The Distortion

By Stephen MarcheApril 2, 2018

The Distortion
I. The Border

A SMASHED PHONE at the border — I knew right away it was a great bit. Here’s what I saw, for what it’s worth. I was crossing into the States to report on the Trump inauguration, and the crowd at passport control was jumpy, swelling, the border agents anxious, the travelers confused. A short brown woman was checking her messages behind me when an agent, striding out from his station, slapped the woman’s phone out of her hand, hard, onto the ground. The thing shattered, leaving abrupt silence. The agent pointed at the sign: No Phones. I knew it was a beginning.

Not that the smashed phone was an important moment in the history of the fall of the Republic, or all that shocking even. There was no gasp from the crowd, hardly even a murmur. Everybody understood. There is no law at the border, only enforcers — the place is a Styx of impunity. And given the many impunities, ancient and modern, racking the American system, at all levels, a bit of business with a phone barely registered. It was a smashed phone, after all, not a 14-year-old murdered by the police for the color of his skin, not a middle-aged father deported from everything he’s ever known in a fit of geopolitical pique, not the casual shredding of the old orders and allegiances. The violence was more or less symbolic.

In that chamber smelling of bureaucratic flop sweat and plastic luggage, the reek of contained cosmopolitanism, two thoughts ran through me like a current. The first: This is not normal, this is not the way it’s supposed to be, this is not what America is. The second: This is normal, this is the way it has always been, this is what America is. At the same time, I was overwhelmed, first, by a feeling of deep distortion, a sense of the world skewing, and skewing from the place it had skewed to, but also by an equally deep sense of disillusionment, a clarification that the world was not what I had thought it was. The short brown woman — I’m sorry but I can remember no more details, I couldn’t stand to look at her — took on, in hindsight, the features of Mrs. Khembavi, the wife of one of my father’s business partners, a family friend. It wasn’t too hard to see why my memory would fill in, for this woman I couldn’t bear to witness, the face of someone who had known me my whole life. I needed a human being there, as the woman lowered her gaze, silently picking up the pieces of her phone and history. Everyone goes on with their lives. Everyone metabolizes the distortion in their own way.

The smashed phone at the border crystallized the distortions of the time and place. It was a perfect moment — or near perfect anyway. There was a gray mood in the immediate aftermath of Trump that everyone lived and breathed but no one could quite articulate — a heaviness, an anxious depression, an apocalyptic cloud. A gray-tentacled mood — that’s what I called it, to myself. And I won’t lie, I thought it would be a prize to capture that mood, and the phone was a start, a hook. The broken device upon the battlements, international humanity divvied up into queues, at the place in between, neither here nor there.


II. The Gluten-Free End of the World

The Republic was falling, and my father’s ghost visited me in a Best Western in Bowling Green, Ohio, which is as good a place as any, I suppose. A nation of Samsons pulling down the temple on their heads, the United States may be the first great power in history to collapse because it can no longer figure out what it means. America had shimmered into a great empire of distortion, and my desire for clarity was as absolute as thirst. I abandoned everything else. The pursuit of clarity became my sole job.

For many years, my mother and I had dreamed the same dream about my father. His face crying, sobbing. We drank mint tea in a little Lebanese restaurant near her apartment and tried to interpret it. The man had died much too young, which seemed the obvious explanation, but the image of my father sobbing never coincided with sad times. Rather the opposite. His crying face was always the result of good news in our little lives — because his grandchildren were growing up to be intriguing people, because my brother found a better job, because the property values were rising, because spring was breaking out, and he was not there to see any of it. He was weeping, my mother and I figured, because living was beautiful and he was not among the living. The vision came in that form for years.

But in the Best Western in Bowling Green, Ohio, my father was no longer weeping. His face was quizzical, his lips closed, his head slightly cocked, his eyes pursed. It was as if he had just asked a question. I didn’t know what the question was, but I knew, in the dream, that I was desperate to answer.

It must have had something to do with the confusion of being in America. There was something innocent about the distortion that had gripped the country. It was kind of funny, if you were looking at it from the outside, and at an angle. Their politics was the politics of spoiled children. If you said they couldn’t have something, they had to have it. They did not just want to own guns, they needed to be able to take guns into schools and churches, and the guns had to be assault rifles.

I was in Bowling Green to report on an end-of-the-world “prepper” conference for the Guardian, at a mall that smelled like rotten leaves and antique grease. As I was wandering the stalls devoted to multipurpose axe-heads, and solar-powered flashlights, and gun paraphernalia, and conspiracy literature, and various other survivalist accoutrements, I passed a retailer offering pre-made, ready-to-cook bundles of gluten-free rations. Gluten-free! I had to go to the toilets to laugh. These fuckers thought that the world was going to end and they could still ask for their pasta and vegetable stew and Spanish rice gluten-free! It was too much.

Obviously, if you can sell people gluten-free end-of-the-world rations you can sell them anything. You can sell them Trump, I guess. During the inauguration, I stayed with friends whose apartment was a short walk from Comet Pizza, which had become, against its will, a shrine to distortion. A few weeks earlier, a young man named Edgar Maddison Welch of Salisbury, North Carolina, in an attempt to corroborate a theory he had read on the internet about a pedophile ring run by Democratic operatives out of the basement of this utterly banal pizzeria, brought a legally purchased AR-15 into the restaurant and fired into the ceiling. He was arrested, and everybody on the internet chilled a bit.

By the time of the inauguration, though, the pizzagaters were back, and it was the old new spectacle. It’s one thing to read about this shit. It’s quite another to see it, to look into the face of conviction eating itself. A bedraggled man, who looked as if he had lived a great time alone, among many screens, in the dark, stood in front of man-sized banners listing the sin content of the world, and shouted into a microphone about satanic rituals and child sodomy. His eyes were very dark. They looked beaten. His face was haggard but handsome in a crumpled way, a bit like a shredded Frank Zappa. He radiated hard-won pride. I sometimes wonder if stupidity is simply a brand of pride.

Two or three policemen waited awkwardly at the curb. Hey, it’s a free country. Every now and then, on Military Road in the background, a convoy of sirened limousines would pass — power leaving the city, power entering the city. The fanatic stood there, looking at the middle-class Washingtonians strolling by; he was uninterested in the transfer of power, defiant in his existence, yelling that the pizzeria was a place of demonic oppression and the secrets we were all hiding were about to be uncovered in the divine light of revelation. The psychological mechanism was so obvious: the crazier the belief, the more he believed. Confronted by disproof, there was always another layer of conspiracy to burrow under. He was typical of the distorted: distortion feeds on its own distortion, so the more they throw themselves into their distortion, the more they must believe it is clarity.

The pizzagaters were only the outward signs of an inner disorder that was general. Walking past the tent cities sprawled through San Francisco, on my way to talk to one of the great new breed of innovators, I saw a homeless child congregating over a little box of treasures on a curb — his private life. The city of the future, alive with electric cars, smelled of alcohol and piss and disgrace. A hooker with half her ass exposed by a hiked-up skirt, barefoot, stood in the middle of the street talking into a sneaker like it was a phone. Every American city I visited — Detroit, New York, Toledo — was filled with what I would call ordinary distortion: drugs, apocalyptic politics, inequality of all types and all sizes. This distortion was just background. Maybe it wasn’t even distortion anymore but the way of the world. It barely qualified as news anyway. Nobody would read about it.

After writing maybe a half-dozen stories for various magazines and newspapers, I came to realize an uncomfortable fact about my own reporting, my own vision. Almost every significant quote I gave, from anybody who knew more than I did, came from an African-American woman. I would go to the inauguration, or to San Francisco, or to Detroit, or New York, or Toledo, and I would interview 40 or so people, and the only quotes I would end up using were from the four or five black women I happened to meet. It was unintentional but obviously systematic: if I wanted to understand something in the United States, apparently I asked a black woman.

These women were the only ones who appeared to me not to be insane. They were the only ones who seemed to know what they were talking about. During the inauguration, I went to a bar in a black neighborhood and bought drinks for two hours, during which time I learned that when you send a generation of young men to a foreign country to kill brown people, you shouldn’t be surprised when they come back home and keep on killing brown people, as a service to their country. I learned that the first thing people spend money on in the United States is a story that allows them to believe they built themselves. I learned that, if you catch your pinky finger in the system of American law, its gears will chew up your whole body.

These weren’t just vague opinions or self-serving bullshit. African-American women just explained better how things worked. They just did. When a source died while I was reporting on crowd-funding health care for Mother Jones, I spoke with her neighbor — and finally, after talking to maybe 30 experts who were only half-useful, I understood the intersection of Medicare and Medicaid in the state of Georgia, the impossibilities of chronic care management under conditions where emergency is the basis of care. She laid it all out in detail. It was terrific.

Of course, we live in a time when think pieces in response to the above observations could be written more or less automatically. White people need to stop turning black people into saviors. White male writers need to abandon their tendency for romanticized Othering. Then, from the other side: I was just reacting to internalized white guilt, or currying favor with identity politicians. I could come up with another dozen standard responses, if you really put me to it. Some of them might even be right. Intellectual Magic Negroism, I suppose. I do know that the next time I want to write anything about the United States, I will look for the African-American woman closest to the story whom I can find. I am, ultimately, intellectually selfish. I crave clarity. I will go where I can find it.

But why? Where does it come from? In 2009, after the crash, the median net worth of African-American women was five dollars. African-American women die in childbirth at rates comparable to the developing world. African-American women endure levels of domestic violence somewhere around two and a half times higher than other women in the United States. There can never be an America for them because they are already in America and it is no America to them. Is that condition the source of the insight I hunted out? Or is it merely that I am a white man, with all that implies, so that when I hear the voices of black women, with all that implies, I am hearing what I cannot know myself? How much of clarity is just counter-distortion?

When I was in the States, I was not myself. All I ever thought about was my family, my wife and son and daughter. Then I would return to Canada, to clarity. It was an unendurable clarity, though. Canada is, when you get right down to it, an encounter with the irrelevance of all human action. The wind whispers through the boreal forest and the skyscraper corridors and the backyard fences: Who do you think you are? Who do you think you are? Who do you think you are? The country is true and it is beautiful, but its truth and beauty are unbearable. Once in my home, among the ones I loved, I would be overwhelmed by a terrible sense of failure, of inevitable emptiness. The mythlessness of my country fell on me like a physical affliction. Nothing I could ever do would matter. Nothing anybody else was doing mattered either. I was starting to lose my envy of other people, and it felt like incipient impotence. I wasn’t jealous anymore, not of the various prizes, not of the various jobs. I knew none of them would satisfy. So what would?

The only escape was back to America, to the ocean of distortion, away from my son and the curiosity in his lamplit eyes, away from my wife, away from my daughter and the unanswerable questions sprouting curly-haired from the sides of her head. My essay-self and my home-self were diverging. At home, I was a fleshy contented irrelevance. On the road, in America, watching, always watching, I was conscious of myself as a character in a story I would later be telling. I had a bunch of cheap tricks older hands had taught me: to remain as silent as possible for as long as possible so whomever you were talking to would rush in to fill the awkward spaces; never to say “hi” or “hello” or “how are you” but to blurt right out my most important question since people instinctively answer the first question without pausing to consider whether they should; to offer confessions in order to receive confessions, to make jokes in order to be told jokes, to be warm in order to receive warmth. Like I said, a bunch of cheap tricks. The mirroring instinct is ferocious and general to lingual primates, one of the technical specifications of the mind’s theater. Anyone can figure it out, and I’m certainly no better than the next.

The essay-self is a technical self. You’re out there pretending to inhabit a distorted version of your consciousness so you can be clear inside your language later. Meanwhile, you are the inspector, out of a cheap 19th-century novelette. What does it mean that, if you order a small scoop in the Dairy Queen in Bowling Green, Ohio, they give you a large, and if you order a large, they give you an extra-large? And the flavors — Cappuccino Heath? Chocolate Covered Cherries? Georgia Mud Fudge? Triple Berry Brownie? What do they mean? Look at the men walking through the mall with their assault rifles slung over their backs, reeking of a summer’s worth of sweat. How close are the ragged outfits by which they define themselves to the paramilitary uniforms of another era? They have knives, too. How expensive are those knives?

On the road outside of town, a blonde girl, maybe six or seven, stared at the passing cars with sacred attention, her eyes glass-green. She was full of the same longing to leave, I could see. The one thing you are never to report on is the first thing you notice when you start to work your senses: the sheer beauty of the world in its transfiguring pain. The stars blaze in infinite cold. The heart pumps blood and receives it back again. The crows scatter for no reason, filling the air like livid ash. The snow falls evenly over the fields. None of that is information. Inspect your hands for an hour, the turning of the wrists, the grip of the knuckles, the octave-spread, the twist of tendon and the orchestration of bone. Everything else will matter less. Do not look too long.

The facts were never going to save us, that much was clear. I have traded in facts of all varieties, sociological and journalistic and academic. “Facts matter” — that seemed to be the heart of the cry of resistance. But the strength of the facts, when you actually see them made, in newspapers or magazines, is simply the number of eyes paying attention and the strength of their suspicion. Trump’s automatic dishonesty created a vortex. Because he was inherently fraudulent, you had a choice: the extreme shallowness of facts or the turgid fraud of power. Trump was a brazen gangster, and his brazenness was as essential as his gangsterism. To resist, you had to buy back, at least a little, into the myth of American innocence. And who could swallow that shit, slouching into the middle part of the 21st century? The prevailing gray mood was, in part, the consciousness of permanent dissatisfaction, everybody fluttering between beliefs they couldn’t own.

Meanwhile, story itself meant less. That was a way of putting it. Every story mattered less. Children ripped from their families. Immigrants rounded up in prison camps. Kids murdered in schools by their classmates. Tens of millions of zombified addicts. Patients dumped out of hospitals onto the street. High office pimped out. The stories appeared. Everybody read them. Their meaning floated, momentarily, in the air — would it matter this time? Then they faded to gray — it didn’t matter this time. What would ever matter? And the gray spread from the world to ourselves. If nothing mattered, did anyone matter?

I dreamed other dreams than my dead father’s face. I dreamed that my nose was a dick and my eyes were balls, and as I walked through a great and foreign city — I think it may have been Tokyo — my dicknose kept banging into strangers and into the walls, and my eyeballs swung under, googly and precarious.


III. The Five Whys

In the middle of our vast informational splurge, the notion of truth has been folded up like a flower you might find pressed between the pages of a book of poetry in a box in your grandmother’s attic — the passion of another age. Authenticity was for people who weren’t paying attention. Expertise was suspect in itself. For myself, I had half-forgotten all that shit from university, aletheia and veritas, unforgetting and confirmation. Instead, I obsessed over the “Five Whys Method” developed by Taiichi Ohno for the Toyota Production System in the 1950s. It had nothing to do with the truth. It was an exercise in counter-distortion.

The five whys method is simple enough. When something breaks down, you ask “why?” five times in a row. So:

Why did the factory shut down?
Because the wheel fell off the conveyor belt.
Why did the wheel fall off the conveyor belt?
Because the ball bearing on the conveyor belt rotator cracked.
Why did the ball bearing on the conveyor belt rotator crack?
Because it wasn’t sufficiently durable to meet the demands of the production line.
Why wasn’t it sufficiently durable to meet the demands of the production line?
Because the company bought cheap ball bearings.
Why did the company buy cheap ball bearings?
To keep costs low.

The idea is that clarity comes of its own accord, simply by repetition. In the example above, the solution becomes obvious without needing to be expressed: the factory must find a higher quality ball-bearing supplier. Usually, there’s a larger wisdom as well, an insight incidental to the technical solution, that emerges from the five whys method. In this case, it’s obvious: trying to save money on production items while sacrificing quality is a false economy.

Children, not just factories, figure out the world this way. So:

Why is the sky blue?
Because light diffracts for the edge of the atmosphere.
Why does light diffract from the edge of the atmosphere?
Because it does.
Because it does.
[That’s how children figure out the adults know much less than they seem to know.]
Why can’t I have that toy?
You can’t have every toy that you want.
Why can’t I have every toy I want?
Because we would run out of money.
Why would we run out of money?
Because you have to work for money.
Why do you have to work for money?
Because that’s how the world is.

The child learns, through this method, that money is the emptiness that makes things possible or impossible. The five whys method can be applied to any situation. So:

Why was the phone smashed?
Because the guard smashed it.
Why did the guard smash it?
Because the small brown woman was breaking the rules and he felt that the only way to demonstrate to everybody that they shouldn’t break the rules was through a violent gesture.
Why did he need to demonstrate through a violent gesture that they shouldn’t break the rules?
Because he believed, as an American whose history and culture are based on clarifying violence, that violence would provide clarity.
Why did he need clarity?
Because the moment was confusing.
Why was the moment confusing?
Because it was the inauguration of Donald Trump.

Not that that’s a particularly satisfying answer. But dissatisfaction can be insight, too. If you are going to look into things, you are going to have to look into a great deal of dissatisfaction. So:

Why was Donald Trump elected?
Because the people in key states in the Electoral College voted for him.
Why did the people in key states in the Electoral College vote for him?
Because they believed that he represented their interests and their worldview more than his opponent did.
Why did they come to believe that he represented their interests and worldview more than his opponent did?
Because celebrity dominated all other values, because information coalesced into narrower and narrower networks, because spiking inequality created a sense of the fundamental impossibility of justice, because a political ideology that devalued the role of government had run rampant in America for 50 years. Because of the persistence of the most ancient pathologies and because the latest technologies enabled those pathologies.
Why did those technologies enable those ancient pathologies?
Because nobody considered what the purpose of information was, or even if there was any. And the information machines made more and more information, and so they made more and more distortion. The whole point became to generate the opposite of silence — overflowing speech, overrunning the boundaries of sense. We were always shocked when the machines overran us, even though the warnings could not have been clearer. In 1964, the father of cybernetics, Norbert Wiener, called information systems “the modern counterpart of the Golem of the Rabbi of Prague.” (The Golem is a species of juggernaut.) And, before then, Gershom Scholem, the great Kabbalah expert, wrote that “golem-making is dangerous; like all major creation it endangers the life of the creator — the source of danger, however, is not the golem or the forces emanating from him, but the man himself.” And, in 1920, the Czech play R.U.R., which coined the term “robot,” was based on the idea of the golem; the very first piece of fiction about robots imagined that they would annihilate their human creators. The juggernaut had always been coming. If an engineer were to consider the consequences of any machine he designed, he would never build anything.
Why did the engineers live in such emptiness?
Because they could imagine no other purpose for themselves or their machines.

Meanwhile, I was dreaming that my nose was a dick and my eyes were balls, and as I walked through a great and foreign city, my dicknose kept banging into strangers and into the walls, and my eyeballs swung under, googly and precarious.

Why did I dream this dream?
Because I had been to Tokyo recently and because I was traveling the world, to see it.
Why were you traveling the world to see it?
Because I was writing essays.
Why were you writing essays?
To escape my own sense of meaninglessness and to dive into the pleasure of relieved distortion.
Why did the doing away of distortion provide such pleasure?
The memory that returned, over and over again, was this: I am walking across a field of snow in the deep cold. It is the walk home, after school, from the bus stop to the house in Edmonton where I grew up. The cold is Albertan, crisp and murderous. The snow is thick, swirling, covering me in ghostly white. There is no date stamp on this memory. It could have been any day between the ages of six and 12. I am alone. I cannot see. I am heading home. And I am happy. I do not want to return home. I want to keep walking.
Why did this memory return?
Because I had been to Tokyo recently and because I was traveling the world, to see it, and because when I was watching the world I was not at home and not away. I was in some place in between, neither here nor there.

The comfort of the five whys method of Taiichi Ohno of the Toyota Production System is that it stops at five. That’s the key to its appeal, obviously. In the souls of the engineers, and in my dreams, the whys could go on forever, an abyss of whys funneling down into distortion within distortion. But the final why was always missing.


IV. The Juggernaut 

What I am trying so hard to describe is an impression that is an idea, or an idea that is a sensation, or a sensation shot through with thinking about the sensation — memory and imagination and whatever sweepings from the lonely rooms memory and imagination grow from. On Sixth Avenue, below the Park, I felt it at a restaurant called Jams, which is as good a place as any, I suppose. The place squatted at the bottom of One57, a 75-story tower where foreign money has momentarily parked, a glass financial instrument rising like a scalpel lancing a fistula up the asshole of the Manhattan night. It was a saturation. Is that a word, in the sense that I mean it?

I went to Jams that night because I thought it might make a good bit in an essay, like the smashed phone. The place was an odd type of culinary resurrection: the original Jams was the first California-style nouvelle cuisine restaurant in New York City, lasting from 1984 to 1987, born in the hot sin of junk bonds and finished in the massacre of black Monday. The food was, in its way, as distorted as gluten-free end-of-the-world rations. Everything old was new again on the menu at Jams. Look, it’s the stuff from the ’80s! Butternut squash risotto and gnocchi with pecan sage pesto and duck tacos with crème fraiche. The Jams pancakes were layered with smoked salmon and dusted with caviar; the salmon was too cold and therefore bitter, erasing the flavor of the caviar entirely and leaving the texture of languid bubbles on the tongue. If you could play a meal in a Walkman, it would be dinner at Jams.

The place was more or less a theme restaurant; the theme was tasteless greed, but nobody gave a shit because nobody knew enough about Jams to know what it stood for. It fit so well with the scenery and the times. So, I was looking around, and I ordered a drink, and I thought about my daughter — sitting at a round desk in an art gallery, painting a girl with electric rainbow hair while I colored a pattern of moon and stars with those cheap candy-smelling markers. Our pictures had pleased us, daughter and father together. The radio had been playing a song by a woman whose name I can never remember, whose voice sounds like the sweet-and-sour sauce they slather on mall court chicken, a song about how beauty is pain but it shouldn’t be. Outside the cold had a crispness like spring, and the brightness a polished emptiness like overexposure. Walking back to the car, my daughter climbed up into my arms, and I slid us over the crusty part of the snow, the slippery uncertain path, to whatever was coming.

The crowd at Jams was an instruction in the self-consuming moment. Laptops open beside cocktails, and everyone else on phones. It’s a hotel restaurant, after all, with pharmaceutical executives going over the new graphs of the pick-up rate of the latest diabetes drug, assistants messaging vice presidents about meeting times and places, fundraisers scouring the profiles of potential donors. We worked while we ate while we worked. The desk and the table were one. The eating work and the working meal. What could I say about these people? This bar was the same as all the others, only more so. They didn’t need candles here. The phones provided all the necessary illumination. Everybody burned with anxiety and nobody gave a shit. Defeated by satisfaction, opiated expensively, distorted by fulfillment, slouching backward into the future. Old banners for a fresh riot, old hates for new music, new borders for old companies, crumbling bridges and rotten ideas.


Why was there so much distortion in the shitty restaurant below the Park on Sixth Avenue?
During this time, a gray atmosphere, a sense of sizzling breakdown, filled every room, including shitty little hotel restaurants below the Park on Sixth Avenue.
Why did this gray atmosphere and sense of sizzling breakdown fill every room?
Because it wasn’t just the one thing, it wasn’t just the news, the latest catastrofuck, Trump, et cetera, the invalidation of law and custom, the worship of might for its own sake. It wasn’t just the distortion, the distortion feeding off distortion. It was the willed distortion. It was that they wanted the distortion. It was that they couldn’t conceive of the outside of any distortion. And that meant that the distortion was accelerating and that it was impossible to see how its momentum could be stopped. The distortion became a juggernaut.
Why did the distortion become a juggernaut?
Because meaning itself was changing, and the boundaries no longer moved but were torn up. The lightning no longer struck once or twice, to light up the night. It stuttered, staccato, a strobe. And the thunder that rippled into chords had been stretched into a single uninterrupted fuzz, a furry oily beep, an unending dial tone screech. Nobody sees it coming, even the ones who see it coming. We have all been running to catch a flight that took off before we left home.

The restaurant brought me their version of chicken. It was salty and crunchy, dry the way the past is dead, smothered in butter and tarragon. The Chardonnay reeked of aspirational decor magazines. What will you miss from the world that is leaving? I will miss the rank smell of rotting paper. I will miss the North.

Lately, I’ve been reading Plenty-Coups’s autobiography. He was the chief of the Crow tribe when the juggernaut rolled over them, and he made his peace with it. At my son’s age, Plenty-Coups wandered into the Crazy Mountains in Montana and wandered out with a dream. He saw the buffalo dying and he saw the earth covered by a new kind of buffalo, strangely horned, bellowing strangely, the cattle whose name he did not yet know emerging as if out of a narrow window in the earth. Then he was warned away from a tent filled with baby’s things and saw himself as an old man. Then he saw a great storm that destroyed an entire forest except for a single tree with the chickadee in its branches.

Only one tree, tall and straight, was left standing where the great forest had stood. The Four Winds that always make war alone had this time struck together, riding down every tree in the forest but one. Standing there alone among its dead tribesmen, I thought it looked sad. “What does this mean?” I whispered in my dream.

“Listen, Plenty-Coups,” said a voice. “In that tree is the lodge of the Chickadee. He is least in strength but strongest of mind among his kind. He is willing to work for wisdom.”

The chickadee became Plenty-Coups’s sign — like the chickadee, he listened to the future as it came, patiently, without rage. The Sioux fought. The Crow talked. And, over the course of his life, Plenty-Coups watched his dream realized, the buffalo replaced, the destruction of all that could have been significant to him or to anyone he knew. He negotiated with the white people who took the land they were going to take, and he gathered two hundred marks on his coup-stick, two hundred feats of daring earned by striding up to the boundary between life and death, two hundred acts supremely riding the edge. He led a grand life before the whole order sustaining that life’s grandeur collapsed. He made peace with the future that had no use for him. He lived meaningfully in a world emptying itself of any meaning he might understand.

My daughter once woke me up, calling in the middle of the night, screaming Daddy! Daddy! I ran to her and asked what it was, what was the emergency, and she whispered in my ear the fact bursting out of her: that an octopus has three hearts. She remembered in a dream and had to tell me. An hour later, she called me back to her room to ask me what coincidence meant and I did not know quite how to answer. She would leave me these whispered memories like white shells on the banister that lead from the upper hall.

“After this, nothing happened,” Plenty-Coups told his biographer. The meaning of the boundary had fallen. That’s what writing gets you. “I am trying to live a life I do not understand,” a woman in his tribe said after his death.

I will miss the green funk that gathers in the corners of the lazy rivers. I will miss famous poets. I will miss the way, after peeling a clementine, the peel curls like the musical signature in the old wood of a cello. I will miss the white rhinoceros, a fortress that carried itself over the earth. (No fortress can survive us.) I will miss the idea that a painting can be holy. I will miss language you could chew like taffy for an afternoon, then leave it sitting on your tongue until it dissolved into nothing or a dream. I will miss the New York where you could become who you are.

The faint steam of the Avenue of the Americas fogged the view. Only a few blocks over, the great gold tower announced the branded name of defeat-in-triumph. I decided, after another, slower drink, that I would never write about Jams. It wasn’t distorted enough to provide any clarity, and when you saw it clearly, it wasn’t worth looking at. These people, dazed by their phones, were not worth inspection. The faint steam sunk, stunk, setting.

My beloved, curly-haired one, daughter with the question sprouting from the sides of her mind, the one who runs into the garden to eat the apple, I want to say that I will be with you. I will be with you when the phone no longer rings. I will be with you at the border crossing, in the holding pens. I will be with you when the water can’t be drunk. I will be with you when the last elephant falls, and you hear the news of its extinction in some mall, like you might hear about a pop star’s divorce. I will be with you in the poison garden, but I will not know which flowers you are to pluck and which flowers you are to refrain from plucking.

I left Jams without really noticing. At times, Trump seemed like nothing more than a distraction from all the distortion inside us and outside us. At least we knew he was full of shit, which was a relief in a way. Otherwise, was the distortion out there or in here?

This part of Manhattan is set to spike, or so I’ve been reading; the market looks hot in midtown’s Crazy Mountains. The building going up on Central Park Tower at 57th will rise to 1,550 feet, the one at 111 West 57th to 1,428, One Vanderbilt to 1,401, 432 Park Avenue to 1,396. New York has swallowed plaster and its blood is hardening. And the chickadee flew on, terrified.


V. The Moon

My father’s face returned one more time, in the North, at an Airbnb in Muskoka, Ontario, which is as good a place as any, I suppose. My father’s image was drifting into the impossible fuzz, the big misrecognition — he had been dead long enough that the world he had left wasn’t the world that remained. Dad had that same look of vague mystification I remembered from the motel in Ohio, but this time I understood the question he had been asking: Why had I not looked at the woman’s face as she was having the phone smashed out of her hand? Why had I seen her and not comforted her? Why had I turned my face away? Why could I not remember her?

That night, the cold was closing in on minus 30, nostril-tightening, core-haloing, the fucking crazy cold. When it gets like that, moisture evanesces, the atmosphere flees into transparency, the nights grow freakishly radiant, and in the empty air the moon goes mad with its own clarity. Maybe the night had something to do with it. The father’s questioning gaze was a judgment on his son. What if the future isn’t a boot stomping on a human face forever, but all faces dimming around the edges, blurring — an uncanny valley of the other.

If I sat long enough in my clarity, distortion shimmered up. If I sat in my distortion, clarity bubbled up. And clarity and distortion were what you came to believe afterward about how you had been before. Writing was just putting yourself in the later, moving it up, because the later that was coming would erase whatever you thought you had meant. The pursuit of clarity is clarity, or maybe not. Maybe clarity would come later. Maybe it would come to somebody else.

I have no affirming flame to lift out of the negation and despair other than the dream of my father’s questioning face, a dead man’s unasked question. The distortion is unacceptable and it is all there is. You must see. The world is there to be seen. It can’t be there for any other reason.


Stephen Marche is a novelist and an essayist.


Featured image by Michael Vadon. Banner image by Filter Forge.

LARB Contributor

Stephen Marche is a novelist and an essayist.


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