[A Community of Writers Craft Talk]
by Robin Romm
Apparently, I love neurotics. That might not be a surprise to anyone who looked at my close friends, but before I wrote this lecture, I suppose I’d never really thought about it. Or at least I never thought about why I love them, about the particular vantage point they offer.
And I had no idea, until I perused my favorite books in order to come up with a lecture topic, that I often prefer them to tell me a story.
The list of novels that feature neurotic—or at least maladjusted–characters is a long and strong one: Portnoy’s Complaint, The Bell Jar, Cassandra at the Wedding, A Confederacy of Dunces, This Book Will Save Your Life, Treasure Island!!! (by Levine not Stephenson), The Dinner, The Mustache, The Patrick Melrose Novels, Chris Adrian’s entire body of work, Gary Shtengart’s three novels, Jesus’ Son, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, much of Proust—and arguments could be made for many more, depending on how you skew your definition.
We know a neurotic when we see one. Larry David, Woody Allen—those reductive Jewish stereotypes probably come to mind. We might think of neurotics as self-involved, anxious, exaggerated, funny. Some of those ideas are accurate. But the definition of a neurotic shifts depending on where you look for it. It’s subjective, and prone to embellishments or add-ons. And we take great liberties with the term when we use it colloquially.
Freud defined neurosis as the formation of behavioral or psychosomatic symptoms as a result of the return of the repressed. “A person only falls ill of a neurosis,” Freud wrote, “if his ego has lost the capacity to allocate his libido in some way.” In other words, your un-allocatable desire for your mother’s genitalia causes you to keep engaging in certain behaviors such as organizing your bookshelf by color. While the basic premise of Freud’s theory still seems to hold in most analytic circles (repression causes neurotic behavior), most contemporary analysts no longer reduce repression to sexual drives. Now, as one analyst told me, “drives” may be any kind of repressed drive—a drive for total acceptance, for connection, for authenticity. So, we can do away with mom’s genitalia. Instead, the drive to repress how lonely you felt as a child and how deeply you yearn for connection in your adult life causes you to keep obsessively doing that color-coded book organizing. Neurotic symptoms—which fall under a number of categories like melancholia, obsession, compulsion, hysteria, anxiety—are most easily understood as the behavioral result of a psychic wound no one can see.
Neurotics get a bad rap. We use the term as a pejorative. But not everyone with neurotic symptoms is insane, sick, or even terribly flawed. Freud wrote that “healthy life is interspersed with a great number of trivial and in practice unimportant symptoms.” There’s a spectrum of neurosis, just as with any personality trait. You can be gently touched by a need to make the bed a certain way or sick with debilitating depression.
So now you have some sense of what a neurotic is—and the rudimentary tools to diagnose everyone you know. In life, we can spot hysteria, compulsiveness or anxiety by watching body language or listening to someone weigh the pros and cons of a miniature decision for hours. We can see her color-coded bookshelves or the dozen empty hand-sanitizer bottles in his car.
In theory, we can use the same powers to find neurotics in fiction. Through characterization—physical description, summary, dialogue—we might deduce that a character is neurotic. But that assumes we have a separate psyche telling the story; that the narrator delivering us these salient details is not herself a neurotic, but instead able to describe one.
Far more interesting are the stories told by neurotics. It’s easy, if there’s a neurotic in a minor role, to minimize or trivialize the neurotic concerns. We can band with the trustworthy narrator and see the neurotic as problematic. But when the neurotic is in the driver’s seat, we become implicated, we join with that point of view for the period of time. In stories told by neurotics, the neurotic can’t be trivialized or used to spice up a cast of characters. Neurosis is the reigning sensibility.
Though four of the narrators I am going to touch on (the narrator of The Yellow Wallpaper, Alexander Portnoy of Portnoy’s Complaint, Esther Greenwald of The Bell Jar, and Cassandra Edwards of Cassandra at the Wedding) all pretty much come right and tell you they’re neurotic, a neurotic narrator doesn’t need to be so straightforwardly introduced. If you study neurotic narrators, you begin to see a pattern emerge in how they are constructed. A neurotic narrator exhibits most, if not all, of the following traits:
1) Myopia. Neurotic narrators are self-absorbed and almost always exhibit unusual self-awareness. This self-absorption can become so exaggerated, as in Roth and Levine, that it creates its own special sort of humor. (All of the writers I’m examining use first person POV to help create this sense of self-focus.)
2) An uncanny observance that one might call hyper-observance or hyper-vigilance.
3) A sense of threat; an tendency to see menace in the mundane.
4) Intelligence coupled with intense curiosity—often about themselves and how the world affects them, that can be unsparing and impolite.
5) More receptivity and sensitivity to psychic pain. They often seem to be missing “a thick skin.”
6) Overthinking. Or maybe more accurately put, neurotic narrators tend to think with a precision and attention to loss that leads them to indecision and anxiety.
These qualities—self-absorption, self-awareness, observance, curiosity, intelligence, thin-skinnedness, and precise but anxious thoughts describe the narrator of Charlotte Perkin Gilman’s classic 1913 story, The Yellow Wallpaper. Its narrator, a young wife suffering from a “nervous depression” and “slight hysterical tendency,” retreats, with her physician husband, John, to a country mansion ostensibly to recover. But the recovery, we learn by her direct address to the reader, is more like a prison sentence imposed on her by John. He doesn’t want her to socialize or work; in fact, she’s writing the story itself in furtive bursts despite his instructions. John’s rational dismissal of her emotional life drives her to become more manic as the story progresses, until she’s well past neurosis into psychosis.
While The Yellow Wallpaper is very obviously a story about mental anguish caused by repression, it offers us a fine example of the traits I outlined for you. The narrator, here, may not look as classically “self-absorbed” as the more modern examples I will touch on, but the story is certainly myopic, never straying from the narrator’s perspective, and it cannot stray from the tiny room where she’s been put to recover.
Stripped of the benefits of the outside world, the narrator has nothing to focus her intelligence and curiosity upon. She’s restless, sensitive, and bored. As a result, she begins to focus on what is available to her: the wallpaper.
The paint and paper look as if a boys’ school had used it. It is stripped off –the paper in great patches all around the head of my bed about as far as I can reach, and in a great place on the other side of the room low down. I never saw a worse paper in my life.
One of those sprawling flamboyant patterns committing every artistic sin.
It is dull enough to confuse the eye in following, pronounced enough to constantly irritate and provoke study, and when you follow the lame uncertain curves for a little distance, they suddenly commit suicide—plunge off at outrageous angles, destroy themselves in unheard of contradictions.
The color is repellent, almost revolting; a smouldering unclean yellow, strangely faded by the slow-turning sunlight.
It is a dull yet lurid orange in some places, a sickly sulphur tint in others.
She depicts the wallpaper obsessively. In fact, the story is comprised of furtive journal entries about her close study of this wallpaper. She writes about it with such obsession, with such a minute focus on the way it has been stripped, the gradations in color, the strange smudge that runs along the edge of the room, the pattern, that the wallpaper takes on a menacing quality. After a while, she stares at it as if it were not wallpaper, but a blood-thirsty bear or an armed marauder—the vigilance in her just as piqued. She can’t let herself explore the thing she is repressing—her emotional life, her freedom, her distain for her rational, dismissive and controlling husband. Instead, it locks on what it can: the wallpaper.
The wallpaper. What could be more mundane? And yet, Gilman’s narrator goes to battle with it, and it’s arguably one of the most memorable battles in any short story.
It’s fascinating, certainly, because of the voice, the furtive bits of prose, the original and bizarre premise. But the story has lasted, has maintained its relevance and drama for more than a hundred years because we can relate to it. How often, in life, do we go to war with what is right in front of us? And yet, as writers, I think we frequently feel our fiction should be bigger, grander—should take on larger themes like war, the passage of time, historical events, supernatural phenomenon, etcetera. These things will give us some kind of credibility—or at least add irrefutable drama to our stories. But the neurotic narrator offers a way out of this, or perhaps she offers a way into a different kind of drama, a drama much less grand but no less thrilling. A noisy enough mind can go to war with the walls.
The Yellow Wallpaper is a fabulous and foundational text for the study of the neurotic in fiction. But when I first thought about writing this talk, my mind immediately landed elsewhere–on one of the more notorious neurotics. No talk about neurotics in literature would be complete without Alexander Portnoy from Philip Roth’s seminal (in all senses of the word) 1969 novel, Portnoy’s Complaint. Alexander Portnoy, like the narrator in Gilman, is a nervous wreck. He’s educated (Antioch, Columbia) with an impressive job as The Assistant Commissioner for the City of New York Commission on Human Opportunity. His mother—the source of both his grandiose ego and intense fragility– refers to him as “the bonditt,” which means the clever one. “He doesn’t even have to open a book—A in everything. Albert Einstein the Second!” she crows. And Portnoy is indisputably clever, as able to engage in wordplay, refer to novels, Freudian ideas, and current events as to revel in the intricate meaning of every single minute detail of his sexual life. He’s incredibly insightful and meticulously observant. Self-absorbed? Yes. We meet him in the therapist’s office, which he doesn’t leave for the entire, frenetic two-hundred-and-seventy-four pages.
Like Gilman’s narrator, Portnoy is trapped. Gilman, less influenced by Freud and the healing powers of analysis, needed to put her depressed woman in a convalescent’s room. But Freud’s influence—as well as the sexual revolution of the 1960s–can be felt, strongly, in Roth. Instead of confining him in a mansion, Roth places Alexander in therapy. He still never leaves the room. Gilman’s narrator appears to suffer because she is trapped by others, but Portnoy seems to be trapped by his own psyche. He cannot shake the influence on his psyche of his overbearing mother and constipated father and the libidinal impulses that have risen up in him as an obsessive (and compulsive) response. He struggles to keep up with, if not control, these impulses. He has sex with just about everything (I suppose one could argue that he’s a different sort of sensitive), but still can never find satisfaction, no matter how high or complicated the stakes.
That’s some wallpaper.
Like Gilman’s story, Roth’s novel is a series of observations. Where Gilman’s narrator meticulously confides her observations in a notebook, Portnoy meticulously confides in his therapist. And he’s no vague and boring therapy patient, droning on about feelings of loneliness and bummed out-ed-ness. Portnoy is specific. He speaks in situations, images. He’s full of memories and opinions. When thinking back on a swimming pool from childhood this is what he recalls:
I wouldn’t go near that pool if you paid me—it is a breeding ground for polio and spinal meningitis, not to mention diseases of the skin, the scalp, and the asshole—it is even rumored that some kid from Weequahic once stepped into the footbath between the locker room and the pool and actually came out at the other end without his toenails.
The memory is so present, so specific and immediate, that Roth renders it in first person present tense. This works brilliantly in the novel, adding to the immediacy, the sense of self-involvement, sensitivity, and menace. Everything feels portentous to Portnoy. The aversion to swimming pool germs might be classic neurotic behavior, but the best writing in the book comes when Roth uses this same vigilance to examine even more mundane and less rationally menacing situations.
Take this passage, which his from a visit Portnoy makes to a girlfriend’s family in Iowa:
I am something called a “weekend guest”? I am something called “a friend from school”? What is she speaking? I am the “bonditt,” the “vantz,” I am the insurance man’s son. I am Warsaw’s ambassador! “How do you do, Alex?” To which of course I reply, “Thank you.” Whatever anybody says to me during my first twenty-four hours in Iowa, I answer, “Thank you.” Even to inanimate objects. I walk into a chair, promptly I say to it, “Excuse me, thank you.” I drop my napkin on the floor, lean down, flushing, to pick it up, “Thank you,” I hear myself saying to the napkin—or is the floor I’m addressing? Would my mother be proud of her little gentleman! Polite even to the furniture!
Then there’s an expression in English, “Good morning,” or so I have been told; the phrase has never been of any particular use to me. Why should it have been? At breakfast at home I am in fact known to the other boarders as “Mr. Sourballs” and “The Crab.” But suddenly, here in Iowa, in imitation of the local inhabitants, I am transformed into a veritable geyser of good mornings. That’s all anybody around that place knows how to say—they feel the sunshine on their faces, and it just sets off some sort of chemical reaction: Good morning! Good morning! Good morning! sung to half a dozen different tunes!….
Here, mundane phrases like “weekend guest” and “good morning” are scrutinized as if they’re a secret wartime code. They’re so foreign and alarming, in fact, that they cause Portnoy to talk to the furniture, to fumble with his napkin—to behave, in other words, like a stereotypical neurotic. Like Gilman’s narrator’s gaze on the wallpaper, Portnoy’s mind locks on the tiny happenings around him, inflating and elevating them, exaggerating them until their precision mixes with this grandiose treatment to make a stylized, neurotic humor, Roth’s potent gift. These hosts are not simply friendly, they are geysers of good mornings that Portnoy must imitate. They don’t just say Good Morning, they sing it in a half dozen different tunes. The mundane detail becomes revelatory, transcendent. You can just imagine what Portnoy will make of it when the dad says he “slept like a log.”
“Nothing was ever simply nothing but always SOMETHING,” Portnoy says of his mother’s outlook. “The most ordinary kind of occurrence could explode without warning into A TERRIBLE CRISIS.” Nothing, inside the neurotic’s mind, always becomes something, and something always explodes into a terrible crisis—this description of Portnoy’s mother’s worldview could also be an algebra for the neurotic in fiction.
Earlier, I said that a neurotic’s anxiety frequently gave way to a questioning tone. Roth uses questions liberally in this novel, ostensibly because he’s engaging with an invisible analyst. But it’s also a rhetorical device to engage a reader.
Oh, how can, how can she spend such glorious afternoons in that kitchen, polishing silver, chopping liver, threading new elastic in the waistband of my little jockey shorts—and feeding me all the while my cues from the mimeographed script, playing Queen Isabella to my Columbus, Betsy Ross to my Washington, Mrs. Pasteur to my Louis—how can she rise with me on the crest of my genius during those dusky beautiful hours after school, and then at night, because I will not eat some string beans and a baked potato, point a bread knife at my heart? And why doesn’t my father stop her?
We are being asked, directly, how this could happen. How could we turn away? Roth involves us in the story this way. And the sheer number of questions in the novel gives it both its searching quality and its restless, anxiety tone. It’s a good trick, but it’s also more than a trick. Roth brilliantly mimics—especially when recalling the mother’s questions (how he could have eaten what he’d eaten, whether or not he’s happy now)–a Jewish semantic tic in which the questions are really there to highlight the mystery of human suffering. They’re addressed to someone greater than the person hearing them. They’re rhetorical, we might say. But really, they’re not. They’re questions directed at God. Or, in Portnoy’s case, the analyst.
Esther Greenwood, the narrator of Plath’s 1963 classic, The Bell Jar, is a self-proclaimed neurotic. She’s curious and intelligent (she’s just won a fancy fellowship to work at Madamoiselle). She has a great deal of anxiety and sees the world in excruciating detail. Unlike her contemporary Roth, whose frenetic prose can induce a contact high, Plath’s feels jaded and knowing—as if her tone is a lid she hopes will cap a roiling upset. Instead of her anger with the world coming out in sexual conquests, in the manner of Alexander Portnoy, Esther directs her aggression inward; like most of the female neurotics I’m covering, she gets depressed. Where Portnoy is phallic, Esther is yonic. You can see this in the sentences themselves; Roth’s have exclamation points and a frequent staccato jab, while Plath’s are more languid and lyrical.
She’s frank about her depression. “I was supposed to be having the time of my life,” Esther says about her summer in New York. But “I just bumped from my hotel to work and to parties and from parties to my hotel and back to work like a numb trolleybus.”
But there’s nothing numb about Plath’s power of observation. When she goes out on the town with her chic friend Doreen and Doreen gets drunk with the cowboy Lenny, she watches the two of them with a cool remove, like an anthropologist in the midst of research. Here’s Plath’s Esther on that scene:
I noticed, in the routine way you notice the color of somebody’s eyes, that Doreen’s breasts had popped out of her dress and were swinging out slightly like full brown melons as she circled belly-down on Lenny’s shoulder, thrashing her legs in the air and screeching, and then they both started to laugh and slow up, and Lenny was trying to bite Doreen’s hip through her skirt….
It’s just an observation, I suppose, but look closely at it. Doreen’s breasts are popping out, she’s screeching, then laughing, but Esther, who is right there with them, is also not with them. She’s completely detached from them. She’s exercising that trait of the neurotic—the very observant, assessing gaze which can turn even the most frivolous evening into an ominous one.
In fact, it’s this unsparing gaze that will ultimately penetrate convention so deeply, so unsparingly, it will leave Esther with very little to hold on to. “I liked looking at other people in crucial situations,” Esther explains. “If there was a road accident or a street fight or a baby pickled in a laboratory jar for me to look at, I’d stop and look so hard I never forgot.”
This kind of strict and serious observance is part of the neurotic’s intelligence, and part of what makes these books so compelling. The hyper-observance allows for visceral sensory detail—those brown breast melons for example. This attention to well-placed, descriptive concrete images is also are one of the keys to good writing. They make the written world feel tangible and alive. In this way, the neurotic narrator has a leg up; she’s prone to seeing the world in a way that translates beautifully into fiction.
It would be easy to deride these writers for creating such solipsistic, at times even naval-gazing, characters. We’re a culture with a schizophrenic relationship to self-absorption. We allow for it and nurture it with our careerist individualism, with social media, but assume that it’s shameful, a product of our basest nature. In the literary world, it seems like someone is always giving an interview in which they nobly deride the “write what you know” maxim. But there’s nothing inherently wrong with writing what you know—so many great books were written with a hand deep in the well of personal experience. But there’s a cultural skepticism about it nonetheless. We seem to fear that if we write close to the bone, we will become solipsistic, too narrow. The default position, then—even if it’s frequently unspoken–is that it’s more intelligent, more interesting, more morally upstanding to write heavily researched novels that stray far from personal experience, rather than about the mundane things that affect so many of us: dating, parents, spouses, children, illness, dying. An argument could and should be made, however, that there’s just as much to learn by deeply engaging with the world right in front of you, by staring at it and noticing it, by seeing the vast possibility in the details. Just as much curiosity, intelligence and empathy is needed for this task. The issue, to me, seems not about writing what you know, but writing what obsesses you, writing the thing that teaches you, writing the thing you must write. Finding your yellow wallpaper. It’s hard to argue with the potency and raw power of Roth and Plath, writers who wrote using experiences very close to their own lives.
And there’s certainly nothing wrong with self-absorption or myopia in a narrator. No matter your thoughts on self-absorption in general, self-absorption or self-involvement or even selfishness in a narrator has nothing whatsoever to do with self-absorption in a writer. There is, in fact, great glory in a narrator who sees the entire emotional spectrum in the terrain of her own psyche, who does not need a huge drama in order to feel huge drama. Most of us can relate to this. Most of us do not need a hit man, a war, or a werewolf in order to find our own lives profoundly absorbing.
Here’s Portnoy on the vivid intrigue of the mundane:
Dreams? If only they had been! But I don’t need dreams, Doctor, that’s why I hardly have them—because I have this life instead. With me it all happens in broad daylight! The disproportionate and the melodramatic, this is my daily bread! The coincidences of dreams, the symbols, the terrifyingly laughable situations, the oddly ominous banalities, the accidents and humiliations, the bizarrely appropriate strokes of luck or misfortune that other people experience with their eyes shut, I get with mine open!
Or here’s Charlotte Perkins Gilman on the same subject, fifty years before:
I never saw so much expression in an inanimate thing before and we all know how much expression they have! I used to lie awake as a child and get more entertainment out of blank walls and plain furniture than most children could find in a toy store.
To the neurotic, the drama is literally in the details. There is infinite danger in the immediate surroundings—both physical and mental, and they’re sensitive and intelligent enough to transmit this urgency to the reader.
As I said earlier, the fictional neurotic is attuned to loss and tends to worry over it, even when there’s no way to prevent it. Even the smallest losses can bring enormous fretting. Here is Plath’s iconic description of neurosis as a fig tree of lost opportunity:
From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was EE Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out.
I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet. 77
It’s a striking passage—one that reveals not only Esther’s psychology, but a truth about life—and a truth that feels especially pertinent to young women thinking about motherhood and/or career. Esther will have to let some of those figs die, and she will never get them back on the tree. She becomes paralyzed by this. Ironically, it’s her paralysis that makes her reactive, that makes her look for a drastic release. Her lack of clarity and conviction in the face of these choices creates a story of its own, a story of despair, but a story that thousands of young women related to.
Alexander Portnoy, too, struggles with his own particularly masculine version of the fig tree. But when he worries about lost chances, lost choices, here is how he worries:
I simply will not enter into a contract to sleep with just one woman for the rest of my days. Imagine it: suppose I were to go ahead and marry A, with her sweet tits and so on, what will happen when B appears, whose are even sweeter—or, at any rate newer? Or C, who knows how to move her ass in some special way I have never experienced; or D, or E, or F. I’m trying to be honest with you, Doctor—because with sex, the human imagination runs to Z and then beyond! 104
Interestingly, his resistance to monogamy also makes him reactive. He finds The Monkey, a girlfriend of sorts, and when she’s game, adds a prostitute, then feels despairing and flees them both. This becomes a running theme—find women, sleep with women, flee women. The resistance and the reactivity it engenders drives the plot of Roth’s book. The neurotic’s indecision, his very stuckness, then, can be a motor of its own.
After staring at Portnoy’s Complaint and The Bell Jar for so long, it began to seem both exciting and insane to showcase Roth and Plath in the same talk. Roth’s protagonist gives us an entire novel full of libidinal excess. “I tear off my pants, furiously I grab that battered battering ram to freedom, my adolescent cock, even as my mother begins to call from the other side of the door…..” Portnoy may struggle with decisions, but he’s clear as a bell on his one pure fascination: his genitalia and their captivating power.
Plath published The Bell Jar just six years before Portnoy’s Complaint, but it’s so very different in its enthusiasm about sex. The bulk of the sexual revolution had not yet happened when Plath wrote her book, and it had when Roth wrote his. There’s a dampened, restrained, distinctly burdened attitude about sex in Plath’s work. “He just stood there in front of me and I kept on staring at him,” Esther says of Buddy, her would-be-boyfriend standing there in the fishnet underwear his mother gave to him. She looks at the same battering ram and says, “the only thing I could think of was turkey neck and turkey gizzards and I felt very depressed.”
But while Plath’s disillusionment with sex, her flatness and judgment shed light on the vastly different ways the genders experienced sexuality in the highly charged era of the 1960s, while she makes Portnoy look even more like a caricature of gonzo virility, I’m not casting judgment on Roth by comparing him to Plath. Nor am I elevating Plath. The characters simply articulate, with no shortage of beguiling honesty and color, the confusing primal losses that they feel, losses that seem unavoidable. Roth will lose the power of his battering ram if he cages it in monogamy. Plath can’t seem to get excited about it either, but for very different reasons. The neurotic narrator is keenly aware of such losses, and pretty graceless about accepting them. Here, in the patter of their anxieties, we see the beginning of what may be the most interesting thing about the neurotic narrator: her argument with what is supposed to be true, her desire for authenticity, her epic battle with conformity.
Both Roth and Plath give us passages that express their deep dissatisfaction with a social contract that forces them to lie to themselves—either to keep their libidos in check (Roth) or to feel desire for an appropriate object when none exists (Plath). Both Roth and Plath provide the honest appraisal that making a decision to conform means a loss of every other possibility, and therefore a cutting off of dream, of aspiration, of other people we might have been meant to become. For Roth, there’s no reason to marry.
Look, at least I don’t find myself still in my early thirties locked into a marriage with some nice person whose body has ceased to be of any genuine interest to me….I mean….the nightmarish depression some people suffer at bedtime. On the other hand, even I must admit that there is maybe, from a certain perspective something a little depressing about my situation, too. Of course you can’t have everything, or so I understand—but the question I am willing to face is: have I anything?
Esther, too, cannot find a way forward that allows her to embrace the fullness she feels meant to embrace, and the result is that while she fights conformity and compromise—resisting Buddy for his hypocrisy and describing her female contemporaries staring at the same movie in the dark as “a bunch of stupid moonbrains”– she finds herself with all those dead figs, the same nothing that Roth describes.
One of my very favorite neurotic narrators, Cassandra Edwards from Dorothy Baker’s exquisite 1962 novel, Cassandra at the Wedding, embodies many of the same traits as the narrators I’ve already described. She’s brilliant, raised by a bohemian professor father and a successful writer mother, she is perpetually finishing her thesis at UC Berkeley. She’s witty, brazen, irreverent, and pissed. Like the other neurotics, her gaze is unsparing and meticulous. She’s perceptive, especially when it comes to how the world affects her. In other words, she’s self-absorbed. She’s trapped, too. She wants to become a writer, to distinguish herself, but she feels dwarfed and paralyzed by her dead mother’s larger-than-life ghost.
“I’d really have preferred,” she says, “[that] all those others [write] their theses about me; but I have a peculiar problem in that my mother was a writer—author of two novels, and three plays, and quite a few screen plays, all quite well known, and it’s not easy for the child of a writer to become a writer. I don’t see why; it just isn’t. It’s something about not wanting to be compared. And not wanting to measure up, or not measure up; or cash in either.”
And, like Portnoy, like Esther, arguably like most of us, she’s fighting a battle with loss that she won’t win. Her twin sister Judith is about to get married, a terrible blow to Cassandra, who never imagined a life without Judith—or a life in which Judith did not bend to Cassandra’s every whim.
Cassandra describes herself as being in “very nervous health.” She drinks too much, barely eats and sleeps with too many irritating girls. Though she’s a very, very different narrator than Esther Greenwood, she is also a contemporary, at once restricted by gender norms and excited to rebel against them, and her aggression turns inward rather than outward, too. She, like Plath’s heroine, gets dangerously down.
Cassandra spends most of the novel driving everyone a little bit crazy with her quick quips designed both to point out and distract from her self-destruction. “You’re overwhelming,” her sister Judith says to her. “It’s some sort of crazy vitality and it goes out like rays. I’d forgotten what it’s like to be with you—kind of a circus.”
Though she’s self-absorbed, Cassandra, whose point of view we’re in for the first half of this novel, still listens to everything her sister says. Baker’s given Cassandra an excellent journalistic flair, an ability to put down even the bits of a story that don’t reflect well on her. It’s one of the many decisions Baker makes that gives this book its incredibly dynamism and power. We can simultaneously fall for Cassandra—there’s no way not to—and understand that she’s an epic pain-in-the-ass. At one point, Judith says to Cassandra, “you’ve always needed a lot more of everything than I do. Haven’t you?”
I love this sentence, the brilliant mix of love and judgment so quietly sitting inside it. Cassandra hears it and almost responds to it, but the moment passes. It’s a line that could be used to address any of these narrators, and it’s both their fatal flaw and their vibrant pulse. The neurotic narrator is needy, insatiable, yearning, seeking, unable to compromise, driven almost mad by the hypocrisy and unfairness of the world. In life, these qualities—neediness, restlessness–can be difficult to contend with. In fiction, though, they find their place. The restlessness, in prose, turns into a rare intensity—an often saturated and unfiltered extract of our human cravings and fears. The writer need not stoop to ridiculous plot devices as the tension and crises are all organic, they’re all nested within the narrator’s psyche, or maybe her soul.
Cassandra has held stubbornly to the belief that she and her sister are iconoclasts, above social mores, above social contracts. “Who else could have had our mother for a mother and our father for a father?” she asks.
Who else do you know who owns a Boesendorfer, or even knows what they are. We didn’t join Job’s Daughters or go steady with some clod, or live the Alpha Kappa Thetas, because we never talked that language or thought in those terms. How could we? We can start living where other imaginations fail.
But Judith has no interest in a war waged against conformity. Judith wants to belong to a tradition, to play music that someone else wrote, to marry a doctor and move for his job. She gravitates toward the easy path. This is what Cassie has to say about that:
Same thing everywhere I’d ever looked. Large amounts of safety; very few risks. Let nothing endanger the proper marriage, the fashionable career, the non-irritating thesis that says nothing new and nothing true. That’s how they do it. They go along. All but papa, who prefers the skeptics and the Five star Hennessy. And me who what. Who nothing. Who less than nothing. Who tried but didn’t.
Who tried but didn’t. It’s not an easy battle, this quest to be true to oneself rather than part of a tradition, to say something original rather than something well-received, to live an authentic life rather than an accepted one. But maybe, Cassandra suggests, the failure is better—or at least realer, than crouching in safety’s shadow.
Freud explained that neurosis arrives when the ego fights a battle with the id. In fiction, this battle appears to get literalized; it becomes the battle of the authentic self for survival—Roth’s battle against monogamy, Plath’s battle against hypocrisy, Cassie’s battle to stay original. The neurotic understands the spiritual, intellectual, and sexual death of safety and normalcy. Why must we play nice, they all seem to ask? Why do we have to settle, why do we have to marry, why do we have to have one career that we work at until we die? Why? Why? Who made up these rules? And what happens if we don’t choose?
Or we can listen to the same aerobic questioning in Cassandra’s voice:
I lay there in all the heat and wondered what it is that gets lovely, simple things so knotted and gnarled up. What makes mistletoe move in on a tree and take over, what made the wild cells move in on Jane Edwards; why do weeds flourish and flowers give up? Why does papa have to prefer drinking alone on a ranch to the entrenched inanities of the university world? Where is there to go? Or, barring that, where can you hide?
Gilman’s pre-feminist narrator loses her mind rather than lose the marriage, the house, the social standing. She slips right over the edge of neurosis to psychosis. Portnoy can’t conform to social norms regarding marriage and fidelity. Esther can’t choose a path in life. Cassandra can’t handle the losses that come with growing up, individuating. These are characters with thin skin, wounded by the world. They burn intensely bright. They can be exhausting, annoying—they may be, at times, deserving of impatience. But they are also heroes—asking the hard questions, articulating the impolite but pressing concerns of the spirit.
Most of the neurotics I decided to focus on (Esther, Alexander, and Cassie) are products of the sixties. That wasn’t intentional, but it might be worth noticing. Another favorite novel of mine, the hilarious and wronghearted 2012 Treasure Island!!! by Sara Levine, can’t go unnoticed in a talk about neurotic narrators. This first person narrator comes the closest to Roth’s—unapologetic, somewhat amoral, and seeking to become the “hero of her own life.” She’s pert, unsparing, and impolite. She’s not suicidal, a refreshing relief for a female neurotic. She’s homicidal, though, so don’t get too comfortable.
While I am crazy about this novel—the writing is so fresh and original the book’s heart literally beat in my hands–the take on mental anguish was more ironic, less sympathetic. When the narrator of Treasure Island!!! gets a little “intense,” listing the traits in the original Treasure Island that she wishes to live by (Boldness, Resolution, Independence, and Horn-blowing) her friend asks her if she’s still taking her Zoloft.
Like Cassie Edwards, this narrator likes precise language—hardness and specificity, though she’s less lofty in her articulation of that goal. When her boyfriend Lars says that he likes the way she looks in a crappy rayon sweater and pants with a baggy butt, the narrator says, it “was supposed to be a compliment but in its refusal to engage reality [it] was more accurately the verbal equivalent of a chuck on the chin.” She’s not interested in platitudes, in false comforts. She sees right through them to what is real—or at least what she perceives as real:
I knew very well what Lars meant when he praised me, and held me, and indicated through a caress that he liked me just the way I was; I knew better than he knew himself, that what he wanted to ensure he never be confronted with what in his own personality might need pruning or pushing or prodding, that behind every show of support he gave, for me here, for me now, there lurked a terrified refusal to acknowledge his own potential to grow. With each endearment, with each endorsement, he tried to make me slack. Did I buckle? Dear Reader, no. I saw his white-knuckled terror, his toes clenching the edge of a perceived abyss, even when he leaned over the garbage bag of clothes and planted a kiss on my head!!!
Her self-absorption has a more contemporary and ludicrous set of foci: a calfskin bag she doesn’t want damaged, a need for money to pay her rent, a desire to boss her boyfriend around, a wish to never have to really work, and a desire to live according to the principles of Treasure Island at all costs. When the narrator makes a toast, she toasts herself: “Here’s to me and my state of creative unrest!” When she speaks of shrinks, she doesn’t do it with the excitement of Roth or the reverence of Edwards. These shrinks she’s seen are given to us in a list that include Dee Bissell-Ivy who wore her hair in a bun and had dolls, and Peter Johnson who was still in training, spoke in a hushed voice and borrowed folding chairs. Finally she goes and sees an internist to get “calming pills.” When the doctor refuses to give them to her and offers to refer her to a psychiatrist, the narrator hotly declares: “I didn’t want a psychiatrist, I wanted a sample.”
It’s hard to call Roth earnest and do it with a straight face, but compared to Levine, Roth actually is a little earnest. Levine’s neurotic—terrific and hilariously drawn—is written with irony, not sympathy. It’s an interesting choice, and I wonder if it suggests a larger cultural shift.
When I look at the current book reviews, my shelves of contemporary fiction, I don’t see many neurotics so lovingly drawn. I wonder, perhaps, if we’ve become increasingly judgmental about neurosis, if our reflex is to medicate her symptoms, erase her angled edges rather than hear her out and see something incredibly human in her obsessions, compulsions, hyper-vigilance, and intelligence.
But while they can be tiresome, they can also be heroes, and I don’t think it’s wise to cast them aside. After all, it’s some version of truth that these neurotic narrators are after—a deeper goal than the tidy resolution of a plot or intellectual idea. These narrators seem to be holding up the mirror of their own experience so they can study the fault-lines. The fissures. The wallpaper. They can’t add all of this up and get anything other than a giant mess. And that’s the interesting thing about these books—and I might argue all my favorite books. In lieu of resolution, they offer a deeper complexity. The recognition we then get, when we read them, is not the recognition of the way things should be in some idealized, fictional world, but the way things do actually seem to be, in our very messy real one.
“Can’t you ever be serious?” Cassandra’s grandmother asks her. “If it had been a serious question I think I might have answered it,” Cassandra says.
Because all I want out of life is to find something worth being serious about. Ask me if I can ever be serious and the only answer is that it’s all I can be and all I ever am, have been, or will be. It’s my whole trouble, but it’s also my one certainty—to know how serious I can be about what I love. I’m so committed to true seriousness that I spend my time cleaning out rubbish.
And, she seems to suggest, there’s rubbish everywhere. Maybe it’s the writer’s job to clean it out. Maybe the neurotics show us one model for doing so. And maybe there’s no better aim for art.
Robin Romm is the author of three books, a chapbook, and numerous articles and book reviews. Most recently, she edited Double Bind: Women on Ambition (Liveright 2017) which collects personal essays from thinkers like Roxane Gay, Sarah Ruhl, Elisa Albert, Theresa Rebeck, Molly Ringwald, and Julie Holland, in order to understand the complicated issue of female striving. Her story collection, The Mother Garden, was a finalist for the PEN USA prize. Her memoir, The Mercy Papers, was named a best book of the year by The New York Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, and Entertainment Weekly. She lives in Portland, Oregon with her partner, Don Waters, and teaches in the low-residency MFA program in writing at Warren Wilson. www.robinromm.com
by Danusha Laméris
“When we pay attention to nature’s music,
we find that everything on the Earth
contributes to its harmony.”
– Hazrat Inayat Khan
All morning they’ve been screeching
back and forth between the oak tree
and the roof, bickering over bits of cat food
pinched from the metal bowl by the door.
When song was handed out,
the lark and nightingale got there first.
Who can blame the jays
for raiding the robin’s nest
its pale and delicate eggs,
for tearing the dark red plums
straight from each other’s beaks.
Who can blame the ear
in its ignorance
for wanting music and failing
to hear it?
In those days, there was a woman in our circle
who was known, not only for her beauty,
but for taking off all her clothes and singing opera.
And sure enough, as the night wore on and the stars
emerged to stare at their reflections on the sea,
and everyone had drunk a little wine,
she began to disrobe, loose her great bosom,
and the tender belly, pale in the moonlight,
the Viking hips, and to let her torn raiment
fall to the sand as we looked up from the flames.
And then a voice lifted into the dark, high and clear
as a flock of blackbirds. And everything was very still,
the way the congregation quiets when the priest
prays over the incense, and the smoke wafts
up into the rafters. I wanted to be that free
inside the body, the doors of pleasure
opening, one after the next, an arpeggio
climbing the ladder of sky. And all the while
she was singing and wading into the water
until it rose up to her waist and then lapped
at the underside of her breasts, and the aria
drifted over us, her soprano spare and sharp
in the night air. And even though I was young,
somehow, in that moment, I heard it,
the song inside the song, and I knew then
that this was not the hymn of promise
but the body’s bright wailing against its limits.
A bird caught in a cathedral—the way it tries
to escape by throwing itself, again and again,
against the stained glass.
Dressing for the Burial
No one wants to talk about the hilarity after death—
the way the week my brother shot himself,
his wife and I fell on the bed laughing
because she couldn’t decide what to wear for the big day,
and asked me, “Do I go for sexy or Amish?” I told her sexy.
And we rolled around on the mattress they’d shared
for eighteen years, clutching our sides.
Meanwhile, he lay in a narrow refrigerated drawer,
soft brown curls springing from his scalp,
framing his handsome face. This was back when
he still had a face, and we were going to get to see it.
“Hold up the black skirt again,” I said. She said, “Which one?”
And then she said, “You look so Mafia Chic,” and I said, “Thank you,”
and it went on until we both got tired and our ribs hurt and now
I don’t even remember what we wore. Only that we both looked fabulous
weeping over that open hole in the ground.
Danusha Laméris’ first book, The Moons of August (Autumn House, 2014), was chosen by Naomi Shihab Nye as the winner of the Autumn House Press poetry prize. Some of her poems have been published in The Best American Poetry, The New York Times, The American Poetry Review, The Gettysburg Review, Ploughshares, and Tin House. She’s also the author of Bonfire Opera, (University of Pittsburgh Press, Pitt Poetry Series, 2020), and the recipient of this year’s Lucille Clifton Legacy Award. Danusha teaches poetry independently, and is the current Poet Laureate of Santa Cruz County, California.
A View From the Ridge
by Edward Fowler
Having spent the day at my desk grading fall-term exams, my body is stiff and my brain is dull. I break for a walk, something that, once out the door, I never regret doing. I’d like to say it was a daily event. The bathroom scale tells me otherwise.
Campus housing for faculty and staff at UC Irvine is a paradise for walkers. My route varies with the season and with my mood. Sometimes I negotiate the maze of hedge-lined footpaths linking the streets. More often I make my way through the community garden into the ecological preserve.
The preserve’s most prominent feature is an undulating, half-mile-long ridge that culminates in a scrub-covered promontory overlooking seemingly all of Southern California. On a clear day like today, which has turned cool and blustery, the promontory affords sweeping vistas of the coastal hills and the entire Los Angeles Basin. To the north, a good fifty miles from where I stand, the San Gabriel Mountains pierce the heavens, a crisp wall of white in early winter. The Bactrian humps of Saddleback, its twin peaks the highest points in Orange County, dominate the eastern horizon. To the southwest, Catalina Island floats serenely on the Pacific twenty miles offshore. The port city of Long Beach, sandwiched between a comma-shaped shoreline and the oil-rich mound of Signal Hill, lies due west; beyond it the much larger mound of Palos Verdes, a lush, Sphinx-like pyramid, juts seaward. The skyscrapers of downtown Los Angeles, tiny yet distinct, rise up forty miles to the northwest; the Malibu Hills provide a movie-set backdrop twenty-five miles beyond. In the foreground, a couple of miles from my perch, commuter jets catapult from the local airport’s short runway into a cobalt sky.
I amble up the ridge, eyes peeled for the wary coyote traversing the slope; the jackrabbit that has leapt out of a folk tale; the roadrunner, spiked crown high on its head, that appears to have flown out of a paleontology textbook. Meanwhile, my ears pick up the rasp of a cactus wren in the underbrush, the lusty trill of a meadowlark in the open field, the high-pitched squeal of a red-tailed hawk overhead. I rarely see another hiker. It is just as well, for I appreciate what is not here: buildings, noise, other human beings. This is a place to be alone.
It was on such a walk through the preserve years ago that I first noticed something not quite right with my wife Hiroko. A natural athlete and a regular in her forties at the local fitness club, she could keep pace with those half her age despite her smoking habit. I rarely accompanied her to the gym but happily joined her on walks. Hiroko usually led the way, a lively spring in her step. On that late-autumn day, however, a few months before being diagnosed with liver cancer, she lacked her usual bounce. She was getting old, I joked, prodding her from behind and reminding her of the times she’d pushed me up the hill when I was weak from acute ulcerative colitis and later from surgery to remove my colon. I recalled the much shorter walks we’d taken before I could venture as far as the preserve, and the improbable patience she demonstrated when guiding me step by feeble step. In response to my prodding, Hiroko scoffed at my joke. But she moved no faster.
I thought no more of it at the time, yet the memory haunts me. Had I taken her fatigue seriously and sent her to the doctor, might we not have discovered a problem early on? One that could be fixed? Would greater vigilance have allowed us to treat her liver, that notoriously silent organ, before it began shutting down?
Probably not. She’d had a physical around that time and nothing had seemed amiss. But then, the doctors hadn’t been looking for problems. Irregularities in the liver are detected with more specialized tests, and none were indicated. When she finally underwent them, a chorus of specialists would chant in mind-numbing unison to a patient who had only months before been declared healthy: “Nothing can be done!”
Regardless of my route going out, I invariably stop on my return at a shrub-covered island on the street above mine, just where it widens in order to accommodate a clump of houses. There, beneath the dense cover of Indian hawthorn, I place a spray of Lantana, a cluster of Bougainvillea, some bush daisies, or whatever else I might have plucked from hedges along the way. This is the spot where Hiroko, overcome by nausea on Thanksgiving Day, just weeks before her death, refused to turn back after embarking on a stroll.
Hiroko’s father and mother had flown in from Japan and were helping me care for their sick daughter, who still enjoyed the occasional outing but relied on a wheelchair. Light and compact, it enabled her to visit friends, shops, and the beach as well as the hospital. Its maneuverability made it a hit with family members, who took turns pushing its cargo. Hiroko, on the go her entire life, was usually eager for a ride. The only drawback was the nausea brought on at times by even the slightest movement.
That morning after breakfast, the four of us set out. Hiroko’s father piloted the wheelchair. Hiroko donned her standard wardrobe for such outings. Her pajamas and robe, covered by a raincoat, kept her warm and concealed her appliances. A wide-brimmed hat shrouded her gaunt features and thinning hair.
We’d gotten no farther than the island when Hiroko signaled her father. In an instant the wheelchair came to a halt. In another instant Hiroko’s breakfast dribbled onto her lap, the wheelchair, and the pavement. I stroked her back as she fought to catch her breath.
Despite the mishap, she would not retreat. I raced home and returned with bottled water, tissues, and plastic bags. We swept the vomit onto the soil beneath the hawthorn. We patted Hiroko’s face, wiped down her wheelchair and robe, and washed residue from the curb with the remaining water, saving just enough to rinse our hands. The cleanup complete, we pressed on to our destination: the grassy knoll that overlooked a housing phase just going in.
It is here that I pause on the return leg of my walks, mindful not to attract the attention of passing cars or passersby, and place flowers beneath a gap in the foliage. When accompanied by the occasional visitor, I merely nod in its direction. When with someone I know well, I might, after a brief word, make a quick bow. Regardless, this hallowed ground—subjected to the disease’s unrelenting fury, but witness as well to one mortal’s uncommon resolve—is never passed by without acknowledgment. For me it is the object of more veneration than anything connected with Hiroko’s last year save the urn on the family room shelf.
When Hiroko could still walk unaided, our favorite destination was the community garden, not two minutes away from the house on foot, and the ridge beyond it in the preserve. Situated on a narrow rectangle eighty yards long from front to back, the garden is home to a wealth of plants from near and far: sweet alyssum, lavender, and rock rose from the Old World; native California species including laurel and lemonade berry; agave and Matilija poppies from south of the border; plumbago, protea, and kangaroo paws from south of the equator. The grounds are graced by artemisia and other plants redolent of sage; and graced as well by flowering and evergreen trees: acacia, coral tree, and, no surprise, California live oak.
The Valencia orange, once synonymous with the California citrus industry, is also represented. The Irvine Company, which owns vast tracts of land in Orange County, bought interest in the fruit and once grew it on half its land. As more people migrated to the area, the fields, orchards, and pastures were ploughed under; in their place sprang up housing developments, shopping malls, office parks, and the university at which I now work.
Trellises entwined with roses and morning glory guard the entrance fronting the street. A gnarled Wisteria protects a sturdy, pew-like bench that awaits the visitor at the garden’s midpoint. Left to grow in rank profusion until more orderly minds assumed management in recent years, the grounds, even more than now, were a riot of color, especially in June.
“Damn, damn, damn this nausea!”
One afternoon in early summer Hiroko let out a holler that shook the house. She wanted to scream, she said, but not here, not from her bed. She’d hike to the preserve and shout from the granite outcrop, where she’d shouted many times before. She rose from her bed but quickly sank back on the mattress, retching. Then she was up again.
I drove her to the garden and we proceeded on foot. Deep-purple Limonium and Salvia complemented the Leonotis and Santolina’s oranges and golds. The two-minute saunter from the trellis to the outcrop became a quarter-hour trek. The toyon and elderberry had lost their bloom, and the brilliant yellow fiddlenecks that lined the trail in spring had faded long ago. Resting her bony buttocks on a knee-high boulder, she yelled with all her might.
“I hate this. I HATE IT!” The tears flowed freely down her face. “Dear God, grant me a miracle. Please make me well again!”
I gently massaged her neck. Far more aware than she of the dismal course her disease would likely take, I prayed in silence for a different sort of miracle.
“Ted, I didn’t mean to drag you down like this.”
Earthmoving equipment was parked on the open space far below, construction work on the university-owned corporate research park having stopped for the day. Two or three vultures circled lazily above us in search of carrion in the vast expanse of cacti and scrub that would one day be replaced with offices buildings.
“When will I stop being a burden?”
I wiped her nose with my hand. The late-afternoon sun revealed every crease on her face.
“You’re not a burden. Bother me all you want.”
We sat side by side for ten minutes, facing the sun, before retracing our steps.
“Ahhhhh!” Hiroko let out a parting shriek.
“We’ll be back,” I yelled, wondering if there would be a next time.
Returning home, somehow under her own power, Hiroko fell into a deep sleep.
“I’ve felt normal for just a few minutes out of the whole day,” she said upon awakening.
Our walk was now a distant memory. Hoping to raise her spirits, I recalled our dinner date a quarter century before at a London hotel overlooking Hyde Park—a date we enjoyed despite the bleak news, only days earlier, of the Munich Olympic Village massacre. That was when I presented her with an engagement ring, in a covered dish I had our waiter serve as if it were another course. She anxiously told the waiter that there must be some mistake, and accepted it only after much persuasion, more from the waiter than from me.
The community garden constantly beckoned. I implored Hiroko to join me when she could. One midsummer evening after dinner we padded down the street. I led her through the garden and up the far slope. The sun was low on the horizon.
“What a lovely view!” Hiroko exclaimed. The damp air smelled of sage and clay. We beheld the city below. Palos Verdes and Catalina loomed in the distance. A commuter jet had just taken off, and another was about to land—its approach, from our viewpoint, through a thicket of office buildings.
“Let’s worship the sun.” She clasped her hands in supplication and whispered a prayer.
“Make my wife well . . . completely well!” I did not whisper mine.
“I’m so happy, Ted. Now let’s watch the sun set.”
I held Hiroko as tightly as her slender frame and fragile appliances would allow. The jet plane, taxiing ever slower, flickered in the gaps between buildings.
The next thing I knew, an amber ribbon arced from her lips to the ground at her feet.
“Ugh, I must’ve had too much to eat.”
She wiped her mouth with the tissues always in her pocket.
“That must be it,” I agreed.
She tossed a wad of tissue onto the dirt. We retraced our steps home without waiting for the sun to kiss the horizon.
Later, after helping her into bed, I slipped out of the house, hurried to the garden, and scrambled up the far slope. Something compelled me to retrieve the tissue and otherwise undo everything that had earlier gone awry. The sun had long since set. I kicked dirt onto the vomit-soaked soil and stomped on it. Whereupon I repeated my incantation, this time in a whisper: “Make my wife well!” Then I set about waiting for the next airplane. I wanted to see one more jet take off.
None ever did. It was past the hour that commercial planes were permitted to disturb the night. No more takeoffs? The prospect seemed ominous. I continued to wait. At long last a tiny Cessna angled skyward with an insistent drone. Satisfied, I descended the slope and made my way home in the dark.
Edward (Ted) Fowler, a 2019 alumnus of the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley, is the author of several books on Japan. He taught for three decades at Duke University and UC Irvine, and now spends his time traveling, repairing home and body, and writing stories. He has completed a memoir about his first wife, a Japanese national, from which “A View from the Ridge” is excerpted.
Death in California
by Ryan Ridge
Death waits at a desolate departure gate at the end of the Tom Bradley International Terminal at LAX. The Singapore Airlines flight to Kuala Lumpur he’s set to sink into the Pacific later tonight is delayed, and he’s frustrated because Death waits for no one, at least in theory. But here, in practice, he remains at the most depressing airport in the world, perusing a copy of TIME magazine he lifted from a nearby kiosk. Death loves TIME, always has. He’s graced the cover dozens of times over the decades in various guises and disguises. Now he’s transfixed by an article about the Anthropocene entitled “Bad News for Earth!” According to the writer, our planet, once heralded as the essential life-support system of the known universe, is now in need of its own life-support system. Translation: seventy-five percent of the earth’s species are primed for extinction.
Death taps the equation into his iPhone calculator, and the math is not on his side. To scale to this magnitude, he’ll need to hire and train an additional seventy-six million staff reapers by 2076. He is filled with fatigue and vague dread. Perspiration beads on his brow. He glances at the updated data on the departure monitor, and the damn flight is further delayed, and that is enough. Death needs a vacation. When was the last time he took any time for himself? Answer: never. He calls Jobs in hell, and it goes straight to voicemail. “Steve, it’s me, buddy,” he says after the beep. “I’m going to take a little time off and thought you’d be a great interim. Pay’s nice. Robust 401(k). Benefits, too. Holler.” He hangs up. Seconds later, Steve Jobs texts back about the job. Jobs sends a one-word reply: “OK.” Death sets his work email to out-of-office and exits the airport. It’s early evening outside the terminal. Terminal. Death likes that word. He lets the final l linger in his mind as he lifts a finger and hails a cab. He prefers cabs to Uber because it’s the future now, and cabs are dead.
Riding in a taxi through Marina del Rey at sunset, Death half listens to the cabbie ranting about the end of the American dream. Death nods and stares out the window: the neon pink sunset sends soft light through the palm fronds, illuminating the handsome couples strolling on the sidewalk outside the hipster shops. An inviting aroma from a nearby taqueria wafts into the car through the crack in the cab driver’s window. The totality of beauty is absolute, and it absolutely makes Death feel uncomfortable. He sits with this sinking feeling and brings awareness to it. Let’s explore this, he thinks. Why do I feel anxious right now? The cab turns off the PCH and onto to Admiralty Way by the marina, but Death doesn’t notice because he’s too busy meditating. He closes his eyes, envisions a lightbulb exploding, and gets an idea. The idea is this: I’m deathly afraid of the beauty of life. Death unbuckles his seatbelt. “Here,” he says to the driver. The cabbie maneuvers into the Ritz-Carlton parking lot and stops. “That’ll be $27.27,” the driver says. Death says nothing and hands him his Amex Black Card. “I can’t take this,” the driver says. “My machine is down. You have any cash?” Death says, “Negative.” A lie. He, in fact, has a fat stack of hundreds folded in his robe pocket, but he doesn’t budge. “I can’t accept cards,” the driver says again, returning Death’s black Amex. “Well,” says Death, “then I guess that means I’ll have to take you.” At this, the driver turns his head, and Death sees his own reflection in the driver’s mirrored sunglasses. And so Death takes him. He takes him into the mystery.
Death Dines Alone
He orders takeout from his favorite Thai place and settles into the faux-leather sectional in front of the Apple flatscreen with his green tofu curry and avocado spring rolls with peanut sauce on the side. By now, Death is a California resident. He’s got a little bungalow in Echo Park. Tonight, he’s watching for the first time Ingmar Bergman’s classic, historical fantasy, The Seventh Seal, in which a medieval knight encounters Death by chance on a cinematic beach in Denmark. The knight, who’s been erstwhile playing chess alone, challenges Death to a match. Death accepts. The knight takes the white pieces, and Death gets the black ones. Death pauses the film midscene to balk at Bergman’s representation of him as a pale, cloaked figure. Sure, I rock a black cloak, he thinks, but underneath it, I have a shredded bod and a much better tan. Death unlocks his iPhone and downloads a free chess app on iTunes. He plays the computer and loses. Plays again. Loses. He savors the feeling. He loves loss. He plays again. This time he kills the computer. Bummer.
A More Comprehensive List of Casualties
God is dead.
The self is dead.
The selfie is dead.
Surf is dead.
Turf is dead.
Love is dead.
Latin is dead.
Liberalism is dead.
Neoliberalism is dead.
Conservatism is dead.
Advertising is dead.
Marketing is dead.
The press release is dead.
The dollar is dead.
Bitcoin is dead.
Net neutrality is dead.
The blog is dead.
The vlog is dead.
Web design is dead.
Silicon Valley is dead.
The gig economy is dead.
The sharing economy is dead.
The shopping mall is dead.
The supermarket is dead.
The video arcade is dead.
The video store is dead.
The DVD is dead.
The CD is dead.
The guitar is dead.
Punk is dead.
Disco is dead.
Death metal is dead.
Pop is dead.
Rock is dead.
Gender is dead.
Irony is dead.
Modernism is dead.
Postmodernism is dead.
Minimalism is dead.
Maximalism is dead.
Print is dead.
Stationery is dead.
Poetry is dead.
The novel is dead.
The author is dead.
The auteur is dead.
The audience is dead.
And on and on until the end when everything is dead, including the sun.
Death is dead, too, of course, but checking himself out in the IKEA mirror just now with his shirt off and his pecs flexed, he thinks: Damn, man, I look alive! Don’t I?
By the end of the fiscal year, Steve Jobs calls and says, “Your job sucks. I quit.”
Death says, “Joblessness is the best job, Jobs. This is the future. Everyone is history, bud. Mostly thanks to you and your damn innovations.”
Jobs begins bawling. “Thank you for the kind words,” he says, and hangs up.
Death considers getting back to work. He’s confident he can build out the business, scale up in order to take folks down. Ultimately, killing is his calling, he knows it, but first, he’ll black out another week on a California bender.
Death orders another Bloody Mary at the Gold Room on Sunset. It’s a quarter till one on a Sunday afternoon in sunny Los Angeles. The place is empty except for a C-list actor in Ray-Bans indoors who says he’s leaving town after this drink because he’s had enough of California for one lifetime. Death asks the actor where he’s going.
“Home,” the actor says.
“Where’s that?” asks Death. “Kentucky.”
“The dark and bloody ground,” Death says. “Sure, I’ve been there a bunch. I practically live there most Februarys.”
The actor nods. He finishes his beer and knocks back a shot. Then he stands up and tosses a tip on the counter. “See you,” he says.
“Not if I see you first,” says Death.
No Captain, No Ship, No Sea
That night, Death dreams of a ship in a bottle. The ship in the bottle is floating between yachts at Marina del Rey. A storm. Lightning. Thunder. Huge waves crash into the bottle until the glass cracks and it’s just a tiny ship in the stormy Pacific. There is no captain. Then there is no ship. Death watches the small ship float for a miraculous moment before it’s swallowed by a wave. Then there is no wave. Just sea. And darkness. Endless darkness. Cue thunder, an iPhone alarm. He is risen.
Death Goes Fishing II
He rents a pole at the Santa Monica Pier, but he doesn’t catch anything all day. He speeds back to his bungalow in the Mini at dusk. “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” by Blue Öyster Cult jangles through the speakers. Death catches his reflection in the rearview. He is many things, but he is not afraid.
Me? I am very afraid.
Ryan Ridge is the author of five books, including the forthcoming story collection New Bad News (Sarabande Books, 2020). An assistant professor at Weber State University in Ogden, Utah, he codirects the Creative Writing Program. He edits the literary magazine Juked and lives in Salt Lake City with the writer Ashley Farmer.