From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

COSMIC POWERS

Fiction

Using It and Losing It

They sent Pratt to Montreal for a three-day conference, but after the first day he stopped attending the meetings, and spent the remainder of the long weekend wandering around the streets of the city. He liked Montreal, though at first he didn’t understand why. It reminded him of America, of the United States; not the least bit exotic—in fact it was startlingly familiar. The only difference was that he couldn’t understand what other people were saying. And that was what he liked.

Pratt had taken Spanish in high school. He passed the classes, but only narrowly, and he didn’t retain any memory of the language. He certainly didn’t have any handle on the French he heard around him in Montreal. He went to the store for cigarettes and pointed; first at the brand he wanted, then at the bowl of matches behind the cash register. He switched on the television in his hotel room and watched the news in French (weathermen gesturing at the odd Canadian-based map) and was unable to understand anything; all he could puzzle out were the categories: international news, local items, sports, weather, human interest. The news seemed very simple that way; reduced to a series of formats it became oddly small and comprehensible.

Pratt felt alone. He felt alone in New York, and it was a feeling he thrived on; his aloneness insulated him, made it possible for him to live in the city. Now, in Montreal, he felt the flowering within himself of a potential for a new kind of aloneness, something much deeper, and something more unique. Walking alone through a city of strangers, unable to share their language, suggested enticing possibilities to him.

Back in New York the following week Pratt walked the distance to work, stopped in at his accustomed cigar store to buy cigarettes, and rode the elevator upstairs to his office; in short, his standard routine, without deviation—yet it didn’t feel right. Pratt felt hemmed in by the people around him for the first time, his invisible Gardol shield of isolation stripped mysteriously away. He heard snippets of conversation as he passed or was passed on the sidewalks, and the packets of language landed unbidden on the doorstep of his consciousness, and intruded on his cool solitary thoughts. The cigar man struck up a needless conversation about the humidity, despite Pratt’s silently pointing at the desired items, the way he had in Montreal.

Pratt isolated himself in his office, put his folder of papers into the bottom drawer of his desk, then gathered the accumulated interoffice memos of the last week and balled them up and threw them away without reading them. Pratt had learned something about not being reached in Montreal, and he determined to apply it directly to his job. At some deeper level he knew that such an attitude would quickly mean the end of his job, but he could live with that. The path he was about to follow would lead him far beyond his job. He was on the verge, he felt, of developing a philosophy.

Pratt wondered what came next. He was carefully retying his shoelaces when the door to his office opened. It was Glock, Pratt’s supervisor, and the man who’d chosen Pratt for the Montreal deal. Glock didn’t come into the office; he leaned in the doorway, crossing his arms. His face was expressive and rubbery; now it expressed a scowl.

“You didn’t find things interesting in Montreal? Geez. You should’ve called. Northern’s guy really liked you, he really did, he called me to ask if anything was the matter. What’s the matter? Didn’t you like the guy? He said you two hit it off. That’s a good connection, Pratt. You should’ve called, we could have talked about it. What’s the matter?”

Pratt winced at the flood of language Glock undammed in his direction. He couldn’t even remember the guy from Northern. “I don’t feel good,” he told Glock.

“Geez. You don’t look that good. You don’t feel good? You didn’t feel good?”

“I didn’t feel good.”

“You should have called. You don’t feel good? Geez, go home. This isn’t high school, Pratt. Go home if you don’t feel good.”

Pratt went home. He did his best to avoid overhearing conversations on the way back, taking side streets and veering wide when he passed couples or groups of people. A gray man with a tattered hat stepped up from against the side of a building and stuck his hand out at Pratt. “Spare change man? I gotta get something to eat.” Pratt edged away from him without answering.

By the time he was safely back in his apartment Pratt had formulated his new ambition: He wanted a divorce from the English language. He felt amazed at the simplicity and grace of his plan. The relationship he strove to strike up with the world was uniquely shallow: The world consistently misunderstood, and pressed him for further commitment. Pratt wanted to turn the world down, definitively this time, and the abandonment of the language of his fellow men seemed to him the perfect embodiment of this ideal.

Pratt knew from lifelong experience that words sometimes slipped free of their meanings when he repeated them over and over, or wrote them down again and again; they became abstract, and refused to adhere. Words could hemorrhage, and bleed empty of their lifeblood meaning. He decided to perfect this technique, if it could be perfected, to systematize it, and through it, forget the entirety of the English language. The very thought of it made him hungry and impatient for this loss, for the empty completeness of it, like a man finally stepping free of his shadow, yet he knew it would take a long time—years perhaps. Pratt didn’t mind. He knew he could rein in his impatience, he knew he had what it took. He knew he was good for it.

Nonetheless, Pratt shook with excitement. He went into the living room and sat down in the middle of the couch, fighting to breathe evenly and cleanly, struggling not to cross his legs. I’ll start now, he told himself, and began searching for a word with which to begin. I’ll lose my first words first, he thought; that’s the proper way to do it.

Mommy, mommy, mommy, Pratt thought heavily and intentionally. He said it aloud: “Mommy, mommy, mommy, Mommy­mommymommy.” He groped on the coffee table for a legal pad and scribbled the word again and again in looping script; mommy, mommy, mommy.

The syllables were perfect, near nonsense to begin with, and they lost their meaning for Pratt almost immediately. But he didn’t stop there. He pressed on, his tongue swelling on big mommymommy syllables, spittle collecting in the corners of his mouth, four pages filled with illegible mommymommy and then on to the fifth, pencil point blunted fat like tongue, mommymommymommy.

He killed the word and flogged its corpse, only stopping when he couldn’t go on, collapsing back on the couch, exhausted. The word was gone, eradicated, nowhere to be found. Pratt waited, but it didn’t come back. He probed for it fearfully, turning over mossy stones in his consciousness, but no mommy crawled out. He looked at the pages of scribbled mommymommy but it seemed another language to him, unreadable, meaningless, baffling. The word was gone. One down, he thought.

The next word took less time, and the one after that even less. Pratt was suspicious; he checked each word for its absence, but each seemed obediently banished. He finished with dad, then cat, then man and bad and boy, then hat and hot together, repeating them alternately: hathothathothathothathot. He finished a dozen words before he felt his eyelids slipping down toward the floor, his grip loosening on his pencil. He put himself to bed.

The next morning he deliberately avoided the living room, where the coffee table sat littered with sheets of the yellow pad. The words—whichever words they had been— were gone, and he didn’t want them back. As he sipped his coffee in the kitchen he grew increasingly pleased with the events of the previous night, and increasingly resolute. Waking with a smaller vocabulary was exhilarating; he felt lighter, freer, less hemmed in. The clear priority was to send the rest of the language packing, the sooner the better.

After cleaning up in the kitchen, Pratt went out for a walk in the park. The crisp air felt good in his lungs, and the sun felt good on his head. There was nobody in the park yet. Pratt warmed up by disposing of tree and sky, defying categorical reality by staring up at the oak leaves drifting in the wind against a backdrop of blue even as he eradicated the words. This done, he felt immediately ready for bigger things. He rid himself of a couple of unusual, once-in-a-while words: sundial and migraine, mixing them into midial and sungraine before allowing them to fade completely.

It got easier and easier. Even the most tenacious words proved banishable after fifteen or twenty repetitions, and some others slipped away after Pratt pronounced them twice. He’d developed a muscle for destroying language, and it grew strong through exercise. Pratt spent the day wandering through the park, forgetting words: He forgot words as he clambered over boulders, and he forgot words while he lay with his eyes closed on the great lawn. When he got hungry he found a vendor and bought a hot dog, and in the process of eating it killed hot dog, killed frank, killed wiener and sausage and wurst, until all the words disappeared and he was left to finish a nameless tube of meat.

Things seemed to like being unnamed; they expanded, became at once more ambiguous and more real. The speech Pratt heard as people strolled past seemed littered with meaningless, musical phrases; their sentences were coming unhinged, and the less Pratt understood the more he liked. As meaningful words assailed his ears he spoke them and rendered them meaningless, then tossed away their empty husks to the invisible wind.

Pratt arrived home exhausted, yet buoyant. He no longer feared the yellow pad on the coffee table; he rushed in and happily made neither head nor tails of it. He opened a book from his shelf and read a sentence, delightedly baffled by most of it; when he found a word he knew he pronounced it and it disappeared. He had it down to a single utterance now. To use a word was to lose it.

Glock called. It jolted Pratt to be on the telephone. He hurriedly conducted a search for the words that were left, to try and patch together a response.

“You should see a doctor,” said Glock. “It’s paid for, it’s taken out of your paycheck, so why not just go? Do you know a good doctor? Why don’t you see mine?”

Pratt didn’t understand. “Overabundant,” he said. “Inconspicuous.” He couldn’t think of anything else to say.

“Dr Healthbronner, 548-7980,” Glock went on. “He’s good, I’ve known him for twenty years. I mean, Jeezus, take care of yourself. You sound like shit.”

“Shit,” repeated Pratt into the receiver. Without knowing it, Glock had opened up a whole new category of words. “Piss crap cunt prick snatch,” said Pratt. The words disappeared as he mouthed them.

“Okay, okay, Jeezus,” said Glock. “I was only trying to help. Stay home, for god’s sake, stay home until you feel better. One hundred percent. Call me if you need anything.” He hung up.

The call unnerved Pratt. His job, he saw, was lost to him forever. Quite a lot, in fact, was lost to him forever. He began to wish the process had not gotten so automatic. The few words left began to seem more and more like commodities, things to be treasured. Not that he didn’t want to finish the job, eliminate the language entirely, but now it seemed important to savor its going, to draw the process out.

He slept fitfully that night, and although he had never been a somniloquist he awoke several times, bathed in sweat and trembling slightly, to the sound of his own voice calling out some stray word into the darkness, always too late to know what he was losing. He felt he’d only slept an hour or two when the sun began to creep through the window.

Pratt showered, shaved, and flossed his teeth, trying to pull himself together. Words surfaced from the murk of his consciousness and he struggled not to say them aloud. He pushed them into a corner of his mind, a little file of what he had left, and like the tiles on a Scrabble tray he shuffled and reshuffled them, trying to form coherent sentences. It was a losing struggle. He could feel words receding, becoming abstract and meaningless just from his thinking about them over-strenuously; he reached the point where for a word to remain meaningful he needed to hear it spoken aloud, given the tangibility of speech, and he lost several words this way, because by now anything he spoke aloud destroyed itself, immediately and forever.

After a thin breakfast Pratt went downstairs, but after walking halfway to the park he was caught in a sudden rain shower, and forced back to his apartment. He was unlocking his apartment door when the phone began ringing, and fumbled impatiently at the lock while it rang, twice, three times, four times; he dropped his keys in the foyer and jogged through the dark apartment to the phone. It seemed suddenly terribly important to answer it.

It was a wrong number. “Dan Shard?” asked the voice on the other end.

Pratt had already surrendered no to the void. He made a guttural sound into the line.

“Dan Shard? Who’s there? May I speak to Mr Shard?”

Pratt shook his head, made the sound again.

“Mr Shard?”

“Pratt,” said Pratt, before he could stop himself. “Pratt,” he said again, wonderingly, and then the word vanished.

“I’m sorry,” said the voice on the line, and hung up.

Pratt saw now that he was painting himself into a corner, in a room where the paint would never dry, where he would have to climb onto the wall, and begin painting that, and then from there onto the ceiling. The horizon of consciousness grew nearer and nearer. The world at large might be round but Pratt’s world was flat, and he was about to fall off the edge of it.

That night he watched the news on the television. The only words Pratt understood on the programme were the neologisms: Crisisgate, Lovemaker Missile, CLOTH Talks, Oopscam and Errscam. Advertisements seemed bewildering and surreal. Switching the channels Pratt eventually stumbled on a station consisting exclusively of these miniature epics, one ad after another. He watched this station, transfixed, for almost half an hour, when it came to him that they were rock videos.

He called Glock back, but got the answering machine. Pratt had saved up a last message, a cry for help, and felt deflated at not being able to deliver it. It was already losing its meaning in the storeroom of his consciousness, and he decided to leave it on Glock’s tape.

“Well, I’m not home,” went Glock’s voice. “Relax. I’ll be back. Just leave a message. Just leave a message, and I’ll call, and we’ll talk. Relax.” The machine beeped.

“Ebbing,” blurted Pratt. He felt proud at having saved such a simple word for so long. The rest of the message wasn’t so easy. “John­-Hancocked auto-mortality affidavit,” he continued. “Disconsolate.” He paused for effect, and then delivered the last word, the only word he had left, the payload. “Bereft,” he said, giving it all he had, the full thespian treatment. The machine clicked off between the two syllables of the word.

Pratt put the phone down. He couldn’t think of any more words. He went to the bathroom and brushed out his tired mouth with mint toothpaste, then went into the living room and gathered up the books on his shelves and carried them out to the incinerator.

Pratt slept surprisingly well that night, cool between the sheets, his mind empty. He didn’t dream. When he awoke he felt cleansed; with the furniture of language finally cleared the movers’ footprints could be wiped away, and the dust-bunnies swept out of the corners. There was nothing left to forget: English had become a foreign language to him, and the world was rendered innocent of connotation. His doubts about the process evaporated. He’d panicked momentarily, been a little weak in the knees, but now that he was language-free he knew how little cause he’d had for alarm. He awoke into a rightness, his wish granted. Like a snail with its shell Pratt now lugged his own private Montreal around on his back. He was a tourist everywhere, a tourist originating from a land so private and complete that it didn’t require a language.

He went downstairs, and out. The sun was busy clearing the puddles away, and Manhattan warmed into activity. Pratt walked up Broadway, feeling confident. Everything seemed bigger now, more promising and mysterious, and, most importantly, further away. He considered going in to work; they couldn’t harm him now that he’d become invulnerable. The air was filled with the musical chatter of conversation—the forest couldn’t harm him now that he’d become invulnerable. The air was filled with the musical chatter of conversation as the forest air is filled with the singing of birds; New York transmuted itself into a wonderland of incomprehensibility.

Pratt passed a shopkeeper haggling with a fat black woman over the price of bananas; she waved her curled-up money and cradled the bananas like a long lost child. Pratt frowned disapprovingly at how much she communicated, beyond language, and at how much he picked it up despite himself. Pratt saw a teenage boy on a skateboard perform a flourish for a gaggle of girls who idled in a building entrance; transfixed by the subtleties of the interaction, Pratt had to tear himself away from it. Suddenly the walls of comprehension were closing in again.

A pair of businessmen with briefcases parted on the sidewalk to make room for Pratt to pass, and though their language seemed a babble of water-rushing-over-rocks, Pratt felt astonished at what he learned from their manner, their expressions and gesticulations. It was inescapable. Like a blind man whose other senses attune themselves in compensation, Pratt found himself involuntarily sensitized to nonverbal forms of communication.

He panicked, turned around and headed back toward his apartment, reverting to his former strategies of steering wide berths around groups of people who might be tainted with language. As he ran Pratt struggled to understand this new predicament, racking his brains like a snake-bit man who had once learned the formula for the antidote.

There was clearly more to communication than language; that had been an underestimation of his opponent, a mistake Pratt knew he couldn’t afford to make twice. It seemed clear enough; he was going to have to forget body language.

Back safe in his apartment, Pratt sat on the couch and began shrugging mechanically.

© 1990 by Jonathan Lethem.
 Originally appeared in Journal Wired.
Reprinted by permission of the author.

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Jonathan Lethem

Jonathan Lethem photo by Julie Jo FehrieJonathan Lethem is the author of eight novels including Girl In Landscape and Chronic City. His short stories and essays have been collected in three volumes; a fourth, The Ecstasy of Influence, is due out in November. His writing has been translated into over thirty languages. He lives in Los Angeles and Maine.