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sunday post: performance piece

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He is sitting behind a guy on the bus to Finsbury Park last week. Said guy is holding his iPhone such that it is easy to read what he is texting, the texts that he receiving. Her message is first and then his:

– still in bed x

– in cab x

The scenarios that would inform such a lie – he is not where he is supposed to be, he is trying to impress her and thinks (or know?) that bus travel isn’t the fastest mode of transit into her deepest deep – proliferate in his mind until they don’t.

Next he tells her that he is being sent to Bradford to cover some murders that happened, x.

***

He is sitting on a train, riding back from a conference in a small city (pop. 44,000). He is sitting with a young but still quite successful novelist and and another academic, a theorist. He talks to the novelist about reviewery, the vicissitudes of teaching writing, the advances that the latter received, the meeting that he himself is having with a literary agent this week. He, they, ignore the theorist, though later he will feel bad about this.

A couple is sitting in the seats across the aisle. She is reading a magazine, he a novel. Not long into the trip, he drops the book noisily on the table between them, pulls out his phone, and begins to play a game instead.

He wonders whether a) he was bored with the novel b) bothered by the volume of their conversation c) bothered by the content of their conversation.

***

Earlier, at the conference dinner, he receives advice about dealing with agents from a novelist who would know. She outlined the differences between working with a big agent at a small house and a small agent at a big house. Later she hinted at the possibility of him reviewing her next novel – joked about whether she would or wouldn’t have him sent a copy, and then made a joke about the Canadian fishing village where his mother grew up, which she knew of, had even visited, or so she let on.

***

At this dinner, he fails to finish his quattro formaggi pizza, or even half of it. He had forgotten that this chain of Italian restaurants was the one where he doesn’t like one of the cheeses on the quattro formaggi.

It is embarrassing, for a man of his size, not to finish – especially in England, where everyone finishes. He is relieved when the wait staff has taken the husk of it away while he is out for a cigarette.

***

Earlier than that, before the dinner, he worried throughout the conference about his extremely persistent cough. He worried for two reasons – that he was really bothering others in the audience was one reason.

***

When he meets a Canadian, say at a conference, he feels a need to prove his Canadianess to them, though he has only ever visited the place. Likewise, when he meets a writer of fiction, he needs to do the same – subtly somehow prove that, despite the fact he’s published nothing nor has he tried to publish anything, at least prospectively he is one too.

The fact that he has a Canadian citizenship card does render the former task easier than the later, but both are in their way confidence games, aimed to sell himself as much as his interlocutor on aspects of his identity that are only themselves fictional, even if legally or prospectively true.

***

A review in The Forward of Joshua Cohen’s forthcoming novel Witz ends on the following note:

At more than 800 pages of involved and unusual reading, “Witz” is a book for those who are prepared to spend the time and effort of a full 40-hour workweek reading a novel. It is a week of work that will be quite unlike any other you’ve ever experienced.

It has taken him at least a full 40-hour workweek to read it, but a work-week entirely conducted after-hours and on buses and trains.

***

At some point this weekend, he decides that he will work exclusively on his novel and not at all on his scholarly work, this summer. Though this, of course, is a lie.

***

On Sunday morning, he reads Terry Eagleton’s review of Christopher Hitchens Hitch-22 in The New Statesman. Later, as he buys the book at his local book shop, the woman at the counter jokes about the picture on the cover, that it is a flattering one given what Hitchens looks like now. She uses at one point the word “sexy,” but he misses the rest of the sentence and doesn’t ask her to repeat it.

Later he uses the index to look for references to the graduate seminar that his wife took with Hitchens during the Fall of 2001 and finds just what he is looking for, which confirms one story that he told someone at the conference the day before. Other stories remain unconfirmed.

***

The night before, upon returning from the conference, he orders both of the young novelist’s novels and discovers, to his surprise, that the young novelist is actually four months older than he is. This is a relief, and explains why this novelist groaned as loud as he did when saw the line on the backcover of Witz: “JOSHUA COHEN was born in 1980 in New Jersey.”

He, like the young novelist, was born in 1976.

***

Later, when he discovers that a podcast of his conference lecture has been posted on the web, he watches it, calls his wife down to watch it. It’s been a long time since she has seen him lecture, years.

She leaves him to it after a few minutes, clearly put off by his fascination with the video, the rapt attention that he pays, there at the kitchen table, to himself.

***

He takes decongestants for the cough to no avail – the cough persists. In addition, he has a strange, sore spot on his head, the back of his head. Sore to the touch, but the source of the pain is underneath the skin, between the scalp and the skull. He beat hypochondria, and beat it conclusively, years and years ago. But beating hypochondria brings its own dangers and with them its own even deeper fears.

***

He is reading Witz in the living room while he wife looks up options on sabbaticalhomes.com for the summer, for their daughter’s summer break. Six weeks, from mid-July to the end of August. There are people eager to rent a place like his in London, people with kids, people willing to take care of cats, but no one with a place for rent in New York. He wonders if they should go to a European city instead, and she agrees that since they are here, they really should at least think about that. But Italy would be too hot, and so would Spain, and Paris they’ve done, and Germany is boring, and they’ve just been to Amsterdam. And he hasn’t been to the new Yankee Stadium, though he promised he’d never in his life go there, a year or so ago.

Someone has a place available in Maplewood, New Jersey, located just at the base of South Mountain. A strange siren song sings itself in his heart, but no, for chrissake, come on. He suggests staying with his grandmother, in Nova Scotia, in the fishing village. Think about the babysitting.

On the train back from the conference, the novelist mentions that he and his girlfriend spent six months in Buenos Aires while he finished his second novel. When he and his wife were in Buenos Aires, just after the devaluation, they joked about buying an apartment with their credit card, putting down a downpayment anyway, but there was grad school to return to, work to return to.

Later he thinks that he is not sure there was a better time than when they were in Buenos Aires, and wonders if they shouldn’t in fact go back for those six weeks.

***

He sends his father, who has never seen him teach, a link to the podcast of him lecturing. He anticipates receiving a message back telling him that he read too quickly, way too quickly, as his father once took a public speaking course with William F. Buckley’s brother which seemed to have only two takeaway points: 1) Speak very slowly. 2) Print your speach with no more than 40-50 words per page.

But he is wrong, that’s not what he gets in return. Rather, an hour later he receives an email from his father featuring a podcast starring an engineer from BP, explaining the efforts the corporation is taking to seal the leak in the Gulf. No reference, none at all, to his lecture in his father’s email.

This surprises him for only about seven seconds, which is perhaps the time that it takes for things that are obvious and inevitable to unseat things that are wished for but impossible.

This is also the reason why this post – its form, its content, both together – exists.

***

Earlier, Sunday afternoon, he discusses all of the above, except of course for the things that would happen later, with his wife as they walk with the children into town to get some lunch. His older daughter assumes that her parents are fighting – pouts, fits, cries, and then demands that only her mother take her to lunch and that he father “go to work, because he has a lot of things to do at work.”

Things spin a bit, his mind fills with anxiety, anger, guilt all at once. He is silent and away for the first ten minutes of lunch and then returns, tries to speak.

Written by adswithoutproducts

May 31, 2010 at 3:16 am

7 Responses

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  1. Ambition, rank, toil in scholar squalor
    full of self, but a sense of living off the radar
    of real life, rich and full of time with daughters.

    Nice piece. Thanks,

    steven

    steven

    May 31, 2010 at 4:06 am

  2. It’s *quattro formaggi*, not quatro fromaggi.

    (I still live in secret hope that some day somebody will give me a very large grant so I can travel the world and fix spelling mistakes in the menus of Italian restaurants.)

    Speaking of podcasts and the link your father sent you: I dare you not to be hypnotised by the Oil Spill Cam.

    http://www.wkrg.com/gulf_oil_spill/spill_cam/

    Giovanni

    May 31, 2010 at 5:24 am

  3. steven,

    Thanks.

    Giovanni,

    Corrected, thanks for that….

    And you know, I almost wrote a post – will write a post, I hope – about the hypnotic quality of the Oil Spill Cam, the temporality of the slow yet fast motion catastrophe. Seems somehow emblematic of our times, no?

    adswithoutproducts

    May 31, 2010 at 9:45 am

  4. Unless you write it in the next three hours, I’m going to beat you to it. (Yes, I don’t mind substituting speed for quality. We all work with the cards that were dealt to us.)

    Giovanni

    May 31, 2010 at 9:53 am

  5. Ah good. You start, I’ll follow along if there’s still anything for me to say.

    I’ve update this post with some new stuff scattered throughout, btw.

    adswithoutproducts

    May 31, 2010 at 10:08 am

  6. “This surprises him for only about seven seconds, which is perhaps the time that it takes for things that are obvious and inevitable to unseat things that are wished for but impossible.”

    just perfect… strikes me as saramago-esque even (complementary in my book).

    David R

    May 31, 2010 at 3:05 pm

  7. Geez, thanks David…

    adswithoutproducts

    June 1, 2010 at 12:01 am


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