Jimmy Chen is a writer. His flash fiction, “Footnote1,” engages the mental sphere, tolls the emotional chamber, and continues to unfold despite explanation. It is one of those pieces I’ll read and re-read again. Our interview appears after the reprint.
JA Tyler is the editor of ml press, which recently put out an anthology of its first year of flash-style chapbooks, including Jimmy’s “Footnote1”. With stories so singular and language so bright I sometimes find myself squinting while reading this anthology; it is a thing of beauty both inside and out. By courtesy of JA, Jimmy’s flash is reprinted below.
1. I—& I don’t mean that in some post-structuralist, irrevocably futile kind of way—am cognizant of self-referential writing as being somewhat aesthetically dated, & whose main propagator is no longer with us (us being this narrator, the reader, & Danielle, who is 15 years old & miserable; 15-year-old girls have the monopoly & the authority on misery). Should the reader think this is about white upper-middle class privileged ennui, he or she may be right, but we cannot escape our contexts. Her life of television, suburbia, & even the internet only carves out the negative space around her body a little sharper, & she’s not particularly enthralled by the choice of pre-adolescent pre-cum boys out there, so she goes to her old elementary school at night & climbs on the roof to read under the muddy orange lamp.
The wind howls because the dogs whimper. On weekends she’s in the backyard because her father needs someone to hold the soil bag upright. The holes dug for new birches look like graves for unborn babies. She feels like the youngest spinster alive. She flattens the round graves into rectangles, stacks them next to each other in her game of tetris death. Conservative AM talk radio comes through the neighbor’s fence. The crisp dumb sun blares its 12PM shadow under her nose from which salted sweat drops & all she wants is a tissue. The radio goes DRILL BABY DRILL & at this moment it becomes clear to her, a moment of detached lucidity: she wants to die. She wants to be shattered apart & re-assembled in lego, in some fit of plastic reincarnation.
It hurts so much to be fleshy & whole, a mound of pizza dough unused by other hands. The hand of God may be too large, & the hand of our recently departed who wrote the literary bible is no longer sweaty. So now we’re all waiting for the second coming: the saved, the unshaved, the [sic] read, the profane—the whole entire sad bunch of us, all waiting for the next gospel. This world, littered with words which begin to resemble ants. They carry this word: crumb—away. & this one too: saltine. Words carrying words away on a page like this is a picnic where the women are naked for inexplicable reasons, as in the buttery dream of a painting. See it?
Centuries contained in wet rectangles. This time the painting is an interior of someone’s home, the social light coming through the windows in thick yellow vaseline. A severely depressed man—a little tortured about the cliché but fuck—gets on a letter h chair & ties a letter o rope around his neck. A little wiggling, then: his own weight. A brain can only host so many concerns, so many ants going back to the queen. Danielle will read the book on the roof & crash through it like a burglar robbing every surrogate real-life experience his writing made her feel. She will smile so wide her cheeks will be as hard as bullets. Through the hole in the ceiling she will see the moon, & it will wink. Her own personal lunar conspiracy saying STAY.
Every time a page is flipped, a bird flaps one of its wings. Let’s meet it somewhere halfway, above a still crystal lake, after we build a chair out of lego. A chair that stays put no matter what.
Keith: “Footnote1” has a palpable architecture: a tightly knit but elaborately constructed structure. Everywhere are flourishes of the literary order: meta-fiction, circularity (depending upon interpretation), self-referencing metaphor (lego), pataphor (words-to-ants-to-painting-to-room), pictographic significance (h-chair and o-rope). Given the piece’s immediate self-awareness as a mode of artifice past its prime (the reader can’t get past the first word without encountering it), I can’t help but wonder if this was an attempt (conscious or not) to see how far you could push the notion of artifice not outwardly but inwardly before it imploded upon itself, and in so doing, achieve a logical extreme of architecture built upon literary devices. Was this intended in any way? Was this piece motivated by a desire to overcome cliché by extreme (almost self-lacerating) playfulness?
Jimmy: I see your point about artifice, which is one of my primary concerns with writing, which, selfishly, I get from DFW. The piece doesn’t satirize the cliché of self-aware meta-fiction as much as it concedes to it, as you aptly pointed out, immediately with the “I” then em dash interruption. I think of it as imposing a particular rhythm, being the drummer of the piece (ee cummings is best at this). DFW’s footnoted interruptions annoyed me, and yet I loved reading them, that compulsive miscellany – that hunt for the macro within the micro. The idea that a story could be contained within a footnote was demonstrated by his story “Good Old Neon,” whose ending I still don’t completely understand. I constantly re-read his stories, and I’m always re-surprised, as if I didn’t fully “learn” or master the reading. Put bluntly, the piece is a somber, arguably futile homage slash rip-off piece written in the days after his suicide. Despite your generous reading, I am slightly embarrassed by the piece.
Keith: Given your answer and (in the space between your answer and this question) having just read “Good Old Neon,” my understanding of “Footnote1” has completely changed—you’ve opened a big can of literary and psychological worms here (were you aware of that while writing the flash, or was it subconscious convergence?), meaning, I’m tempted to cease this interview and attempt a ten-page analysis of “Good Old Neon” with “Footnote1” as the skeleton key, but that might eat up two months or more, so I’m going to proceed as unfumblingly as possible.
First off, my mention of circularity above (an infinite meta-loop precipitated by equating the author-of-the-story to the author-in-the-story) was a misreading on my part. Secondly—actually, before “Secondly,” allow me a tangential question that relates to my misreading: Textually, “Footnote1” has a taut surface that yielded to my desire for clarity and order only to trampoline me into a gravity-less space, and yet was there to catch me again. This tension produced by precision and ambiguity (in your case, a precision of language off-set by an ambiguity of situation) fascinates me both as a reader and a writer. Did you have a sense of this tension while writing the flash? Does this interplay between precision and ambiguity make certain things possible for you as a writer that could not be done with one or the other alone?
Jimmy: You make an interesting point about linguistic precision vs. its implicated ambiguous space. I hate to bring up DFW again, but I guess it’s impossible to talk about “Footnote1” without him. DFW’s writing is so precise, almost “clinical” or administrative, while the ideas or narrative space it serves are so abstract and fluid. (Borges and Nabokov do this for me as well, but not to the ecstatic degree as DFW.) With modernist fluid stuff like Faulkner and Woolf, the blurry language seems to predetermine the reader’s “confusion”; put simply, the words and their space share the same logic. I enjoy this, but it’s sometimes one dimensional, like making beet soup out of beets; the constituents are too obvious. With DFW, there is deviceful tension between the precision of his writing, and the acid-trip-like refracted layers of fragmented consciousness he tends to spiral towards. Their respective logics are at intrinsic odds with each other, provoking a kind of bipolar response in the reader. A neurotic balm, as I see it. So yes, I have a sense of this tension, and frolic in it.
Keith: Don’t worry, I’ll be bringing up DFW again myself, for the same reason you stated. But first, your discussion of “space” intrigues me, which immediately brings to mind the mathematical notion of a 2-D plane. In this metaphor, the 2-D plane would be the visual narrative space in which the functions of language are drawn to reveal the connections made possible by the parameters of that space. Most stories proceed by transcribing an event in a linear fashion, sometimes with the aid of interjected backstory, such that there is no sense of space, only trajectory. But “Footnote1” feels more like a painting in which various scenes simultaneously occupy the same canvas. As a visual artist, did you design “Footnote1” in the same mindset as you would graphically design a page or organize a canvas? Your gift for aphoristic compression (high density of information or emotion in a minimized parcel) in tandem with abrupt shifts in focus pull together the large and the distant into a small area: intricacy yielding expansion. Was each sentence, each phrase, a brush stroke by which you were striving to render the larger-than-life in miniature?
Jimmy: I’ve been told my writing is very visual, which doesn’t necessarily surprise me as it does remind me that I was a painter (I use the past tense simply because I don’t see myself painting in the near future). Both painting and writing are in some way concerned with “space” — which for me, essentially, is narrative without the need for narration. Like, a cat in a room zoning off into space is just as “eventful” as a cat and a mouse in a room, the former chasing the latter. Stories with events and feelings are nice, but I like stories with ideas better; this may explain my penchant for meta-fictional elements, puns, syntactical play, etc. (I will admit these attributes are somewhat emotionally defensive, which is where I am as a human right now. If I were to write about my feelings, you’d get a bad teenage version of Sylvia Plath.) The line “every time a page is flipped a bird flaps one of its wings,” initially (in the original MLP chapbook) was the first line that followed a page break, so that the reader would have probably have read that with his or her hand in the final moments of a page-flip. I enjoy such “protrusion” into the reader’s physical space, just like some of my online stories are published with certain key words with specified font colors; both the reading experience and the medium with which it’s conveyed is subject to my scrutiny, as I have an active, perhaps narcissistic, role in the reading of my writing. To the reader, I am sitting next to you. Such “erratic mentality,” the changes of perspective, tone, and space are used to exercise the reader’s agility in the painted picture in their heads. The best way to evoke hands is not to write “hands” but to ask the reader how they are holding up the book.
Keith: Back to the “Secondly” before the tangent, “Footnote1” initially struck me as a study in movement, similar to how in music one key modulates to another by pivoting on a common chord. For example, the ants pataphor serves as the pivot chord between the two key characters of the story (Danielle and the suicidal author), and the author’s book serves as the pivot by which the girl moves from death toward life (“Her own personal lunar conspiracy saying STAY”), even as the author, pivoting on the chair, moves into death.
Having now read “Good Old Neon,” I believe the pivots to be instead the interlocking edges of puzzle pieces. Puzzle pieces that encapsulate or correspond to identifying traits of DFW, whether personally (“A brain can only host so many concerns”) or aesthetically (obviously, the title), and culminating in your own personal vision of DFW, what he meant to you and what you think he meant to others? Is this a rhetorical question given your description of the piece as an “arguably futile homage slash rip-off”? As an homage and puzzle (if that is an accurate metaphor), did you have a sense of the whole, if not the details, the puzzle pieces, when you started?
Jimmy: The puzzle pieces you mention bring to mind William Gaddis’ intricate chaos, which I went into detail here. I’m still not over my reading of JR, which I will say is the most intense reading experience I’ve had in my life. I was aware of the dichotomy between the girl and DFW. I guess I was trying to give him life again, after he died, trying to work through some difficult feelings I had about whether art was futile, and whether a person who took that route out could still be a great man. The anecdote was the story of a girl who would choose life, partially because of DFW’s writing. This, I know, is cheesy and somewhat manipulative, which is why I started this piece with the apologetic disclaimer. I like the puzzle pieces of writing, the “riddle” of it all. It’s like having hints and answers, though sometimes in reverse order.
Keith: Given that “Footnote1” feels like the fictionalized non-fictional third ending, i.e. the second footnote, of “Good Old Neon,” I’m going to let a couple quotes from it respond to your comment:
With regard to “cheesy”: “Basically I was in that state in which a man realizes that everything he sees will outlast him. As a verbal construction I know that’s a cliché. As a state in which to actually be, though, it’s something else, believe me.”
With regard to life/suicide: “…what people usually mean when they say ‘my whole life,’ meaning a discrete, chronological series of moments that they add up and call their lifetime. It’s not really like that. The best way I can think of to try to say it is that it all happens at once, but that at once doesn’t really mean a finite moment of sequential time the way we think of time while we’re alive, plus that what turns out to be the meaning of the term my life isn’t even close to what we think we’re talking about when we say ‘my life.’”
The juxtaposition in “Footnote1” of DFW falling off the chair and Danielle falling through the roof with his book in her hands, both of them falling but in totally opposite directions, one into death, the other into life, for me, is a profound and ultimately accurate footnote that will never appear in “Good Old Neon.” As far as I’m concerned we will never know the meaning of our own or anyone’s life (fundamentally, I disagree with the very premise of the term), however, as an alternative to a “chronological series of moments,” “Footnote1” offers the persuasive answer that it is not what a person does but the effect he/she has on the lives of others. In terms of DFW: He was a man who made many people want to STAY. How does suicide diminish that fact?
Jimmy: Well I suppose we’re now outside of my authorial jurisdiction, as I simply cannot comment on the morality of suicide, or morality in general – not that I’m a moral relativist, but because I have no god damn clue on the bigger issues in life. I will say, in relation to DFW, that his art is greater than his death, that his work has and will continue to improve the lives of others. That is immortality. It’s just that one cannot ignore his decision; it’s now embedded into his oeuvre, inadvertently or not. His “this is water” speech instructed us to think about the “right” things, that freedom is simply that: a matter of revising the will. Severe depression is a disease, and I respect his decision to leave the way he did – but it, ironically, was his last footnote. The explanation is difficult, as is everything else with the man. His “this is water” speech reads differently to me now, the contradictions make it more eloquent almost, like selling a used car. In Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors, a philosopher commits suicide. A murderer, in turn, is absolved of all consequences. Woody Allen’s vision for the world is not immoral, but worse, amoral. DFW’s severe depression and suicide is convincingly clinical. Between the synapse and the soul – our consciousness and its ostensible host – lies vast territory on which we crawl. Life, like a weed, is intrinsically in conflict with its world, which is why it takes two muscles and one mouth to smile, so smile.
Keith Nathan Brown has been published in Puerto del Sol, ABJECTIVE, Word For/ Word, elimae, and forthcoming in Sententia.
NOTE to readers: If you are interested in doing a guest post in the “Anatomy of a Flash” series, please contact Greg Gerke firstname.lastname@example.org