Thursday, December 10, 2009

Man, Underground: a new novel excerpt

While still in the early stages of revision, the first chapter of my new novel feels ready to share.  So here it is, the premier of Man, Underground, a dark, contemporary comedy.  Comments welcomed.  I hope you enjoy and want to read more:

The world of men, like the world of trees, is overwhelmingly an upright world, one of verticality such that when isolated in a horizontal landscape—when we emerge from our cover like prey within the field of vision of hunters or snipers—we are always seen. Even if moving at a distance, we are visible, just as the upright things we build are visible, like our houses and our skyscrapers. While obviously we need rest and so we must join the horizontal world at regular intervals, we typically do so in private, and thus, encountering a man in public disobeying the expectations of the upright world, we find his presence incongruous, just as we find something awry, maybe even sad, in the tree that is no longer upright, knowing as we do, that life has gone out of it.

We are so accustomed to made objects that occupy only the vertical world, like walls and doors, we find them ordinary. Yet we become so conditioned to their function we don’t know how to respond when such objects adhere to our expectations of verticality but not to our perceptions of context, no more than we know how we are supposed to behave when we pass the homeless man sleeping on the sidewalk. Such as it is for people when they encounter my front door, a door that stands alone in a field, a door without visible walls, without the context of “house” as we’ve come to expect it. If you can’t picture such a thing or you imagine only a two dimensional world with a door in a frame standing isolated in space, go back a few generations and think root cellar where the door only provides entrance to what’s below and you will have a fair equivalent of my front door. Picture the entrance to a place meant to preserve vegetables within the consistent cool womb of the earth, only this one preserves the sanity of a man. Maybe it is easier for you to accept its presence if you consider it as belonging to another age, another function, or another context. Perhaps I am easier to accept if you consider me in the same way.

Most people build houses against space. Give them a hill where the wind never stops blowing and they’ll build a house on top of it. It can be a hilltop in the middle of the prairie or in an otherwise flat valley or one rising from a suburb and still they erect a two or three story monstrosity atop it. They’ll build a private road to it if they must, install guardrails and hire a sand truck in winter and they’re at risk of sliding off the side of their beloved hill. They’ll complain at how the wind whistles through gaps in window sills and door frames and bemoan how they can’t keep water on their lawn for the steepness of its slope. All the while they’ll tell you how much they admire the view, but the only evidence you’ll see that they are home up there on that hill above you is the constant blue flicker of their TV screens at night. I know. I live below several hills. I live in a place where it hasn’t forgotten how to snow in winter even if people have forgotten how to drive or how to wear sensible shoes that accommodate the weather, a place where the wind blows and where smart farmers from another century planted wind breaks, and where, once upon a time, root cellars were common.

It is no great mystery how people are, no more than it’s a mystery that people talk about anyone who is different from them. People who live atop hills know they are the topic of conversations. And it may be simple-mindedness on my part, but I have little doubt that, consciously or not, those who live atop hills feel a kind of superiority. The house on the hill is a concept nearly as old as time. Like I said, people like to talk about those who are different from themselves. The poor talk badly about the rich and the rich about the poor and the powerful about the powerless and on and on.

I know people talk about me. I’d be a fool not to know. The crazy man in his cave. The recluse who lives down there with his spiders and snakes. Mr. Underground Man. I know they talk about more than my little underground house. Funny how people who don’t have anything to say to you always have a lot to say about you. I say let them talk.

Now I don’t really live in a cave or a hole in the ground. Let’s set that clear from the start. My home may be unconventional but it’s not primitive. Quite the opposite: complete with two large freezers and a well-stocked pantry, not to mention high-end, energy efficient washer and dryer. In designer color no less. I just take advantage of what the good earth provides. Like insulation during cold winters and hot summers.

Few people have ever crossed my threshold, so mostly they make assumptions. Like they take one look at my front door and assume that I’m more than a few bricks short of a full load. I suppose I shouldn’t blame them. I’m not so thick-headed I can’t realize how funny a door sticking up out of a field looks to most. Because my front door is little more than a gap cut into a berm, a door that opens onto a down stairwell, maybe it’s natural that people assume I live in the dark. If only they’d take a moment to consider the landscape falls away beyond my field, that there is a view the berm intentionally blocks. If they’d only consider the perspective of my home they don’t have from the road, they’d see it is purposely built into the side of a tall cut-bank, that indeed the south side of my home is visible from above and is full of windows and that in the winter, when the sun is low on the horizon, I get long hours of good light and fine solar heat. They don’t see the overhung roof that blocks the angle of mid-day sun in summer of the tile near the windows that absorbs and retains the heat. I wasn’t mindless when I built this place. But most people see my lone doorway and know I must be stone crazy.

Not that I go out of my way to correct them. And not that I didn’t build that door in the style I did for a laugh too. You’ve got to find humor where you can. Sometimes you’ve got to take pleasure in what is not said, have some confidence in the conversations that will occur regardless of your absence.

I don’t talk much to folks. I stick mostly to myself. I like talking to kids and eccentrics best when I am out and about in the world because they aren’t afraid to say what’s on their mind, or to ask questions, or act on their curiosity. The curious just might learn something. They might just stumble into a fact or an answer that opens their mind a crack. So when children approach me when I’m out at the library or the grocery store or just out for a walk for exercise in good weather—contrary to popular belief, I do leave home fairly regularly—I make it a point to talk with them if they approach me and I answer their questions. Okay, I’ll admit that sometimes I tease them, and if they ask if I live with snakes like they’ve heard, I’ll tell them I do, that the place is rampant with poisonous diamondbacks and that I cook them for my supper and decorate my Christmas tree with their rattles. I like watching their eyes grow wide and then that wrinkle of healthy skepticism furrow their brows. Mostly though I answer their questions honestly—the way I like my questions answered—and mostly kids know when a guy is teasing them. So I don’t mind when they play on my roof, because what’s it going to bother me if some little kids are running around up there in a field or they use it as a place to throw a ball back and forth. Just so long as they stay out of my garden, I’m content. What do I care? It’s not like I hear them, what with two feet of earth and a field full of native grasses and a foot of concrete between me and them. It’s not like they’re going to set fire to the place. Just so long as they don’t come bearing shovels and a jackhammer and a desire to dig a deep grave.

Of course I know there are stories about how I bury people down here or commit some other atrocious crimes or that I’ve filled the walls with sacks of money, but those stories usually have their origins with adults and the stories get screwed up and turned over and twisted, kind of like how bible stories get handed on. You might have a hard time getting to where the story began by the time it gets passed along enough and everybody gets their own agenda tagged on. They certainly bear little resemblance to the truth. But in my experience most folks wouldn’t know the truth if it bit them on their backside. Such stories are a way of explaining what you don’t understand, a way of labeling and categorizing something or someone that seems outside of you and your range of experience. It’s like people who collect insects and keep them neatly labeled, the wings all shiny and rigid with shellac and safe inside their glass cases. They just seem to forget the pins stuck through the thorax that allow for this bit of otherness to seem permanently knowable and contained.

I realize I sound bitter and I don’t mean to. I really don’t. The truth is I don’t know much about other people any more than they know about me. I don’t really understand the rest of the culture, so largely I’ve withdrawn from it. I have a history like all of us do, and my particular history helped me to decide I’d had enough of the world’s patterns—the above ground world, as I call it—and I retired to this underground world.

Now don’t misunderstand that. I fear I can make it sound as if I’m making some grand political statement, that my decision to “unplug,” as it were, has significant attachments to it. It doesn’t. I’m not Ralph Elision’s invisible man. I pay for the electricity I use same as the next guy, only perhaps I’ve learned to use a lot less. I remain disillusioned with the culture we’ve created, maybe more than disillusioned, but I can’t claim that I was used for a greater cause or that I became a spokesman for those who are alienated and abused and dehumanized or that I came close to a power that I eventually saw as corrupting. No, I’m an ordinary man. Or I was an ordinary man if choosing to live one’s life by simpler patterns makes one extraordinary. I don’t think it does. Quite the opposite. I’m so ordinary you could clone me and I’d look just like the rest of us out wandering through our lives complaining about what hand we’ve been dealt, convinced that we’ve been disrespected for one trifle or another, living by the entirely ordinary, mundane patterns of our sleeping lives, each year a bit less hair where I want it and a bit more where I don’t. I’m no different from you other than you look at me with the same disdain as you do the guy with the sign at the off-ramp looking for a handout. No, mine is no political cause, no statement, no protest. Remember back in the day when Timothy Leary said “Tune in. Turn on. Drop out,” well I dropped out. Maybe I still wore cowboy pajamas when he said it and maybe it took me almost another forty years after he said it to heed his advice, but I finally did nonetheless, I dropped out, opted out as the insurance folks like to say.

Now perhaps I’m being unintentionally misleading. As I’ve suggested, I came along a good while after Leary. I grew up between wars, came of age in that time when America had visibly failed, yet it still wanted to believe it was required to pass its values around the world whether others wanted them or not but it allowed Coke and Pepsi and Exxon and Halliburton and McDonalds to fight the wars rather than employ planes and bombs and grunts on the ground. I was a Cold War kid all the way. Tuck your head and kiss your ass goodbye while presidents and premiers called each other names. By the time I cast my first ballot, we had already forgotten most of the lessons of Vietnam and, along with a few missing brain cells, we had pretty much forgotten Leary too. We’d hired an actor to pretend to be President and got our news from animated Max Headroom, who offered another version of that President. We’d killed Lennon. We’d long since stopped selling planes to Iran and started selling them to Iraq and had watched a Sea Stallion helicopter fly into its refueling plane. Yeah, those blissful, turn your head and cough days of “peace.” Even after the wall came down, those “peaceful days” prepped us for machete murders in the millions across Africa and snipers in an Olympic city, for “wars” on drugs and “wars” on terror.

I shouldn’t complain. I’ve got no room. I chose the path of inaction. I have become Melville’s Bartleby responding to the world around me with a continuous “I would prefer not to.” Buy this product. I would prefer not to. Follow this fad. I would prefer not to. Join this campaign. No thanks, I’d rather not. Sit and watch mindless drivel manufactured in the TV studio’s writer lounges and newsroom editing floors. Perhaps not. Join an on-line “social community” while an actual community lies beyond the computer connection. Pass. Accept the lies of our beloved and bribed elected officials. Thanks, no, I’ve had my fill.

I only encountered Melville’s Bartleby within the past year. I didn’t really use to be much of a reader, which is ironic given that my degree states otherwise. But I’ll admit I’ve taken much of my solace in the world of books in the last years, and when I met a character like Bartleby I had no difficulty understanding his actions, or his inactions as the case may be. Am I, like Bartleby, too lazy to fight a corrupted culture? Damn straight. For years I tried to tune it out, but the noise is cacophonous, so loud and so constant it still tries to creep in long after I opted out.

I get Bartleby. He makes perfect sense to me. Just as I get Elision’s invisible man much more clearly in his below ground squat than I do when he was the one behind the podium. I’ve long understood his blind rage more than I do his youthful hope. I get his silence more than I get the voice over the microphone. I understand silence. I crave it. There’s just so much noise in the world, like everyone is vying for your attention so they try and shout louder than the next guy. Have you noticed? When was the last time you heard quiet? My little place snug down here inside the earth helps. It can’t block out the world, but if you get enough insulation between yourself and all the noise, it helps.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Mark,
    I just came across your blog site when I was looking at books on Goodreads (spying on what my "friends" are reading). This excerpt from your book is great. I am looking forward to reading more. Thank you for sharing. Susan