THE ART OF FICTION NO. 69 LO!

The Paris Review man came carrying an Olympus Digital Voice Recorder, the WS-320M. That’s the one that’s also a USB dongle, you press the Release button on its back and the battery will detach like a used launch rocket from a spaceship and reveal the rectangular USB plug with the two square holes on it like robot eyes.

I thought, from his voice on the phone when he called three weeks ago, and from all the Paris Review Writers At Work interviews that I’ve downloaded gratis from their DNA of Literature website, that he would’ve brought with him an old fashioned tape recorder and a stack of used cassettes with the recording tabs already broken off and the square holes plugged with balls of crumpled, ivory-coloured papers from his Moleskine to make them recordable again.

He was nice though. A little overawed by my greatness. Too overawed. It’s good when they’re a little afraid of you, then they don’t talk so much. But when you can see terror in their eyes … you know they’ll get back at you when they rewrite the article. They might not even send you the proof to correct and revise.

His name was Barney. He’s from Connecticut. Went to Harvard, then to Paris. For the Julie Delpys, he said. That was the first joke he said. I didn’t laugh. So he did, and continued on, But all I got were un nation des Amelie Mauresmos. C’est une nation, I said.

The sun was bright and hot that morning and made watery stars of sweat on our forearms that itched terribly, but the heat was good and the little stars, on my chocolate brown arms especially, looked so pretty that we never bothered to wipe them off. Nor did we make any effort to go inside into the cool.

Lo!, 2004

INTERVIEWER
Do you think you can lose something that you once had, perhaps still have, but are afraid of losing?

LO!
Well, someone told me that I can’t. That I won’t. Especially not something that I actually had to do a lot of work to get.

INTERVIEWER
Which I guess makes you even more nervous that you will lose it.

LO!
Yes, exactly. I think of it this way. I learn a lot of things alone, by myself, at a desk, or lying in a couch at someone else’s house thinking about how I can do something better, like writing, or once when I had the ambition, how to play the guitar so I can write the songs that were in my head without actually having to learn new skills, at the guitar I mean.

INTERVIEWER
I don’t get it.

LO!
Well I haven’t finished. So, what I have I think I did have to work hard to get. Because no one was telling me how to do what. I had no teachers, mentors—I’ve always dreamed about having mentors, one-on-one Oxbridge tutorials where we just eat scones and talk about Whitehead—and I remember a lot of the process of learning that I had to undertake to work out the secrets of, say, writing, or writing songs with three chords. I remember the checkpoints and landmarks, so you’d think that I should be able to just go back to that checkpoint or that landmark whenever I feel like I’ve forgotten what lesson(s) I had learned at that particular point.

INTERVIEWER
But the process of losing a skill knows no landmark?

LO!
Yes! Yes! That’s right. You don’t know what you’ve forgotten. Suddenly you just can’t do it anymore. It feels like you were never able to do the thing you say you’ve merely forgotten how to.

INTERVIEWER
Isn’t it possible to go back, just you know, like as if you’re just going for a walk, and maybe the landmarks are just hidden by some new growth, or maybe they’d taken them down and built a McDonald’s over it? Maybe you just need to do some dusting.

LO!
Well yeah of course that’s possible. But one thing, you don’t know where to start. maybe you’ve forgotten more than you think you have. Then you might start retracing your steps from near the finish line when really you should start with the warm-ups. Or the other way around. Though that’s not as bad. You’ll do a lot of revising. That’s always good. But it slows you down.

INTERVIEWER
Give me an example.

LO!
OK. Metaphors. Lately I’ve been noticing that I write with less and less metaphor everyday. Especially of the kind that goes like, say, “the cold air nails the stars on the black sky”. I used to write a lot of these. I think I know why I stopped. I’ve been reading a lot of classical Chinese poetry, though I think the example above was from Su Tung-p’o. Those guys didn’t use a lot of metaphors, didn’t seem to like it. Everything is just straight description of things that touch them, dragon-y gorges, cherry blossoms, the long Kiang reaching heaven. You know, that last example is a good one. It sounds like a metaphor, you know, like the long Kiang doesn’t really reach heaven, does it? ‘Reaching’ there is like ‘nails’ in the earlier example. But I don’t think it’s right to see the line this way. I think whoever it was really did see the long Kiang, either at a riverport saying farewell to his fellow poet or in a painting, and he saw it snake upwards into the horizon, maybe it was misty and so maybe in that ‘Man, there’s poetry in this’ moment, it looked so much like the poet’s idea of heaven. It was heaven. It didn’t become heaven and the river reaching to it later on when he was carving the poem onto the temple’s wall.

INTERVIEWER
There was no metaphor in the line.

LO!
But the line itself is a metaphor, I think Carlos Williams called it a “total metaphor”, for something. Not quite clear what. For a mood. You know, it’s poetry. It’s all about mood. Sometimes I think that line is a great image (I’ve been trying to avoid using the word Imagist, I’m sure you’ve noticed) for what poetry is. Like if someone asked you, “What the fuck is this fucking poetry thing?” Just tell him to read that line.

INTERVIEWER
And what you’re losing is …

LO!
No, don’t get me wrong. I haven’t like replaced my metaphors with total metaphors. I’d like to nail more metaphors if I could. But I think I’ve forgotten how to think in metaphors.

INTERVIEWER
You see things too straight? Unadorned?

LO!
Yeah. And sometimes the straight things I’ve written don’t amount to anything like a total metaphor. They just become straight descriptions of things that never moved me in the first place. But that I thought should have some poetry in it. You know, it’s like it’s nice having metaphors to fall back on when you can’t see poetry with your naked eyes anymore.

INTERVIEWER
And so you’re saying that sometimes you lose things because you have to? Or because you have changed as a person, and so there’s no reason to go back and relearn the skills because you won’t need them anymore? That you’re just afraid in the future you might need them again and you don’t want to have to relearn them when you need them. Like you want to have the spare tire ready, all pumped and cleaned and covered in one of those giveaway tire covers, Vicks!, Balsem Cap Macan!, even though you’ve decided you’re going to sell your car?

LO!
Ha! Ha! Yes.

INTERVIEWER
So you’ve lost it. The ability to write metaphors like there’s no tomorrow. How bad is that? How bad is losing something?

LO!
Well, I think sometimes all it takes is a lot of practice. And having lost something is a sign that you haven’t practiced it for a long time. Too long. That you’ve been wasting your time doing other things when you could’ve been doing that, practicing what you once loved doing. And that’s really fucking bad. That’s the worst.

INTERVIEWER
Do you still think of yourself as a writer?

LO!
I never did. No, it’s true. It was my weakness, maybe I would still be a writer now had I believed in myself more and called myself a writer and broke up with my girlfriend and moved and lived in a cramped kost in Jogja. I wouldn’t even be able to stretch my legs fully when I slept but I would’ve had a little table, stubby, finger-y remains of 2B pencils up to here in a Hello Kitty pencil jar and a big, modernist architecture pile of double-sided manuscripts for sending every other day to an international journal that I’ve hand-picked (clicked?) from the Warnet’s alon-alon waton kelakon connection.

INTERVIEWER
Not even a pipedream anymore?

LO!
I’ll always write, I think. It’s like having a best friend that’s also your hobby. Not many people have hobbies, like real ones that you’ve been doing all your life, and even less have best friends. I’ve never had that anxiety that some people have when they’re not doing something really active like bungee jumping or something or when they’re not surrounded by a crowd. Or like the way your girlfriend seems to be always restless when you’re not around. I like people, but when they’re not around I know I can just turn on my laptop and write something and I’ll feel better. The problem is I don’t always do that when I do feel alone. But that happens only when I don’t want to feel better, writing never lets me down. I do.

INTERVIEWER
Writing-as-therapy sounds really pathetic.

LO!
It is. But so are our lives. Writing-as-therapy is a consequence, not a premise. At the moment, for me, writing is therapy. Mainly to get myself to write more honestly. To be more honest. Two, three years ago it was about seeing things, and recording them as straight as possible, but trying to see life from as many angles as possible, to see as many things as were possible for a man to see, hence the baskets of metaphors I used to have to lug home everyday.

Now it’s all about feeling things straight. To be as honest as possible with what I feel, not just what I see. Sometimes you see things, and what you really see are the possibilities of things, that it is possible to see it that way if you want to, but you don’t really feel like it. It’s hard to admit that. Because, especially when you’ve had a back story like mine where I did not allow myself to see many things because I thought they were wrong and then there’s the going totally the opposite way of trying to force myself to see all the possible ways in which you can see things, you have this constant feeling in your head that hey, that’s the kind of thing I used to see but had ignored all these years and so it must be beautiful, it must be true.

You become very reluctant to kill your darlings. Even when you don’t know whether they are your darlings or not. Because you want to give everything a chance.

But it’s exhausting keeping all your options open.

INTERVIEWER
What will make writing cease to be just therapy for you?

LO!
$50,000 a year.

INTERVIEWER
Yes. Here. I’ll write you a check. Just email me when you’ve run out of that one.

LO!
I haven’t had a breakthrough for a while. You could see my total metaphor fixation as that, but it’s more like an addiction, before I knew it I was doing it everyday, so it kinda doesn’t count.

INTERVIEWER
What’s a breakthrough?

LO!
It’s self-helpese for like a big bang, a volte-face of fate, something that will definitely now! change your life. After much suffering. Though when you see them on Oprah you think get over it you’re just fat it’s your own fault. But that’s the point. It’s my own fault I haven’t had a breakthrough for months.

INTERVIEWER
What do you think will happen when, if, you do get one?

LO!
It lets you go on. You think everything’s gonna be okay now. There’s a reason to go on. Like seeing land when you’ve been out at sea for months in a life boat and you’re starting to contemplate killing the other passengers and suck their marrows oh how nice compared to the raw fish you have to wait for a day to catch, and though the land turns out to contain nothing but two palm trees and poisonous bright red pebble-sized fruits and you think that’s what the forbidden fruit must’ve looked like, not at all like an apple, the expedition, the getting there, the jumping out of the boat before it reaches shore and you almost breaking your leg landing on the heel of your left foot—when you jump off anything you have to land tip-toed apparently—the whole thing nourishes you enough that you wanna go on and find more land. And wait at least a couple more days before you stab Motinggo in the back (he’s the fat one, he’s too weak he won’t resist too much).

INTERVIEWER
How long will it last, the new recharged you? You’re just fooling yourself right?

LO!
No. I circumnavigated the world after that.

You feel like you’re invincible after a breakthrough. Though in a negative way. The process up until the breakthrough is usually painful. It’s not easy to talk to dolphins. And though it makes you happy now that you can do it and that makes you feel like you can talk to anybody now you’re on top of the world of telepathic communication, your hands are shaking, your whole body is shaking, because you know, not long ago you were ready to hand your coins over to the boatman. Just so that you didn’t have to suffer any more. You didn’t want any more disappointment. No more dry island.

INTERVIEWER
And when you’ve been to hell and back you know nothing can hurt you?

LO!
There’s less mystery. The world and the afterlife contain nothing but misery.

INTERVIEWER

LO!
But I’m getting sidetracked. We were talking about writing. In writing less mystery is a good thing. If I knew exactly how Williams wrote The Red Wheelbarrow and I could use that knowledge to write about, say, the brown-grey wheelbarrows that Jakarta’s scavengers pull along the hot streets everyday, how they let the handles go up and the vespa tire attached to the bottom hit the ground, like playing see-saw with your dad, then I’d be happy. Man, Williams would’ve been happy! He could’ve written a better Paterson.

INTERVIEWER
But that sounds joyless.

LO!
Yeah, well, of course there are those says when everything’s so fucking hard and you don’t remember how you could ever think that you know anything about writing but you force yourself to finish a little poem about the neighbour’s kids playing tags and you were observing them through the windows of your living room and how evil you were thinking of jerking off looking at their flat, hard, bony chests, and you’re kicking yourself for not knowing how to describe the sort of clamminess of the kids’ hair, like it was shining from the bright sun but it was also wet and damp, and the best thing you could come up with was:

this is the place
where people blame
the sun for the smell
of sweat.

And you give up and close your laptop and jerk off in your room trying, not very hard, to think of big, pendulous, MILF breasts and fall asleep sweating and with that uncomfortable dampness on your crotch.

But then you look at those lines a couple weeks, a month later, because you have been trying to avoid them of course, and you think, hmmm, that’s not bad. It’s almost a complete poem in itself.

2004 The Paris Review Foundation, Inc. All wrongs reversed. Nothing in this publication may be reproduced without the permission of The Paris Review or the original copyright holder of the text to be reproduced.

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