Take Frank. Frank is a bright boy, yet a lazy and stubborn high school student, one who holds in disdain all of his teachers, especially the dedicated, passionate ones. All of his English teachers, since at least the seventh grade, have been passionate. They have all told Frank that if he would only read this or that book he would fall in love with it, he would find himself hidden between its pages, he would have his “mind blown away.” Frank does not like the idea of having his mind blown away, he finds it suicidal, Frank likes his mind the way it is and he intends to keep it. Frank does not want to fall in love, nor to see himself or find himself, he sees himself every day and he finds himself fine, he is exactly who he is and wants to be. He does not understand what all the fuss is about. So when Mr. Paquette, his English teacher, approached Frank and offered a way for Frank to make up his missing credit, Frank was not even vaguely interested. In Frank’s view, things existed or did not exist and things that did not exist could not be said to be missing. He lacked a certain amount of credit, that was a fact, but the credit had not gone missing, it simply did not exist. Why go looking for something that did not exist? His nonexistent credit was not a teenager who had been abducted or was lost in the woods, there was no photo of it that could be nailed near the bus stop, it was not a cat, he did not care or have feelings for this thing which was, supposedly, missing. He, himself, had no sense of loss, it was Mr. Pacquette who had a sense of loss. Passionate people, Frank had observed, had above all else a sense of loss. He knew this was somehow connected to their enthusiasm, their hysterical insistence, their waving-about of their arms. Mr. Pacquette did in fact wave his arms about when he told Frank that he had found “the perfect assignment,” that all Frank had to do was read Herman Melville’s short story “Bartleby the Scrivener” and write a short paper on it, and all the missing credit would be restored, while at the same time Frank’s mind would be blown away—apparently this was an additional bonus. Frank was not interested and said so, he said, “I would prefer not to,” which Mr. Pacquette recognized instantly as the famous, and only, words of Bartleby the Scrivener, though Frank did not recognize them as belonging to anyone other than himself, they were his own words, they had just left his mouth hadn’t they? Yet Frank’s words only caused Mr. Pacquette to wave his arms more wildly, and Frank could see his teacher was on the verge of having a point, another thing Frank couldn’t care less about and did not want to be privy to. So when Mr. Pacquette began to get even more excited, when he opened his mouth more widely than was humanly necessary and said, “That’s just the point!” Frank said “I’d prefer not to” and left the room. Which left the passionate English teacher alone in sad thought, thinking of all the missed connections and opportunities in life, of all the failures. He felt sorry for Frank, and for Herman Melville, and for Bartleby, and for himself. He felt sorry for the sad fate of literature, which should be able to save the world but couldn’t, through no fault of its own. Meanwhile Frank was walking home along the railroad tracks, the sun shone down on him, his mind was intact, he was doing exactly what he wanted to be doing, he was in his own world, free, not trapped between the pages of a book, and if he saw an insect he could squash it under his foot, or he could save it in a matchbox he carried in his pocket for that purpose.
Mary Ruefle is the author of several books, including Madness, Rack, and Honey: Collected Lectures.
"Untitled (Jason, Smoke)" © Tim Barber
In a house filled with people who have lived their lives under the shadow of government surveillance, I didn’t want to look as if I were engaged in some sort of clandestine activity—especially when I was simply embarrassed by how fanatically obsessed I was with Shulgin and his prolific contributions to medicinal chemistry and psychopharmacology.
Writers are people too—this is what damns them. Or darns them. Or sends them to heck. Fug them—this was how American literature expressed itself after the obscenities of the Holocaust and later H-bombs. We live as history, so if we write, even if we fictionalize, we write history too, often in minstrel dialect, or with women who have no lines to speak of.