A Half-Hearted Attempt to Exhaust a Place in Orangeville, Ontario

(Thursday, June 20th, 2013)


I’m sitting in front of a café in the small town of Orangeville, Ontario, and I’ve decided to document everything I see. A young woman walks back and forth, in riding pants. A shy teenager enters the coffee shop, and leaves again. I need to make it clear, right now, once and for all: I am not Georges Perec, and I don’t know how committed I am to this form.

Georges Perec, after a few days of sitting in front of a café in Paris, cataloguing what normally wouldn’t make it into literature, “lost all interest in buses.” Other things too, I assume. I was reminded of Georges Perec’s enterprise while reading an article by Mark Kingwell. Once, I hated Mark Kingwell. Hated him more than any man on earth. Hate is an audacious enterprise. Now I feel indifferent to Mark Kingwell—at best, mildly curious.

Another teen sits on the terrace of the next-door cafe, “Pia’s”, and reads. Or, at least, I think she’s a teenager. Indeterminate. Silver hair, a dress shirt, nice pants, fine shoes: at the table next to her, a businessman, a country businessman, is having his lunch. The teenager is reading from an electronic device, an e-reader, or just looking at her phone. The businessman is eating his lunch: casually, he does nothing of interest. Beside me, a middle-aged woman has finished eating, and now she’s sitting perfectly still, with her arms crossed in front of her stomach. The café we’re sitting in front of is called “Mochaberry’s”. Now the woman has unwrapped part of a cookie: she broke off a tiny morsel, which she has been chewing thoughtfully. Thoughtfully, or artfully? One gets the impression that she’s merely chewing slowly, so as to artificially prolong her lunch and fill in her time.

A chalkboard for an art gallery two shops down advertises the names of two local artists: “Sapria Karmaker”, “Tarya Zarski”. Cars are parked on both sides of the street. Where the median would normally be, in the middle of the road, there’s a garden, with flowers and running water, as well as trees and benches. It is, I think, dedicated to Orange Lawrence, the founder of the town. I’m on the north side of the street, Broadway. On the south side of Broadway they’re building something. I can’t remember what used to be there. A gravestone supplier? [Note: no, that business is further west, up the road.] Impulse from working, only a month so far, at the museum and local archives for this region: whatever was there should be preserved, in formaldehyde, for easy reference. Tyranny of the past or tyranny of thinking about the past. The weight of the past would kill us, if we let it.*  

Two steel columns rise up from the building site. Initial frame. Perec didn’t have an Android-capable phone. I am waiting for a website to load so that I can comment there. Last night I recieved a flurry of messages: promises, apologies. Words have no meaning except in their correspondence to real objects. Or so says Jack Spicer via Ezra Pound. That’s not entirely true, abstract concepts with no correspondence to real objects definitely exist, in some sense. Rather, it is a theory of poetry. I’d like to think Jack Spicer wanted to emphasize the relationships of words to concrete objects because he didn’t want to deal with false promises, I don’t know why it seems to me like that was something he had a lot of experience with. His poetry, maybe, and his author’s portrait—he looks disappointed. In any case, Spicer says that writing poetry was easier when he was in love. He wasn’t a better poet then, he says, but he was less frustrated because he always had someone to share his poetry with.

It seems that I’ve entirely abandoned the conceit of objectively recording the street life here (if I ever fully embraced it). If I had a steady job, with breaks in the summer, I’d own a second home in the downtown of a small town, or in the city, or in the south of France. Anywhere, really. A separate place of residence, a commitment to the defamiliarization that comes from shifting perspective. Though I live far from Orangeville’s limits, it is almost as if I’m living here now, because I have spent so much time sitting here, in this café generally, and right now, on the patio. Inhabitance is a practice. Or maybe nothing can really be inhabited, maybe habitation is too transient a concept to be considered “real”. It would not meet Spicer’s theory of concrete words, would it? (If I have at all remembered Spicer’s words correctly, Spicer’s words and his theory, which may have changed over the course of his life because he was a dynamic poet.)

The largest proof of my existence here is my presence. When I am gone, I will leave no trace. And in a few months, the baristas will have changed, and no one will remember I was ever here, if they remember even now. A man with one-and-a-half arms expertly delivers two dishes outside at “Pia’s”, balancing one of the dishes on his stub. I think I may have attended his high school, or elementary school. My dog—I haven’t mentioned her—are you surprised?—barks at him. I don’t know why, it’s the first time she has barked. He’s inside again before she even makes the sound.

[*Interestingly, the gravestone supplier is the site of the longest continuously-operating business in Orangeville. It produced monuments under the same name for well over 100 years, until 1996, when it was dissolved, only to be replaced by a similar business. “I’m pretty sure.”]


Letter to a Benefactor

My spine is curved like an elephant’s trunk
And filled with an abundant fluid that reeks
Of sickness, and thrice daily the priests
Bathe it first in saltwater, then rosemary and lavender.
The penitents are the first to receive the blessing
By gazing at my crippled spine through the parted
Curtains. I think: I’m alive, I’m alive, I’m alive.
But I worry one day my spine will mend
And I will lose the penitents, the sick, the poor,
The priests. But I know, in my heart, it will never happen.
Is it truly a blessing from God? Or is it a curse?
I know when the sun crosses over a tile,
Chipped in one corner, that the first bath is over,
I know the mumbled syllables of the litany
Intoned by the priests and their followers, I know
The particular fragrance of the oils, and the sound
Of my moaning. But more than this I cannot say
With authority. I am not equipped. When the sun
Completes its circuit, and the new moon rises
In its place, my cell is plunged in darkness more profound
Than any other, and my form is lost, I worry.
To be reassembled into w
hat? This worry keeps me
Since it is not possible to be more abhorred.



Letter to a Male


You will like it if you’re male
If you’re a male, you will like it.
Within there are several rooms
The blood of the innocent will pummel
Your slicker, and their moans of pain
And pleasure coddle your ears.
If you’re a male you must not be accustomed
To feeling. You will love this excellent glossary
Of demeaning terms, and the accompanying
Music. Here, take this spear, put it
In your hands, feel the shaft. Strong, no?
Now, run me through—but gently, gently.
See? Didn’t I tell you? Didn’t I?




Letter from the End of the World 2


In the streets we debate
The value of butter, cheese,
This morning I entered the caves
Terrible echoes
Rang out through the rock
A dog accompanied me
To a distant chamber
That night, I hoped
I would be able to sleep
But my dreams were haunted—
That great emptiness
Greeting us each as if it were
A hungry mouth


Nothing I’ve written today is the least bit inspired. I’m trying to delineate or describe some feeling I have. But my attempts don’t even make it to the page. 

This is a record of that feeling, a record of the attempt made to describe it, but not the feeling itself. 

It’s true, of course, that there is an impossible distance between reality and the abstract, that the two will never meet. So in one sense I could never truly replicate the experience or the feeling. But if reality can’t be copied it can at least be traced. An inference can then be made. Then follows empathy, or at least understanding.  

I used to be satisfied taking the path I’ve taken today—the lateral path. Providing not a description—not an object—but a record. I don’t know if that satisfies me anymore.


First Tape

(Soothing tones.) A good way to not make friends is to never make demands of them. A good way to ensure that people don’t think of you is to pretend like you were never there. A good way to discontinue a conversation is to add nothing of value to the conversation. A good way to show someone you disrespect their opinion is to cut them off while they are just beginning to formulate their ideas. Hello. Do you have trouble making friends? Then you have come to the right place. This is the first tape in a four tape series about finding interpersonal success, entitled “Being the Best You, Always: Friendships”. By following my method you can improve your love life, your career, your personal happiness. There is no limit to the ways your life can improve. Your family will notice, your friends will notice, your boss will notice. And all you have to do to get this result is follow my “Four Steps to Success in Friendships”. Sounds easy, right? Well, it is easy, and that’s what makes my system so successful. In fact, I don’t even need four tapes to outline my process, since I can read the steps out in about thirty seconds. I’ll show you. 1) Do not do any of the things I mentioned in the intro. That should be obvious, but if you want you can go back and rewind the tape to make sure you don’t miss anything. I’ll wait. 2) Relax your body and your mind. Maybe you’re not getting enough exercise and you need to exhaust that anxiety building up. Try running, or tennis. Perhaps do yoga? Above all, do not relax to the point of incontinence. 3) Go somewhere where people are and make an effort. If you’re sitting at home every night, crying into a pint of Hagen-Daas while you screen a marathon of Two and a Half Men (a show you don’t even like), you will not make friends. This is so obvious, I shouldn’t even be saying it. 4) Do not buy any more self-help products because if you spend too much time on self-improvement you will have no time for others. And then you will end up hanging yourself from the rafters like our mutual friend David Foster Wallace, who reportedly spent a lot of time and money on self-help books. And that’s it. You can turn the tape off now. I’m serious. Turn it off or rewind it to the beginning, we’re done. You can also pull out the booklet and follow along, if you haven’t already. Anyway, I wasn’t lying before. I’m basically ranting through the rest of these tapes. You think I’m kidding? Well, you’re wrong. Earlier, I referred to David Foster Wallace as our “mutual friend”, but I didn’t actually know Wallace, and I assume you didn’t either, although yes, I felt close to him, like anyone might feel close to an author they have read closely. You might not even know who he is, but I’ll continue as if you did, since I’m mostly ranting to myself here. I understand that he was troubled, but I often wonder if he killed himself because he forgot his debt to society. I think Aristotle would agree with me on this one. No, I haven’t read The Nicomachean Ethics, but I’d like to, and I think that’s where Aristotle would have made it clear that DFW reneged on his debt. I’m not a poser: I’ve expressed a sincere desire to read The Nicomachean Ethics in the past. Not, perhaps, on tape, but that doesn’t matter because I don’t need to prove it to you. Why is this on my mind? I can’t forget Jonathan Franzen’s New Yorker essay about going to the island where Alexander Selkirk washed up (or another island near the island). No, I don’t like Franzen normally but in this article he talked about his friendship with Wallace and it was kind of honest and emotional, unlike the self-righteous commercial paff he usually churns out. I haven’t read any of his fiction, just his non-fiction. I know I’m confused in referring to the essay as “honest”, that authors aren’t necessarily “honest”, that maybe they are the opposite of “honest”, but they do say what’s true, don’t they? Isn’t that enough? For an author to be worth anything they have to say what’s true. Or what seems true. Or what is obviously untrue. There are probably some exceptions. I think Sheila Heti said that when she was finished the first draft of The Middle Stories she went over it again to take out everything that wasn’t true. I relate to that. That’s what I did with these tapes, which is why when I signed the contract with the studio and the distributor, it was for four tapes even though I eventually realized I would just need one, and not even an entire one. So, anyway, yes, obviously my relationship with writers is necessarily complicated by the idea that they don’t have to, or simply don’t, always relate things honestly. I don’t care, as long as what they’re writing seems “true”. Where was I? Right, Franzen’s essay. About the only thing I can remember from the essay, except some vague descriptions of tropical scenery, is something Franzen said about Wallace. Specifically, he said he could only think about him as if he were two people: his friend, who was sincerely interested in literature, in people, and in writing to become “unlonely”, and the asshole who decided to kill himself and in the process made himself into a literary saint. This is a valuable insight and it makes me wonder if I’d like Franzen’s fiction, even if most people say it’s bloated and doesn’t pay much attention to language, both of which are important to me. Franzen said it was the same for his wife: she loved the man she remembered as her husband but hated the one who committed suicide and maybe gained from committing suicide. And put her in the spotlight by committing suicide. How fucked up would it be to suddenly become “DFW’s widow”? Have you ever considered that? You know, excuse my ignorance, but I didn’t know who Wallace was until he killed himself. I might have heard of his books, but I didn’t spend any time seriously thinking about him until after he died. So they’re not wrong in that sense—his “legacy” gained through Wallace’s death, even if he robbed the world (and most importantly his friends and family) of his presence and future actions. I know that Wallace’s is not the first literary suicide and it probably won’t be the last, but it’s probably impossible not to think of his suicide as selfish because our culture is so commercial. His death resonated in a way that it couldn’t have fifty or one hundred years ago—I mean, resonated, like soundwaves in an echo chamber. Not that he materially gained, because he didn’t, he couldn’t, but something connected to him gained, gained a lot. Some writers slip into obscurity, Wallace slipped onto the best sellers list. In addition, he didn’t kill himself for any particular reason, or not for a particular reason I know of, and his suicide seems actively opposed to everything he stood for in his fiction, so you can’t even really excuse it based on principles or on mental illness. It seems lame for him to have given up so easily after all of that work and so in some sense it even undermines his fiction. Maybe time smoothes over everything but it’s not like Gogol starving himself to death, because Gogol seemed to do it vaguely out of principle or in service of some higher ideal. At least, that’s what I remember, I could be wrong. I’ll talk about this more in the future, maybe in the next session. These tapes aren’t even very long—in order to save on costs, and to make them easier to rewind, I chose the smallest amount of recording material per cassette. And they tell me in the studio that material is coming to an end. If you’d like to continue hearing me rant, follow me to the next tape. Otherwise, once this tape is done, flip the tape over (it’s the same on both sides) and concentrate on my four steps to success. Remember: they’re not hard, and they will help you in every avenue of your life. That’s a guarantee. Not an actual guarantee, because my contract doesn’t allow that, but really—this isn’t rocket science. Even the most degenerate people have friends. Even Hitler had friends, believe it or not. Even the Unabomber had friends, despite his singular name. At least in prison he had friends. You just have to get out there and meet people until you find someone who sticks. It’s like proteins and enzymes. Don’t waste your time with an enzyme that doesn’t work, move on to the next one. Or if you imagine yourself as the enzyme, don’t waste your time with proteins that don’t fit. Whatever. The important thing to remember is that making friends is older than human history. Even monkeys do it. You can look it up: even monkeys make friends. At least, I think I heard that somewhere. Anyway, don’t worry so much. Just get to it. That’s all. Thanks for listening. I’ll see you on the next tape. Or maybe not. It’s your life. Do whatever you want. I mean that. (Soothing tones, tape clicks.)


Q: “Describe yourself in your own words.” A: “I’m a writer, not a great one.” Q: “Do you have self-loathing?” A: *looks at Q in disbelief* (Silence.) Q: “Well, do you?” A: “Can I borrow a cigarette?” Q: “I don’t smoke.” A: “How about change for the subway? I’m going to miss an appointment. Sorry for cutting this interview short.” (Silence) Q: “Ok, here.” A: “Thanks. Sincerely.” Q: “Are you going to answer my question, now?” A: *looks at Q in disbelief* Q: “Well?” A: “I’m sorry, I have to go.”

The cold air was refreshing, A thought. There was a certain clarity to his thinking, he discovered, out in the cold with the sun shining so brightly. In the bar, Q was flipping through his notes. He ordered another sidecar. He heard a metallic clicking and realized he had yet to switch off the tape recorder. The waitress brought him his drink. He raised it to his lips, but set it down again before he took a sip. He turned the tape recorder off, and gestured to the wait-staff to bring him a menu. A ray of sunlight was just beginning to cross the surface of his table.