DEEP INTO THE NOVEL
There's something about being deep in the guts of this thing that is both calming and frightening. There's still the sense of it never ending, of never finding an end to it. But there are also all these signs of progress, of the number of pages increasing, and of the right connections being made as the pages pile up. It's not yet clear to me whether I'll finish it before it's ready, if that makes sense, or finish it too late, or finish it just at the right time for the whole thing to ripen to fruition. But it's a lot closer than it was last week, and I've found a space in my mind to think about it that's separate from the wear-and-tear of every day life. That's promising, because I've felt so fragmented lately, between projects and tasks that have nothing to do with writing.
So I've decided to post more little flashes of it from time to time. Like opening up a vein and bleeding in public, probably, but what the heck. It's eventually going to get to readers anyway.
I was beginning to sound like a character in a book. I had to escape the relentless pressure of the words. I had to get away from the words. From the typewriter keys. From my wrinkled hands, which prove my brain lies to me about my age. From the faces staring through the green crack where the corridors synchronize into a fracture of seeing. From the feeling that I had just begun a rote recitation of the facts. (Janice, once you start a project like this, you just have to believe that people will be interested in all of it—not just the most exciting parts. You can’t leave anything out.)
I went for a hobbling walk, leaning heavily on my cane every step of the way. But when you’ve lived in a place this long, no walk can occur solely in the present. Every street, every building, appears to you encrusted with memories, with perspective that betray your age, your cynicism, your sentimentality, or your lack of feeling where you should feel something. There—the site of a quick fuck, a fumbling moment of ecstasy (“lover’s tryst,” Janice, is, I believe, the preferred term; once again your style slips from Duncanisms to gutterisms.) Here—a farewell to a departing friend. A fabled lunch with an important artist. The dust-smudged window of a rival gallery, still floundering along while you are forever out of business. A community square strung with paper lanterns where once you held an outdoor party. And if this were not enough—not relentless enough, not humbling enough—that unspeakable vision overlaying all of it, had I only the glasses to see, the vision I share with Duncan and perhaps no one else, that sees the mark of the gray caps on the city in a thousand signs and symbols. (This is why I prefer the underground parts of the city—they are actually more of a comfort these days.)
It is not an easy thing for me to walk through Ambergris these days, but also this comfort: why, she said, her heart breaking a little (melodramatically), there are so many friends to visit, ,even if they are under ground.
But at first I just hobbled down Albumuth Boulevard in the late afternoon light, letting my path be decided by the gaps between supplicants and pilgrims. I took deep breaths, to catch all the smells in this most beautiful and cruel of all cities: passionflower and incense, lemon trees and horse flop, rotting ham hock and coffee grounds. For a few minutes I tried to pretend to be a tourist, a passerby, an incidental part of the city. It didn’t work. How could it? I am Janice Shriek. No one knows that better than me.
I thought I might feel better if I headed for the site of my greatest triumphs, although my leg with its phantom attachment was already beginning to ache. I hadn’t visited it in ages. After a good half hour, I finally stood there, in front of what had once been the Gallery of Hidden Fascinations. A flower shop and a bakery stood to either side, but the part of the building that had houses the gallery, as if cursed, lay empty. The shadow where the handpainted sign had once hung had been branded into the wall by years of hard weather. Beyond the cracked windows lay dust, moldly frames, and darkness. No paintings. No paint not peeling. Just seasons and seasons of neglect. The smell of stale bread, rotting wood. Layers of purple fungus had taken root in the closest wall. Passersby hardly spared the place a second glance. It should have been a monument, or at least a memorial. It had housed dozens of famous paintings and painters. Conversations about all aspects of the arts had taken place there. Much of the art mentioned in the Hoegbotton tourist guides, the descriptions of the New Art movement—it had mostly started with my gallery. I had started there. Everything I was since had come from the gallery. This dump. This husk of broken timbers. Even my memories of it—saturated in the marinade of all five senses and as sharp as yesterday—could not bring it to sudden life. I might as well have never left the typewriter. I was still trapped in an afterword.
I headed into the Religious Quarter, immediately calmed by the sound of bells—bells from steeples and cathedrals, from alcoves and altars, which I could never quite find the source of, which lingered at the edge of hearing.
I disturbed a boy in the act of lighting a candle in the recess that marked the northern-most corner of the Church of the Seven-Edged Star. He looked up at me, his face whiter even than his white robes against the tousle of black hair, his eyes a glistening green, his mouth forming a half-conscious “O,” the long match held with divine grace in his slightly upturned right hand. The white of his revealed wrist sent a shudder through me, but he smiled and the image of grace returned.
He was right to light the candle, for the Quarter at that hour had not only distant bells but distant light, the dusk so strong it might as well have been a smell, a musk, that slid over the unprotected surfaces of cobblestones, windows, and walls, leaving behind the musky chaos of rippling illuminations that remain in the Quarter after dark. Priests shuffled past, murmuring with mouths and bare feet. Truffidians, Manziists, Menites, Cultists? Doubtless Duncan would have known. (I never was much of an expert on anything other than history. The ways of current religions hold little interest to me.)
Moving on, I walked to the edge of the Religious Quarter, by now an act of will; my feet really hurt—just past the stern-looking Truffidian Cathedral, and by way of a flurry of alleys, soon found myself in front of the Blythe Academy. The dark covered the academy comfortably, content to linger at the outskirts of lamps and torches.
Even from the street I could see directly into the courtyard, and beyond the courtyard into the student apartments, here and there a window illumined with golden light. In the foreground, the pale willow trees rustled in the breeze. (As pale willow trees are wont to do.) The stone benches and tables were solid, dark, strangely-comforting masses. A monk strode across the courtyard. Another followed, cowl hiding his face. The sweet, pungent scent of honeysuckle wound itself around me.
I do not know how long I stood there, remembering those long-ago conversations, but as I did, an unbearable sadness came over me. Nothing I can type on these pages can convey—truly—what I felt as I stood there looking into the darkened courtyard where Duncan, Bonmot, and I had sat and talked. And, if I am truthful, that place I stood in front of, which meant so much to me, no longer had any more to do with me than the Borges Bookstore. The moment, the spirit, had passed out of it and it was just a place once more. Duncan no longer taught there. Bonmot no longer sat behind the desk in his office, listening to the imagined miseries of yet another homesick student. Duncan had disappeared. Bonmot had died more than fifteen years ago.
What strange creatures we are. We live, we love, we died with such random joy and grief, excitement and boredom, each brain as individual as a fingerprint, and just as enigmatic. We make up stories to understand ourselves and tell ourselves that they are true, when in fact they only represent an individual impression of one individual fingerpint, no matter how universal we attempt to make them.
I stood there, mourning the death of that place even though it had not really died, even though it had since spawned a thousand stories to join the millions of stories that comprised the city, and then I walked back here, to the typewriter, to continue my epic, my afterword, so consumed by what? By emotion. That my hands are shaking. They are shaking right now. What shall stop them?
Perhaps a dose of the dead past.