Fiction from NER 42.1 (2021)
translated by Jennifer Shyue
I get up early but I can’t free myself from sleep. I turn on the lights. I walk around the house. From bedroom to bathroom and from bathroom to kitchen. I eat breakfast. From kitchen to patio and from patio to living room. I turn on the TV. I read a bit. I walk through the house again. But I can’t manage to wake up. I decide to go out into the street. I run into a friend and confide in him that I can’t wake up. I ask for advice. He suggests I do a bit of exercise to loosen up—then I should drink a cup of very strong coffee and listen to very loud music. I do all these things but I don’t manage to wake up. I go out once more. This time I go to the doctor. As is often the case, the doctor talks a good deal, but I do not wake up. At six in the evening I load a revolver and blow out my brains. I jump up in bed and open my eyes, but I still haven’t managed to wake up. Sleep, dreams: a very persistent thing.
SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE
Live. It’s always been live. Virgilio Piñera looks at the camera, smiles, and says, “This is my last show. Yesterday they operated on me for the twelfth time, before your very eyes. A case of hypertrophy of the irony. But don’t think your suffering will end here. It’s very possible the operations will continue.”
He’s just met her in a strange city. They drink, dance, kiss, and afterward he invites her to his hotel. When he takes her clothes off he realizes she is not a woman, but a man. Surprise. He’s about to tell the man to leave right now when suddenly he’s no longer a man, but a vulture sitting in front of the TV. Shock. To calm himself, he turns to a bottle that says barbiturates but actually contains vitamins or something like that. While he dissolves in a room that now resembles a cell in a State prison, he hears the vulture say, like it’s reading something on the screen, “You were never promised anything, you signed no contract.”
I make friends with a screenwriter. We talk on the phone for hours, him in Los Angeles and me in La Habana. I’d like to think he prefers talking with me because I give him ideas instead of asking him for his. In exchange, he sends me collections of magazines. Art, shows, fashion, glamour. Pages to peck at.
The screenwriter says: “Sometimes all it takes to find it is one look at a cover. There’s something there that’s meant for you, that only you can read. It’s like a jolt. I don’t know if you understand me. I’m not sure I can fully explain. Look, why don’t we leave it for another day, it’s already six in the morning and I just finished my mineral water.”
Laura calls again from Manhattan. She tells me she’s been photographed for a magazine with my name on the cover. The coincidence might’ve excited other writers, but I know that New York is a genre and she, calling from wherever, is an extended cut of the worst neurosis. (During the conversation, I drink an entire bottle of mineral water, banging on the keys to refresh the screen.)
We went to the desert to watch movies with other people’s eyes. We arrived on old motorcycles, trailing eddies of sand, and, beneath a screen vast as a mirage, we put on the eyes. They had to be handled very carefully, kept clean and moist, stored in plastic baggies to prevent damage. But we were specialists. We could put on and show off even recently extracted eyes. A crowd of blind people pursued us, but none of them were able to follow us into the desert.
An empty cage at the Zoo. Visitors look for some living thing besides the bugs and the rocks, find nothing, and continue on. Suddenly the soil moves: from under-neath emerge a hand, a head, rivulets of blood. The visitors walking by now stop to observe, astonished, as a skinny man who looks like a writer or a worm-eaten corpse stands up, shakes soil from his face, and pulls up the zipper of his jean skirt.
PHILIP K. DICK
They told him: “Frankly, you write the weirdest books on Earth, books in a genre that’s never been written before. You can’t blame the government for being curious about what kind of person would write books like that, you know?”
A little while before I left for New York, the vulture told me: “When you’re walking around Manhattan, think about how you’re walking around an island.”
I left for New York and went around Manhattan looking (again) for Laura. People get lost on islands. I remember going into a bookstore and leaving with hands that had turned into two powdered gloves.
In a bookstore. I ask the manager for copies of my book. The manager looks at me from behind his soda-bottle glasses, then continues hunting butterflies. He climbs onto a chair, raises the net, jumps, falls, bangs the net into the walls, knocks into the shelves, and pulls down a whole pile of books. “No new arrivals,” he tells me grudgingly. I’m obviously obstructing his work. “Everything’s paralyzed, can’t you see? These insects aren’t moving.” I look at the butterflies. They do indeed seem to be pinned in the air. I’m almost at the door, about to leave, when I find a net, another one, but I’m not interested in staying, much less in sticking some insect in a net. (The manager has captured two.)
The reader surely thinks, on the one hand with good reason, that this book is unimportant; but for someone who has never seen a landscape beyond those of England, the utterly new look of a sterile territory possesses a kind of grandeur that more abundant vegetation would completely destroy.
One of Onetti’s characters told me: “The worst thing that can be said about these texts is that they’re good. It’d be preferable to read them as hideous, like deformed insects, like little animals with too many or too few legs, eyes, horns . . . Which is to say: that they’re good is what makes them bad. In this year and in this city, a scream is preferable, an incomprehensible grimace, madness of some sort.”
The tourists unfold a map of the city in front of me: Please, where we are now? I look around. We’re close to a hospital. And a prison. And the Faculty of Arts and Letters. Also nearby are a number of leafy spaces that aren’t quite forests, and in them roam masturbators, addicts, crazy people, people without maps, people who got lost a long time ago. (This happened a long time ago but the tourists are still looking at me, and I have stayed quiet.)
Suddenly I see variations, perversions, declinations of a common effect. Movements. The police are in the street. The street reeks of unease because of the police. The vulture tells me: “Something will come to pass here.”
These are the children who play by the railroad tracks. They’re called the suicide kids. Every once in a while a fast silent train passes by. The ban on whistles is still in place, because this is one of those trains that would emit an obscene, cacophonous sound, completely mismatched with the sensibilities of the present moment. Such that the train catches a few kids by surprise and rips them into pieces. Then the surviving kids set to constructing toys. Skin dolls sewn together with nerves. Little soldiers made of brain play-dough. (They say balls of dried blood have an excellent bounce to them.)
The little boy has spent hours trapped in the spider’s web. His hands are on his head, covering his face, and his body twists under tight threads sticky with tears.
Suddenly a gigantic spider appears.
A fat spider tattooed in fever colors, eight hairy legs walking slowly toward the corner where the boy is.
Every step makes the web tremble, with every step its jaws open and close.
When the shadow arrives at his corner, the boy says, without uncovering his face: “Tell it to me one more time.”
The little girl is holding her grandmother’s hand. When they pass by me, the grandmother tells her, “You have to be very careful with bombs.” The girl looks at me, I look at her. “Bombs kill and do a lot of damage,” her grandmother explains, but the girl is already wholly submerged in the clash of our gazes. “Are you listening?” Without saying a word, I say, “Don’t listen to her, take a good look at me.” Then I make my eyelids disappear for her. “See? I have bomb craters in my eyes.” Frightened, the girl turns her face away, ducks behind her grandmother, and bursts into tears. “What’s wrong?” her grandmother asks. “What’s the matter with you?” But she can’t explain what she’s seen and I know that right now, in this moment, a woman is waking up in bed with that childlike fear coursing through her body, trembling and damp, incapable still of explaining that shock wave.
I confess to the vulture that I feel an attraction to Avenida 26. Especially in the early morning hours, when the moon invades the Chinese cemetery and all the traffic lights are green like pupils. Pensively, the vulture says, “There are some things that, if an avenue doesn’t account for them, then no one will.”
I return to the classroom where I learned to write. I’m being punished. The teacher forces me to repeat two words on the chalkboard: Politics. Supermarket. (I alternate them randomly.)
It’s tempting to speculate about the possibility that an important part of objective simulation is conducted in the right hemisphere of the brain. Numerous examinations have shown that cognitive functions, even complex ones, are not immediately linked to words or other means of symbolic expression. One could cite the studies conducted on the various types of aphasia. The experiences of subjects whose cerebral hemispheres have been surgically separ
WORLD WASTE WRITING
In a hospital. I connect to the Internet, find a website about brain areas, click on where it says damaged areas, enter the forum about vision damage, and make friends with four patients.
a) One patient for whom surfaces look grimy and similar in color to rat hair; his appetite and libido are basically dead.
b) One patient who senses that objects are changing position but is incapable of seeing how they move; an impossible syndrome, according to logic.
c) One patient who doesn’t recognize the objects he sees: When he tries to weed the garden he pulls out roses; he thinks he’s sketching a bird when he’s actually sketching a branch.
d) One patient who recognizes faces but not people; in every individual he sees impostors who look amazingly authentic.
The four of them ask what my brain problem is. I write into the chat window and send my reply. The symptoms. Now I’m waiting for the comments they’ll send in response.
WILLIAM S. BURROUGHS
Almost worse than the withdrawal symptoms is the depression that accompanies them. One afternoon I closed my eyes and saw my body in ruins. Centipedes and massive scorpions slid around the empty bars, cafeterias, and pharmacies of my nervous system. In the folds of my intestines, grass grew. There was no one to be seen.
They gather, like vultures from Vultureffect, around a dead, putrid rhinoceros that’s too big, with a too-big horn split in two, with an armored hide and beneath the armor, flesh that doesn’t taste too good, puaf.
They remark to each other that its flesh could be “infected” and eating it could mean getting some kind of “infection.” One must be very careful (they turn to me suddenly, like I have anything to do with it) with theme parks and their special effects.
In an interrogation room with tweezers. I arrived with my skin all bloody and encrusted: bullet casings, glass shards, all sorts of remains. The man with the tweezers extracts the encrustations and asks where I’ve come from, carrying not a single truly profound idea. I tell him where we came from. He asks: “And what were you doing there, so far away?” I say we were telling stories. (“Amazing stories, we told amazing stories.”)
When I found myself in front of the empty board, I thought: I have seven square tiles, and on each tile is a symbol and a number, but the vultures have the letters.
When the plays started getting more complicated, I thought: I can combine all the letters of the alphabet in a million different ways, but the vultures have the words.
When I’d lost all innocence, in the middle of the match, I thought: I’ve managed to put together some words, some of them truly mine, but the vultures have the language.
When the grid was almost full and punctuation was an abyss, I thought: I can say I got this far, and get up and leave, but nevertheless the vultures outside have the great stories.
(And all around me, the vultures look at me as if to say: It’s your turn, what’re you waiting for?)
Write Havana without summer color. City where we’re absent. Put in some personal jargon, something unbearably “pop.” As if all sorts of strange fictions were about to shatter. ■