Repetition

 

 

Memories of people, times and places, responses to books, to films, to scenes of everyday life.

I would love to hear from readers—from old friends, from anyone who stumbles on these pages.

 

Repetition and recollection are the same movement, only in opposite directions; for what is recollected has been, is repeated backwards, whereas repetition properly so called is recollected forwards. Therefore repetition, if it is possible, makes a person happy, whereas recollection makes him unhappy.

—Søren Kierkegaard

Brooklyn

It must have been 1946, because the War had ended and the landlord, Mr. Smedfjeld, had just died of TB. My father was cleaning out the cellar.
“Don’t touch those rags,” he said.
“Why not?” I said.
“They belonged to Mr. Smedfjeld,” he said.
“But you are touching them,” I said.
“It doesn’t matter so much for me,” he said, “I have already lived a long time.”

The cellar, where my father told me it was better him than me should handle Mr. Smedfjeld’s rags, was, like the three flats above, long and narrow. At one end a door led under the front steps into a small area surrounded by wooden palings on which my father hung out the gunny-sacks we used instead of rubbish bins. At the other end of the cellar a short flight of cement steps led to the back garden. Just before the end of the War my father and Mr. Smedfjeld between them built a crude cement porch where there had been only a rotting wooden cellar door, and put a door where our kitchen window had been, so you could step out onto this porch from the kitchen.

This porch was like all my father’s handiwork and repairs, which were not only crudely executed but often misconceived, useless projects in the first place. When it became necessary, for example, to shift furniture from one place to another it would happen that our sloping and irregular floors made things tilt in unexpected ways. Instead of propping up the short legs, as a sensible person would do, my father sawed bits off the long ones, meaning that over time all our furniture with legs grew shorter and shorter.

To prevent wear on our linoleum rugs my father regularly coated them with varnish, a brown spar varnish meant for outdoor use, that left the floors sticky and dirty and eventually obliterated whatever colour or pattern they had possessed.

When moving our upright piano into a space too narrow to accommodate the full width of the top, my father dug a groove in the wall and plastered the piano in. We could never again either move the piano or have it tuned without tearing out parts of the wall.

The piano episode was one of the times my mother shed tears. There were others.

On a memorable occasion, while my mother was in hospital for one of several useless operations for a nervous bowel, my father mixed together all the dregs of paint he could find in old tins lying about the cellar, mixed them together in a sort of pink sludge, and painted all our picture frames. My mother, when she returned, her suitcase still unpacked, looked on these horrors and flung herself across their double bed with the shortened legs and wept inconsolably.

My father would not pay for any sort of hauling or delivery or removals, and always bought things anyway second hand, or better yet discarded, or, at the minimum, of inferior quality. He trundled home whatever it might be—a sofa, sacks of potatoes, a fridge—on our iron-wheeled lawn mower, cleverly flipped so that the blades did not turn and the iron wheels ran free. The resultant repertory of sounds, according to whether it rolled over slabs of slate or knubbly concrete or paving blocks, told us from a long way off his progress home.

When these sad things needed to be discarded they had no value whatever and could not be sold at any price, although my father never gave up trying, and haggled in the street with the rag and scrap-metal men, usually Italians, wanting money for what they refused to haul away without payment. Consequently, the sad sofas, sagging and musty bed springs, broken easy chairs with no colour or nap left on the once green or burgundy velour, chipped enamel-top tables and rusty tin food-safes, were buried in the back garden in pits, dug to a depth of four, five or six feet according to the article, this requiring a day’s labour with a small garden spade in the heavy bluish clay.

Naturally he tried to enlist my brother and me in these useless labours, particularly as we approached adolescence and must have seemed to him strong enough to make ourselves useful in other ways than with the dusting and running errands, and cutting out the flannelgraph images on Saturday night, which we did for our mother, who was Downstairs Superintendent of the Sunday School. But he was useless at explaining the purpose of tasks, or at demonstrating any useful knacks or ways with tools, even the most basic things. His saw was dull and rusty, the hammer had a rounded and nicked face and was missing one of its claws, the garden tools were inappropriate or broken and too small for any determined or useful work. And so we made ourselves scarce on every possible occasion.

It is not purely coincidental that on the day I determined to leave home for good, running away with a friend to hitchhike across the country, I had been coerced into agreeing to help with the piano, digging it out of the wall by the fireplace and taking it out to the back garden to be refinished with steel wool and varnish remover, a demented project of such potential for violence that it seemed easier to leave and never come back.

Preparation

Queens

I could date it with some precision if I thought about it, probably in the late 70s, in other words a long time ago, and I forget what book it was that triggered it, a Bellow or an Updike most likely, but at any rate what came out was an idea that reading American authors of a certain heft or smartness or importance, such as those were (there were others), was bad for me. Toxic. Conducive to bad thoughts and bad manners and unhappiness. So I gave them up and felt better, and perhaps behaved better too. Who can say? For no more compelling reasons one gives up eating certain foods, or drops certain friends. From then on, small books, alien voices, Bernhard and Tucholsky, Nooteboom and Klíma, Mela Hartwig, Øystein Lønn and Dag Solstad.

I thought about this curious episode recently while reading notices of Atticus Lish’s just-published Preparation for the Next Life, a novel arriving festooned with the marks of major publishing event, the next big thing, with an intriguing back-story of literary lineage and ambition plus suffering, much space given to the self-congratulatory gush of agents and flacks, an exemplary happening very much along the lines of NYC as opposed to MFA, the book itself, naturally, big, raw, powerful, and so forth. Disheartening guff. Nevertheless, something glimmered. I ordered a copy.

Style catches the eye first, and then structure. Will the scaffolding get you where you seem to be going? Do the parts look like the sort of parts that will be equal to the strain that is going to be put on them? Lish’s title is encouraging. Preparation. We glimpse a gun. We know it will go off. Not now. Later. Two damaged and violent souls, Skinner and Jimmy, products respectively of American military and carceral systems, not by-products, not failed products, just products, predictable and necessary, like the gun. Likewise they will go off. Not now. Later. But surely. Fates walking to meet our reading with slow and inexorable measures.

Neither of these noirish numpties, however, is protagonist. Zou Lei is. A small Uighur woman, an illegal immigrant. From the steppes via Mexico to the precarities of life in a Chinatown kitchen. A magnificent literary creation. When has a girl ever been at the questing centre of an American dream-myth? Among the Tom Joads, Huck Finns, Holden Caulfields? This invention was not the reason I decided to read Preparation for the Next Life. It is the one thing that could not have been guessed at from the beginning or even the mid-point, and curiously it is the thing not noticed in discussions and reviews, which mostly talk about the love story, Zou Lei and Skinner, and the tragic ending of it. But Zou Lei is the reason to finish the book. The gradually dawning sense that she will rise to fill the foreground, that all this is really about her, and that it is her next life for which we have seen the preparation, is to my mind as startling as that revelatory moment in João Guimarães Rosa’s Devil to Pay in the Backlands—a book I am always returning to—the unmasking of the girl Diadorim. It is a thing unprecedented in American books or films or ideas, this apotheosis of the girl as hero, hero in the precise sense of dreamer and conquerer. Certainly unprecedented in any universe imagined by Bellow or Updike.

A pleasure in reading Lish’s novel is the feeling that one understands how it came to be. How the thing was done. At least I know how I would have gone about making it, because it is the way I wrote my own novels. Begin with a situation. Even less than a situation. A picture will do. A smell. A junction of curious and disparate elements. The rest is a matter of getting to it and getting away from it and filling the spaces any way you can. Lish’s novel has to get three people into alignment and then separate them, and in the spaces between is the city, New York City. But the city as an archipelago of Chinatowns and barrios, factories and waste grounds, saloons and sporting fields, strip malls and arcades, strung along the interminable arteries of the outer boroughs, lines pointing nowhere, one block distinguishable from another by the fading in and out of the smells of food, the accents of tribal encampments, the quality of the crunch of broken glass underfoot, the quality of light at midnight or dawn or dusk. One knows without being told that Lish has walked this city and absorbed its feeling and filled the spaces beneath the spans and arches of a simple linear plot with his notes and recollections of these walks.

It was a feature of the Brooklyn I grew up in, like Lish’s Queens, that the subway system was designed to move people from their neighbourhoods into Manhattan and out again. It was not designed to get you from, say, Bay Ridge to Bushwick. Not easily, anyway, and so one explored—because of a girl you met somewhere, usually, or maybe just a whim, an otherwise dead Saturday on your hands—on foot or, later, on a bicycle, those weird urban transcontinentals, interminable avenues, sometimes with overhead tracks, or surface trolley lines, or both, sometimes dense with activity, sometimes desolate, smelling of tidal creeks and sewage, sometimes nothing but blank and staring walls blocks long. Coloured zones, Spanish zones, Jewish and Polish zones, Pentecostal storefronts, Irish bars, Chinese restaurants. All my life this is what lighting out for the Territory can only have meant, on the desolate strips of any town, reaching out into nothing, and you yourself, like Kafka’s hero of The Sudden Walk, “a firm, boldly drawn black figure, slapping yourself on the thigh, grow to your true stature.” Thus does Zou Lei triumph in her ordeal. Northern Boulevard, Utopia Parkway, Sanford Avenue. Thirty miles in a night. A pilgrimage, a Calvary on bleeding feet.

Lish tacks on an Epilogue. Zou Lei gets a bus ticket to Phoenix, Arizona. But this is a mistake. Zou Lei knows it, and I suspect Atticus Lish knows it too.