mnchm

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From then on for two years or more, in hospital and out, I was convinced that I was infested. ‘Infested’ was the word, I thought, as well as ‘contaminated’. The pubic lice multiplied to a plethora and became imaginatively licensed to inhabit my entire body. They crawled on my arms, my torso, my legs, my hair, sometimes my face and neck. They had become all-rounder lice. Not even lice, if someone had pointed out the impossible ethology I had invented for them. They were … I didn’t know what they were, but they were. Insects, lice-like, flea-like, tic-like crawling creatures that lived on me, and indeed, in me. I thought they burrowed under my skin and emerged to wander about on the surface in the dark of night or under cover of my clothes. I felt them, tickling me in specific parts, and the redness I saw when I finished scratching my skin convinced me that they were there (so easy now to write that rational sentence). I saw them, always out of the corner of my eye. I became most distressed at night. I would feel their presence and then turn on the light quickly to catch them, but of course they had burrowed back into my skin by the time I could focus. It was a malevolent game of hide and seek. They had super-lice powers: they sensed me looking for them, and always dodged me. I was sure I saw them, yet I could never quite say what they looked like. I found evidence of them, even occasionally caught one and killed it as you do a flea, squeezing it between my fingers. Then I would put it in my palm and examine it carefully under a light. I saw it was something, a mote, a dot, black, white, grey, but never quite well enough to be sure exactly what. It could have been a flake of skin, a speck of dust, a tiny thread, but I knew it wasn’t. In that special way you know when you really know or are crazy.

I don’t know if people had ‘personal goals’ in previous centuries. People certainly had ambitions, perhaps even, though I doubt it, the ambition to live a happy life. But since the 1990s it’s the idea of having ‘one shot’ at happiness that has taken hold. Only One Shot makes it plain that a failure to grab that chance is nobody’s fault but one’s own. ‘According to the World Health Organisation,’ the book’s author, Randall Scott Rogers, reports, every year in the US ‘33,000+ people commit suicide, 400,000+ people attempt suicide, 17 million suffer depression, 27 million suffer alcohol and drug addiction, 60 million suffer some form of mental illness, and $11 billion is spent on self-improvement books, CDs, seminars, coaching and stress-management programmes.’

As a struggling young writer in Berlin, Vladimir Nabokov once wrote a phenomenally depressing screenplay titled “The Love of a Dwarf” (1924). The protagonist, a sexually frustrated London circus dwarf, has a one-night stand with the depressed, childless wife of a circus magician. The dwarf quits the circus and retires to a small northern town, waiting vainly for the magician’s wife to join him. Eight years later, she turns up on his doorstep, announces that he has a son, and rushes away. The dwarf pursues her, but dies of a heart attack at her feet. To the gathering onlookers, the magician’s wife announces that her son died a few days ago. In 1939, Esquire printed a short-story version of “The Love of a Dwarf,” titled “The Potato Elf”: it was Nabokov’s first American publication.

Touring the cities on my characters’ itinerary, I viewed the sights through their eyes, experienced the atmosphere of each setting through their moods, filtered the lore of each landmark through their personalities. Even my daily life in Shanghai became my daily inspiration, whether I was riding the bus, ordering breakfast, hanging my laundry out on bamboo poles, going to a gallery opening. Back at my desk, I wasn’t sitting alone in my studio apartment; I was, by turns, recently widowed, suddenly betrayed, turning eighty, struggling with bulimia, reliving a long-ago war, facing an unwanted pregnancy, hiking the Great Wall, having sex for the first time, and pursuing an old and doomed flame.

THE QUESTION comes up for me insistently: Where am I when I am reading a novel? I am “in” the novel, of course, to the degree that it involves me. I may be absorbed, but I am never without some awareness of the world around me—where I am sitting, what else might be going on in the house. Sometimes I think—and this might be true of writing as well—that it is misleading to think of myself as hovering between two places: the conjured and the empirically real. That it is closer to the truth to say that I occupy a third state, one which somehow amalgamates two awarenesses, not unlike that short-lived liminal place I inhabit when I am not yet fully awake, when I am sentient but still riding on the momentum of my sleep. I experience both, at times, as a privileged kind of profundity, an enhancement.

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Written by menachemkaiser

22 April at 15:53

Posted in rants

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