The Writing Disorder


New Fiction


by A. Lazakis

“The poet stands in front of things like the student who reads and re-reads the text of the problem set him, and which he cannot solve; he may read and re-read, he will see no difference in it; it is not from the text itself he can hope for a solution.”
                                          —Proust, “The artist in contemplation,” Marcel Proust on Art and Literature,
                                                                                    trans. Sylvia Townsend Warner (New York, 1997), 308.

       “Every day I’ll learn more about it,” T thought.
       He had just left his new workplace. Now he was back in the ordinary city, where there could be millions of the same paving squares, without him wanting to learn about them.
       On the other side of the highway buses waited next to the shady sidewalk. He crossed the highway and got on one. He looked out the window to his right onto the sidewalk with the syrupy shade absent from any other visible point under the July sun. It came from a tangle of vegetation growing up a low wall with a fence over it; vines wove in and out of the bars, hiding the property on the other side. He didn’t wonder what it was but stared distractedly at the ants swarming around disposable coffee cups travelers and drivers had set down on the wall.
       Out the windows to his left, across the aisle, he couldn’t see the building he had just been in, only an edge of the grounds’ sunny gravel, through a wire fence running along the highway, with signs—a camera with a diagonal line through it—every few meters.
       People hurried down the sidewalk, others milled around as if waiting for a bus. Did they know what his bus was? They must know what was across the highway. The gates were open all day. Anyone could walk in (okay, not into the offices). It must not have the same effect on them or they wouldn’t just pass by. A child was being ferried along the shady sidewalk by an adult. He had moved at around that age. If they had stayed, T imagined, he might have lived around here all along, perhaps coming to these grounds after school, doing homework on one of the extra desks in the hallway. He hadn’t had to lose it for all those years. There had been no substance to the dread that it might not even exist.
       Some colleagues he hadn’t met yet got on the bus. T glanced sideways to check whether they carried computer cases or folders.
       The bus started up on schedule, in the direction of the mountains at the vanishing point of the highway, away from the city center. On the right, a guardrail ran along the base of a slope with those shrubs that made him think of blue twine climbing it. Through the window across the aisle was more of the fence with the no-photo signs.

       On the third morning at his new job T finished translating a report. He went to an office with plywood-and-metal desks and cabinets like in his grandfather’s study. His supervisor glanced at the first page of the translation beside the original. “This is perfect. There’s no more work yet.”
       He had the afternoon free. He followed the fence punctuated by the no-photo signs, then walked further down the highway, to a cluster of stores and cafés and a church near a square. It was all dimly familiar. He stared around from the table where he took the coffee he ordered, unsure if it were the square he had seen as a child. His grandfather would know.
       He paid and headed back toward his office, walking on the other side of the highway this time, with the shrubs sprouting from the slope on his left. Maybe there would be more work to translate when he got back. Those shrubs that he always thought of as blue from the speeding bus window, now that he was next to them, their twigs were clearly green with yellow flecks. How could he phrase the question about the square to his grandfather?

       When he had been at his job for a week he wrote a few phrases about his first glimpse of its grounds as an adult, as he had crossed the gravel from the gate to the startlingly low building he now had an office in: A gravel field in between highways. Blue mountains in the near distance. A low building mechanically reminded me of some textbook paragraph about IQ not being proportionate to brain size. People bringing reports cross the gravel, past the ceremonial flower bed, up to the elaborately ornamented doors. Inside, the sun glares on the desks and marble floor as if there were windows everywhere. People drink from the water cooler.
       He hated playing with words. He just wanted to see what he had seen that first afternoon again, what made him think he must learn everything about this place. It had been like the flash when a mirror catches the sun; but whereas a mirror can be held at that angle, T’s train of thought had reached its clearest for an instant only.

       In the mornings he translated for thirty minutes. He had just crossed the gravel. He could be no closer to what he had seen on his first visit. He might as well be walking to his office in a bubble that had nothing to do with that initial sweeping scene. It must be out there somewhere. Had he crossed the grounds too fast for it?
       When he glanced out his office window, people, tiny in the distance, were approaching, their heads lowered under the sun, their gait slowed by the gravel. They weren’t bringing reports from remote outposts, he had learned. They worked in the building entering data all day.
       At 10 a.m. he swallowed a caffeine tablet and a painkiller. That combination, he had become convinced in university, was the only way he could concentrate on boring things.
       Later he took his lunch out to a band of shade cast by the building. Here he felt closer to what he had initially identified in the place.
      “They built what I need,” he thought, staring toward the blue mountain range past the acres of gravel shimmering in the sun. “There are two axes, x and y; theirs and mine. What I pictured, that first afternoon, is only called up in my thoughts by real, blueprint-and-plaster places like this. But the work in this place is stupid—nothing like I imagined. Did the institution I pictured exist at one time, and now it’s sunk to this? Was it different when I was five? Or is it just in my head, called up by these grounds accidentally, with no real link to them? How could people stupid enough to waste their lives at the work that goes on here design grounds able to call up that?”
       He unenthusiastically returned to his desk. “How different it could be, if this were the original, as I saw it that afternoon!” he rued.

       One Friday when he had been at his new job for two weeks the translation assignment was especially boring and he finished before noon. Then he walked along the avenue, to the square which he was unsure if he remembered from childhood. He sat at a café table under leafy mulberry trees, the foliage reflected in the surface of his coffee. He took out the poem he had started.
       If it had risen to perception, albeit for an instant, T reasoned, it might do so again. The next time, perhaps clearer. But was it an it? Or a chance combination, the reports being delivered, the ornate doors at the end of all that gravel, the people bringing the reports and greeting colleagues, all fitting together as a unit in his head, but unidentifiable as a unit to anyone else? And yet, how perfectly it went together!
       “What am I supposed to do if that really was just an illusion?” Day after day he tread across the gravel to his office, and then to the bus stop after work, his head bowed under the sun and his shoes sinking in the gravel, exactly like the gait of the people he had noticed the first day, one of the series of perceptions that had built up into the thought train he had mostly lost. It didn’t reappear.

* * *

       He had been a clever, articulate child, although his grandfather always discouraged his questions. When T was five they moved from the city to a house along a highway. It was in an underdeveloped area halfway between the city and the sea, with little between the highway and the distant mountains besides a church seminary, a few gaudy villas isolated by acres of fields, and some parks.
       The new house was delimited from the highway by a fence, its marble courtyard and roses visible to the passing traffic as much as if it were a restaurant or bus terminal. For most of his childhood T believed they moved there as part of an assignment, connected to his grandfather’s being an army translator; that every inch of the house actively contributed to it. The sunny rooms, the kind of desks and glass-door filing cabinets they had in office buildings, the lamp with the frosted glass shade, his grandfather’s journals and photos were all part of it.
       Before the move, his grandfather took T on visits and to ceremonies he half-remembered years later. Then T was no longer taken along, but his grandfather returned with sweets, unusual ones with no counterparts in the local store. Colleagues visited them several times a month.
       T sped through his homework methodically. Then they went out walking. Some afternoons they walked to a distant park; at least it was fenced in and someone had planted shrubs in crater-like dents in the soil, although there were none of the ordinary features of a park, no playground equipment or signs or flowers. In another direction there was another park, an old one with palms, gravel paths, and a marble fountain. Then there were the sprawling white marble grounds of the church seminary. His grandfather read. T wandered around. They rarely met anyone in the parks, but there were many other visitors to the seminary.
       On holidays or before guests came, they took a longer walk than usual. They never disagreed over where. One would suggest a route, and the other approvingly nodded, as if it were self-evident. Such exchanges gave T the idea that his mind worked very much like his grandfather’s, and that he could practically read his thoughts.
       His grandfather never seemed impressed by his good grades. T concluded that what really mattered was elsewhere: a network of important, urgent work. Making money? No, that would end where it began, in himself, having learned nothing. Helping others? He had no interest in doctors’ goal of prolonging patients’ lives, but he could imagine being a medical researcher—if it was in a building like the ones he pictured when he considered that field. And his job must involve travel that took him to buildings like the ones in the photos in his grandfather’s study, no longer just seeing them, but understanding them!
       Without having selected one field in particular, he acquired skills that he imagined would be valuable in any job he ultimately chose. He studied geography and history like information he would really use, not just to pass exams. He played sports. He took private lessons in several foreign languages, computers, photography. His grandfather paid with equanimity, never clearly encouraging or disapproving.
       T’s expectations grew that he was on the right track, that he was about to finally learn what he sensed was just around some corner, everywhere, in their house, along the highway, in the direction his grandfather was staring, through the group of palms in the park they sat in. Who deserved to more than he, a perfect student? He glimpsed how it would be: collecting data, working on it for a few days, turning in a report; then walking as far as remote parks with marble fountains and palms; returning to work the next morning. He tried doing his homework in that mood of urgency, but it just proved how boring the textbook was.
       He paid closer attention to how his grandfather spent time, what he read, what came in the mail. Most of the books in his study were grammars and dictionaries, T realized, from his increasingly critical perspective. The blue and yellow journals that came every few weeks were just as disappointing, with long articles by scholars disagreeing over interpreting foreign passages, and footnotes in several languages. How could this be connected to the network of urgent communication he imagined his grandfather was part of? Yet this was what his grandfather was reading whenever T noticed, what he put down when T finished his homework and went out to the garden to summon him to go walking, what he sometimes took with him to the park, and had open on his desk in the sunny study. Could it be that his grandfather had one of those rote, uninquiring minds that went as far as learning basic rules, and not beyond?
       T went to university abroad. He excelled in many courses and had his pick of several career paths, but graduated without choosing to follow any of them. He returned home instead.
       He found things unchanged, although his grandfather consulted with him on a financial decision for the first time, and soon after his arrival invited a dozen relatives who lived far away for a visit; T later puzzled in vain over a ceremonial code the visit seemed to follow.
       T besieged his grandfather with questions about how he had settled on his own career. Surely all his academic achievements earned him one candid discussion! But it was just more conventional replies. Translating “seemed best suited to my skills.” T saw that his degree made no difference. If he followed any other path, he would lose the only chance that he thought was left to him to make sense of his grandfather’s choices. So on one of their walks a couple of weeks after his return, T announced that he, too, wanted to be an army translator.

* * *

       At the end of three months of work T had a week’s leave and boarded an intercity bus to the house he had grown up in, along the highway.
       The bus moved at a snail’s pace through the heavy traffic in the outskirts of the city, used-car lots and layer on layer of billboards on both sides. At last the blue mountains and green fields came into sight. He got off at an inconspicuous bus stop, a sign on a street light rising from the dusty gravel beside the highway; as usual nobody was waiting to get on the bus. It was a short walk to his house.
       By sunset the preponderance of time he had lived here dwarfed the conclusions he had reached at work in the city. The past three months’ dread, he mused, staring toward the traffic through the yellow and orange roses flowering in their courtyard, could be anybody’s; unlike this garden along the highway, where he had done his homework, the lamp-lit parlor in the evening, the parks they walked to, where his ambition had taken shape steadily, day after day, year after year, its grounding clear now that he was back where it had built up. The new despair was a sort of disease he was susceptible to in the city.
       He showed his grandfather the poem.
      “If your work isn’t very demanding,” the old man commented, “it is understandable that you would seek a pastime.”
       The visit went well until the final morning. In the doorway of his grandfather’s study, sun lighting dust motes in the air, it struck T to ask about one of the photos on the wall, among postcards from when there had been a Czechoslovakia. In the photo his grandfather and two others stood in front of the repetitive squiggles of a light-colored fence enclosing the grounds of a distant building.
      “When is it from?”
      “1975, a meeting.”
      “Why photograph this?” Suppose his grandfather answered this as willingly as the last question! They were as close as ever to what T had given up on hearing.
      “As a souvenir, one might call it.”
      “I mean, what’s IN this pattern? Or the one on the fence outside our house? I won’t accept that they’re just there by chance.”
      “This approach is unlikely—”
      “You obviously seek them out, but you don’t know more about them than I do! You pretend all these places make sense, the things you pick out are all part of the same I don’t know what, and that it all fits together like the parts of a sentence—but really you can’t put it in words any more than I can! I challenge you to!”
      “This is obnoxious.” His grandfather closed the door, leaving T in the suddenly dark hallway.

       In the city, a few weeks later, running an errand, T glimpsed an elderly man he recognized as a friend of his grandfather’s. Before the move, his grandfather would take T along to a house with a courtyard that was all marble except for one band of soil, where there grew egg-yolk-orange flowers, flimsy as poppies. Inside, a sliding door of grayish-blue frosted glass, bumpy on one side and smooth on the other, separated the living room from the dining room. He had stared at the lamp-light through it.
       T dreaded that what he remembered from before the move was false. Seeing this familiar figure reassured him that some was real. He introduced himself with an eagerness whose cause the man was unlikely to have guessed, but which earned T an invitation to his new apartment, in the city center.
       T went, of course. The man and his wife moved, they explained, because the house with the courtyard had so many doors and windows that it got too cold in the winter. “I remember the sliding glass door between the rooms; the gold light on one side shining through the dull, bluish-grey surface!” T exclaimed. They rolled their eyes, complaining that the architect who designed that house was not fit to practice, their heating bills had been so high. T talked about work, listening for some key to the mysterious grounds from this retired translator. The man just complained that his pension was too low. On the way out, glancing at a side table, T spotted Prozac on the label of a medicine bottle.
       His grandfather too might be depressed, T speculated. They had visited a neighbor a few summers earlier. People were talking around the garden table. His grandfather joined in now and then. He had been holding a drink. T replayed the scene, the way he latched onto the conversation as if it were filtering through the garden and the drink. Was that depression?

       On a visit home a month later, they were walking toward the park with the bluish shrubs. At one corner a spotless house was being pulled down. It had been built while T was in university. His grandfather went up to a worker hauling pieces of metal into a truck.
      “They’re tearing it down right after building it?”
      “Crazy, isn’t it?” laughed the worker, “A brand new house.”
       T looked back as they walked on. It had been white plaster, a solid rectangle except for a white marble spiral of stairs running from the courtyard to the second floor. That spiral supported what was clearest in his memory, thin white icicle-like posts ascending along the stairs. He always assumed there were years ahead to learn, in his sense, about places along their routes. But there would be no walk after walk past this, no years of fresh chances to glimpse more of the summer noon around the marble staircase and courtyard, the scene that had darted among T’s thoughts upon seeing this particular house.
       “By the way, do you know your friend ----- is on anti-depressants? I met him in the city.”
      “He isn’t a friend; we were colleagues, and we occasionally met after that.”
      “Anyway, he moved. He says it’s practical because it’s closer to the services he uses, and the heating bills are lower. He bought all new furniture because, he says, change is good.”
      “What interesting information you extracted from him,” remarked his grandfather sarcastically.

       Back in the city, T recalled a university lecture and borrowed library books on gender theory. He perused them after work. “Ha!” he concluded, “He’s older-generation and reads so few new things, he doesn’t know gender’s constructed. He thinks it’s his natural masculine role to be tight-lipped, reserved. That’s why he disapproves when I talk a lot and ask questions. The key was just two or three books away. This explains everything.”
       At that, as if it followed as an obvious consequence, something made him think of a girl and the grounds of an official-looking building, the fence around its perimeter a bland blue or green, and across from the grounds, in the left of his visual field, the façade of an ornate old building, perhaps a hotel. A scene from a familiar story, perhaps, yet just beyond his ability to identify it. He was free to talk as much as he wanted, but it wouldn’t bring that story into clearer focus.
       T started going to after-work gatherings. He met the attractive daughter of a colleague. She had just graduated from a distinguished school. They went on two dates. On the first, she noticed him staring around him unless he was spoken to, as if he had come to meet the place. On the second, a week later, he did it again. After some small-talk he squinted fixedly past her, his drink balanced casually on the arm of his chair, supported by his fingertips. She glanced at the glass. At most he had had one sip.
“What are you looking at?” she interrupted him laughingly.
      “I’m trying to compare that newish middle-class house across the street with others like it that have struck my attention lately, looking for qualities they share. Just now I was wondering, could one of the most important be, the ratio of the courtyard area to the house? In that case, they would fall into four major groups, ones like this with a very crowded and narrow yard; ones with an empty-ish but small yard; large but crowded ones; and large, uncluttered ones. But then I thought: what if a third value is also taken into consideration—whether the yard’s contents are distributed in an ordered, or in a cluttered, possibly random pattern. In that case…” She did not meet him again.
       Next T tried a boyfriend. He managed get an introduction to a youth who lived in a yellowish house whose porch, recessed behind plaster arches, ran along the whole second floor; it had an orchard-like garden. They went out for drinks, then returned to the house.
      “It has fruit trees in the garden. That’s surprising, in a prosperous suburb like this, where such cultivation is not common,” T began.
      “I hate it,” complained his companion. “The instant I inherit it, I’m selling it.” They did not see each other again.

       Everything disqualified him for life as it was. It was his grandfather’s fault, T ruminated. Walking rather than driving. Taking him to parks, not video game stores. Could he still change? He sat facing the TV in the cafeteria at work, but the discontinuous images, snatched away abruptly before he could focus on them, turned him off. He began drinking in bars after work, without ever managing to see himself as one of the others there. “It’s his fault, he made me this way. My tempo is different; I can’t live without stopping and staring at things.” Since school, when he had a choice between going out with his noisy, abrupt, impatient classmates, and a nearly speechless walk, he always gave his classmates some excuse, that he had extra lessons, or whatever.
       He finished his drink, caught the bus back to his room, and for the length of the turnstile-like series of streetlights along the otherwise dark, empty highway, pictured an odd condition on which he could relate to other people: if everyone wore a sandwich-board with little filmstrip-snapshots of the sites they had grown up near and were the product of. His would be photos of the park with the crater-like terrain, the gleaming silver road along its edge leading to the distant sunset, the highway outside their house, the fields, the demolished house with the spiral stairs, the other park with the palms … Each of the pictures left out what was most crucial, what held them together.

       Later that year T searched the phone book and found a listing for a psychiatrist with degrees from several prestigious universities.
       He went to a city-center apartment building. Its lobby was a dim-lit world apart from the glaring streets outside, with plants with dark, shiny leaves and no flowers, perhaps artificial. Brown marble with little grainy dents interrupting its polished face: not only the walls, but the floor, and the stairs, he observed, waiting for the elevator.
       The office was on an upper floor, with windows overlooking a busy avenue and a little elliptical-shaped park canopied by palms and pines, with croquet-hoop white wire marking off beds of grass from the paths.
       T filled out a stack of questionnaires and answered questions about his upbringing, his university years, his sexual fantasies, his health, his moods. How thorough! The interpretation of his replies, he thought eagerly, might finally explain everything.
       He went back for the results, wrote out a check at the receptionist’s desk, and stared down at the inner-city traffic flowing around the elliptical little park, stories below. Everything might fall into place here, in this office!
       He was called in and told, “You have a Mental Disorder Not Otherwise Specified.”
      “You can’t be clearer? You can’t explain why, just as I heard you say that, an image of a large building, at an angle like this,” (he demonstrated with his hand), “perhaps an important school or institution of some kind, with dusty grounds, and the sky with a sort of subtle gingery-white storm cloud, popped up in my brain?”
      “I don’t know why, but fortunately today there are several medications that can stop it.”
      “If you don’t know, how can you know it should be stopped?”
      “But it prevents you from leading an ordinary person’s life.” And the psychiatrist reached for his prescription pad.
      “Thank you,” said T. The new image was still vivid enough to make the prospect of debating less attractive than leaving and trying to glimpse it more clearly. Downstairs he left the prescription in a wastebasket and hurried down the street and through the little park with the wire-hoop-bordered beds of grass under the palms and pines, to catch a bus back to work.

       T’s grandfather died three months later. He left a letter, given to T subsequently by his lawyer. He had been diagnosed with terminal cancer, he wrote, and decided to end his life in his own way. There were four pages of practical instructions. T skimmed through them, telling himself to expect nothing other than what he was used to from his grandfather, but overwhelmed with tears of rage anyway when his expectations were confirmed. But the envelope also contained a photograph. T had not seen it before. It immediately reminded him of the one they had quarreled about on his first week of leave from his army job. Here his grandfather was alone, standing in front of a gate with an unusual filigree pattern. Staring into the camera with the significant, self-explanatory attitude with which someone else might pose beside a renowned masterpiece. On the back the only note was “1973.” His grandfather had been in his mid-thirties.
       “I have told you all that I could,” T guessed that his grandfather had meant to say by including this photo in the envelope. “There are no words for what I see in these places. Silence is preferable to the wrong word.”
       Other times he imagined that his grandfather had written “1973” as if to say, “I didn’t figure them out at first either; I was more than ten years older than you are now, when I did; so be patient, keep trying.”
       “I was not pretending.” T conjectured another day that his grandfather had been troubled by the accusation which T had shouted at him, that he was just pretending, and had meant to defend himself with this photo. He stared at the photo until he thought he saw in his grandfather’s gaze the triumph of having just made a discovery. At thirty four he had deciphered these patterns enough to assume that expression; he had grasped enough meaning to pose confidently within what, to him, was no longer a confusing labyrinth.
       “I got here on my own; nobody told me what to look for … what about you?” his grandfather taunted him from the photo a few days later.
       Every time T looked at the photo canceled out what he had decided it meant the previous time. After a few months he stopped consulting it.

A. Lazakis’s current project, “Provinces of the Mind,” is an experimental retelling of a story in two versions: as text and as a graphic novella.

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