John Pistelli

writer

Agent Provocateur

[This is a, well, provocation of some sort, posted earlier on Tumblr, and recommended for those interested in my fiction.]

I always forget to self-promote (it’s because I am so virtuous!)! What I should have said about that MFA=CIA thing everybody was talking about yesterday is the following:

I have this story I just can’t seem to get published anywhere; it’s called “Agent Provocateur,” which I also nominate as the title for an eventual story collection of mine, and it has to do with possible secret-agency manipulation of both intellectual life and “random” violence, though in a quasi-magical register of definite uncertainty (really I consider it a fairy tale).  I do occasionally worry that my subject matter puts people off, because I have not quite managed to sufficiently aestheticize away the propositional quality of fringe-political materials à la my hero, Don DeLillo.  There is a danger of being thought of as “just some crank on the Internet.”  I am not just some crank on the Internet, though; I have been “involved with literature” in various official capacities (scholar, teacher, reviewer, writer) for almost a decade now, and I believe this if nothing else gives me a fairly objective sense of my work’s quality, which is significant.  (Oh yes, I’m arrogant; I’m not one of your Kafkan writer-saints, alas, though they have my undying respect.)  Moreover, I hold whatever political attitudes may have escaped my Pyrrhonism very lightly.  I have also studied the old CIA stylebook well enough to handle fringe-political materials in a way so seemingly de-politicized that you could read my work to your grandmother, even as I hope it also gives her bad dreams later.  (Surface difficulty in literature is highly overrated, I say even though I am an admirer of Joyce; keep the surface placid, better to conceal your shark.)  Anyway, I’ve been blaming the apparent unpublishability of this piece on its almost novella-sized length (about 11,000 words), but now I know that it must be the CIA suppressing it through the diffusion of their flattening ideology through the culture of creative writing.  I’ve actually come close to self-publishing “Agent Provocateur” as an e-book; I suspect I could probably even sell a few.  I am not so down on self-publishing as a lot of people are—the gatekeepers were never so great—but I have a personal horror of it as my day-job (adjunct professor, we who live like Dickensian orphans according to the press, with an eye toward more long-term options) depends partly on my participation in economies of prestige related to publication.  But what the hell, I’ll paste in the first few pages below to whet the old readerly appetite.  A note for any literal-minded reader who might happen by: my first-person narrator is not meant to be admirable, so you really mustn’t attribute his vices (misogyny, totalitarian sympathies, etc.) to the author.  In the biz, you know, we speak of irony.  At least that’s what James Jesus Angleton told me to say.  Here you go, and I hope you enjoy:

“Agent Provocateur”

She was a risk, but that’s what I’ve been drawn to lately.  Nothing in her look or demeanor suggested desperation, dissatisfaction, recklessness, craziness, or nihilism: all the things I am supposed to seek.  No, she positively lounged in the rickety wooden café chair, her trim legs primly crossed, sleek in black tights and ending in leather half-boots with a pointed toe and a stylish cuff turned down at the ankle.  Anyone who dresses like that has not yet surrendered.  She propped a book—how quaint!—between her little belly and the edge of the table while she waited for her tea to steep; a garish hibiscus red-pink wisped and reeled into the steaming water.  The kind of people I was instructed to target drank black, black coffee, the kind you have to chew through.

I was sitting in my usual seat, a barstool at one of the high tables that ringed the periphery of the café.  The place was empty just then, in the lull between the after-lunch and the after-dinner crowds, and anyway it was the first eighty-degree day of the year, so most of the college kids were out tossing around frisbees or lolling in the grass.  The weather made it especially important that I man the dim café with its pale sea-green walls, because I, a low-level long-shot craftsman of chaos, hunted types who scorned the frisbee and cursed the sun.

Before she came in, I busied myself with disdaining the art on the walls: muddy ’90s-revival acrylic paintings of mystical Jungian themes and New Age or else Goth iconography.  Women with earth-mother hips and green dreadlocks birthing radiant and monstrous thoughts from their foreheads.  White owls communing with shipwrecked sailors, naked and skinless, all sinew and fascia, under a scarlet sky.  Hazily serene orbs amid graffiti-style swirls, Fibonacci spirals, screaming skeletons, Lovecraftian tentacular horrors, Gigeresque bodily architecture.  What a lot of shit, I was thinking; don’t these kids know that when there are no jobs to be had, no money to be made, wars breaking out, revolutionaries plotting, countries rising and countries falling, then it’s time to take to the stylos?  To choose the bullet over the ballot, the church over the spirit, religion over mysticism, politics over ethics?  To murder the moonshine, as the man said?  I would get nowhere with the painter of these pictures, I was sure of that.  I almost felt inspired to go home and paint clean diagonal lines, red and silver and black, sharp enough to cut.

But then she came in and, in an almost empty room, sat at one of the low middle tables nearest to mine.  Her hair in its tight ponytail and her pursed little lips were not promising.  Surely, this was a dreamy girl on her way to grad school—projected dissertation: Hearts and Sleeves: The Dialectic of Fashion and Inwardness in Dorothy Richardson, Katherine Mansfield, Virginia Woolf, and Elizabeth Bowen—or, failing that, librarian school.  But she did sit close.  She must want something, and a person capable of wanting anything is just a wind-up toy.  All you have to do is set it in motion and point it where you like; if you so desire, you can make it walk right off the edge of the table.  Maybe she just wanted me (I reflected on the palpable hunger of single girls in their late twenties, as well as the hiply counter-hip chic of my tatty gray jacket and East Berlin prolie shoes, the perhaps enticing wisps of premature white at my cadaverous temples).  I could turn that to my advantage as well.

She effectively sat beneath me, but she had no computer, which enabled her to hide more thoroughly.  I could not pluck her name over her shoulder from a social networking site or email display, and I could not learn it from scanning the other names on the wireless network that showed up on my own screen.  The old-fashioned way, then.  I squinted over her shoulder—bare and a little fleshly (round hillocks rising on either side of her purple camisole strap) and goose-stippled in the cool dim air—to find out what she was reading: not a fashionably modern lady author at all, but the prose of T. S. Eliot.  The prose, mind you—We are living at present in a kind of doldrums between opposing winds of doctrine, in a period in which one political philosophy has lost its cogency for behaviour, though it is still the only one in which public speech can be framed, that sort of thing—and not flattering fictions about just how rich with loam are our inner lives if we would only pay attention to them.

 To be continued…

[If you want to read the rest, feel free to email me at the address on my ABOUT page and I’ll send it to you.]

One comment on “Agent Provocateur

  1. Pingback: Notes on Notes on Notes: Reading Coetzee’s Diary (Vicariously) | John Pistelli

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This entry was posted on 15 February 2014 by in fiction, writing and tagged , , , .
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