|part 1 of 3|
This is the story of a writers’ group to end all writers’ groups. And when a normally shy member, Phillip, introduces the group’s founder to Hilbert — in a manner of speaking — literary creativity begins to take on a life of its own.
I had been fed up for some time. They were all, the entire group, uninspired hacks. Only Phillip showed promise, but even his work had an outlandish unseriousness to it that irritated me.
I am a writer. I write what I know. I show, I don’t tell. I use narrative, dialogue, setting and structure to depict certain moral truths about the world in which we all live. My goal is like that of Tolstoy, namely, to bring us together in some sense of the Christian brotherhood into which we are all born. (Only, without the Christianity.) My “colleagues” in the group had never brought anything together, as far as I could tell.
In thinking about it now, I cannot believe the things I had to read. There was a story — stay with me here — about a lactose-intolerant ghost. The thing haunted houses, stealing dairy products on its nightly rounds. The ghost raided the kitchen for cheese, milk, ice cream, butter, etc. The story was set in Nova Scotia, circa 1930.
I once asked Beth, the fortyish housewife and author of the story — a woman who had landed in our group against my wishes — why Nova Scotia? She replied, “Someone told me Nova Scotia means ‘New Scotland,’ which reminded me of Macbeth, which reminded me of Hamlet, which reminded me that ghosts are very literary.”
Apologies! I digress too much. Their writing always had a dilettantish character to it. There is no point in rehashing all of the group’s shortcomings. They are behind me now, and I have not seen any of them since that fall. In any case, I need to get back to how I left the group and solved the rabbit riddle. But first I must say more about Phillip.
Phillip had been in school his entire life, as evidenced by an immaturity in his prose and demeanor. At twenty-five he began writing as a diversion from his oral examination. The “orals” were a critical part of his PhD.
Phillip was twenty-eight when I knew him and had still not taken the exam. His field was American literature during the late modern period. As I understood it, he was applying Freudian literary criticism to theatre and reading twenty books a week to do it.
The bulk of his dissertation would ultimately have to do with the play as meta-fantasy during the period between 1935 and 1950. Phillip had a chapter in there on the “Burgeoning Imagination,” which included Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie and Mary Coyle Chase’s Harvey, whence came Hilbert, even if Phillip claimed no connection to it.
The group had been meeting biweekly in a coffee shop run by Mexicans. Joanne, another housewife, selected the place. It happened one night that Joanne mentioned we were meeting after hours. That is, the place was not technically open, which infuriated my sense of fairness. (Those poor people were staying late and unpaid because of us.)
After a beer or two — I had taken to drinking at the meetings after the lactose ghost story — I asked with deliberate sarcasm, “Why don’t we all write a story about Mexican immigrants coming to America for their dream of working in a coffee shop to listen to a bunch of rambling hacks?”
Beth replied blankly, “I don’t think I could write a story about that. I mean, aren’t you supposed to write what you know?”
“I take your point. So all those who were lucky enough to have lived in Canada with dairy-craving wraiths are excluded from the assignment,” I said and gulped my beer.
Joanne stopped me before I could continue. “There has been no complaint. I expect the restaurant manager would comment if it were a problem.” Joanne directed a low blow at me: “Besides, having the next Moby Dick come out of this very group will be better marketing for the restaurant than a hundred advertisements.” Beth and Joanne smirked at each other.
It was really low. I had tentatively titled my novel-in-work Moby Dick to motivate me. The group found out and at first begged me to read it, something I unfortunately let them do. Since then, due largely to their lack of sophistication, it had become an immature joke.
But before I could retaliate, Phillip, who almost never spoke, announced with unusual enthusiasm, “I’ve actually got a story about that, sort of. I mean, I’m using Freudian symbolism to evoke contemporary immigration challenges via an emasculating vehicle, i.e. a giant rabbit.”
Now that sounded promising, interesting, and intellectual, so I let the Mexican thing go. “When do we get to read this little gem?” I asked.
Joanne rolled her droopy eyes, disgusted with me. She was one of these literary types who wear fashionable ponchos and drink tea from reusable coffee mugs. Since day one she had been in love with Phillip and everything he wrote. (Did I mention she was married and had a golden retriever named Rachel?) Lately, she felt anything I said was meant to win his favor. Imagine! Me, jealous of Phillip!
Nonetheless, she echoed my statement. “Yes,” she said batting her eyes at Phillip, “it just sounds fascinating. When do we get to read it?”
“Well, I can bring it next week,” said Phillip.
Finally, something up to snuff, I thought. Phillip had been rapidly approaching the benchmark my writing had set. And I was hoping he might catch up to me soon, so we could form a better writing group elsewhere.
After the meeting, Phillip and I rode the bus home together, as usual, and I invited him to my place for a drink.
I am forgetting to mention that Phillip had been looking beat up lately due to pressure on the whole oral examination thing. We used to work out at the same gym. He wasn’t as fit as me, but the kid could play basketball well for a Canadian — I surmised it had something to do with Steve Nash’s recent popularity. (I like to keep up on sports. I have a theory on their cultural relevance.) So Phillip agreed to come in and I offered him some leftover pizza because he had become really thin lately.
We talked a bit about writing. Phillip said, “You have to do the work,” staring at me with his left eye. “Lots of people don’t get that.” I thought he winked at me, as though he didn’t want to say anything overtly negative about someone specific in the group.
I knew he was talking about Joanne. “I agree totally. So many writers just call themselves writers. But they’re just hacks,” I replied.
“You know,” he said, winking his left eye more now, “Sinclair Lewis said you have to make black marks on white paper.”
“Too true,” I said and offered him a beer. “Speaking of being productive, what’s with this rabbit story?” I asked, handing him his drink.
He stopped drinking and walked over to the window. “I don’t know anything.” Phillip opened a small pill bottle and swallowed something, chasing it with his beer. “Don’t ask me about rabbits. I’m sick of rabbits,” he replied, fists clenched.
“Okay, okay, it’ll be Silence of the Rabbits,” I joked. Really, I was hoping to transition back to a conversation about Jodi Foster’s shortcomings as the archetypal heroine we had going at the bar a few nights previously. I had to leave the conversation that night because someone at our table was getting it all wrong about Faulkner’s use of history in the Snopes trilogy.
“Rabbits!” he shouted as he sat down on my couch. “Is that all anybody thinks about anymore? Jesus, I go home for a holiday break and everyone is talking about rabbits. I come here and mention one little story and rabbits come back on me. The story is about a theme instantiated through a rabbit. Giant rabbits aren’t real.”
“Phillip,” I said hoping to calm him, “I haven’t read the story so I can’t comment on it. I’m only curious.” He said nothing. Enduring silence is no strength of mine, so I asked him an obvious question, “Giant rabbits, pookas, like in Harvey, right?”
He grew pale and repeated, “Harvey, Harvey, Harvey.” His face turned away from me when he spoke. “His name is Hilbert,” he stated, flatly, and then looked into his beer bottle with one eye.
I was a little concerned that Phillip’s behavior might mean the story was not up to par, or worse, that it might be derivative. His blinking left eye magnified my concern. Knowing nothing else, I chuckled, “Relax. I’ve seen Harvey, I know they’re real.” I had hoped to diffuse his foul mood with deftly placed humor. It failed.
“What real? Where did you get ‘real’ from?” he barked at me and slammed his beer down on the coffee table. “There are things you have to experience to understand,” he said and then grabbed his jacket. “I have to go. Hilbert needs help.”
In the dim streetlights outside my window I could see Phillip walking away, hands in coat pockets. I did not know him well enough to make any assumptions, so I finished my own beer and decided to work on Moby Dick. But it was later than I thought and I had work the next day. I went to bed instead.
I gave Phillip no more thought until later the next day while surfing the Internet. I needed some research material on a short story I had written. It missed authenticity, so while I was looking for nude pictures of a singer who had just been filmed without underpants, I came across a reference to Playboy bunnies, which naturally reminded me of Phillip’s story. As a result, I searched the Internet for rabbit symbolism.
I continued my research on the nude pop star as I opened another window about the rabbit information. A pop-up advertisement for a pill came on the screen, announcing, “You can do it like rabbits!” superimposed over an illustrated man taking an illustrated woman from behind at an impossible rate.
Aside from that, all I found were pages of 4-H Club advertisements and a handful of references to other rabbit stories, Of Mice and Men, Bugs Bunny, etc. Once I found the nude photo I had been seeking, I abandoned my interest in rabbits.
The group shared each other’s stories via e-mail several days before meeting. When I founded the group I set it up that way because some of us have jobs and needed adequate time to read everything. Three of us would be submitting this time, Joanne, Phillip, and myself. I was excited about the meeting. Phillip’s theme, if not his idea, could have a lot to offer. If it were good enough, even adequate, I thought we could really start looking into forming another group.
In addition, my story was showing real promise. The narration involved a dialectical interchange between a rising starlet, who had been partying too hard, and her mother. A sex video had recently surfaced, and the starlet’s mother was both furious and jealous. There was a love triangle involving a world-famous septuagenarian director and the mother-daughter pair, but I wrote the affair in only to get publications interested.
It was an aesthetic piece. The experiment came in the pacing and the tension between a mother’s idealization of a daughter and a daughter’s fall from grace vis-à-vis the public eye. I am not going to call it my best work, but it is clearly close, and as it was written it would have likely been my first published story had the group not given me some poor advice, which I was foolish enough to follow.
In any case, the Tuesday before we met I still had everyone’s work to read, plus my own story to finalize. I am an anomaly. Most talented writers are great readers of others’ work. Not me. There is too much going on in my head that I often forget details about stories.
As a consequence, I learned early in the group’s history to read the lesser stories first. They tended toward the simple side, which made them easier to remember. So I read Joanne’s bit first. Her work is generally mundane, which allowed for a good deal of skimming. Phillip’s I read on Wednesday in order to recall more of it. In the end, I should have just worked on mine and skipped the self-flagellation of reading them both.
I had suspicions about Joanne’s story based on her title, alone: “Tip Top and Tulip Bagging.” Of course, my prejudice proved accurate. The story had a bizarre premise, namely, that contemporary Holland had adopted the slave trade to keep tulip prices down (Joanne had just visited Holland with her attorney husband.) Of course, one slave rose above them all and almost changed the world. But it’s a tragedy, the most predictable genre, and things turn out as expected. Here’s an excerpt I found in my notes:
Tip Top and Tulip Bagging
By Joanne B____
Tip Top wasn’t no bagger. She was a house servant. Keeping massa Van Doornkjendaaler and missus Van Doornkjendaaler in them pretty clothes and washing they sheets ’n what not. Neither was she no dum-dum head likes I’s, walking up down the Amsterdam ways like she was somebody.
But Amsterdam was a heap far off’n the distance from down here in Southern Dutchland, where it can get so intolable hot, and alligators come up right out the tulip pastures grabbing at old folks and the little ones. That’s where I work and that’s where Tip Top ended up working, through no fault of her own. No, it was Missus who done it to her after Massa, Lord in heaven res’ his soul, passed away. Missus sold the whole tulipland to the wickedest woman alives, Mizz Simone Van Legreelander.
I ask you, is this not the most derivative dreck imaginable? What would give such a “writer” any authority to judge other’s work? Not one character is fully developed. The dialogue sags like a pregnant bitch’s belly. And worst of all, the names are nearly unpronounceable! She took advantage of nothing, nothing at all, that I had taught the group.
After reading Joanne’s blatant rip off of Uncle Tom’s Cabin you can no doubt understand my eagerness for Phillip’s story. His peculiar behavior in my home made me all the more excited, and I can honestly say I had high optimism for the story. Based on his more recent texts, my comments and guidance in the group had obviously taken root in his writing. Because of my help he was making great strides, which made the leap backward with Hilbert all the more distressing. A brief review of Phillip’s disaster will, no doubt, prove my point:
By Phillip DeV_____
They had been on the road a good many days since the hole. The hole, that almost forgotten place between lands; the U.S. on the one side and Mexico, home, su casa and mi casa, on the other. More than a hole, it was “economy travel,” rather, the financial equivalent of time travel. That’s what Hilbert called it when he met Juan Julio Jesus Valdez, who was en route, but lost, in the Arizona desert with his wife, Maria Marisal Montelbana Valdez, and their littlest one, their pride and joy, little baby Señorita Conchita Luisa Barrista Valdez.
Juan Julio was lost, he knew it, but Maria, bless her soul, maintained a foolish confidence in her husband. Even as her breast milk had gradually refused to gush on this, the fifth day of their journey and the first without any water at all, she stood by Juan. Although he was lost, the result of a poorly drawn map given to them by a blind old man near the border, Juan had determination. He resolved to push on, leaving his wife to rest in the last shade for miles.
Oh, but Juan, why did you persist. Had you not pushed ahead you would have never met Hilbert who is real, more real than any of us can realize. He is real in the Arizona desert and real in the Canadian bush and real on the Chicago South Side, and once you meet him you cannot unknow him. He is utterly irrefutably real, and once you meet him you cannot release his hold on you, and heaven help you if you agree to the many favors he provides. The black-toothed, black-coated, seven-foot man-eating esthete is no friend of any man, no matter the desperate circumstance...no matter!
Hilbert is not the typical desert jackrabbit of all trades. He pronounces his name with a French swagger (phonetically closer to Hil-bear), and consumes all meals on the finest tableware. Some find this unusual for a desert dweller, but then there is strikingly little about Hilbert that is usual. Perhaps overriding any single peculiarity, including his strong cravings for a particular dietary oddity, is the fact that Hilbert is quite literally a jackrabbit, in the Arizona desert born and bred. But back to the Valdez odyssey and Hilbert’s diabolical role in the human flesh trade.
Phillip’s talent had obviously gone irretrievably downhill. In this example, he is clearly telling not showing, and his themes are irritatingly simple and obvious. Moreover, anthropomorphizing is as trivial as a writer can get and reflects a complete lack of originality. I have said it before, and I will restate it here: the bubble of academia kills talent. Phillip proved no exception.
To be continued...
Copyright © 2009 by E. V. Neagu