a tiny mystery

The arrangement of letters was such that no one recognized the word.

I thought I’d forgotten how to read, someone said with a nervous laugh.

(Gloved fingers flew across the keys in a blur. There were no fingerprints.)

There did seem to be an air of menace about it all, said someone else.

(The word ‘arcane’ slithered into the conversation, if you could call it that. A conversation, that is. It more resembled a series of monologues delivered in close proximity to each other.)

We decided to talk around the word, if that makes sense, ventured another.

It may not even have been a word, muttered the first.

Well, it made me sick. Who would do such a thing after all, a new voice chimed in.

And then it came out that the authorities had withheld information, that there had been other…words, said the second.

(A dictionary had been consulted. But it was like no dictionary anyone had seen before.)

I never understood why they didn’t check the libraries, grumbled the third. Absurd it was, how long it went on.

When it was all over I still felt sick, said the fourth. I couldn’t read. I couldn’t do the daily crossword. I stayed in bed with the blinds drawn for days. It felt very real to me.

Please understand, though. We’re relieved that you’re writing about it now, the first said. Even though we know it’s impossible to put into words what actually happened.

Yes, it means so much. Thank you, whispered the second.

(At home the recorder spat out foreign sounds. This is typed from broken memory—certain details have inevitably been lost.)

city of health

city of health

Erased from Hygeia: A City of Health (1876) by Benjamin Ward Richardson

[click image to enlarge]

another excerpt from ‘book of thoughts’

The first few pages of Book of Thoughts, an ongoing erasure project

[click images to enlarge]



the tanners [book review]

Recently I began reading Robert Walser’s novel The Assistant. I associate Walser with the winter season, and particularly the month of December, likely because that was when I first started reading his work. Walser also died in December; he was found lying in the snow on Christmas Day 1956, having suffered a heart attack during one of his frequent and much-loved walks.

The Assistant has been a joy to read so far, brimming with Walser’s off-kilter cheekiness and his typically exuberant scenic descriptions. And so, with my enthusiasm for his writing in its current heightened state, I thought I’d share another of my Walser reviews from the archive, with the hope of encouraging others to investigate this still tragically under-read writer.


The Tanners by Robert Walser

I don’t want to go running down some career path—supposedly such a grand enterprise. What’s so grand about it: people acquiring crooked backs at an early age from stooping at undersized desks, wrinkled hands, pale faces, mutilated workday trousers, trembling legs, fat bellies, sour stomachs, bald spots upon their skulls, bitter, snappish, leathery, faded, insipid eyes, ravaged brows and the consciousness of having been conscientious fools. No thank you!

Robert Walser was an odd fish and I like him a lot. Even though he once said, as W. G. Sebald reports in the introduction to this book, that he was essentially always writing the same novel, one which he said could be described as “a much-chopped up or dismembered Book of Myself,” I will continue reading his same-as-before novels because they captivate me. I like to think of him up in his stuffy attic room, frantically writing on borrowed paper with stolen pens, gripped in the passion of that writing, of hurling his herky-jerky version of the world down onto the page.

The Tanners is the disjointed story of the Tanner siblings: Simon, Klaus, Kaspar, and Hedwig (oh, and the mysterious Emil, who later randomly shows up in another character’s anecdote). Primarily, the “plot” (such as it is) follows the adventures of Simon as he bounces around from job to job while basically pursuing the sublime. From the start, Simon reminded me of Jakob from Walser’s anti-Bildungsroman Jakob von Gunten, with his similar tendency toward mockery traced with veins of sincerity. Or maybe it was just straight mockery, maybe I imagined the traces of sincerity—it’s really so hard for me to say for sure. When Simon refers to his own cheekiness, I couldn’t stop thinking about that Saturday Night Live sketch where Mike Myers plays Simon, the kid in the bath making drawings who calls people “cheeky monkeys.” It’s always unsettling for me when pop culture and literature suddenly collide in my head. And yet the two Simons do share a similarity, if only a superficial one. But I digress. Simon is a self-described ne’er-do-well prone to walking all night through the mountains to visit his artist brother Kaspar, his closest sibling. Simon’s gleeful flippancy is infectious and makes him a likely candidate for the reader’s sympathy. Hedwig is the only sister in the bunch, a small town schoolteacher who Simon also stays with for an extended visit. They bond, but she suspects him of being a freeloader, which he sort of is. Hedwig is an interesting character, and Walser allots her some good speeches. Finally, Klaus is the oldest brother, a stodgy straight-arrow type who thinks he knows what’s best for all of his siblings. He is annoyingly overbearing, though probably well-meaning.

In the introduction, Sebald draws some parallels between Gogol and Walser that I found to be relevant, having just finished a book of Gogol’s short fiction. Like Gogol, Walser has a tendency to introduce characters who at the time seem like they may come to play important roles in his narrative, only to either suddenly kill them off or fade them into the background. Sometimes they also reappear later, just out of the blue, and fill us in on what they’ve been up to for the past year or however long they’ve been gone from the narrative. The aimless plot wanders down side streets, dead-ends, turns around, leaves the city, climbs a mountain, walks off a cliff, gets a concussion, and turns up back in the city again a few chapters later with a new lease on life. Or something like that. I was anthropomorphizing the plot just then. I would imagine that the general unreliability of Walser’s prose could easily become maddening for some readers. The key is to float along with Walser wherever he chooses to take you. One must surrender completely in order to enjoy reading; there is no fighting it because Walser will always win. Always. We are on an adventure with him, as he discovers his own truths in his writing. In this way he is also very much like Gogol, who eschewed the narrative traditions of the time and instead went off happily exploring in his prose.

Throughout the book, Walser spins a gauzy web of natural beauty around his characters who, when not walking around outside enjoying the weather or laying stretched out in the forest, very much tend to spout off lengthy monologues in the general direction of each other, not seeming to expect responses and, in fact, rarely getting them. Walser’s prose is so sensual, his descriptions of both urban and rural settings sparkle with crisp detail clearly borne of a sharply observant mind. Half the novel one falls into a reverie, while the other half one stares at the closest wall, noting the intricate cracks in the plaster with genuine interest.

Despite the lack of plot, there are certain themes to pick out. With Simon and Hedwig, we find themes of youthful self-discovery, the search for meaning and happiness in one’s life, and the ever-painful plight of the daydreamers among us. With Kaspar, there are the ideals of art and the difficulties inherent in one’s pursuit of those ideals. In Klaus, we see a rather sharp critique of mainstream society and the trappings of materialism and the pursuit of wealth. Readers who have siblings, particularly multiple siblings, will also likely enjoy the novel on another level less accessible to those who don’t, for Walser does an admirable job of portraying the complicated and contradictory dynamics that often characterize sibling relationships.

As Simon opines late in the book, “How tedious it was always to be doing exactly the same thing.” Some books always do the exactly the same thing, what we expect them to do, over and over. Not with Walser. Even if he did claim to be writing the same novel over and over, his prose is always worth reading, because it’s granular yet dissimilar; it’s made up of life’s strikingly mundane and spectacular moments, as pointed out by the likes of Simon, who, after all, claims to be “an outlandish figure in my own homeland.”

scoop loses his way

Scoop had lost all passion for reporting the kind of news that his employer, the venerable Jonestown Gazette, saw fit to print. Over time, his supervisor, an aging aardvark named Burt, had grown increasingly vexed at the nature of the stories he was turning in. Take this one, for example:


Plastic Milk Crate Castle Still Stands

(Jonestown, USA) – Since January, an overgrown empty lot in blighted South Jonestown has been the site of a castle constructed from plastic milk crates. Someone took great pains to build this castle, but to what end. As a shelter, it is inadequate. As an art object, it is of marginal appeal. Attempts by this reporter to find the architect of this mysterious structure by canvassing the neighborhood have failed. Many residents were in fact unaware of the castle’s existence. Others refused to even open their doors to answer a few simple questions. Why, the nerve of those [REDACTED]


Burt appeared at Scoop’s desk gripping a printout of the story in his hoof-like claw, disgust plastered across his long, drooping face. He took a deep breath.

“Scoop, you know I can’t print this. I don’t even know what to call it, ah, but it’s certainly not news.”

Scoop shrugged. He no longer cared what was considered “news” and what wasn’t. The classification seemed largely arbitrary to him.

“Well, do you have anything to say?” Burt asked.

Scoop was a solitudinarian (an actual word), which sometimes made it difficult to understand what people wanted from him. As a last resort, he kept a splendid array of exit strategies honed and ready to deploy at a moment’s notice.

“Burt, you’ve figured me out. I can’t do this anymore. I quit.”

Burt stared at the slumped shadow that used to be his all-star newshound.

“What are you going to do, Scoop? You’re a total mess.”

“Thanks for the ego boost, boss. I guess I’ll figure things out once I walk out that door.”

As Scoop cleaned out his desk, he mulled over his loss of interest in investigative reporting.  At one time, he had routinely worked three or more stories concurrently, chasing leads all day and sleeping only a few hours each night. But then one day, it all disappeared. His curiosity withered to dust with no advance warning. All that remained was a ring of distance between himself and everyone and everything around him.

Scoop picked up his small box of belongings and walked toward the door. The next day anything could happen or nothing could happen. He could spend the day lying on his side, staring out the window as the winter wind whistled its secrets to those willing to listen. Or he could look for a new job. Neither option held much appeal.

Burt waved at him as he passed by the old newsman’s office. Scoop nodded back. Burt was not a bad guy, he thought. Just not the type to understand the sort of crisis Scoop felt burning within him.

The door shut behind him for the last time as he exited onto the street, where people moved from place to place like chess pieces, slow and deliberate, braced against the early winter’s cold. This particular section of town reflected the burgeoning trend of an immediate post-Halloween retail transition to the commercial smorgasbord known as Christmas.

“Whatever happened to Thanksgiving,” Scoop muttered. He had to admit, though, that the twinkling lights in every window held a certain appeal. Yes, indeed, an extra few weeks of festive lighting might just help smooth off the sharpest edges of his seasonal depression.

He tossed his box of stuff into the bed of his truck and climbed in the cab. Cranking the heat up, he tuned in the old-time bluegrass station on the radio and sat for a few minutes, staring out the windshield at the chess pieces moving about the board.

I never liked chess, he thought.

Sample questions for discussion

  1. What will happen to Scoop?
  2. Will he find another job?
  3. Will he change his name?
  4. Will he ever learn to love chess?
  5. Is he going to disappear just like the ghost did?
  6. Does anyone care? [I’m on the fence myself-ed.]
  7. Why is an aardvark working at a newspaper?
  8. Do aardvarks live in burrows or what?
  9. Why does this story end so abruptly?
  10. Does this question serve only to make an even 10?

a pair of eyes

One day a pair of eyes went out for a walk. (The eyes are named V. for the sake of this story’s grammatical simplicity, even though it’s unusual for eyes to have a name.) While walking in the city, V. quickly grew tired due to overstimulation. Seeking respite, V. traveled to the country and found a lake. V. jumped in the lake and floated around with delight until a few fishermen arrived and began casting their lines a little too close for comfort. Vexed by this intrusion, V. left the lake and crossed the border into the northern territories. On an uninhabited island off the coast, V. built a tiny shelter with an adjacent pool for rehydration purposes. For several weeks V. enjoyed looking at the trees and the water on all sides of the island. At night, V. climbed a hill at the center of the island to study the constellations and ponder the distant, blinking lights of civilization on the mainland. Over time, though, V. grew tired of all this input with no corresponding output. After returning to the mainland, V. signed up to volunteer at the organ bank. Soon V. was seeing for someone who had never seen before, and everything made more sense.

kafka: ‘in a different realm’

“It is conceivable for a writer to take the pulse of his era and make it come alive in language and images, yet still be out of his depth when it comes to palpable engagement with the world, although this constellation is exceedingly rare. Far more often someone who is truly at home in two worlds is misunderstood as being ‘out of touch’ in the public, social cosmos, which he shapes and endures in combination with others, and in an interior psychic space dominated by feelings, dreams, fantasies, associations, and ideas, which he inhabits alone. Anyone whose experience inside his head offers as vast and constant a stream of impressions as the world outside cannot stay focused on the here and now. But where is he then? In a different realm.

An individual who appears to be out of touch with reality is rarely in the privileged position of being able to open and close the subtle locks between inside and outside at will. The vortex pulling him inside his head is always palpable, but the reality principle demands that he remain perpetually alert; people expect him to limit himself to things that can be communicated. Anyone who starts talking about daydreams on the street, in a store, or at the workplace alienates people, no matter how intense and meaningful those daydreams are. He remains alien because he understands and acknowledges a second world, and for the most part, and to his detriment, he remains just as alien in that interior world for the same reason. He is present, but neither here nor there.

That condition can culminate in insanity, and Kafka justifiably feared winding up insane throughout his life. But it has little to do with the accomplishment society expects of the individual. Someone who is alienated from the world might function perfectly well as a craftsman, attorney, teacher, or politician, or as a vice secretary of an insurance institute, and his struggle to balance himself—poised like a man with one foot off the ground—can easily remain hidden from view, without a trace, as it probably has in thousands upon thousands of brains.”

Reiner Stach, Kafka: The Years of Insight

ghost story

It was a normal day. The ghost floated downtown to conduct some routine haunting. Twenty hours per month was the minimum requirement for its continued membership in the Association for Miscellaneous Paranormal Phenomena (AMPP). Last year the ghost had let its membership lapse. Not purposefully, of course. But the ghost was easily distracted. While most of its colleagues were dedicated to their work and felt no need to pursue activities outside of haunting, this particular ghost drifted through the afterlife without focus.

It’s been said that all spirits are restless, but that’s only what the living say and what do they know. Most spirits, in fact, lead the same type of dull, repetitive lifestyles they led while alive. Many remain in the places where they died and haunt those spots for eternity, regardless of how they felt about them prior to death’s release. This may be an armchair in front of a TV, or a cubicle at the insurance company. The majority of these ghosts are passive and unobtrusivethe living rarely notice their presence. High-profile hauntings are not the norm, despite what the media reports.

The ghost in this story is different. During its early years as a living being, it tried to fit in, adopting the typical modern lifestyle of working at a boring job and participating in banal leisure-time activities. But when all of its friends and acquaintances began to pair off and raise families, its existing sense of alienation grew stronger. It knew too much of the darkness in the world, and felt itself tinged by that darkness. It no longer felt capable of living its current life. So it quit its job and set out on an aimless course in search of the usual things living beings look for on such adventures. It witnessed many wonders and met many kind others. But this adventure did not turn out to be the type of transformative experience known as a Hero’s Journey.

Once returned from its fruitless quest, the being gave away all its possessions and went into the woods, where it lived a solitary existence. Its only companions were the birds and other creatures of the forests. The being was as content as it could be (which only registered as marginal on the contentment scale), and spent its days roaming far and wide, searching, always searching for what cannot be found in the outer world. On certain rare days it felt at peace, like there might be something beyond the numb state it knew as normal. But the feeling was so fleeting it could not even be chased. When the being grew old and could no longer roam without effort, it left its body behind and continued on as a spirit, which brings us back to what started out as a normal day.

The ghost was having some fun with the revolving door at its former place of employment when something unsettling happened. One of the office drones looked right at the ghost. Now, the ghost was accustomed to living beings looking through it, but it felt very certain that this being was looking at it, recognizing it as something visible to the living. The drone’s face paled as it exited the revolving door and shuffled across the lobby, peering back over its shoulder at the exact spot where the ghost was floating.

This revelation rattled the ghost. Here it was floating around causing all manner of mischief, feeling liberated in its presumed invisibility, when in fact there was a real possibility that some or all of the living could observe its antics. It had spent much of its corporeal existence making itself as small as possible in order not to be noticed. Now it seemed that what it thought it had achieved in the afterlife was yet another lie.

Dismayed, the ghost floated through the wall and out into the street. It cruised around downtown without interest. It stopped in at the venerable Ghoul Club, but found only the regulars lounging around smoking their pipes and retelling their same old haunting tales. How boring, the ghost thought, how utterly mundane it is to be a ghost. Why, it’s no better than living was! The only good part of being a spirit has been that no one could see me, it thought. But now even that turns out to be a sham!

So the ghost paid a visit to its local union representative.

‘Hey Lou,’ it said. ‘I don’t want to be a ghost anymore.’

Lou balked at this. ‘You what now?’

‘I’m done. I want out of this game.’

‘But, it’s unheard of,’ Lou lamented. ‘You can’t just quit being a ghost!’

‘Don’t care. It’s not working for me. I think people can see me and it’s a real drag. How do I get out of it?’

‘Are you sure you’re not imagining things? I’ve never heard of people seeing ghosts.’

‘I’m sure. Today some guy looked right at me and turned white while I was haunting him.’

Lou opened a drawer in his desk and rustled through it. He pulled out a form and pushed it across the desk.

‘Here, fill this out.’

‘That’s it?’

‘Yep. And you gotta turn in your Ghoul Club card.’

The ghost filled out the form and gave Lou his card.

‘Well, Lou, I guess I won’t see you again. Thanks for helping me out.’

Lou shrugged. ‘Your loss, buddy. What are you gonna do now? Do you even have a plan?’

‘No, Lou, I don’t. But I reckon I’ll figure something out.’

Lou stamped the form and the ghost disappeared.


george trakl’s snowy descent

Fascinating critical essay on Austrian poet Georg Trakl and the influence of cocaine and other intoxicants on his work.

(via Public Domain Review)

early morning people

The city can seem cold and unfeeling. Thus, the temptation arises to shoehorn the masses into roles limited to acrimony or apathy, simply based on random anecdotal experiences.

Early morning is the best time to mitigate this wrong perception. Early morning people are different. They spontaneously greet each other and show consideration. Kind words are exchanged and eyes, for once, are not averted.

After 9 AM there begins a slow shift for the worse. The late risers trickle to the streets, leaking poison into the day’s veins. By noon, one might as well return to bed and wait for the next morning in order to continue bending this perception back into the right shape.

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