What is fiction? What is it for? Hints at an answer to these imponderables turn up in the unlikeliest places. For example, in an old article on psychology’s replication crisis:
If it turned out that people were so variable that even very close replications threw up entirely different results, “it would mean that we could not interpret our experiments, including the positive results, and could not count on them happening again,” Srivastava says. “That might allow us to dismiss failed replications, but it would require us to dismiss original studies, too.”
This suggestion is quickly dismissed, as taking it seriously might mean the end of the social sciences as such: the end of imagining that human subjectivity, singular or collective, could be formulated as a regular, predictable, and iterable phenomenon.
Call it the pervert’s corollary to the anthropic principle—the universe is so arranged as to lead to life capable of observing it; but this life, to preserve its observer’s autonomy and disinterest, is so arranged in turn as to elude its own final self-observation and self-definition. Perversity is the only essence of the human.
Novelists know this about us. Novelists dream plots of forbidding complexity and irony; they draw those strains of story tight across and around characters painted in so many layers that it is impossible to say which shade predominates; and they relate this perplexing circumstance in words themselves chosen to be as ambiguously, beautifully multiform and metamorphic as reality itself. Novelists, whether they consciously understand it or not, live by anthropic perversity: they design universes rioting with reflexive and unfinishable intelligence.
But now we are told that such an ambition is wrong and must be disallowed: that unpredictable characters traduce the sacred sociological categories they belong to (all must be “credits to their race”) and that moral complexity betrays the cause of absolute justice on earth. For 300 years or more, whole classes of individuals were socially constrained or repressed based in part on categories devised by the nascent and then the professionalized social sciences.
Thomas Jefferson disallowed Phillis Wheatley her share in poetry because of what he took to be biology: “Their love is ardent, but it kindles the senses only, not the imagination.” Now those most loudly denouncing Jefferson himself conceal that they are his heirs, not Wheatley’s, in worldview: imagination coerced, barred, banished by psychology and sociology and anthropology. Often the very same institutions that stole imagination from vast tracts of humanity—the university, the mass media—represent themselves as redressers of this original crime, though the means of redress are the exact scientistic methods used in its perpetration. Wheatley, meanwhile, writes in praise of the autonomous artist:
To show the lab’ring bosom’s deep intent,
And thought in living characters to paint,
When first thy pencil did those beauties give,
And breathing figures learnt from thee to live,
How did those prospects give my soul delight,
A new creation rushing on my sight?
“[L]iving characters,” “breathing figures,” “a new creation”—art as experiential evidence of humanity’s innate world-making capacity, the warrant of our every freedom. But to remake the world in language (or picture or song) persuasively, you must commit yourself to the imitation of its strangeness, its tendency to startle and disturb and abrade expectation.
Hence the betrayal not only of art but of humanity itself in submitting fiction to committees of public safety, whether self-appointed on social media or retained like legal counsel by skittish publishers to evaluate novels for their supposed transgressions of the very pre-determined social codes the novel as a form exists to question and to re-write.
It goes without saying that inadvertent outright error should be corrected and that straightforward stereotype indistinct from crass propaganda isn’t worth publishing; but beyond that, evidence abounds in literary history that such censorious ethics can never protect writers from stigmatized cultures or groups; think of how Zora Neale Hurston or Philip Roth, to name only two great American novelists, were treated by prominent spokespersons of the black and Jewish communities, respectively—and ask yourself if either of them could run today’s gauntlet. Now these new codes’ very writers are predictably being devoured by them; history doesn’t have iron laws, but if it did, one of them would be that those who most ardently try to suppress others will find themselves suppressed, one way or another. The gods of perversity will not be mocked.
All of the above, regrettably polemical though it may be, I offer as a preface to The Class of 2000, a novel I began writing in 2015—it was the subject of this premature if popular post on plotting long-form fiction—and finally finished this year. Its precursor Portraits and Ashes is a full 20000 words longer but was written in only five months in a spate, a torrent, a cascade of unstoppable words and ideas, and it required very little revision.
The Class of 2000 revealed itself to me much more slowly; as the title implies, it is a book that, while not autobiographical in the least, has some basis in memory and history, certainly more so than the rather phantasmagorical Portraits and Ashes. And arranging those fragments of the past in their proper order—and sometimes painfully discarding the ones that didn’t fit the overall pattern—was a slow and almost impossible process.
Why, then, did I go on with the novel? The reason has everything to do with my statements above on the necessity for the novelist to create a world as terribly—if also beautifully—perverse as the world we endure every day. Art should not be an escape from life but a confrontation with it. And I know a project is viable and must be brought to completion when I write a scene or a chapter or a character that frightens me with its uncanny likeness to some actually inexplicable human dilemma.
I am not talking about offense for offense’s sake—the tediously elaborate violent pornography that centuries’ worth of French writers and their academic epigones have mistaken for profundity, for instance, or, more contemporarily, the mere desire to poke Twitter in the eye like some minor hanger-on of the so-called Intellectual Dark Web. I’ve had occasion in my last two posts to allude to how empty posturing contrarianism ruined the mind of Christopher Hitchens, the great cautionary tale for my literary generation, which rightly grew up admiring the man.
No, I am thinking about much more subtle examples of how writers have made their works as as gorgeously and intolerably complex as the real. All you have to do is squint at the drama to hate Lear and Cordelia as much as Goneril and Regan do. And isn’t Mrs. Dalloway, if you’re being honest with yourself, just as oppressively reprehensible as Miss Kilman judges her to be? Only when I reach such bedrock of unappeasable and irresolvable contradiction do I know I have discovered a real novel for myself.
To show you what I mean, I provide below some materials from The Class of 2000. First is a cover for the novel I made just to amuse myself. The image is a picture I took from the back yard of my childhood home the day before my family moved out a few years ago. The blurb is an impossibly generous bit of praise from author Craig Conley—all the more magnanimous when I consider that the version he read was two drafts ago!
The second piece is the basic template of the cover letter I am sending to small presses, agents, and literary prizes to get the book into print. I am no master of ad copy—which such a letter essentially is—so please feel free to reach out with constructive criticism.
I am writing to submit The Class of 2000, a literary novel of about 71K words, [to/for Y press, agent, award]. The Class of 2000 is a dark, poetic, and suspenseful literary novel about family, class, art, sex, and violence in American suburbia on the tensely optimistic eve of the millennium.
After his ex-con father attempts to murder his mother, high-school senior Michael Abandanato is taken in by his charismatic English teacher, Mr. Lydon, who has a dangerous habit of trying to save the lives of his least fortunate students. Soon Mr. Lydon invites Michael to join him on his private—and bloody—crusade to right the wrongs of their quiet suburb. Meanwhile, Mr. Lydon’s brilliant and nihilistic wife, a frustrated former actress, has her own designs on Michael, intellectual and otherwise. Soon, the Lydons’ secrets gradually emerge, and the ensuing conflagration threatens to destroy everyone involved. Gathered around this fatal drama is a cast of unforgettable supporting characters, including Michael’s brittle but fearless sister Vanessa, their indomitable mother Linda, and the visionary occultist Lisa Grabowski, who runs the urban magic shop where Michael and Vanessa take refuge from suburban chaos. As these characters confront the disorders of an age—from alcoholism to sexual violence—a tragic heroism rises from their struggle.
The setting for this fiery tragedy is Pittsburgh in the autumn of 1999: a time and place of anxious longing as the community, wracked by the collapse of the steel industry, attempts to revitalize itself in any way it can, and as America at large looks tensely forward to a millennial future of peace and unending progress. Looking back from the perspective of the 21st century’s disappointments and dangers, the adult Michael wonders whether his fateful adolescent dance with his neighborhood’s most glittering family didn’t cost him his soul.
A story about the dangers of good intentions and about where the dreams and ambitions of two generations went wrong, The Class of 2000 is an impassioned and inventive American family saga. One early reader, Craig Conley, author of One Letter Words: A Dictionary (Harper Collins), requested to read the manuscript after discovering my website and wrote in response:
The diamond-cutter craftsmanship of Kosinski, the modern immediacy of DeLillo, the fiery gothicism of Faulkner, the lurid melodrama of Williams, the deep insight of Murdoch. The best meditation on chance, choice, and fate that has fallen into my lap. There should be a warning about eyestrain—I couldn’t stop reading.
[Short author bio]
Finally, I include the chapter—almost a freestanding short story—that, when I wrote it, told me this book had the potential to be as real as reality.
It is also the chapter that I worried would run afoul of certain well-intentioned but censorious constituencies today, the ones discussed above, not only because it portrays human problems, most notably sexual assault, that some critics believe are better left unspoken in literature, but also because it does so by tangling the moral response to this dilemma into such a knot of crossed purposes that all good is twisted to evil and vice versa. Not, I assure you, because I want to spit on goodness or bless evil, but to warn about the way things have been and yet may be in this perverse world of ours where moral purpose guarantees nothing, moral outcomes least of all.
Browsing through Brenda Wineapple’s 2003 biography of Nathaniel Hawthorne today, I came across a notebook entry she quotes from the author, an idea for a story: “A story to show how we are all wronged and wrongers, and avenge one another…” This might be the motto of The Class of 2000. I invite you to sample it below if you are not bothered by what I have already said or the subject matter indicated, especially because it is fiction of a type that in the present atmosphere is not only hard to publish but also harder than it’s been in a long time—perhaps since the postwar lifting of literary censorship—even to imagine and to write.
The Class of 2000
by John Pistelli
16. The Talking Cure
Before her mother pulled her out of Jackson High School and re-enrolled her, mid-way through her sophomore year, in St. Maria Goretti (where she’d gone from kindergarten through eighth grade), Marianne Maldonado had read in the textbook for her elective psychology class that repression could make you sick.
If you allowed your mind to hide thoughts about traumatic events or lawless desires from itself, they could go underground and spread like a kind of mental cancer to various parts of your body: you could go blind, your throat could close up, your legs could stop working, you could lose the ability to speak, you could vomit after every meal, your hands and feet could go numb, you could wake up screaming—and never stop.
The thought of her mind concealing its own memories and those memories in turn burrowing like ticks or hookworms under her skin terrified Marianne, so when she was certain that she had the house to herself, that her mother and baby sister had gone out and would not be back for at least several hours, she would look into the bathroom mirror and say aloud, in a strong, declamatory voice, “Eric Kroeber peed on my face.”
It was important to be clear about this, because if she forgot it, she would become sick when her body remembered. As long as she was able to say it, its power to come at her in the dark could be contained.
But she had not wanted to say it to anyone else. She did not want her friends to see pee like tears leaking out of her eyes every time they looked at her. They would feel sorry for her. Their pity would cause them to be nice to her at first, but they would eventually come to think of her as a downer, even a suicide threat. Their voices would get quiet when she came in the room; they would feel they couldn’t make certain jokes in her presence or invite her to see certain movies. She could just imagine their compassionate smiles, with little twists of satisfaction at the corners of their lips. When you pity a girl, you have power over her. In her case, it would be worse: pity mixed with disgust. Everybody secretly feels that suffering and degradation are contagious. They would be nice to her, yes, and then they would pity her, and then they would hate her, and then they would shun her.
The way, she thought, we all eventually avoided Marla Tyler when she got leukemia in sixth grade, around Christmastime. Marianne just felt, somehow, that when bad things happen to people, they stick on them like tar. You don’t want that on your fingers, in your hair: you’ll never wash it off.
She tried to keep it a complete secret, but Eric Kroeber was going around telling people not only that she’d slept with him, which was bad enough, but that they were going out, maybe even going to the winter formal together. Eric Kroeber!—whose mom supposedly ran some kind of gambling den, whose dad was in jail or the hospital or Texas or just somewhere else, whose grandma was an alcoholic who’d lived in a trailer park up by Pymatuming until she burned herself to death by falling asleep with a lit cigarette in her toothless mouth—Eric Kroeber with his dirty hair and his dirty fingernails and a smirk that said nothing at all could possibly ever matter enough to him to hurt him if he lost it.
In truth, all these facts about Eric Kroeber had drawn Marianne to him. He was different from the people she knew, different from herself. He wasn’t in the Honor Society or the Model U.N., and she doubted his mother even owned an iron. She had heard the rumors—microwaved kittens and stints in juvie and crack cocaine—and she’d even seen the bloody faces of the boys who looked at him the wrong way. But maybe he committed those crimes because there was no one to love him. She wanted to see his dirty smirking face crossed with a different expression. One morning near the start of her sophomore year, it just came to her: she would get with Eric Kroeber and change his face. This reasoning embarrassed her now, because she felt she had been stupid; then again, she had been nice, too, and she wouldn’t let herself forget that either.
She had gone to a party in South Park where she knew he’d be—some of the cheerleaders, not her best friends but people she was friendly with, bought weed from one of his friends, and she asked if they would take her. She certainly didn’t want her actual friends there, wriggling their prim, powdered noses at Eric and his friends.
She tried to talk with him during that fall bonfire-party on the first really cold night of the year, but she was mainly interested in the play of the firelight on his wet, shining eyes. He always looked as if he were crying, even when he also looked angry or unfeeling.
They didn’t have a lot to talk about, honestly, so she tried to keep up with his drinking, though she’d barely ever been drunk before. Eventually he was dandling her on his knee and pouring beer straight down her throat, while his friends whooped and hers giggled nervously. The night smelled like turning leaves, smoky and sweet, like dry wine. The beer ran down her chin, down under her fuzzy pink sweater in a line to her navel. The crimson lipstick she’d worn to impress him smeared.
Later, they were in the woods. She was not even quite sure what they had done together. She woke up nauseated in a sleeping bag, redolent of the unwashed smell of his hair. She thought she heard rain, but as her eyes adjusted themselves to the darkness, she saw that it was only Eric peeing against the trunk of the tree they had settled under.
She looked up in his direction—she couldn’t see his face; it blended into the black leaf canopy, silhouetted against the purplish sky—with an almost tender feeling in her stomach. Was she the first person he’d ever been this close to, the first girl he’d embraced out under the trees, the stars?
It was then that he flicked his penis to the side and sent a hot stream through the cold October air right into her eyes, into her hair, into her mouth. He laughed, shook himself off, zipped himself up, and walked back to where the bonfire’s embers still smoldered.
She lay still for a few soundless seconds of shock and only failed to scream because she began to vomit, the metallic taste of the beer now sour with stomach acid.
All this bodily spillage steamed briefly and then chilled in the autumnal night.
She didn’t feel guilty, not one tiny bit, that rape was what she’d accused him of, even though she didn’t really know what they had done together, sexually speaking. Before accusing him of anything, she had investigated the definitions of “rape” in the weighty dictionary her mother kept next to the Bible in a glass-doored bookcase otherwise crowded with trophies, tassels, and sea shells, mementoes of the sisters’ milestones and family vacations past. Definition one, the main one, didn’t quite fit in her estimation—whatever they had done in the woods up until he peed on her face was more or less what she had intended to do with him that night; she had intended to get drunk and do something with him, anyway. But look at definition three: “an act of plunder, violent seizure, or abuse; despoliation; violation.” Isn’t that what Eric Kroeber did to her? If what he did was not abuse, not violation, not despoliation, then what was?
She had intended to clean him up, but all he’d done was make her dirty. She wanted to be nice to him, and he was nothing but cruel to her. Whatever mistakes she may have made, she thought, the moral balance came out in her favor.
She had not wanted to make a public accusation, though, not even when he was lying about her to everyone. Her friends, who didn’t drink or take drugs or show any interest in dirty boys from the other side of the borough, hadn’t been at the party that night and weren’t inclined to believe cheerleaders who said they drove her home even though she—responsible Marianne, always so put together!—was puking and too drunk to stand up after she’d gone into the woods with Eric. She only told them that she thought he was “gross” and that she would not be seeing him ever again. Her friends knew she would never go out with a guy like him, just as they would not, and she was confident that no one else would believe his lies either. He was Eric Kroeber, and she was Marianne Maldonado, and that was that.
But she wanted, no, she needed him to shut up. Even to see him in the school hallway brought back the foul, malodorous, hot sensation of something oozing all over her body; he was like a food that had once sickened her, which she was now forced to eat every day. She tried to think of a way to make him shut up without her having to tell everyone what he had done.
If she told, not only would the authorities try to take away his freedom, they would try to take away hers too, even if with the best of intentions. The thought of some guidance counselor talking to her about what she had done or wanted to do with her private parts, some school-mandated psychologist with pursed lips and a professionally-caring demeanor asking her how it made her feel to be degraded, the thought of her inevitable subjection to these rule-bound figures trying to contain her experience with their rigid expressions of phony concern that had no other purpose but to protect themselves and the community from the contamination she now bore—she would sooner meet Eric Kroeber again in the woods than be forced to deal with such people.
If only she could meet him there, just the two of them! This time she would bring a knife and put it up against the thing he had turned on her like a weapon. She would cut its throat. But no, that was not who she was: she was Marianne Maldonado. If she became a crazy angry girl who carried around a knife, a girl who wanted to cut off boys’ dicks, a girl who’d risk jail for some loser who needed a bath even more than he needed what they called a positive role model—well, then, that would only prove (to her!) that he had defiled her, that he had made her no better than he was.
Even so, she had to shut him up. Every time she thought of him, she felt sick, and not only sick but hopeless, stuck in mud, sinking in wet earth, the way thinking of Marla Tyler used to make her feel.
Why, she wanted to know, had the two incidents, years apart and unrelated, become so blended, so cross-contaminated, in her mind? Her mother had pulled her out of Jackson High and sent her back to the Catholic school before she could finish her elective psychology class and dispel more of the perverse human mind’s mysteries. There were no psychology classes at St. Maria Goretti. In Catholic school, they did not recognize sickness but only sin; in public school, it was the reverse. Which omission was worse, she did not know.
It was a risk to tell her English teacher, Mr. Lydon. But she had heard that he was not a person who condemned others for their poor choices as long as they showed a willingness to make better ones in the future. Everyone said he was too smart to be teaching public high school, and that he didn’t always do what his bosses told him to do. Supposedly, he had helped students out of many types of serious trouble, like owing money to a drug dealer or needing an abortion. Granted, the people he helped were usually not people like Marianne Maldonado, but that was what she got for involving herself with a lowlife like Eric Kroeber (and that, by the way, is what her mother would have said had she found out—“How could you ever get involved with such a lowlife as that?” with the intended implication that being peed on served her right—which was why she would never, ever tell her mother).
Everybody liked Mr. Lydon, anyway—students, parents, other teachers. But especially the students. He made boring books seem interesting—even dangerous—because he explained very clearly what those books really whispered underneath their confusing language, crusty vocabulary, and incomprehensible symbolism. She couldn’t think of any other teacher who would tell them what Hamlet meant when he spoke to Ophelia of “country matters” or ask them if they didn’t think that what both John Claggart and Edward Vere really wanted was Billy Budd all to themselves. With the classroom door shut, with his voice lowered, he made sure they knew that their schoolbooks, with their cracked library permabinding and their generations’ worth of student names scrawled on the inside covers, contained real human desires, dilemmas, and disasters, were written by people whose bodies shuddered and spilled. On the classroom corkboard he had tacked up a homemade poster; it said, in large orange letters on black poster paper,
“The world of books is still the world.” —Elizabeth Barrett Browning
She was taking advanced English with him last period. (Eric Kroeber took remedial English, and remedial everything else, so he would have no idea who Mr. Lydon even was. He would never see him coming.) It was easy enough to go to him after the school day had ended, a friend waiting to drive her home out in the parking lot.
He said, “What can I do for you?” in that wide-open way of his; he brought his desk chair out from behind the desk and straddled it backward, resting his chin thoughtfully on his forearms, crossed on the chair back.
She chose to remain standing. She held herself perfectly still as she spoke, her head bowed, her hands folded gently below her skirt waist, the toes of her burgundy Mary Janes turned in. She feared he might overreact if he thought she seemed especially distressed.
As she related her story, he didn’t look at her at all, nor even down at the floor by her feet; rather, he stared off to her right, at a poster of Charlotte Brontë hanging between two of the classroom windows, which themselves faced out into yellowish orange treetops, their leaves dryly brushing the pane. When the leaves fell, they would be able to see out over the highway that ran below Jackson High.
She told him everything, without any concealment or deception, from the basis of her initial attraction to Eric Kroeber to what he had done to her in the woods to why she could not tell her friends or her mother.
Mr. Lydon nodded as she spoke, the flesh of his chin bunching now to the left, now to the right, on his silver-furred forearm.
“I just want him to be quiet,” she said.
When she stopped speaking, he stood abruptly and dismounted the chair as if it were a horse. He firmly shook her hand and told her to think no more of it and to take care of herself. He promised he would see to Eric Kroeber’s silence.
She nodded politely and left the room.
The story the school eventually learned was that Eric Kroeber had gone to an abandoned house at the edge of South Park to freebase cocaine and had accidentally lit himself as well as the house on fire. He was eventually able to break a front window and hurl his weight over the shards still stuck in the frame to the outside, where he extinguished himself by leaping into a pile of rain-sodden leaves. Some of the brown mulch fused with his melted flesh. He stayed in the hospital for three months; he needed 16 skin grafts, and his despoiled face would always bear the marks of his immolation.
After the third time some of Eric’s friends pitched rocks through the long bay window of the Maldonado house in the middle of the night, Marianne’s mother said, “You can tell me what happened or not—it doesn’t matter to me—but I am pulling you out of that goddamn school.”
On her final day in Jackson High, the day before Christmas vacation, she quietly thanked Mr. Lydon and told him not to take any more action on her behalf. He nodded and wished her well.
She supposed that he had made the situation even worse—Eric Kroeber’s accident only increased the talk, and now some of her acquaintances who had been at the party that night avowed that she had been raped, while others maintained that she had sought out sex she came later to regret, but that in any case Eric Kroeber lay in the burn unit because of her.
It was just as well she was leaving Jackson High then. The whole school had begun to give her that sensation she’d previously only felt when seeing Eric Kroeber in the hallway. St. Maria Goretti, where she could rejoin old friends and begin again in an atmosphere of simpler rules and consequently simpler transgressions, suited her well.
By February, it was as if she had never gone for a year and a half to the public school. Her mother, seeing her contentment, admiring her well-behaved friends, encouraging her benevolent extracurricular activities—her visits to the old folks’ home on weekends, her charity to the homeless on holidays—even ceased to complain about the missed vacations and canceled home renovations caused by St. Maria’s expense.
In the nights, she imagined Eric Kroeber looking over a wall of flame at Mr. Lydon, begging for his life, that smirk of his gone for once. Once, and then forever, when he crossed the flame and passed through the glass. Burned right off his face. She envisioned—she had no cause at all to envision this—Mr. Lydon, as his silver mustache and bright blue eyes gleamed in the firelight, pissing on a prostrate Eric Kroeber to stanch the flames.
She fantasized about this scenario in great detail—steam lifting from the arc of urine in the cold autumn air as the flames crackled—so that she would not suffer the return of the repressed.
Marla Tyler had died at the end of a hot August, a few months after her friends took the opportunity presented by summer vacation to stop visiting her. They stopped with their parents’ silent approval. Their parents, who had been so eager to help the “poor little thing” when she still looked innocent and only notionally stricken, decided after all that they certainly didn’t want any of that black sticky tar that was her physical decay and imminent death tracked onto their pastel or white carpets.
But all the girls did go to Marla’s viewing. So many flowers crowded the room that the whole funeral home smelled like a conservatory. Marla lay tucked up in her coffin, buried to the chin beneath all her prized possessions.
Only her grayish, greenish, shrunken face peeked out, with that bite-mark scar she got from crazy Michael Abandanato in the second grade and a fooling-no-one blonde wig, the skin of her cheeks like a bruised and rotting windfall apple among the bright pinks and yellows of her toys and clothes and books. She had gone to the other side like the pharaohs they’d learned about that year in social studies, with everything she loved in this life.
Marianne knelt above the friendship bracelet she had herself fastened around Marla’s thin wrist when she first got sick. She thought she was going to burst out laughing for some reason, but she started to sob instead. Awful, braying, dry-heave sounds erupted from deep in her chest, from the pit of her stomach, and her mother led her out of the funeral home early, all the girls’—and their mothers’—eyes on their backs.
Her mother had been terribly embarrassed by Marianne’s anguish, but she bought her some bright new shoes on the way home anyway.
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