07 September 2013

#3DNC: Sørina's first chapter

As promised, here is the first chapter of my novel-in-progress, The Four Senses. All suggestions, comments, critiques, and other responses are welcome!

Chapter One

“Do you think I am blind?” I snarled. The tiny 18-year-old shrank away from me.  
“Do you think I am deaf, and dumb, and senseless?”
“Of course not, Ms. Woods,” she whined, pressing her skinny body against the orange chair, its metal legs chilly against her bones.
“Do you think I have a two-digit IQ?”
“Of course not!” she whined again. “I just panicked.”
“Look, Jennifer, I don't want to tell you how to be a better criminal, but seriously! Couldn't you even change the font? I mean, you copied-and-pasted an entire essay, dumped it into the center of a page, and handed it in? How stupid do you think I am?”
My temperature rose with my frustration-level. A prickling sensation crawled up my neck, redding my face, then down my arms, dampening my shirt.
Jennifer squirmed in her chair, managed a glance at my face, then blurted out: “I didn't know what you wanted, I hate poetry, what was I supposed to do?” Her fear spewed out along a stream of entitlement.
“You know what you were supposed to do. You were supposed to come see me, and you were supposed to write your own essay.”
“But I don't know how to write an essay!” Her squeaky-toy voice was rising up towards a wail now, the end of her little nose reddening. “Nobody ever taught me how to write!”
Yeah, that's probably true, I thought, my anger cooling into embarrassment. They don't teach them anything now-a-days. I thought of the high school where I had taught for one nightmare of a year, a year that nearly landed me in either the psych ward or my grave (not sure which is worse). Those kids had six English teachers in four years, and the Seniors I inherited had never been assigned a five-paragraph essay in their lives.
“I know,” I sighed. “That isn't your fault.”
Jennifer twisted her ankles together in confusion at my swift shift in tone.
“It isn't the high school teachers' fault, either,” I went on, carried by inertia. “It's the whole stinking system. For twelve years at least—nearly your whole education—you've been oppressed by a broken system that teaches you only superficial formulas and tests meaningless skills and forces everyone to stoop to the level of the lowest common denominator—” I saw her eyes had glazed over. “Anyway, you knew what you did was wrong, so why did you do it?”
“I just hoped I wouldn't get caught!”
“Jennifer,” I intoned, remembering that lowering the vocal pitch one octave can strike an impressionable youth with the force of authority, “getting caught has nothing to do with it. You still damage your soul whether anyone finds out about it or not. Do you want to grow up to be a felon?” but I broke off again, scoffing at my own pompous hypocrisy. Hadn't I gone along with the system? Hadn't I been a meaningless cog in the meaningless machine? Hadn't I gone against my own conscience in implementing immoral grading systems? Who was I to scold this sad little girl?
“Whatever,” I muttered. “I have to report you.”
She looked about twelve years old then, in her pink leggings, layered tank tops, and cheap beads.
“It goes on your permanent record.”
Her eyeliner began to trickle down her face.
“And you fail the assignment. You were doing so well, too, but failing the last essay means you fail the course. I can't let you take the final exam, you know. I don't know why you did this to me, or to yourself. You were my success story this semester!”
I recalled her writing sample: the nonsensical sentences, the random punctuation, the vague clichés, the lack of sequential thought. Then I thought through those long hours we had spent together in this yellowish office, laboring over comma splices and in-text citations. I remember her research paper: a decent C, with some pretty syntax and specific examples. What a waste.
Then I started to shrivel up inside, wondering what papers I had to to fill out, how to report her properly, and what right I had to reduce youth to cringing insects. A vision of forms in triplicate wavered in my mind for a moment, the words policies and procedures buzzing my brain. What if she appealed? What if I had to go before the ombudsperson? What if I had done this all wrong?
Jennifer was sniveling. I lunged up, grabbed the tissue box, dropped it, retrieved it, and shoved it at her. Time to be stern again.
“You did this to yourself. I tried my best with you. All I can hope is that you will do better next time and have success in the class and everything you do in life.”
I swiveled away. She started packing up all her pink Staples specials inside one other, zipping up one pockets, cases, and bags, then slunk away. Yet another failure.

* * *
But the time had come, as the walrus said, to get ready for class. That's not what the walrus said, but what he said didn't make much sense, and I had to print a handout and copy it before I went to face what was left of my dwindling class. In the back of my skull, the mental tick of my generation tapped out: check facebook check facebook check facebook. I gave in. There are still ten minutes before class, I reasoned. So I pulled up twitter and facebook and gmail and yahoo—just for a minute!—and read:
To: Cassandra Woods
From: Aurora Dunne
Hey, Cass, I'm in the airport, just catching up on emails here during a layover before I fly out on the last leg of my trip home, and stumbled on something you'd like. Have you seen this fiction blog? Really impressive writing. All these different voices, different tones and styles as if all the different characters wrote the various posts, yet there's a kind of story weaving through as you go along. I'm guessing this kind of online fiction is the way to go in the future--kind of reader-generated, to some extent, like the old choose-your-own-adventure stories. And it's got a wild premise. Let me know what you think. You should jump on this kind of stuff and write online blog-novels and make a million! OK, I'm on my way home from--well, I can't say where I've been, but you can guess if you look at the headlines. Uprisings. Genocide. The worst place to be right now, if you live there; Americans were still safe. But it was ghastly: Bodies in double rows down all the corridors of the hospital, and mostly children. I took pictures and will tell you all about it. I'll call you!
Whew. What do you say to that? That's Aurora for you. Aurora Dunne, as sturdy a friend as a girl could want, but who swirls past me in her own glorious whirlwind, tearing around the globe, saving the world, binding wounds, impervious to it all. She can save lives with one hand, and package them up like neat lab experiments with the other. She was in Haiti right after the earthquake, sawing off legs with back-room carpentry tools, without anesthesia. She was in New Orleans before Katrina had finished pouring in floods of filth, following around after the teams that spray-painted body counts on doors, working her way around the Superdome with pathetic supplies for the displaced thousands. She was in Japan after the tsunami, evaluating the severity of radiation exposures. How much horror can one person see? I have seen nothing, and yet I limp along with a wounded mind. What is her mind like inside? Maybe living a life of service heals the broken brain. I wonder if I will ever grow up.
Meanwhile... I clicked the link.


Better Deaf Than....
L Van

Having lost my hearing rather than my sight has its advantages, or so I speculate. I can still read—with my eyes, that is—rather than having recourse to the potentially alienating experience of having to read with my fingertips as some of my associates do who have had their hearing taken from them. As a tangent, however, I recall a short story by C. S. Lewis in which a man born blind received his sight. When he first tried to read by looking at the words, rather than touching the Braille, he felt alienated. He had cultivated an intimate, physical relationship with the very textures of words gained through years of actual tactile contact with the embodied shapes of letters.

Aurora was right; I loved this combination of the philosophical with the personal. It was quite beautiful writing, if a bit snobbish. I wonder why she thought it was fiction?

I suppose that viewing letters with our eyes is also physical, and that each printed character also has a physical shape—yet something in the human animal believes that touch is more “real” and intimate than sight. Love at first sight is not enough; it yearns for physical consummation.

I wouldn't know....

Yet this is far off the topic. I was going to enumerate the advantages of hearing loss, as imposed upon an adult rather than as a congenital disorder, when compared to the disadvantages of such a loss of sight.

Imposed upon”? What did that mean? Did he have an accident, or a disease, or a botched eye surgery?

I find I cannot do it. I cannot relieve the daily tortures of my situation by reflecting that someone else's sorrows are worse. On the one hand, that would be inhumane. Any rationally philanthropic human being should desire to suffer ultimate pain himself rather than that anyone else should suffer at all. This is the allegorical meaning of the Christian myth, by the way.

It's more than an allegory, buddy, I thought.

On the other hand, I cannot reflect on my advantages, because I am myopic enough to say there are none. I cannot drive, for instance, though it is not forbidden within the city. It is not safe; I cannot hear horns of warning, nor trucks bellowing up in the left lane, nor the subtle shifts of engine whine that tell me of my car's health. Small inconvenience, compared to my true woes, but inconvenience nonetheless.

I cannot hear my friends knocking on my front door. This would be a sorrow indeed, had I any friends. But I have none.

Aw, poor fellow.

And now I must steel myself to write the true horror. I cannot listen to music. There are more days when I desire death than when I do not, because of this fact alone. What is life without music.

I tried, God knows I tried (if there is a God, which I doubt more and more these days), hour after hour every day for weeks after. I took up the carpet, wrenching out the staples with violence that damaged my fingers nearly as much as it tore the upholstery. I set the speakers on the floorboards. I turned up the volume as far as it would go, watching the digital numbers rise with hope and dread. I laid my head against the speaker, ear flat on the floor. It was of no use. Beethoven himself never suffered as I do.

But they did not take my piano away. I do not know whether that is to exacerbate the torture or to provide release. But at least they left my piano here—yet I cannot touch it. I could not stand its cool indifference.

I sat silent in my faded, musty office. Shouts and laughter passed by in the hair. My eyes unfocused and I started through the computer screen. I tried to imagine the loss of hearing. I remember the old children's game: Which would you rather lose, your sight or your hearing? That obviously depended on one's vocation. I'd rather lose my hearing, I suppose—speaking of hearing, what was all that noise in the hall? Oh man, it's time for class! And I still have that handout to print and copy. What kind of professional am I—what kind of professor? Not a professor, just an adjunct, just a “Ms.,” a nobody, an overworked, underpaid, irresponsible nobody....
And so my mind ran on, all the way to the copy room, all throughout the angst of fighting the copy machine. The fluorescent lights hummed and flickered, messing with my eyes. Leftover lunch smells clogged the air: curry, tuna, popcorn, coffee, and ramen. A gallimaufry, I mumbled, playing with Shakespeare's word for stew. Too pretty a word for that sickening smell. Then the copier jammed, I got toner on my fingers, the seams of my shirt chafed my skin, and sweat still lingered against its cotton. Ah, every sense annoyed me. Could I just turn it all off?


Unknown said...

technical question about the blogger's loss of hearing: does he/she still have memories involving sounds, or has his inability to hear NEW sounds also somehow resulted in a loss of memory for how things sounded? if they still have their memory of sounds, I imagine it would be much more bearable, as their mind would simply fill in the proper sounds when playing a well-rehearsed piece of music, seeing two mugs clink together, etc. The mind is a wonderful fabricator of these things, filling in gaps of missing sensory information (for example, filling in the blind gap existing in our eyes with generated information)

Iambic Admonit said...

Thanks very much for this comment; it's brilliant! I think that perhaps his loss of hearing also affects his memory of sounds, because (it will turn out later) nothing has been done to his EARS; something's been done to his BRAIN to prevent him processing sounds. But he's also going to have a long meditation later about the imagination's power to re-create or even create sounds in the mind, so I'll have to work on that a bit more. Many thanks!

Unknown said...

also, not to criticize by any means, but psychologists generally accept the existence of at least 9 senses, possibly as many as 21+

I'm sure you have your hands full with just 5 senses, but the remaining senses might be fun to play around with if there's ever to be a sequal

Iambic Admonit said...

Ah, you anticipate me! That's actually really kind of the point of my book: that we have so many more, and the oppressive authorities in this story don't realize that. Thanks for the spoilers.... :)

Rosie Perera said...

A couple of minor editorial suggestions:
* redding – no such word; it’s "reddening" (you had it correctly a couple of paragraphs later)
* now-a-days – it’s not hyphenated; the word is "nowadays"
* I started through the computer screen - did you mean "stared"?

Otherwise, some more general comments: I found the genre to be more memoir than novel, even if the episode with Jennifer is entirely fictional (but I know you well enough to know it's at least partially autobiographical). The dialogue section is really spicy and moves along well, but whenever you go into that self-reflective mode it doesn't feel like fiction anymore.

In fact, your very words in the second half could just as easily describe your piece as they do the blog post:

"I loved this combination of the philosophical with the personal. It was quite beautiful writing.... I wonder why she thought it was fiction?"

Or maybe that was intentionally self-referential?

Finally, it feels disjointed, like a "gallimaufry" of sorts. Maybe yet another intentional self-referential twist?

Iambic Admonit said...

Rosie: Yes, I have founded the character's psychology and personality on my own, simply to have a base to build from. She grows less and less like me as she develops as a character and begins to make up her own mind about what to do. Also, I have exaggerated my most negative character traits (I hope) and made her younger in order to emphasize generational angst.