In Manchester last week, I had a few meals with readers. I mean, I assume everyone I ate with can read, but these are people who’ve read a novel I wrote. One nice thing about these people is they want to buy me lunch. One awful thing about meals with these people is they want to ask me questions. If these questions were about me—“Would you like the fried clams or the calamari?” is a good one, as is “Would you like another espresso with your biscotti?”—it would be one thing, but instead they often sound like freshman English questions, using phrases like authorial intent, limited-omniscience and, especially, conscious use of imagery.
For example, “’Clayton Clevinger’ (the main character) is such a cacophonous set of homophones. What was your intent in that choice, and what was the meaning of his moniker’s transition to ‘Clay’ by the end of the novel? Is it meant to evoke the plasticity of the human character, or is there something deeper?”
Hmmmmmmm. My authorial intention is to move the conversation back to the subject of life’s meaning, where I might at least be amusingly ignorant. I mean, what kind of a man can’t explain the hidden meanings in a book he’s written except for the worst kind of charlatan—an author who’s told a story and nothing more. I am that charlatan. Until now.
In the following 15 or so brief paragraphs are examples of irony, metaphor, metafive, metasix, unreliable narrators, periphrasis, periscopes, periwinkles, divinatory scatology, divine scatology and devilishly fun scattergories. If you can’t find these examples, but still find this narrative compelling, you’re out of luck, because it’s the first part of the first chapter of yet another novel of mine—and I’m only going to sell it to smart people who can tell me what I’m really up to.
Unless you want to buy me lunch and let me riff on life’s meaning, in which case you’re on.
Excerpt from A Cult of One
With just minutes to go on the last day of sixth grade, Jacob Tischler was out in the hallway with Mrs. Dingle for about the hundredth time this year. She looked at him and sighed.
In any school, there are classroom students, who stay in their seats for 180 days a year, and hallway students, who regularly have hushed private conversations with their teachers in the brick hallway. Other kids who walked by smirked at the twosomes, knowing that the one doing all the listening was in trouble.
Jacob was one of the few students in the whole junior high who had moved from being merely a hallway dweller to a part-time office resident, being sent fairly regularly to have a conversation with the principal, Mr. Platine.
“Jacob,” Mrs. Dingle said in a whisper, which still managed to echo off the walls, “I’m just so disappointed with the way things have gone this year. You’re not a bad boy by any means, but I can’t let you behave the way you do. You can’t be so disrespectful. Asking me in front of the class if I wear a jumper when my family goes to a nudist colony. That’s just being mean for the sake of a laugh.”
She wiped her chalky hands on her navy-blue jumper, leaving ghost-like white marks
“I’m trying to be funny for the sake of a laugh, actually,” said Jacob, tapping his foot in what was more a fever than a rhythm.
“Right there,” she said holding her palm up in front of his face. “That’s what I mean. I’m trying to talk to you person to person, and you have to turn it into a joke. Why does everything have to be funny to you?”
He had been serious, but whether he was being serious and kids and teachers thinking he was joking or kidding around and having people take him seriously didn’t really matter. This confusion had caused most of his trouble in life. Either way, he spent a lot of time in hallways talking with teachers or in the office talking with Mr. Platine.
“You’ve got a lot of potential, Jacob, but you’re not living up to it. You’re a smart boy and you’re capable of doing a lot of things. The future is a big place, but you have to do something to get where you want to be,” the teacher said, emotion filling her voice, which made Jacob want to giggle.
“I know, Mrs. Dingle,” he said, looking down at the floor to hide his smile. He studied the whirling pattern still faintly visible on the old tile floor. “I’ll try harder next year.”
“It’s not just your effort, it’s your goals,” she said, rubbing her hands together to get the last chalk of the year off. “Trying harder to be the class clown and to avoid doing your work won’t result in success. It’ll just be more of the same.”
Whenever teachers talked like this, they got a soft, wet look in their eyes, as if they were saying something new, something Jacob hadn’t heard every day of his life. That was the problem with having “potential,” whatever that was. It was just another way of adults saying they were disappointed. Sometimes he wished he were retarded, so people would be happy he didn’t drool or grab his crotch. Instead, he heard words like dismayed or baffled or chagrined or dissatisfied. A chorus from the thesaurus of “You let me down.”
Luckily, the bell rang, freeing him from Mrs. Dingle’s sincerity. He could leave school and shut the door on sixth grade forever. He’d set a record for days suspended by a 12-year-old, eight days altogether. Mr. Platine, the principal, had informed him of this accomplishment, and was disappointed with the pride Jacob appeared to take.
“Jacob,” he’d said, “You make me very tired and very sad. I just don’t know what to do with you.”
Discovering his ability to make middle-aged men tired and sad was the high point of sixth grade, which just showed what a crummy year it had been.