At some point during the late-middle part of quarantine, in May or June, a curious thing began to happen in our neighborhood. A man could be heard screaming through the streets. The sound he made was not agonized or angry. Instead, it was a prolonged, droning howl. Like the ambulance sirens that wailed through the city in early spring, it could be heard approaching and fading. The howler, whoever he was, moved quickly and had great lung capacity. He howled and vanished and remained, for a while, a mystery.
There is a short story I like by Don DeLillo called “Midnight in Dostoevsky.” It takes place in a small college upstate and its action consists almost entirely of two undergraduate students speculating on the personal circumstances of a man they have seen walking around in a hooded coat. They decide, based on virtually no evidence whatsoever, that the man is Russian and that he is in the United States because of his son, a philosophy professor at their college named Illgauskas who has a Dostoevsky obsession. “That was my crystalline link,” the story’s narrator says. “The old man to Ilgauskas to Dostoevsky to Russia. I thought about it all the time. Todd said it would become my life’s work. I would spend my life in a thought bubble, purifying the link.”
The first time I read this story was a month before it was published in the New Yorker in 2009. I was an intern in the magazine’s fiction department, a job that consisted entirely of going through the slush pile and writing rejection letters. Nearly all of the stories that came in via slush were unreadable, though occasionally they were unreadable in interesting ways. Invariably, the most affecting writing in the submissions was contained in the cover letters. Here, the authors humbled themselves before the esteemed editor they imagined was giving their efforts due consideration. The pathos of their position was reinforced by the fact that they were being read by an intern, someone who was about as likely to be published by the magazine as they were* and who, at any rate, had zero influence on what would go into its fiction pages. I found myself being appealed to by people who thought I had clout when what I had was geography; I was in New York, in the Conde Nast Building on 42nd Street, and they were not. Other than that, we were in similar, rickety boats.
*I actually was published a couple of times on the New Yorker’s website, which, in 2009 was rudimentary enough to offhandedly feature me on its homepage as the second listed article. See contemporaneous screenshot below.
Occasionally, I would get to read agented work as a kind of gratuity for wading through all the slush. This was how the DeLillo manuscript reached me before it was published. I remember reading it one afternoon at the intern desk, which was located next to offices occupied by Roger Angell and John Lahr and within view of a panoramic window onto Times Square. The pages were photocopies of double-spaced typescript, wide-margined and with handwritten emendations by the author. DeLillo apparently does not use a computer, preferring to bang out his work on an old Olympia typewriter. The photo below, showing a manuscript page from his novel Libra, exactly resembles the document I was given to read.
The internship was an odd situation for me. I was going to grad school while working part-time at a job I had previously done full-time. I had given up my full-time position because of grad school, but I continued to show up at the office and had many of the same responsibilities, so I think I was a confusing figure for a lot of people. The only outward sign of my changed status was the continual shifting of the location of my desk: first, to a dark cubicle with a sunless view of an airshaft, and then to a conference room where I didn’t have a desk at all, but worked at a long table that was occupied by a team of programmers with whom I had zero interaction.
The Conde Nast Building was exactly two blocks away from the office where my “real” (i.e., paid) job was located, and on the afternoons that I interned there, I would leave one building to go to another. In both settings, I felt like a visiting ghost: a generalized figure with ambiguous duties. The last memory I have of the New Yorker is attending its holiday party, the venue for which was the office itself. Each department had its own little drinks station and all the lights had been dimmed and there was music everywhere. I really didn’t know anyone, but somehow I got incorporated into a group of people who decided to go into David Remnick’s office and sit on the furniture for a while. Then they departed and I found myself briefly alone in the office, which, as I remember it, was dark except for the light coming in from the immense, Times Square-facing windows. I stood there for a minute or two on my own, feeling as if I’d arrived at the center of something that turned out to have another, less reachable center. Shortly thereafter, I left the building and went home.
One of the problems I am currently having is that I, along with the rest of you, am living through a time that everyone seems, reasonably, to hate. The meme behind every meme about 2020 is that it is a terrible year and that its end should be hastened. The first part is hard to refute, but the second part cuts against my personal need to avoid hastening anything. I get that “everything is terrible” right now. But now is a precious commodity for me. Now is all that I have, or at least all I know that I have; all I can be sure of.
It seemed emblematic of this plague year that someone should make a regular practice of arbitrarily howling outside our windows in Brooklyn. That the howl was emotionless reinforced its connection to the annus horribilis. Its flatness suggested something de rigueur about what was being expressed. The howl was – ought to be – taken for granted; just as the dreadfulness of the year was and is an accepted fact. No emotion required: just screaming. However . . . There was, it turned out, another, kinetic dimension to this sound, to the way it was being emitted and by whom. You really had to see it to believe it, but since you are not here and I am, I will give you the gist. Picture a young man on a bicycle. Now, picture this young man balancing a soccer ball on his head while he rides his bicycle. There he sits in the saddle, perfectly upright, almost as if he is perched on top of a unicycle. Finally, picture this cyclist, ball on head, poised and focused, pedaling through the streets of New York. Now listen to him scream.
You have created great images and I enjoy the way they intertwine.