P Art Director Trevor Martin Illustrators Katharine Lauderdale Sally Scopa Cole Stamm Hogan Paschal Original Cover Photo: Andrew Izaguirre Treated by Trevor Martin
Editors Sanders I. Bernstein Pat Chesnut Mark Chiusano Christian Flow Daniel Howell Teddy Martin Kevin Seitz James Somers Daniel Wenger Esther Yi
THE BAD VERSION
V Volume I, No. 1. www.thebadversion.com. The Bad Version is published four times a year by The Icarus Project, a NJ Nonprofit Corporation. All contents ÂŠ The Icarus Project. Printed in Allentown, PA by R.R. Donnelley. Single issues are available for $9. Yearly subscriptions for $30 in the U.S., $36 in Canada, and $50 in other international areas. Lifetime subscriptions are offered for $300. All payments in U.S. Dollars either by cash or check can be sent to 9 Jacob Arnold Rd., Morristown, NJ 07960 or processed online at www.thebadversion.com. We warmly welcome submissions and correspondence. Submissions may be emailed to email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, and email@example.com. Correspondence should be directed to 9 Jacob Arnold Rd., Morristown, NJ 07960 or contact@ thebadversion.com.
HOURS AND DAYS
The Collapse of American Leisure Time Pat Chesnut
IN SEARCH OF SYMBOLS
A Young Teacher in the Mississippi Delta April Wang
A BETTER QUESTION
Inside the World’s Most Complex Machines James Somers
DEGREE OF LIFE
Movie Reviews and OKCupid Daniel Howell
DON’T PAY ANY ATTENTION TO THIS
David Foster Wallace’s Self-Cannibalism Esther Yi
FICTION VAMPIRE DEER ON JEKYLL ISLAND
AVENIDA PAULISTA, 2073
A STORY GIRL
A VISIT FROM TRANSMISSION MAN MARKS THE BEGINNING OF THE END
POETRY SMALL COMPLICATIONS
THE KNOT Joseph Quinn
Dear Reader, What you have in your hands is The Bad Version—and only you can make it better. The Bad Version seeks to foster conversation about the world we live in through the fiction, poetry, and cultural criticism of the young and curious. Our name comes from the collaborative art of screenwriting, where the first attempt at a scene, that wild idea that gets the process going, is called a “bad version.” While it might be impractical and it might even be stupid, it is a beginning—and, with the help of others, it can lead to something brilliant. This magazine is dedicated to first concepts, to pieces that are taking risks, trying to broach new ideas, experimenting with new forms, starting new conversations. We make no claim to expertise or a privileged vantage point. All we can promise is that we have spent many hours grappling with the questions we confront—sitting around the table, drinking too much coffee, reading, scribbling down notes, arguing our ideas, throwing too much into the wastebasket. We want you to sit at the table with us. We want to hear your ideas, your thoughts, your opinions. We want to read what 1
you have written. There’s not enough real conversation in our country—not enough listening, not enough true dialogue, not enough give and take—but we still believe that, together, we can arrive at a better understanding of the essential questions we all face. Because of this, we’ve arranged The Bad Version as a conversation. Every piece in this issue has a response; instead of a monolithic article that you’re forced to accept, you’ll get multiple opinions and viewpoints. Think of it as a snapshot of a roundtable discussion—a place to take up the conversation once again. There is no theme, because themes are artificial impositions that refuse the wondrous complexity of our world. But there is a story. (There’s always a story if you look hard enough.) This issue traces a road trip into the world of fiction and the fictions that make up our lives. We begin with an essay that uses a rambling road trip to reflect on the vanishing time of our days. We stop off at a supermarket in “Small Complications,” head to the South in “Vampire Deer on Jekyll Island,” and see the Mississippi Delta through the eyes of a teacher before finding ourselves in San Paolo, Brazil at a bookstore of impossible magnitude in “Avenida Paulista, 2173.” And through that bookstore—reminiscent of Borges’ Library of Babel—we enter the world of ideas. Once here, we’ll find essays that ponder the wonder that can be mined from the question of “how” and think about universality and particularity through movie reviews and OKCupid dates. We’ll read about the nature of words before plunging into a 2
story of how we read. And then we’ll read about how David Foster Wallace got trapped in his own story. After the most phantasmagoric piece of all—about a sleepwalking actor and his sleep-stealing father—our trip is tied together with “The Knot,” a poem that contemplates the act of creation via the mind of the French novelist Francois Mauriac. Except it’s not tied up, of course—not really. There is no closure here. “The Knot” is a tangle, a difficult poem that demands more thought, not an end point. And we hope that The Bad Version is not an end point, either. Only you, our reader, can make a better version. So please, continue the conversation these pieces begin—discuss them, respond and comment on our website (www.thebadversion. com), send us your thoughts—and help us keep pushing forward. We hope that you pursue these questions, that you pass this magazine to your friends, and that you interrogate your world along with us. Yours, The Editors
I was looking for a breakâ€”-from the burdens of work, from the stress of the present, from the bustle of my life. So I called my road buddy and planned a long drive west.
HOURS AND DAYS Pat Chesnut
Around 3 a.m. on a Saturday this May, I took the wheel from
my friend Jordan and started driving across the Iowa plains. The sky above us was black and potent, and my windshield dappled with mist. Hidden clouds snuffed out the stars. Headlights sometimes loomed over gentle hills, each pair cresting like a sunrise, but they came more sparsely the more I drove, and mostly I saw darkness. Before long, Jordan was asleep in the passenger seat. The night seemed soft but heavy; it embraced the car like a blanket pulled over a childâ€™s head. Yet it also felt open, endless, its unadulterated blackness stretching as far as I could see and farther still past that. Every few miles, I passed a bit of road construction that pierced my calm cocoon. Orange cones would funnel me past the shoulder of the road, to an area that looked like a pit stop and shook it like a rickety washing machine before setting me free on the open highway once more. It went on like that for a while: smooth highway and short detour, open stretch and cordoned side, peaceful flow and abrupt shift, until it took on its own sort of rolling rhythm and just became the Iowa drive. 5
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I heard my engine humming faintly and, louder, the sound from my speakers: podcasts of WNYC’s Radiolab, spacey, philosophical, and grand, perfect for the setting and perfect for my mood. I caught every word, but they felt more atmospheric than present, the scenery in my mind instead of the dialogue. Mostly, I felt alone, with nothing to do but think, and drive. It was exactly what I wanted and what I felt I needed. This was my first vacation after six months in a new office job. I had worked in advertising for eight months before that, mixed an Italian restaurant with a book publishing internship before that, and gone through one of those increasingly common bouts of post-collegiate unemployment before that. It was while working at the restaurant that I took my first big road trip with Jordan. We left Chicago and followed the old Highway 61 down south, through St. Louis and Memphis and New Orleans, then came back up through Nashville and Louisville. We explored the cities and embraced the music, drove fast and stopped wherever, and came back ready to share our stories and make some more. That trip felt right at the time: we left on my 23rd birthday, and I thought of it as a new beginning, a big adventure that would keep going and lead me into adulthood. This time, though, I wasn’t looking for a beginning; I was looking for a break—from the burdens of work, from the stress of the present, from the bustle of my life. So I called my road buddy and planned a long drive west. 2.
I was a college junior walking languidly through Cambridge, 6
Mass., on a crisp November day when I decided that a 40-houra-week desk job might not be so bad—might even be something I would want. And it was a video game that got me to that point. My roommate and I had left our dorm in a weird mood that day, both excited and wistful, and acutely aware of how transitory everything felt. As we strolled away from the Charles River, in no particular hurry to get to class, we started talking about Super Mario Galaxy. We thought it seemed cool, and we wanted to get home and spend a few hours playing it, the way we had with dozens of video games when we were younger. That’s all, really. But as we talked about the games we used to play, I started to realize that my free time felt different back then—more contained, more cohesive, more leisurely. I could come home from middle school and let a sprawling game like Ocarina of Time envelop my life. It wasn’t just the excitement of each accomplishment I loved, but the way every event was a revelation that drove me and the story onward. Each night I played that game, I discovered another aspect of the polygonal world and collected another piece of the epic fantasy tale, and each morning I’d get on a bus full of giddy chatter and hyper questions: “How’d you beat the water temple?” and “Where’d you get the hover boots?” and “How cool was that scene with the Seven Sages?” My thoughts didn’t go much beyond that—I was 11, after all—but I knew that there was always something new and exciting to do, and that as much as I didn’t want the game to end, I couldn’t wait to beat it. Now, though, I began to see something else: my young life had a structure to order my free time, a steady pole opposite 7
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the school day. Because at this point in college, any structure I had seemed to have collapsed, and the smooth cyclical march between schoolwork and play felt more like a lurching, interminable procession. As I grew older and my interests expanded, I watched an immense, interconnected world grow up alongside me, and it shaped a dramatically different mental landscape. It’s not that other things didn’t contribute—my friends, my classes, my own maturation—but that everything in this world was suddenly amplified. And in my room on the Charles, I had access to it all. It might start with something simple—a friend’s blog, or the Wikipedia page for a movie I wanted to see. Or, more often, I’d open them both in separate tabs, while downloading a new album and listening to another already in my iTunes; to not multitask, at this point, was to waste time. My friend might talk about a talked-about movie like Juno, and I’d want to read about the background, and the plot, and then Ellen Page, because who is this girl and where did she come from? And Ivan Reitman I half-recognize, so I click on his name and yup, his dad is the guy who made Ghostbusters, and what was the plot of that again? And wasn’t Bill Murray great? And he’s a Chicagoan and a Cubs fan like me, so I flip over to a Cubs blog to check the offseason chatter and read hundreds of fervent comments, and what’s this trade rumor? Brian Roberts? Baseball Reference has his stats, and John Sickels has write-ups on every prospect in the deal, and I wonder if FJM’s posted a line by line takedown of awful baseball writing recently? Or if Joe Posnanski’s got another 8
three thousand words of great baseball writing up? Regardless, Michael Cera was in Juno and now I feel like watching Arrested Development but dwoop! there’s a gchat asking what’s up or linking me to something I’ve gotta read, and an email with a new video I’ve gotta see, and I know I do, because we’ll all talk and email and gchat about it soon enough, but I still feel like checking the news and David Brooks mentions William James so I pull up that essay I like, “oh not much how bout you?”, and oh hey, that album finished downloading, and my mind gets distant while so much is present, and—well, you get the idea, and probably did before I started. This isn’t to say that everything became a series of trivial distractions; it was more like an overlapping jumble of fractals, each one as full and bottomless as the one before. I picked through them like a magpie while obsessing like a maven. That album in my headphones became a catalog of early stuff and a library of influences. And I wasn’t even the kind who, in a different time, would have spent his days in a record store: there were always others who knew more, or at least they blogged like they did. About music and so much else. I wanted to keep up, but I needed a way to get a handle on my relentless, fragmented days. And as much as I loved my classes, they seemed to get in the way of doing that. School work was another persistent presence in my mind, tugging at it while the rest swirled through, and I could never get away from the demands of papers and assignments for long. I felt stuck in the manic present, and I wanted to restore a sense of cohesion to my days and progress to my life, even if it was only partial. 9
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“You know what?” I finally told my roommate. “A full-time job might be nice.” You get out of work and you’re done, I figured. It would be more like the days of middle school and video games, with a structure for my work, a way to contain my free time, and a unified experience of my day. I was wrong, of course. But I couldn’t have known that at the time. 3.
The west and the wilderness, two of the great beacons in
the American imagination, have always flashed promises of possibility and escape, and they did for me this spring. I felt weighted down by the burdens of work, tossed around by everyone and everything I was connected to, overcome by the flood of stuff washing over me. As Jordan and I charted a path across the west, I imagined that I’d drift through the Great Plains like Huck on the Mighty Miss, or bob to Kerouac’s syncopated rhythm of ecstasy and emptiness, or maybe settle into the muted contentment of a Hollywood cowboy. Mostly I just imagined calm and quiet. We crossed into Nebraska around 5:30 a.m., seven hours or so after leaving Chicago. The sun rose slowly over the verdant spring farmland, and the clouds glowed white against a smeared pink and blue sky. There’s a Georgia O’Keefe painting at the Art Institute that you can’t miss—it’s called “Sky Above Clouds IV,” the Internet is telling me now—and I thought of it then, even though I hadn’t seen it in a while. But I mainly tried to remain in the hazy present, where my mind had as much space as the open 10
road and my thoughts sank into the soft, silent land around it. This was before I started checking emails on my phone, and before I started documenting everything in a tweet journal. I wanted to disconnect from the endless chatter of my present and replace it with something more timeless and whole, like what I found in the games of my boyhood and the picaresque stories on my bookshelf. Or at least what I found at the McDonald’s 70 miles west of Omaha, in a farm town called Seward. It was sometime after 6 when we pulled into a parking lot full of beat-up trucks and went inside to order coffee and breakfast. While we waited, I watched the eight sunburned men at the corner table. Empty wrappers and Styrofoam cups piled around them, but as they sat back and mumbled half-chewed sentences, they seemed unconcerned with the clutter—or anything else, really. They must have been there for some time before we arrived, and they didn’t look like they’d leave anytime soon. They probably could have sat there all day without feeling like they’d missed anything. I imagined it to be some sort of weekend ritual, and I wanted to carry it with me, like a congregant leaving Mass with the Eucharist under his tongue. Once Jordan and I grabbed our food, we continued driving toward the rising sun; the land became crisper, dryer, and more fully alive, and the wet brown fields turned to faded gold. It only rained in the distance now, where the lazy smudged clouds woke up slowly, stretching their yawning wisps toward the ground below. Each patched field looked like the one before it and the one I knew would come next. My friends in Chicago had called Nebraska a dull drive, with miles and miles of monotonous 11
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nothing, and I thought how people on the coasts call it “flyover country.” I tried not to care: I still loved it, and for a time, I found comfort in its peaceful, ceaseless repetition. But it wasn’t enough. Our quiet soon turned to boredom, and as the bright day broke, we grew restless. We talked, we listened to music, we sat in silence. Each sign marked our slow progression across the state and made us glance at the speedometer to see how much longer we had to go. Our thoughtless, ambling rhythm became as empty as it was comforting. When we finally reached the Colorado state line, I greeted the arid landscape with relief and the mountainous vistas with hope. I had wanted a long drive with nothing to do, and I got it. But I could only sit back for so long. As we stepped onto the Denver pavement after 16 hours in the car, I was ready to stretch my legs, seek something new, and do something once again. 4.
William Faulkner once said, “One of the saddest things is that the only thing a man can do for eight hours a day, day after day, is work.” I know this because I was sitting in my office a few weeks ago and my mind got jittery, so I opened up Twitter and saw, in the stream of news feeds, baseball writers, comedians, journalists, friends, celebrities, magazines, and aggregators, an old Paris Review interview with that quote. As much as much as it rang true for me, though, it seemed almost quaint. Because the ceaseless connectivity that lets me read Faulkner’s interview at my office also multiplies the volume 12
of work I can do in it. With digital links across the country and response times shrinking to the immediacy of email, the eighthour work day has become, for many, a name and little more. And it doesn’t end when you leave the office, either, not when everyone carries their work with them wherever they go, on email and Blackberry and company-issued laptop. Instead, the work day stretches into the rest of your life, its end-points increasingly undefined, its presence never far. As it does so, it pulls on an already tenuous period of leisure time, one that is not only shrinking, but broken into more interests, more forms of entertainment, more ways to engage and distract yourself than ever before. The two combine into an amorphous, unending present, with fewer periods of uninterrupted focus and less linear progression through the day. My life has become “things I’m working on” more than “things I did today, yesterday, so far.” 13
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I’ll often leave my office in the Chicago Loop by 5:30, and I consider myself fortunate for that. By the time I’ve gotten off the Blue Line and taken the bus to my West Side apartment, it’s still relatively early, but the work day leaves me drained. So I change out of my shirt and tie, and I try to relax a little bit. Sometimes that means talking to my roommates, or maybe turning on a ballgame. Sometimes it means reading something that doesn’t ask too much, like Sports Illustrated or Esquire or Time Out. Sometimes it just means grabbing a drink, sitting on the couch, and letting my mind empty out for a few minutes. Whatever the case, it’s 7:30 or 8 by the time I finish dinner. That’s when all the information and entertainment around me, all the interests and desires I’ve built up over the years, start to overflow what space I’ve set aside for them. I might read a few chapters of a book or make my way through a long article. Hopefully that ballgame I started watching isn’t a good one, because those can last all night. Sometimes I think I should go out and see a movie, or else stream one from the couch. But those take a lot of time—there goes the day!—so maybe I stream a TV show on Netflix instead. Or watch one of those new episodes pushing my DVR toward full. Maybe I want to hop on the computer and catch up with friends. I don’t see them nearly enough as it is, you know? Hell, I don’t see them enough—so maybe this is a night to meet someone for a beer and relax. But then again, who wants to sit back and relax when there’s so much to see, so much to do! And it’s all there, night after night. I can dabble each night, sure, maybe do a bit here and a bit there, but it won’t end. Infinite options, infinitely expanding, meet 14
finite time, infinitely fragmented, ad infinitum. One way to get a handle on this is to prioritize and plan, to schedule your time and discipline yourself. You can make appointments, almost, like setting up a meeting at work—an hour with the TV here, an hour with a friend there. The energy and immensity of leisure interests—the stream of information and entertainment that never ends—burst into your work life, so it only makes sense that the structure of work takes over leisure time. It might help you keep up with and enjoy all those interests, or at least a lot of them. But it also turns everything into an obligation as much as an experience, and so threatens to make leisure time second-order labor—something that takes work after you leave the office. It requires you to be on, active, what marketers and advertisers call “leaning forward.” That’s a necessary state that can really illuminate the world around you, but if the switch is stuck in the on position nearly 24 hours a day, the power’s eventually going to drain, and you have to wonder how much you’re truly seeing. Combine this experience with a structure in which everything—not simply work and leisure in the aggregate, but all the activities that compose them, all that news and entertainment and desire—overlaps and interferes with everything else, where it’s all tenuous and you keep moving from one thing to another, and you get an odd situation. It’s like running a marathon through an obstacle course. It’s not that we’ve all lost the capacity for complex thought and sustained activity, but that deep, linear concentration—the kind that springs from idleness and gives birth in turn to insight, wisdom, 15
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and creativity alike—is increasingly difficult to achieve. You may seek a full, coherent experience, but what you’re more likely to find are fragmented days and partial pursuits. 5.
While we were strolling through downtown Denver, my
friend Christine offered to show us where she works. Christine and I had been close in college, but now we, like everyone else, had scattered across the nation and were mostly connected by email and Facebook. I had no sense of her day-to-day life anymore, and I wanted to see this part of it and try to understand. Her office was self-consciously open, self-consciously cool, even. Despite the brick walls and gray Berber carpet, everything felt decidedly contemporary: no doors, no cubicles, few offices, and lots of shared space. Christine’s computer was in the right corner of a three-sided, staple-shaped table that was pressed up against a wall, with the empty end facing the hallway. “It’s really cool how everyone is so open and easygoing here,” she told me. She seemed to like her work—and her office—a lot, and I know she’s good at it. “But I wish I didn’t have to worry about everyone seeing my monitor.” She talked about mastering the harried Alt+Tab, where you surreptitiously peak at emails or whatever else while keeping your fingers on the keyboard in case you need to abruptly switch back to work. I knew exactly what she meant. “I’ve started typing emails to you guys in Word so it looks like I’m working,” she said. “Then I’ll really quickly paste them into 16
Gmail, send them off, and get back to my job before anyone walks by.” We left her office and walked around as much of the city as we could, and I felt it out in fleeting images: the striking silver Art Museum, the ugly boxed skyline, the faded yarn flowers knit through a chain-link construction fence. The streets receded past long rows of buildings, their fronts flat like a movie set, and opened onto the vast space beyond them. The city was empty almost everywhere we went, or at least sparse, and all I could think was, Where is everyone? Where, on this clear spring Saturday, was the urban bustle I was used to? We found the people but not the bustle at the 16th Street Mall. They shambled about calmly, carelessly, like they didn’t have to be anywhere but were moving forward anyway. We spent the rest of that afternoon near the mile-high marker on the State Capitol steps, in the same dreamy half-time as the people on the streets below, simply talking about our lives, telling stories the others had missed, and staring through the Rocky Mountain wallpaper that lines the city. We hiked those mountains the next day and lost time further, measuring it only in the crunch of our shoes against the ground. We climbed through countless bare aspens and fell through the softening hip deep snow so often it became a running joke. When we finally reached a rocky creek bed near the top, we ate our food, called it the end, and came back down, exhausted. Back in Christine’s apartment, we tasted the eight tequilas her boyfriend had on hand. He told us about their names, their distillers, their aging, their flavors. I only remember that they 17
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tasted good, and that they got me a little drunk, and that I slept soundly. By the time Jordan and I woke up early the next morning, we were ready to move on. Christine had to get back to work, and we had more plans to chase, more stories to seek. 6.
Walk through any modern office and you’ll see people reading the news, checking fantasy football, listening to music, emailing a friend—as much as they can get away with between the tasks of the day, and as much as they need to remain sane and productive. For me, this means, more than anything else, reading about baseball. It’s no coincidence that two of the biggest revolutions in the way Americans consume sports over the last few decades—the advent of fantasy and the rise of advanced statistics—began in baseball, because our national pastime was made for the information age, and it thrives on the Internet. Kids used to look at the box score in the morning paper and imagine the previous day’s game; I look at box scores and win expectancy graphs, triple-slash lines and triple crown categories, wOBA and WAR, and innumerable blogs trying to put it all in context. The stats are endless, they’re illuminating, they’re overwhelming, they’re necessary. It could feel like one more flood of information washing over me, a whole world in itself instead of an abstraction of the one it seeks to represent. But baseball has always had numbers at its center, and they’re more often the raw material for telling stories about the game. 18
Because baseball is, more than anything else, a sport of stories, of concentric narratives that emanate outward: the at-bat, the inning, the game, the series, the season, the career, the arc of the team, the history of the game and its place in our culture. Faced with a fractured, endless, overwhelming day, I try to lose myself in every baseball story I can find. They still enchant me the way they did when I was younger, whether they’re told through numbers on the computer screen or images on the TV. I’ll sometimes get home, turn on the Cubs, and try to forget about everything else for a few hours. I might watch Aramis Ramirez swing over a 3-1 slider like he wants to hit one onto Waveland Avenue or pop his shoulder out trying, and I’ll wonder what pitch is coming next. With two outs and a runner on second, and the seventh inning ready to break open or fold up, it’ll feel like the turning point of the game. Maybe this is the rubber match in a big series against the Cardinals, and even though the Cubs’ season is over, we can spoil one for our rivals. Aramis will shorten up on the full count with a man in scoring position, look fastball and react breaking ball, try to drive one to right center. I’ll know this because I’ve watched Rami most summer days since the middle of 2003, over eight years with him as a character in my life, and I’ve seen him do it time and again. And I’ll know that we’re coming to the end of his time with the Cubs, and that he’s the only third baseman in forty years to fill the shoes Ron Santo used to click in the outfield after each Cubbie win. I’ll see the steady presence on a bad team in transition, one hoping to turn things around, and I’ll hope along with them as I always do, because they’re the Cubs and that’s what they offer, hope and heartbreak, that and little else for over 19
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a hundred years. These Russian doll narratives are all there in some capacity, even if you only see one or two at a time. They always expand outward, and there’s always something to replace them. The sport proceeds serially: every day there’s a game, every inning there’s a drama, every pitch there’s a battle. It’s boring if you think it’s all repetitive and endless and pointless. But when you give yourself to it for a bit—when you focus on one of its stories for a while— you can replace the fragments of your day with something whole and engrossing, even if each story is actually tenuous and partial, even if they’ll all be replaced by others soon enough. In this way, as an ongoing serial narrative, the experience of baseball is like the experience of television. You get the same structure of concentric stories with a TV show: the scene, the episode, the story arc, the character arc, the season, the series, the larger story that stretches endlessly beyond the plot. Like baseball stats, like baseball games, TV gives you something that’s always expanding and constantly refreshed, infinite fodder for parsing and discussing and trying to make sense of. There’s something about this structure that seems to resonate with most of us. That might be why television has erupted with renewed vigor in recent years, with great shows in every corner of cable, the best showrunners elevated to something like auteur status, DVR and Netflix helping us follow it all, and fanboy websites posting breathless weekly recaps. Look around at the books that have captured our generation’s imagination, from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter to George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire—the current subway favorite, 20
clutched by handfuls each rush hour, and the inspiration for HBO’s Game of Thrones TV show. That these books are fantasy matters, but so too does their structure, because epic fantasy, like television, like baseball, like Ocarina of Time, unfolds as a serial narrative. All these stories take place in worlds, from Wrigley Field to Pawnee to Hogwarts, that are both recognizable and recognizably different from the everyday, places imbued with history and legend and myth. Each world can be as expansive as the one we inhabit in our daily lives, but when we experience them, it’s with a loose, sequential order. They pique our desire to know and see more without ever fully satisfying it. What they offer, at any time, is only a part of themselves. The rest we intuit. The whole always stretches beyond you with a serial narrative, but in each partial look in, each thrilling fragment of a larger story in a larger world, you see part of a loose plan, a freeflowing structure, a temporary escape from the burdens of your eternal present. 7.
It can be strange to “plan” a road trip. The nature of a road
trip—what differentiates it from a normal vacation—is the continuous flow, and the space that leaves for chance. You have ideas, not an itinerary. You have stops, not destinations. You perceive instead of looking. You wander from place to place, giving yourself fully to whatever you come across but never trying to do too much. Because however many places you visit in however many days, you probably won’t see the entirety of each 21
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one. All you can do is accept that, and embrace each partial view. What a road trip is, really, is a serial narrative, and a way of bringing that into your life. So what is a serial narrative, and what can it be? It’s an ongoing collection of subnarratives, each one alive but incomplete on its own. It’s a tenuous whole held together only by the recognition that each part must somehow connect. It’s a way to keep working on and reworking the big ideas and shifting landscape around you, to keep revisiting the same themes, which you may never grasp fully or directly. It might even be a way of structuring your life, one that provides provisional order to the overwhelming flood of stuff around you. A self-conception that lets you weave your incomplete episodes together. Something that exists in the eternal present but is also outside of it, and can somehow structure it, organize it, maybe even redeem it. After miles of sun-colored Wyoming landscape, Jordan and I stopped in Casper and caught a John Wayne movie marathon in our hotel. We walked into “the world famous Wonder Bar” with a cowboy swagger, and the bartender told us how it was lost in a card game and how it used to welcome The Duke himself, and Dizzy Dean, and Ernest Hemingway, who came in drunk and angry when his wife was sick and flung silver dollars at the back of the bar. We went to a Sanford and Son-themed bar across the sheet and drank dollar pints amidst the flimsy tchotchkes and cultural debris while a handful of locals told us about growing up in Casper, and waking up drunk on random neighbors’ couches, and wanting to get out and see the world. 22
We saw a spectacular collection of carved antlers in Dubois and listened to the “Tales from the Togwotee Trail Radio Hour” in my car. We saw all of Yellowstone’s sights and most of its creatures. We saw Mount Rushmore and snapped our pictures in front of it so others could see us there. We spent a night in Rapid City, where frontier openness mixed with contemporary hipness and a thicket of wondrous graffiti stretched behind our historic hotel. We had a beer with a South Dakota firefighter who told us about coming to Chicago with his band, where he saw the Rock ‘N Roll McDonald’s and “that bar Al Capone used to go to,” and I wondered how distorted my idea was of his city was if that’s what he thought of mine. We laughed our way through miles of signs for Wall Drug— “All roads lead to Wall Drug,” “Awesome: Wall Drug,” “Wall Drug: As told by The Denver Post”—and made a pilgrimage to see it, a 76,000-square-foot repository of American kitsch and clutter—gift shop, art gallery, cafe, amusement park—in a town of less than a thousand. We scraped our shoes across the rocky Badlands soil and slept beneath the starlit prairie sky. We marveled at the gaudy Mitchell Corn Palace. We passed by countless roadside attractions with narrow appeals we couldn’t begin to comprehend, and the Minnesota Vikings’ church-like headquarters, whose appeal we understood too well. We drove over 3600 miles in our nine days, and everywhere we went, we found the same flash and whiz of American culture calling to us. We could never get away for long, but we never quite needed to, either. As we threaded our way across the 23
HOURS AND DAYS
continent, we sewed the pieces we collected into something like a whole. Our days were simply the time when we went someplace new, and our nights were the time we stopped going. I no longer worried about Wednesdays and Saturdays, about leisure time and schedules and work. But by the end, we were back to where we started, and I was back in my apartment, on my couch, on my computer. I woke up on Monday and went back to the office. This episode of my life was over. I was ready for the next one to begin. A RESPONSE Where does the mind go when we take a walk? Does it extend to touch the land, or play off corners of a new room? Do my thoughts intersect in the space between me and a car moving toward us, or mingle around the edges of a magazine that wrinkles in my bag? For Pat, physical space, movement, and perception are closely connected indeed. A distinct form of clarity appears as he walks with a roommate or as he drives through the night. When his mind has the chance to sink “into the soft, silent land around it,” experience becomes uniquely satisfying. In the woods of Colorado, a hike and a lunch feel so coherent that he writes of it as a self-realizing narrative when they “called it the end.” The stories of the baseball diamond are mapped, too. He finds the sport captivating because each windup creates an expanse of potential arcs across the field. The imagination collapses with the pitch into one screaming grounder toward third and the sprint of a runner on his path. Even in the virtual world of Zelda, polygonal as it might be, Pat has a genuine excitement about wandering in that immersive environment. But if satisfaction is linked with a sense of movement through space, what happens to our thoughts (and ourselves) when the spaces of our lives become disordered and fragmented? 24
Nowhere is space more fragmented than in the virtual world. Wandering the Internet is the opposite of crossing a landscape. It is a miraculous trick that hyperlinks can take our eyes directly from A to B, while webpages don’t fade in the sun or show wear with age: the sharp edges are built just for us each time. Even thinking of servers offers no way out: they remember us, but we have no way of leaving a mark, no way to place this moment. What good is the thought of a physical building in Oregon humming with hard drives? This liquid crystal screen pulls videos from computers in Egypt faster than I can stand up from my desk, so the experience is one of an anti-space still confused with a weak substitute, still bound to our concept of the tangible world only by bad metaphors and savvy software designers. This Internet defies the rules of the spaces we live through, creating an unreality which permeates so completely that only reception dead zones hint at the vibrating towers that obey our environment. It’s not that digital media persists through time or spreads over every place—they exist outside those rules altogether. Its information is everywhere, but to us and our minds it might equally be nowhere. This difference, this disconnect, between “cyberspace” and the continuous landscape where we see and think and express ourselves is deeply unsettling. When Pat speaks of the day’s shrinking time, I wonder if maybe that’s approaching the question from the wrong direction. He implies that this anxiety comes from a sense that there is only time to know a part of a thing, and indeed, the web thrives on the insatiable desire to see and know more. Yet maybe it’s not that there is less time for our loves, our friends, and ourselves; maybe as we spend more time working through digital screens, the knowing becomes different, and loosens a deeper anchor. This distinction feels so fundamental that surely the question was addressed when pixels and bursts of data were new. But as we go further, have we really come to terms with it? For Pat, I think, the road-trip illuminated that linear timeline across the landscape—that arc which all our stories make: a structure not only to our relations, but to our own sense of self.—KS
SMALL COMPLICATIONS AFTER ROBINSON JEFFERS Sara Judy When he suggested a blow job under that old tree by the water in the public park, she laughed. She knows almost nothing about poetry, or death. She works at the grocery store. She is, generally, apathetic. She does not expect romance, or death. And when she dies it will not be easy or painful. She will not linger over the two-for-one cans of soup, and if she reads a book of poetry left behind in produce, and if she meets the presence of the poet there, she will not understand. Poetry and death are not for her. They are for the poet to fling over the edges of the cliff, little pebbles down into the water. She is for the times the poet is running low on toilet paper, and oranges. 26
“Small Complications” is a simple and direct poem that takes simplicity and directness as one of its subjects, and yet it is also surprisingly nuanced and self-conscious. From the beginning, the poem throws out concrete nouns and concrete ideas that feel more like objects than words, and it dares us to either read something high-minded and profound into them or let them remain unadorned—though even then, they seem beautiful and profound because of that simplicity. Along with this first split in ways to view these objects—let’s call it the poetic and the basic—the poem portrays another, between the careless apathy of its character and the openness of its speaker. “Small Complications” focuses on the basic view and the apathetic character, but it also elevates them, to the level of beauty and wonder—the realm of the poetic, open-minded speaker. And even while this poem makes only a modest claim for itself—to be a pebble dropped off a cliff—it also claims that the small, the modest, and the simple can be great, if we only let them. Its apathetic character may seem myopic, but there’s also something refreshing in her focus on the everyday, and in the fact that when she gets asked for a blow job, she doesn’t see lyric romance; she cuts through the shit and laughs. Because in the end, there’s a lot of shit that we need to wipe from our lives, from our poetry, and from our asses. (Even poets need toilet paper, as we’re reminded in the last stanza.) It’s fitting that the poem ends with oranges, which are both bright fruit from tropical locations and commonplace food in all of our kitchens. They provide basic nourishment, and when they do, they’re incredibly pleasurable. But they’re also the objects of art, as in a classic still life, and pleasurable in the aesthetic sense. It doesn’t matter if we take them as food or as art: they’re great either way. And so is this poem, if you ask me. —PC
They’re caught in the headlights of your gaze, said Timothy. What’s that? Are you really quoting right now? She said.
Sure, he lied.
VAMPIRE DEER ON JEKYLL ISLAND Mark Chiusano
They were just getting out of dinner at the Jekyll Island Club Hotel Grand Dining Hall, the one where jackets are recommended, where the places of origin of the waiters are written on their golden name tags: Hungary, Kenya, Mozambique. Courtney had had too much to drink, gin and tonics, and Timothy was watching her as she navigated the steps, leaning on the wicker railing. Iâ€™m fine, she said. At the bottom of the stairs, Timothy waved off the valet, who was rummaging for the keys to their BMW. It had been one of the nicer cars in the lot, which surprised Timothy. Courtney was walking ahead of him, towards the water. He took long steps to catch up to his wife. When he did, she was stopped in the middle of the road, watching six deer stumble gracefully across. Are those deer? Timothy asked, happily. Of course theyâ€™re deer, she shushed. They were small, canine except for the long legs. They were eating at the seeds in the thick tropical grass in front of them, undisturbed by the human presence. 29
VAMPIRE DEER ON JEKYLL ISLAND
They should be moving, Timothy said. Like, running away. Courtney took two steps forward and stamped her feet. The deer looked at her. They’re caught in the headlights of your gaze, said Timothy. What’s that? Are you really quoting right now? she said. Sure, he lied. He tried to put his arm around her but she shrugged him off. Come on, he said. No, she said. She walked to the edge of the water, which was the bay. The beach was on the other side of the island. The hotel had been built here a hundred years ago, by JP Morgan and Joseph Pulitzer and Henry Goodyear and all the rest. They had put the hotel on this side for ease of getting the building materials across the water, barged over from mainland Georgia, to the island where they went to forget about their capitalist sorrows. It had been in the guidebook that Courtney read on the drive down from New York, Timothy refusing to change drivers until they were well into Maryland. They didn’t talk on car rides anymore, like they had when they first got married, even when they couldn’t find a radio station. He hadn’t stopped for a bathroom break until DC. The two of them looked out at the bay, where there was one
red light blinking, a lighthouse. It was the brief flash that gave it away. Timothy, rebuffed in his advances, settled for leaning backwards on the railing so he could look half at her and half at the old hotel they were staying in. It’s creepy out here, he said. I don’t think it is, she said. Well it is, he said, brushing a no-see-’em bug off his chest. There’s no people around. It’s like there’s a curfew or something. It seemed to Timothy that this had bothered Courtney. Why would there be a curfew? she said. I don’t know, maybe it was in the fine-print somewhere, he said. Half off the hotel reservations and free dinners as long as you’re in by ten. But that doesn’t even make sense, she said. Maybe it’s because of those wolves we just saw. They were deer, Tim! Maybe these are bloodsucking deer.
VAMPIRE DEER ON JEKYLL ISLAND
Courtney angled her body into Timothy. Bloodsucking deer! she fake squealed. You never know in these places, he said. You just can’t tell. They watched the lighthouse blink red and dark for a while. Timothy stroked Courtney’s shoulder. She didn’t pull away. Maybe the vampire deer are owned by the hotel, Courtney said, her breath in his ear. Maybe it’s all a setup. I bet the valets are in on the whole thing, Timothy whispered indignantly. That’s why they keep hopping into those go-carts, to let the deer out from their cages on the golf course. Courtney giggled. Timothy pressed on. By day, he said, they feed them the carcasses of guests who kick the bucket during the night, and once night comes, they go loose. Courtney turned in towards Timothy and held each of his shirt collars in her hands. She pushed her forehead into his chest. Save me, Tim, save me, she shouted. He felt something triumphant. There was a heaviness in his throat. Maybe this trip would make him better at this. He was running out of ideas. He said, That’s my job. He knew it was the wrong thing to say once her forehead stopped kneading his chest. What the hell’s that supposed to mean, she said. From the bloodsucking deer, he added. She let go of his neck and started walking back to the hotel. 32
Jesus Courtney, he said. I want to go home, she said. Courtney, come on, he said again. She didn’t answer. She walked the long slow curved lamp-lit path towards the hotel porch. There were plants hanging off the rafters, green overgrown ones, their pots sprinkled with dried out petals and swaying in the dead air. She ignored the valet who tipped his cap at her and said, Evening Ma’am. She planted herself on one of the white rocking chairs sitting out there, and sat in it motionless, although before she did, she gave the chair next to her a push, and its crazed rocking died quietly down while she put her face in her hands. On the wharf Timothy turned back around again, looked away from the hotel, looked out on the lighthouse blinking red, and off, and red, and off. They had reservations at this hotel for three more nights. They were staying in the annex. It was a fifteen-minute drive away. They would be here until the end of the week. Then there was nothing else. He guessed they would drive back home. There was all the time in the world, though. The water confirmed, all the time in the world. He stayed there a while, waiting for Courtney to come back, but she didn’t, and at a certain point he didn’t dare turn around and look for her. It would have admitted defeat. He looked out over the water. If he covered the space a foot in front of his eyes with his hands, Timothy found, and looked up, he could see all the stars. He wasn’t used to something like that. He pleated his hands and put them in front of his face, so that they were a big circle keeping out the lamplight. This way he could see all the stars, over 33
VAMPIRE DEER ON JEKYLL ISLAND
the circle that his arms made. His arms, linked at the fingers, hugged at empty air and felt entirely satiated. A RESPONSE The idea of vampire deer. The image of a grown man staring at the stars with his hands “pleated” over his eyes. Timothy’s phrase, “they’re lost in the headlights of your gaze.” These are the things that stayed with me after I read “Vampire Deer on Jekyll Island.” For me, the background, the failing relationship—those things, for good or for bad, barely registered. Mark’s story spoke to me about the ways in which we see the world, or in other words, the way in which we imbue the world with life. Timothy and Courtney are both dealing with a failing relationship. Courtney drinks. Timothy, on the other hand, escapes into the world of imagination. He maps his fancy onto everything. It’s not that the dumb deer have acclimated to humans, but that they are “caught in the headlights of [Courtney’s] gaze.” And those deer are not simply cud-chewing cervids, but lupine bloodsuckers, “vampire deer.” You can argue that his whole game of pretend is simply a gambit to get Courtney’s attention. He begins talking about the deer as “wolves” to make conversation with her, to back up his contention that Jekyll Island is “creepy.” But the very nature of the conversation suggests a particular way of relating to reality. He is not content to simply accept the world as he’s been told it is. His mind is active and creative and whimsical. He’s not prepared to accept a deer as a deer, just as he’s not prepared to admit “defeat” at the story’s end. No, instead, like a child, he stares at the stars in wonder. He seems to find some sort of solace there. It might be a false solace—after all, his faltering marriage still waits for him when his sights return to this earth. However, you can’t deny that he finds joy in the firmament. Why don’t you take another look at that last paragraph. Chiusano’s understated, Carver-like prose doesn’t scream it, but there’s terrific uplift there. There’s the surprise of “he wasn’t used to something like that,” followed by that final sentence where we leave him 34
“hugging” the air, but feeling—or at least, a part of him (“his arms”) feels— “entirely satiated.” Like so many other city dwellers before him, he’s taken aback and entranced by the full majesty of the night sky. Such a lyrical ending might come under fire for failing to engage with the grittiness of life, eliding the real sorrow that Timothy must be feeling. You can ask, “Who actually will respond to marital strife by going, ‘Oh wow, that sky is beautiful’”? But, for me, personally, it made total sense. Timothy is constantly creating his world—naming and imagining it. In this final scene, he’s simply doing what he’s done throughout the story. This time, though, it’s just that he’s positing things onto the night’s twinkling stars and not telling us what they are. Is that really so hard to believe? I think we all do the same thing. We all tell ourselves stories. We all dress up the world with associations and imaginings. We might not all have a failing marriage that we must confront, but there are bitter realities we’d rather not face. However, good stories—stories we tell ourselves, or stories like this one—whisper to us during the difficult times and permit us to persevere. —SIB
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Nick Bakshi is a Brooklyn-based brand planner, freelance journalist, and all out, balls-to-the-wall face-melting fictionaut. Follow him on Twitter @NickBakshi. Pat Chesnut lives in Chicago and rocks the world. Mark Chiusano’s fiction and non-fiction have been published in Blip Magazine, The Utopian, The Harvard Review, plain china, The Harvard Advocate, and The Harvard Crimson. Cora Currier works as a fact-checker at the New Yorker. She has reported for The Nation and The European, and her poetry has appeared in Epiphany, The Harvard Advocate, and plain china: best undergraduate writing. When our alien overlords arrive, Daniel Howell would like to be their Philippe Pétain. Sara Judy lives and writes in New Hampshire. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Katharine Lauderdale is an artist who is living in LA; she still can’t get over the palm trees.
Joseph Quinn was born in Manhattan and teaches there now. David Rice turns the TV on, with all of the lights out. Sally Scopa is 21 from San Francisco. Jessica Sequeira lives in Buenos Aires. James Somers is a computer programmer and writer based in New York. He maintains a list of all his published work at jsomers.net. April Wang is a Teach for America Delta â€™09 corps member, currently living in Dobrich, Bulgaria. She believes that land in the Delta lives, breathes, and speaks and that the soul of America sleeps on a little hill in Arkansas. Esther Yi likes to take long walks in her room.
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Published on Nov 4, 2011
The Bad Version is an attempt to foster discussion about the world we live in through fiction, poetry, and cultural criticism.