They sat cloistered around a central coffee table – four professors, an advisor and their focal point, the student. A final project is being discussed. The student is excused from the small room for ten minutes while his submission is discussed. After ten minutes, he is invited back into the room.
He sits down, but the energy in the room is wrong. His vision hazes over as the professors puke on his work.
“…failure to address parameters…introspective…what is the project…we were informed to expect something else…where is the project…emaciated example…we will have to meet again…”
A half-eaten bowl of snack mix rises from the coffee table and smashes itself against the wall, nearly crashing into someone’s face. No one notices. The student stammers, working hard to collect his raging heart.
“This has been a misunderstanding,” he pleads, to no effect. “Wait, don’t leave!”
The committee of professors agree to meet again, later in the season, to discuss what new material the student might offer. They file out of the room, politely wishing him “good luck”. The chairs they were sitting in moments before burst into flames. Finally, the student is alone in the room.
He hopes to suffocate in the billowing black smoke, or be licked raw by fire, but finds that his lungs have come to prefer carbon and his skin is cooled in the inferno.
2008 started poorly for me. My schoolwork hadn’t escalated in difficulty and I was having relationship issues. S, who for two years had slept next to me, was bored. Routine had sucked the life out of both of us and by March, when she left, inertia propelled even our lovemaking.
A few rainy days later, I sat alone at my coffee table and vaguely a car hummed closer and closer to my drive, pulled up, and shut off. It was K, my roommate. He came in and I was sucking at a quarter-full jug of grapefruit juice.
“Check this shit out,” he said. From under his arm he plopped a fat, white package down on the table. It was an over-fat shipping envelope, sealed with clear tape.
“That,” I said, “is a kilo of cocaine. You really know how to make a Monday morning feel like a Friday night.”
“Secret package,” he said, referencing Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, where part of the fun lies in manipulating an avatar to collect these “satchels”. “I’m not even joking – you know where I found it?”
I lifted the satchel. Within rested something definite, with edges; not powder. I asked K where it had been.
“You know that bridge-thing over Indiana Ave., where the trains go over-“
“The viaduct,” I offered.
“-the viaduct, yeah. It was sitting right under there.”
“Yeah, just hanging out,” he said.
“Well,” I wondered, squeezing the package. “Wanna open it?”
K came around the other side of the coffee table and sat down, resting a Burger King sack on the glass. “I don’t know, man,” he said. “It could be anything.”
“Anthrax,” said K.
“Bullion,” I said.
“You fucking open it.”
“Fuck that,” he said, harvesting a loose french fry from the bag. The package gleamed beneath the overhead light, unaddressed and naked. I turned it over in my hands but found nothing, no markings to betray its owner or where that person might live. Two images shot through my mind: first, a homemade bomb. Second: a bar of gold.
The tape was good tape, sturdy and sticky. I tugged at it without luck, finally slicing through with a kitchen knife. Kevin watched.
Five of them were packed together inside the wrapping. They were small and pale, with italicized title reading “Being or Nothingness”. The title hovered over an imprint of MC Escher’s “Drawing Hands”. The author? One “Joe K”; no surname given, just a floating initial.
“A bunch of books?” I asked.
K grumbled and flipped on the XBOX 360 and the TV. I opened the top copy. Nestled between the cover and the first page was a typed letter. It read:
November 9, 2006
Dear Professor Hofstadter,
Your last e-mail had an encouraging tone that made me happy. I was afraid of making some statement that might jeopardize our good relationship. Instead I went ahead and sent the letters. For the same reason I didn’t acknowledge receiving your articles. I have browsed through them and realize that I have interesting studies ahead of me. Thank you for your generosity.
By now the seven letters should have arrived and hopefully you are a little curious. As you get ready to read “The full circle”, I want to give you a word of caution. When I encountered the manuscript, many years ago, I was totally unprepared. I had found some old typewritten pages carelessly thrown in the corner of an abandoned railroad station, where I had taken refuge after leaving a party that had gotten out of control. As circumstances would have it I started to read and discovered patterns I had to explore.
The manuscript has a reproduction of Escher’s “Drawing Hands” on its cover. Should the text resemble what its cover implies it to be, reading it could be dangerous. Had I sent a copy without comments, it might have caused harm. Our correspondence assures that you have a vision of a writer as you read. Also, by disclosing passages in advance I hope to have intrigued you enough, not to dismiss the manuscript as esoteric nonsense.
Before you proceed, I should mention that the manuscript can be viewed as a religious document. The text can be incorporated into both the Jewish and the Christian tradition, but doing so with too much vigour would be to narrow its scope. Whether it is embraced and cherished or rejected and condemned does not depend on what religious or ideological belief system the reader subscribes to. Deep down it is a matter of faith and choice.
There you are! I have disclosed almost everything I know about the manuscript. It is time for you to address this strange loop. It would please me if you were to give me some sort of feedback. The manuscript has not been made public, partly because, like Conan Doyle, I hesitate whether the world is ready but also since I am not sure that the patterns I perceive are really there. I realize that I might be mistaken and will neither object nor be offended if this turns out to be your opinion.
With kind regards,
I read the letter twice before flipping to the first page. The words didn’t play over in my head so much as did Joe K’s diction, the sort of near-lucidity in melody and timbre that cast his apparent mental instability into relief. Betrayed here was a mind overwrought, a pair of bloodshot eyes before a terminal in a dark room, the poor bastard unaware that the sun has set on him. A sentence comes, or a word, something worth typing that he’s found in the black and then it’s time to crack a knuckle, ruffle an eyebrow, or give his sparse hairs a righteous tug. If he didn’t get it down it would have been lost, and so the hours bled on for him until the screen went blurry. His knotted legs carried him to bed, where he slumped down wearing the clothes from the day before.
“You have to read this,” I said. “This guy’s half-there.” I held a copy out to him.
“Nah, I’m alright. I’ll pick one up later and look at it. What’s it about?”
“Not sure.” And I wasn’t; about the world there live several computer scientists, philosophers, cognitive scientists, and other technical-field wizards who’ve been trained to decipher the brand of gibberish I found on those twenty-one pages. Somehow, I knew the name “Hofstadter”.
“I’m going to write this Hofstadter,” I said.
“The guy the letter’s addressed to. I swear I’ve heard that name somewhere.” I had. A good friend of mind, P, was co-president at the time of the IU Student Organization for Cognitive Science, the field in which Douglas Hofstadter is a living legend. On a hunch I visited IU-Bloomington’s Address Book page on the university’s web site, where my suspicions were confirmed:
I wrote him. He sent a kind response, even praising a turn of phrase I’d used. Later I discovered he’d won a Pulitzer, at which point I swelled with juvenile pride. He invited me to his home near campus, where we’d speak and I’d deliver the package I’d assumed was meant for him.
An overcast Wednesday found me on his doorstep, nearly on campus, in a neighborhood peopled with tenured professors, professors Emeriti, and other established university folk. I knocked on his wooden door. It glided open, the interior doorknob in the soft fingers of a stunning French exchange student. Hers was the brand of beauty that foments spontaneous perspiration and stammering, both of which characterized my address:
“C-can I…I’m here to meet Mr. Hofstadter,” I blurted. Her accent was sharp yet inviting, like caramel over nougat.
“Come in, please,” she said. Anything, I thought. A narrow mud room opened on one side to a study, and the other a large den/dining area bordered with bookcases. Upon the large mahogany dining table rested the war-strategy game Risk, still in its old box. There were several people in both rooms and they held several key traits in common: each of them were young, attractive French or Belgian women and it appeared that at least most of them lived in that house. I ogled everything, was ogling a student crowned with particularly effective blonde hair, when Professor Hofstadter stepped in from the kitchen to greet me.
‘Andy Warhol’, I thought as I shook his hand. He looked thin but healthy in modest brown shoes, slacks, and a button-down shirt.
“Are these yours?” I asked. He accepted the ripped-open package and examined one of the books, furrowing his brow.
“You know, I seem to recall this person. It’s been years, though,” he said, “since I’ve corresponded with him.”
“Who is he, if you don’t mind me asking?”
“I can’t…well, I think that he said he was a psychologist, or something, and Swedish,” he explained. The Swede apparently had not made much of a splash.
“A Swedish psychologist?”
“Yes. I think he’s a crackpot.” We spoke a little more and parted. He thanked me and allowed me to keep a copy of the book as thanks for my effort in reporting this strangeness. Thus “Being or Nothingness” came home with me. I skimmed it once more. A lowly creative writer, a student even, I rejected the clunky, uneven translation and what I sensed was the overall lack of coherence in the piece; I didn’t like it. It creeped me out a little, and so I showed it to my friend D.
One night I visited her house, which at the time she shared with her lover, Ae. We sat on silken cushions around their low coffee table; me facing the windows and the girls, who faced the kitchen. Above us hung paper lanterns in the Chinese style. D called this corner of their living room “the Opium Den”.
“This is fucking insane!” she cried when she’d thumbed through it. “Where did you get it?”I told her the story of the viaduct. Ae slung her arm around D’s waist and kissed her on the cheek, a move made to gain better vantage. She’d tucked her long, black hair behind her ear and the open book was reflected in her glasses. The girls had made a spicy dish for me and as we read passages aloud the sauce dried on our plates.
I read: “Brace yourself and turn the pages gently as you embark on a strange journey through time and space.”
D read: “I am the Giant Rat of Sumatra.”
Ae giggled at this and read: “I am Joe K – You are Joe K…as quoted from Joe K.” Pages were consumed with carefully chosen Axioms, followed then by a dream description rife with terry-cloth socks, followed by seven pages holding three lines apiece in reference to the seven days of the Christian creation myth. He closes with the Lord’s Prayer and a cautionary afterword against holding “Being or Nothingness” in your hands. Mostly, each page was empty.
Brimming with indifference, I gifted the book to D, who was wholly repulsed by it. She in turn gifted it to Ae, who presumably still has it. “Presumably” because D and Ae no longer speak. They resolved that summer to work for an underground group of homosexual pot farmers called the F’s, who control some of the most prodigious farms in the country on the sly. They left together and came back separately, D first. As we’d become friends first, I sympathized with her (without empathy, but my heart was in it) when she sobbed that their Pagan rituals left her feeling excluded, as she was Christian. Ae had abandoned her to partake of those rituals in the woods, magnifying her loneliness. I helped D pack up her half of the house, but forgot to scan for Joe K’s book.
After parting with the book, two things happened. First, my friend A recorded me telling this story in a video experiment, which can be found on Google video by entering “Godel, Escher, Bach” in the search field. [note: in retrospect, i seem to be even more inflammatory in my jack-assery than I’d recalled. No disrespect intended toward Dr. Hofstadter.]
A year passed. The book did not enter my thoughts.
April 2009 brought me a message from A, whom I hadn’t spoken to in months. He cited two web sites, Ask.Metafilter and a fellow named Muriloq’s blog, both of which contain information regarding a miniature global community built around Joe K’s book. That more satchels might have reached others outside of Bloomington hadn’t occurred to me in the year since I’d had contact with the work. These web spaces provided a mine of theories and angles surrounding what the book (and more intensely its distribution) might mean. One of the contributors had found the video A had made and had posted it, labeling it a “frat boy rock-and-roll Hofstadter story”. Admittedly I bristled some, the way a person might bristle at the thought of earning any derogatory adjective, but ultimately was fascinated that this community even existed.
I began to dig. One theory claims that Joe K took to viral marketing to promote his book. The people posting on Muriloq’s Blog had considered this, and had found common ground among their ranks: they were computer scientists studying artificial intelligence, philosophers, theologists, an astrophysicist…also, most received the package at their university or college office address rather than at home, implying that the sender could have easily Googled them to find this information. I did not fit either of these conditions and neither did K, A, or Ae. D had graduated with companion French and Philosophy degrees. Also, the posters had all received the package, implying that it had been addressed. Single copies of the book were received in England, Switzerland, South Africa, Australia, Canada, Iran, and other disparate locales.
That the above theory hasn’t been fully embraced makes it easier to accept others: “Joe K”, for instance, being an anagram for “joke”, or a display of mimetics in action, given that such a vast network of people employed similarly had been nonsensically linked. After studying their backgrounds and finding myself grossly unqualified to discuss this phenomenon on their terms, I worked out my own in a way suited to my current station: I logged on to Facebook.
I wrote a public note, adding together the pieces I’d gathered (A’s video and the website addresses) and scrolled through my alphabet of friends, tagging those who I’ve known to be ravenous researchers (generally) and some in fields which align with those mentioned above. Some of them responded, citing interest in storytelling method or the simple novelty of the situation. My present girlfriend’s mother, N, seemed to think that the books had shipped from France.
That the package K had discovered lacked shipping information suggested that it’d been smuggled over the pond in personal luggage. Hofstadter housed several French borders. If one of them had brought the package with them, it would implicate Dr. Hof as the brain behind the scheme. Although I couldn’t imagine myself as belonging to the group of scholars who had also received the book, I began to feel as though my link in the chain, seemingly the broken one, might prove equally as valid as any of the others. On April 25th, 2009, I drafted the tale and threw my hat into the ring.
Sometimes, like today, I don’t eat a meal. It’s amazing how frantic the mind becomes as the twenty-four hour mark passes and the belly doesn’t look differently, but you can feel it gnawing. The cheeks sink and lines appear under your eyes, which have gone dull with purpose. I don’t know…eating just didn’t come up today. Until now.
I just ordered a pizza with mushrooms.
It wasn’t great. And now I have a crappy-pizza headache. Or maybe I’m breathing stale air. As a child, that was my greatest fear when falling asleep; that my little face would slip beneath the blanket and I’d choke on carbon dioxide. Not that the mirror was casting the reflection of a crane on the wall, which looked like an unforgiving bird of war to me.
Wait. Look at that. I can’t even form sentences right now. That pizza…
The point of the whole thing is that I think of Feldspar as the Earth’s crust’s nougat. 60%, by Jove, it makes up 60% and doesn’t contain an ingot of ore of any kind. Just smooth and creamy Feldspar.
Listen: the following is an excerpt from Dostoevsky’s “White Nights”, a short story. For me this represents legendary sleight-of-hand; the talker talking, winding fiction around my head until I’m blinded by my faith in it. The scenario is that this loner, the second speaker, has met a woman on the street. He hasn’t had a friend in eight years, but fancies Nastenka, the first speaker. She has asked for his life story. Read carefully, and enjoy!
“My goodness, what an awful introduction! What shall I be hearing next, I wonder?”
“What you will be hearing next, Nastenka (I don’t think I shall ever get tired of calling you Nastenka), is that these places are inhabited by strange people – by dreamers. A dreamer – if you must know its exact definition – is not a man, but a sort of creature of the neuter gender. He settles mostly in some inaccessible place, as though anxious to hide in it even from the light of day; and once he gets inside his room, he’ll stick to it like a snail, or, at all events, he is in this respect very like that amusing animal which is an animal and a house both at one and the same time and bears the name of tortoise. Why, do you think, is he so fond of his four walls, invariably painted green, grimy, and reeking unpardonably of tobacco smoke? Why does this funny fellow, when one of his new friends comes to visit him (he usually ends up by losing all his friends one by one), why does this absurd person meet him with such an embarrassed look? Why is he so put out of countenance? Why is he thrown into such confusion, as though he had just committed some terrible crime within his four walls? As though he had been forging paper money? Or writing some atrocious poetry to be sent to a journal with an anonymous letter, in which he will explain that, the poet having recently died, he, this friend, deems it his sacred duty to publish his verses? Can you tell me, Nastenka, why the conversation between the two friends never really gets going? Why doesn’t laughter or some witty remark escape the lips of the perplexed caller, who had so inopportunely dropped out of the blue, and who at other times is so fond of laughter and all sorts of quips and cranks? And conversations about the fair sex. And other cheerful subjects. And why does the visitor, who is most probably a recent acquaintance and on his first visit – for in this case there will never be a second, and his visitor will never call again – why, I say, does this visitor feel so embarrassed himself? Why, in spite of his wit (if, that is, he has any), is he so tongue-tied as he looks at the disconcerted face of his host, who is, in turn, utterly at a loss and bewildered after his herculean efforts to smooth things over, and fumbles desperately for a subject to enliven the conversation, to convince his host that he, too, is a man of the world, that he too can talk of the fair sex? The host does everything in fact to please the poor man, who seems to have come to the wrong place and called on him by mistake, by at least showing how anxious he is to entertain him. And why does the visitor, having most conveniently remembered a most urgent business appointment which never existed, all of a sudden grab his hat and take his leave, snatching his hand away from the clammy grasp of his host, who, in a vain attempt to recover what is irretrievably lost, is doing his best to show how sorry he is? Why does his friend burst out laughing the moment he finds himself on the other side of the door? Why does he vow never to call on this queer fellow again, excellent fellow though he undoubtably is? Why at the same time can’t he resist the temptation of indulging in the amusing, if rather far-fetched, fancy of comparing the face of his friend during his visit with the expression of an unhappy kitten, roughly handled, firghtened, and subjected to all sorts of indignities, by children who had treacherously captured and humiliated it? A kitten that hides itself away from its tormentors under a chair, in the dark, where, left in peace at last, it cannot help bristling up, spitting, and washing its insulted face with both paws for a whole hour, and long afterwards looking coldly at life and nature and even the bits saved up for it from the master’s table by a sympathetic housekeeper?”
“Now, look,” interrupted Nastenka, who had listened to me all the time in amazement, opening her eyes and pretty mouth, “look, I haven’t the faintest idea why it all happened and why you should ask me such absurd questions. All I know is that all these adventures have most certainly happened to you, and exactly as you told me.”
“Indubitably,” I replied, keeping a very straight face.
The messages that have arrived in my gmail inbox since the day I opened it have had some of the finest headings I’ve seen on any message, anywhere. This week’s crop:
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Your manhood really depends on the inches inside your pants
So usually I delete these right away, but these were priceless. I was tempted when I read “Get the best experience you ever had” to click and hope for the best possible context for that statement, as if it might, by some miracle of gypsy magic, be subjective. Somehow it’s only my gmail spam box that gets flooded with this stuff. The others receive bulk mail from my credit card companies and retail outlets besides.
Today I’m sitting outside on a chaise lounger in the sun, having decided to forego class. Creative nonfiction…I don’t know. I don’t understand it. It’s not at all clear to me what I’m expected to produce in that class, and how a writer is supposed to grow there. I feel more interested in telling a story than spilling my guts all over the page. It’s my issue. Writing fiction has helped me develop a carapce which makes it difficult to relate honestly what might have happened in a given situation. I’m not that close to the work, and I think it shows.
It’s not a “sometimes” thing, though, this typing. It’s every day, and half the time I don’t want to. Like right now. I’d rather be sitting here with a beer and drinking myself into an afternoon nap on my front lawn. I think I’ll try and find real work in New Orleans.