A good book is born old. Most literatures, though, are abortions with frail mothers, nevertheless brought to term in sterile incubators. You know them, they smell like medicine, or like the medical instruments that live in hospitals, and they stay young forever. Wheeled from ward to ward by wet nurses in powder blue scrubs, they cannot breathe save for the snake of intubation that is forever crammed down their flaming red throats. Wheezing, suspended animas, these don’t outgrow their aborted proportions. They age like engorged babies, ancient infants of infinite prematurity.
The best abortionist I ever knew was Roger Gowelli, a lifelong admirer of the unaborted brood, and he died the way he lived.
I saw him for the last time in his brownstone apartment, the same high chambers he had tenanted for fifty years. In that time he had written twice as many novels, every one of which had a cult of devotees, even the duds (especially the duds). He was old, widowed, well-stocked in airport bookstores and mostly ignored in classrooms except for those easy English credit ones at state colleges, Modern Horror and the Neoliberal Gothic, Spring Semester, 36hrs plus Seminar. So when I paid him an unannounced visit just one week before he happened to pass, I found him archetypally wizened, huddled under blankets and drinking tea, more hot tap-water than herb.
Something creaked in his demeanor, an unsettled choler. He hacked what may’ve been a drop of that bile and spit it in an empty cup. “Been a while, long time. How’s the family?”
How many hours had the once young, then mid-lifed, now old man spent inside these walls, churning schlock, words to feed peoples, words no thicker than the pages they were printed on? I had visited this house a thousand times, but now it smelled like wallpaper, was interred in the dirt that would not be washed off the windows. And Gowelli had become paper-thin himself, pasty glowing, croaking weak breath that tumbled from him like mothballs. He wiggled in his spot and I thought bookworm.
“It’s nice of you to come. No one visits. Not that I mind too much. You know where a man keeps his companions,” raising a liver-spotted hand to the shelves that lined his sitting room, all packed with old volumes that cracked in infinitesimal gradations along the spines. His fingers were fat with arthritis.
“I am sorry, though,” I said honestly. “Did you get what I sent you?”
“A fucking cinderblock,” he laughed. “Heavy on these old hands.”
I was quiet. An in-kept perversity glued my gaze to the knots of musculature threatening to burst the seams of skin around his knuckles. Gowelli relieved me of that silence and said what I had wanted to: “The dedication did not elude me.”
“I meant it,” I almost blurted, “Really, Roger. You’ve meant the world to me.”
“Funny, seeing my name in a real book. Do I get some… percentile share of the Prize?”
I had never before seen that look on my old professor’s face. It was ugly, petulant— mouth gaped in a slant and open lips coiffing in a dry snarl on the far edge of their pinkness. In all my years of knowing him, Gowelli had never resented his reputation or his stature. When the critics called him pulp he joked that he was fresh-squeezed, if they said that he was pop then he’d start into a moonwalk and do his best MJ squeal. Now, hidden somewhere in his cataract swirl, I thought I spied the shape of a debt he felt he was owed, a more aching deficit than a former student’s one line dedication could hope to pay. “You know you taught me how to write, Roger.”
Gowelli puckered his face up and thought something he never said. Then, “It’s a great book.”
“Never was in love with the genre, but it’s great.”
I smiled and decided to forgo the twinge of sensitivity nibbling at my side. “What genre?”
“Oh, you know. One of those books about books.”
“The novel-ary novel,” I quipped, chipperish. I wanted to go but felt I owed Gowelli, or myself, some effort at leaving with less awkwardness. “Sure, I know what you mean.”
“Writer goes to the writer’s retreat, writer goes to the library. Writer, maybe, has sex. Some bitch acts like Beatrice but leaves him. No offense, yours is beautiful. You know. It’s… writerly.”
“It’s not my favorite either. Just wrote it on accident, I suppose.”
“Writer has writer’s block, another one. More typical. Why I liked yours. It’s a neat idea, giving yourself hypergraphia.”
“Ha. Well, I don’t know if I’d say Wilhelm’s me, exactly.”
“Bullshit.” Gowelli snapped his neck up and stared with a sternness. He looked animal, mean. “You know better.” Gowelli let me stew in that, reprimanded. From somewhere in the bundle of his blankets he retrieved a pack of cigarettes and a yellow lighter, the same shade of lemon as the puffs of flesh under his eyes. After a drag, letting me off the hook in his own way, he said, “Never be effusive when it comes to a plain fact. That’s the craft. You’re every character you ever wrote.”
I said nothing. Gowelli knew that I knew that he was right.
“Never had a book like that in me. Maybe, once. I would’ve liked to.”
“Write one like that.”
In an osmotic instant I perceived that nowhere on the high walls of Gowelli’s bookshelves did I see a copy of any of his own works. There was Dickens and Marx and Swift and Bolaño and Austen and Augustin and Aquinas. Brecht and Baudrillard and Bibles, Spinoza and Pessoa, and Poe, Pynchon, Shakespeare, Melville and Lovecraft too, even a Deleuze & Guattari. But no Gowelli.
Something about that absence was made positive by the thought of it and I said, “Well, why don’t you now?”, meaning encouragement but maybe sounding blunt and cynical and Gowelli with a pushing motion that moved nothing save my already frayed nerves put his hands forth, gnarled with bloat and trembling, and from behind them said in his high warble, “I can’t hold a fucking pen anymore.”
So I just said, “I’m sorry.”
“Ah, please,” Gowelli diffused. “I never had it in me. Or, you write one too many books about sentient, homicidal trucks or whatever, and any chance you had is probably gone.” His laugh sounded like a sob, sharp and throaty. “I miss it, yeah. But I don’t get ideas anymore. Half-ideas, little… flitting glimpses that my mind can’t hold.”
“The daemon died down?”
“The daemon died down.”
Gowelli looked towards the old quilt that covered him. He was playing with a frayed line of linen, and I knew it was a habit he had made in his old age. Then he sighed, “Books about books. Yeah. Lotta people try it. Most fuck that up. You did good.”
“Every book’s about reading.”
“Did I teach you that?”
I smiled and raised my eyes enough to meet his. “As a matter of fact…”
We looked a long time at one another. However much I wanted to tell Gowelli I loved him, I felt more afraid that my saying so would seal me to a slated destiny, replacement: that, if I made articulate the real pain of the real man I saw crippled now before me, that his fate would be my own, that someday I would be the widowed one, alone, troubling over old unwrittens and pseudo-tombed in the library of my own life’s reflection. I could not stand to be that man, and so I searched for other words. I settled on, “But you’re reading?”
“I’m not lonely.”
“These keep me company. Every author.”
Again I scanned the shelves, and afresh a manifold met me. The collection of all those lives in a spot was dazzling, like a long ribbon of stitched colors, thicknesses, letters etched in hieroglyphs onto spines and faces. It was the beautiful moment of a schizophrenic break, when the vast assault of always-thinking in difference, in paranoia, in panting fantods finally quits, and each fragment of the psychic shards becomes stained glass, a kaleidoscope.
“Yes,” I said, understanding.
“It’s what I’ve accrued. A lifetime, here’s what you’ll have to show for it.”
Then the melancholy ebb of self-consciousness. Shelf by shelf I witnessed history. Gowelli had more claim to a canon than I did, and I felt sure his name would live on the lips of readers long beyond my own, his syllables spoken with more surety and roundness than my lame, belated appellation ever could be. I was disarmed, disordered and minor, as if the lifestuff in the cardiovascular chain of Authors, from Sumeria to Syracuse, ran just one way— down, beyond. I saw Gowelli’s frame shake in a tremolo beneath his blanket and thought that he must be at a more advanced stage of whatever dis-ease had gotten me. I wondered, foresaw myself worse off, foresaw the debt that I would demand be paid, more hefty and absurd than his. I saw my wife die and myself in my big house, carrying a copy of my one well-respected novel, banging it against kettles and chaise-lounges and my own forehead, until everything was dented, torn and bruised. Then I would be alone.
Gowelli smirked. “Do you want to see how I see my friends?”
“Then fetch me that green one.”
The line of Gowelli’s hand extended out and terminated on a large book of faded verdant hue. I recognized it, the same volume Gowelli had once taught me in a class.
“Ah,” I said.
I withdrew it from its place and brought it to him. He opened it without sentimentality, surveyed the page for what he wanted, then seized upon a splotch of ink and said, “This is how I see my friends.”
The air vibrated and he spoke the tome. Like incantation, like oblation, Gowelli, the righthand wizard of the dead, revived an author passed long before he or I were ever spermatozoic gene stuff. A magnetic fluid, prestidigitated smoke. Wafting in fitful flits, charged with poesie that explodes and lives on the nervous ends of our suprasenses. I was tranced.
A shade came among us. Gowelli straightened as he read, erected to address the third soul of our small party, met it on the Orphic plane. I mental sensed the form of this imbue him, and Gowelli was the fetish where the major writer dwelled. His tone turned, his face radiated catholic beams, linguistic, living. I saw him as his own better, his own resplendence.
Gowelli read a long time. When he finished, his shape was still spiritualized and had something of the ideal in it. He shut the book and looked at me, immensely content, and sat without speaking, like he still beheld the conjured soul before him. That soul would fade, but he would read again tomorrow, and the next day, and summon other spirits until at last his own metamorphosed into what it already was.
“Thank you for coming, friend.”
He was looking long into a distance I had glimpsed but could not hold.
Then I left.
— Eitan Benzion is writing in a fervor, a veritable reverie. His work has either been featured on or is forthcoming on APOCALYPSE CONFIDENTIAL, Misery Tourism, and A Thin Slice of Anxiety. He’s tweeting about Edward de Vere @natienoizy