The Author Chooses His Own Adventure

After yet another deep and wide night of strumming my intestines for no one, I don my denim armor and venture out into the city to find myself, seeking some reality in other people, in the dying summer as darkly yellow as a middle-aged banana. This early the streets are half soft, breathing like someone asleep. I hadn’t seen my old pal the sun in many a moon; his mothery light strokes me like dove wings and renders every tenement, every tired leaf and obese cloud, carbuncular poster and broken-nosed traffic cone, as distinct as a familiar face. I witness each existence eagerly, hungrily, unless someone is passing me, in which case I drop my eyes and quicken my step.

Soon the mural-sided tenements curve out like hands opening around the raised train station, whose window-walls are illustrated with silver graffiti. I perch on its lowest stair, pull out my notebook, and write this sentence. A few stairs higher a seriously sunburnt homeless man pets a grubby teddy bear. On the corner a few yellow-eyed dealers joke with a bedraggled fruit vendor who sells mealy watermelons and collapsed grapes. Against the back of a bus shelter squats a bike-helmeted kindergartener staring up sadly at cluttered golden balconies identical in construction but unique in decay. Unseen overhead a train sighs in and slices open its own sides, and soon ex-passengers climb down from the sky and spread out past me into the seedy plaza. Everybody strikes me as a specially made treat offered up for my personal delectation, their looks and ways both novel and familiar, unique and generic, and a standout few inspire in me a violent and obscurely painful wish to know them. I don’t dare approach anyone, however, can only gaze at profiles and backs of heads, and despite my delight am in fact no closer to other people than I was a year or a decade ago, even if their physical presences do feel ever more stirring and urgently significant. Somehow the reality of other people draws closer even as I grow further away inside.

Sleep sneaks up and almost nets me, but I am determined to go further. I want to write something that makes this all real. I want to be so present that I’m no longer afraid. I want to feel awe. I relocate to a park and climb the stairs of a deserted amphitheater. Up there, as I record these words in my front-row seat to the long sky, big brother sun shoulders in close, slaps me around, shrinks and magnifies me, and with trillions of needles inscribes on my skin many ultraviolet tattoos. Before long I hop down the hillside to a twice-shaded bench, where I watch with satisfaction as dancing lindens clasp hands over the bully sun and it spurts, spilling yolk, from between their leafy fingertips. In the other direction an inflatable white dome, big as a three-story house, pulsates like a jellyfish about to push off from the earth. I may be sweating and light-headed, with visibly stinking shoes, but my pen, which I am holding onto for dear life, has finally loosened its tongue and sweetly lays down for me throbbing lines of fat pigment. Three barking dogs run by and abruptly freeze into a stand-off. Piebald magpies strut like the louche members of a highly dressed gang. A pentacle-shirted girl with movie-blood-red lips, clumping after her shaggy black familiar, stops nearby and smiles palely in my direction, but my own head shouts anxiously at me and though I’d love nothing more than to smile back I just hunch deeper over this hermetic landscape of ink silhouettes, my neck slowly being wrung by its own strained muscles. Yet my shyness has led me to do the right thing, for my fantasies of meeting others should remain fantasies, lest they become my life. If I want any chance at all of making words live, if I want shimmery slithering sinister tonguetwisters that spread through cables and infest all responses, if I want to fall as Lucifer did, wrapped in words, into a new language of new possibilities, well then I’ll just have to stay away from lovely vampires: to create my own adventure I have to be alone with the page and the clock in my chest tick-talking. I cough deep.

On the tree-lined banks of my beloved canal, mother of these reflections, I observe with glee as swans periscope in reverse. One lifts its neck like a muscular arm with a white-and-orange-painted hand and turns toward me its tyrannical glass eye. An inverted beer bottle bobs past, dunking as if being chugged by the current. It begins to rain: water arpeggiates on water, but the water resists, the water seeks rest, the water is a hard surface that thrums when struck, and I am regaled with ripples upon ripples, the sky needling its mirror for me, every drop exploding and launching a smaller drop, the water pingponging itself. Amid this crystal physics, confronted with the water’s interlocking equations, I huddle cross-legged and mortal beneath a homey maple, and although I’m only a little damp I still feel like one big dank itch, a pulp-scalped and scaly swamp creature with raw sore eyes and subaquatic socks. I’ve been awake for as many hours as the years of my age, having spent all yesterday suffocating under the weight of another’s genius and then all night industriously drawing my own fire and extinguishing it; nevertheless it is only here and now, at the limits of my body, that I am finally beginning to reach someplace real, and it’s not the scene around me but its reflection in this mirror world of words. To either side of me vines trail lazy fingers in the water for the puppy waves to frolic around. A white feather writes upon ripples, a scrappy white butterfly scampers like a shred of plastic bag, and a white tourboat bearing a zoo of sitting tourists drags its own perpetually shattering image through wavering and stretching foliage. It’s as if every word were a step in the massive journey to myself, though perhaps a step in the wrong direction, for in this lifelong hunt for myself I’ve already crossed my own trail many times over, I’ve thirsted and shivered and used up my feet, I’ve mapped forests and coasted over oceans, exhausting all the clues, but I might still discover that the distance from me to myself was no further than this pen from the page, or my dangling feet from the singing water. See my reflection rippling on the paper: my crow’s feet branch like lightning. Thirty-one years ago I was packed into a capsule of self-consuming flesh and fired at that last black wall, and by now I know I’m merely dreaming meat floating so high I can see the future and the past, with my little thoughts flying about like tubby bees, but my eyes are made of sights, upon my foggy shirt the falcon of the intellect alights upon an alchemist’s finger, and from my prismatic ballpoint flows the world waving all its flags and banners, tails fanning out and colors burning, every key pressed and all stops pulled, and I may breathe for now, that much is permitted me, I breathe, and I breathe, listening to the passing seconds plunk on leaves, letting the clouds wash over me and the birds sing my name. These words plunge from the sky, letters spattering the page. I begin.

The Rainy Library

In the rainy library, anyone can find a book about herself.

I’d felt for some time that I was largely invisible to my own eyes. That how other people experienced me was so different from my own ideas as to be unimaginable.

So I needed that book. I had to see myself, even if it broke me.

But reaching the library wasn’t easy. First I saved up for years for the black-market maps—only to find out that the library was halfway across the world. Well. Swallowing my anger, I saved for another year, then took a long-haul flight to a remote plateau, and with map in hand backpacked over an icy mountain range to a hidden valley filled with dense jungle. In the depths of that steaming jungle was a waterfall so chilly it spit icicles, and I had to grope through plummeting ice for a doorknob embedded in rock.

I stepped through into warm drizzle, into a large atrium with clouds rumbling and bumping under its glass ceiling. Above me rose eight stories of sagging shelves and waterlogged stacks of books.  When I called out, nobody responded… and my echo seemed to mock me.

I was starting to worry that I’d been scammed.

But that atrium turned out to be one of hundreds, and the library itself was larger than a city. My map took me through muddy side corridors that forked and star-split constantly, each new hallway decorated like a different culture or era. I rode horizontal elevators and crossed catwalks over book vaults. I gazed out windows at a mirrory lake, then a living city, then a sky filled by the glossy black wing of a planet-sized bird.

Finally I pushed open the heavy stone door to the final room, where an orb-headed mannequin posed by an enormous rose-window.

This part was in the instructions too.

I joined the mannequin at the glass, and we gazed out at darkness as flat as if reality ended just beyond the pane. Soon this darkness softened—not becoming light so much as giving way to a whiteness that wasn’t really white, but a color I’d never seen before. This color grew nested curves and crosshatched shadows, spiraling open into the furled layers of an antimatter rose.

Unwhite petals swirled out, larger than the sky.

And in the rose? At its center?

An eye, tracking from side to side.

Reading me.

The mannequin shifted and gasped.

Now she looked exactly like me.

She turned in my direction.

We spoke at the same time.

We stopped.

We leaned toward each other.

I gazed deep into my own apprehensive eyes.

I began to read.

Eternophobe

“Here. Put these on.”

Tortoiseshell aviators with scratched lenses. Oddly heavy.

“Why?”

“It’s for your own good.”

Up close the lens scratches looked like overlapping letters, as if many sentences had been carved over each other.

I felt deeply uneasy.

“What will you give me?”

“Raymond, these glasses will let you see infinity. It’s the quickest way to settle our argument. It’ll completely smash your ideas about free will.”

“Mmm, yeah, sounds fun…” I laid them carefully on the nightstand and maneuvered toward him. “Let’s just…”

“What’s wrong with you? You want to stay ignorant? Are you afraid?”

“I’m not afraid.”

“Then put them on. Just for a second, and afterward we can…”

“Fine.”

The glasses felt like two stone tablets crushing my face.

“Dude, come on. You have to open your eyes.”

First I saw N. He was smiling, and suddenly it seemed worth it that I had put on the glasses.

Then his face wavered: his eyes seemed to be open and shut, and his mouth was a flickering scramble of lips and teeth.

He swung off the bed, leaving behind a trail of selves, and branched backwards into the bathroom.

Then dozens of Ns, many totally nude, burst back in, crowding through each other.

Copies of myself multiplied everywhere, flipping through expressions.

Other men appeared, strangers to me. Many duplicates of each one climbed into bed with us, and the air filled with their thrusting bare asses.

Over them the walls and ceiling became flimsy and ghostlike. Glaring skies shone through, kaleidoscopic with scrawly birds. Trees mutated through each other.

The sun was a screaming oscillation.

In the distance giant sloths wandered through rolling tanks.

Metal strings spread everywhere, as if over some cosmic guitar, but they were only bullets existing along their entire paths simultaneously.

How can I say this? Everything branched and intertwined, everything wove back into itself without ever ending. Every moment that had ever existed hung there overlapping, and then it all abruptly sort of turned at an angle, the trillion trillion instances spreading out like a deck of cards, and I saw my life cross-sectioned two hundred times a second from birth to death; I saw every face I would ever have, frozen in mundane scenes of supernatural beauty, and it was immediately obvious just how much love and patience had gone into rendering every hair and wrinkle, how meticulously each expression had been carved.

My life was a majestic baroque sculpture perfect in every detail, unbelievably grand, and yet it was only a microscopic subpart of the universal masterpiece, just a tiny, glowing vein deep within the huge frozen block of infinity.

Free will? Forget it. What we call time is just the tour through the four-dimensional sculpture.

N might have won the argument, but I ghosted him.

Skyworms, or The Man Who Disproved Sleep (Old Version)

[Author’s Note: This version of the story is now obsolete. A new and improved form will appear in my book Unearthlily. I leave it here because I like certain elements of the old version.]

It’d been a long day, I mean literally a day that had lasted months. I had disproven sleep in an internationally published and peer-reviewed paper and since then none of us had been able to get any rest. It turns out that sleep is a sort of trick programmed by evolution into our brains to keep from us getting too close to reality, a filter that drops down right when we’re only starting to really wake up. Once you understood my research, you saw through the trick, and suddenly you couldn’t sleep anymore, even when you wanted to, even when all you craved was just a minute’s peace away from your thoughts, which were building on top of themselves like playing-card castles, rickety and swaying, blown over by anything, only to leap up again in entirely different configurations.

I was about two months ahead of everyone into the great sleeplessness, and all things considered I felt pretty decent, had more ideas than ever, was just jittery, chaotic, off-balance. My mind was steaming on a little faster than I could handle. I’d started avoiding the lab. Keeping to myself. I guess I’d become isolated. I was in a constant conversation with parts of my head that I’d never met before, and I found I had to defend all my most basic ideas against chattering cruel voices that questioned everything I believed in, not just who I am or ideas like kindness or courtesy but all the way down to questions like whether being able to touch something is sufficient proof to believe in its existence. It was as if I had to define every last element of reality in order to keep experiencing that reality. Everything I thought I knew was dissolving, and I had to run around inside trying to put everything back into place, patch it up but stronger, and then dash off to the next leak that my personality had developed. It was exhausting but also exhilarating. I felt as if all the fat were being stripped from my mind. As though my mind was now all muscle and eyeball.

I spent a lot of daylight in parks. The nature soothed me. The voices never questioned the birds or the brook, and I could still summon up that old feeling of harmony from the days when I still slept, a harmony I hadn’t even known was there, a deeply seated and unconscious sense of the rightness of reality, an unquestioned faith in the hardness of the table and the familiarity of the face in the mirror, a face that had long since stopped hanging together and was just eyes, nose, mouth, wetly coexisting without acknowledging each other. In parks there were no mirrors and few other people, and it calmed me whenever my consciousness could spread out uninhibited, as if it no longer centered around my body. I liked to lie in the grass and watch the clouds.

Until the day when I noticed that the entire sky was infested with massive translucent worms swaying like things underwater.

I howled and sat up straight—and the worms swung with me.

They were in my eyes.

I had tests done. Lights were shined, samples took. The doctors didn’t find anything and I knew they wouldn’t. Our tests were obsolete: they couldn’t detect a reality that we had only just begun to discover. The worms had probably always been there, hidden from us by our brains, which after all evolved to generate offspring. You hunt and breed more successfully when you’re turned off to certain cosmic realities, the kind that make sex and paying rent look like pathetic distractions from the truth. Sleep had been protecting us, and now, without sleep there as a buffer, we would one and all slowly have our collective face pushed closer and closer toward the spinning grindstone of absolute reality, where worms lived in our eyes, objects held grudges, the sky talked endlessly, the atoms laughed until they almost split themselves, and everything that had been hidden was slowly sharpening into a clarity that was not supposed to fit inside our brains.

And I would be first. Or actually—the second. First was the woman who’d clued me into the true nature of sleep. I’d been putting off visiting her, but when the worms appeared I finally conceded that I needed her advice. The worms were waving sickeningly over everything all the time: over the sky, in the trees, on bus seats, in my cereal, on the backs of my hands, on the inside of my eyelids, over the face of my girlfriend—whose name, by the way, suddenly seemed oddly inappropriate. I felt that she had another and truer name and that when we could discover it everything about her would resolve suddenly, and she would be on the same plane as me again, and her face would come out of the fog, and I would remember what exactly she had meant to me before all of the hammering whistling needling voices constantly prying and picking had undone everything and made it so hard to concentrate on what had once made sense so easily. But through the fog I still had a sense of loyalty to her, and this loyalty had prevented me from consulting the woman who knew about the true nature of sleep, because the last time we’d seen each other she’d made a pass at me, I thought.

Now I was unlatching her gate. Now I was ringing her doorbell. She answered the door without a word and we looked into each other’s eyes. The translucent worms were crawling over her face and hair and the walls behind her, and I knew she could see them on me too.

“I just want to know…”

“Yes?”

“What happens next?”

She laughed and shut the door.

Then she cracked it again.

“You mean after the snakes?”

“The snakes??”

She made us tea while she filled me in. She hadn’t made it through to the end herself. But she had stopped hearing the voices. They had intensified and heated up and gotten faster until they all fused. Now her mind was in a tunnel, she said, and the tunnel was made out of voices woven so densely they looked like black earth. I found it impossible to look at her. Her eyes were ten times brighter than the rest of her face. She had heavy eyes like sandbags on fire. I nervously picked up a book and flipped through it. The pages were blank. She said that she could feel her mind sliding and bumping down a tunnel, and at the end of a tunnel was a hole, and any day her mind would slide into the hole and fit into place and everything would twist like a key in a lock, and maybe then she’d have something more comforting to tell me, or maybe not, or maybe she wouldn’t even understand how to talk to me anymore, she said, and reached out like she was going to take my hand, but only stroked the back. I took away my hand and picked up another book. Blank. Same with the third and fourth and fifth book. And they were all so light. I felt if I blew on the page the whole book would crumble. She said my name—not my usual name, but my real name, one I hadn’t even known existed—and rubbed her knee on mine. Why was she still concerned with animal delights I’d long ago left behind? I blew on a blank page, and a wedge of words appeared. Then she said my real name again, and I shivered and understood that this would not end well. Talking to her had accelerated the process in my own skull. I could sense a tunnel’s mouth somewhere just behind my forehead. It made me aware of the furrows of my own brain. By now she had scooted her chair over and was leaning on my chest. I didn’t get why she liked me. Maybe I was just the only one she thought could understand. But I didn’t understand anything. It had all frayed and fallen apart. I could feel my skin unravelling, and underneath it I would be a giant white question mark made of cloud and quickly dispersing. Her breath warmed my ear. Her fingers climbed my neck. Her three cats were watching us and an omelette still in the pan was watching us, and suddenly I didn’t know if I had the neck or the hand, if I was flesh or wood; I was terribly light-headed and insubstantial, and so was she, and then my arms fell through her arms and our skulls merged and all her memories and thoughts moved through mine like two galaxies passing through each other, our language intertwined, and we flowered into higher consciousness.