There are somethings about memory and what one (or one’s mind) chooses to remember that truly confuses me. For example, I have the most serious recollection of a conversation, and though I remember the words and some of the features of the woman dealing out those words, I have no idea why I remembered it.
It all happened when I took the D train down to Manhattan. I should have noticed something was a amiss when the bearded woman, smelling like piss and beer, sat down next to me. Suddenly, the subway, usually underground in this part of the Bronx, jolted back and forth and the lights went out as it lurched and came to a stop. Slowly, it inched forward, and there I was, in a station in the middle of a meadow. It took me a second to realize that this was actually happening.
The woman leaned in to speak. “It’s nothing. It happens sometimes.”
I was sure that this just didn’t happen sometimes, but I just nodded, seeing that there was no one else in the car I was in and perhaps this woman could clear a few things up.
“Let me cogitate on how all religious texts, fiction or non-fiction, compete with all other stories, being that they are basically storytelling and thus reality-defining works. Yes, even the most degenerate genre book is, in some way, competing with a scientific review of, let’s say, AI, or must it?” the woman said as she leered at me.
I listened, even though I felt a rabbit-hole awaited me if I did.But I fought off these ideals and tried to listen. Because—and I imagine this is why dire environments lead to people accepting extremists as their shapers—what she was saying was starting to make sense: it made sense because of the unease I felt in my belly about the profession I had taken up, to include the very book I was reading and the story I was creating.
“They say the novel is dying, that no one is reading anymore. But people are reading plenty, aren’t they? So why is the novel so exalted?” She paused, sniffed loudly.
“A better question,” she said as she raised a finger. “Why are all these things being separated?”
I stared at her, perhaps realizing that she really was crazy and perhaps I was crazy for listening.
“Because are they different? No!” her voice boomed, shaking my chest. “Who was the greatest American Author?”
“Melville?” I said, after much thought.
She scoffed. “No, John Smith. Hands down the best. He dreamt big and had everyone believe that dream and had that dream come true. What do you think?”
I liked the answer and so I nodded and smiled.
She raised a finger, “damn good, eh? That’s what got me kicked out of the academy, people scared of such thinking. Fundamentalist is what they called me.”
“Do I look like ISIS?”
I looked at her beard for a second and gave a shaking of my head that meant maybe.
She chuckled. “Funny guy, eh?”
A pause. It might have been that she hadn’t been near a joke in years, that perhaps she’d only been the butt of them and now she was again. I apologized, and she muttered something: then looked at some cops entering from across the way. They told us to get out. When I asked how we could get back to New York, they scrunched up their faces and pointed out a trail through the meadow, telling me that when I came to a door with Cyrillic writing, it would be Midtown. We started down it. It was a clear blue day with the smell of cut grass in the air. It wasn’t long before the trail was soon cutting through brush land and we had to avoid the tiny branches with their large thorns. The woman hobbled beside me, looking not the slightest bit perturbed by the change in plans.
She talked on when the trail widened enough to fit two people. “Well that’s the thing: I was messin’ with the academy’s bread: the dividing of narrative, of searching for an explanation of reality, that’s how each of them had a niche and how each of them made a living. That’s even how the public,” she said as she saved her hand across the subway car, “reads. Try mixing the two in a book. Most will never read it. They’re trained to read one or another, to absorb what they can, but in one way. It’s more atomization. That keeps people separated—“
“Well people read what they want, no conspiracy needed,” I said, rather uncomfortable now, because it meant that my writing career, or whatever was left of it was turning out to be very impossible if what she said was true. But, I reminded myself, she was a madman, though I still wasn’t sure why I was listening to him.
By this time, the brush had given way to an open desert. The sun started to beat down, and I regretted not bringing some water. The trial, thankfully, was well tread. The woman offered me a drink of her wine. I refused, and she looked at me like I was a coward.
She pointed out some ruins in the distance. I stared at the crumbling statue of what looked to be a man. There were a few human skulls littered here and there to the side of the trail. I decided, sensing something amiss, not to go and explore.
She, perhaps sensing my hesitation, walked off the trail, disappeared and came back with a skull, jewelry studded in its teeth. She raised her eyebrows at me, the plucked the skull clean of its teeth. I walked on, and she scurried after me.
She grasped my elbow, “okay, maybe. But looking for the truth, trying to make sense of the reality. That’s what writing, what storytelling, what narration is all about. Myths, Gods, humans living their modern lives: it should all point somewhere, shouldn’t it?—“
“Isn’t looking for the truth now the purview of science?” I said.
She looked me over like I was nuts. “No, no, no. We’re not looking for some simple proof. What’s needed here is a complete truth. A way to dig deep,” she said as she clenched her fist and eyes. “Most novels, even the serious kinds, don’t even come close to that. Hell, most have given up. All they try to do now is to mimic what exists.” She tsked her annoyance at this trend.
And I edged away from her. Not that I wasn’t against such books; hated them, in fact. But as her eyes glowered at me, I sensed that she wanted me to contribute more to this unwanted conversation.
I shrugged. “Maybe there isn’t a truth, and their nihilism is justified.”
She shook her head. “I don’t think so, son. Only those in power want people to stop searching for the truth, to make sure the narratives given them are weak. That’s why these writers are so weak, so unimaginative: they’re tools for the powerful. And look how they’re paid. just look. All of them from those with money.”
“So,” said I, uncomfortable with her line of thinking. “You want more religion in your books?”
She shook her head hard, the tendons in her spine cracking. “No, no, no. I mean that the truth needs to be searched for.”
“So science,” I said, somewhat tired at her metaphysical view of life.
As a lizard darted in front of us, she gave me a look of pure disgust. “It doesn’t matter what the vehicle is, but the direction. Do you understand?”
I nodded my head even though I didn’t understand.
“That’s why the novel is dead, it was heading in the wrong direction. Might be why religion seems to be making a comeback.”
Silence. I stewed in the ridiculous conclusion she had just cooked up. I wondered if it was the beard, the being on the fringes of society that made her so wrong-headed. That perhaps she was so belittled by society that she wanted to belittle it back.
The sun was beating down hard at this point, and I was pricked with the thought that I could, if no shade was found, find myself as one of these sun-bleached skulls. Luckily, the trail meandered its way up to a carved out canyon, deep in the desert rock. The cool shade and the trickles of water were a godsend. Here, the canyon was painted with what looked to be prehistoric pictures. I looked closely at one near the canyon floor. It was a series of people praying prostrate to a large circle.
“Well,” I said, “that if the present seems doomed, and I’d said the past is a relic, and thus no real blueprint, that the narrative—as you would have it—is simply doomed.”
“As I would have it,” she muttered. “This fuck.” she jerked her thumb at me.”We will always have narrative!” she boomed, the echoes of her voice bouncing down the canyon. “And if it isn’t searching for the truth, it will be lies. Cacophonous lies. And our society will grow weaker for it.”
“Aren’t religions, myths, lies?” I asked, fishing, of course, for more proof of her madness.
“They are in the right direction,” she yelled as spittle flew from her mouth. “They tried. Twitter feeds. They’re nothing!”
I nodded politely and was absolutely ecstatic to see the door we had been looking for. I went through and found myself coming up on a section of Columbus Circle, right behind the statue. I made sure to lose myself in the throng of people. And then, I tried to forget everything that woman had been trying to tell me. But the more I tried, the deeper her words embedded themselves in my mind.
This is life, isn’t it? Meeting those crazies with their deep and possibly batshit theories. This one, however, stuck with me. Unnerved me so much that at the end of the day I was arguing with a friend—a scientist—that what her research did was at best provide material comforts to people, to weak people, whilst at its worse it only makes it easier to kill innocents in some odd spiral for more material comfort. All of it was for the spiritually weal, that only writing could tackled that frontier.
“You okay?” she asked after the silence had allowed what I said to boomerang and already made me feel bad. I was a staunch atheist, what need did I have to speak of spirituality?
“You seem to be lauding the metaphysical.”
“Yeah, I’m not sure,” I explained the bearded woman, though I made sure to leave out the trip we had to take to get back into the city.
“You can’t listen to these people. They’re crazy—“
“But shouldn’t we be able to refute that which they say?”
She shook her head. “You can’t. That’s why they’re crazy. If could refute what they said they would only be stupid.”
I agreed, and my mind relaxed then. But when I got back to writing, I wondered if I should have figured out a way to, when I write, include the trip through the mystical land and somehow have the bearded woman as a protagonist.
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