I could begin with Lily Briscoe.
Lily Briscoe—“With her little Chinese eyes and her puckered-up face …”—is a principal character in Virginia Woolf’s novel To the Lighthouse. Lily is a painter. She is painting a picture throughout the course of the narrative—a painting of Mrs. Ramsay sitting by the window reading to her son James. Lily has set up her easel outside on the lawns and she paints while various players flit and charge about the property.
She is nervous about being interrupted, about someone breaking her concentration while she is engaged in this delicate act. The idea that someone would interrogate her about the painting is intolerable.
But kind, acceptable Mr. Bankes wanders up, examines her work, and asks what she wished to indicate “by the triangular purple shape, ‘just there.’ ” (It is meant to be Mrs. Ramsay and her son, though “no one could tell it for a human shape.”)
Mother and child then—objects of universal veneration, and in this case the mother was famous for her beauty—might be reduced, he pondered, to a purple shadow…
Mother and child: reduced.
We never see this picture (the picture Lily paints in Virginia Woolf’s novel). We are only told about it.
Lily is painting the scene that we, as readers, are being asked to imagine. (We are asked to imagine both: the scene and its painted likeness.)
This might be a good place to begin: with the picture that Lily paints; with its shapes, smudges, and shadows. The painting is Lily’s reading of the tableau in front of her.
I cannot see the scene that Lily is attempting to capture.
I cannot see Lily herself. She is, in my mind, a scarcely perceptible hieroglyph.
The scene and its occupants are blurred.
Strangely, the painting seems more … vivid.
Peter Mendelsund, What We See When We Read, Vintage (August 5, 2014).
He predicted that the woman, when she came, might want to smoke some of the 200 grams with him, hang out, hole up, listen to some of his impressive collection of Tito Puente recordings, and probably have intercourse. He had never once had actual intercourse on marijuana. Frankly, the idea repelled him. Two dry mouths bumping at each other, trying to kiss, his self-conscious thoughts twisting around on themselves like a snake on a stick while he bucked and snorted dryly above her, his swollen eyes red and his face sagging so that its slack folds maybe touched, limply, the folds of her own loose sagging face is it sloshed back and forth on his pillow, its mouth working dryly. The thought was repellent. He decided he’d have her toss him what she’d promised to bring, and then would from a distance toss back to her the $1250 U.S. in large bills and tell her not to let the door hit her on the butt on the way out. He’d say ass instead of butt. He’d be so rude and unpleasant to her that the memory of his lack of basic decency and of her tight offended face would be a further disincentive ever, in the future, to risk calling her and repeating the course of action he had now committed himself to.
He had never been so anxious for the arrival of a woman he did not want to see. He remembered clearly the last woman he’d involved in his trying just one more vacation with dope and drawn blinds. The last woman had been something called an appropriation artist, which seemed to mean that she copied and embellished other art and then sold it through a prestigious Marlborough Street gallery. She had an artistic manifesto that involved radical feminist themes. He’d let her give him one of her smaller paintings, which covered half the wall over his bed and was of a famous film actress whose name he always had a hard time recalling and a less famous film actor, the two of them entwined in a scene from a well-known old film, a romantic scene, an embrace, copied from a film history textbook and much enlarged and made stilted, and with obscenities scrawled all over it in bright red letters. The last woman had been sexy but not pretty, as the woman he now didn’t want to see but was waiting anxiously for was pretty in a faded withered Cambridge way that made her seem pretty but not sexy. The appropriation artist had been led to believe that he was a former speed addict, intravenous addiction to methamphetamine hydrochloride is what he remembered telling that one, he had even described the awful taste of hydro-chloride in the addict’s mouth immediately after injection, he had researched the subject carefully. She had been further led to believe that marijuana kept him from using the drug with which he really had a problem, and so that if he seemed anxious to get some once she’d offered to get him some it was only because he was heroically holding out against much darker deeper more addictive urges and he needed her to help him. He couldn’t quite remember when or how she’d been given all these impressions.
David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest.
Close to dawn we drive off the road, into the desert. We park and arrange ourselves to sleep. Some of us are on the dining bench. Some of us lie on the floor, stomach to back, half to half, so there is enough room. Some of us take the bed in the back, touch each other in the agreed-upon way. Some of us cry out and are ashamed. We close our eyes. We open them hours later. Two have left, we see their footprints in the sand outside, heading farther into the desert. We follow the footprints for a time. We turn when we are in danger of losing sight of the RV. We think it was two men, we count ourselves, we think it was a man and his boy, they have left their bar of soap, they took a few cuts of meat, there are drippings down the narrow walkway and down the steps. Some of us get behind the RV and push it back to the road, digging our toes in, most of us are barefoot, some of us are prideful of the thick soles of our feet, but that pride is frowned upon.
We drive. Some of us are sick into the bucket. Some of us check for ingredients, flavorings, there are none. There is only the cooler. The waitress passes white packets of sugar from her pocket, some of us feed from the new woman’s breast, but it is work. We barter for clothing, for secrets, for touch. We wear what we find. We claim what we can. We say sss sss sss into our ears. We say hush, hush. Some of us lean into each other and touch. We are bored. We don’t say this but it is what we are. Some of us put mouths to mouths, use our teeth, some of us try not to mind. In the evening there is a red sky. We notice how it bleeds into the horizon instead of out. A few of us pass the drippings cup, but soon there’s none left.
Lindsay Hunter, Don’t Kiss Me: Stories, FSG Originals (July 2, 2013).
After the game I took the bottle onto the balcony. I had a seat on a canvas chair and looked out on the Brooklyn Promenade. There’s almost nothing better than the Promenade and its walkers, benchwarmers, and late-night lovemakers to further estrange you from a Friday night. I poured a drink and toasted them. I toasted the whole city. “Here’s to your picnics and suntans,” I said. I looked at the Manhattan skyline, that luminous glow just across the river. People were still hard at work. “Here’s to your war rooms and coronaries,” I toasted the people inside that honeycomb of industry. “Here’s to your dress socks and divorce papers.” I had a toast for practically everyone that night. “To you, young couple overlooking the river,” I said, “here’s to your frittatas and sex tapes.” “To you, picture taker with the endless flash,” I said, “here’s to your personal-brand maintenance with every uploaded image.” “To you, beautiful youth, wasting your life behind your me-machine,” I said, “here’s to your echo chamber and reflecting pool.” I toasted them all. I drank and toasted. “To you, Yankees fan with the Jeter shirt,” I said, “here’s to your aftershaves and rape acquittals.” I poured and I drank. “To you, corporate citizen, failing to bag up your Pomeranian’s warm shit,” I said, “and to all your fellow derivatives traders and quant douche bags: here’s to your anonymous faces and unlisted numbers,” I said. “Here’s to your sinking of America, you scumbags. May you end up in cold cells where rats go to die.” “Here’s to you, Mrs. Convoy,” I said, “here’s to your catechisms and your turtlenecks.” “Here’s to you, Abby. Thanks for the notice. Good luck on your new opportunities.” “And here’s to you, Connie. Here’s to your poet, your Ben, and all your future smiling babies of life.” I didn’t toast Uncle Stuart. I tried not to think of him, or of Mirav or Grant Arthur. I was drinking, and toasting, to forget. I continued in this vein until I had only enough toast left for one last drink. “And to you,” I said, “asshole on the balcony, here’s to your curried flatulence and your valid fears of autoerotic asphyxiation. Here’s to your longing, your longing for the company of others, and all your bighearted efforts to secure it. Cheers,” I said. I toasted myself and drank. I must have been saying much of this aloud, as a neighbor of mine, standing on her balcony, was peering over at me. I toasted her. She went inside. I was done with the bottle, I was done toasting and drinking. For a long time thereafter I stared almost steadily at the bright and ostentatious VERIZON sign on top of one of the tallest buildings—the only branded skyscraper in Manhattan, a fucking blight marring the skyline—and I thought, Why couldn’t those cunts have flown into that building? Then I passed out, and when I woke, there was nobody, I mean absolutely nobody, out on the Promenade. I searched and searched, I waited and waited. Surely someone would walk by any minute now. But no one did.
What terrifying hour was this, and why was I made to wake to it? Where were they, the strangers I had just been toasting? Never before had the Promenade emptied out so entirely, so finally, and instead of the familiar, noisy, peopled landmark of one of the biggest cities on earth, where you are promised never to be alone, it seemed now like a colony on the moon floating in an eternal night, with me as its only inhabitant. All of this hit me literally within the first second or two of waking up, and that moment was unbearable. I felt so forgotten, so passed over, so left behind, so lost out. I was sure not only that everything worth doing had already been done while I was asleep but also that, now that I was awake, there was no longer anything worth doing. The solution at desperate moments like this was always to find something to do, and I mean anything, as quickly as possible. My first instinct was to reach for my me-machine. It put me in instant touch, it gave me instant purpose. Maybe Connie had called or texted or emailed, or Mercer, or… but no. No one had called or emailed or texted. I would do practically anything, I thought, to have them back—I mean the strollers and lovers of a few hours earlier, so that I might have another chance to stroll alongside them, to look out in wonder at the skyline, to lick carefully at the edges of my ice cream, and, after a while, to leave the Promenade, off to bed for a good night’s sleep—or to that one vital thing among the city’s offerings that night, that one unmissable thing that makes staying up all night a treasure and not a terror—and then to rise again at a decent hour, to walk the Promenade in the light of a new morning, eating a little pastry for breakfast and having coffee on one of the benches while looking out at the brightened waters. Oh, come back, you people lost to darkness! Come back, you ghosts. The day is hard enough. Don’t leave me alone with the night. Finally I was able to move. I sat up in the chair and listened. There was the hum of the river, and the island across the river, and the last desultory traffic of the night washing by on the expressway below. I can only suggest the effect it had on me, that is, the feeling that my life, and the city’s, and the world’s every carefree, winsome hour, were perfectly without meaning.
Joshua Ferris, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, Little, Brown and Company; First Edition edition (May 13, 2014).
Photo by Andrew McDaniel, Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Lost: the hot-pink bullet from the spent cartridge of lip gloss he’s found lodged between gearbox and seat. And the beat she always caught, chasing from station to station as they raced between red lights. The scent of summer evaporating at noon—coconut, sweat, the salt lick of her skin scorched against turquoise vinyl. Evening’s perfume of broken heat, a tide of lawn sprinklers whipping through the dark as moons emerge: each neighborhood, each roof, each windowpane sending up its own. In the smaze of foundry chimneys, a tarnished spoon bent by telekinesis into a wedding band. Over a steeple, a halo missing a saint. Above the shimmering sweet-water sea, a tragic mask with a comic reflection. Or is it vice versa? There’s one un-self-conscious about its pitted face; one with its own star in Hollywood; and another aloof, back turned as if boycotting tomorrow, the way that Miles Davis, circa Kind of Blue, would turn his back on the audience when he’d solo. And in the rearview mirror where it’s always October, leaves blowing off like pages from an unfinished memoir …
“So, where to?” he’d ask.
“Baby, just drive.”
Stuart Dybek, Ecstatic Cahoots: Fifty Short Stories, Farrar, Straus and Giroux (June 3, 2014)