About two weeks ago I got myself invited to participate in a public reading organized by a nearby bookstore. At first I planned to read an excerpt from something I’d already written, but while taking a walk I thought of a story that would fit the occasion. I get ten minutes just like everybody else, and timing myself I find that read aloud about 200 words a minute. That gives me 2,000 words to work with: long for a blog post, but short for a story, forcing me to get to the point quickly. My first draft came in at 3,000 words, so I had to do some severe pruning. Here’s what I’ve ended up with, as of this morning. The reading is tonight, Thursday, so if you think anything isn’t clear or could be eliminated I hope you’ll leave a comment to that effect. Also, is it just me, or does this story sound like it’s already been written by a thousand other writers? Tomorrow I’ll report on how the public reading went.
I glance over my shoulder at the big-screen image of my own slouching profile and I know it’s over. The faceless throng jamming the arena has remained silent and attentive during my first two hours, but I’m certain that by the end of this evening everything will be different. The arena might be reduced to rubble by air strikes, or maybe gravity will stop working and we’ll all wind up crushed together inside the concavity of the domed roof. Or I’ll turn the page and there will be nothing there.
* * *
I’ve always felt uncomfortable looking up from the page. Even on that first night – was it really only two months ago, or has the structure of time changed in some fundamental way? – even then I knew I ought to look up, make eye contact. Certainly I was familiar enough with my material to lift my eyes off the page now and then, try to coax my audience a little farther into the world I was showing them. I had assured myself that the novel isn’t me after all, isn’t even about me really: it’s just something I wrote, as separate from myself as any other book I might pull off the shelf. Still, there I was, making what amounted to a flagrant pass at two dozen strangers, and I was terribly afraid they weren’t looking back.
I enunciate clearly and with inflection. I rarely stumble over even the most convoluted syntax, probably because I’ve had plenty of experience reading bedtime stories to my daughter. Sometimes for fun I would look up theatrically from what I was reading to her, my face painted with ersatz emotion, my eyebrows arched, eyes and mouth opened wide. My daughter would laugh and tell me to stop it. That’s when I understood: I don’t need to master the arts of locutionary seduction in order to lure someone into another world; I just need to hold the door open and the world itself does the work.
Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if I’d never heard about the public readings at the bookstore, never made inquiry. Even after I’d been given a slot on the roster for that Thursday night I almost didn’t make it. People were gathering their things and putting on their coats when Karl Schroeder spotted me standing just inside the doorway and beckoned me forward, asked everyone to please give their attention to the last scheduled reader of the night.
I glanced at my watch as I’d neared the end of my text that first time: right on schedule; no need to hurry getting through the last page before my ten minutes were up. But anxiety had begun to creep over me. I stumbled over a word, then I repeated a line, and still the end came rushing toward me. Two paragraphs, one. Imbued with a strange dread I forced my way through the last sentence of Chapter One.
My finger hovered over the text for a moment longer, then abruptly I raised my head and gazed into the void. I discerned the faces, dispassionate and expressionless. They did not move; they made no sound – as if they were waiting for something. I detected motion in the periphery: a neon light near the door was flickering on and off. I picked up the manuscript, tapped it a few times on the lectern, and replaced it in the accordion folder. I nodded unsmiling toward the silent motionless audience and left.
I was surprised to find a phone message waiting for me at home. “Mr. Molina, this is Karl Shroeder, from the library? I wanted you to know that we really enjoyed, really appreciated, your reading this evening. I wondered, we wondered, if you might come back tomorrow night. You can just keep going where you left off.”
Again the reading went smoothly. I managed to look up a few times and again found myself confronted by attentive but expresssionless faces. After I’d finished my ten minutes I took an empty seat in the second row. The audience members began chatting among one another, preparing to leave – apparently I was the only reader scheduled for that evening. Two young women approached. “We looked for your book on the shelves but we couldn’t find it,” the black-haired one informed me. I acknowledged that it wasn’t published. To me surprise they seemed thrilled. “Then we’re the first ones to hear it?” I nodded. “Well that makes sense then,” the taller one remarked. “See you tomorrow.”
Reading aloud is slow going, but you do get to the end of the book eventually, and since my nightly readings had been extended to half an hour things were moving right along. By the end of the second week I had begun to feel a little relieved knowing that soon I’d be finished. It saddened me too, of course. Anticipation often exceeds fulfillment, but the reality of reading my own work every night to what had grown into a roomful of people – it had changed my life. I actually started thinking again about quitting my job and devoting myself to writing – the craft of it, the art, the truth, the paradoxically diffuse intensity of it. That first night I’d felt like I was on trial; now it seemed as though everyone in the store, reader and listeners alike, were entering together into another world, a world conjured out of nothing but words and imagination.
Soon enough there came that inevitable night, raw and blustery, when I drove to the bookstore with only five unread pages left to go. I’d framed the narrative according the traditional third-person-singular, past-tense convention, but then in the last chapter, Chapter 42, the story shifted abruptly to first person – as if the teller of the tale had suddenly become the main character, stepping out from behind the veil of anonymity. At the same time the story itself took a sharp turn toward the surreal. The previous evening, as I’d begun reading this final chapter, I experienced a momentary visual distortion, or perhaps it was a lapse of attention: the letters arrayed before me wouldn’t congeal themselves into meaningful units. I blinked hard two or three times, and when I looked up every person in the room seemed to have moved a little closer to me, gotten incrementally larger. Their wide-open eyes were locked onto my own, as if by the power of their gaze they could make my eyes see the words as they’d always been meant to be seen…
As I had done for the past 26 nights I extracted the loose-leaf manuscript from the accordion file and set it in front of me on the lectern. With a singular gravity I transposed the written words into sound. I was speaking no louder than usual, but somehow my voice sounded larger to my own ears. Whenever I finish reading a page I place it face-up at the bottom of the stack, so that the top sheet is always the next one to be read. One after another I read those top five pages, delivering them flawlessly; carefully and deliberately I slipped them one by one to the bottom of the stack. I grasped the entire sheaf in both hands and tapped the bottom edge on the lectern, just as I always do at the end of a night’s reading. I was sliding the manuscript back into the accordion file when I noticed that the title page, which should have risen again to the top of the sheaf, seemed to be missing. I scrutinized the top sheet more closely: “Chapter 43,” the heading read. Silently I scanned the opening lines: familiar yet disconcerting. How could I have forgotten? I still had about 15 minutes left. Sweeping a glance across my expectant audience, I read on.
And on. The hallucinatory tone of the narrative intensified as past tense turned the corner into the present. The story, which for its first 42 claustrophobic chapters had taken place almost exclusively inside one room, was chapter by chapter exploding outward: the rest of the house, the neighborhood, the town, the nation, the world. The narrator, who in first revealing himself had born only a generic resemblance to the author, gradually emerged as a distinct character. Sex, age, stature, back story, day job, literary aspirations: more and more the narrator was becoming Edgar Molina, was becoming me. To this fictional Edgar remarkable things were happening. From benumbed obscurity he had risen rapidly to prominence; his voice, so long unheard, struck resonant chords in the people’s hearts; the worlds he conjured from imagination began taking on shape and substance. Obscure adventurers crisscrossed the globe; wars ended while others began; world leaders in every sphere of endeavor sought his counsel. If, reading from his magnificent book, the words this fictional Edgar intoned said let there be light, then light there was.
In the narrator’s book the crowds swelled to enormous proportions – and it was so. Soon I was reading 3, 4, 5 hours a day. My job faded away; reading is what I do now. And yet every night, every time I finish a page and slip it to the bottom of the stack, I have to master the same dread again: what happens now, after the end? Every time another new page awaits me, familiar, expected, predestined. The world into which I speak these words is changing dramatically, but the book seems to keep pace with the changes, even to anticipate them, as if I had known the future when I’d written these astounding pages. And just when had I written them? The book itself explained that Edgar had written it, was writing it, would continue to write it, until the time came when he would not.
And now that time has arrived. As the page draws my eyes to itself I read it to the people, and reading it to them I read it to myself: the time is at hand. Desperation has seized certain pockets of resistance to the grand trajectory laid out by my, Edgar’s, book. Even now forces are arraying themselves against him, me: not just the will of determined and dangerous men, but the very fabric of nature being rent asunder. As I glance over my shoulder to the gigantic image of my profile, my attention is drawn to a figure leaning toward that profile from one of the exit ramps.
* * *
Centering his target in the crosshairs, the sniper watched Edgar Molina return his attention to the large stack of paper in front of him. Edgar’s mouth stopped moving; half a second later his amplified voice cut off mid-sentence. The vast auditorium fell silent. Edgar’s shoulders shrugged; his features seemed to melt down his face. The sniper had been concentrating his full attention on that face, but now his mission was completed and Edgar’s face had fallen from view. The sniper shifted his left wrist ever so slightly so that the top sheet was framed by the telescopic lens. He couldn’t read the words from there; he would have to go down to the arena floor, stand at the lectern, pick up where Edgar had left off.