The Story of X as Told by the Novelist
At the end of it all, or toward the beginning, I met a novelist in a dark bar on Kote Khimshiashvili Street. You would know him, I expect, as the most prolific writer of detective novels this century. But here he was, a pale shadow of a man, the veins forming dried-out deltas beneath his eyes. I heard him muttering to himself in German, under a dim light at the back corner of the room, and I thought, good, someone I could talk to. But when I went over I discovered he really spoke English, like the rest of us. I didn’t want his autograph or anything, just his story. In starts and fits and many reversed resignations, all punctuated by a half dozen glasses of chacha, he explained to me how he was hounded by phantoms from America to Buenos Aires, Buenos Aires to Dar es Salaam, Dar es Salaam to Bodrum, and Bodrum, finally, to Tbilisi.
…..I’m driving myself to the end of the world, he said.
…..I considered telling him that the world is an oblate spheroid, before saying: Why?
…..Because I have nothing.
…..To a stranger with one of your paperbacks in his bag, you seem to have everything.
…..His eyes lit up. Which one?
…..Oh, he said, his gaze falling to his hands. An old one.
…..So you see I have nothing. I lost it all ten years ago, when…
…..I don’t really know. I just couldn’t anymore.
…..Couldn’t write? Didn’t you put something out last year?
…..Did you read it?
…..No… not yet.
…..So what do you know?
…..What are we talking about? A couple of bad reviews? It happens to everyone.
…..They say I’ve lost the plot, he interrupted.
…..I thought about this. I looked at the scraggly creature across the table from me, his fingernails yellowing, the clear chacha slicking his lips and pooling a bit at the corners of his mouth. As in, they think you’ve gone crazy, I said.
…..He furrowed his brow. Crazy! Do I look crazy to you?
…..No, they say I’ve literally lost the plot. That my novels have no plot.
…..But, in Urani–
…..Yes, yes, in Uranium-238, sure, but that was twenty-five years ago. Or thirty, I can’t remember. But more recently…
…..Maybe they just don’t understand you anymore?
…..Precisely the opposite. The very problem is that they’re right.
…..That you’ve lost the plot? Yes, but…– anguish quickly took hold of his face – am I truly alone? Am I really the only one? He seemed on the verge of tears. He took the coaster from beneath his glass and began fiddling with it, folding and crumbling it between his fingers.
…..I don’t know, I said. I really didn’t know. What do you say to someone? He certainly seemed alone. Have you tried… talking to someone?
…..The thing is, there are no plots anymore. There’s nothing, just a great nothingness and a whole lot of aimless movement. So, you’re depressed. (I stuck my knife in my mouth like a pen.)
…..He was locked into some middle space now, not really listening to me, eyes wide and trying to confront his phantom, relay its form to me. He held out his hands, as if caressing an invisible baby elephant. I feel like I’m being held somewhere, in front of a laptop, maybe, the same shows running over and over again, the same forms, like I’m meeting the same people over and over again, with the same problems… Don’t you?
…..I don’t think we’ve met before.
…..All the conspiracies… they’ve proven plausible, and true some of them. All the detectives shown to be themselves the very criminals they’ve been after, or the villains shown to be nothing at all, the empty structure of global… something.
…..So you’re having writer’s block. It’s no big deal, I hear there are ways around it. This new brand, for example, has a Therapy Journal that – ,
…..It’s not that, he said, waving his hands at me, It’s… there is only one plot that remains, that of life against death, a simple arc that always ends in the same place but whose duration we are told to find compelling nonetheless, and we do, or most of us, for now. And life… life is slowly…
…..Losing… yes, losing. And plots…
…..Can no longer be written?
…..No, certainly not. Only…
…..No one is willing to be duped anymore?
…..Everyone is willing to be duped always, but no one…
…..He asked me for the time. I showed him my watch. Four in the morning, I said. Or four in the afternoon, he offered.
…..At any rate, too late.
The next time I saw the novelist it was because I had sought him out. Sitting at a small table in the corner of the dark lobby of a small Prague hotel, which no longer exists, he was asleep. His clothes were filthy, the skin of his hands caked in something you’d need steel wool to scrub off. A glass of brown liquor, balanced perfectly on his round stomach, rose and fell with each heavy breath. A week earlier, while attempting to scrape the marrow out of a roasted leg of lamb in the restaurant belonging to the Bratislava hostel where I had been staying, I had heard one traveller from Germany tell his companion that the great author of Uranium-238 would be reading from his latest work, a novella comprising dozens of narrative fragments united by a feeble and abiding conceit, at an ancient bookstore in Prague’s Fidlovačka district. Delayed as I was by my train, I arrived just as he read the final word he would publicly utter that evening: because. I could have joined the thin crowd of middle-aged audience members who approached him after the event to ask for a signature or pose to him a banal question that they were too afraid to ask earlier, when it was time for such things, but it seemed rather fraudulent to pretend I had been there the whole time, or rather rude to presume he owed me time if I hadn’t been there at all, except for his because. Because what? I could have asked. Better to tail him as he floated down the medieval streets, dropped into a tavern or two, stumbled toward his hotel on the outskirts of the Old Town, stopping occasionally under an old gas lamp to relieve himself or to catch his breath while staring skyward, wondering why. After he disappeared up the narrow carpeted steps, I asked the concierge, a horrendously ugly boy of about seventeen, whether there might be a spare room for me. He said yes, and then, looking for the key and then looking me up and down, changed his mind and said no. I returned the following morning and waited for the novelist in the lobby, to no avail. I went to stare at the Astronomical Clock for a few hours, and I returned once more in the afternoon and found him exactly as I said. He opened his eyes only when my human form stood between the sunlight and himself. We agreed to meet for dinner at an old worker’s cafeteria across the river, where the food was fatty and cheap and the beer was served by the litre. When we made this plan, it wasn’t clear to me that he remembered who I was, though he professed to recall every detail I brought up like an old heirloom to aid in his memory. You were telling me of your troubles… Ah yes, my troubles… while seated at the back of the bar… Oh, naturally, the bar, what a bar! With some nourishment, he came alive to a degree, repeating much of what he had told me all those years prior. I asked him about the novella, at the mention of which he swatted the air with his hand. It was a nothing book, a mosaic of failures with no driving idea behind it. When I offered that he had perhaps spent a bit too much time in solitude, that a conversation with an old acquaintance might lead him to a new idea, he rebuffed me. I was not understanding the nature of the problem. I have nothing but ideas, a garden of a million seedlings. But not a single plant! Not a single tree! He handed me his battered reading copy of the novella. I told him it had a good title. He told me he stole it from somewhere. The book, he said, was a bucket of remaindered items. One hundred beginnings, some of them excellent beginnings, and not a single story. I am tormented by beginnings, by the endings I cannot see. Surely they fit together in some unnoticed way; they have in common their origin in his mind, at least.…..
…..I understood his point: things could not cohere without an abiding and common substrate. But he kept insisting that I didn’t understand, that it was a problem of stakes, a problem that went beyond fiction. I asked him what he could possibly mean by that, but he fell silent and sat back against the booth, beer in hand, eyes gazing into the air without focus. At length, he asked me if I had heard the story of X, the Swiss reporter who had gone insane in the small town of Augenstadt. I told him I hadn’t, which was an invitation for him to go on. He leaned forward, some life in him now, and said…
X, we’ll call him X, a run-of-the-mill journalist, is summoned rather mysteriously to a quiet little Alpine town he has never heard of before. As X arrives in the town of Augenstadt, it seems to him – likely due to the unreal radiance of the glaciers, nestled like ivory bugles in the jagged peaks that ringed the valley, or perhaps only to the odd behavior of the porter who, as X steps down from the train carriage wiping his brow, greets him with a strange smile and black eyes behind which all manner of secrets appear to be hiding – that he is in a fiction.
…..It is June, and the platform reflects the sun into the eyes of the disembarking passengers. He pats the breast pocket of his jacket for his notepad as he follows the porter’s hand, clutching X’s bags, down the gleaming concourse. It is a quaint, alpine station, separating the reality of the town and that of the railroads like a thin, translucent film. They pass into the cool station. In the dim light of the waiting area, a large group of dark men can be seen, mostly heard, muttering and squeaking their shoes against the buffed floor. The loudspeaker chimes a tritone and announces, in the local German dialect, something that seems to prompt unease among them. X turns his head and faces the light pouring through the station entrance in a neat shaft, then keeps walking. Out front and all along the Main Street that runs from the railroad into the town and, for all X can tell, all the way out to the mountains, it’s cheery, red-cheeked, Europeans as far as the eye can see. At the taxi stand, X sticks a cigarette between his teeth and the porter, who has not left his side and has not yet relinquished his hold on X’s belongings, produces a lighter.
…..X: Thank you. (Pause.) Who are all those people?
…..Porter: Friends, family. Waiting to greet arrivals.
…..X: No… not them. The others. The ones in the waiting area by the concourse. …..
…..Porter: Inside? They are workers.
…..X: Workers. Leaving?
…..Porter: Leaving. They have been two years rebuilding the church in town.
…..X: That’s quite a while. What happened to the church?
…..Porter: (Shrugs.) Ah, you know, Dis– what is the word? Decay…
…..Porter: (Smiles.) It is very fresh.
…..X: I can take my things from here. (Produces a tip.)
…..Porter: I will take these to your hotel.
…..X: What? Don’t you have a train to be on?
…..Porter: (Smiles, swats the air.) Later, maybe. Come on, let us go.
…..X: I was hoping to take a taxi, actually.
…..Porter: No taxis today.
…..X: Why not?
…..Porter: He is in jail.
…..Porter: The taxi driver.
…..X: There’s only one?
…..Porter. No. The other one is in the hospital.
….Porter: One hit the other with his car. (Smacks fist against palm.) So – one in hospital, the other in jail.
…..X thinks carefully about the joke about the two taxi drivers he will tell, when he eventually returns home. So it is a very small town, and though he did not sleep more than an hour on his overnight journey and was planning on sinking into the mattress of his hotel bed for several more, he feels now that, journalist as he is, it would be best to see what he can by daylight and rest in the evening. He tells the porter that he would like to walk around on his own, and tips him once more in exchange for the promise that his bags will be waiting for him, untampered with, at the hotel later on. X watches the porter set off in one direction and, wanting to preserve the cleanest cut possible to their encounter, decides to leave in the opposite one. But when he turns around to reassure himself that the porter is indeed heading toward where, according to the pocket-sized map X picked up in the station on his way out, the hotel ought to be, the strangest thing happens: the porter turns around, too. The pair lock eyes, and now everything is thrown into disarray. X feels himself further dissociate from reality, the world pulling clean away in a ripple, his body wrenched like a cantilever from the knitting of this palpable world, opening acutely onto another, as if all this time he has been staring not translucently ahead but into his own waterborne reflection. His first steps into town hardly register with him, melting instead into a mute dissipation along that other plane from which the soles of his shoes are the only things keeping him from slipping…
…..He passes along the swept cobblestone streets and, despite the blazing sun, finds himself pulling his jacket together over his chest. From every street in town, it seems, one can see the mountains. In the distance, the glaciers cough up great commas of snow and ice into the blue sky, for the wind, which comes up from the valley beyond, wastes no time hurtling over the ridge line, hewing tightly to the slate and barrelling along the black couloirs and into the slender avenues of the town. Here, further from the station, the wind is all he hears. The town is otherwise quiet. The cafés, advertising half portions of fondue and hearty bowls of Pressknödl, are white and empty beneath their awnings, though here and there a stray smoker lets his ashes coat the brass-ringed tables and watches as the plump hand of an otherwise unoccupied owner brushes it all aside with a damp cloth.
…..X reaches the centre of town in twenty minutes. A broad, manicured park speckled with benches and squat lindens and retirees with newspapers pinched under their armpits separates the town’s most important institutions in rectilinear opposition: the town hall (with court of justice), the post office, the police station, and the church. The latter is tall and cream-colored and glitters in the noon light, its steeple decked in slate. Very fresh. At the foot of the church steps, two migrant workers speckled in white paint sit staring at the ground, as a policeman says something to them, or asks something of them, his arm outstretched as if pointing the way to go. X wonders whether they are meant to be with their comrades on the train.
…..He grows bored, suddenly. The town is featureless, though the air that moves through it is invigorating. It is despite the air, in fact, that X has lost all of his energy, as if the town took it from him jealously. For there are two kinds of towns, just as there are two kinds of cities: those that feed you and those that you feed. And Augenstadt, X suspects, is among the latter. With the help of his map, he sets off toward the hotel.
…..The reception desk is buoyed by stained mahogany and set deep into the dark row house. The concierge, a perfect Valkyrie of a woman with long braids and a strong bounce to the pitch of her alpine accent, hands X his key, the luggage that has been waiting for him, and another pocket map – and smiles warmly at him.
…..Concierge: So, you are the journalist? Come to solve the mystery? (Winks.)
…..X: The mystery?
…..(This is exactly the right moment for someone to mention a mystery, for X has been growing bored, waiting for the next twist.)
…..His room is close, spartan. Between the twin bed and the washbasin there is just enough space to stand up. Nearer the door: a wardrobe with a sliding cabinet and a rack, a mirror the size of his head, and a writing table set in front of the only window, which overlooks the river. X moves the table and sticks his head out, watching the blue-clear water rush through town, following it upstream in its winding, glittering serpent’s tail, which ends somewhere in the glaciers above, obstructed from view. He sets his notebook and pencil on the table, slips out of his shoes, and stretches on the bed, his feet slotted through the iron footboard. He is off.
…..In the dark he is hungry and the wind is calling to him from the gap in the open window. Down in the street, the cobblestones lightly misted, he searches for a café and finds a tavern just next door, the image of the wide, ruddy faces masticating under the golden light reaching the darkened street like a painting. The place is half empty, and he has a dinner of pig’s knuckle stuck like a flag into a mountain of sauerkraut, ringed by slices of boiled potato. He washes it down with a carafe of white wine and a block of brown cheese. Back at the hotel, he calls his mother on the rotary phone and reaches her voicemail:
…..X: Mother, today I arrived in a small mountain town on assignment. I don’t know why I sense an air of hostility, but it prompts me to believe I should return home. I should return. And yet I should go on. Surely this is all going somewhere…
…..The rest is not heard. X turns in early this evening, thinking of the brilliance of the glaciers. He cannot help but overlay a holy choir upon their image, his dreams being so many pastiches. Nevertheless, there is an irresistible attraction to them that he cannot explain. How can it be that people live daily in such a town, reminded at each turn of their triviality? At some point, the glaciers become triangles of sheep’s milk cheese, and now he surely is asleep…
…..He awakes in the middle of the night to the sound of gnawing. The window throws silhouettes out of all proportion against the wall, a twisted branch, a beaked airplane, and then the massive, looming form of a rat. It sits on its haunches and smells its fidgety hands, which grasp something precious, red, a ruby perhaps… slowly the creature turns its head, which is no longer shown in profile and which, surely, is directed at X himself, and now the rat descends beyond the washbasin and the penumbra of the window. Yet X can still see the shadow, set into relief against the swirling darkness, as it slips along the bed frame and into the covers with him. He would like jump up and turn the whole room over, but he cannot move…
The novelist stopped speaking as if he had finished what he needed to say and had reached at a logical end point. I waited, then, restlessly, leaned forward out of my chair and urged him to go on.
…..But I don’t know the rest, he replied glumly.
…..This was puzzling.
…..I thought you said he goes on to develop some kind of psychosis, I offered.
…..He does, but…
…..You don’t know how?
Ben Libman has published in The Yale Review, New Left Review, The New York Times, and elsewhere. He lives in Montréal.
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