Murdered by Subtlety
By the time I was twelve years old, I had begun the long process of removing myself from the living room, from the TV, from my near-comatose father in permanent repose on the couch. I retreated to my tiny bedroom where I did two things: first, I played statistical baseball games. I played fantasy versions of major league baseball with dice (APBA, for aficionados). I then enacted the games by throwing balled up socks, wrapped round-and-round with rubber bands, into a pillow into which I’d pounded a catcher’s “pocket.” I’d throw some pitches and then I’d take a stick, an old croquet bat handle, and imitate the batting styles of my favorite players. Mays, Cepeda, McCovey, the Alou brothers. I had them all down, even the bland Jimmy Davenport.
The only drawback to this entertainment was that my grandmother’s fragile collection of ceramic elephants was stored in an also fragile display case in my room. Occasionally, a ballgame would get out of control and one of my grandmother’s precious elephants would be broken. If one of them was missing a trunk or the top of an ear, it was likely my doing. But who cared? My grandmother wasn’t around because by this time she had dementia and was being looked after out at the Agnews State Mental Hospital. And my parents almost never came in my stinky room and certainly never checked on the wellbeing of the elephants. Putting them in my room was just one remove from throwing them away. I guess they wanted to wait till Grandma died before taking that last step. I still have a few of her elephants that I keep here and there around the house in various shrines to the elders. A broken tusk here, a missing ear there.
The second thing that I did was read novels.
I remember reading James Fennimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans. This was probably the first serious book I read. Prior to that I read only adolescent novels like Danny Dunn and the Antigravity Machine or Penrod. As my reading ability grew, I read Tom Sawyer, and I even tried to read Robert Louis Stevenson’s Black Arrow, lured on by N. C. Wyeth’s dramatic illustrations, but I found his fake medievalism bewildering. But Cooper’s tale of the Deerslayer, Natty Bumppo, was fun and, in hindsight, funny. Mark Twain ridiculed Cooper for every manner of literary sin. Twain wrote in “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses” (1895): “In one place in Deerslayer, and in the restricted space of two-thirds of a page, Cooper has scored 114 offenses against literary art out of a possible 115. It breaks the record.”
More seriously, there was the death of the son, Uncas, in the novel’s last pages. That was another matter. I really liked Uncas, and I had no idea that characters in novels could die. His death, falling on me from out of the pages, scared me. I felt how alone I was in my bedroom. I felt tricked and betrayed.
You, novel, made me love someone and then killed him! Not fair!
The death of Uncas, murdered by the fiendish Huron Le Subtil, was the death of a son and therefore my death. To that point I hadn’t known I was under the threat of death, so that was disturbing enough. But at the same time that I was given this knowledge that I didn’t want, I was also given the means to manage it: the story itself, the novel. It was as if I were told that a horrible thing wanted to get me, but that in order to get me it had to find its way through a labyrinth. To get at me it had to find its way out of the novel, and the writer could make the novel turn and spin in any way he liked. The novel felt like a way to force pain and fear of death to the negotiating table.
But there was more and worse. This revelation about the deaths of sons was intimately joined to the following: the death by stabbing of the lovely Cora, killed by a knife. The wicked pleasure of this wish—to pierce the tender, sexualized flesh of the woman—was immediately punished and the wish forbidden when the same knife was plunged into Uncas. All of this was performed by a person called “subtle.” I am the murdered son, guilty of a sexual wish. Is it my father who has done this? But my father doesn’t exist; he is just a clay form on the couch, before the TV. Subtle indeed! There’s only one option: I must invent my father in order to ask him if it was he who killed me. I must become a maker of these things, novels!, for that is where my father, my real father, the father who can answer my questions, resides.
Laughing, Le Subtil slides by in the dark, his shadow on a brick wall, sinister and amused.
So, I was frightened, yes, but I was also thrilled. It was as if the novel had suddenly fallen away, like a cliff crumbling beneath my feet, and I was plummeting not only into something unhappy but also into something pleasurable and perverse. And so although I might like never again to read one of these treacherous novels, just as I might swear to stop frotting my little prick among the pillows, these were not serious commitments. I couldn’t wait to read another novel.
I don’t think there’s any point in denying that the large part of this drama comes under the heading of morbid childhood self-absorption, but that is something that self-absorbed children who become artists take with them into adulthood. Artists create this great inward heat of sex and art with the hope that they will escape the gravity of death first experienced as children. Artists are those who fear that they have been “murdered by subtlety.” They come to understand that their only hope, the only way back to life, is in inventing themselves. From scratch. That drama becomes who they are. They spend the rest of their lives in it, moving its parts this way and that, manipulating it, triumphing now and then, but never without a residue, like the sticky stuff of dream, which makes them doubt.
Of course, this doubt leaves them with no choice but to do it again. Art is the ultimate repetition compulsion. Okay, you say you want to write a novel, so go ahead and write a novel, or paint a picture—but why write or paint another one? Was there something wrong with the first one? To which the artist replies, “The last novel/painting/composition failed, but the next one, surely the next one will succeed. Eventually I will invent what I lack: wholeness and happiness. Art is the promise of this happiness. When I have achieved it, I will finally be real.” It’s like the gambler who can’t stop gambling because each bet asks the same unanswerable question: am I loved? Is it safe now to quit this terrible business?
There is an anecdote about the Russian novelist Nikolai Gogol in which he is said to have had the habit of sitting before a mirror studying himself. Then, at a certain point, he would call out his own name repeatedly. “Gogol! Gogol!” In despair and revulsion he realized that he had no idea who it was, this sinister figure opposite him.
So he fired up the samovar, filled the ink well, and headed back to his study.
Curtis White has published eight books of fiction, including
Lacking Character, Memories of My Father Watching TV, America's Magic Mountain, Requiem, Anarcho-Hindu, The Idea of Home, Metaphysics in the Midwest, and Heretical Songs. His non-fiction includes The Middle Mind, The Science Delusion, and We, Robots. His essays have appeared in Harper’s, The Village Voice, Salon, and Playboy.