Celebrated (part three)
Her office door was open. In a building with steam heat and no air conditioning, most doors were. But Motley could be tried on this point, caught with notebook, jotting poetry; or, crease between eyes, grading papers…
Tom’s mind, crossed by a thought—that a Motley would be even more married to hand-composition, if there were a holier way of doing it—he had remarked: “My Dad still writes with a fountain pen.”
He didn’t know what a fountain pen looked like. His dad, wanting (barring emergency, he didn’t) to write Grandma Wilmot, would have yelled out, “Pat! I need you to do something…”
Tried…and Motley passed, putting her work aside, not hiding Roc-womb scratched out; Gryphon-Harpy?-uterus, mooted. “I love fountain pens. That’s wonderful.”
Roc-womb, he’d wanted to say to her. But instead, “Madeline. Can I have your advice?”
It was easy, by then, for Tom to talk about the story…not yet to him a novel. The character, called (as were the medico’s anonymous patients) by initials, was having some kind of surreal experience. That had seemed the obvious thrust of it.
R. W. suffers a baffling malaise. He is no longer able to work. He rests, he sits, he lies…he picks at food, nights can’t sleep. Nights, he begins leaving his apartment house to wander the streets, stronger cloaked in shadow.
“So I’m not sure yet if I’m going ghost or sci-fi. Maybe he’s already dead, and he doesn’t know it. Maybe he’s in a sort of fish bowl on another planet…like a goldfish would have a little castle and plastic seaweed… What’s it think, then? This is like my old life…but everything is ersatz…”
“And how many chapters have you written? Not that it has to be chapters…maybe you’re more experimental.”
She had that way. Of almost guiding you to flatter yourself… And never insinuating. Motley managed the superhuman feat of being interested in other people, thinking possibility for them.
About sixteen pages, he told her.
Well, I can’t really advise you unless I have a feel for the work. May I read it?
He handed over sheets held at the corner by one of those fasteners long extinct, the name of which he had never known. Only that they were nuisancey as hell…you bent back the little brass tabs, sucked your bleeding finger…
“Voluntary Motion. What a great title!” She began the first page. “Oh, I like this!”
She read on. “Hmm…it’s that way, isn’t it? You get an idea, the writing flows for a while, then you run into the snags…” She was murmuring, as though notating aloud, but looked up. “Here. See what I mean. Where you start giving the characters dialogue.”
Motley then—but under his eye, not peremptory—crossed out a he said, worried, and a nonchalant, she answered. Stylings he’d been sure sounded authorial, if not avant-garde. (You didn’t, of course, use the term avant-garde.)
“What’s her name…will she have one?”
That she might…live through the whole book, and not…was somewhat striking, more than had occurred to Tom.
“And do you give her a Russian name because the story is set in Russia? I get a sort of Eastern European vibe.”
Now here, he had, largely for associating the surreal with brutalist apartment blocks…with civil servants shuffling from crowded trains to shuffle papers in brutalist office blocks…vaguely pictured something. For no other reason.
Other…than a film festival, a European lit course’s extra credit, needed. He had fake-read Sartre and Mann and planned to fake-read Gorky. But (not unlike a voice in a dream’s promptings), while slumping in his theater seat, Tom had picked up a Russian…vibe…if she put it that way. It was the only way he could put it to himself. Noticing things. The name Raina must have been one of them.
He said, yeah, he’d figured, kind of, but meant the story to be, “…not really anyplace.”
“What if you took a little more time before you introduce her? R.W’s environment…the things he sees on his walks… You haven’t done a lot there. You’re trying,” she looked up again, “to get tension into the story by having Raina show up as a sort of mystery woman. But think about making her more inevitable. Do you understand me?”
He didn’t, now Motley was taking him seriously, her shop-talk growing to Tom more arcane. On the other hand, she hadn’t meant me when she’d said me…she’d meant it. It, the drudgery of making a whole book, he did get.
He was not loving Raina. “Maybe I won’t ever finish.”
“No. What I want you to do…” She got up, went to her glass-front cabinets, squatted before the lower jumble, of books and bloated folders. “No…I don’t think I have anything. You see.” She sat on the corner of her desk. “There’s no reason you can’t set a story in a place you haven’t been. If we really insisted on that…on firsthand knowledge of everything…it would be like a kind of reverse social plan. I mean, for a poor writer, which most of us are. All you could write about was being poor. You’d be forced to stay in the place you were born. Write the book! You’ll know what you need to learn when the plot tightens up, and certain things have to be…inevitable.” A wry smile.
Well, yes…things having to be…things inevitable…
His journalism professors excoriated redundancy. But Motley called it rhetorical.
(2018, Stephanie Foster)