Listen to Min Li Chan read this excerpt.I
have been recording essays and stories, read aloud, for a childhood friend whose brain is being radiated daily. These stories—their words and sentences, so dazzlingly crafted and movingly arranged on the page—seem evacuated of their potency when performed into the microphone on my cell phone. The voice that emerges from my throat does not match the voice that I have fantasized narrating the works of my literary heroes. It has a texture reminiscent of both cardboard and gravel. It fumbles and elides syllables, sounds ill at ease. It swerves between its native Malaysian accent, received British inflections, and adopted American pronunciation. Even the elemental, such as the word water, roils into an existential crisis at full boil: to flap the t against the roof of the mouth or place it behind the front teeth? To let the terminal r roll, or let it be silent?
Don’t look it up, my friend had texted about her glioblastoma, when it was late in Kuala Lumpur and I had just awakened in Chicago. It’s stage 4 but you already know that love u & goodnight. Along with this prohibition she sent an image of her brain before surgery: encircled by a thin coastline of bone, an ocean of brilliant gray matter, within which two dark, solid islands surfaced like geologic calamities. Madafakas, she christened them. I imagined her voice enunciating the a’s the way we had as children—slack-jawed, as when asked to open our mouths at the doctor’s, as when sounding new vocabulary words in Malay, open syllable by open syllable.
My friend had not yet, at the time, told all of her closest friends. Anticipating their loss for words, she expressed dread at the thought of stunned silences and platitudinous assurances. I did not want to become such a friend, the kind who inadvertently burdens the sick. I also did not believe that words were possible on such occasions. The only way to bear such moments, I believed, was to sit quietly with and through the difficulty, to be bodily present with the news and its bearer. But she, who had been among my first friends, lives an ocean away in my country of birth. As a child I was drawn to her singular sensibility; the way she instinctively made art that skirted the prompts our teachers prescribed, animated our mechanical pencils and plastic rulers and made them speak wryly to each other across our adjoined classroom desks. My friend showed me what play was in its most expansive sense. The thought of merely thumbing her the occasional text message, of lobbing a How are you feeling today? across the ether to a body and mind already subjected daily to unimaginable reckoning, seems to me unbearably facile, and cruel.
I am newly a resident of a university town north of Chicago, and a graduate student at the university. From this vantage point, the rituals of my prior life in San Francisco—once the cynosure of radical counterculture, since an industry town and playground for Silicon Valley’s freshly affluent—have begun to feel unfamiliar: the commute down the freeway on the company bus, the long days in bug triages, engineering meetings, and design reviews, the free meals at the office. Also fading from memory is that prior life’s particular grammar. Digressions during a meeting would have been deemed orthogonal to the true matter at hand. The word debt would have referred not to money or gratitude but to technical debt, accumulated when computer code is hastily written under the duress of deadlines or poorly maintained. Bugs and technical issues would have demanded a solve; perhaps because a solution too much evoked a magic potion, obscuring the complexity of the labor involved. While a solution implied a sense of finality, a solve—a verb conscripted into the service of a noun—telegraphed an ongoing process: few problems, after all, stay permanently fixed.
Now devoted to the study and the craft of writing, I labor over words. The bookshelf that moved with me across the country is newly cluttered with collections of essays and short stories and several books of theory. It is this bookshelf that I turned to when the idea flashed in my mind that I would read to my friend who, despite being drained physically and daily by radiotherapy, finds herself unable to sleep.
I can read to you essays and short stories that you might like, I told her over the phone, the morning light cascading onto my bookshelf, while she lay sleepless in the dark, thirteen time zones away. Like a good graduate student I treated the idea like an assignment. The challenge: What could I pull off the shelf that would speak to my friend’s particular dark humor and her circumstances, both? How might my retooled instincts illuminate the task in ways that my former self could not? I was seized by a sense-memory of having been astonished by an essay by Mary Ruefle, who once gave several readings at a writer’s workshop I attended. At one of the readings, she performed a lecture by John Cage.
Cage believed that the purpose of writing music, and perhaps of art at large, was purposeless play; not to express the self or to pursue the ineffable, nor to usefully question the existing social order, but simply, as he had once put it, to wake up to the life that we are living. Cage believed in letting life act of its own accord. In this manner his compositions were dictated by chance operations, fed by coin tosses and consultations with the I Ching. The lecture that Ruefle performed, his “Lecture on Nothing,” was similarly guided by a nonconforming logic. Its proportions were determined algorithmically and its content scored like music. Each of four equally spaced columns on the page—each a musical measure is occupied by a word, or a single punctuation. Ruefle, attending to these details with care, suffused the text as Cage had instructed with the rubato of everyday speech.
Later that night when I saw her standing alone outside the faculty cottage, moonlit, cigarette at the end of an arm swung low, I had a vision of walking over and striking up a conversation. We could speculate over what Cage might have thought about chance and present-day machine algorithms; about how writing a true random number generator in computer code requires yoking the code to an unpredictable physical phenomenon, such as a mouse’s movements, or a radioactive atom’s decay; or we could marvel over how in 2016, in the 37th move of the historic Go match between Lee Sedol and an artificial intelligence, the machine made a play so odd that the play was judged by human observers in the moment as a mistake, and later reframed, in the reorienting context of the machine’s victory, as beautiful. The conversational possibilities branched endlessly into the dark before me. In the end, I stood at a respectful distance, looking at the moon, then padded away, too shy to interrupt a famous poet’s smoke break.
Now on the phone with my friend, I reached without hesitation for My Private Property, and located the collection’s title essay in the slender volume. I recalled admiring in Ruefle’s essay her deft sentences and their cadences, her limber leaps of association. But while the experience of reading the essay had left me with an imprint of its general emotional valence, my brain had blotted out any recollection of its actual subject. I could not remember what the essay was about. Such unremembering would have unnerved me, if not for the grace and reasoning that Maggie Nelson offers in The Art of Cruelty, that “an art that affects you in the moment, but which you find hard to remember, is straining to bring you to another level. It offers images or ideas from that other level, that other way of being, which is why you find them hard to remember. But it has opened you to the possibility of growing into what you are not yet, which is exactly what art should do.” Trusting that a call had been issued from that other level, I cleared my throat, announced the essay’s title and author, and began:
It is sad, is it not, that no one today displays any interest in the art of shrunken heads. Men, women, and children walk on streets, they cross fields and enter forests, they run along the edges of oceans, but none of them, to the best of my knowledge, are thinking about shrunken heads. I am thinking about shrunken heads, but keep the thought to myself, that is, inside my head, for if the subject is raised at all, it is met with horror, on account of the violence involved in the necessary removal of the head before you can shrink it.
Shrunken heads. The removal of the head. I felt a burgeoning panic in my chest, suddenly aware of the possibility that the last thing a person with a brain tumor might want to listen to is an essay, no matter how astonishingly crafted, about shrunken heads. Maybe this is insensitive, I thought, or worse, hurtful. My narrating voice began to trip and skid all over the page. My friend silent and listening, I pressed on, propelled in part by blind belief that an enterprise started should be seen through; in part by a desire to be strained and brought to this art’s other level; in part by the suspicion that to abdicate the assignment right then would be to minimize my friend’s capacity for apprehending complicated images that require a hard reading.
So I continued reading aloud, through Thor Heyerdahl’s recounting, via Ruefle, of the Amazonian procedure for preparing a shrunken head—decapitation, smashing and removing the skull, and filling the remaining sack of skin with hot sand until it is about the size of an orange; through Ruefle’s story of how the shrunken head of a murdered man caused his widow to faint again and again before it was one day discovered by a mouse and eaten; through her first encounter, as a sixteen-year-old in Brussels, with a shrunken head at the Congo Museum. Just as the essay was at the brink of executing a slew of surprising turns, of broadening its gaze to the brutality of colonial power and later to the lengths of unconditional love, I stopped. Came to a halt, before the both of us could witness the essay accomplish the full potential of its form. I wondered if my friend was okay, if art and play in the medium of words and sentences offered for her anything—ease, joy, distraction, entertainment?—if essays and stories chancily curated by a head newly drunk with books and read aloud by a voice so easily thrown were what she wanted. When I stopped, she drew a sharp breath and said, I’ve always wondered how they were made, those shrunken heads. She told me to send her more . . . ■