Pushcart XLI: Daniel Mason, “The Line Agent Pascal” from Zoetrope #19.4

Every morning, Hippolyte Pascal, Agent of the Line at Urupá, woke to the sun and the sound of parrots, rose from his hammock, dressed, set a battered kettle on the fire, and crossed his tiny station to check the signal.
At 0800, if the Line was in order, he would receive the first transmission from the Depot, followed shortly by the second from the agent at Várzea Nova, eighty–two kilometers into the interior, and the third, from Juá. Then he would reply, “Pascal, Urupá,” and the hour, and the others would answer in turn: Fernandes, fifty–eight kilometers forward at Itiraca, Bonplan at Macunarímbare, Wilson–Jones at Canaã, the Jesuit Perez at the Mines. The report would come next, minor variations on the previous morning: a band of Nambikwara sighted near Bonplan’s station, a rotted telegraph pole at Itiraca, a call for fresh provisions, a request for gunpowder. And then he would rise and pour himself his coffee and set about his day.

The story is set in the 19th century Brazilian jungle and features agents on the telegraph lines linking the mines to civilization. But that’s just the surface. I’m not sure if Mason intended it to be a metaphor for the social media age, but it is:

Because it was impossible to see beyond one or two paces into the forest that surrounded the station clearing, it mattered little whether civilization was one kilometer away or a thousand. What mattered was the Line. Sometimes he thought: It is as if they are next door, for when I speak, they listen, and they need only to call out for me to respond. There were few men, he told himself, in such immediate contact with other people. Other times he thought, with an exhilaration that was almost dizzying: I am the loneliest man in the world.

Tell me that isn’t about 21st century anomie, about being connected to the entire world 24/7 through a gadget in our pocket but being alone. The story conflates technology and nature, loneliness and connection. The connections formed over the telegraph line are as ephemeral, and as real, and as prone to interpretation and projection, as any internet crush:

… The act stayed with him for a very long time. Indeed, years later, alone in his hut, or walking out in the right-of-way, staring at the ever-encroaching forest, at the high-wire slung in great loops from the tall poles like beggar’s crutches, Agent Pascal found himself marveling at this realization that he could live in the thoughts of another person, a realization that appeared to him no less a miracle than if he had somehow been twinned.

It’s a wonderful thing, to know you live in the thoughts of another person.

In a recent post I commented that nothing really happened in a story, and I wasn’t sure what to do with it. Nothing happens in this story either, but I love the way nothing happens, the sense of what it’s like for these people to be connected by a telegraph wire, to be in each others’ thoughts. It’s quite remarkable that the very climax of the story is, literally, nothing happens, when something was expected to happen; the implications of nothing happening at that moment create a moment of exquisite tension which leads to a moment of immense sorrow, then stoicism, resignation, and, maybe, a touch of horror. The horror is rather voluntary, I think;the reader may pick it up and run with it, or not, as she chooses.

Mason’s an interesting guy. He can’t decide if he wants to be a doctor or a writer, so he’s both: he’s published two novels and several short stories, including this one, and is an attending psychiatrist at Stanford; he’s taught both as a Stegner fellow in the Creative Writing department, and as medical school faculty with such anthro-medical courses as “Psychosis in Literature” and “Culture and Madness”. And now he’s connected me most effectively, through the story, with the line agent Pascal.

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2 responses to “Pushcart XLI: Daniel Mason, “The Line Agent Pascal” from Zoetrope #19.4

  1. I had the same thought as you that this story of the very first electronic communications networks were meant to be a commentary-through-time on our modern addictions to such networks, how we feel our virtual relationships are real to us, how the world shrinks to the screen in front of our faces.

    But there’s also a couple of passages that make me think the heart of the narrative is in Pascal’s character. He’s kind of an accidental loner–he’s almost surprised to realize he is one. But during his one trip to the big city, he has what might be seen as a kind of panic attack during a tryst with a prostitute: “he was passing perilously close to a zone of fracture, as one might feel the ground give imperceptibly and know the entire mountain could give way.” Later, just thinking about going to smaller town makes “the ground move” beneath him. He imagines he will hide forever in the wilderness rather than leave his solitude, even if the mine (and therefore the network) is shut down.

    There is something kind of big that happens at the end, isn’t there? Wilson-Jones, the guy Pascal felt closest to, disappears.

    I’m ultimately not sure what the “something great and wondrous heaving past” from the forest is at the end. It’s something that returns Pascal from fantasy to reality. It makes me wonder if the heart of this thing is a guy with a very tenuous hold on belonging to human society, who is eternally about to fly off the merry-go-round of society into the outer darkness, but there is some thin wire holding him to some form of human attachment. The “great and wondrous” thing recalls the miraculous appearance of the goddess who emerges from the forest to help with the birth of a child.

    • I love that the ending is so open-ended. Does Pascal die? Mentally implode? Is it the spirit of Wilson-Jones saying goodbye? I get the sense that little will change overall, however: the forest will erase any memory, the telegraph line will go on with a new person (or people), a kind of erasure.

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