Above my writing desk I had a line from Le temps retrouvé: “The beauty of images is situated in front of things, that of ideas behind them. So that the first sort of beauty ceases to astonish us as soon as we have reached the things themselves, but the second is something that we understand only when we have passed beyond them.” I’d copied the quote from the old English translation, but then later replaced it with the French (“La beauté des images est logée à l’arrière des choses, celle des idées à l’avant…”) because I realized that the direction had been reversed in translation: the beauty of images lives behind things, that of ideas in front of them. We advance upon the world at its back, and only see things face-to-face by turning as they recede from view. Plus, the cognate suggested a further possible meaning: logée, lodged: not just situated, but stuck. I wanted to believe that, by writing about my receding past, I was seeking the world itself, and that loss—the loss of my mother when I was a child—was not something to be lamented, but cherished, requisite as it was for the most thorough encounter with life’s beauty, its truth or essence, which it was now my obligation to dislodge, to free, by turning, looking back, remembering.
Unfortunately I wasn’t up to the task. As I wrote, nothing would budge. Avoidance sometimes disguises itself as obsession. Every detail struck me as crucial and fixed, and I seemed to lose my judgment. Trivial points of scene (she stood from the chair) seemed as causally important as occurrence (she died) or decision (he let her die). Images fell upon images. The precise way that moss hung from cypress trees like unbraided hair, the over-brittle texture of ramen noodles, the achy creaking of our floorboards, the mildewed hue of my bedroom window, … : all of it, without hierarchy, seemed intrinsically linked to my mother’s death, or my father’s decision. I was convinced from having passed through them all once before that some perfect logic united them, but I was too afraid shape anything in order to discover what that logic might be. I was writing a list, not a novel. Constellations reveal the cultures that trace them: location, imagination, belief, fear, hope, self-conception. I refused to impose an image of my own onto the stars, lest I myself emerge in what it saw.
At first, when I began to realize what I’d done—poured undifferentiated recollection onto a page—I wondered, in a brief moment of cheap careerist ambition, if the cumulative flatness of it all, the lack of any narrative substance, the very failure of it, might become the point. Plenty of similar books had recently sold well. But in that impulse I felt very of my generation in a way that sickened me: somehow, I’d become a spectator and mere recipient of my own life, the very life I’d ostensibly wanted, by writing, to most fully inhabit. I tried to revise, but monotony was somewhere in its DNA like an illness and couldn’t be expelled. I wanted to burn it—print, delete, reduce to ash with uncharacteristic resolve—but instead, every morning after writing, I deleted the file only to restore it from the cloud an hour later.
In all of this now, as I write, I see my mother: illness, abandonment, ash, the wish to restore from a cloud. She’s in everything I touch. I can look back on her life but not on her absence, which follows at my side and refuses to recede.
This lasted for a year until, late in the summer before my father died, just before fall classes started, I noticed a pain in my left hand. I brushed it off at first as one of the fleeting and mysterious aches that began around my thirtieth birthday. But then it wouldn’t go away, and in fact seemed to get worse every morning. Like an idiot, I tried to force it out with aggressive stretches, gripping exercises, frigid ice followed by near-scalding bowls of water. But eventually it grew so painful that not only could I not use the computer, but even getting my arm through a shirtsleeve brought me to tears. I had no choice but to visit the hospital.
After a few questions, the doctor said I had tendonitis from typing with poor posture.
“That’s not right,” I said. He asked why. “I sit up straight when I write, and I do this when I finish.” I tried to show him an aggressive forearm stretch which I only rarely did, but I winced and had to stop.
Again, he said that I had tendonitis from computer use, likely caused by poor posture.
With no emotion whatsoever, he said, “Okay, then let’s do an x-ray.”
“If you think it’s not a repetitive stress injury, it must be some other sort of injury. We should make sure you haven’t broken anything.”
“How could I have broken something?”
He sighed, and then said offhandedly, “Maybe you fell and don’t remember.”
I should confess here that although I’d quit drinking some years before, I had as of late been experimenting with moderation. The experiment was: Can I do it? The hypothesis justifying my experiment was: Yes. My better angels said no, but I drank them quiet.
It was entirely possible, in other words, that I’d fallen without remembering.
“How much would an x-ray cost?”
“We can ask our billing rep, I don’t have those figures.” He saw my face and sympathetically added, “It’s not cheap.”
“If it’s true,” I said, “that I’ve broken something, and I decide to not get an x-ray and just tough it out, what’s the worst that could happen?”
“I don’t do hypotheticals.”
This I admired.
“Do you want the x-ray?” he asked.
In the end the x-ray showed that I’d broken nothing, so I was diagnosed with tendonitis from typing with poor posture. He prescribed ibuprofen, which was cheaper to buy over the counter anyway. The whole ordeal, once I received the bill a week later, cost around three months’ rent. I wondered if on top of it I should buy a dictation software, but to pay the hospital I had to take an extra job, which graciously robbed me of my time, so that I was able to simply abandon my novel without ever having to feel that I’d made a decision one way or the other.
Keenan Walsh is a writer, translator, and educator in New York City. He is a graduate of Bennington College and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he was a President’s Fellow, and is currently a psychoanalytic candidate at the National Psychological Association for Psychoanalysis. His work has appeared in American Short Fiction, 91st Meridian, Brazenhead Review, and elsewhere.