The Gap Between Good and Evil

Jack looked around the dark, tight space. He looked up and loose dirt sprinkled into his eyes. He was utterly, utterly alone. “Oh no,“ Jack said. “This won’t do at all.“

And, without even trying to, Jack made the world.

—Kelly Barnhill, The Mostly True Story of Jack

...she threw away every assumption she had learned and began at zero.

First off, she cut her hair. That was one thing she didn't have to think about anymore. Then she tackled the problem of trying to decide how she wanted to live and what was valuable to her. When am I happy and when am I sad and what is the difference? What do I need to know to stay alive? What is true in the world? Her mind traveled crooked streets and aimless goat paths, arriving sometimes at profundity, other times at the revelations of a three-year-old. Throughout this fresh, if common, pursuit of knowledge, one conviction crowned her efforts: since death held no terrors for her (she spoke often to the dead), she knew there was nothing to fear. That plus her alien's compassion for troubled people ripened her and—the consequence of the knowledge she had made up or acquired—kept her just barely within the boundaries of the elaborately socialized world of black people.

—Toni Morrison, Song of Solomon

The Case of Amos Avery Blodget

The doctor lowered his hand. "Oh, Mr. Blodget, you know very well what happens. What happens when God becomes man, through Christ, is that He is crucified. He is crucified on Golgotha. And He is crucified here as we speak—in you, in me, in Matthew, and in this tree."

"But I'm afraid I don't see that, doctor."

Dr. Uyterhoeven nodded. "Well, I'll grant it may not be as obvious a notion, or as popular, but I promise you, if you look directly, you will see—" He leaned forward on his elbow and held up his hand between them, as if to display it. "In order that we may live, that we may have this experience, the Infinite has clearly taken a very finite, very limited form, a form which places such a tight yoke on its infinitude that it apparently must expend its captive energy by scrolling it out, so to speak, through time." The doctor closed his hand. "Or we may choose to look at it the other way: that Eternity has entered the moment—it has done this for our sake—but that the moment places such constraint upon Eternity that it likewise must expend its captive energy by spilling off this vast expanse of space."

The doctor smiled. "Either way, the same obtains for everything you'll ever know of this life, Mr. Blodget, everything you can touch and taste and smell—everything you can confirm—casts an otherwise infinite and eternal being, God, into a very limited, very fleeting and fatal existence. But such is man, alas. Such is our lot. Such is your lot, Mr. Blodget, that you should only ever seem to be where these vast planes of time and space intersect, here and now. That intersection would seem to comprise your existence, I know. It would seem to sustain you and distinguish you, but it also literally crucifies what is divine in you. Understand that much: man crucifies his Lord. He cannot help it. It is his nature, for man is his Lord crucified, as is this day, as is the whole of this domain—an infinite and eternal being, wrested into a finite, momentary world and pinned there, to live and die, over and over again.

—Brooks Hansen, The Chess Garden

The Former King

John had told Azharan many times that when the light revealed itself, it was not like a lantern on a prow. It was more like the swallow’s song: To hear it upon waking was to wonder how long the swallow had been singing, and to realize that everything that had come before—all the faces and the words and the fears and yearning—had been nothing but a dream.

— Brooks Hansen, John the Baptizer

The Staunton Pawn and the Vandal Girl

“I’m sorry,” she said.

“No,” he said. “Don’t be. But I have to go.” She was before me, looking up. “This is not what I came for.” He touched her cheek. “I have felt you already, much better that this—just as you feel and think, just as you are. But these hands—this is not how I am. And that”—the Staunton stood vacant in the corner like a bedpost, stiff and limbless—“that only holds my place. All of this is temporary. This is flesh and wood, and it’s not why I’ve come, to drink or smoke your pipe. I am only here to tell you, tell you so you can hear it with your ears—“ Her eyes were brown on green. “What the old man said was true. From the moment you appeared, I have been in love with you, and I grow more so every time you return.”

She pressed my palm against her cheek, and I could feel her tears.

“Here.” He opened my hand, and rolled the thread from my finger. “If strings are for remembering, then I want you to wear this.” He hooked the thread over her ring finger, which was so small he had to loop it twice. “So that you will always be reminded, when all these things are ash and dust, you and I shall be together.”

He tried to pull my hand from hers, but she held to it fast. “Please don’t go.”

He stroked her hair. “But I am not going anywhere,” he whispered. “I will be here.” Her forehead was warm. “And I will be here.” Her heart was beating.

—Brooks Hansen, The Chess Garden

Crack my heart open when I die, and you will find a map of The Antipodes and something from Eugene’s rook there.

On the Nature of Angels

Of course we dance on pins and level cities. We deliver up the Jews from Pharoah, unto Buchenwald. We flutter tender in the first kiss, flap in agony above the last row in a draughty kitchen. We know what fellatio tastes like and how childbirth feels. We climb upon each other's backs in shower cubicles to flee the fumes. We are in the serene molecular indifference of the Zyklon and the dull heart of the man who turns the wheel to open the ducts. We are forever standing on those bank steps in Hiroshima as the reality surrounding us collapses into an atomic hell. That moment when you reach your orgasm together and it is the sweetest, the most perfect instant that you ever live through, we are both of you. We keep slaves, and we write Amazing Grace.

Of course we shout. Of course we sing. Of course we kill and love. We cheat in business and we give our lives for others. We discover penicillin and we dump the children we have strangled in back alleys. We bomb Guernica just to create that painting, and the bursts of smoke and scream from beneath us are our brush-marks. We are from the realms of Glory; we are from the nursery, the school, the abattoir, the brothel. How could we be otherwise? You fold up into us. We fold up into Him.

We are in every second of a billion trillion lives. We're every ant, each microbe and leviathan. Of course we're lonely.

—Alan Moore, Jerusalem

You look lost, little boy

Oh, my dears, my cousins in the sulphur, can you possibly imagine? It was better than the time [the devil] tricked self-important, brooding Uriel into revealing where the secret garden was located (it was in a fizzy puddle in Pangaea). It surpassed, in terms of comedy, the look on his ex-girlfriend's perfect features when her seventh husband in a year died on their wedding night, the devil having stopped his heart a second prior to the intended consummation. Why, it even beat that moment of hilarity during the Fall, when one of the low-ranking devils, Sabnock or some other marquis, who'd been consequently pushed down further into the excruciating quagmire of material awareness than the others, had called out "Truly this sensate world is one beyond endurance, though I am delighted to report my genitals have started working", whereupon the builders and the devils they were using as a form of psychic landfill all put down their flaming snooker cues for a few minutes until they'd stopped laughing.

—Alan Moore, Jerusalem

Voice Like a Dockworker’s Fist

May Minnie Warren, leathery old so-and-so who'd got a voice like a dockworker's fist, with which she'd no doubt pummel Tom to death if him and Doreen didn't get a shift on and extend the Warren line. Tommy was frightened of his mam, but so was everyone.

He could remember, on Walt's wedding night in 1947 or round then, the way their mam had cornered him and Frank out in the corridor at the reception, which was at the dance hall up in Gold Street. She'd stood there by the swing door, with people going in and out so that she'd have to shout over the music that kept blasting forth—it was the band May's youngest brother managed, Tommy's uncle Johnny—and his mam had read the riot act to him and Frank. She'd had half a pork pie held in one hand what she'd had off the buffet table and the other half of it was in her mouth part-chewed while she was talking, flakes of lardy pastry, ground pink pig-bits and yellowy jelly mashed together by her few remaining teeth or in a meat spume, spraying over Tom and his young brother as they stood there quaking in their boots before this strychnine Christmas pudding of a woman.

—Alan Moore, Jerusalem

Who among us has not known and indeed adored this woman.

It was all the “and then and then and then” of it that scared him

There seemed very little choice in any of it. Half his life had been dictated by his family's financial situation, and the other half dictated by his own compulsions, by his need to be adored the way his mother had adored him, by his frantic scrabble to get somewhere and to be somebody.

But that wasn't the whole story, was it? Oatsie knew that was what everybody thought about him privately, all of his so-called pals from in the business, how they saw him as a climber, always chasing something — chasing women, chasing any scrap of work he had a sniff at, chasing fame and fortune — but he knew they'd got him wrong. Of course he wanted all those things, wanted them desperately, but so did everybody else, and it was never really the pursuit of recognition that propelled him through his life so much as the great black explosion of his background rumbling behind him. Mother starving her way into madness, father swelling up into a stinking, sloshing water-bomb, all of the pictures flickering past to a percussion made by fists on flesh and dustbin lids on gratings, hammering and clanging in the rising sparks. What kept him on the move, he knew, was not the destiny that he was chasing but the fate that he was running from. What people saw as climbing was no more than him attempting to arrest his fall.

—Alan Moore, Jerusalem

Out Alone In the Heaps

I've been put out, I thought.

I've been snuffed out.

I'm not alight any longer.

It was like being lost, dropped out, thrown out, spat out, shovelled under, dropped down a great hole. Small. Very small. Knowing then in the black coldness how small I am, that I'd never be anything big. Crumb. Splinter. Lost thing. Little lost thing. That's how it was. Something like that. Only that doesn't quite do it either. Not yet. It's like you're dead, being out alone in the heaps, absolutely dead, extinct, done in, never remembered by anyone ever, never existed even, not ever, not known anywhere at all. Like that. Except you're alive, except you're breathing, except you're there in this dead place, alive with all the thick deadness about you, on top of you, all around, moving in. That's where I was. Out in the deep of it. There I trod, panting and miserable in the thick leather suit with my hulking metal helmet covering my noggin and all of it so big for me that I had to shuffle up inside of the suit to see out of the helmet window. Me and all those dead things. Hundreds and hundreds of different sized things, all smacked up together. Load of rubbish, wasn't it.

I'm sorry, I thought, I'm so very sorry. For all the broken things. Ugly objects, how did you get like this, who did this to you? I'm sorry no one cares for you. I am sorry. But I can't care for all of you, there's not enough of me. I can't. I don't. You'd snuff me out, soon as anything. You'd have me in an instant.

Just ahead of me was an old wooden staircase, broken and cracked, with some steps missing. It must have been a long staircase, once upon a time. I wonder where it went. Now it climbed up to nowhere, but it stayed where it was, waving a little bit in the growing wind, but not sinking. A bit of a place, it was, I thought. As much of a place as you're ever likely to get out here. Not very solid perhaps but more solid. I reached for it and dragged myself up it and clambered and heaved up its steps, the banister shuddering, until I was higher than the heap ground and I could see then that it was still connected to some building and that for the moment, it was on top of the heap, the highest bit, like a mast of a ship. There I scrambled and there, on a step, I sat. Feeling sick. Gulls about me. They're living they are, I thought, hallo to you. I am here. I'm still here. Still alive.

—Edward Carey, Heap House

What an unexpectedly lovely book.

Infinite Jest

Yeah, I know. I'm not sure what possessed me to write this up, really. We've had 22 years of literary reviews and irritated takes and responses and re-responses since Infinite Jest's splashdown. There's not much left unsaid, certainly nothing I can say that won't invite armchair psychoanalysis.

I started feeling the weight of all that before I was even halfway through the book. I've been reading for forty years and never seen anyone give this much of a damn about whatever book I was in the middle of. People asked me why I was reading it, a question I've never been asked before. I got eyerolls and smirks.

It became a sort of self-conscious reflex, watching for the drive-by comment or look whenever I sat down to read it in my office or at my kids' afterschool activities. I learned that Infinite Jest isn't just a book, and hasn't been for a long time now. It's become an opportunity for judgment the way Twitter and Facebook are now, a focal point for egos and frustrations and resentments and hurt.

These are the straits you may have to navigate, if you decide that you're curious enough to read it: On the left is a response spectrum that runs from LOL-hipster-affectation to what I can only term a bone-deep resentment of the book's very existence. On the right is this guy:


Oh, that guy. The world's female English-speaking population is littered with stories of ex-boyfriends who thumped down this literary doorstop and actually said "You need to read this if you want to understand me." Which, first, ladies, I'm sorry about all the bad oral sex. But good on you for leaving. Hal Incandenza is my generation's Holden Caulfield, a beautiful and tragic character who maybe never had a chance, but also a pretty good dipstick for measuring dipsticks.

And so the book is tainted by what I think of as the Boston Red Sox Effect, wherein the thing itself might well be pretty great, but enough of the fans are just so damned insufferable that few right-thinking people outside of New England would be caught dead in a cap, much less a jersey.

Those insufferables account for probably half of the hatred. The other half looks to be a simple formula: Readers will put in the work for a difficult book, and they will put in the work for a long book, but if you give them both and they don't feel like you rewarded them enough for the effort, they will hate you for it. Not just the book. You.

And Infinite Jest is long. And it ain't Finnegans Wake, but Infinite Jest is difficult. So, reading it, most of what I felt was a mix of a sometimes dogged determination, an abiding fondness for the love and pain and empathy underpinning what David Foster Wallace built, and a cringing sympathy for the cultural quagmire his biggest work has gotten schlorped down into.

Or, at least, that's where I ended up. Starting out, I was unsure if I'd finish. The first 200 pages are, frankly, kind of a slog. There's beautiful writing and well-drawn characters and wit and insight, but you're scaling a wall of text, text that often offers only outcroppings of minutiae and tedium, and you have no idea what this book even is or where it's going. Are the plot lines going to converge? What is the point of this? What the hell with the endnotes, man?

But as I read those 200 pages, I could hear Wallace encouraging me to hang in. There's a point to all this, he seemed to say. You're going to need to, as Tom Waits once said about his music, let it chase you around a few times. I hung in and read those 200 pages mostly on faith. And that's when it started to open up.

The turning point for me was a chapter that could and probably should be published as a standalone essay. It's a rundown of the things you learn when spending time in a sober living facility or treatment center. And it's sad and beautiful and funny. Here's a bit:

That boring activities become, perversely, much less boring if you concentrate intently on them. That if enough people in a silent room are drinking coffee it is possible to make out the sound of steam coming off the coffee. That sometimes human beings have to just sit in one place and, like, hurt. That you will become way less concerned about what other people think of you when you realize how seldom they do. That there is such a thing as raw, unalloyed, agendaless kindness. That it is possible to fall asleep during an anxiety attack.

That concentrating intently on anything is very hard work.

That was when it started to click for me, why he was telling parallel stories about privileged athletes and blownout addicts and a home video that kills people, stories that were clearly connected but never seemed to come together. It was where I found the book's heart.

I wish you could meet Johnny. Johnny's a hell of a guy. He's a kind man and a talented man, a man who has gone through some stuff and is now determined to be more, to be good. There's a decent chance he'll become a household name one day. But if you ever do meet him, Johnny will tell you that Infinite Jest is the reason he got sober before his life got intractably kertwanged. So Johnny's one of a very few with whom I've found I can really talk about it, who sees it less as a literary moment or reason for GRAR than the outflooding of love and sadness and worry and illness and absurdity that it is.

Because, look: There is not a more honest, thorough, and thoughtful portrait of what it is to be addicted to something and to try to recover from that addiction anywhere in storytelling that I'm aware of. Nothing more keenly but lovingly focused on what it's like to try to become more whole by repeatedly slamming your face against your own precious intelligence until both eyes blacken and your nose is pulped. That stuff bulges from the seams of this book, and it's only half the picture.

The rest is, in a word, entertainment. Entertainment as analgesic then anaesthetic then addiction. How we've come to depend on it the way some people depend on hydrocodone or at-least-daily orgasms or ecstatic revival experiences. How it's affecting our minds and time and relationships. How we're killing ourselves with it.

To that end, he deliberately builds everything in the book—its structures, its narratives, its displaced jumps through time, even and perhaps especially its ending—to withhold those things we instinctively crave from stories. He seems almost taunting at times. I'd find myself preparing giddily for dramatic scenes he'd spent chapters building to, only to be dragged around them to witness the quiet aftermath. I'd get really excited for what had to be an inevitable and beautiful romance, only to be given reasons why it shouldn't happen.

And I would get angry. And I would argue with the book for not giving me the thing that I wanted. And the book would ask me why it should. And I would try to compare what the book gave me to what I demanded. And I always found that what the book gave me was more honest, more true, and certainly more profound than the momentary change of my emotions I was chasing.

And then the ending came. And I will not spoil the ending. But it came, and it went, and I was looking at the first page of the endnotes nearly telling the book out loud that it couldn't fucking end there, I need to know, and I turned back to read the first chapter again, and then I understood, and the brilliance of that abrupt stop's timing just about floored me.

But I'm still pissed off about it.

It isn't for everyone. I get the hatred. Hell, I get the feeling that some of its fans hate it. It starves you of most of what you want, and kind of does a neener-neener dance about it. It is gavaged full of moments and insights that should be on posters and in pamphlets in every 12-step meeting room on the planet, but then wraps those gems in layers of dense and confusing and sometimes deliberately tedious story pacing. Points ground down to microscopic precision. Sentences you can't hear the echo from the far side of. Paragraphs that chew up pages.

It is, in short, a fucker. But it's a brilliant fucker. It's built in ways nobody dreamed of making a book before. The experience of reading it was for me what any recovering addict will tell you they went through, once they started Doing the Work. A period of drudgery undertaken on faith, an a-ha moment, a honeymoon, a more laborious but joyful plunge into continuing on and mining the depths even when the pink clouds dissipate, and a journey whose one consistent theme is that you'll never be given what you want, because what you want isn't good enough, what you want is about your feelings. And your feelings don't matter. Your feelings are at the whims of tides and currents. Acceptance of and presence in the facts of the moment are, by contrast, a filigree you can set a house on.

I love this book in the way I love my life. That love is occasionally studded with warm feelings of happiness and ecstasy, but the love itself is not a feeling. It is a promise to roll up my sleeves and get to work. It is a lifetime of care. So I am left with what I need. Things to think about, people to care about, and a well of gratitude that I was alive to witness it.



One idle five minute swing through the house looking for something to read and evidently now I’m working on a credit hour or two.

I’ve stumbled into a practice of literary disorientation so I’m thinking Weird Book then Dead Girl Book then Kid Book then Book With Insufferable Fanbase. I may get that last one knocked out first, though. If you have to eat two frogs, eat the big one first.

Malachi Constant

In the depressions that always followed his taking of alcohol, narcotics, and women, Constant pined for just one thing—a single message that was sufficiently dignified and important to merit his carrying it humbly between two points.

—Kurt Vonnegut, The Sirens of Titan

In any case, Arnold Fiske couldn’t shut up about it.

By noon the next day, the whole town knew. And the whole town talked about it.

A Sasquatch. The widow and a Sasquatch. Ain't that just a kick in the pants.

Two days later, the pair had been spotted in public, walking along the railroad tracks.

And again, picking their way across the bog.

And again, standing in the back of the crowd, at a liquidation auction. The Sasquatch sometimes wore Mr. Sorensen's old seed hat and boots (he had cut out holes for his large, flexible toes), and sometimes wore the dead man's scarf. But never his pants. Not even some kind of shorts. Or, dear god, at least some swimming trunks. The Sasquatch was in possession, thankfully, of a bulbous thicket of fur, concealing the area of concern, but everyone knew what was behind the fur, and they knew it would only take a stiff breeze, or a sudden movement, or perhaps the presence of a female Sasquatch to cause a, how would you say—a shaking of the bushes, as it were. Or a parting of the weeds. People kept their eyes averted, just to be safe.

—Kelly Barnhill, "Mrs. Sorensen and the Sasquatch"

If you can make a passage about Sasquatch dick be delightful, you are my kind of person. Kelly Barnhill, one day I hope to give you a hug.