Stet was arrested, and brought to prison camp, and it was not even necessary. A critic would assert that Stet’s allowing himself to be arrested was a gesture at suicide. Next, such a critic would moralize about the effect of Stet’s irresponsibility upon his wife. What the critic means is, suicide is narcissism. The suicide wants to die so he can hear people weep over his body, he can pry kindness out of everybody, for three days, right through the funeral. If you could pass through walls right now, to hear what people really say about you, would you feel better? The mockery, almost as much as the praise, is like rain, and we are made of dry sponge, we need inundation. Stet did not lack emotions, but they were not these. Filmmakers enjoy telling stories of men who were foolish when young but who were redeemed, who slowly came to wisdom; there is no interest in a story like Stet’s, who knew everything he would ever know at age seven, and after that merely existed on the same basis, sometimes well and sometimes very badly. This matter of an ambiguous suicide, a partial, passive attempt, this cannot be taken as the symbol of a life growing in Buddhistic wisdom. If you wish, let us agree that he lived his life all wrong, was in fact the entirely worst kind of person, and dismiss him, and leave him to himself. That is the kindest thing. No, it is the kindest thing.
We are anguished about a tree which will outlive us, or a bird which will only last one summer, we don’t love death, we don’t want it. So in this Stet was not one of us, he was a foreigner, and it is an open question just what land he could have come from. Even in his happiest moment he was already ready to die, he was together with the dirt and the fog. He loved food, and he was prepared to become it. There was a story in Stet’s prison camp of the woman prisoner somewhere nearby who had labored as an electrician, and who committed suicide by removing her boots, climbing the ladder, and grabbing the high-tension wire. That is not a gesture. We, who are not ourselves most of the time, might withhold judgment on this.
Some prisoners in this camp commit suicide, but not as many as you expect. They steal chemicals from the infirmary to drink, they steal needles to inject themselves with air, they approach the electric fence near enough to grab. It’s not so easy. Stet could bury himself in a pit, he could build a mountain and start an avalanche of muck, he could lie still and become a memory. It doesn’t matter what he does, there is his punishment, he doesn’t even take pleasure in this amazing house, which is inexistent after all, it has not been a joy but only work, he doesn’t name it The Black House of Mutes, he doesn’t sign his name anyplace, even after every centimeter of the roof is covered with the furs of deceased housepets, and the outer walls with the bright broken crockery of tumbled kitchens, and a yard delineated in the mud with a sculpture garden of plow teeth and pitchfork tines, tractor rims and tractor carcass casings, all of the people’s implements, every single thing which has been touched before, still a grave is not a museum, death not an artwork, not ever.
Goodbye, then. Bitterness is just a taste, you can sprinkle it from a jar. Stet will be released from this camp eventually, but not alive. Don’t make a statue to him, we only have to find a way of forgetting to denounce somebody like him, and not by calling him a genius either. Lenin’s brain was sliced into 30,966 pieces and preserved in the State research laboratories. Thank you Lenin; enjoy your evening and whatever glory it may yet bring you. The next time you call somebody a genius, see if you aren’t actually asking that he be put in irons. It’s far easier with dead geniuses, them you can deal out like cards, Vertov trumps von Sternberg, a matter of taste.
Imagine the sense of peace we could feel if we knew that every period of our past history had occurred in matching colors, with unified styles of music and speech behind it, and if all Soviet peoples had the same basic face. When he finishes the house in his mind, Stet will proceed to build a giant tree at the entrance to the camp, the greeting tree, a false baobab sixty meters high, the frame of this tree like a gallows, but a gallows from which to ascend. Stet, creator of this uncreated giant dream, collects memories from the laborers and sketches them, to be molded in melted rosin, the tree shall be rosin with a thousand images looking out, not death masks but images of all the lost, the wives, the dogs, the hand to the mouth, the pot on the stove, the bottle of vodka, the hostile clock, the ever-present necktie, good sausages. And the workers who apply the leaves write a word on each leaf with a bit of tar, just one word per leaf, like a tree of knowledge, or let’s call it tree of language. Three hundred thousand scrambled words, which nobody can ever unmix into the intended fable. No single word is forbidden in this land, only the ordering of words into dangerous phrases. Every word is here, but they are permanently attached, they can’t be plucked to create a single Russian phrase. So it is the tree of silence, the tree of neglect, of kindness.
In the world where men speak whole paragraphs against each other, dreaminess is not considered productive. Stet is brought before the Committee. The camp is now run by a Committee of Eight. This is a miracle of Soviet resourcefulness, a committee that can stagnate by tying in its votes. He is asked to criticize himself, and he instantly begins: “I’m here because I succumbed to my emotions. My pleasures were illegitimate. I myself was the subject of my art. I refused to judge when judging was essential. I judged myself too harshly, for dramaturgic purposes. I disregarded the sufferings of those whose suffering I was unaware of. I allowed myself to have no opinion. I looked at everybody’s face equally. I wept at the childhood of evil men. I praised the productions of capitalist film centers. I praised Carmen Miranda. I ignored critiques which treated me favorably but without understanding. I was not dissuaded by critiques which understood my work and hated it. I behaved as if I were beyond judgment. I had more ideas than I could ever produce. I worked at my own pace. I thought what I was thinking was important. When some private individual spoke my name across a room, I answered to my name.”
For Stet to enter upon solitary confinement in early autumn, this is not harder than any other case of making something from nothing, it is not harder than making a Soviet love poem. Solitary does not disturb an audience member who enjoys the dark. No bed, no light, no window, but the whole of Stet is available to him. Also stone walls, and, after he searches the dark, a bucket with a lid. He sleeps wrapped around the bucket, which may stink, but is a thing, has a form given it by humans, somebody who was not cruel, whose job was not to crush genitals with bootheels, or to prevent dreamers from sleeping, all he did—Stet sees him now—he made buckets. The bucketmaker’s life, his ancestors, his love affairs, the specific glories of his children’s discovery of the world, always shrinking again to a curve of metal, a gesture by a person’s hand.
Stet is unconscious, in the prison hospital again, traveling away from himself. He imagines he’s on a train. He hides in his seat, talks to no one, for a hundred kilometers this is true. The animals along the tracks look at him without accusation. By the time they’ve pulled out of Khazakstan, headed for a bank of clouds, he is on the floor of the compartment, on his excruciated knees, folding paper swans for a little boy. Is it the lack of judgment we want from children, or only the favorable judgment? When the boy is ten years older you won’t impress him with folded paper swans. By the time a child finally comes to despise us, we’re shocked to notice that despising is the normal adult condition. This boy, who must be dying somewhere too, this is a train for the dying, he wants to see something miraculous, like the creation of swans from nothing, swans he can fly alongside. It’s not that he admires Stet for being able to make swans—he just believes the world is full of freely-given swans.
The prison doctor considers Stet empty. It is true he has no strength. The strength required to look at a carved door, for instance. The unbelievable strength you need to watch a movie about people who hurt each other (all movies are about that)—Stet once had a wife, life is made out of paper, paper is what is. You draw all over the paper and it costs you hours, but all somebody needs to do is turn the paper over. They flip the page face-down with such a talented flourish, their one-second’s work, they laugh and declare, “what I wish to flip over I flip over!” Someday there will be a statue in Red Square to N. Martinov, who shot Lermontov dead, any man who can erase a page must be greater than the criminal who originally messed it up. Five hundred crows sit on the telephone wires, absorbing chitchat through their feet, but they will fly away. Some poisons taste like bitter cherry, others are like a drop of rain. Stet does not mind what happened to him, any more than a dead man will bite his nails. The bitter cherry tree on the mountain blossoms like a fanatic for a few days, then rain falls. Later, crows will eat all the bitter cherries. It turns out the cherry tree’s real accomplishment was the creation, on the ground alongside the traintracks, of a still-life of dead petals. Centimeter by centimeter you have to crawl along the ground to really see what is there. Probably this activity is no threat to the State, but it is certainly the sort of thing that will get people explaining things to you: how you shouldn’t waste your time crawling around like that. How you should ask, first, find out what the botanists think, before committing yourself. It does not seem to the experts that the dead blossoms of bitter cherries are really the best subject for the present mood of the nation. We need many things, which we can list, and it would be best to choose something off the list.
Russia does not even understand that its real existence is inside-out, a landscape of dead blossoms.
So Stet dies. Can you understand? He prefers to be a petal. It happens like this: it’s Sunday. The sound of the day is muffled, as if snow has fallen in Chelkar-Tengiz lakebed.
All sounds are temporary
Smoke from burning garbage makes a scrim over the noise of a train approaching
Train whistle that moves toward the camp is insistent, overbearing—then it passes—for that instant you hear it as it is—then the sound plummets, failing
There is no church here and no churchbell, but a giant bell rings nevertheless, futility
His concrete mask in the crook of the tree doesn’t mind not hearing
The bell tone so low—and its up-ringing, fighting overtones
The bell has rung, it rings once, it has only rung once
The smoke smells like hot rubber and mint
Each memory of the impact of the bell resurrects the failing sound
The suspense, waiting for the stroke that won’t be renewed, is why Stet’s eyes are closed so tight
He feels, under his arm, an old reel of audiotape, no label, waterdamaged, the oxide flaking off the tape, the reel rusted, unplayable
An old wooden beam falling from a height can play the earth like a drum
(Ashes are very beautiful, but where would he keep them?)
Dancers are only pedestrians who aren’t bitter
The collapse of a prison is like applause, the collapse of a government like a hymn
(Reconciliation. In a land of smoke, why not breathe?)
Bell sound still being kept alive by artificial means
Ringing is a hobby for a bell tongue, it hits the subject and bounces away again—ringing is that energy leaking out, thinning trace of the event, while the bell-tongue is someplace else already. It’s free to talk to itself in there
When the sound finally dies, the tongue’ll be able to hear itself think
Smoke fills the lakebed. Many
breathe it. Someone will dream, tonight, of bursting into
The sound of a toy train and the sound of a real train
Picking of a mushroom, a gunshot, clearing the throat
You rescue a terrified cat, you pet him, a spark snaps and he runs
In the movies they depict the
breaking of a man’s neckbone by snapping a celery stalk
The children play a game where
twenty children surround one child and hurl a ball at him, and he
has to anticipate their attacks and dive the other way, or the
ball will hit him with a comical bang, followed by laughter from
all his friends. Once hit, the child joins with the
At dusk the snow seems to have overflowed into the sky, the horizon line vanishes, all you see is grayblue, all around you the silence of a flood
The light from a flint, the light from rot, the light in a predator’s eyes in the bush, food made of air, air sandwiches, tea of whispers, beef of the click of a tongue, try to live on these things, record music onto the grooves of your fingertips
Deprived of air, the moth will begin to breathe more rapidly, and slow the motion of its wings until the light on the wing pattern becomes breathless; it will give away the air it floats on in exchange for the air it breathes
To achieve that which sounds by itself
The inaudible is shared by all
Semen, salt, and ginger, anodyne against the loss of faith
The strategy of a dying bell tone
This bell tone declares it can reach
the sun and be heard by everyone, if only we’ll all
The sound of a breath, the sound of a tumor, the sound of delusion
Caves in the rock cliffs where thousands of families subsist on waste
They believe they are eating food, they say, but the faces are frightened
When they dig at the ground with sticks, they dig angrily
(Bitterness. In a land of smoke, why breathe?)
Nobody listens to bells these days
anyway, they’re obsolete; we have loops
Even in its dying tone, the bell is wishing to say Take 2
Even when its tone is so weak it must be carried in a net bag, like a baby, it will be thinking up new inventions, a sound cannon to shoot itself into the ears of the solar system
The sound has only traveled fifty meters. It is dead
The invisible sound, fallen to the mud, sucked-out, not fit to listen to
If a bell has hurt you, you are
entitled to strike it in return—but that is just
A STRUCK SOUND IS ONLY THE PERFORMANCE OF AN ORIGINAL, UNSTRUCK SOUND
IF THE BELL WILL LEARN TO RING WITHOUT STRIKING ITSELF
(Transcendence. You still hear the sound in your head.) A memory not consumed by fire will walk in the street. On Repin Street the voice of the child is chased home by dogs
The burnt voice of the child is
recovered by the concrete, this is Leningrad, yes,
The voice is washed by the dancers to render it invisible to the living
The voice marries a dancer and
dismembers itself and scatters itself between
The body parts of the child’s voice beginning to decompose
transmission of sound by silent wishes
The dancer warms these five parts in fire. She wears microphone wires woven in her dress
The body of the child’s voice is revived, but it has lost. It can no longer hear.
James Chapman grew up in California, lives in New York. He's the author of five previous novels, most recently Daughter! I Forbid Your Recurring Dream! He also runs a small press for experimental and "advanced" fiction, called Fugue State Press (www.fuguestatepress.com), which has published about a dozen titles to date. This present novel, Stet, should be published sometime along about the summer of 2005. His fiction has appeared such publications as Central Park, Cambridge Book Review, Appearances, ACM (Another Chicago Magazine), Real Fiction, DDT, Transmog, Global City Review, Northwest Review, No Roses Review, Jacob’s Ladder, and Journal of Experimental Fiction.
Copyright 2005, James Chapman. This work is protected under the U.S. copyright laws. It may not be reproduced, reprinted, reused, or altered without the expressed written permission of the author.