Pushcart 2020 XLIV: Joanna Scott, “Infidels” from Conjunctions #71

Victor Hugo: Lace and Ghosts, ca. 1855

Victor Hugo: Lace and Ghosts, ca. 1855

It was a damp November afternoon in Paris in 1887 when the man who would be identified in the book only as “C” suffered the first symptoms of the affliction that would make him noteworthy. He had risen from his nap and settled comfortably into his armchair by the window overlooking the Place des Vosges. Droplets from the thick fog ran like tears down the exterior of the glass. A wood fire crackled and filled the room with its soothing fragrance.1

1 I came across the story of C when I was browsing at a used bookstore in Ithaca. I read the case history while standing in the aisle. Stupidly, I left without purchasing the book. When I returned for it later, the book was gone. I don’t recall the title. C’s story, however, left an indelible impression in my mind.

This is one of those offbeat stories: I can’t quite get a handle on it, but it fascinates me. It presents as walking a fine line between fiction and nonfiction while skillfully dodging verifications. Telescoping narrations make it something like a walk through a maze of twisty little passages. And by complete coincidence (ah, yes, another coincidence; how I love these coincidences!) I happened to read something this morning that might be relevant. Or not. And this is going to be one of those posts: way too long, meandering into tangential waters, and written more for my own edification and later recall than for readers. Sorry.

The first clever trick blurring the line between fiction and fact is the (unnamed first person) narrator’s description, quoted above, of how she came across the story of C. I avoid the “I read this somewhere but I can’t remember where” thing unless I must include something with a source I can’t find, but here, it’s used as a literary device. Combined with this is the second trick, footnotes, almost always associated with nonfiction but most recently popularized in fiction by DFW (LitHub tells me Infinite Jest doesn’t use footnotes at all, but, rather, endnotes, and explains the difference in terms of reading; I confess, I hate endnotes because they do force me to choose to continue in a straight line or take a brief detour and return, having lost forward momentum, but who am I to argue with DFW).

At this point C becomes something close to a third-person narrator within the first-person narration, and the setting shifts to 19th century Paris, specifically Place des Vosges. The story will necessarily inform us, a bit later, that this is the former location of French royalty, destroyed by Catherine de Medici after her husband, Henri II, was killed in a joust there; turns out she wasn’t crazy about the place to begin with, so what could be seen as a gesture of grief might just be an aesthetic choice and the cleaning out of a really big attic now that the owner is gone. But the location is important for another reason: it was where Victor Hugo lived for sixteen years. And, by the way, is the current home of the Maison de Victor Hugo, the museum containing, among other things, his drawings. I had not known Victor Hugo drew, but it seems he left behind thousands of critically acclaimed abstract and impressionistic works, one of which I’ve used as a header image above.

C is not a fan of fiction in general, and is even more emphatically not a fan of Hugo in particular:

He was secretly critical of contemporary men of letters and blamed novelists, especially, for pandering to the public and emptying their work of useful information. The worst of them, in his opinion, was Victor Hugo, who used to live in an apartment across the square. C had read a couple of novels and a book of verse by his former neighbor. He wasn’t inclined to read more. He wasn’t at all curious. What was there to be curious about if there was nothing to learn?

I love that line about “nothing to learn.” I’ve said many times that my favorite fiction teaches me something. Here, I learned a great deal about Places de Vosges, for example, and a bit about Victor Hugo. Sometimes we learn more intangible things from fiction: another point of view, how it feels to walk in someone’s shoes, the harmful effects of our own barely-noticed prejudices. But C feels the only learning to be done is to be found in military histories and biographies.

He is reading, in fact, on that day in 1887 when we come to know him. And another touch of nonfiction: a footnote informs us the passage C is reading is from Gibbons. I checked (of course I did; in a story like this, I check everything); indeed it is. But he has a problem: when he comes to the word infidels, he can’t read it.

Really, it should have been easy enough for C to comprehend. Yet, to his dismay, the word was utterly unintelligible. His eyes processed the letters in their correct order. His brain received the information in the usual fashion. He inhaled, and his oxygenated blood flowed briskly. All organs were seemingly in working order, and C was very much awake, utterly sober and self-aware, but the eight letters of that English word were as devoid of meaning as if he had never learned to read. …
The letters were so unrecognizable that infidel wasn’t even a word to him. It was a solid blankness, a splotch of spilled ink, an absolute nothing.

Our narrator goes on to explain how this was not the phenomenon known to contemporary neuroscience as semantic satiation, where repetition of a particular word renders it meaningless. I’ve read about this many times, but I’ve never had it happen to me; I’ll have to take it on faith that it’s a relatively common experience, though it is not C’s problem.

And again, a footnote, but instead of an intersection with nonfiction, it is itself a fiction: the cited article (claiming that mobile devices have reduced the vocabulary to the point where some words are repeated more often, causing “a dramatic uptick” in semantic satiation) and the journal it appears in are fictitious.The author names are nearly comedic exercises. Pissoralüpa? Really? Then again, if someone had tried to convince me that @southpaw was really Luppe Luppen, I would have thought that was a joke, so who’s to tell with names. But none of it is googleable, so I’m assuming it’s fictional. It’s a good thing, since a later footnote cites the same article as claiming that humanity will be illiterate by 2150, again, presumably, thanks to the internet (and I just put up a major rant about blaming the internet for all of society’s ills). Yet it’s the internet that convinces me the article is fictitious. Twisty passages, see?

Poor C’s troubles don’t end with the word infidel. He is momentarily relieved to find the other words are perfectly readable, until they aren’t. “It was as if the light within each letter went out one by one, until each word was dark.” Another great turn of phrase: meaning as a light within a word, a light that can, for reasons we don’t always understand, go out.

And here’s where personal coincidence comes in to play. This morning, before I started this post (I’d pulled quotes and done some preliminary research and art searching yesterday), I saw an article on Aeon about posterior cortical atrophy, a form of dementia that alters how the brain interprets the signals the eyes send. I was interested because I remember from some of my neuroscience moocs that the eyes send signals from light falling on the retina, but the image, what we see, is created in the brain. When that goes awry, a street can look like an ocean, and words like smudges. Granted, this is not C’s problem any more than semantic satiation. His problem is specific to words, not all vision. And while strokes and other brain lesions can affect reading, they typically would affect speech as well. Still, there are interesting parallels, and the brain is the true undiscovered country.

By the way: why did Scott chose infidel as the word that would signal such a calamity? In the present American climate it’s a bit loaded, but would it have been in 1887’s Paris? Does it fit C for his distaste for Hugo, for fiction in general? Does the use of this word convey some sense of punishment being wrought upon him? And why is the word pluralized in the title? Are there other infidels in the story?

Now the narrator briefly enters the story. She describes a 1981 trip to Paris, during which time she wandered through the Place des Vosges and had a conversation with an elderly Parisian woman who told her the history of the site. It seems there is a ghost story connected to it as well: the woman claims the ghost of Henri II frequents the park, and she has seen him several times herself.

I didn’t bother to wait around to see if the ghost of Henri II would make his entrance that evening. It had become increasingly obvious to me that the woman was suffering from senility. I could only hope that she was receiving adequate care. As for me, though I appreciate a good ghost story, I thought I could tell the difference between fiction and fact – until I stumbled across the story of C.

Don’t we all think we know the difference. By the way, I can’t find any reference to the ghost of Henri II, or anyone else, connected with the Place des Vosges.

We return to the final scene of the story. I won’t go into detail – it’s much better read – but will propose that it somewhat reprises the narrator’s trip to Paris by bringing C together with a ghost and a drawing. And, in that meeting, C realizes all that he has lost:

It occurred to him that he had judged Hugo’s work too harshly through the years. His inclination to find faults had dominated his reading experience. He realized that in his urge to be critical, he had missed the sheer, absorbing pleasure of Hugo’s books….
He had failed to fully savor the distinct satisfaction that comes with reading selflessly, propelled by selfless interest. All through his adult life, when his intellect was at its sharpest, he had positioned himself in competition with the books in the library. Now it was too late to start over. He had missed his chance.

I can’t help but think this is every author’s warning, or perhaps plea to every reader. While C’s story takes only one day, it seems to span centuries, from Henri II’s 16th to Victor Hugo’s 19th to our own 21st. I learned something about the past and the present, about history and literature and neuroscience. Blended in with the question of fiction or nonfiction is the nature of reading, and the difference between reading critically (which has its place) and pleasure reading, which can take on a broader sense of enjoying the world or finding fault because it is not perfect.

This is my second encounter with Scott. Pushcart 2016 featured her story “The Knowledge Gallery” which drove me mad trying to figure out the significance of the key element. I resorted to emailing Scott, and she was very gracious in her reply, for which I am still grateful.

Pushcart XL: Joanna Scott, “The Knowledge Gallery” from Conjunctions, #63

“You saved nothing?” I asked, unable to contain my disappointment. I’d been hoping that a woman of her advanced age would have a diary or two in a drawer, maybe index cards or even notes scrawled on the backs of those old envelopes used for Baronial Cards.
She idly tapped the tassel on the window blind to set it swinging. “My dear, multiply two by zero and it would be nothing. If, rather, you mean anything, then yes, the last of it went into recycling when I moved here.”

Let’s start here: two times zero isn’t nothing, it’s zero, and if you think zero is nothing, then 1 is the same as 1,000,000. But Eleanor Feal, the author being interviewed in the opening scene of our story, seems to understand the difference between nothing and not-anything, at least linguistically, as she calls NAP agent on her first sentence. Judging from the first sentence, and how it reads the second time around, I’m betting author Joanna Scott knows, too. So I wonder if something else is going on. But… what’s an NAP agent? I’m glad you asked.

If you’re confused, you’re gonna love this story, or maybe hate it. Sadly, it’s not available online. I can’t do it justice, not because I try to be spoiler-sensitive (there’s nothing to spoil; the story is in what happens after you read it, how you try to figure it out, not in any plot twist or character-expanding surprise), but because it’s all still churning around in my head and I’m not sure I’ll ever get it to sit still for analytical parsing. I don’t think it’s the kind of story that was written to sit still.

Let’s start with a thumbnail sketch: sometime between now and 2052, paper is outlawed for ecological reasons, and everything is uploaded to the Cloud. This works out great until, well, you know what’s gonna happen. It happens to our unnamed narrator:

I was twenty-five years old and confidence that all was going according to plan. I agreed with my peers that we were living in a golden age. Except for the endless skirmish in northern Nigeria, the world was at peace. Every question had an answer… Until the morning when I was typing the final sentences of chapter two of my dissertation on my laptop, writing the words –
What words? Maybe something close to these words I’m writing now, surely involving dependent clauses, nouns, and article, an adverb, whatever, I’ll never know because I can’t remember the specific words, only the experience of watching the loop of a b break away from its stem, an o dissolve, an a sink to the bottom of the screen and disappear, replaced by symbols:⊆Σфℜξω, and on and on in a blur where there had once been sentences.

The National Archive Project is formed (aha! So that’s what NAP is) to recover the lost materials, and our narrator’s specialty is the subject of her pre-crash dissertation: Avanti literature. She’s running into some difficulties with this: each author wants to talk about, not his or her own work, but about another author. So our agent’s list of authors grows longer – she’s spoken to 27 writers in the present of the story – yet she has not recovered anything other than a list of names. Notice: she has not recovered nothing.

It’s the details that make this a story about, first of all, storytelling, of course, but also, about nothing vs zero vs absence of what was, about days of future past and past future and what is the present anyway, all in a self-referential inward spiral that leaves me chasing after one element, then another, until I get back to where I started from the center. It’s great fun. And I don’t think I’ve caught the half of it.

The many details lead to a number of comments, which, as hard as I’ve tried to organize them, simply come at me in different ways every time I approach them. So I will just start, and hope a structure emerges. Or doesn’t, as the case may be.

I see some logical holes in the story (why destroy paper that’s already been made? but many of our laws are incongruous) but I suspect they are wormholes with meaning rather than oversights or writer’s choices for streamlining. Example: so much of the named technology remains the same (the Cloud, FaceTime, Macs). That’s a tricky point for future stories, because if you have to spend all your time explaining that Arcus (or whatever) is what used to be the Cloud, you’re going to clutter things up. In a novel, you can show a character using Arcus, and the clever reader (the only reader a clever writer expects) will at some point realize, “Oh, Arcus is the Cloud.” But this is a short story, and a rather short short story at that: twelve pages. It could be called a writer’s choice, a compromise in the interests of clarity, and a wise one. But… could it be something else? Could it contribute to the cyclical, spiral connection between past, present, and future, another theme of the story?

The crash scene is wonderful. If you’ve ever been in a communal computer room, you know how it goes: the gasps, the groans, the terror that sweeps the room. I used such a computer room when I finished up college in the mid-80s (hey, so it took me a while, shut up) and this scene perfectly captures those days, in November and May, when twenty of us simultaneously realized the 20-page term paper due in two days was stuck somewhere we couldn’t reach. I’ve heard stories of writers who lost entire novels to a bad hard drive. Getting writers to back up their work was, until the Cloud, like pitching colonoscopies: nobody does it until they have a scare, and sometimes, it’s too late.

Beyond the amusement and self-recognition, I’m intrigued by the text that appeared in place of English on the computer screen, pictured above. The story isn’t clear if those are the only characters, if they’re repeated, if they’re just the first characters and what follows is random scattering of other characters we don’t realize we have unless we really look. But it occurred to me, all of those characters have mathematical meaning. Take a look at the symbols easily available on Word: they include various languages and linguistic symbols, currency symbols, arrows, corners, musical notes. All of the characters shown here, however, are mathematical. Subset. Sigma (summation). Phi, the “golden ratio”. Fraktur-R, the real portion of a complex number. Xi, the perennially lost “x” algebra students are forever trying to find, among other meanings. Omega, the first transfinite ordinal, a countably infinite set (and thanks to MIT’s “Paradox and Infinity” mooc, I have a vague idea of what this means) – and, to those of us who just read and don’t math, the End. Is there some meaning to these characters?

I asked for a math consult (thank you, Purgy!) to see if these characters might form a pun, a rebus, or have some other meaning when viewed by someone knowledgeable about math, but nothing stood out to him, so it could be they’re just random symbols. Perhaps the mathematical sense of all of them is meant to echo computer code. Or perhaps it’s something neither of us has thought of (Purgy hasn’t read the story, and I’m a mathematical idiot). I can see some possibilities – something about infinite self-reference, spiraling inward deeper and deeper until it collapses on itself like a black hole and nothing can escape but black-body radiation, a nothingness that isn’t nothing at all, but an immensely dense something. [Addendum: I pulled out the last stop and emailed the author, who, in her kind response, assured me the characters were random and had no meaning. I’ll admit, I’m a bit disappointed – but those who don’t want to face the truth should not seek it]

Oh, yeah, by the way, black holes crop up in the story, too, in connection with a minor discussion our NAP agent has on crash day with a tech support geek who’s popping doughnut holes as she impatiently waits for him to solve her computer problem:

“I don’t really understand why they call them holes,” he said at last.
“If it were up to me, I’d call them centers.” I realized he was talking about the doughnut holes only when he offered the bowl to me, inviting me to take one. “I mean, the holes are what they leave behind, not what they are. It’s like saying their absence. Identifying them with the space they once filled.”
I wanted to say something insulting, but the rest of my day depended upon this techie’s ability to recover my files. I needed his know-how, as did the students who are lining up behind me.
“A whole is a hollow space in a solid body.” He tapped the escape button on the keyboard several times. FaceTime on his Mac rang. “Hang on, will you?” He said to his screen. “On the other hand, there are black holes, defined by such a strong gravitational pull that no matter can escape. They’re interesting, don’t you think?”

It’s not just two times zero, and “You saved nothing” versus “you didn’t save anything”. The story, a story about lost literature, is full of nothing that is the absence of anything that makes it something.

And then we have the Avanti writers.

Another consult, this time on language (thanks, Silvia!): The Italian word “Avanti” means “go forward” or, more colloquially, “get a move on”, but in the distant past, was used in the sense of “before”, probably acquiring the current sense from “going forward from x you find y, therefore x is before y”. I wonder if this is more of the shifting timescape. And, by the way, for contemporary Italians, Avanti conjures up a newspaper, which is also interesting: a news paper. Later in the text, a caretaker says to Eleanor Feals: “Andiamo” which, as any Italian opera buff knows, means “let’s go,” a similar exhortation that, however, includes both the speaker and the hearer. Avanti, to andiamo. You, to we.

In terms of its basic elements, Avantism was as diverse as literature itself. There were mysteries, tragedies, farces, fictional biographies, and biographical fictions. One novel used an encyclopedic structure, with chapters arranged alphabetically by subject. Another built its narrative out of a collage of quotes taken from other Avanti texts. Some authors concentrated on providing rich scenic details; others strove to give their characters an expansive interiority. All of the manuscripts were handwritten. Finished books were produced by expert letterpress printers on wove pearlescent paper, with painted cloth bindings.
What united the Avanti authors, besides the care they took with the printing of their books, was there dystopian imaginations. All the Avanti novels I read, plus those I knew of through hearsay, were set in an apocalyptic future, where civilization had deteriorated either into anarchy or tyranny.…
The Avantis prided themselves on scorning publicity. They had no websites, send no tweets, and were rarely photographed. Their work appeared only in hard copy. Once all publications became electronic, the Avantis refused to publish at all, sharing manuscripts only among themselves. The general public was indifferent. By the time I’d narrowed down the subject of my dissertation, few people had ever heard of the Avantis; fewer still had read any of their books.

These are the authors, then, who, when their work in the Cloud is lost, keep referring our NAP agent to other writers rather than discussing their own books. There’s something very odd about that. It’s not exactly a return to telling stories around the fire in the cave, it’s not exactly a game of telephone since there’s no message being passed along. I’m not sure what it is, but I’m sure it’s significant. A network of nothing, taking the place of that which is now absent. It’s something.

I’m something of a fan of temporary art: Phil Hansen’s tattooed bananas, Kurt Wenner’s sidewalk chalk anamorphics, Andres Amador’s sand pictures, Simon Beck’s snow art. There’s something about the evanescence that makes it feel all the more precious, something about loss that makes the having all the sweeter, something about the focus on the process that shames our focus on results. If we were immortal, we’d have scientists working on a way of achieving death.

I wonder if our obsession with capturing every moment on our always-present cameras blunts the present, makes us favor the past, artificially preserved past at that, rather than memory. Maybe that’s what Avanti is saying: Onward. Get a move on. And then, when our intrepid NAP agent (yes, I do love that acronym) shows up: “Let’s go.” Together.

We expect Pushcart stories to be very, very good. They’ve been chosen three times: once for publication, again for submission to the Editors, and a third time by those Editors. But “good” is such a bad description. Some are good in the “awww… that was really nice” sense. Some are good in the “wow, I can’t believe she did that, why didn’t I think of that” sense. And some, like this one, are good in the “I can’t stop thinking about this” sense. It’s possible, of course, that I’m overreading, or I’m captivated by something that is, to the more sophisticated reader, been-there-done-that. One of the reasons I have faith that this story has so much more to it than I can read is that it was nominated for its Pushcart by JCO; that could mean anything, but it doesn’t mean nothing. Another reason is that Scott won a Macarthur “genius” grant in 1992, so chances are she’s writing above my grade level.

I’ll be staring at those mathematical characters for a long time. Most, I’ve encountered already, albeit at a very elementary level. I will probably encounter them again. Maybe some day, the answer will leap out at me. Or maybe someone will see this, and from a greater breadth of understanding, suggest something that clicks. In any case, I believe there’s something wonderful here, something just beyond the reach of my fingertips. I just have to stretch a little more to grasp it.