Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Chapter Twenty-Five


TO CELEBRATE the coming destruction of the ULA, a reading is held in Philadelphia, hosted by "215" people. With the ULA's leader out of town, and several others of the band scattered, its network in disarray, this is thought safe. The event is to be a joining of two camps; of Overdog Eggers Gang people, and those minor undergrounders who at the urging of Guildenstern have jumped to their side. Unlike the final scene of "Animal Farm," however, there will be no equality at the table. Hierarchical positions so reflective of the greater society-- of high and low in the social order-- will be strictly maintained.

Guildenstern explains the strategy to his underground colleagues.

"Don't make waves!" he tells them. "This is a first step-- a test to see how you'll behave. Follow along. Later you'll reap benefits."

Guildenstern sits up front with the chic 215 people, the Whitneys, Binnies, Joshuas, Mileses, and the like. The underground poets allowed to participate are directed toward the back.

"Don't worry," an undergrounder assures his friends. "We'll have final say-- when we read! We'll show our ability."

He's a tall, ratty fellow with wispy goattee and faded beret, wearing a "I Hate King Wenclas" button on his t-shirt. His motley colleagues, including two skanky females in torn black leotards, nod their heads in agreement. The yuppies across the room think them reprehensible.

"They look subhuman," the cleanly-scrubbed, carefully arrayed gentry remark in loud voices. "They're disgusting!"

They themselves exude the perfection of their class. They're garbed as bohemians, but it's a minutely designed, freshly-washed, and assuredly expensive kind of bohemia: designer jeans worn for the first and only time. The persons in the fine clothes are those who honor the superficial in their art and are themselves superficially attractive, with dead eyes.

"This is a peace gathering," Guildenstern reminds them. "A victory celebration. Don't humiliate them. Let's seat them closer to the stage. Right next to us-- an empty table."

He rises and addresses the room. "Bring up the poets!"

The handful of poets at the back stand up with slow dignity. Guildenstern points them to their new seats. The literary yuppies, leading snobs in the city, react with haughtiness. One takes a can of air freshener and sprays toward the poets' table. The seated poets grit their teeth.

"Patience!" the ratty poet says. "Wait until we read."

The Ivy Leaguers read first, their presentation endless, pretentious, and boring. When the moment for the undergrounders arrives the gentry stand in a group and put on their jackets. "Have to run! Ciao! Bye!" One by one they vanish out the door until only Guildenstern remains.

"Gosh, guys," he says to the undergrounders who've sold out their principles at his urging, in the interest of comity, of acceptance and gain. "It's getting late!"

Then he also hurries from the nearly vacant room to catch up with his friends as the first of the underground poets, with echoing footsteps, takes the brightly-lit stage.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Chapter Twenty-Four


Atop a rise, the stone villa fills the movie screen as Willie walks up to it.

DAMAGE. This is the mood conveyed by the misshapen house of no coherent shape or design, white walls turned gray, standing like a wrecked fortress behind overgrown green weeds and out-of-control pine trees.

DEVASTATION. The aftermath of battles fought and survived, with every scar, retreat, and regrouping, of psychic violence resumed again and again, present in every crooked stone on the steep walk, or open window in set-back levels above, within which faded red curtains move slowly in the heavy summer breeze.

RETREAT. Seclusion. Great open wounds. Has the dangerous hunter he seeks herself been hiding?

Before he can knock on the ornate door it opens on its own.

"Hello? Hello?"

Willie walks tentatively into a room.

Expansive views on every side. Thick walls; coolness. He steps through a faded ballroom of surpassing elegance, with orange-red tile floor, what he sees of it beneath cascades of leaves and branches of trees blown in from open windows. Intruding nature; a sense of abandonment. Beyond, a melancholy patio of past joy and a backdrop of mountains.

He moves into an anteroom of white walls and heavy black furniture, leading to a black iron stairwell. Violet flowers stand in a black vase on a black table.


Willie ascends the stairs. At the top hangs the portrait of a beautiful woman. The camera lingers on the portrait. . . .

From distant rooms comes the sound of recorded music. Chaotic punk noises incongruous with the villa; then again, completely apt. The contradiction surprises him. In a hallway, a hanging Union Jack flag. More leaves; a purple ribbon. Against a wall, a dusty German beer bottle. The echo of long-ago parties.

With feigned casualness Willie steps into the final room, within which lounges a thin woman dressed entirely in white, with a white scarf wrapped around her face, ineptly, as if grabbed in a hurry.She's surrounded by clutter, the debris of the house; by stacks of clothing, end tables, suitcases, and books. Willie is scared to death.

"May Barber?"

The silence which follows his query unsettles him. He can barely stand. The woman's blue eyes, all he can notice from her face, are an overpowering force.

"Um. Brilliant," a throaty voice remarks, then the figure sits up. Perhaps it's been lost in reverie for a hundred years and he's awakened it. "Have a seat."

Willie stumbles into an ornate wood chair as the dangerous eyes study him with amusement and contempt. The deadliest of literary assassins; once member of the ULA gang. Behind the white scarf lives a nuclear force of will; pulsating; ready. She could destroy him with her piercing eyes alone. Willie's only defense if things go awry is his own weakness.

The still-young woman has bangs of jet-black hair. He doesn't look directly at her white face-- he senses this isn't allowed-- but has the impression of grotesque scars behind the silk covering rustling now in the warm air with every inhale and exhale from the woman's mouth. Not a ghost, of this he's sure. A demon, maybe, but not a ghost. He feels the slap of heat of her breath carry to him as she talks.

"I've been waiting for you; someone like you," she tells him, then gazes about herself with a deep sigh, as if the eternal burden of Sisyphus is to be resumed, and it's his fault.

"I have instructions," Willie tells her, while a yellow paper in his hand shakes uncontrollably. "Right here. They say you know the assignment."


Her voice surges with emotion; with strength that fills the house. Willie has met many writers; students and teachers, published poets and novelists. None have expressed emotion of this brand. Has the ULA been right all along? Does the underground indeed bring new energy to the art form? He feels himself in the presence of a tornado.

"My unfinished assignment," her voice says wryly, shadows of moving lips visible behind the scarf. "I live only for revenge-- the re-righting of the equillibrium of the world, which the so-called Rebellion has disturbed. The Rebellion must be destroyed. I've seen it up close. The biggest collection of yokels and cretinous goons gathered in one place since the discovery of the gangleader's treasured Buddy Holly and Elvis."

Her voice expresses an Elvis-like sneer.

"Every nuance is lost on them. Utter blockheads mistaking simplicity-- I mean, stupidity-- for genuineness. I tried to wrest away their leadership, you know, which might've saved them. He wanted me to remain simple. He believes art should be simple! Twice I almost defeated him, but he ran away like a coward."

Willie wants to ask then why she wears scars, but is afraid to. Then again, what greater scars must the other side carry?

"Punchbowls," she tells him. "Putting his head in punchbowls at parties is his idea of marketing. But what do punchbowls have to do with being a writer? Punchbowls and literature; literature and punchbowls. They're not similar. I fail to see the correlation. Writing is about the art; only about the art. Words are important. Not punchbowls! Words. We train in the use of words. We're masters of words. Have I removed myself from the world only to immerse myself in strategies about punchbowls? Not! I'm here to improve my skill with words. To learn. To train. To refine words' edge until the sentence is as sharp as a samurai sword. I want to become better, and better, and better, until my words slice the barbarian into a dozen pieces; into a single rivulating pool of blood!"

She laughs vigorously, viciously, with the lusty energy of a knight. For a full minute she doesn't stop. Then her unreal eyes zero in on her nervous visitor who still clutches his yellow telegram. In her gaze he shrinks in his chair.

"As writers we make words move. We make them sing. We create them, craft them, forge them, polish them, until their meaning comes to the finest point. Then we make them enter the reader's soul, here."

Her finger touches her heart. She gasps at the pain. The hand is as white and beautifully shaped as the hand of a Greek statue.

"The person who sent you wants me to fight the Rebellion. To destroy their head. The underground: peasants overreaching themselves. Gangsters. Not literary samurai. I trained with their leader when I was a mere apprentice like yourself. Now I surpass him in every way. The literary priests can't deal with the man so they turn to me."

"You're the best?"

"The worst! No, not good enough. Never good enough. I've enveloped myself in language, its codes, structure, rules; have humbled myself before its mystery. Humility, humility. Oh God, ambition is the greatest sin and from that I forever shirk. It's only by the shedding of rhetorical blood that I can atone for my past misdeeds. Literature is a sacred vessel which must not be tarnished; cannot be touched by literary barbarians, must not be approached unless the seeker be pure in intent and washed in literary training."

She stands from the couch, has moved with surprising quickness. The sinewy body in white has come to life. He sees the form and vigor of an assassin. Still her finger jabs her heart. Smell emanates from her; a smell of body, perfume, ointment, sulfur, gunpowder, and sex, all in one smell, overpowering. Her head shakes. Her striking blue eyes waver. Moisture streams down her face beneath the tightly-wound scarf, sweat or tears flowing like a river.

"Oh God. Oh God! Do you know what it means to be a writer? The price to be paid? The sacrifice? The emotional pain? The emotional violence? To arrive at the highest plane; the highest plane."

Willie is caught up in her mad hysteria. He senses writing now not as a printed page, or dots on a computer screen, but as a living being as real as the walls, the wind, the sun outside, and this person in front of him. He falls out of his chair before her.

"Will you take the assignment?" he asks.

"Yes!" she screams.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Chapter Twenty-Three


(A Narrator's Voice.)
How does one become a literary assassin? What are the steps which transform a young and idealistic writer into the most dreaded of literary monsters-- into THE ASSASSIN abusively wielding talent and intelligence without character, compunction, or conscience?

For a vast class of writers from the wrong side of society's railroad tracks there is no outlet other than to write in obscurity for zeens, tiny lit-journals, or little-read websites. In this netherworld beneath the established Noise of Literature it's easy to become part of the feuds and fights of the gutter press; to become a soldier of Rebellion; or as often, a mercenary for aristocrats who so fear the vibrant crude raucous Energy of these writers, so different from the refined brand, that hired counterrevolutionary gangs will be sent into literary back alleys and scribes' dives to put down the barbarous miscreants.

Think of a gawky young woman from a small town, insecure yet intelligent, dropout from a major midwestern college-- she'd been kicked out of a writing class-- staying around campus anyway working as a dishwasher, scrawling in spare minutes with large letters a journal which in its angst and nascent madness became the foundation for one of the rawest of all zeen projects during the raging late 90's heyday of the "zine" phenomenon.

The put-upon young woman's split personality began at this time. Maybe it'd been dormant within the person all along. There was the core individual-- a rodent; the mouse-- a self-image forged from beaten-down circumstance. Accompanying the zeen however arose a new persona different from the mouse in every aspect: louder, larger, better-looking, with unreal, often drug or alcohol-fueled confidence. The creation of the new persona was as remarkable and fabulous as the birth of a superhero. The myth of her zeen was propagated as much by the persona's hyperbolic appearances with local zeensters at bars and clubs, later written-up by them, as by the zeen itself.

At the same time, back in her cheap hovel afterward, the superhero having scattered like a puff of smoke through a misaligned open window overlooking the college town, the mouse withdrew into her core self. No longer bold, but fearful. Not anymore confident, but the reverse.

Growing steadily out of her control was the Image; the Myth.

Indeed, she'd become striking looking. She'd become beautiful, and was the last to know. It wasn't her, you see. It was the blown-up Image; the projected superhero. She was a mouse hidden beneath a portrait of a tiger.

The mouse's zeen came to the attention of an underground promoter searching for new talent for a group he was forming. He met her in Chicago and was blown away; stunned. The lo-budget zeen hustler met not the mouse, not the real person, but "May Barber," all-powerful superhero. She joined the group.

Later it'd be known as the ULA, engine of new literary rebellion.

In truth, the mouse had already begun to hate her alter-ego, which in its emotion-spewing vulgarity was the polar opposite of the kind of genteel and precise Anglophile writer she'd long dreamed of becoming. By the same token, "May Barber" detested the weak nerdiness of the mouse. It was an internal dispute within her certain to lead to disaster.

The cheap zeen hustler, more ballyhoo artist than writer, began his assault on the bastions of established literature, carrying forward the controversy-fueled shenanigans of his own zeen of the 90's. Onto this underground zeen animal, crazed and reckless in best underground tradition, conflicted May transferred her self-hate. The mouse saw the over-the-top character as her great antagonist. As she stood half-naked behind the hustler on stage at CBGB's as part of the ULA act, she loathed what she was doing; what she'd become. She didn't want to destroy the literary mainstream. She wanted to join it!
Two Mays: the Mouse and the Goddess. In the pressure cooker of the ULA's early days the hate and loathing within both sides of her flowed into a new figure of secrecy and stealth, of transcendent bitterness: the Assassin. This cruel new entity battled the ULA's leader himself. . . .

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Chapter Twenty-Two


Willie sits sipping coffee at a cafe directly across from the Spanish Steps. Prostitutes and priests pass by. From a distance, a white coated waiter approaches from between tables. Approaches; approaches. He arrives and hands Willie a yellow telegram.

"TELEGRAM" on screen, many typed words beneath.

"Grazi," Willie says.

These are his long-awaited instructions. They outline an itinerary to northern Italy, a city named Vicenza where exists a large American army base and a CIA station as well as the target of his adventure, a mysterious writer named May Barber he's to convince to do something. She's the most dangerous of the dangerous.

Willie has been in Italy now for two weeks, receiving daily calls from Poofer which have sounded scarier and scarier, centered around some guy "in a black hat" who Poofer insists he was "obligated to please." Otherwise, "poof" would go the professor's esteemed job and reputation. This morning, a final call: from Gloria back at the university informing Willie that Poofer was rushed to the hospital last night after a sudden heart attack which left him buried beneath a cascade of books and papers.

"Will he survive?" Willie had asked.

"Does anyone care?" Gloria had answered.

Now at the cafe, Willie thinks about his mission with misgiving. The adventure so far has been as boring as a Henry James novel, albeit with great food and scenery, paid for by his mother's ample credit line. Ahead waits the climax. He'll be putting himself into the hands of this Barber person, who might enlighten him or destroy him. This, in a country where he knows nobody, and where his vocabulary has expanded to twelve phrases, including "Quanto costa?" and "Gelato chocolatta."

He has toughened, however, in that he now looks forward to his fate.

Vicenza is a city near mountains where most of the people look German and the core center of town is medieval. One could be living eight hundred years ago amid castle walls, the native populace strolling quaintly, but for hyperactive American G.I.'s with boom boxes on their shoulders blasting loudly. Willie buries himself within his tweed sportjacket and tries to look native.

To be fair, he sat next to an American lieutenant and his girlfriend last evening at an open-air restaurant and found them well-mannered and intelligent. They both, in fact, had attended Yale. The man enlisted after college, because he'd "wanted to join the fight against terror." Handsome people. An American centurion and his mate come overseas-- to Italy, appropriately. The turnings of Empire. They conversed about books and writing.

"You write?" the pretty girl asked Willie.

"Not very well!" he replied.

That touch of home now bolsters Willie as he boards a green bus, takes out a Michelin map and begins studying street signs.

The street: he steps off and ascends a hill. At the top glimmers a white villa surrounded by pine trees. This has been described in his instructions. The morning sun is hot. He's sweating. He's very thirsty. The point of his quest in sight, his legs are weak. The wrong messenger, he is, he knows. Hapless messenger. The stone house stands before him. Black, ornate doors. What wounded warrior waits inside?

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Chapter Twenty-One

No, I haven't forgotten about Lindsay, rookie member of the Literature Police, working as a night guard in a literary factory resembling a prison complex. (See Chapter Five and Chapter Seven.)

She's been unable to re-enter the Forbidden Room due to a sudden rush of appearances of The Man in the Black Hat. Something important is happening. The conflict within literature between mandarins and rebels is reaching a climax.

Late at night The Man in the Black Hat sits in his high-up office overlooking the factory. Never does the man sleep. The rookie sees his wide-brimmed hat with its dark veil moving about, then stopping. She imagines at those moments that he looks directly at her. She shudders.

One night the office is dark. He's gone. Her opportunity has arrived.

She rushes through the guard stations, heart beating frantically. The green door awaits. Heavy green door. Mysterious green steel door, full of portent.

She's flung the door open and rushes down the corridor. A utility closet; simple closet, humble and unremarkable closet, seemingly, but the corridor stretches further, deeper, until she feels that it's burrowed far into the earth, or into another world.

Ahead: an orange glow. Her pace slows. Glowing; throbbing. Beams of light, of celebration, filling the green-painted stone block walls with arrays of light. Why here? Oh, why here in this damp surreal dungeon, like a prisoner never to be released?

At the end of the corridor, in the glow of light, placed against a back wall is a book. Only a book. That's all. That's everything. The beginning and end of human knowledge. The signal achievement of humanity.

She's unable to read the title. Something tells her it's the most fabulous book ever created; the greatest work; a story and a symphony; a work of poetry, beauty, history, and meaning. She tries to reach the book, to touch it. A frustrating unseen barrier keeps her away. Her time's up, she knows. It's past. With stampeding footsteps of disappointment and disbelief she turns and runs back the way she came.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Chapter Twenty

Having failed as a clown, the mole known as Guildenstern is lectured by an Eggers assistant before given another assignment.

"The splits and factions within the Underground, the rampant jealousies and fights, are our best weapons against them. We must exacerbate the splits. When underground writers work against conflict with us, they're working against themselves. When they betray the literary Rebellion, they're betraying themselves."

Guildenstern sits unhappily. They're in an empty club in Philadelphia, chairs on tables, a cleaning woman vacuuming. In the half-lit venue, red and black motifs blare from the near walls like mad heralds on every side of them. Guildenstern is on medication to stay awake. This has heightened his senses.

"Don't take what I say wrong!" the McSweeneyite tells the mole, his smarmy Eggers-like face of arrogance pushing close. "At times you've behaved brilliantly. We need a return to form so we can wrap this up. The big guys grow impatient. They expected finality long before now. The tiniest hint of literary dissent and change threatens their empire. It threatens us!"

Guildenstern is too aware of the man's sweat and black stubble, and his whiny voice. The words are discordant notes on an out-of-tune piano.

"Did you know we tried to get an operative into the rebels' founding meeting? A hired hit man. We failed, but succeeded in getting to members of their gang afterward. Not soon enough, as the Rebellion moved very fast and outmaneuvered us. But we slowed them down. We caused turmoil. The buyoff price of those we used was amazingly low. We made the right moves. Yet every time we thought we'd split and destroyed them, disintegrated them, their movement bounced back to life.

"What do we want now? We want literary pacification. You know the message: 'Can't we all get along?' The way to achieve this is to use the literary pacifists in the underground. The 'Don't Make Waves' crowd. The 'Do Your Own Thing' loners. The self-serving factionalists who'd rather fight with other poets and writers than with us! We must encourage this. They must see their former leader, and not us, as the enemy. Simple misdirection, that's what I'm talking about. They will see-- what we want them to see!"

Guildenstern absorbs the lesson, and like a trained pet nods his head in obedience.

The well-dressed young man before him chuckles with closed eyes. His face is red and his suit is black. Operative! The fellow embodies the word. A paid stooge with not a scruple or principle, serving literary power. Suddenly the man drops his smile and points his finger at the lowest of literary animals.

"Give the pacifists the taste of success! Allow them to sniff our air. The instant the Rebellion has been taken over or destroyed these same hapless suckers will be hustled out the back door with the bus boys and the grease scraps. 'Get them out of here!' our crowd will huffily demand, permanently scarred by contact with the grubby beggars.

"Out there!" he exclaims, pointing to a red door behind the bar. "That's where they belong. OUT THERE!"

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Chapter Nineteen

WHILE steps are taken to contact The Assassin, the rest of the new Counter-Insurgency Plan is begun. With initial mole "Rosencrantz" having blown himself up in an act of spontaneous combustion, his brother-in-betrayal, code-named "Guildenstern," becomes the focus. The idea is to put forward an Establishment clown to counter the Underground's famed Jelly Boy.

"The problem I see with this," The Man in the Black Hat murmurs over his cellphone to Boss Eggers, "Is that Guildenstern is a clown. I mean, he's REALLY a clown, with makeup or without. We don't want another insane Rosencrantz who'll piss off not just the underground, but everyone."

Boss Eggers is silent. Guildenstern is his hireling.

The movie screen shows a close-up of the black veil obscuring the thoughts of the Black-Hatted One as his mumbling words appear on the soundtrack.

"I'll gladly back this clown-- but I expect a return from him. He's been a mole for how many years now? How many paychecks? What are the results? Every time I've tried contacting him he's taking a nap!"

"You're not supposed to contact him," Eggers snaps.

On the soundtrack are heard gurgly whimpering noises of frustration coming from the Man in the Black Hat.

"The Underground yet lives!" he whispers in a choked voice as rebuke, then hangs up.

The screen wipes him off to reveal Boss Eggers in his posh San Francisco office with movie set backdrop. An expression of bemusement falls over his surly face. His confidence never wavers. Eggers shakes his head and laughs.

The next day: a new cable-TV show debuts: "Talking Books with Roody McDoody."

A clown in a garish red-and-yellow polka dot clown suit, with makeup smeared over his face, jumps through a sheet of paper saying "ROODY!" on it. A paid studio audience of fourteen people cheers.

The clown waves his arms about.

"Whoop-Whoop-De-Doo!" he hoots. "Welcome to the Roody McDoody Show! Kids, we are going to talk today about books. There are Good books and then there are Bad books. Here is a Good book."

Roody holds up a copy of The Corrections. The audience cheers.

"And here is a Bad book."

We can't see the title, but the camera focuses on the word "ULA" on it.

A chorus of boos.

The screen then displays blown-up photos of various underground personalities, including King Wenclas. The clown throws colorful oversized darts at them. He's not very adept. The darts fail to stick.

"ROO-DY! ROO-DY!" the studio audience chants.

The clown tries again. He begins to sweat, further smearing his clown makeup. A face of desperation is glimpsed beneath.

Inside a Brooklyn flat, The Man in the Black Hat, watching it on TV, turns to his wife.

"This is horrendous," he says.

The clown is worse than Neal Pollock.

The Roody Show moves into the Interview segment.

"Kids, let's give a Big Roody hello! to award-winning novelist Francine Prose. Whoop-Whoop-De-Do!"

"Yaaay!" the paid audience cheers on cue.

Ms. Prose, dressed in a chic pantsuit, looks uncomfortable on the clown set, but is a trouper. Roody plops down in one of the plush chairs provided on stage, glad to be done with the Darts segment. He's exhausted. It's the most work he's done in decades. "Could use a beer right now," he's heard over the microphone muttering to himself.

"May I sit down?" the prim author asks, clearly not understanding the show is supposed to co-opt the Underground. Etiquette has been suspended.

"Why the hell not?" Roody says, prodded from his reverie, feigning to snap into action while not doing so. While leaning back in the armchair and wiping his smeared forehead with one hand, he uses the other to signal the audience.


"So, Fran baby-- tell us about yourself," he says to the esteemed author.

"Okay." The lean and sultry-hued well-bred middle-aged middle class essence of boozhification begins, carrying the self-love of a five year-old.

"In my award-winning book to writers I emphasize the peculiar and precious solitary experience, the almost-religious bond between 'writer' and 'reader' which must not be hindered but needs to instead be strenuously advanced through the indoctrination I mean the education of readers to give them the proper necessities for understanding what we the trained writers of the Academy bring to the page. It's a quiescent procedure by necessity of maintaining our difference from improper and, well, insufficiently screened writers and readers who like bacilli or a virus might infect the Body Literati with their vulgarity and improperly screened. . . ."

Roody points to the audience from his seat as he gazes at the ceiling.


"Keep it going, Professor," he encourages the very proper Ms. Prose, who's stopped. "You have the floor, my dear."

She continues what has to be one of the most boring monologues ever recorded. All the while she studies her host, who during his days as an establishment plant in the underground was infamous for falling asleep every time asked to do anything. She wonders if he's narcoleptic for real. Grittily she continues discussing her book. Roody's head is rocking around on his neck as he leans farther back in his comfortable chair. It's been, after all, for him, a stressful day. The demands made on him lately by his overseers are altogether too much. He'd rather think about something tranquil, like his days as an affluent WASP before various divorces diminished his finances. His times relaxing with a Scotch and soda on his yacht. With a smile he remembers.

Prose: "--rather than capitulate to narrative demands, the best writers of today, the most celebrated anyway, like Jonathan Franzen and Alice Munro, will luxuriate over the words and over every last trivial detail of the story's environment to create a framework of sympathy not with the characters but with the task of the writer who has the unfortunate obligation to fill pages with craftings of words so that the reader becomes trapped in the art with no interest beyond the feelings imbued in the observational process. Counter-intuitively, this is good--"

The red-headed producer of the show looks concerned. Her blue eyes gape. Roody has missed one of his scheduled "Whoop-Whoop-De-Do"'s. Members of the paid audience begin to sneak off. Roody's head now is tilted fully back, his mouth open.

Prose: "--the requirement to not judge, to not bring unreliable human opinion into the narrative or rather the text because to narrate presupposes a narrator, a judgement, an authorial authority when our task is generously to describe, with gentle patter, innocent and unthinking patter lulling the mind-- "

Roody: "Zzzzzzzzzzzzz. . . ."

The host is snoring! Loudly and irreverently snoring. The last audience member is heard to say, "They don't pay enough for this shit," before running off.

Ms. Prose glances toward the producer, who has five minutes to kill. This is live television. The producer makes a rotating gesture with her hand, a signal to keep going.

"--the work stripped of the extraneous, of meaning, opinion, society, emotion, we the reader can focus on what is most necessary to the art which is the word on the page itself disconnected from the necessity to thrill or even communicate--"

Prose continues talking in her ultra-refined way as time runs out. With her last monotonous words, the camera focuses on the sleeping clown while graphics flash on the screen over his image: "ROO-DY! ROO-DY! ROO-DY!" Then the image fades to darkness.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Chapter Eighteen


A large sign: "MILANO AIRPORT."

Next door is the train station. "Scusi. Scusi!" Willie bustles among a throng of Italian extras and is shoved into a Prima Classa rail car. Vendors sell Campari and snacks between the train tracks. Willie is too shaken from the flight and the culture shock to eat.

His cellphone rings.


"Willie!" Professor Poofer's voice crackles over the tinny receiver. There's panic in the voice. A desperation, as if in the interim since Willie last saw him, Poofer has learned a terrible secret.

"Roma. Wait there. Further instructions . . . then you'll meet . . . . The barber in May . . . you must. . . . Very urgent. The future of literature, our entire world, depends. . . . Convincing . . . you must be very convincing. Desperate . . . awful . . . nightmarish . . . horrible! You must. . . . Goodbye."

As Willie absorbs the stream of incoherence, the sliding door to the train compartment opens. A tall young woman with flowing auburn hair, carrying a large artist's case, plops down on the seat across from him.

"Hello," she says.

"Hi," Willie squeaks.

The woman is dressed in black from head to toe, and wears large black sunglasses which obscure much of her very white face. She puts out her hand and they shake.

"Melanie. From Toronto."

"Willie. From Connecticut. Via Rhode Island."

His hand has been crushed. Canadian girls are very strong. He puts the throbbing hand in the pocket of his tweed sportjacket.

"Do you play hockey?" he asks, realizing he's an idiot.

Melanie sneers. "Were you born in a bathtub?" she replies. "Were you raised at Starbucks, or Disneyland, or McDonald's? Did you go to college with operatic clowns and Ivy-covered prima donnas?"

She grabs a large glossy magazine and begins turning pages. Willie takes out a notebook to jot down reflections on his experience. He senses Melanie observing him over the pages of her magazine, behind the sunglasses. His notebook fills with nonsense.

The train speeds fast, through tunnels; across the movie screen until it arrives amid the chaotic madness of Rome's Stazione Termini.

"Well," Willie says to Melanie as they rise.

He wants to ask if they can meet later. Melanie slams him against the compartment, putting a red card into his jacket pocket.

"For a nearby hotel," she says. "Three blocks away. Go there. You'll be safe. Wait for instructions. Don't trust anybody!"

She leaves. Gone. Italian extras jam the corridor of the train.

(Next: The Clowns.)