By Charles Lam
By LP HASTINGS
By Gustavo Arellano
By Gustavo Arellano
By LP HASTINGS
By Dave Barton
By LP Hastings
I. The "You," Just So You Know, Is Professor Mark Axelrod
You are sitting across one of those tiny, round Parisian café tables from . . . Samuel Beckett. (Beckett, to fill us all in here, is the world-famous writer with the indelible crag of gray face and shock of white hair, his head looking like it was hewn from rough granite by God's exhausted hands, poised, facing without a flinch—and with a totally new kind of dignity—the onslaught of horrors and emptiness wrought by the first half of the 20th century. He authored groundbreaking works of theater like Waiting for Godot and Krapp's Last Tape, as well as a trilogy of novels that took fiction a few steps past Joyce's Ulysses into something that people would later recognize as "postmodern." Which he helped inaugurate, and for which, among other things, he was awarded a Nobel Prize for Literature. That Beckett.)
This is the early 1980s, and the elderly Beckett facing you is by now a deathless icon, having long outlived everybody—Joyce, Woolf, Hemingway, Faulkner—who could be said to be his peers. You are, in the manner of late bloomers, still starting out. You have somehow finagled this audience with the Great Man through the acquaintance of an acquaintance. As you remember it later, Monsieur Beckett is "self-effacing" and "quiet"; he is "even more nervous than I was," and he's fidgeting with his napkin, his coffee saucer, his little cigars. And every time you ask him a question about himself—since, what else are you supposed to do? You have only an hour of your life to spend with this man, and you know you will not pass this way again—he turns the question around and asks you about yourself. And he doesn't seem to be blocking your questions because he resents intrusions into his privacy. No, not at all. He seems genuinely interested in you. Discovering that you write—and that you write all sorts of things: poetry, screenplays, novels, literary criticism—he wants to know how the devil you juggle all those forms so nimbly, because, he confesses, he can't. One of the 10 greatest writers of the 20th century is asking you, humbly and rather sweetly, for your ideas on how to write.
At this point in your life, you are already in your thirties and have every right to consider yourself a failure in several areas. You couldn't hack dentistry—halfway through dental school at the University of Indiana, they threw you out. You did publish an interesting little book of concrete poetry, but it's hard to tell if the 14 people who read it think it's any good. When you moved to Hollywood to turn your (unpublished) novel into a screenplay, you got all the way into an important agent's office, an agent who offered you an actual contract, but for some reason you can't even remember now, you suspected some legal catch, and turned him down, and the chance (there being few second acts in screenwriting careers) has never come round again. By your own account, you are, at this point in the 1980s, a "vagrant," a "work-in-progress," toiling away at a Ph.D mill in frigid Minnesota, so while Samuel Beckett is focusing his iconic head with those tragically watery eyes straight at you, a voice is thundering inside you, saying, "What interest could Samuel Beckett possibly have in whatever I do?"
You don't want to blow this. Years earlier, you remember, Jorge Luis Borges (one of the other 10 greatest writers of the 20th century) walked by your table at a café in, of all places, Bloomington, Indiana: "The first time I saw him was a Sunday morning at a café," you recall now. "I was doing some writing and he walked in with María Kodama, before they were married, and someone else. I just sat there and stared as they walked by my table and sat nearby. My hand was frozen. Mouth contorted. One just doesn't sit in a Bloomington café on a Sunday and expect Borges to walk in for brunch. The café was practically empty, but filled with my anxiety. I never went up to him, never said anything to him and the opportunity disappeared. It was after that moment when I told myself, never again would I let that happen."
So you don't. You regard Beckett's regard of you, somehow, as your due, and you allow yourself to dwell in it. Bask in it. You come away from this Parisian tryst with a little confidence. You spend the next two decades writing and publishing like crazy—a trilogy of novels of your own, a book of short fictions, another novel, two well-received works of literary criticism, several textbooks on screenwriting, articles all over the place. You become a full professor of English and Comparative Literature at Chapman University. You lecture throughout Europe and South America as an expert on screenwriting, on Latin American fiction, and as a practitioner of a brand of writing called metafiction, or fiction that takes as its subject the writing of fiction and the fictive nature of reality. You find yourself being offered visiting posts at universities foreign and domestic where you present your ideas to eager colleagues and students. You win lots of awards and sinecures. And, in doing all this, you find yourself, curiously, at the vortex of three of the most vital artistic movements of 20th-century writing: the postmodern self-reflexive novel as initiated by Beckett and Cortazar and popularized in the U.S. by John Barth, Ronald Sukenick, and your old pal Raymond Federman; the Latin American novel that took the literary world by storm after Gabriel García Márquez published One Hundred Years of Solitude; and that monstrously influential machine of narrative storytelling called Hollywood. Your finger is firmly on the cultural pulse.