Embracing Your Tinfoil Hat: On the Levels of Reality in ‘Edwin Mulhouse’
By Dan Bjork
It feels good to be back in fiction. Writing about poetry proved to be both easier and harder than I’d expected: it was much easier to find something to say, and then much harder to say it with any clarity. And last week’s non-fiction post was solely inspired by the voice in my head of that guy in every fiction workshop constantly asking ‘If L-Ron is so charismatic, then why do we never see it?
But, as I said last week, if no one is sharing such stories, they cannot be put on the page. But in fiction, not putting it on the page is solely the author’s choice. Everything is a choice, everything is put there with some purpose (even if the author isn’t doing so consciously). Fiction writers are all conjurors, or slight-of-hand artists, or the people controlling the shadows in Plato’s cave — except in our case, we desperately want the succession of shadows to fuse into an experience of the whole that is so very much bigger than the sum of its parts. And if the reader wants, he/she can mine each scene like the last scene of The Sopranos (everything was put there for a reason). Now, I’m not sure about you all, but this is the only way literature was taught to me straight through undergraduate. “The Road Not Taken.” “The Noiseless Patient Spider.” The billboard of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg is the eyes of god. The children in To the Lighthouse want the moose-head (or deer-head, maybe?) taken down off the wall, but instead it is covered with a sheet, because death can be ignored but never eliminated. Ectera. Mysteries are everywhere — which at some point in my education mutated to something meaning that as readers we should always be looking for what the author is really trying to say. To the point that I still pretty much read fiction with a tinfoil hat in my lap, ready to be adorned: I know there’s subtext out there, just waiting for me to unearth it. But, more importantly, I think my entry last week would’ve been much more interesting — I’m gearing up for this conversation as we speak — if it considered Going Clear as a successful work of fiction in spite of never showing L-Ron as worthy of all those followers. Having an extremely abstract talk about how that could work. And a huge chunk of this is simply me assuming the role I found in my MFA, opposite that guy from fiction workshop, saying something like “Cool. It would most definitely read differently if we had some moments of L-Ron showing his charisma. But could we maybe assume our author is thoughtful and intelligent and that not showing these is a choice and maybe even take five minutes to discuss how what we were given could work?”
To be sure, this is yet another case of my rampant university idealism (I’ve seen it pop up in every one of these so far), because it’s a purely academic question. It is given such a thin sliver of space in the our real world, among agents and editors and advertising departments, among people trying to secure a reliable source health insurance while also creating something (because the two are almost mutually exclusive). Meaning, who has time for such shit when an easy answer is already right there (i.e. just give L-Ron some song and dance and let’s all move forward). And real talk, with my work — hell with these entries — I want nothing more than some simple prescriptive advice at this point. I drink it up. Because, the real (world) question always applies: Is it worth it? Because if you as the author are going to kill yourself not showing L-Ron the charmer, and thus ask your readers to stretch their verisimilitude and immersion, there better be a specific and substantial pay-off. Specific enough that is can be expressed in a pretty simple fashion.
I’m bringing this all up now because I think I lose the argument about Edwin Mulhouse. In workshop, in the bar, in this blog (maybe) — I doubt my ability to justify Steven Milhauser’s decisions clearly; with a level of clarity that can be convincing. Plus, I think when this book is broken down into bulletpoints, the other side’s argument is far too strong. This is cute and clever and asking to be eviscerated by that guy from workshop. But I also think this book works — and works really well; that there’s a serious virtuoso behind the logic of this — if only given some space to operate.
The book opens with a pretty standard Quixotic frame: Hi, I’m just a simple guy from outside the story, reporting on how I found this book you are about to read. And in this case, the simple guy happened to find a copy of the “biography” we are about to read at the very same bookstore where I bought my copy of the Don Quixote (hooray for solipsism). Which makes perfect sense: by reading no more than the title we know we will be reading the fictitious biography of an American writer — named Edwin Mullhouse — who lived for only 11 years. We know the name of the biographer is Jeffery Cartwright, and that this whole package is a novel written by Steven Millhauser. Which then opens with this introductory note, “written” by Walter Logan White.
I first met Jeffrey Cartwright in the sixth grade. I can barely remember him. He was the sort of vague industrious boy who gets A in everything and excels at nothing. He was the sort of boy who wears eyeglasses and sits in the front row. He knew all of the countries of Central America and their capitals; he liked to draw maps of South America showing the major products of each country.
Now, during my first read of this, I instantly saw Jorge Luis Borges as well as Miguel de Cervantes. “Funes the Memorious” to be specific, which is a short story about a writer giving the biography of a man he knew briefly; a man whose memory was so precise that he could spend whole evenings “visualizing every crevasse and every molding in the sharply defined houses surrounding him.” And who of the last 100 years uses a Quixote frame better than Borges. The logic of it all was hardening inside me; my tinfoil hat in my hands, so to speak. Now, Borges is an obsession of mine, especially “Funes,” in whom I found one of the few instances of human empathy in a Borges character. And because flipping a Quixotic frame with an allusion to Borges is so fucking in my wheelhouse (or rather, would be a joy to mine the logic of with you all) and because I need to find something vaguely interesting to write about these books (which I hopefully find early enough not to kill the rest of my writing for the week), I looked this up, pretty much immediately, in the vague hope that I’d find what I was going to write on the very first page and then could simple enjoy the rest of the book. But this is how “Funes” opens:
I remember him (I have no right to utter this sacred verb, only one man on earth had that right and he is dead) with a dark passion flower in his hand, seeing it as no one has ever seen it, though he might look at it from the twilight of dawn till that of evening, a whole lifetime. I remember him, with his face taciturn and Indian-like and singularly remote, behind a cigarette. I remember (I think) his angular, leather-braiding hands. I remember near those hands a mate gourd bearing an Uruguayan coat of arms; I remember a yellow screen with a vague lake landscape in the window of his house. I clearly remember his voice: the slow, resentful, nasal voice of the old-time dweller of the suburbs, without the Italian sibilants we have today.
— Borges, “Funes the Memorious,” James E. Irby’s translation
It’s not really there. There’s just enough for me, in full-blown tinfoil-hat mode, to see it. But there’s nothing there in consensus reality; surely nothing that an author can expect from a readership. So I moved on, begrudgingly.
And then, a few chapters later, we are given this curious movement.
I first met Edwin on August 9th, 1943. At the time I was exactly 6 months and 3 days old…I thus intrude my personal history into these pages. With the stated object in mind I may add that we lived next door to the Mulhouses on Benjamin Street (we were 293, they were 295), that mama had been waiting all the sunning morning for Mrs. Mulhouse to return from the hospital, and that many people have remarked upon my extraordinary, my truly inspired memory.
As I bumped along the sidewalk under the dark blue shadow of my carriage top, I wiggled my toes delightedly in a warm band of light. The shadows of passing trees rippled over my sunlit legs, and in one corner of the carriage a delicate silky spiderweb sparkled like a jeweled maze. Over the rim of the carriage saw dark spars of a telephone pole sailing in the bright blue sky. I also recall a little white cloud, very like a rubber whale I played with in the bathtub.
This pristine, “Funes”-level of detail given in a memory from a six-month-old continues for several more pages. But as, immersion-breaking as it is, there’s still not enough there. I still couldn’t get the tendrils between these two works past a thesis committee, or even my 10th grade English teacher. And, at this point, the solipsist in me felt the book was actively fucking with me; a sprite in my closet that only makes noise when the lights are out. But while I don’t think “Funes” is actually there (not in consensus reality in any confirmable way, even though hot-damn is it there for me in my read), I do think the book is actively encouraging this sort of process while reading. The sort of reader trained the way I was. Mysteries are everywhere. Subtext. Or really, artifice, craft, the overt work of a writer. And here’s just a small example why I believe this, from a few chapters later.
Thus, extracting from the mahogany bookcase a fat volume which he said was written in Hebrew, he would open to the first page and begin reading very slowly in a voice as solemn and deep as possible:
Tiurf eht dna ecneidebosid tsrif nam fo.
Etsat latrom esohw eert neddibrof taht fo.
losing control at “neddibrof,” gaining it at “taht fo,” and sputtering into helpless laughter at “eow,” which he pronounced in imitation of a rocket in a war movie: eeeeeeeowwwww.
Which if you read it right to left (Hebrew) says “Woe of that forbidden fruit tree whose mortal taste of mans first disobedience and the fruit.” Now, there’s no substance there. And what I mean by that is there is no piece of insight, no clue, that would then split your readership into two separate experiences — i.e. the experience of the readers who caught this clue and read the line backwards vs. those who didn’t (which I believe is the right decision, by the way, it’s hard enough guiding the expectations of one group of potential readers) — the only thing to be gleaned from this (that I can see) is a clear indication that the book is indeed fucking with you. Or, in the very least, interested in the same sort of play that it explicitly says Edwin Mulhouse is interested in. (Who is not our biographer, or the “writer” of what we are reading, but rather the subject of the biography. Even though it’s his name that conjures the name of our author, Steven Millhauser. See how this all swirls?)
In the end, it’s little more than an imperative: look at the artifice; there’s a guiding hand at work here at all times. And these little instances pop up all over Part One.
So the question is why? Why put in all this (extra) work — why expose yourself to the sharpened cutlery waiting for writing that’s cute and clever? To deliver the ending — I think — to deliver the only possible ending it feels like this book could have. (Which I’m about to completely ruin, by the way, just in case you’re not up for such a thing.)
So, the biography we are reading is split into three parts. Jeffery, our biographer, tells his subject, Edwin, he is planning on writing this biography at the very end of Part One. It’s our Khaleesi walks out of the fire with her baby dragons moment, if you will. And, just as there, the whole trajectory of their fictional world bends around this; this simple fact then reroutes everything that follows. Including their relationship — our consensus reality book, in all of its artificial glory, follows the note from Walter Logan White with the epigraph “Whew, the biographer is the devil!” which is attributed to an “E.M.” And the conversation of how the biography should end is soon walking hand-in-hand with how Edwin’s life should end, until it’s decided he should take his own life on his 11th birthday. Exactly. A handgun is acquired. The solace of being able to feel one’s life having a definitive beginning, middle, and end is discussed. The night itself — a sleep-over between just the two of them — is extremely slow-played, and when the moment finally comes, Edwin simply leans back in his bed and laughs. It was all play to him. Which is when Jeffery takes the handgun and ends the biography for Edwin.
But our book doesn’t end there. Nor does Jeffery’s biography. After a few hours with the police, Jeffery heads home with a rush, a rush so severe he cannot sleep. He needs to begin his biographer right then and there. So now that fishy section I quoted earlier — when Jeffery says he remembers all of those vivid details from the day Edwin was born, when he was only six months old yet somehow had these crystallized memories of the shadows of passing trees and wiggling his toes in a warm band of light and a silky spiderweb in the corner of his baby carriage — can be read as an 11-year-old walking himself through just killing his friend. Killing his friend because the biography Jeffery was planning on writing needed to end with Edwin’s death; who is now struck with the sudden realization that the beginning he had been planning was nowhere near as concrete as it felt when it wasn’t tied to a succession of paragraphs. Meaning, when the biography was simply something he was planning on writing at some point in the future, the beginning was never an issue. He’d known Edwin his whole life. It was never an issue until he sat down to write it.
Now, none of this is in the book. I’m bringing it all to the white space, just as I did with the Borges quote earlier. (And for the same fishy paragraph where a six-month-old retains memory better than any adult I’ve ever met because in a book like this — which is pushing the tinfoil hat into my hands at every turn — I just can’t accept Jeffery remembering that much from a single day at that age as a single entendre Truth to be accepted.) But, in this case, I feel like there’s enough meat there for me to not be in full-blown tinfoil-hat mode. That this is a fully acceptable read of the book. We’ve just been show how far Jeffery will go for the sake of his biography: the biography must go on, at all costs. And placing the act of writing the beginning of the biography in the very text of the biography, hours after the murder, gave me a confidence in this jump. The beginning is just as essential as the end, and anyway, Edwin aspired to the condition of fiction, so here’s an insanely vivid day Jeffery “remembers” from when he was six -months-old and Edwin was a newborn. Or rather, here is Jeffery writing very much what it would be like to be pushed down the street of his childhood in a stroller (I’m sure the details are all accurate), with the line of exactly which of these details he remembered from this specific day when he was six months old being blurred, at best. The book must go on. All of them. And this is just one of a dozen delicious takes that spring from the razor’s-edge execution that Milhauser is flipping here.
Most of all, this entire frame, and the combination of its moving parts, allows me to write the simple sentence, “He killed Edwin because it was how his book needed to end.” Allowing the ambiguousness of the “he” and “his,” which can be taken to refer to either Jeffery or Milhauser, in any combination, or even both at the same time. Both our “authors” are making explicit decisions. The biography must go on. The novel must go on. And damn, our title character’s suicide note said he aspired to the condition of fiction. The process of reading this all through two characters as they discussed how it would be eventually written allowed me to (shockingly) digest all that has occurred in a way that felt completely flipped: one 11-year-old boy just killed another, after failing to inspire his suicide, without any of this being grotesque or exploitative or anything more than how the story needed to end. It was a story and this is how it had been decided it would end: how everyone involved, even the characters, had decided it needed to end.
But that guy from fiction workshop is right: all of this taken as bullet-points is far too clever or cute or whatever seemingly positive word he wants to sling pejoratively. But it’s not presented as bullet-points. It’s presented as narrative, in scene. And I think it’s only “cute” if you can read a couple thousand words about two 11- year-old boys in a bedroom counting down the minutes before one will commit suicide without being affected — no, if you can spend the whole book with them — a book that actively admits one is writing the biography of another, that this is our narrator’s single aim, his admitted prime motivator — without submitting to the spell being cast. Which, I did. Which I did, all the while feeling like this book was nudging me to embrace my tinfoil hat and aspire to the condition of fiction.