“my mother explained the ’60s & ’70s to me by giving me her worn copies of Joan Didion’s essays”

It was 13 degrees outside. The winter light was piercing on the western side of Park Avenue. I had on two sweaters under my wool coat, a pair of leggings under my jeans, and winter boots with fur trim up to my knees. An ill-fitting knit hat scratched at my forehead and my sunglasses sat cold on my nose. I had just stepped out of an office where a doctor had told me about my inverted cervical spine, the herniated disc in my thoracic spine, and the pain I would need to accept.

At a previous appointment, another doctor had pressed on my back and said, “You know the old ladies you see up here on the East side that are all stooped over? This is the beginning of that.” I had always imagined that it was the weight of decades of city living that had made those women curve in on themselves. When I thought about it this way it did not seem inconceivable that at the age of 23, and after three years of living here, my own spine would begin to buckle. For four months I had visited this office three times a week for physical therapy with no improvement. The doctor suggested six additional months of the same. He and I both knew that I would not be coming back.

The sidewalk was nearly deserted as I started walking north. There was only one other figure in sight: a small woman with striking white hair, very pale skin, and large dark eyes. She had a cane and was picking her way slowly across 57th Street in my direction. Her tiny frame was draped in a thin coat more suited to 60 degrees than 13. She wore white slipper shoes, thin white chinos, and her ankles were bare to the icy wind.

My first thought was of the doctor’s words, “this is the beginning of that,” but this woman’s spine was straight. This was a woman I had never met, but thought of everyday. Between doctor’s appointments, I had been reading and re-reading my way through her work. This was Joan Didion. I recognized her immediately. She was looking at my boots and then she peered up at my face as we crossed paths. Startled perhaps by my look of recognition, she quickly looked down at her feet and kept walking. I stood there and watched her go.

When I was a teenager my mother explained the ‘60s and ‘70s to me by giving me her worn copies of Joan Didion’s collected essays. Haight-Ashbury was Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Howard Hughes was “7000 Romaine, Los Angeles 38.” I knew “John Wayne: a Love Song” before I had any idea who John Wayne was. My mother read these titles off to me with a deep reverence and it sounded like a different language. This was before I knew writers to have distinct styles. I would not understand the full meaning of many of the cultural references in Didion’s work until later re-readings in college, but I learned to associate the eras of my parents’ youth with the severe rhythm of a Didion sentence. I did not see Didion’s style as belonging to Didion; I saw it simply as the way sentences were written before I was born. I thought it was as much an indication of time passing as the yellow of the pages. My mother was captivated by Didion’s California and it became the California of my imagination. I would read “Los Angeles Notebook” and get the words mixed up with my mother’s voice.

But my mother’s personal geography never included New York. When I was run down and sought to think of New York City as a force responsible for the bend in my spine, it was Joan Didion’s words that I wanted to hear.

At a dinner party that same night, in an apartment overlooking the Natural History Museum, I tried to relay my afternoon encounter to the group—all writers of varying ages. It was the younger writers who could most appreciate the excitement of the sighting—the ones who still read “Goodbye to All That” repeatedly, who were still unsure of New York City themselves. We had all worked together over the past few months and Didion’s work had been a frequent point of conversation. What did I think of the cane, they wanted to know. Was it temporary? Did she look sad? Why was she dressed so strangely? Our hostess, a contemporary of Didion’s, begged us to change the subject. She hadn’t been able to get through The Year of Magical Thinking, which she thought portrayed an idealized version of Didion and John Dunne’s marriage. There were friends of friends in common, she had heard some stories. The professor among us, a successful essayist in his own right, told me that he would never see her on a pedestal. She was, to him, just another successful writer who had done some very good early work. He could not read the words, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” or “In time of trouble, I had been trained since childhood, read, learn, work it up, go to the literature,” and find in them messages on how a life can be lived.

“You should have offered her your boots,” one friend said. “She was cold.”

—from V. L. Hartmann, "Joan Didion Crosses the Street." The Morning News, November 18, 2009.


Read the rest
here.

“i write entirely to find out what i’m thinking, what i’m looking at, what i see and what it means”

joan didion on novel writing (by way of considering
george orwell, john milton’s paradise lost, and airports)


Joan Didion, Why I Write

 

Of course I stole the title of this talk, from George Orwell. One reason I stole it was that I like the sound of the words: Why I Write. There you have three short unambiguous words that share a sound, and the sound they share is this:

 

I

I

I

 

In many ways writing is the act of saying I, of imposing oneself upon other people, of saying listen to me, see it my way,  change your mind. It’s an aggressive, even hostile act. You can disguise its aggressiveness all you want with the veils of subordinate clauses and qualifiers and tentative subjunctives, with ellipses and evasions—with the whole manner of intimating rather than claiming, of alluding rather than stating—but there’s no getting around the fact that setting words on paper is the tactic of a secret bully, an invasion, an imposition of the writer’s sensibility on the reader’s most private space.

 

I stole the title not only because the words sounded right but because they seemed to sum up, in a no-nonsense way, all I have to tell you. Like many writers I have only this one “subject,” this one “area”: the act of writing. I can bring you no reports from any other front. I may have other interests: I am “interested,” for example, in marine biology, but I don’t flatter myself that you would come out to hear me talk about it. I am not a scholar. I am not in the least an intellectual, which is not to say that when I hear the word “intellectual” I reach for my gun, but only to say that I do not think in abstracts. During the years when I was an undergraduate at Berkeley I tried, with a kind of hopeless late-adolescent energy, to buy some temporary visa into the world of ideas, to forge for myself a mind that could deal with the abstract.

 

In short I tried to think. I failed. My attention veered inexorably back to the specific, to the tangible, to what was generally considered, by everyone I knew then and for that matter have known since, the peripheral. I would try to contemplate the Hegelian dialectic and would find myself concentrating instead on a flowering pear tree outside my window and the particular way the petals fell on my floor. I would try to read linguistic theory and would find myself wondering instead if the lights were on in the bevatron up the hill. When I say that I was wondering if the lights were on in the bevatron you might immediately suspect, if you deal in ideas at all, that I was registering the bevatron as a political symbol, thinking in shorthand about the military-industrial complex and its role in the university community, but you would be wrong. I was only wondering if the lights were on in the bevatron, and how they looked. A physical fact.

 

I had trouble graduating from Berkeley, not because of this inability to deal with ideas—I was majoring in English, and I could locate the house-and-garden imagery in “The Portrait of a Lady” as well as the next person, “imagery” being by definition the kind of specific that got my attention—but simply because I had neglected to take a course in Milton. For reasons which now sound baroque I needed a degree by the end of that summer, and the English department finally agreed, if I would come down to Sacramento every Friday and talk about the cosmology of “Paradise Lost,” to certify me proficient in Milton. I did this. Some Fridays I took the Greyhound bus, other Fridays I caught the Southern Pacific’s City of San Francisco on the last leg of its transcontinental trip. I can no longer tell you whether Milton put the sun or the earth at the center of his universe in “Paradise Lost,” the central question of at least one century and a topic about which I wrote 10,000 words that summer, but I can still recall the exact rancidity of the butter in City of San Francisco’s dining car, and the way the tinted windows on the greyhound bus cast the oil refineries around Carquinez Straits into a grayed and obscurely sinister light. In short my attention was always on the periphery, on what I could see and taste and touch, on the butter, and the Greyhound bus. During those years I was traveling on what I knew to be a very shaky passport, forged papers: I knew that I was no legitimate resident in any world of ideas. I knew I couldn’t think. All I knew then was what I couldn’t do. All I knew then was what I wasn’t, and it took me some years to discover what I was.

 

Which was a writer.

 

By which I mean not a “good” writer or a “bad” writer but simply a writer, a person whose most absorbed and passionate hours are spent arranging words on pieces of paper. Had my credentials been in order I would never have become a writer. Had I been blessed with even limited access to my own mind there would have been no reason to write. I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want to what I fear. Why did the oil refineries around Carquinez Straits seem sinister to me in the summer of 1956? Why have the night lights in the bevatron burned in my mind for twenty years? What is going on in these pictures in my mind?

 

When I talk about pictures in my mind I am talking, quite specifically, about images that shimmer around the edges. There used to be an illustration in every elementary psychology book showing a cat drawn by a patient in varying stages of schizophrenia. This cat had a shimmer around it. You could see the molecular structure breaking down at the very edges of the cat: the cat became the background and the background the cat, everything interacting, exchanging ions. People on hallucinogens describe the same perception of objects. I’m not a schizophrenic, nor do I take hallucinogens, but certain images do shimmer for me. Look hard enough, and you can’t miss the shimmer. It’s there. You can’t think too much about these pictures that shimmer. You just lie low and let them develop. You stay quiet. You don’t talk to many people and you keep your nervous system from shorting out and you try to locate the cat in the shimmer, the grammar in the picture.

 

Just as I meant “shimmer” literally I mean “grammar” literally. Grammar is a piano I play by ear, since I seem to have been out of school the year the rules were mentioned. All I know of grammar is its infinite power. To shift the structure of a sentence alters the meaning of that sentence, as definitely and inflexibly as the position of a camera alters the meaning of the object being photographed. Many people know about camera angles now, but not so many know about sentences. The arrangement of words matters, and the arrangement you want can be found in the picture in you mind. The picture dictates the arrangement. The picture dictates whether this will be a sentence with or without clauses, a sentence that ends hardor a dying-fall sentence, long or short, active or passive. The picture tells you how to arrange words and the arrangement of the words tells you, or tells me, what’s going on in the picture Nota bene:

 

It tells you.

 

You don’t tell it.

 

Let me show you what I mean by pictures in the mind. I began “Play It As It Lays” just as I have begun each of my novels, with no notion of “character” or “plot” or even “incident.” I had only two pictures in my mind, more about which later, and a technical intention, which was to write a novel so elliptical and fast that it would be over before you noticed it, a novel so fast that it would scarcely exist on the page at all. About the pictures: the first was of white space. Empty space. This was clearly the picture dictated the narrative intention of the book—a book in which anything that happened would happen off the page, a “white” book to which the reader would have to bring his or her own bad dreams—and yet this picture told me no “story,” suggested no situation. The second picture did. This second picture was of something actually witnessed. A young woman with long hair and a short white halter dress walks through a casino at the Riviera in Las Vegas at one in the morning. She crosses the casino alone and picks up a house telephone. I watch her because I have heard her paged, and recognize her name: she is a minor actress I see around Los Angeles from time to time, in places like Jax and once in a gynecologist’s office in the Beverly Hills Clinic, but never have met. I know nothing about her.  Who is paging her? Why is she here to be paged? How exactly did she come to this? It was precisely the moment in Las Vegas that made “Play It As It Lays” begin to tell itself to me, but the moment appears in the novel only obliquely, in a chapter which beings:

 

 “Maria made a list of things she would never do. She would never: walk through the Sands or Caesar’s alone after midnight. She would never: ball at a party, do S-M unless she wanted to, borrow furs from Abe Lipsey, deal. She would never: carry a Yorkshire in Beverly Hills.”

 

That is the beginning of the chapter and that is the end of the chapter, which may suggest what I meant by “white space.”

 

I recall having a number of pictures in my mind when I began the novel I just finished, “A Book of Common Prayer.” As a matter of fact one of these pictures was of that bevatron I mentioned, although I would be hard to tell you a story in which nuclear energy figured. Another was a newspaper photograph of a hijacked 707 burning on the desert in the Middle East. Another was the night view from a room in which I once spent a week with paratyphoid, a hotel room on the Colombian coast. My husband and I seemed to be on the Colombian coast representing the United States of American at a film festival (I recall invoking the name “Jack Valenti a lot, as if its reiteration could make me well), and it was a bad place to have fever, not only because my indisposition offended our hosts but because every night in this hotel the generator failed.  The lights went out.  The elevator stopped.  My husband would go to the event of the evening and make excuses for me and I would stay alone in this hotel room, in the dark.  I remember standing  at the window trying to call Bogotá (the telephone seemed to work on the same principle as the generator) and watching the night wind come up and wondering what I was doing eleven degrees off the equator with a fever of 103. The view from that window definitely figures in “A Book of Common Prayer,” as does the burning 707, and yet none of these pictures told me the story I needed.

 

The picture that did, the picture that shimmered and made these other images coalesce, was the Panama airport at 6 A.M.  I was in this airport only once, on a plane to Bogotá that stopped for an hour to refuel, but the way it looked that morning remained superimposed on everything I saw until the day I finished “A Book of Common Prayer.”  I lived in that airport for several years.  I can still feel the hot air when I step off the plane, can see the heat already rising off the tarmac at 6 A.M.  I can feel my skirt damp and wrinkled on my legs.  I can feel the asphalt stick to my sandals.  I remember the big tail of a Pan American plane floating motionless down at the end of the tarmac.  I remember the sound of a slot machine in the waiting room.  I could tell you that I remember a particular woman in the airport, an American woman, a norteamericana, a thin norteamericana about 40 who wore a big square emerald in lieu of a wedding ring, but there was no such woman there.

 

I put this woman in the airport later. I made this woman up, just as I later made up a country to put the airport in, and a family to run the country.  This woman in the airport is neither catching a plane nor meeting one.  She is ordering tea in the airport coffee shop.  In fact she is not simply “ordering: tea but insisting that the water be boiled, in front of her, for twenty minutes.  Why is this woman in this airport?  Why is she going nowhere, where had she been?  Where did she get that big emerald? What derangement, or disassociation, makes her believe that her will to see the water boiled can possibly prevail?

 

“She had been going to one airport or another for four months, one could see it, looking at the visas on her passport.  All those airports where Charlotte Douglas’s passport had been stamped would have looked alike.  Sometimes the sign on the tower would say ‘Bienvenidos’ and sometimes the sign on the tower would say ‘Bienvenue,’ some places were wet and hot and other dry and hot, but at each of these airports the pastel concrete walls would rust and stain and the swamp off the runway would be littered with the fuselages of cannibalized Fairchild F-227’s and the water would need boiling.

 

“I knew why Charlotte went to the airport even if Victor did not.

 

“I knew about airports.”

 

These lines appear about halfway through “A Book of Common Prayer,” but I wrote them during the second week I worked on the book, long before I had any idea where Charlotte Douglas had been or why she went to airports.  Until I wrote these lines I had no character called Victor in mind: the necessity for mentioning a name, and the name “Victor,” occurred to me as I wrote the sentence.  I knew why Charlotte went to the airport sounded incomplete.  I knew why Charlotte went to the airport even if Victor did not carried a little more narrative drive.  Most important of all, until I wrote these lines I did not know who “I” was, who was telling the story.  I had intended until that moment that the “I” be no more than the voice of the author, a 19th-century omniscient narrator.  But there it was:

 

“I knew why Charlotte went to the airport even if Victor did not.

 

“I knew about airports.”

 

This “I” was the voice of no author in my house.  This “I” was someone who not only knew why Charlotte went to the airport but also knew someone called “Victor.”  Who was Victor?  Who was this narrator?  Why was this narrator telling me this story?  Let me tell you one thing about why writers write:  had I known the answer to any of these questions I would never have needed to write a novel.

 

—from The New York Times Magazine, December 5, 1976

 

el hombre invisible: hard, derisive, inventive, free, funny, serious, poetic, indelibly American

Joan Didion reads The Soft Machine

 

There sometimes seems a peculiar irrelevance about what is claimed for William S. Burroughs, both by those who admire him and those who do not; the insistent amorphousness of his books encourages the reader to take from them pretty much exactly what he brought to them. Burroughs has been read as a pamphleteer for narcotics reform. He has been read as a parabolist of the highest order. He has been read as a pornographer and he has been read as a prophet of the apocalypse. The Naked Lunch I read first on a beach in the Caribbean and the Naked Lunch I reread a few weeks ago in a hospital in Santa Monica, the book I read once when I was unhappy and again when I was not, did not seem in any sense the same book; to anyone who finds Burroughs readable at all, he is remarkably rereadable, if only because he is remarkably unmemorable. There are no “stories” to wear thin, no “characters” of whom one might tire. We are presented only with the fragmented record of certain fantasies, and our response to that record depends a good deal upon our own fantasies at the moment; in itself, a book by William Burroughs has about as much intrinsic “meaning” as the actual inkblot in a Rorschach test.

 

Nonetheless Burroughs is read for “meaning,” for we tend to be uneasy in this country until we can draw from an imaginative work some immediate social application. À la Recherche du temps perdu as precursor to the Wolfenden Report, Emma Bovary as victim of the Feminine Mystique. And, on another level, William Burroughs as “satirist,” that slipshod catch-all category for anyone who seems unconventional and modish. Burroughs is by no means successful as a “satirist” or as an “allegorist”; both satire and allegory depend upon strict control of the material, and to talk about Burroughs in that vein leads only into cul-de-sacs where Donald Malcolm can complain querulously that if Mr. Burroughs is satirizing capital punishment then Mr. Burroughs must be unaware that the trend on this issue is toward liberalization.

 

So it goes. First the insistence upon some fairly conventional “meaning,” then the rush to the barricades. Either Burroughs is a prophet or Burroughs is a fraud. Either he must be the “greatest satirical writer since Jonathan Swift” (Jack Kerouac) or he must be a fabricator of “merest trash” (John Wain). In this stampede to first discern the “message” and then take a stand on it, Burroughs’ limited but very real virtues tend to be overlooked. In a quite literal sense with Burroughs, the medium is the message: the point is not what the voice says but the voice itself, a voice so direct and original and versatile as to disarm close scrutiny of what it is saying. Burroughs is less a writer than a “sound,” and to listen to the lyric may be to miss the beat.

 

Consider The Soft Machine. Burroughs is uninfected by any trace of humanist sentimentality, and his imagery is that of the most corrosive nightmare, obscene, specifically homosexual, casually savage, peopled by androgynous mutations. Flesh is not flesh but “biologic material,” undifferentiated tissue which metamorphoses, dissolves into mucus, sloughs off, passes into other vessels. Hot crabs hatch out of human spines; police files spurt out bone meal. Although it is easy to read The Soft Machine as a parable of technological suicide, a kind of hallucinatory On the Beach, that reading is not going to get us very far, because Burroughs as a dreamer of didactic dreams is not only distinctly hit-and-miss but quite unremarkable, in point of fact Victorian. It has been some years, after all, since we first heard that melancholy, long, withdrawing roar, first stood upon the darkling plain of technology. Read for any such conventional meaning, The Soft Machine has only the dulling effect of a migraine attack, after pain and nausea and unwanted images have battered the nerve synapses until all connections are lost. For the Burroughs repetitiveness blunts response. The particular Burroughs preoccupations atrophy rather than engage the imagination. Ah well, one thinks, eyes glazing, fingers riffling the pages, another orgiastic hanging, all possible switches. It is difficult even to read the book sequentially; to imagine that one will be able to put the book down when the telephone rings and find one’s place a few minutes later is sheer bravura.

 

In fact the point is not to read the book at all, but somehow to hear the voice in it. The voice in The Soft Machine is talking about time. Some of the book is mock nostalgia, and the title, whatever else it means, seems as well to be a play upon The Time Machine. The voice roves back in time through Mexico, Panama, the Mayan Empire, back through a landscape of pervasive corruption. One city in particular appears and reappears in explicit and extraordinary details: a port city, “stuck in water hyacinths and banana rafts,” a place where jungle has overgrown the parks and diseased armadillos live in the deserted kiosks. Candiru infest the swimming pools; albinos blink in the sun. Although the city is in the here and now, it is terrorized by the Vagrant Ball Players, who seem to have come forward in time from the Mayan period. The Civil Guard tries to placate the Vagrant Ball Players, for they “can sound a Hey Rube Switch brings a million adolescents shattering the customs barriers and frontiers of time, swinging out of the jungle with Tarzan cries, crash landing perilous tin planes and rockets.”

 

The voice moves not only back but ahead in time, to what seems to be the end of the world. There is an ambiguity here; the last few men left on earth are clearly the survivors of some disaster, but they are also just assuming human shape, just rising from the slime. In short, what the voice in The Soft Machine is doing is giving an hallucinatory reading to Eliot’s Four Quartets: “In my beginning is my end” and “Time present and time past / Are both perhaps present in time future / And time future contained in time past.”

 

This is by no means unintentional. Eliot’s is one of the rhythms into which the voice in The Soft Machine slips deliberately and frequently, sometimes ironically and sometimes not. Sometimes the voice is not Eliot but Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain: “Meanwhile an angle comes dripping down and forms a stalactite in my brain.” Sometimes it is the voice of the Hearst Task Force: “I have just returned from a thousand year time trip and I am here to tell you what I saw… It is the new frontier and only the adventurous need apply—But it belongs to anyone with the courage and know-how to enter—It belongs to you.” Sometimes the voice slips into the peculiar rhythms of the hustler, sometimes into the ritualized diction of blue movies. The voice rattles off elliptical allusions, throws away joke after outrageous joke, shifts gear in mid-sentence, never falters.

 

It is precisely this voice—complex, subtle, allusive—that is the fine thing about The Soft Machine and about Burroughs. It is hard, derisive, inventive, free, funny, serious, poetic, indelibly American, a voice in which one hears transistor radios and old movies and all the cliches and all the cons and all the newspapers, all the peculiar optimism, all the failure. Against that voice, those of the younger “satirical” or “black” novelists sound self-conscious and faked; it is the voice of a natural, and what it is saying is in no sense the point.

 

Joan Didion, "Wired for Shock Treatments," Bookweek, 27 March 1966, p 2-3.

The Soft Machine by bradallen.

joan didion in new york city

You see I was in a curious position in New York: it never occurred to me that I was living a real life there. In my imagination I was always there for just another few months, just until Christmas or Easter or the first warm day in May. For that reason I was most comfortable with the company of Southerners. They seemed to be in New York as I was, on some indefinitely extended leave from wherever they belonged, disciplined to consider the future, temporary exiles who always knew when the flights left for New Orleans or Memphis or Richmond or, in my case, California. Someone who lives always with a plane schedule in the drawer lives on a slightly different calendar. Christmas, for example, was a difficult season. Other people could take it in stride, going to Stowe or going abroad or going for the day to their mothers’ places in Connecticut; those of us who believed that we lived somewhere else would spend it making and canceling airline reservations, waiting for weatherbound flights as if for the last plane out of Lisbon in 1940, and finally comforting one another, those of us who were left, with oranges and mementos and smoked-oyster stuffings of childhood, gathering close, colonials in a far country.
 
Which is precisely what we were. I am not sure that it is possible for anyone brought up in the East to appreciate entirely what New York, the idea of New York, means to those of us who came out of the West and the South. To an Eastern child, particularly a child who has always has an uncle on Wall Street and who has spent several hundred Saturdays first at F.A.O. Schwarz and being fitted for shoes at Best’s and then waiting under the Biltmore clock and dancing to Lester Lanin, New York is just a city, albeit the city, a plausible place for people to live. But to those of us who came from places where no one had heard of Lester Lanin and Grand Central Station was a Saturday radio program, where Wall Street and Fifth Avenue and Madison Avenue were not places at all but abstractions ("Money," and "High Fashion," and "The Hucksters"), New York was no mere city. It was instead an infinitely romantic notion, the mysterious nexus of all love and money and power, the shining and perishable dream itself. To think of "living" there was to reduce the miraculous to the mundane; one does not "live" at Xanadu.
 
— from Joan Didion, "Goodbye to All That," in Slouching Toward Bethlehem (1968)
 
            'Slouching towards Bethlehem' - Joan Didion by letslookupandsmile.

          book cover of 

Slouching Towards Bethlehem 

by

Joan Didion
 

dollarstore metaphysics in cormac mccarthy’s million dollar penny dreadful

The  phrase “million dollar penny dreadful” — John Updike’s memorable description of Foucault’s Pendulum Umberto Eco’s encyclopedic pastiche of conspiracy theories suggests something of the charm and simplicity of pulp fiction, without belying the fact that sometimes genre writing can express views on the larger issues of life and death with a drama and clarity often lacking in contemporary “middlebrow” literature.
“What makes Iago Evil? some people ask. I never ask.” So goes the great opening line from Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays. Iago is, along with Milton’s Satan, one of the great literary characterizations of evil. Iago’s genius lies in being able to cannily manipulate events and people in his environment to his advantage, while Satan’s metaphysical rebellion reaches down to a deeper plane, right to the core of the Western world’s foundational myths.

 

For the most part Cormac McCarthy’s novel No Country for Old Men is a superficial and slick thriller, but it on occasion it rises to the heights of — or, more properly, descends to the depths of — a kind of American negative sublime. Here is the first glimpse we have in the novel that Anton Chigurh (perhaps pronounced “Chigger,” like the biting mite common in the U.S. South) is more than just a criminal and in fact is an embodiment of a deeper evil, a dark force for which he provides human agency. Although Chigurh seems at times an avatar of pure evil, at others he appears as a representative of a kind of primordial chaos that goes beyond good and evil. The scene below shows Chigurh as expressive of a kind of Iago-like “malign motiveless malignancy.”

 

He crossed the Pecos River just north of Sheffield Texas and took route 349 south. When he pulled into the filling station at Sheffield it was almost dark. A long red twilight with doves crossing the highway heading south toward some ranch tanks. He got change from the proprietor and made a phone call and filled the tank and went back in and paid.

You all gettin any rain up your way? the proprietor said.

Which way would that be?

I seen you was from Dallas.

Chigurh picked his change up off the counter. And what business is it of yours where I’m from, friendo?

I didnt mean nothin by it.

You didnt mean nothing by it.

I was just passin the time of day.

I guess that passes for manners in your cracker view of things.

Well sir, I apologized. If you dont want to accept my apology I dont know what else I can do for you.

How much are these?

Sir?

I said how much are these.

Sixty-nine cents.

Chigurh unfolded a dollar onto the counter. The man rang it up and stacked the change before him the way a dealer places chips. Chigurh hadnt taken his eyes from him. The man looked away. He coughed. Chigurh opened the plastic package of cashews with his teeth and doled a third part of them into his palm and stood eating.

Will there be somethin else? the man said.

I dont know. Will there?

Is there somethin wrong?

With what?

With anything.

Is that what you’re asking me? Is there something wrong with anything?

The man turned away and put his fist to his mouth and coughed again. He looked at Chigurh and he looked away. He looked out the window at the front of the store. The gas pumps and the car sitting there. Chigurh ate another small handful of the cashews.

Will there be anything else?

You’ve already asked me that.

Well I need to see about closin.

See about closing.

Yessir.

What time do you close?

Now. We close now.

Now is not a time. What time do you close.

Generally around dark. At dark.

Chigurh stood slowly chewing. You dont know what you’re talking about, do you?

Sir?

I said you dont know what you’re talking about do you.

I’m talkin about closin. That’s what I’m talkin about.

What time do you go to bed.

Sir?

You’re a bit deaf, arent you? I said what time do you go to bed.

Well. I’d say around nine-thirty. Somewhere around nine-thirty.

Chigurh poured more cashews into his palm. I could come back then, he said.

We’ll be closed then.

That’s all right.

Well why would you be comin back? We’ll be closed.

You said that.

Well we will.

You live in that house behind the store?

Yes I do.

You’ve lived here all your life?

The proprietor took a while to answer. This was my wife’s father’s place, he said. Originally.

You married into it.

We lived in Temple Texas for many years. Raised a family there. In Temple. We come out here about four years ago.

You married into it.

If that’s the way you want to put it.

I dont have some way to put it. That’s the way it is.

Well I need to close now.

Chigurh poured the last of the cashews into his palm and wadded the little bag and placed it on the counter. He stood oddly erect, chewing.

You seem to have a lot of questions, the proprietor said. For somebody that dont want to say where it is they’re from.

What’s the most you ever saw lost on a coin toss?

Sir?

I said what’s the most you ever saw lost on a coin toss.

Coin toss?

Coin toss.

I dont know. Folks dont generally bet on a coin toss. It’s usually more like just to settle somethin.

What’s the biggest thing you ever saw settled?

I dont know.

Chigurh took a twenty-five cent piece from his pocket and flipped it spinning into the bluish glare of the fluorescent lights overhead. He caught it and slapped it onto the back of his forearm just above the bloody wrappings. Call it, he said.

Call it?

Yes.

For what?

Just call it.

Well I need to know what it is we’re callin here.

How would that change anything?

The man looked at Chigurh’s eyes for the first time. Blue as lapis. At once glistening and totally opaque. Like wet stones. You need to call it, Chigurh said. I cant call it for you. It wouldnt be fair. It wouldnt even be right. Just call it.

I didnt put nothin up.

Yes you did. You’ve been putting it up your whole life. You just didnt know it. You know what the date is on this coin?

No.

It’s nineteen fifty-eight. It’s been traveling twenty-two years to get here. And now it’s here. And I’m here. And I’ve got my hand over it. And it’s either heads or tails. And you have to say. Call it.

I dont know what it is I stand to win.

In the blue light the man’s face was beaded thinly with sweat. He licked his upper lip.

You stand to win everything, Chigurh said. Everything.

You aint makin any sense, mister.

Call it.

Heads then.

Chigurh uncovered the coin. He turned his arm slightly for the man to see. Well done, he said.

He picked the coin from his wrist and handed it across.

What do I want with that?

Take it. It’s your lucky coin.

I dont need it.

Yes you do. Take it.

The man took the coin. I got to close now, he said.

Dont put it in your pocket.

Sir?

Dont put it in your pocket.

Where do you want me to put it?

Dont put it in your pocket. You wont know which one it is.

All right.

Anything can be an instrument, Chigurh said. Small things. Things you wouldnt even notice. They pass from hand to hand. People dont pay attention. And then one day there’s an accounting. And after that nothing is the same. Well, you say. It’s just a coin. For instance. Nothing special there. What could that be an instrument of? You see the problem. To separate the act from the thing. As if the parts of some moment in history might be interchangeable with the parts of some other moment. How could that be? Well, it’s just a coin. Yes. That’s true. Is it?

Chigurh cupped his hand and scooped his change from the counter into his palm and put the change in his pocket and turned and walked out the door. The proprietor watched him go. Watched him get into the car. The car started and pulled off from the gravel apron onto the highway south. The lights never did come on. He laid the coin on the counter and looked at it. He put both hands on the counter and just stood leaning there with his head bowed.

slouching towards new york: gary indiana channels joan didion & w.s. burroughs

Sections of Gary Indiana’s novel Do Everything in the Dark read as assemblages of the styles and techniques of Indiana’s novelistic contemporaries and immediate forebears; the section below owes its descriptive power to William Burroughs’ vision of mankind as an amoral mutation, with its content arranged after the manner of Joan Didion’s demure cataloging of the American grotesque.  

                                                            62

Something was taking its vile course.

I felt it in waves, in my sleep, when I woke.

I replaced the air conditioner. I got a haircut.

What news? I asked my demon. What news? What now?

It rippled the air as I walked down the Bowery to Leon Ivray’s loft.

In the waning light, rainbow-skulled couples morphed into Micronesian cannibals. Tin ornaments and tattoos skewed flesh into mosaic dreamscapes. Weirdly angled dormitories, thrown up like mineralized shark fins over the parking lots where Joel Rifkin, mousy thrill killer, used to strangle prostitutes before taking their corpses for joyrides in his panelled truck. The buildings spewed a continuous stream of dewy cutenesses, cell phones sprouting from their ears. These podlike mammals draped themselves in product logos and designer alphabets, like free-ranging billboards. Men wearing sandwich boards used to roam sidewalks as ambulating publicity Now millions did it for free, like serfs declaring fealty to corporate gods. All right. Something vile was taking its course.

Did I really want to scream into those moist rodent faces, HOW FUCKING SOLD OUT CAN YOU BE? IS IT A COMPE­TITION? No. If I opened my mouth to scream, a blast of silence would fill my head and a moray eel I mistook for my tongue would slither out. People were turning into things, had already turned into things. Electric wires and plastic organs grew inside their bodies. If you sliced them open with a scalpel, you’d un­cover a factory of blue winking lights and cathode tubes and microchips and fiber optic cables fused with scattered organic matter.

This is how it was, or how I was, that summer: I wanted to accept the world in its true condition, as it hurtled to its stony end. To meet it on its own filthy terms. Even force some plea­sure out of it, though I couldn’t. I did not believe that Oxfam, Doctors Without Borders, Greenpeace, or the Nature Conser­vancy could rescue this lemming species and its cell phones. I wrote checks to these organizations as a futile, half-assed ges­ture. It was too late, too late, too late.

Office workers moved in zigguratpatterns toward the black cube in Astor Place, sucked into the subway like lint gobbled by a vacuum cleaner. Ruminant tourists dreamed of killing and dismemberment. Sleepwalkers armed with credit cards spilled along the sidewalks, filling outdoor tables of fifth-rate pizzerias and bistros–the East Village’s Kmart parody of Montmartre. In the gray innards of a rockabilly joint, its facade open to the street, a band tuned its instruments, squawking feedback into the hum and gurgle of deaf automatons. A crackle of incipient mayhem strafed the area as the summer twilight blackened into night. The Bowery was a treadmill for exhibitionists and the criminally insane.

Sky, clotted clouds. As I reach Leon’s corner, the tempera­ture spills down, the clouds rip apart. Rain rakes the side­walk, just enough to wilt my clothes. Then it falls hard, soaking me as I wait for Leon’s sluggish new elevator to reach the lobby Through the wire mesh in the street door windows, I watch the elevator numbers light and fade, stalling at each digit long enough for thirty people to load the elevator with furniture.

— from Gary Indiana, Do Everything in the Dark