torn between feeling annoyed that she was not playing with him and feeling enthralled that she was transforming nondescript pieces of cloth into dresses and pants. The impulse to imitate his mother—the impulse to create things that would envelop, overpower, and define human bodies—is what led him to rocket science.

But perhaps rockets were, well, too airy. Perhaps the true place for him was here with this sewing machine; perhaps this sewing machine would lead him to what he was destined to invent. There was no reason for him to believe this, but suddenly he did. Where the idea for the tattoo came from is anyone’s guess, though the use of tattoos to mark a person’s worth was an idea that was, shall we say, not foreign to Nazi culture.

For the next year or so, he tinkered with the machine every day after work, not really knowing what he was doing, but driven by something, something that he was convinced would lead him to complete a work of genius and that, in any case, completed his neglect of his wife. Either he was aided by some supernatural force or he wasn’t, but he turned the sewing machine into the epiphany machine. Perhaps he discovered what he had created only after his wife, finishing some cross-stitching, asked him to pass her a book—Mein Kampf, if we are being nasty, or even if we are simply playing the odds, since Mein Kampf was given to every German couple on their wedding day during the Nazi years. He reached across the machine, accidentally activating it. His wife watched as the needle found his arm and dug in, and certainly she was horrified, though perhaps, also, she thought that he deserved it. He screamed, terrified of the ink forming on his arm; he must have thought that it was God’s retribution for the Holocaust, which he must have known about even if he did not know about it. Then the needle disengaged and he saw what was written on his arm, and he saw that he was right, that it was God’s retribution.

Now the question is: What did the needle write? Let’s say it wrote: IGNORES WIFE FIXATED ON MOTHER AND WORK. An accurate assessment of Wernher, one that might even have led him toward a more fulfilling relationship with his wife. Possibly, if you’re in a generous mood, you might say that it served the purpose of distracting Wernher from his work for the Nazis, of course a good thing. It’s not inconceivable that, had he not been distracted by this side project, Wernher might have beaten the Americans to the atom bomb. In this sense, the epiphany machine saved the world from the Nazis, and must be counted as the greatest-ever technological boon to humanity. And yet the tattoo itself is clearly monstrous. In lieu of any serious engagement with Wernher’s culpability for the evil in which he participated, the tattoo mediates a turgid Oedipal dispute and tells Wernher, incorrectly, that there are more important things than work. It ignores completely the nature of that work, which, so far as the tattoo is concerned, might as well be the construction of a toaster.

 

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Reading Group Guide

1. There are several potential histories of Adam’s epiphany machine featured throughout the novel. Which story rang most true to you? Do you have your own alternate origin story in mind?
2. Venter Lowood is accused of “playing up” to his tattoo. Do you think that’s a fair assessment? Why or why not?
3. Rebecca Hart Lowood never uses the machine. If she did, would her tattoo say “OFFSPRING WILL NOT LEAD HAPPY LIVES?”
4. Do the epiphanies come from Adam or the machine? Is it all a con? And would a con make patrons’ revelations any less true?
5. How much responsibility does Adam have for protecting the privacy of his “guests”? What about protecting civilians from potential threats? How do you decide between safety and privacy in your everyday life?
6. How much of the conflict in this book is inherited? How are different characters affected by the legacy of their parents?
7. What do you think of Rose Lowood at the end of the novel? What would have happened if she hadn’t left Venter as a boy?
8. Do the characters grow and change over time or are their personalities and their flaws fixed?
9. Do you believe more in Adam’s machine or in Vladimir Harrican’s modern reinvention? Is the new version of the machine more or less honest? Which would you be more willing to use?
10. If the epiphany machine were real, would you want to use it? Why or why not? What would your tattoo say?

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