The Answer is not Coming

She waits in the freezing snow at the bottom of a huge mountain, an icy mountain lying between one country and another. It’s the end of the day, light is failing. Perhaps he has ditched her, or had an accident, or fallen into a crevasse. Doubt. Waiting. “The answer is not coming.” So writes Rachel Kushner at the end of The Flame Throwers. Though these are not quite the last words of the novel.

Two things are going on, as I see it. There’s a familiar quotidian experience: hanging about waiting for someone who doesn’t show. You’re in that place or moment when anxiety and boredom collide, anticipation runs headlong into despair. And there’s a larger metaphysical or perhaps structural thing going on: how to be in that experience, how to move through this waiting, or to let the waiting materialize as a non-conclusive ending.

The answer to the question of whether he is coming or not is simple, it becomes clear as night falls: He is not coming. But there is another question not answered, though what exactly this question is you can’t say and actually it doesn’t matter what the question itself is. It is not a man who will not come, it is an answer. For Kushner, I believe, it’s enmeshed in how to bring the novel to an end. In an interview she writes, “I was determined not to have the narrator ride off into the horizon in a blaze of triumph at the end. The plotline where the main character overcomes a weakness and acts with new empowerment is a form of narrative compression I usually find cheap and don’t much relate to.”

This is a novel that is dense and intriguing in its cutting between times and places, places in the US and Italy, in the 1970s and around the First World War. The threads of connection that link people to political and art movements are rendered through scenarios in which characters experience speed and slowness, talking, listening, waiting. Guns and motor bikes, riding fast and waiting about slowly not doing much. Techniques and technologies. Kushner, within the fabric of the daily, writes about a variety of technologies, mobilizing characters and ideas that attempt, variously, to forge a way out of the routine of the everyday. Her novel, too, shapes up—disintegrates, realigns—through a virtuoso enactment of technique. She herself is a flame thrower, filling the sky with colors and patterns, materializing through technique a range of possibilities, some lethal. Reading, immersed in the rhythms and the cutting between locales, alerted through technique rather than through authorial direction, to the present, you don’t expect a conclusion, particularly one that embodies a triumph over adversity. It isn’t simply that we are left with a question at the end, some plot thread that is left loose, given to us as a throw away scrap from the table of literary delights. No, it’s that the whole practice or technique of the novel works against triumphalism with all its moral underpinnings.

Because I’m pretty well right now I’m greedy to grab every moment to write or read scraps from lots of different books and so I’ve read this novel slowly, in some senses against the grain. Lindsey says, “For me it was cold and fast—a reading experience that I imagine is akin to riding one of those motorcycles she rides around Manhattan.” In the last third I speed up, glad to immerse myself in the novel during a Cancer Survivors Week, thus saving myself from getting hot under the collar about all the triumphalist rhetoric in the air. Saving myself, perhaps, from insinuations of guilt solicited by sentiment-drenched exhortations to give money to defeat cancer. I want to live longer, I want them (that great big them in the sky) to find a better form of treatment than the ghastly chemos people with tumors have to endure (and indeed there are people with blood cancers who endure these too). And being implicated, a receiver or beneficiary of the bounty, I know I should give more than I do so that people not as lucky as me in terms of time and place can get a better deal. But it makes me mad that so much of cancer, medicine in general, actually everything in general in this country, is so dependent on charity, on private institutions, on individual gifts. Matters of public concern rendered as a balancing act between the fortunate and the unfortunate, where individuals can be empowered by charitable acts, acts of giving.

The objective correlative of this is the celebration of survivors, the hullaballoo about the battle won by strong individuals. Empowerment through adversity. We are the strong ones, the ones who fought back and won, we are special, not like all those losers who succumbed and dropped dead without a proper struggle.

Of course it isn’t just around cancer that the ubiquitous grizzliness of positive thinking occurs. Jeffrey comes home from the gym the other day and tells me about an interview he saw on CNN while treading the mill. One of the young survivors of the ghastly Santa Barbara campus murders came forward voluntarily to offer witness. He said something like, “It wasn’t an entirely negative experience… some of us survived.”

Still, we need fiction sometimes. The fiction of survival is a charged fiction and through the charging, the living through, acquires a material reality. The reality that we are fighting, that we will overcome. When Isabel wrote to me, long ago it now seems, when I had surgery for lung cancer a year after the leukemia diagnosis, “vencerás,” (you will overcome) it was inspiring, it gave me courage, I started to believe that I would survive. She gave me a gift.

So what to do, what is the answer? Me fuming silently on my soapbox with a hand hovering reluctantly over a shallow pocket chockablock with scrunched up tissues and lists of things to do and a little cash isn’t going to change the circuit of charitable and uncharitable capital.

 

 

 

 

 

Cantankerous Rooster

Marathon, Texas. It is early morning and light is creeping into the motel room. Last night we walked back to the motel under a huge black sky, so black the stars shone like the burnished feathers of a silver rooster, burras brayed, flights of angels winging us to our rest. I remember living in San Augustine near Oaxaca, being kept awake and woken and harassed all day and night by the sound of braying burros, turkeys, a rooster, dogs, people. Gracias a los burros my rooster does not have to crow. He stands on the dressing table in front of a mirror so there are two of him. Sculptural. Silent. He is double and a doubler; he has, for instance, doubled the amount of words allowed in this bit of writing. I open the door and step out into the dusty parking lot. The sky is now a soft donkey grey, fringed to the east with vermilion, redness seeps out of the earth, filtering into the sky.

I can stretch my arm in any direction and reach the edge of solidity and then my fingers will close around the sky.

I take the rooster outside and photograph him. He is immobile. His coxscomb is scarlet, his body painted in swathes of yellow, green and blue. His tail is feathery, the featheriness of sliced tin, a shiny indigo blue. He is perfectly proportioned. His toes are splayed giving him a firm purchase on the ground, or the dressing table, or wherever he alights. Always out of place, he will be my register of place as we travel through desert regions towards Marfa.

The rooster joined us before the desert. In Johnson City, home of LBJ we find somewhere to pee: A tiny coffee shop in a large yard filled with iron ware. Flying pigs and alligators and cows. All painted. On the counter a faded photo of a Starbucks van, the side door slid open so that “tarbuck” is eliminated. What you see then is the starbucks icon and the word “sucks.”

While he fixed me an excellent espresso John and I swapped a few minimally anecdotal details—he’d lived in San Francisco, he could tell I wasn’t from Texas. Probably not from San Francisco either. The old guy he’s swapping yarns with, toothless, dusty, feels like he’s roamed the local block for years, and probably drunk every bottle in town, but who knows? Who knows peoples’ stories unless you drive with them for days and days through the desert and can talk of this and that and failed relationships and swap another hilarious story of another disastrous episode in the life of love. I asked John who made the rooster and the other creatures, where they came from. He looked at me quizzically as if to say which leg can I pull, which story will she buy, or as if he were asking himself is this a trick question, what’s she after this foreigner, who on this wide earth wants to know about the provenance of painted tin chotchkes, who gives a flying fuck where the rooster comes from. Then he laughs and says Juan, Carlos, Roberto, Ricardo, Miguel…..an army of anonymous Mexicans. I realize then it was indeed a sneaky question, the sort of question that a snooty gardener asks, either to elevate her purchase, raise it out of the realm of tourist art and into the realm of artisanal individuality, or simply to trip up a pretentious vendor.

I could go back to Old Town in San Diego and buy this rooster, closer to the source of its production. Or just nip across the border and buy it by the side of the road. Probably I could even nip back to Zimbabwe and buy the same rooster. And yet not exactly the same.

There was a bigger rooster, grander. But as soon as my eyes alit upon this one I knew he was the one for me. He is life size, perfectly proportioned, he has stepped out from a child’s picture book, from meticulously illustrated Mexican playing cards. R for rooster. G for el gallo. Watch out, says the old guy, he’s a cantankerous rooster, that one.

Molly, who has turned up at the coffee shop with Allen and Lynsey says, we will photograph the rooster everywhere we stop on our journey towards Marfa. He will be our sign, our register of place. The problem is Molly drives off with her lovely camera and I only have a phone. Luckily, the rooster responds well to i-phone attention. Preens, holds still while I teeter and shake.

In Harper where we get gas he stands beneath a wall on which is painted a much larger than life US flag and under it a large star of David and the slogan: Stand By Israel. Over the doorway on the same wall it says Building for Sale. Somehow my focus is screwy and the rooster is cut out of the picture.

He does appear, albeit tinily at the bottom of the frame, under two bucking broncos, at Lowe’s a local market in Fort Stockton. We had a cup of tea at a restaurant here and the young Mexican American who served us wouldn’t take any payment, it’s just water he said. I bought a bar of fancy dark chocolate with sea salt, an anomolous foreign import, and Katie bought a local newspaper. We ate the chocolate at the Rock House by the Rio Grande, it was musty.

In Marathon we have breakfast at Nancy’s Coffee shop. Under the large sign is scrawled, faintly, barely legible, “Foiled Again.” He stands in the large expanse of the dirt parking lot in front of our rooms. The horizon is so low it just peeks over his head.

We drive down into Big Bend National Park. At last and eventually we arrive at Terrlingua ghost town. There is a row of seats along the verandah of the saloon which is also a gift shop and also the hotel, next door to the Starlight Theatre and Bar which only opens at 5.00 so we will not get there, but it looks enticing, stars are painted on the ceiling. On the verandah everyone has a bottle in hand, slow gossip fuels the atmosphere. New people in town, everyone is alert but pretends to notice nothing. Though they all noticed Nora. Someone has already picked up the keys to the Rock House, and when I ask who she says a boy and a girl with tattoos. Nora later tells us that on her way out a woman grabs her arm to comment on her tattoos and confides loudly that she has her ex boyfriend’s name tattoed on her butt.

At the Rock House the Rooster sits on a table, the Rio Grande behind him. And then I bring him in for the night to sit safely at the foot of my bed. There are rooster thieves abroad, and vigilance is required.

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Now we are here, in Marfa, the rooster and I. You would not exactly call him Juddesque, my rooster. Picturesque, yes definitely. Ex-situ incarnate.

I shall take him home this rooster, a Texan I guess, home to California where he will be charged to remember all the fantastical details of this journey which I shall forget slowly, memory by memory.

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