Miguel Obispo’s performance had been astonishing. Couched in the visual language of Christian masochism that had become all too commonplace among the avant-garde, this particular evocation gradually transformed itself into something far more disturbing. The blood, trickling slowly from the palms, would not stop. A minute, two minutes, five; it began to puddle on the floor. The young man stood, hands outstretched, completely silent. He seemed to be concentrating intently, as though willing the blood to flow. The onlookers, thirty or so, sat mesmerized. He gazed intently first at one audience member, then another.
He does not look at me, Stephen thought, surprised by his own disappointment.
When we got back to the motel room I felt drunk and exhausted. Sure I’d had a couple three drinks, but that was across a period of several hours. I figured it must have been the company Anne and I had been keeping: my Alzheimer’s-depleted father and his wife, who’s starting down the same path as her spouse. Lying on the motel bed I felt like I was experiencing some sort of petit-mal seizure. I couldn’t move; I couldn’t speak. After a minute or so I snapped out of it. I had dozed off; the seizure had been a dream. Later I wondered whether it might not have been been a dream at all, but a conscious awakening inside my sleeping self, still immobile and mute and unresponsive to my own intentions. I got up, brushed my teeth, took off my clothes, got under the covers, went to sleep.
I dreamed that I was back in the UVA Psych Building again. I exchanged greetings with Tim Wilson, then a junior member of the Social Psych faculty and a member of my diss committee. A few years ago he wrote a book called Strangers to Ourselves; in my 2009 post about the book I wrote that “Tim focuses largely on humans’ limited ability to gain conscious access to the unconscious.” Farther down the hall I was approached by Jon Thiem, a retired comparative lit prof I knew in Boulder. He was enthusiastic about a meeting he’d just attended at the Merck home office, involving corporate top brass and John Zorn — Zorn is an avant-garde jazz musician and composer who explores Judeo-Christian themes in his music. Evidently the Merck strategists thought that Zorn’s music and related contemporary literary work could be worked into their corporate branding apparatus and new product R&D. You really should come meet these people, Jon Thiem told me: they’ll love your stuff. I nodded noncommittally, not at all surprised by Merck’s new scheme. When I woke up I saw this dream as directly connected to Book One, Chapter Two.
For several years I worked as a healthcare consultant. A number of my clients were pharmaceutical companies, Merck among them. Our biggest client was a company that specialized in delivering health services and products to patients suffering from rare chronic diseases. Working for this client I got to learn a lot about hemophilia. The performance artist introduced in Chapter 2 of the novel uses his hemophilia in his post-Judeo-Christian performance art.
An electronic squeal pierced the silence, jolting everyone in the room except the performer. With deliberation Miguel walked to the left side of the stage, red footprints marking his path. From behind a screen he retrieved a white vinyl-topped card table and set it up mid-stage. Next he brought out a white polystyrene picnic cooler, emblazoned on all sides with the “Biohazard” symbol, and placed it on the table. He tilted back the lid and began extracting various medical supplies from the cooler: an empty glass bottle, a smaller sealed bottle, a small vial, a syringe, a rubber hose, what seemed to be a bottle of mineral water. Each item he placed with precision on the tabletop. Lastly he removed a small gold standing crucifix and positioned it facing the audience at the front of the table. Calmly Miguel closed the cooler and carried it to the far back end of the stage, where he set it on the floor.
Returning to center stage, he began a series of ablutions. He opened the mineral water and sprinkled some of it over everything: his hands, the medical supplies, the table, lastly the crucifix. Thinly diluted blood began spilling over the edge of the table and onto the floor, bathing the staged solemnity in the peculiar horror of its pink translucence. People in the front row lurched backward, even though they were seated at least fifteen feet away from the dripping table.
Miguel wiped his hands across the front of his white turtleneck and genuflected. He broke the seal on the small glass bottle, held it aloft for a moment, then poured its contents, a clear colorless fluid, into the larger empty bottle. He went through the same procedure with the vial, which held some sort of powder. He swirled the bottle for a few seconds in order to mix its contents. He took the syringe and loaded it with the mixture, pale yellow and slightly opaque. He rolled up his sleeve and cinched the rubber hose around his upper arm. Then he jabbed himself with the needle. Not a sound came from the enraptured audience. Slowly he pressed the plunger. Two or three minutes passed before the syringe was empty. He recapped the syringe. Then, methodically, he undid everything. Starting with the cross, he put it all back into the cooler, closed the lid, and carried it offstage. Then he refolded the table, the thinned blood sloshing onto the floor, and removed it also.
Standing in the small pool where the table had been, Miguel again wiped his hands across his shirt. Slowly he lifted his arms, palms turned toward the audience, in the classic gesture of benediction. He held this pose for a few moments. His palms had stopped bleeding. He put his hands down, pressed the palms together, and retraced his own bloody trail offstage. A few seconds later he returned to the very front of the stage, smiled, and bowed deeply. He had spoken not one word during the performance.
Wild applause ensued. Single red roses were flung onto the stage. Calls of “encore” elicited a derisive but gracious smile from the entertainer. Amid the gore, his white turtleneck thoroughly besmeared and bespattered, Miguel Obispo presented himself to his audience with the perfect decorum of a symphony conductor. As he left the stage he walked with a decided limp.
Maybe I get too caught up in describing the technical aspect of the performance, but I found a sort of perverse fascination in delineating the procedural details of the bloodletting and the clotting. I experienced a similar sort of technological rapture while watching The Wire: the convoluted drug deals, the surveillance apparatus, the counter-intelligence tactics. After reading the chapter describing Miguel’s “HemoBoy” act, Jon Thiem informed me that it was thick with “knowledge code,” not unlike Melville’s long discourses on the technical aspects of whaling, whale physiology, and taxonomic cetology. I also see also a kind of Robbe-Grilletian empirical obsessiveness, voyeuristic, a bit sadistic perhaps. But there’s no question that Moby-Dick has been an influence on my fiction; later in this first book I quote an extended passage from it:
Stephen took his own copy of the Bible down from the shelf and opened it to a story he knew well. Yahweh tells Jonah to pronounce divine wrath on the city of Nineveh. Jonah knows what he’s meant to do; he just doesn’t want to do it. And so Jonah tries to run away. It doesn’t work, of course: his boat gets swamped and his shipmates throw him overboard. The great fish swallows him up. From the abyss of deep destiny Jonah apparently reconsiders. He promises Yahweh that he’ll do his job. The fish vomits up Jonah; Jonah tells the Ninevites of their impending doom; the Ninevites repent in sackcloth; the city is spared. Jonah, looking like a fool because the city still stands, walks into the desert to sulk. We never find out whether Jonah ever again waxed enthusiastic over his prophetic career or if he died in the desert a proud but bitter man.
Stephen thought also of Ahab. Fate, be it god or devil, was decimating that superbly mad tyrant bite by bite. What is lost cannot be restored; it can only be avenged: the whalebone pegleg is just the beginning. To fight with the monomaniacal obsession of Ahab is to be swallowed up by a Will unassailable and infinitely vast. Yet fight he must, and fail, for fate will be neither evaded nor vanquished.
Stephen took this other book from it place on the shelf and read the unholy text:
Were this world an endless plain, and by sailing eastward we could for ever reach new distances, and discover sights more sweet and strange than any Cyclades or Islands of King Solomon, then there were promise in the voyage. But in pursuit of those far mysteries we dream of, or in tormented chase of that demon phantom that, some time or another, swims before all human hearts – while chasing such over this round globe, they either lead us on in barren mazes or midway leave us whelmed.
Confronted by a monstrous inevitability, how many of us would dare try Ahab’s full-throttle assault, or even Jonah’s dodge? We’re more like the dandy from Death in Venice: neither hiders nor seekers, we want a nice vacation at the seashore. We’re going to encounter our abyss not at the bottom of the sea but on a private beach, sitting under an umbrella sipping a Bellini. The Deep is going to reach up onto the shore, grab you by the ankle, and pull you under.
Stephen thought: at the Salon Postisme, we will let others traffic in the optimistic, win-win version of the Quest. We will tell our clients that the Quest often turns into a plunge into the Deep, a tour of the Abyss.
From the outset I’ve regarded fiction-writing as a kind of self-redemptive procedure. In search of lost time, I’ve tried to pick up the loose threads from my prior lives, linking them together into an alternative weave. Now that I’ve written several of these fictions, they too beckon from the past, calling out to be redeemed. I realize that in this making-of series I’m doing the same thing with them as I did with my hemophilia consult, looking back over my shoulder at them to see if any of their loose threads lead to another way forward, or backward, or off on another tangent.