The Work of Absence

When all else failed, he cribbed from genius, copying his own marginalia and any underlined or otherwise highlighted quotes into slim journals that came, along with some summary thoughts and the odd outline, to replace the original text. In this way, Jared assembled a shelf of books, playing the redactor, feeling inherently intellectual and productive, too, in the truest sense, producing, a virtual assembly line: Freud and Marx, Saussure and Austin. Yesterday it had been Wittgenstein; today it was Marcuse: "Technology serves to institute new, more effective, and more pleasant forms of social control and social cohesion." Jared was in love with his Tivo, and for the same reasons, the joy of reducing the raw content into something more manageable. He wished he could, in the end, save to disk a distillation of the finest three minutes of a given movie or television series, with his commentary in voice-over or as quickly scrolling subtitles, in yellow, across the bottom of the screen. He hated subtitles in white, swallowed by the blur of monochrome. He had lost several important lines in The Bicycle Thief, that way, years and years ago, in Madison, before his wife had become his wife, before she'd gone missing, before his son. Before he knew Italian, too, he added, in his thoughts, making little checkmarks or what the word processing program calls "bullets" before each point. He used his Italian less than his Tivo, though his next thought spun from that, conceiving of his eleven full academic cycles at work on this degree as compacted, not as years but as a time line of high points lasting only a few hours, at most, treated by whatever it can be called that boils down the dross, if that's even how dross is made, or removed, separated, whatever. The last eleven years of his life reduced to a slim journal on a shelf somewhere, with bulleted points, the birth of his son, which he missed, the disappearance of his wife, which he hadn't.

One reason work went slowly was the boy, Lawrence, whom Jared loved, but in a different way that the clean mathematics of culling and recopying. Nothing about Lawrence was ordered, nothing containable. He ran by churning his arms and legs, spinning them like a cartoon character, a comparison Jared had once raised, freezing the screen so they could, together, study the physics and anatomy of it, a view of five individual legs on a two-legged, animated bird. He asked Lawrence what he thought, and Lawrence said, "the stars are moving farther away from us all the time." Jared had let the Tivo play again, gone into the bathroom by himself and thought about crying, first recognizing that he himself was on the brink of tears, then fading to more contemplative levels, considering crying as outward expression of emotion in several historical-cultural contexts, including Melville's pseudo-ethnographic Typee, which brought him, again, to the subject of representations of homoerotica and homosexuality, how limited those words, as terms and concepts, were, how they acted as blinders for any real understanding even of the most basic human needs and wants, the most "natural" impulses and desires, by which he meant, spawned from somewhere beyond language, a thirst for which there is no name.

He was writing a paper for a conference, Helsinki, on the psychologization and even rationalization of violence implied in the term "homophobia," specifically contrasting it against other language system. For instance, in the Dutch, a direct compound exists: "gay-hatred." Such work was the core of his thesis, language and how it speaks under and sometimes against the thoughts people try to convey through it, though that was too obtuse a phrasing. Vocabulary recapitulates knowledge? Not quite right, either, but close. Jared toyed with ways to say the thing, though "toy" implies "play" and he was earnest, rushed, with sweat forming on his upper lip when he really began to engage. He was not a tinkerer; he was like one of those specialists whose job is, on their belly, with mirrored sticks and tweezers, to defuse mines. In one of Hemingway's works, mines have been buried in mud, sometimes eight deep, one on top of the other, so as the convoy churns through, gouging out their own road, deeper and deeper, the vehicles hit more and more mines. Jared wanted to remember this, to use it as a metaphor. He did not know when or where, but one day the application would present itself, perfectly cut, like a puzzle piece, like a paper doll costume.

Lawrence played with toys for all genders, though Jared hated how some of his colleagues referred to this as an "experiment." He bought his son toys; he did not observe him in the act of playing. He bought him dolls and make-up kits, racetracks and battery-powered space guns. Lawrence used what was available to approximate plots from tv. He played cartoons, action shows, situation comedies, even some dramas. Twice Jared found him in blackface, delivering standup. "You must get a journal article out of it," one of his colleagues had said. Were they even colleagues? Fellow travelers? They were, by now, all far too young to be considered peers. Some of them he had actually taught, when they were undergraduates, one going so far as to credit Jared with inspiring in her a lifelong devotion to semiotics. There is no exact word for any of that, either – for her, her position, her feelings, her attempt at expressing them.

Jared wasn't interested in "the inadequacy of language" – language was never meant to match with the world, to achieve transparency, a distinct and crystalline signification. No, language did something else, like the word "crystalline," the multiple, kaleidoscopic associations into which it unfolded. But Jared was also not a poet, nor did he wish to be. When he did things with words cleanly and well, it was usually a task of trimming someone else's text, and then his interest was only the content, the ideas involved, how to abbreviate them, how to signify in the shortest possible way. He had written a study of street signs once, though he forgot, now, his conclusions. A moose crossing sign is more direct that, say, a railroad crossing, but people become acculturated? He forgot more than he learned, these days.

Then the cartoon had been over, and Lawrence was knocking on the bathroom door, and Jared found he had absentmindedly painted all of the nails on his left hand, a bottle of plum-tone polish his wife had left behind.

Everyone at the university had a theory, and sooner or later he heard all of them from his remaining, so-called friends, those still connected, networked, while Jared became increasingly detached from the engines of gossip. Through them he had heard that she left of her own volition, that she left because he was gay, that she'd left because she was gay, that she slept with his advisor and he had thus murdered her, that he killed her for no reason, that she and her lover had killed each other. These theories, like all theories, had no end.

For his part, Lawrence dreamt every night that his mother had been taken away by a monster, to a cave. He could describe, in detail, the facial features, body type, and gait of the creature, how it held its arms, the sliding shuffle of its feet. He compared its smell to gasoline, and someone – Jared can't remember who, whether it was a shopkeeper somewhere, or the aunt of one of Lawrence's play friends – suggested sulfur, brimstone. Since that time, those became the words he used. Our memories are formulated by language, as well as other, tangential, experiences: rumor, television. On his best days, Jared entertained the thought that if he could ever finish this thesis, this book, it would be important, it would change things, how people thought and talked. But his hypotheses and examples kept shifting. One advisor retired, the second died. In the meantime, he refined his understanding, expanded his bibliography, copying out everything in more and more tightly condensed terms. He invented a sort of shorthand for himself, rendering journals in a private script, incomprehensible to anyone else.

As part of his desire to compress time, he took to making frozen meals for himself and his son, though he usually only ate part of his, giving half an entrιe and all of the dessert to Lawrence, who could eat like another cartoon character, the one that spins in a whirlwind and on whom the Tivo had once focused in freeze-frame to reveal nothing but a blur of colored lines. "This too is an allegory," said Lawrence, and Jared wondered where he got these things, though he knew – television. They ate in front of it, and Lawrence developed a way to use both ends of the spoon, scooping out the block of brownie – that which was labeled, "brownie" – with the narrow part, tearing into the lasagna – again, in name, given meaning through words – with the wide end. Sometimes he would hum or sing songs with nonsensical combinations of syllables. Jared thought how nice it would be – how fitting, how avant-garde, how post-post and meta-meta – to compose a dissertation like that, a static of word fragments, something combed and combed so as to be completely devoid of sense.

But Jared knew – he was haunted by the fact – that someone would still find a meaning, a pattern, like in the walls of the bedroom, which, after she left, he redecorated with several varieties of latex house paint hews, from flung cans, creating a splatter and drip effect that still, illogical as it seemed, took on a certain coherence of shape and form when he lay awake, turned on this side or that, alone in the big bed, staring at the walls in the moonlight. He saw figures, chains of figures, constellations with narratives attached. He told himself disposable fictions and often dawn found him drenched in tears and sweat, thick in some rambling back-story to the images he saw in the walls. There was no end to signification, either. This, too, would necessitate a chapter, eventually, in his work.

Perhaps, he thought, the most perfect thesis would be an absence of thesis, an avoidance of words altogether, or even of the medium, like the note she left, which was not only not a note – no words – but no paper, either, not a thing missing or out of place, no implications or indication, no hints, no clues. His thesis would need to be like that, beyond invisible, not even a negation of being, just an absolute lack. His work would leave without a whisper – no memory of its departure but proof of its presence, evidence it existed, like the nail polish and the clothes in the closet, the shelf of journals, the note cards and marked-up books. He remembered the televisions of his childhood, simple, monochrome, with the image shrinking when turned off, a low tone buzzing, a pinprick. His thesis would be like the new models, digital, like his wife, there and then gone, without a sign, without a trace.

About the author:

Spencer Dew lives in Chicago. His work has appeared in Cautionary Tale, Diagram, Hobart Pulp, Word Riot, and others.