Novelty Like No Other
3/ 14/ 14
Here are the first six paragraphs of a novel I started in December of 2009 and finished in January of 2011, inasmuch as I ever feel done with a piece of prose fiction. It is called “The Gist of Elijah” and I think this excerpt belongs here in my journal. But to belong is a feeling, to have belonged is a hope. This might as well belong here.
He feels like he’s suffocating in the thickest, sweatiest humidity of his life. The words from the left page are oozing into the crease of the book’s spine, and the word’s from the right page are dripping over the edge onto the floor. He wants very badly to finish reading. The absurd words, leaking and smudging, are fighting his small will, and he knows it’s a waste of what remains in him to fight. He will never finish. Three times he has tried. Three times he has been distracted. So much time recently and so close to the end.
He keeps his place by draping the book across his chest. His chest is still rising, if slightly. Half of the ceiling is lit by long fluorescent bulbs. One is flickering. He thinks the trouble is with him. He blinks. It flickers. It does not occur to him that the trouble may not be with him. Because the trouble is always with him these days. Nothing rings but his ears. Nothing reverberates but his laboring heart. He looks to the unlit half of the ceiling and curses his eyes with a small sibilant sigh. It exhausts him to sigh.
He wants to sleep. A television is on in another room. The theme song is just familiar enough to drive him crazy trying to place it. He can’t so he imagines his own favorite song playing in his head. After a few measures, the song turns to water and babbles as a brook to something larger than itself. Two grey clouds settle over each eye. He thinks of rain, of his row of mint, of a rack of lamb, of Christ the Shepherd, of Psalm 23, of still waters, of rain, of grey clouds. He lets the shadows lull him to sleep.
That was how Elijah Stenson died, according to Elijah Stenson. The doctors said he had been dead for three minutes before he bolted upright and yelled, “Leave my liver be!”
Stenson died for good seven months after he died for three minutes. In the interim, he hired Justin Latterly to write his biography. Within five minutes of meeting him, the old man had told Justin about the false-alarm demise. And that was all for the day. He sent the young man home.
“Write that up and come back Friday,” Stenson said. “If I croak before we finish this thing, that’s how it ends.”
He croaked before they finished.
This is an excerpt from a query letter in which I have just left off groveling to a prospective publisher and have now moved-on to the synopsis portion—in many ways, harder than writing the novel itself. For context in this entry, in the novel and possible insight into the rest of however much of the rest of my memoir. It certainly belongs here.
An old man dies and lives to tell about it. Unfortunately for Elijah Stenson, he is hounded by a past that he is reluctant to reveal. Desperate for a friend, Stenson hires Justin Latterly to help him tell his story. Justin is a disillusioned grad student and night-shift grill cook who’s own pile of problems is mounting daily. In an attempt to escape this reality, Justin accepts the ghostwriting job with high hopes—too high, as it turns out.
The narrative follows a multi-corded braid of interactions with a variety of characters—each with their own crisis to ply. A girlfriend’s betrayal, a sister’s tragedy, a mother’s illness, and a strange woman’s incessant vagaries each threaten to topple Justin into an ever-near despair. Meanwhile, the writing project is going nowhere. Over the course of six months, the old man’s reticence and penchant for distraction has Justin on the verge of madness.
The story resolves when, for the second time in his life, Elijah Stenson dies. Although Justin never finishes Elijah’s story, he discovers that it’s in the gist of the story that the moral is learned.
And this here.
I will croak before I finish this thing. A virtual no-brainer by virtue of this thing’s nature—a chronicle of dying until I die or become unable to keep chronicling. So, unlike Elijah Stenson, I won’t really have the luxury of an ambush, unless from a bed frame’s corner or an orb-spider’s web, that is.
I have been feeling pretty crummy lately. Beyond the steady gripes. And I’ve been frequently
returning to old Elijah’s deathbed—the one he gets up from. There is not much to say about the one that pins him down for the count. There rarely is about those kind. And herein flit my thoughts.
Drawing from the experience of near-death at the Bluffs in Arkansas, I have had a sense of what this (Elijah’s) drawn-out version might entail—different circumstances yet probably approximate sensations, frantic streams of consciousnesses. Moreover, I’ve had a fascination with the scenario; but I’m not interested in resurrection and arising with a tale to tell. I'm lying back and telling mine now.
Fascination? A haunting, recurring, daydream, now vivid now vague. At the risk sounding more macabre than intended, I’m curious about the vaporous zone between slipping-in and slipping-out. What wild ideas without conscious pinpoint, what unprecedented rows of mint, what words I would use to describe them but pass with me into which element—my first guess is carbon but I suppose hydrogen has dibs. To me, it’s the outer limits of my cherished imagination either drawing its most ignominious blank or conjuring its most sublime vision.