You never hear about a sportsman losing his sense of smell in a tragic accident, and for good reason; in order for the universe to teach excruciating lessons that we are unable to apply in later life, the sportsman must lose his legs, the philosopher his mind, the painter his eyes, the musician his ears, the chef his tongue. My lesson? I have lost my freedom, and found myself in this strange prison, where the trickiest adjustment, other than getting used to not having anything in my pockets and being treated like a dog that pissed in a sacred temple, is the boredom. I can handle the enthusiastic brutality of the guards, the wasted erections, even the suffocating heat. (Apparently air–conditioning offends society’s notion of punishment—as if just by being a little cool we are getting away with murder.) But what can I do here to kill time? Fall in love? There’s a female guard whose stare of indifference is alluring, but I’ve never been good at chasing women—I always take no for an answer. Sleep all day? When my eyes are closed I see the menacing face that’s haunted me my whole life. Meditate? After everything that’s happened, I know the mind isn’t worth the membrane it’s printed on. There are no distractions here—not enough, anyway—to avoid catastrophic introspection. Neither can I beat back the memories with a stick.
All that remains is to go insane; easy in a theater where the apocalypse is performed every other week. Last night was a particularly stellar show: I had almost fallen asleep when the building started shaking and a hundred angry voices shouted as one. I stiffened. A riot, yet another ill–conceived revolution. It hadn’t been going two minutes when my door was kicked open and a tall figure entered, wearing a smile that seemed merely ornamental.
“Your mattress. I need,” he said.
“What for?” I asked.
“We set fire to all mattress,” he boasted, thumbs up, as if this gesture were the jewel in the crown of human achievement.
“So what am I supposed to sleep on? The floor?”
He shrugged and started speaking in a language I didn’t understand. There were odd–shaped bulges in his neck; clearly something terrible was taking place underneath his skin. The people here are all in a bad way and their clinging misfortunes have physically misshaped them. Mine have too; my face looks like a withered grape, my body the vine.
I waved the prisoner away and continued listening to the routine chaos of the mob. That’s when I had the idea that I could
pass the time by writing my story. Of course, I’d have to scribble it secretly crouched behind the door, and only at night, and then hide it in the damp space between the toilet and the wall and hope my jailers aren’t the type to get down on their hands and knees. I’d settled on this plan when the riot finally took the lights out. I sat on my bed and became mesmerized by the glow from burning mattresses illuminating the corridor, only to be interrupted by two grim, unshaven inmates who strode into my cell and stared at me as if I were a mountain view.
“Are you the one who won’t give up his mattress?” the taller of the two growled, looking like he’d woken up with the same hangover three years running.
I said that I was.
“It’s just that I was about to have a lie–down,” I protested. Both prisoners let out deep, unsettling laughs that sounded like the tearing of denim. The taller one pushed me aside and yanked the mattress from my bed while the other stood as if frozen and waiting to thaw. There are certain things I’ll risk my neck for, but a lumpy mattress isn’t one of them. Holding it between them, the prisoners paused at the door.
“Coming?” the shorter prisoner asked me.
“It’s your mattress,” he said plainly. “It is your right to be one who sets on fire.”
I groaned. Man and his codes! Even in a lawless inferno, man has to give himself some honor, he’s so desperate to separate himself from the beasts.
“As you like,” he said, a little disappointed. He muttered something in a foreign tongue to his cohort, who laughed as they left.
It’s always something here—if there isn’t a riot, then someone’s usually trying to escape. The wasted effort helps me see the positives of imprisonment. Unlike those pulling their hair out in good society, here we don’t have to feel ashamed of our day–to–day unhappiness. Here we have someone visible to blame–someone wearing shiny boots. That’s why, on consideration, freedom leaves me cold. Because out there in the real world, freedom means you have to admit authorship, even when your story turns out to be a stinker.
Where to begin my story? Negotiating with memories isn't easy: how to choose between those panting to be told, those still ripening, those already shriveling, and those destined to be mangled by language and come out pulverized? One thing's for sure: not writing about my father would take a mental effort that's beyond me. All my non-Dad thoughts feel like transparent strategies to avoid thinking about him. And why should I avoid it anyway? My father punished me for existing, and now it's my turn to punish him for existing. It's only fair.
But the real difficulty is, I feel dwarfed by our lives. They loom disproportionately large. We painted on a broader canvas than we deserved, across three continents, from obscurity to celebrity, from cities to jungles, from rags to designer rags, betrayed by our lovers and our bodies, and humiliated on a national then cosmic scale, with hardly a cuddle to keep us going. We were lazy people on an adventure, flirting with life but too shy to go all the way. So how to begin to recount our hideous odyssey? Keep it simple, Jasper. Remember, people are satisfied-no, thrilled-by the simplification of complex events. And besides, mine's a damn good story and
it's true. I don't know why, but that seems to be important to people. Personally, if someone said to me, "I've got this great story to tell you, and every word is an absolute lie!" I'd be on the edge of my seat.
I guess I should just admit it: this will be as much about my father as it is about me. I hate how no one can tell the story of his life without making a star of his enemy, but that's just the way it is. The fact is, the whole of Australia despises my father perhaps more than any other man, just as they adore his brother, my uncle, perhaps more than any other man. I might as well set the story straight about both of them, though I don't intend to undermine your love for my uncle or reverse your hatred for my father, especially if it's an expansive hatred. I don't want to spoil things if you use your hate to quicken your awareness of who you love.
I should also say this just to get it out of the way:
My father's body will never be found.
Most of my life I never worked out whether to pity, ignore, adore, judge, or murder my father. His mystifying behavior left me wavering right up until the end. He had conflicting ideas about anything and everything, especially my schooling: eight months into kindergarten he decided he didn't want me there anymore because the education system was "stultifying, soul-destroying, archaic, and mundane." I don't know how anyone could call finger painting archaic and mundane. Messy, yes. Soul-destroying, no. He took me out of school with the intention of educating me himself, and instead of letting me finger-paint he read me the letters Vincent van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo right before he cut off his ear, and also passages from the book Human, All Too Human
so that together we could "rescue Nietzsche from the Nazis." Then Dad got distracted with the time-chewing business of staring into space, and I sat around the house twiddling my thumbs, wishing there was paint on them. After six weeks he plopped me back in kindergarten, and just as it started looking like I might have a normal life after all, suddenly, in the second week of first grade, he walked right into the classroom and yanked me out once again, because he'd been overcome with the fear that he was leaving my impressionable brain "in the folds of Satan's underpants."
This time he meant it, and from our wobbly kitchen table, while flicking cigarette ash into a pile of unwashed dishes, he taught me literature, philosophy, geography, history, and some nameless subject that involved going through the daily newspapers, barking at me about how the media do something he called "whipping up moral panics" and demanding that I tell him why people allowed themselves to be whipped into panicking, morally. Other times he gave classes from his bedroom, among hundreds of secondhand books, pictures of grave-looking dead poets, empty long necks of beer, newspaper clippings, old maps, black stiff banana peels, boxes of unsmoked cigars, and ashtrays full of smoked ones.
This was a typical lesson:
"OK, Jasper. Here it is: The world's not falling apart imperceptibly anymore, these days it makes a loud shredding noise! In every city of the world, the smell of hamburgers marches brazenly down the street looking for old friends! In traditional fairy tales, the wicked witch was ugly; in modern ones, she has high cheekbones and silicone implants! People are not mysterious because they never shut up! Belief illuminates the way a blindfold does! Are you listening, Jasper? Sometimes you'll be walking in the city late at night, and a woman walking in front of you will spin her head around and then cross the street simply because some members of your gender rape women and molest children!"
Each class was equally bewildering, covering a diverse range of topics. He tried to encourage me to engage him in Socratic dialogues, but he wound up doing both parts himself. When there was a blackout during an electrical storm, Dad would light a candle and hold it under his chin to show me how the human face becomes a mask of evil with the right kind of lighting. He taught me that if I had to meet someone for an appointment, I must refuse to follow the "stupid human habit" of arbitrarily choosing a time based on fifteen-minute intervals. "Never meet people at 7:45 or 6:30, Jasper, but pick times like 7:12 and 8:03!" If the phone rang, he'd pick it up and not say anything-then, when the other person said hello, he would put on a wobbly, high-pitched voice and say, "Dad not home." Even as a child I knew that a grown man impersonating his six-year-old son to hide from the world was grotesque, but many years later I found myself doing the same thing, only I'd pretend to be him. "My son isn't home. What is this regarding?" I'd boom. Dad would nod in approval. More than anything, he approved of hiding.
These lessons continued into the outside world too, where Dad tried to teach me the art of bartering, even though we weren't living in that type of society. I remember him taking me by the hand to buy the newspaper, screaming at the baffled vendor, "No wars! No market crashes! No killers on the loose! What are you charging so much for? Nothing's happened!"
I also remember him sitting me on a plastic yellow chair and cutting my hair; to him, it was one of those things in life that was so unlike brain surgery he refused to believe that if a man had a pair of hands and a pair of scissors he couldn't cut hair. "I'm not wasting money on a barber, Jasper. What's to know? Obviously, you stop at the scalp." My father the philosopher-he couldn't even give a simple haircut without reflecting on the meaning of it. "Hair, the symbol of virility and vitality, although some very flaccid people have long hair and many vibrant baldies walk the earth. Why do we cut it anyway? What have we got against it?" he'd say, and let fly at the hair with wild, spontaneous swipes. Dad cut his own hair too, often without use of a mirror. "It doesn't have to win any prizes," he'd say, "it just has to be shorter." We were father and son with such demented, uneven hair-embodiments of one of Dad's favorite ideas that I only truly understood much later: there's freedom in looking crazy.
At nightfall, the day's lessons were capped with a bedtime story of his own invention. Yuck! They were always dark and creepy tales, and each had a protagonist that was clearly a surrogate me. Here's a typical one: Once upon a time there was a little boy named Kasper. Kasper's friends all had the same ideas about a fat kid who lived down the street. They hated him. Kasper wanted to remain friends with the group, so he started hating the fat kid too. Then one morning Kasper woke up to find his brain had begun to putrefy until eventually it ran out his bottom in painful anal secretions.
Poor Kasper! He really had a tough time of it. In that series of bedtime stories, he was shot, stabbed, bludgeoned, dipped in boiling seas, dragged over fields of shattered glass, had his fingernails ripped out, his organs devoured by cannibals; he vanished, exploded, imploded, and often succumbed to violent spasms and hearing loss. The moral was always the same: if you follow public opinion without thinking for yourself, you will die a sudden and horrific death. For ages I was terrified of agreeing with anyone about anything, even the time.
Kasper never triumphed in any significant way. Sure, he won little battles now and then and was rewarded (two gold coins, a kiss, the approval of his father), but never, not once, did he win the war. Now I realize it was because Dad's philosophy had won him
few personal victories in life: not love, not peace, not success, not happiness. Dad's mind couldn't imagine a lasting peace or a meaningful victory; it wasn't in his experience. That's why Kasper was doomed from the outset. He didn't stand a chance, poor bastard.
One of the most memorable classes began when Dad entered my bedroom with an olive-green shoebox under his arm, and said "Today's lesson is about you."
He took me to the park opposite our apartment building, one of those sad, neglected city parks that looked as if it had been the location of a war between children and junkies and the children got their arses kicked. Dead grass, broken slides, a couple of rubber swings drifting in the wind on tangled, rusty chains.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from A Fraction of the Whole by Steve Toltz. Copyright © 2008 by Steve Toltz. Excerpted by permission of Spiegel & Grau, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.