"Cyril's Cant", by Adam Burchard.
Adam Burchard lives in Queens. His writing has appeared in New York Press, Educated Community and others. This is his first piece of fiction to be published.
The ideal of truth inherent in its entirely unpretentious objectivity, at least over long passages, proves itself the only legitimate reason for continuing to produce literature in the face of total destruction. Conversely, the construction of aesthetic or pseudo-aesthetic effects from the ruins of an annihilated world is a process depriving literature its right to exist.
-W.G. Sebald, The Natural History of Destruction
I am sorry for certain things. There are certain crimes, certain mishaps that might have been avoided, certain moments of vulnerability that I feel very sorry for. I could lean on the excuse that they were mistakes, and mistakes often have the lucky option of being portrayed as innocent. But like Jeremy has never tired of telling me, even in my adulthood: it doesn’t matter if it was mistake, you still did it. I did do these things and I resign myself to culpability. But here, what did I do here that was so bad?
I have jogged politely through thirty years on this world. I was born with half Chippewa blood and half white (German or Irish or French or all of them). I am lucky for my Chippewa, ethnicity is sometimes the missing glitter of the great platform, something particular editors look for, and agents can form into a powerful mystique. I have been hailed by elegant-minded critics as the “new voice of Native America”. And although I have never really lived on a reservation, I have written some very interestingly true stories about life there.
My agent is Carla Brown, she works intimately with Harper Collins and mostly their new imprint, Aurora. She is barren, but has many adopted children from foreign countries, a gregarious woman in all respects. She is very kind to me and we often meet when she’s in Minneapolis for a half day on her way to L.A. She brings me to Toe, an expensive Japanese restaurant in Uptown, and always pays. My book about the Ojibwe man that moved to Germany to become a Nazi a year before the second world war, brought her a lot of money and the reputation of being edgy and visionary, whereas before she was regular. She appreciates me, but doesn’t care overly much, which is nice.
I am as yet unmarried, and am looking for a wife. She should be about 5 feet tall or below, the shorter the better in my case because I generally like tiny women. Large breasts. Fertile, but not fat. Quiet. Willing to leave me alone for very long periods of time. Brown hair, I don’t usually like blonds, they are too talkative. Perhaps Asian. But lack of a wife doesn’t often bother me, I’m fairly young, a sort of celebrity here, there are a surplus of young women, generally uninteresting, who share their bodies with me.
When I told Carla about my difficulties with the new book she told me I should get married. She believes marriage causes you to worry less. This told me she had relegated my problems to the shrugging “worries” pile. Worry is what happens about things that in the end don’t matter. You don’t do anything about “worries”. You sit and worry about them. I have a horrible problem. I have a problem so bad my world has stopped spinning and is about to tip into the void. I am not worried. I’m scared. Worry would be great. I would love to worry all day until I was dead and the worries exited my heart in the aroma of lilies. But such inept compassion is to be expected from my agent Carla who is engaged in many worries.
My new home is on Lake Harriet. It is too big for just myself, so I let my divorced parents live with me. Dad lives in the basement and smokes all day, while Mom lives upstairs. I hear her moving from room to room in a patient rhythm, opening doors, closing them with wholesome meaninglessness. In some ways they already seem dead and ghosts.
When I talked to my dad, whose name is Jeremy, about why I couldn’t go on with this book, he laughed at me. My problems are always funny to him. His laughter was helpful back when I was a boy and I was scared of my pubic hair, when he laughed at stuff like that it made it better, but this, I guess, is a problem I believe he does not understand well enough to laugh at.
Mom told me that the problem was the subject matter- I hadn’t experienced it, so why should I think I could write about it? I told her that I have always written about things that I have never experienced. It’s just that I have never tried to be so serious, I have always been half-ironic, lost in a melancholy humor, or “wonderful self-deprecating humor” was what I heard Carla say. She’s not afraid to pitch my work in front of me.
I was paging through the New Yorker a while ago. I get it free now that they’ve published me.
“The ideal of truth inherent in its entirely unpretentious objectivity, at least over long passages, proves itself the only legitimate reason for continuing to produce literature in the face of total destruction. Conversely, the construction of aesthetic or pseudo-aesthetic effects from the ruins of an annihilated world is a process depriving literature its right to exist.”
At first I guess I was enthralled, as I always was by Sebald: so humble, and so direct; his sincerity, a bulletproof umbrella for all of us to hide under.
Later in the day I sat down to continue a fictional piece I was doing about these fatherless children playing with the corpse of a hobo, and I found that the satisfying depth that I attributed to my ironic view of everything had secretly rotted, like an apple fallen behind a fridge. My sarcasm would no longer excuse my inability to feel outwardly sincere, or my propensity to laugh at all pathos because it appeared to be either fake or sentimental. This rot is the cause of my terror, and it persists. And it’s not the kind that bares interesting mushrooms or a germinating plant. It’s the kind that just stains then blows away.
I found new subject matter and made new rules. It took weeks to write the following creative work:
The Chippewa delegations to the nation's capital did not find an attentive reception, for throughout 1849 and 1850 Congress and President Taylor were preoccupied with larger issues such as incorporating the far West into the American state and the associated crisis regarding the extension of slavery in new territories. Nevertheless, despite the unconcern with the desires of several thousand Indians in an already established Free State, various political-administrative developments combined to create a national and a local context for what Methodist Missionary John H. Pitezel, an eyewitness on the Lake Superior scene, subsequently called a “chain of distressing evils.” President Taylor’s patronage sweep through the positions controlled by his office created the official team directly responsible for the Chippewa’s winter disaster. Since the Indian Office had been transferred to the new Department of the Interior, relations with these Indians were brought under the supervision of a Taylor loyalist, Thomas Ewing of Ohio, a man more concerned with problems of the distant West than with those in northern Wisconsin. Secretary Ewing, however, strongly favoring the trading firms, kept a firm grip on the details of managing the Indian business, causing the new Commissioner, the Kentucky Whig Orlando Brown, much frustration. The third member of the administrative chain responsible for arranging the attempt to move the Chippewa out of Wisconsin was the Pennsylvania Whig, Alexander Ramsey, who in March, 1849, was appointed Governor and Superintendent of Indian Affairs in the newly formed Minnesota Territory. This trio had little experience in the management of relations with Indians, but the team was not yet complete. It was awaiting its fourth, junior but key, member, Sub-Agent John S. Watrous. Until this time, the relocation of the Lake Superior Chippewa had been little more than an administrative intention; no specific mechanism for accomplishing this aim had been created. Neither had there been an immediate impetus for translating thoughts into deeds. Excepting the Lake Superior shoreline and the river valleys traversing the pine lands, most of the ceded Chippewa lands were entirely unpopulated by Americans. The fact that the Americans residing nearby were almost entirely male likely reduced rather than increased local support for removal. However, there was simply too little “settlement” anywhere to create local “pressure” for removal.
The Wisconsin Death March was a type of “total destruction” that was somewhat in my heritage and so I could be serious about it, I hoped, without being ashamed. I decided it would the subject of my next novel.
My research was as complete as it was obsessive. Stacks and stacks of books were read, audio recordings transcribed, I traveled up and down the whole region of Wisconsin where the Death March took place, from Lake Superior down, on foot. I met with tribal leaders and other full-blooded Indians. I’m not sure if it had anything to with research, but something always remained missing, and my writing suffered from a gruff, cruel kind of ailment that I can only describe as stupidity. When I wrote I couldn’t blink away the image of a bull chewing endlessly, in a field next to a highway, with brain-dead eyes, staring at the cars passing. Yet when I read it, I could see nothing wrong with it. Strong, terse and ennobling are the adjectives I would use to describe it.
However fitting the reading of it was though, it could not salve the idiocy I felt, which actually made me sweat with frustration, while writing. So, whenever I came to the pivotal moments of the story, when the human suffering hit its highest note, I could not help but introduce an analogizing trope or symbolic detail or some kind of effect from outside the boundaries of reason. A wave of satisfaction would go over me that was almost religious. I felt as if something truly special had been released into the world. But when I gave them a little time and then came back to these passages, they undermined completely the rest of the work, making it impossible to take it seriously. Indeed, they seemed offensive in exactly the way Sebald described them as being. And so I floundered in these vacillations of form for weeks. Going from something like…
Through the knife went, and the throat choked on blood, making some soggy sounds like boots sloshing in muck.
That fated barb, whose flashing arc slashed and danced in hands of the forest priestess Eleutheria, plunged through the soft undercloth of the buzzing electric mask of the B512 squad leader. He slumped to the ground, lifeless, only the electricity of his anti-nature jumpsuit remained flickering through translucent blue wires.
in a few days, and then back again.
Then, in retaliation to Sebald I made myself ridiculous. No longer were aesthetic effects utilized in the most horrifying moments, these moments were enlarged until the entire work was lodged in the supernatural depths of allegory, metaphor, genre. As you can see, in the second excerpt above, I wrote a kind of cyberpunk version combined with Greek tragedy. The Chippewa were naiad-like figures. Then I wrote about the creation of the first automobile and how its different parts coming together symbolized the different forms of violence that were used to eradicate the Indians. Another one was about a war between beavers and carp. They made very little sense, but felt brilliant while being written, like I had found the secret prayer to expiate all past atrocities. Again, after finishing them they became disgusting, became vicious crimes against the world and myself. When I read them they sickened me with an uncanny, delirious sensation, the feeling of being trapped in an infinite void.
I am done for, it seems. I can do nothing. If only I could be serious, and write seriously without being ashamed or feeling stupid. I feel that no amount of war, hate, fear, death, destruction will ever suffice to make me a serious person. Do I have no heart? Am I sick? I don’t know, but I am sure pathetic now. Perhaps I could be serious for one moment if I was the last man alive after a horrible plague and I could stand on top of a hill and look out over dead Minneapolis, right before I died as well (probably not).
Carla left me a message a couple days ago. Someone wants me to do a piece on the Red Lake Massacre. I don’t want to write about a kid killing a bunch of other children and some of his family. It seems pointless. It happened, that’s enough, try and get over it now. It’s like we celebrate the failure of writing to do anything, by asking it to do everything.
You can either freak out inside of your house or you can go outside and take a walk. So I took a walk and what happened was that the bench looked dry, but was actually soaked through from the last couple rains. After sitting on it for a half hour the moisture began to seep through my shorts. Then my wet butt started to itch. I still did not get up. I rubbed my cheeks against the boards, and this gave me about a two-minute reprieve before the itching began again. At last I could no longer stand the itch on my butt cheeks- they felt like some insect might be laying eggs in them.
On my way home, I passed a group of intimidating teenagers who were sitting on top of the backrest of a bench. One of them was at the water throwing rocks. I was immediately scared. I saw them only in my periphery. Hey, one of them said to me, but I kept walking. They are unpredictable. They said a bunch more things to me but I ignored them and kept walking. Then I heard something that I think is really apt, a name I had never heard before:
“Hey piss butt, How did you piss all over your butt!”
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