From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

The Plagiarist

I have often noticed that after I had bestowed the characters of my novels some treasured item of my past, it would pine away in the artificial world where I had so abruptly placed it…[becoming] more closely identified with my novel than with my former self, where it had seemed to be so safe from the intrusion of the artist.

–Nabokov

It’s a rare thing–your leaving the office after sundown–and slightly disorienting, not unlike waking from a deep sleep, or stepping into the daylight after a matinee.

You’re glad to be out of there, away from your computer, the oppressive fluorescents, the endless queue of books, each lobbying for your attention. Recasting the world’s literature onto an electronic database is hardly the enlightening, Zen-like task people presume it to be. It’s neither monotonous enough to be meditative, nor involved enough to be stimulating.

Outside, a brisk evening gale burns the cheeks. You slip on your leather gloves, the ones that make you look like a strangler, and head south towards the subway.

In the icy, ash-scented air, the city appears lapidary, all gauzy and glazed like a comic book metropolis. Frozen condensation weeps down the sides of buildings in swooping sags. A frail woman with corn silk hair pumps open her umbrella; you’d thought for a second she was uncorking a bottle.

Something about the gesture calls to mind a chapter of last night’s dream. You were lost in a hotel, frantically looking for your room. When you finally located it, you were shocked to find it occupied by a another man with your name; a man who had surreptitiously slid in to your space, like “castling” in chess, and was in fact withdrawing from your account, drinking your wine and groping your wife.

Only now, of course, does it occur to you that the plot of your dream was itself a pale imitation of Dostoevsky’s novel, The Double, a gloomy book you’d recently uploaded to the archive. This seems to confirm a discouraging truth: you are not even original in your dreams.

A blade of light swishes over your face, a cab lumbering past.

The foggy November sheen lends a brushed chrome luster to the darkening cobalt sky. Streaks of water slide down hotel awnings to drip from their fringed tassels.

Down below, the air is thick with subterranean fumes: starchy, alkaline. You clank through the turnstile and climb aboard the crowded subway seconds before it departs. Clods of slushy snow are flecked across the ridged tin floor. A seat is vacated as a jowly businessman collects his belongings and galumphs toward the door, wheezing. You slip into his place, fold your damp coat over your lap.

Across from you, between a sinuous bag lady and a squirming boy in an oversized winter coat, is a pale young woman, twenty-six perhaps, with a neatly trimmed Cleopatra hairstyle, long leather boots and a silt-green pea coat. In her hand is a crimson paperback whose title you can’t quite make out.

She makes a furtive glance your way, chestnut eyes meeting yours for a timid moment. There’s a faint fluttering in your chest. You dare not look back too soon, lest she suspect you’re ogling.

Does she remind you of someone? No one in particular, anyway–more like an archetype or character you’ve come across. Why not give her a name? You search your mind for something fitting, something appropriately graceful, both vague and distinctive… Ylajali. It was the name Knut Hamsun’s nameless narrator in Hunger gave to the beauty he kept spotting throughout that labyrinthine city. A melodious sound– Ylajali; you’d loved its palindromic legato, the clean wisp of air through the mouth.

The woman gets up at the next stop. You follow her with your eyes, anticipating the pain of her departure from your life forever.

You notice, however, that her book is still on the bench. Deftly, you step across the aisle and grab it; the bag lady gasps, shoots you a ferocious glower, but before you can call out to its owner, the doors have already slid closed. The train jerks forward and Ylajali’s green coat vanishes in the tunnel’s dark sleeve.

Resuming your seat, you regard the dog-eared paperback. It’s a sorry little thing, cheaply printed, poorly preserved. You detest these kinds of books, these disposable factory-farmed fictions. Not that you’ve ever read one. But the title, embossed in golden brown text, is enough to confirm your suspicions:

~ The Mystery of Mr. I ~

Otherwise, there’s nothing on the front page, no image, not even the author’s name. You shake it upside down to see if anything was left inside. You check the publisher on the inside cover–Castaway Press, © 1972, Marblehead, MA. A crime novel? Horror?

Part of you is eager to read what the woman has herself read. Perhaps you can learn something about her through it–her taste, desires, or something else entirely. Every book is ionized with the gaze of the previous owner, their personal envisionings of the author’s world, and you can’t help entertain the fanciful thought that by stepping into her place, aligning your imagination with hers, you’ll cross some mystical synapse and enlace.

The spine is warped, the signatures glue-crackled with age. A musty scent is loosed as you flip to the bookmarked page, the sealed remnants of volatile paperdust. There are many underlinings and brackets and tiny cursive notes scribbled into the margins. In fact, every page has such notes and underlinings, the work of at least three separate inks. Are these cryptic notes-to-self the product of successive readings by a single fan, or do they represent decades of varying ownership?

At the top of the page is the second half of a grimly described industrial city–presumably New York, though it could just as easily be Pittsburgh or El Paso or Chicago–a hunkering 30’s-ish landscape of rusting water towers and clustered tenements. The scent of fried fish and low tide. Violet mid-morning skies. The cawing of crows, the distant baying of an elevated train.

The description is as drab as the things being described. Passages are clunky, arrhythmic. Adjectives seem just slightly off, the way work in translation often is, though is English not the author’s native tongue?

But through these near-miss descriptions emerges a kind of gamy resin between the words. Somehow this narrator, this first person, broad-shouldered and stubble-cheeked, a natural storyteller and unnatural writer, seems actually to exist here in the present. He is standing behind you, breathing warm wafts of gin-breath over your shoulder.

It makes you want a bath.

And you follow “I” through this lacerated world. Ragged tenements and disemboweled supply depots and industrial foundries with soot-blackened smokestacks. The humidity is stifling here. The air is rich with hot tar. Steam plumes from street gratings, the vapor of septic-extract and sewer rats. It is the opposite of that other place, the pristinely silent, white-frosted city.

Shadowing the narrator, you trudge through the steaming sweating wasteland, the grimy puddles and sticky, urine-scented hollows of downtown Anytown. The windowless mills churn their alloys into heavy scraps, factories heat bubbling cauldrons of polyurethane into malleable strips of foam rubber.

The body is discovered. We find the gnarled corpse at the bottom of an elevator shaft among a small crowd of duck-like inspectors. The mangled figure is described in an unsettling way. Unsettling because it is unpoetic, clinically detached like a forensic report, the way someone who has seen many such horrors would describe it. We follow our man across town as he makes the first round of interviews–and introduces us to the first round of suspects. The bespectacled professor, blowing distending wreaths of pellucid pipesmoke; the long-lashed widow, slender legged and foul-mouthed; the quick-witted politician with the black briefcase; the ubiquitously ambling newspaper reporter in his wind-beaten trench coat; the monocled hotel concierge stroking his patchy white beard.

A strange thing happens as you read. Because you have been following the scrawled margin notes along with the story itself, you begin to acquire the sense that you are reading one work; that both the novel and the comments on the novel are a single entity, composed and delivered by a single consciousness.

The plot thickens.

Could it be that the suspects are unsuspecting pawns in a larger scheme? That this murder was perpetrated by a larger force, looming and invisible and impossible to track? I probes deeper into the puzzle and you probe with him, scavenging for clues. You scuffle with a hot-tempered barfly. You bribe the night man at the docks and learn something of a freighter called “The Nightingale.” You are lured into the temptations of the widow only to find her gone by morning, and the microfilm with her. You walk the humid, noisy streets at dusk, the sun serrating the violet clouds. And you drink. The first gin loosens the throat, the second hits the bloodstream. You find the widow dead on the balcony of her hotel room, throat slashed, her bloody shawl snapping in the wind. You question the tight-lipped bellboy whose silence speaks volumes.

The story webs its way through the city’s ulcered underbelly. The flea-ridden abodes of squatters and junkies share company on the page with the opulent lofts of nefarious kingpins. Red herrings abound. Does the presence of the skeleton key give relevance to the locked closet? Do the wooden bifocals at the crime scene incriminate the myopic pawnbroker? Is the Chinese anagram a secret confession of Mr. I?

The sheer amount of information is dizzying, too much to hold in the head at once. The narrative is like a dry mechanical outline, a generation removed from something truly awful. You imagine the physics of bullet propulsion, the engineering principles of bone fracture, the boiling point of human blood. Diagrams of death.

The margin notes don’t help. They are rife with questions as well as literary asides. See Keeler, reads one. Ostranenia? reads another. The jargon requires its own decryption. You feel tipsy as you take it all in, opening to the pulpy otherness of this savage and beaten world. A part of you wonders if the margin notes are themselves clues. You have become so suspicious of every sentence, every contrivance, that you have extended it to the space outside the body text. Could an author incorporate his own commentary into the very work as a device to deepen the mystery? All you know is that the murder had something to do with a game.

To compound the mystery, new characters seem to appear on every page. Not only that, but you are becoming aware that their spellings are changing. Christina, the butcher’s daughter, introduced in chapter 2, is now spelled “Kristina,” while another character, Kristin, the locksmith’s wife, vanishes from the story entirely. Meanwhile, you are sure that every time the librarian’s assistant is mentioned, there is something different about her–she speaks at first with a cockney accent, and the next time with more of an Irish lilt. Sometimes there is a silent “e” at the end of her name and at others, a second “r.” The limping boatman favors his right leg in one scene and his left in another; the bartender, first referred to as “mustachioed,” is later described as “goateed.”

Flummoxed by the continuously shifting spellings, facts, chronologies, tenses and relationships, you flip back to an earlier chapter in the hopes of confirming the first appearance of the lion tamer, the chief suspect. Strangely, however, you are unable to locate the man’s introduction. In place of where you remember it being stands a passage that, ironically, you don’t recall at all. You are certain the lion tamer emerged from the brackish mist of the harbor after “The Nightingale” had docked–there was the sound of a great mooring, you remember, the vulture squawk of the freighter nudging the wooden pier, the black tide lapping the rusty hull–and that the beshadowed circus performer had corporealized through the backlit fog.

But neither the man nor the scene appears to exist. Of course, you cannot be sure because the pages are not numbered, but the place where it seemed to have been is now quite clearly devoted to an extended taxonomy of fishing tackle. Could you have been daydreaming…?

You skip forward a hundred-odd pages. Scanning the text, you find not one familiar name. Instead, there is an intricate and quite technical description of a puzzle–presumably a text within the text, an excerpted historical treatise of some sort. The game is described as having its roots in a Persian algorithm kept hidden for centuries by a secret order of ostracized monks. The monks followed the teachings of Hassan al Jafar, who in the 9th Century had discovered a serial recursion which he’d claimed contained the solution to all possible paradoxes, but which could also incite great evil if applied by wicked or unworthy men. The monks sought to protect the algorithm, but were killed off over the centuries by fanatical numerologists eager to harness its power. Unguarded, the clandestine code was seized and embedded into an algebraic puzzle. Algebra, or in Arabic, al-jabr, literally translates as “the reunion of broken parts.” Those who solved the game, who had successfully reunited the fragments, were privy to an otherworldly wisdom, an illumination of all the otherwise insoluble antimonies of existence; those who failed were themselves shattered and banished to oblivion.

As you read this, a cold dread brews. What if this book is that very puzzle? Are you caught in a kind of living labyrinth, a system of tangled actions, dead ends, fortifying paths and fictions within fictions which shifts behind you, reassembling itself in response to your choices?

A silly thought. You’re embarrassed to have thought it.

With a shrug, you flip to the beginning–yes, the same macabre setting. Exhausted skies and grease-glazed storefront windows, the same ghostly foghorns moaning across the bay, the milky lighthouse beam panning into the bottomless night.

One man lies crushed at the well of the hoistway. Another is drinking wine in a hotel, pretending to be someone he is not.

Alex Rose is a founding editor of Hotel St. George Press in Brooklyn. He has written for The New York Times, Fantasy Magazine, The Reading Room, North American Review, The Forward, and DIAGRAM. His debut story collection, The Musical Illusionist, was published in October of 2007 to critical acclaim.

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