Beginning: in the middle, past the middle, nearer three-quarters done, waiting for the end. Consider how dreadful so far: passionless, abstraction, pro, dis. And it will get worse. Can we possible continue?
Plot and theme: notions vitiated by this hour of the world but as yet not successfully succeeded. Conflict, complication, no climax. The worst is to come. Everything leads to nothing: future tense; past tense; present tense. Perfect. The final question is, Can nothing be made meaningful? Isn’t that the final question? If not, the end is at hand. Literally, as it were. Can’t stand any more of this.
I think she comes. The story of our life. This is the final test. Try to fill in the blank. Only hope is to fill the blank. Efface what can’t be faced or else fill in the blank. With words or more words, otherwise I’ll fill in the blank with this noun here in my prepositional object. Yes, she already said that. And I think. What now. Everything’s been said already, over & over; I’m as sick of this as you are; there’s nothing to say. Say nothing.
What’s new? Nothing.
Conventional startling opener. Sorry if I’m interrupting the Progress of Literature, she said, in a tone that adjective clause suggested good-humored irony but in fact defensively & imperfectly masking a taunt. The conflict is established though as yet unclear in detail. Standard conflict. Let’s skip particulars. What do you want from me? What’ll be the story this time? Same old story. Just thought I’d see if you were still around. Before. What? Quit right here. Too late. Can’t we start over. What’s past is past. On the contrary, what’s forever past is eternally present. The future? Blank. All this is just fill in. Hang on.
Still around. In what sense? Among the gerundive. What is that supposed to mean? Did you think I meant to fill in the blank? Why should I? On the other hand, why not? What makes you think I wouldn’t fill in the blank instead? Some conversation this is. Do you want to go on, or shall we end it right now? Suspense. I don’t care for this either. It’ll be over soon enough in any case. But it gets worse & worse. Whatever happens, the ending will be deadly. At least let’s have just one real conversation. Dialog or monolog? What has it been from the first? Don’t ask me. What is there to say at this late date? Let me think; I’m trying to think. Same old story. Or. Or? Silence.
This isn’t so bad. Silence. There are worse things. Name three. This, that, the other. Some choices. Who said there was a choice?
Let’s try again. That’s what I’ve been doing; I’ve been thinking while you’ve been blank. Story of Our Life. However, this may be the final complication. The ending may be violent. That’s been said before. Who cares? Let the end be blank; anything’s better than this.
It didn’t used to be so bad. It used to be less difficult. Even enjoyable. For whom? Both of us? To do what? Complicate the conflict. I am weary of this. What, then? To complete this sentence, if I may bring up a sore subject. That never used to be a problem. Not it’s impossible; we just can’t manage it. You can’t fill in the blank; I can’t fill in the blank. Or wont. Is this what we’re going to talk about, our obscene verbal problem? It’ll be out last conversation. Why talk at all? Are you paying attention? I dare you to quit now! Never dare a desperate person. On with it, calmly, one sentence after another, like a recidivist. A what? A common noun. Or another common noun. Hold tight. Or a chronic forger, let’s say; committed to the pen for life. Which is to say, death. The point, for pity’s sake! Not yet. Forge on.
We’re more than halfway through, as I remarked at the outset: youthful vigor, innocent exposition, positive rising action—all that is behind us. How sophisticated we are today. I’ll ignore her, he vowed, & went on. In this dehuman, exhausted, ultimate adjective hour, when every humane value has become untenable, & not only love, decency, & beauty but even compassion & intelligibility are no more than one or two subjective complements to complete the sentence…
This is a story? It’s a story, he replied equably, or will be if the author can finish it. Without interruption I supposed you mean? she broke in. I can’t finish anything; that is my final word. Yet it’s these interruptions that make it a story. Escalate the conflict further. Please let me start over.
Once upon a time you were satisfied with incidental felicities & niceties of technique: the unexpected image, the refreshingly accurate word-choice, the memorable simile that yields deeper & subtler significances upon reflection, like a memorable simile. Somebody please stop me. Or arresting dialog, so to speak. For example?
Why do you suppose it is, she asked, long participial phrase of the breathless variety characteristic of dialog attributions in nineteenth-century fiction, that literate people such as we talk like characters in a story? Even supplying the dialog-tags, she added with wry disgust. Don’t put words in her mouth. The same old story, an old-fashioned one at that. Even if I should fill in the blank with my idle pen? Nothing new about that, to make a fact out of a figure. At least it’s good for something. Every story is penned in red ink, to make a figure out of a fact. This whole idea is insane.
And might therefor be got away with.
No turning back now, we’ve gone too far. Everything’s finished. Name eight. Story, novel, literature, art, humanism, humanity, the self itself. Wait: the story’s not finished. And you & I, Howard? whispered Martha, he sarcasm belied by a hesitant alarm in her glance, flickering as it were despite herself to the blank instrument in his hand. Belied indeed; put that thing away! And what does flickering modify? A person who can’t verb adverb ought at least speak correctly.
A tense moment in the evolution of the story. Do you know, declared the narrator, one has no idea, especially nowadays, how close the end may be, nor will one necessarily be aware of it when it occurs. Who can say how near this universe has come to cessation? Or take two people, in a story of the sort it once was possible to tell. Love affairs, literary genres, third item in exemplary series, fourth—everything blossoms & decays, does it not, from the primitive & classical through the mannered & baroque to the abstract, stylized, dehumanized, unintelligible, blank. And you & I , Rosemary? Edward. Snapped! Patience. The narrator gathers that his audience no longer cherishes him. And conversely. But little does he know of the common noun concealed for months in her you name it, under her eyelet chemise. This is a slip. The point is the same. And she fetches it out nightly as I dream, I think. That’s no slip. And she regards it & sighs, a quantum grimlier each night it may be. Is this supposed to be amusing? The world might end before this sentence, or merely someone’s life. And/or someone else’s. I speak metaphorically. Is the sentence ended? Very nearly. No telling how long a sentence will be until one reaches the stop. IT sounds as if somebody intends to fill in the blank. What is all this nonsense about?
It may not be nonsense. Anyhow it will presently be over. As the narrator was saying, things have been kaput for some time, & while we may be pardoned our great reluctance to acknowledge it, the fact is that the bloody century for example is nearing the three-quarter mark, & the characters in this little tale, for example, are similarly past their prime, as is the drama. About played out. Then God damn it let’s ring the curtain. Wait wait. We’re left with the following three possibilities, at least in theory. Horseshit. Hold onto yourself, it’s too soon to fill in the blank. I hope this will be a short story.
Shorter than it seems. it seems endless. Be thankful it’s not a novel. The novel is predicate adjective, as is the innocent anecdote of bygone days when life made a degree of sense & subject joined to complement by copula. No longer are these things the case, as you have doubtless remarked. There was I believe some mention of possibilities, three in number. The first is rejuvenation: having become an exhausted parody of itself, perhaps a form—Of what? Of anything—may rise neoprimitively from its own ashes. A tiresome prospect. The second, more appealing I’m sure but scarcely likely at this advanced date, is that moribund what-have-yous will be supplanted by vigorous new: the demise of the novel & short story, he went on to declare, needn’t be the end of narrative art, nor need the dissolution of a used-up blank fill in the blank. The end of one road might be the beginning of another. Much good that’ll do me. And you may not find the revolution as bloodless as you think, either. Shall we try it? Never dare a person who is fed up to the ears.
The final possibility is a temporary expedient, to be sure, the self-styled narrator of this so-called story went on to admit, ignoring the hostile impatience of his audience, but what it not, & every sentence completed is a step closer to the end. That is to say, every day gained is a day gone. Matter of viewpoint, I suppose. Go on. I am. Whether anyone’s paying attention or not. The final possibility is to turn to ultimacy, exhaustion, paralyzing self-consciousness & the adjective weight of accumulated history . . . Go on. Go on. To turn ultimacy against itself to make something new & valid, the essence whereof would be the impossibility of making something new. What a nauseating notion. And pray how does it bear upon the analogy uppermost in everyone’s mind? We’ve gotten this far, haven’t we? Look how far we’ve come together. Can’t we keep on to the end? I think not. Even another sentence is too many. Only if one believe the end to be a long way off; actually it might come at any moment; I’m surprised it hasn’t before now. Nothing does when it’s expected to.
Silence. There’s a fourth possibility, I suppose. Silence. General anesthesia. Self-extinction. Silence.
Historicity & self-awareness, he asseverated, while ineluctable & even greatly to be prized, are always fatal to innocence & spontaneity. Perhaps adjective period Whether in a people, an art, a love affair, on a fourth term added not impossibly to make a third less than ultimate. In the name of suffering humanity cease this harangue. It’s over And the story? Is there a plot here? What’s all this leading up to?
No climax. There’s the story. Finished? Not quite. Story of our lives. The last word in fiction, in fact. I chose the first-person narrative viewpoint in order to reflect interest from the peculiarities of the technique (such as the normally unbearable self-consciousness, the abstraction, & the blank) to the nature & situation of the narrator & his companion, despite the obvious possibility that the narrator & his companion might be mistaken for the narrator & his companion. Occupational hazard. The technique is advanced, as you see, but the situation of the characters is conventionally dramatic. That being the case, may one of them or one who may be taken for one of them, make a longish speech in the old-fashioned manner, charged with obsolete emotion? Of course.
I begin calmly, though my voice may rise as I go along. Sometimes it seems as if things could instantly be altogether different & more admirable. The times be damned, one still wants a man vigorous, confident, bold, resourceful, adjective & adjective. One still wants a woman spirited, spacious of heart, loyal, gentle, adjective, adjective. That man & that woman are as possible as the ones in this miserable story, & a good deal realer. It’s as it they live in some room of our house that we can’t find the door to, though it’s so close we can hear echoes of their voices. Experience has made them wise instead of bitter; knowledge has mellowed them instead of souring them; in their forties & fifties, even in their sixties, they’re gayer & stronger & more authentic than they were in their twenties; for the twenty-year-olds they have only affectionate sympathy. So? Why aren’t the couple in this story that man & that woman, so easy to image? God, but I am surfeited with clever irony! Ill of sickness! Parallel phrase to wrap up series! This last-resort idea, it’s dead in the womb, excuse the figure. A false pregnancy, excuse the figure. God damn me though if that’s entirely my fault. Acknowledge your complicity. As you see, I’m trying to do something about the present mess; hence this story. Adjective in the noun! Don’t lose your composure. You tell me it’s self-defeating to talk about it instead of just up & doing it; but to acknowledge what I’m doing while I’m doing it is exactly the point. Self-defeat implies a victor, & who do you supposed it is, if not blank? That’s the only victory left. Right? Forward! Eyes open.
No. The only way to get out of a mirror-maze is to close your eyes & hold out your hands. And be carried away by a valiant metaphor, I suppose, like a simile.
There’s only one direction to go in. Ugh. We must make something out of nothing. Impossible. Mystics do. No only turn the contradiction into paradox, but employ it, to go on living & working. Don’t bet on it. I’m betting my cliché on it, yours too. What is that supposed to mean? On with the refutation; every denial is another breath, every word brings us closer to the end.
Very well: to write this allegedly ultimate story is a form of artistic fill in the blank, or an artistic form of same, if you like. I don’t. What I mean is, same idea in other terms. The storyteller’s alternatives, as far as I can see, are a series of last words, like an aging actress making one farewell appearance after another, or actual blank. And I mean literally fill in the blank. Is this a test? But the former is contemptible in itself, & the latter will certainly become so when the rest of the world shrugs its shoulders & goes on about its business. Just as people would do if adverbial clause of obvious analogical nature. The fact is, the narrator has narrated himself into a corner, a state of affairs more tsk-tsk than boo-hoo, & because his position is absurd he calls the world absurd. That some writers lack lead in their pencils does not make writing obsolete. At this point they were both smiling despite themselves. At this point they were both flashing hatred despite themselves. Every woman has a blade concealed in the neighborhood of her garters. Do disarm her, so to speak, don’t geld yourself. At this point they were both despite themselves. Have we come to the point at last? Not quite. Where there’s life there’s hope.
There’s no hope. This isn’t working. But the alternative is to supply an alternative. That’s no alternative. Unless I make it one. Just try; quit talking about it, quit talking, quit! Never dare a desperate man. Or woman. That’s the one thing that can drive even the first part of a conventional metaphor to the second part of same. Talk, talk, talk. Yes, yes, go on, I believe literature’s not likely to ever manage abstraction successfully, like sculpture for example, is that a fact what a time to bring up that subject, anticlimax, that’s the point, do set forth the exquisite reason. Well, because wood & iron have a native appeal & first-order reality, whereas words are artificial to begin with, invented specifically to represent. Go on, please go on. I’m going. Don’t you dare. Well, well, weld iron rods into abstract patterns, say, & you’ve still go real iron, but arrange words into abstract patterns & you’ve got nonsense. Nonsense is right. For example. On, God damn it; take a linear plot, take resolution of conflict, take third direct object, all that business, they may very well be obsolete notions, indeed they are, no doubt untenable at this late date, no doubt at all, but in fact we still lead our lives by clock & calendar, for example, & though the seasons recur our mortal human time does not; we grow old & tired, we think of how things used to be or might have been & how they are now, & in fact, & in fact we get exasperated & desperate & out of expedients & out of words.
Go on. Impossible. I’m going, too late now, one more step & we’re done, you & I. Suspense. The fact is, you’re driving me to it, the fact is that people still lead lives, mean & bleak & brief as they are, briefer than you think, & people have characters & motives that we divine more or less inaccurately from their appearance, speech, behavior, & the rest, you aren’t listening, go on then, what do you think I’m doing, people still fall in love, & out, yes, in & out, & out & in, & they please each other, & hurt each other, isn’t that the truth, & they do these things in more or less conventionally dramatic fashion, unfashionable or not, go on, I’m going, & what goes on between them is still not only the most interesting but the most important thing in the bloody murderous world, pardon the adjectives. And that my dear is what writers have got to find ways to write about in this adjective adjective hour of the ditto ditto same noun as above, or their, that is to say our, accursed self-consciousness will lead them, that is to say us, to here is comes say it straight out, I’m going to, say it in plain English for once, that’s what I’m leading up to, me & my bloody anticlimactic noun, we’re pushing each other to fill in the blank.
Goodbye. Is it over? Can’t you read between the lines? One more step. Goodbye suspense goodbye.
Oh God comma I abhor self-consciousness. I despise what we have come to; I loathe our loathsome loathing, our place our time our situation, our loathsome art, this ditto necessary story. The blank of our lives. It’s about over. Let the dénouement be soon & unexpected, painless if possible, quick at least, above all soon. Now now! How in the world will it ever