“LADIES AND GENTLEMEN: Harley Edison.”
The audience stared up at him, in vacuous silence, from the misty rows below, eyes pointed in his direction but glassed over, as though sightless.
There was nothing to see anyway. This tuxedo was a little tight under the arms and around the waist. Just enough to make him squirm imperceptibly (was it imperceptible?) behind the podium. He shuffled his papers – notes he did not want to look at – nervously. The rustling noise caused a few of the vacuous heads to crinkle up and touch an ear.
“Of course,” he leapt in, “I could say I am happy to be here today. Because I really am. Happy to be here. And this award,” he raised and extended his arm so he could look at it too. “This award is something that I never dreamed possible for someone like me. A writer who does not write!”
The joke thudded like a skin full of Brent crude over the middle seats. They told him not to make jokes. He wasn’t a comedian, and he was not expected to make anyone laugh tonight. The reason people become writers is that they do not like to speak in public. Let us write it down, and someone else can read it out. On the page, he could be funny and tragic and farcical and surreal, usually when he meant people to feel the opposite. But still. His medium was the written and not the spoken word.
He retained a memory, one of those ghostlike apparitions that had no audio and only a fuzzy picture, blurred around the edges. He was in the rec room, late afternoon or early evening. The sun was setting over the deserted compound but he was there in the rec room. Surrounded by people – his friends from school but mostly younger kids who had not even been away to boarding school yet. He was sitting on a bench near the glass doors, and a group of girls had gathered around him, kneeling, he thought. And they were laughing hysterically, uncontrollably, like a fou-rire when suddenly you can’t stop laughing. He was telling stories. He was making them laugh. He could feel the great swell of rushing magnificence filling his chest. It was his hour of glory, and even he was astonished by it. They laughed at his every word, every gesture, every raised eyebrow and noise he made. A golden moment in suspended time.
So many years ago.
What he was saying, how he was doing it. It was lost to him. A lot of things like that have disappeared. How did he manage to date in high school? And he did, a lot even. But how he actually got from the glances across the room to the scratchy intimacy of the woods behind the school was a mystery. It was just gone.
Standing in front of this crowd, all of whom were predisposed to like him anyway, since they came to see him at his award ceremony, he choked and cleared his throat again. He knew how to talk to audiences, had done it before many times. But he yearned to remember how that 15-year-old boy in the rec room made them laugh so much and so long. So much of his early life was like that. Things came automatically to him that did not leave any kind SOP deposited in his memory so that when, many years later, he wanted to start dating again, he could access the blueprints. He could not even imagine that he had done it before, couldn’t imagine that it was successful. From high school into college and even into his first years of married life he was an unstoppable train. He flirted with, kissed, and slept with whomever he wanted, although in the run up to and after the September wedding, he only wanted Aimée.
Maybe it was after this that he started to think about the steps along the way. Maybe here is where automation was traded out for manual controls. Manual control meant that he could lose control, and knowing that he could lose it usually meant that he would lose it. There are light-years of distance between doing and being conscious of doing. Laozi knew it – all that business of shooting the arrow without shooting the arrow. When you are in the moment and just acting without rehearsing, it flows. It just flows.
Lao means old. Lǎoshī is teacher. Lǎoshī lǎole: the teacher is old.
They had come to honor him and his new book. It was the only book, really, in the past thirty years. Not that he had been any kind of prodigy, writing masterful poetry and prose from a youthful age under the tutelage of an evil Kapellmeister or overbearing father. No. But he had suffered from having “so much promise.” They all said it. He will do great things. He has so much potential. That hateful and hated word! Potential – as if anyone looking at a high school kid or college student could actually make such a prognostication. Why doesn’t anyone see me as I am? You know, now? But they didn’t. They all had the Gift of Sight and they all gazed into the 21st century at my potential and my promise. How could I, after listening to this all of my life, not fuck it up spectacularly? Or worse: not spectacularly.
And so, at the age of 46, he had written a novel. It was not his first, but the others never made it out of production. Hurrah! That potential took its time about getting fulfilled, right? The novel, or so they were saying behind his back, is a monument to something monumental. It will be read and studied for a very long time by anyone interested in literature (there were the prognosticators again). No one actually said they liked it. He wondered if important and enjoyable were mutually exclusive. It is an important book. It may be a great book. But is it a good book?
The fact is that he had not written the novel he wanted to at all. He looked to his mentors, the postmodernists beginning with John Barth, the oulipos and Georges Perec, the hermetic poets with Salvatore Quasimodo, and he wanted to create something that would be considered alongside them. A Literary Novel. He was, in fact, fairly hellbent on creating something so entirely pretentious as to be important despite itself. It was a metafictional irony that he hoped Donald Bartolome and Robert Coover might snicker wryly over. Their snickers were always wry, he imagined.
He started out with the idea of discourse between author and words, and they wrangled against each other. The author cajoling them onto the page; the words bouncing off the walls (of his brain presumably) and refusing to be “wasted” on sentences that would not be eternal. This was to be interspersed with an actual story about an actual person called Francis. But somehow the idea for this high-brow masterpiece was never fully mastered and it faltered and sputtered and ended up lining the cybernetic bottom of the file called “Stories” on the hard drive of the Macbook Air on which he composed the several abortive pages of it.
Note to self: Can I get money from Apple now that I placed their product in my book? Must ask someone.
No, tonight the accolades were for a much more conventional kind of novel. The very kind that everyone lapped up, for which movie rights were rumored and negotiated behind closed doors and without the author’s input. This was a book that could have brightly colored covers, embossed letters, and can sit high atop the bestseller list for 18 weeks and then be heard of no more. It was not like he hated his own book – it was good and he liked it well enough. It just did not do as much as he wanted to do. He had wanted it to launch him into the circle of literary authors. It was still early though.
It is funny, but a conventional novel about conventional people in conventional situations is precisely the thing he knew nothing about. This story, a romance and introspection, was set in a dreamy European littoral environment, a balneary paradise. The discussion of the relationship between Francis and The Woman’s Name – did it matter so much? – was in complete opposition to the idyllic setting. Of course. The pathetic fallacy? Werther? Die Leiden des jungen Werthers. Not that it was making fun of itself. The theme was serious enough and the question is an old and venerable one:
Is love enough?
Is it enough to love in order to create and maintain a long-lasting, economically stable, and emotionally fulfilling life? Or is it only a “would-be-nice” on the list. Frank and Alison struggle with this question from two different perspectives. Frank is moodier and needs the affective side of love, its romance and sentiment, its validation and repetition. He values the emotion for its own sake and believes that a world might be created around and below it, to support it, and to allow it to grow. Alison takes another tack completely. She is skeptical of love, believes it to be illusory and ultimately something to fear rather than venerate. She is less about words and symbolic gestures than actual action. She believes that demonstrating care is the highest form of love. The two do love each other, but each in their own manner, and therefore often miscommunicate. Each thinking the other does not love; each wanting to see the other’s love as they see it. In many ways, Frank and Alison are on diametrically opposed sides of the question. Is love enough? We cannot answer that with these two until we hash out the first question: what is love anyway?
He enjoyed the exploration and the narrative. He also liked writing the dialogue in this book – it felt real and alive, even though it was only inspired from life, not copy/pasted.
And of course, the internal monologue and narrative of the Frank character was 98% Harley himself. He could hardly separate his own feelings from those of his character and sometimes the dialogues became an exercise in hindsight and after-thought, carrying on the arguments again and with better reposts and jibes. Frank won very few arguments; Harley the same. The gossamer veil separating real life from Art (or maybe just art, small ‘a’) was in places nearly transparent and in others, it hung opaquely or merely translucently. An author writes about what he knows. I know me – but I do not want to write my own story.
So he created the character of Francis Emerson. This was not a Bizarro World version of himself, nor was it a replicant. It was at the same time an alter ego, a better self, and a more truthful self. Frank Emerson was not a “beautified avatar,” as that sassy Sally Litchfield tried to insinuate in the Chicago Review. When the extract was printed there, Sally has a lot to say about how the characters were not “developed” enough and that Mr. Edison had lifted one or two pieces too many from his own colorful life and tied them around his characters’ necks. Sinking, in her mind, the entire endeavor. But it was the opposite really – the fact that his protagonist resembled him allowed him to explore areas of his psyche that he would not dare try on himself. And it opened up new imaginary realms that could not be “lifted” from his real life. Inspired by it, maybe, but only in the outlines.
The main difference, as far as he could figure, was that Francis came out of the story with a little wisdom and the ability to get up off the floor and move on in his life. The last lines said everything –
“The scratch on his forearm was still red, an angry kind of red that seemed to pulsate from under the skin. He saw it there. He looked intensely at it. But it did not sting. It was someone else’s arm he saw. Someone else’s story that he could barely hear.”
Harley Edison, a nearly unknown author and this year’s recipient of the Laurence Sterne Award, had never had such an epiphany. He could get up again, after a suitably long period of lying in a smoldering heap in the corner of his room, and he could continue to be considered alive, but it was questionable as to whether he ever learned anything in his many and various relationships, courtships, marriages, flirtations, and affairs. Yes, there were several. Each time (and he was not quite sure of this but it seems to make sense) he makes the same mistakes. He screws it up earlier or later on, but at some point they have all gone wrong – and it must be in the same way, or for the same reason. This must be a Jungian archetype of some sort: The Not-So-Much-Lover. Or Not-So-Long.
It would have made him happy to think that his apparent recidivist amatory proclivities were part of a grand scheme or structure, thereby relieving him of the responsibility for them. But no reprieve was coming. The governor was not going to call. You, Harley Edison, have done all of this to yourself. And you conjured up Francis to show yourself that you did not HAVE to be so stupid.
He shifted his weight from left to right. From this point of view, the audience was a slight gaussian blur. They could be fawning or annoyed; it was impossible to say exactly. All they knew is that they had come here tonight to honor a person who wrote a book that they liked, even loved, or had a friend who liked or loved it enough to convince them to go down to the Grand Hyatt’s ballroom tonight.
He needed to say something to them in order to justify their experience and their choice. He would hate to think of them shuffling toward the exits at the end and mumbling about having missed a rerun of Parks and Recreation because they came here. Harley had thought about this and only this for the past 12 days, ever since he was notified of his winning this award. He was amazed at the news. He submitted the novel for consideration, but only on a whim because he happened to have got an email (very nearly automatically deep-sixed in the spam file) calling for new authors.
He was not exactly new. He did not feel quite like an adult, but 46 is 46 – not 26. He had been writing ever since he was in grade school. He was teased by snatches of stories and ideas and yarns that are now lost forever in the sinkhole of his memory. He could not even say which ones were his, which ones were from books, and which ones were from TV shows. All of it was appropriated by his memory and constituted, in coetaneous fragments, a childhood. It was neither a terribly happy nor a terribly terrible childhood, as he glances back at it, but just a way of growing up and getting to the adult stage.
In fact, the story of his life, if he were to write it and fulfill Sally Litchfield’s wildest fantasies, would not begin in earnest until then, until the moment when he made his first adult decision (i.e., fuck-up). Everything that led to this point was antecedent to the story – needed, of course, but prefatory, not substantial.
But this was not about him or about Sally or even about the chemical makeup of his character Francis Emerson. This was a tribute to honor his late-life novel, Portrayals, and he was here to be humble, grateful, a little surprised, and utterly charming.
Copyright © 2022, Chris Farmer
All rights reserved. No portion of this book may be reproduced in any form without permission from the author, except as permitted Serbian copyright law. For permissions contact the author on the Contact page.