Death in Life, Life After Death, and the Novelist Barry Blumenfeld Essay

person_pin Death in Life, Life After Death, and the Novelist

by Barry Blumenfeld

Published in Issue No. 125 ~ October, 2007

I am not a novelist, but I play one at my writing desk. This morning, while I was away from my writing desk, washing some dishes, I cut a passage from a novel I’ve been playing at writing this year (and last year, and the year before that). I do not play myself in this novel, because a novel is not a memoir and any resemblance of its characters to persons living or dead is merely play-acting. I play all the characters, and of course I play God in it too. One of the characters whose words I mouth speaks eccentrically, because there is something mysteriously wrong with him. When you have drowned and come out of it alive, that is the way your words emerge from the adventure, at least, in the world I have been playing at making. Here is what my drowned man (name of Willy O’Ryan, and languishing in solitary) doesn’t say, because God won’t let him:

I will tell you something about time. It is an interesting thing I did not know of before I came here. Time is not by the clock. Time is a thoughtful thing. It is in your thoughts. Did you ever think about how many people are being born every minute. Or, how many people are coming to their endings every minute.It is a difficult thing to think about.I am at leisure to consider it here however. I can go as slow as I like and go over it and correct the calculations and so on. I have a pad and a crayon, but I find it enjoyable to do it without I write it down first. I have always had some ability in this direction. The way it comes out is about a hundred fifty people more or less going each way every minute. I will not trouble you with the details.How do you compass such a thing? The way I do it is, I flutter my tongue. I make a sound like say a Japanese beetle flying around. A thip thip thip sound. You can do it slower and you can do it faster. You can tune it up that way. Three hundred of them thips a minute. When you have it right, it sounds about like a Japanese beetle, I should say. Then you think about someone getting born or going the other way for every little thip your tongue is making on the roof of your mouth. I have done this procedure. Here is a thought I come out with. I come out with this. This is what it is. It is a busy world.

It is busy out there where you are, is what I mean. It is not as busy as all of that here where I am. That is why I had the leisure I required to find this thing out that I just told to you. It is also how it comes that I am having an opportunity to consider my terrible misdeeds and so on. On account of which I am now considering the time table and so on. Time is not the same when you are in it, so much as it is later on when you are only remembering it. Time is a terrible thing, only you do not know it at the time. It is like a river rapids rushing you along to some rocks or a waterfall or a whirlpool that sucks you down to your doom. You do not know it at the time. At the time it goes slowly or it does not seem to go at all. You may be lying on a couch weeping and a-weeping into the smelly old pillow and you might be thinking, this will never end. This will never end. This will never end. You might be thinking that, or you might be thinking some other thing. Whereas what is actually happening is that you are rushing. As still and as stupefied as you may appear to yourself to be at the time, you are rushing. Where are you rushing to, you may ask. I will tell you. This is where you are rushing to. You are rushing to here. Your downfall and your doom.

The reason God, as played by me, will not let Willy speak these lines is that they were to have been a frame for that-there time table he mentioned. The genuine, for-real, and no-b.s. God we live with, or within, or without, doesn’t show us any god-damned time tables of our lives–within our lives, anyway–now does he? That seemed to be the case the last time I looked for mine. Therefore, I won’t let Willy see one, figure one out, or provide one to whomever-all may someday play at reading Willy’s tale, either. I grow old, I grow old, I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled, the man said. Maybe. He doesn’t really know. He’s just moaning. He may never wear his trousers rolled. Maybe he’ll contract diabetes, lose his feet, and wear the ends of his trousers in neat knots.

Yet Willy had a point. We are rushing to our downfalls and our dooms. We just lack the time table. That’s aging. There are other ways, of course, to end up at your downfall than by geriatric misadventure. Trapdoors lurk underfoot, other misadventures, which open down into more or less unpleasant shortcuts all along the way. Still, the closest most of us come to the missing timetable is this sense we have of the ongoing loss of our powers, of the time that remains to us, of our prospects, our illusions, and our hopes. The process is, after all, rather like the ticking of a clock, or a time bomb.

If you’re an ambitious person of a certain kind–a writer, for example–you have a particular relationship with time. Unless you are Stephen King or Bob Dylan or someone else in their tiny ilk, the turn of every calendar page is a reproach. You’ve written too few novels or not enough hits. Certainly, certainly, certainly: no masterpieces. You’ve been sitting on a smelly old couch instead, perhaps, stewing about it, while you watch E.R. or the N.F.L. or televised poker. Or maybe you’ve been sitting in a hotel lobby, typing All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, over and over and over. Of course, you might have a healthier attitude about it. You could be, not a perfectionist, say, but a person who values perfection, who is serene about it, whose art consists in typing All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy perfectly, typo-free, and a hundred times an hour. Time is no object then.

I play at reading, too. The sort of reader I play at being doesn’t enjoy self-help or how-to or buck-it-up essays. He (or she) never read How to Win Friends and Influence People and has no special interest in winning friends or influencing people anyway. She (or he…) does like, on the other hand, to read about what it is rilly rilly like to be this or that or the other thing, to be here or there or some other where, even if that thing is himself, herself–or you, maybe. Or that place is right here, or down the block, or somewhere she or he will never be. The seventh circle of hell, for example, or a rhymer’s convention, or the inside of a black hole. To be an ambitious writer–I am one–is to be involved in all sorts of troubles particular to the category, including the ones I’ve mentioned. I will not be advising you how to cope with them. I don’t know how to cope with them. What I do is suffer them, like everybody else.

It is nice, though, to be a mill of a certain sort, and then to look at this stuff in a certain way: as grist. Grist, grist, grist. Nothing but grist.