Two Scenes

Justin Bieber interns at Akashic

K8 Hardy, Rrrookie, 2014. Wood, lacquer, cloth, leather, 14 × 24 × 15". Photo by Gunnar Meiner. Courtesy of Karma International and the artist.

All the Sad Young Literary Women

The following takes place in what looks like a doctor’s waiting room, with doors to the left and right. MADELYN, LAURA, and EDIE are seated on chairs. Five additional chairs are empty. While MADELYN and LAURA type on their phones, EDIE reads a book. The left-hand door opens and VIOLET enters. She nods hello to everyone and takes a seat. EDIE looks up.

VIOLET
How long is the wait?

EDIE
I think I’m next, and I’ve been here maybe five hours.

VIOLET
What’s your number? I’m 115.

EDIE
Number? I don’t have a number! Nobody told me you have to take a number!

The right-hand door opens and the RECEPTIONIST emerges.

RECEPTIONIST
Number 21,095, please. Number 95? 96? 97? 98? 99? 21,100? 101?

MADELYN rises. RECEPTIONIST leads her out.

EDIE
It’s not fair! I was here first! Where’s the machine thing where you take the numbers?

VIOLET
You have to register online. I mean, you had to register online. Like a year ago.

EDIE
Shit! Why didn’t any of you guys tell me?

LAURA
We both probably assumed you had a number, if you’re sitting in here.

EDIE
Well, damn.

LAURA
If you’re smart you take a number before you even start writing. They say not to take one until you have a finished manuscript. But believe me, there’s always time to finish a book between the time you take a number and when it’s your turn.

EDIE
Hold on. How long have you guys been waiting? I mean, before today.

LAURA
About a year. Actually longer. I heard my number might come up today, so I took leave. But not if they’re only on 21,101! Another wasted day. It’s going to be months before they get to 172.

EDIE
They could get to 115 today. Did you hear how many people weren’t here? You could be next.

VIOLET
They’re not “not here.” They’re in the other waiting room.

EDIE
What other waiting room?

VIOLET
The one for guys.

LAURA
There is no waiting room for guys. They go straight in.

The left-hand door opens and SCOTT enters and sits down.

LAURA
Excuse me, but this is the waiting room for women.

SCOTT
Did they call 21,095 already?

EDIE
They just called it. They ended up taking 101.

SCOTT takes a laptop out of his bag and arranges it on his knees.

SCOTT
Then I guess I’m next. It’s good I have a little time. I have to finish what I’m doing.

EDIE
You’re a man. You don’t have to wait in line. You can just go straight in.

SCOTT
I tried, but they said take a number and go to the waiting room.

EDIE
When?

SCOTT
This morning.

EDIE
And you got 21,195? Where’d you get it?

SCOTT
At the reception desk.

EDIE
But we’re waiting to see the receptionist.

LAURA
You mean we are. We meaning the three of us. You don’t have a number! You’ll be sitting here forever if you don’t go home, get online, register, and get a number.

EDIE
I’m trying to find out how to get a number in a way that doesn’t take a year.

LAURA
Oh, that’s real fair!

EDIE
No, I want to figure out how it works. Like, if a guy can go to the reception and get a number that will come up the same day, then why are there no guys in the waiting room?

SCOTT
Because they can’t find it! I was wandering the halls for five hours.

LAURA
I don’t think you should be next. You missed your turn today. You can come any day and get a number right away. It’s not fair. I’ve waited almost two years.

SCOTT
I took today off work. I’m staying, and I’m going in next.

VIOLET
I agree with her. They’re not going to call 95 again. I’m the one going in next. I have 115. She has 172, and she doesn’t have any number at all!

SCOTT
Maybe you’re right. I could come back next week. I mean, I don’t know what this book’s even about yet. Do you want my number?

LAURA
Do not give her your number! This is not for you to decide, who goes in when! Typical.

EDIE
But he offered me his number, and I want it! I have a finished manuscript!

LAURA
How many words?

EDIE
Three hundred pages. It’s a memoir.

LAURA
A memoir? You’re a college kid!

EDIE
It’s a memoir of my mother. She had me after she got raped by this Serb and escaped on foot to Italy and stuff, and then she was discriminated against in America as a Muslim.

LAURA
That’s not memoir. It’s biography.

EDIE
No, I went to Bosnia to try and find my father, so there’s lots about me in there.

SCOTT
But why? He must have been a creep. Talk to him, just to write a book? I don’t think I could do that.

EDIE
I didn’t have to meet him.

LAURA
Yeah, I bet finding him was real easy because so many guys answered the classified. “Did you rape so-and-so on or around August whatever, 1993?”

EDIE
No, there were witnesses! It was easy finding out who it was. But he was dead.

SCOTT
How’d he die?

EDIE
My uncles killed him. They buried him alive in this old cave-like thing, like a hole in the ground they used to chill beer, mostly, but during the war the roof started leaking so it got too wet to store anything. They tied him to this dead guy, face-to-face, so the bacteria and like gangrene rot from the dead guy ate into his lungs and everything while he was still alive. The dead guy was like, his, brother I think? Maybe his dad? It was totally brutal. I ended up having this huge fight with my mom about it. She actually felt sorry for the guy! Not the rapist, the other guy. But my uncles are great.

SCOTT
That’s a great story. If the editors knew it, I bet they wouldn’t make you take a number at all. You should go straight to the reception and tell them.

EDIE
Maybe I will. What’s your book about?

SCOTT
Like I said, I don’t know yet, but I better figure it out sometime in the next hour.

EDIE
What if they call your number first?

SCOTT
That’s why I said you should take my number.

EDIE
So, seriously, what should I do? Take your number and go in here, or go find the reception?

VIOLET
Don’t fall for his crap. This is the only reception desk, right here.

SCOTT
There’s another reception desk, I swear. It’s mostly guys waiting there, because you need a serious sense of direction to find it.

LAURA
Take his number and leave.

EDIE
Why don’t you take it?

LAURA
Because I registered under my own name. That would be a great use of all this waiting, to have them say they like my work as Mr. Whoever-you-are. I don’t need them offering a book contract to some dude I never met. As far as I’m concerned he’s the once and future number 21,095, and it’s never getting called ever again anyway.

The right-hand door opens and MADELYN emerges, followed by RECEPTIONIST.

RECEPTIONIST
Number 21,102? 103? 104? 105? 106? 107? 108? 109?

VIOLET
I’m 115.

RECEPTIONIST
110? 111? 112? 113? 114? 115?

VIOLET
That’s me!

RECEPTIONIST
Then come on in, please.

SCOTT
I was number 21,095, just so you know.

RECEPTIONIST
This waiting room is for women. Are you writing as a woman?

SCOTT
No, but it’s YA GR.

RECEPTIONIST
Oh. Please wait here for a moment.

VIOLET follows the RECEPTIONIST out the door.

LAURA
So how was it?

MADELYN
They said — they said — well, they rejected my novel.

EDIE
What did they say?

MADELYN
That it doesn’t suit their current needs.

LAURA
Current needs? What a joke. Even when they accept stuff, they don’t publish it for another year and a half. So why do they always talk about their current needs? Don’t worry. They’ll publish your next book for sure.

MADELYN
That’s not it. They offered me a position as an understudy.

EDIE
An understudy?

MADELYN
They want me to understudy this writer called, um, Joshua — no, Jonathan Saffron Franzen? They said he’s kind of erratic and needs someone to fill in for him on off-nights.

LAURA
I’ve heard of that guy. Doesn’t he have lackeys already? You know how the really hot writers have lackeys to do all their social and media activities.

MADELYN
That’s exactly what I’m supposed to do. The editor said the other lackeys got too creative, plus they always drift into self-promotion, like tweeting about how much he likes their book or quoting from it. She said they need somebody who can convey his taciturn, laconic character just the way he would himself, except in seven to ten tweets six days a week and two on Sundays and holidays. She said I got the job because they could tell I have a gift for vivid, true-to-life characterizations in two words or less from my snide remarks on OKCupid.

SCOTT
I guess that’s flattering?

MADELYN
I don’t know. I went in there with a novel, but they didn’t even look at it. Ghostwriting a Twitter feed is not really how I imagined the writing life.

EDIE
I think Twitter is cool. It’s like you’re Nietzsche or Wittgenstein, and you dispense aphorisms, and people hang on your every word. Like, “When I hear the word culture, that’s when I reach for my revolver.” Or “You can’t make an omelet without breaking some eggs.”

MADELYN
Like haikus!

EDIE
All the greatest minds in history were witty that way. Like, very briefly.

MADELYN
But people will think it’s him. All the credit goes to him!

EDIE
It’s bound to come out sooner or later, and then they’ll think you’re a genius and he’s a complete zero, because he couldn’t take the digital heat.

LAURA
To me, it would depend on what they were paying me.

MADELYN
$200,000 a year.

LAURA
What? He can spare that much money?

MADELYN
Apparently.

SCOTT
For a male writer, that’s peanuts.

RECEPTIONIST opens the right-hand door.

RECEPTIONIST
21,095?

LAURA
What’s YA GR?

EDIE
Young adult golden retriever.

LAURA
What?

RECEPTIONIST
21,095, please.

SCOTT leaves with RECEPTIONIST.

EDIE
I know all about it. I read a lot of YA GR.

LAURA
What the fuck is it?

EDIE
Young adult golden retriever. It’s like comfort food.

LAURA
Escapist fiction.

EDIE
No, not exactly. It’s like, if you were feeling kind of conflicted, because, like, you find out your father took three weeks to die and was begging forgiveness the whole time and saying it wasn’t him, but people just dumped buckets of piss and shit on him, and he was actually drinking it because he was so thirsty, you might crave novels with golden retrievers. They’re fluffy and uplifting. It’s one of my favorite genres. It’s not popular, exactly, because most people have golden retriever–type lives and want to read memoirs of painful death. But if you’re like me —

LAURA
You mean like your mom and dad.

EDIE
No! They passed all of that trauma on to me! Every bit of it!

The right-hand door opens and VIOLET emerges.

VIOLET
They offered me a job understudying Dave Eggers!

MADELYN
How much?

VIOLET
A million dollars a year.

MADELYN
And what do you have to do?

VIOLET
Twitter, and book tours.

EDIE Do you have to grow a beard?

VIOLET
I’m the understudy. Playing myself! If he gets sick and can’t read and sign autographs, I get to read and sign autographs. My own stuff! I mean, I’m supposed to write in his style from now on, but how hard can that be? But what are you still doing here? I thought you were going over to the men’s reception desk to tell them about your memoir.

EDIE
Oh, right! I should get going.

MADELYN and VIOLET leave through the door to the left, as RECEPTIONIST opens the door to the right.

RECEPTIONIST
116? 117? 118?

LAURA
Hey, what’s the next number that’s not for a man?

RECEPTIONIST runs her finger up and down her phone several times.

RECEPTIONIST
21,172.

LAURA
What an ordeal. My God. See you guys later!

EDIE
Hey, what’s your book about, anyway?

LAURA
My relationship with my autistic son.

EDIE
You have an autistic son?

LAURA
Nobody has an autistic son. It’s a metaphor for the inarticulate, emotionally crippled, violence-prone teenage boy inside every woman, like the id in Freud. Check you later.

LAURA accompanies RECEPTIONIST through
he door. EDIE is now alone.

EDIE Shit.

She puts her ear to the right-hand door.

Hey! Hey! Is anybody in there? I need somebody to tell me where the men’s waiting room is. Like, where to go if you’ve written an actual book and want to publish it and live as a writer like in olden days. Where do I have to go? Is somebody in there?

RECEPTIONIST opens the door.

RECEPTIONIST
You don’t have a number. If you want to write as a woman, you need to register and get a number.

EDIE
My pen name is Josef Łucàs, with an accent grave on the A and this weird crossbar on the L.

RECEPTIONIST
Oh! That’s great. Go to the elevator bank outside and press P for penthouse. When you get up there, tell them you’re very possibly the greatest living American fiction writer.

EDIE|
But my book is a memoir!

RECEPTIONIST
Just say it. It’s the password.

EDIE
Oh! I get it! Like instead of getting all shrill like a woman scorned, drawing attention to myself like I’m drowning and I don’t know how to swim, I act arrogant like I’m mister cocky-pants!

RECEPTIONIST
Cool your jets. It’s just a password. It gets you into the lounge where the editors load up on free chocolate milk. Once you’re inside, don’t be shy. I mean, say hello and tell them about your book. Don’t just stand around stuffing your face with muffins. If you don’t say something, they won’t know you’re a writer. Plenty of people go up there just for the chocolate milk.

EDIE
Gosh, thanks so much!

RECEPTIONIST
I wish you the best of luck! What’s that book you’re reading, by the way?

EDIE
Silence Is Golden Retrievers by Dwayne Leroy.

RECEPTIONIST
I know her! She’s in here at least once every three months. I can lend you the next book in her duck-hunter trilogy, The Man With the Golden Retriever.

EDIE
That is so sweet! Thank you!

SCOTT opens the left-hand door and stands there.

SCOTT
What next?

EDIE
Did they accept your manuscript?

SCOTT
No. They said YA GR doesn’t suit their current needs. They want me to ghostwrite tweets for Ernest Hemingway.

EDIE
He is so, well, dead!

SCOTT
And I’m not allowed to make anything up, or even research it. I can only quote his best-known published work. I don’t know. It seems too easy, and the pay rate they told me is sort of incredible.

EDIE
How much?

SCOTT
Two million a year to start, plus commission. They said there’s this huge market for his telegraphic prose, terse something? I forget what they said, but they said I’ll learn fast.

EDIE
Oh, man. I’m starting to wonder if I should go upstairs at all.

SCOTT
Upstairs?

EDIE
I meant — um, figuratively upstairs. Like, to the world of haute literature. Like haute couture or haute cuisine. The world of unique, customized books with literary pretensions.

SCOTT
Your analogy doesn’t work. Because haute cuisine or couture is more expensive than the other kind, but a book costs the same whether three people buy it or three million. There’s no such thing as a customized book. The only way to make more money is by selling more copies. Period. Exclusivity is the last thing on earth you want. There’s no such thing as exclusive literature.

EDIE
There is too exclusive literature! Or at least if you allude to certain authors, people are always impressed. Like William Gaddis or Linear B.

SCOTT
If it was exclusive, nobody would have heard of it. Trust me.

RECEPTIONIST
Go on now, kids. Shoo! Leave! Get out of here!

RECEPTIONIST exits through the right-hand door.

SCOTT
You want to get some chocolate milk?

EDIE
Is that a trick question?

SCOTT
Huh?

EDIE
No, I don’t have time today. Maybe I’ll see you around.

SCOTT
You want me kick your cunt so hard it bleeds and spout verbal abuse in Serbo-Croatian?

EDIE
That’s another trick question! You’re not going to get me upset with that one. That’s my mother’s trauma, not mine. My trauma is having a mom with unpredictable mood swings. That’s what makes me relatable.

SCOTT
But you just gave me the best idea for some YA GR.

EDIE
What?

SCOTT
Search and rescue dogs in Bosnian Serbia! Or Serbian Bosnia or whatever it was. I can write it in my spare time while I’m maximum-channeling Ernest Hemingway. But can you do rape in YA GR?

EDIE
I would say you can if she blacks out. I think there was a rape in The Golden Bow-Wow.

SCOTT
How do you let readers know she’s getting raped if she blacks out? It’s not like the dog’s going to know the difference.

EDIE
You make her pregnant afterward! Oldest trick in the book.

SCOTT
See, that’s the stuff you need women for. To know what the sensitivities are, so you can get your YA GR past librarians.

EDIE
In the future, there will be no librarians.

SCOTT
Toasting that would call for something stronger than chocolate milk.

EDIE writes down her phone number on a piece of paper.

EDIE
Here. Call me after you get your first paycheck. You can take me out for champagne.

SCOTT
I said two million. I didn’t say I was going to be rich!

You’re a man. You don’t have to wait in line. You can just go straight in.

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The Reading

The stage is furnished with a lectern and two armchairs. APRIL stands at the lectern. MAY sits in a chair. JUNE, AUGUST, KNUT, and JON are in the audience.

APRIL Good evening and welcome to this beautiful location. First of all I want to thank the staff for having us. I’m thrilled to be here, and I’m very happy to see so many of you managed to come out. I know the weather is beautiful, it’s gorgeous out there, and I know we’d all rather be at the beach. If we could afford it! But, here we are, so I’d like to welcome you to the second in our series of readings celebrating our new essay collection, Notes from Nowhere. Now, that title raises a few eyebrows, but it’s about the way we have a global readership. But not in the traditional sense of having readers all over the world, though in fact we do. It’s that there’s a kind of global consciousness in all of our minds. I think Tolstoy said it best. Deep down, we’re all the same. It’s our actions that make it possible to tell us apart, unless you’re some kind of ontological essentialist. So when you write, you show, you don’t tell. And the writer I’d like to introduce tonight is someone who definitely acts in a way that makes it possible for you to tell her from other writers. I mean she writes, not acts. She shows by writing, not by telling. God, I’m sorry! I took a Sudafed. Forgive me. But what I meant is that you’ve been chronicling your life — I don’t want to say journaling — you’ve been putting yourself out there since you were what, 13?

MAY That’s right.

APRIL But I first saw her work only about a year ago. I was so excited to get her writing for the magazine. She’s one of the most exciting new talents we’ve seen in a long time. So, without further ado — wait, maybe I should say the biographical stuff I meant to say? May is from Terre Haute and has a BA in folklore from IU and did her MFA at Syracuse University. She’s currently a boring writer at Fordham. Her most recent book is the experimental novel Drink Me, which came out last year from LTA Press in Yonkers. That’s short for little tiny-ass press.

MAY Could I correct something? It’s boarding writer, not boring writer. It’s like writer-in-residence, but I don’t get room and board. Just board. Three meals a day. I’m so grateful to the department at Fordham, I feel I should correct that.

APRIL Well said. Thanks for helping me out. You certainly don’t look like you eat fast food from a student cafeteria!

MAY Thank you. Actually Fordham is so far from my house, I just eat dinner there on days I’m teaching, which is only two days a week.

APRIL Well, we’ll talk about that later. What we’re going to do now is have a brief reading and then a conversation and then a discussion with the audience. OK? We’re ready to go. I’m going to turn the podium over to — May! (Leads applause.)

MAY Hi, everybody. Thanks for coming. Nice to be here. I’m very honored. The first thing I’m going to read is pretty old. In fact I wrote it more than ten years ago. But it’s still my most successful piece. It’s been linked to thousands of times and clicked probably millions of times. It’s actually one of my first published pieces and maybe you know it already, if you came out to see me, but I’m going to read it anyway. “Tampon Number One.” The title is an allusion to Pérez Prado’s “Mambo Number One.” I was 13. Like April said, not the most mature artist when I wrote this. My style has changed a little since then. But, with no further ado, “Tampon Number One.” Today’s the day! I unpeel the little tampon out of its tight little cellophane wrapper and think, this should be easy. I’m the kung fu master of pads. You just stick them on your underwear crotch with the special sticky strips and there you are. Nothing to think about. Wings or no wings? The ads might make you think it matters, but it doesn’t. My underwear is cotton and mom washes it with bleach, so who cares if it gets some spots. Spots just means I can throw away clothes, which is cool because I hate my clothes. A couple nasty, messy hours later you take them out again and wrap them in, like, two rolls of toilet paper to hide them from everybody. It’s so disgusting. I am so sick and tired of sanitary pads. Tampons are different. They are tiny and easy to hide. Some people even flush them down the toilet, even though you’re not supposed to, because it kills the fish. But in actual fact there’s something in this world even smaller than tampons: me. I spread my labia minora and get the end of the tampon in the entrance of my vagina, but I can’t make it go in. The harder I push, the more it just gets stuck. I’m pushing and shoving and I don’t even feel like there’s a hole down there, but I know I’m going to wake up tomorrow black and blue. And I start to wonder. Is it possible that I’m a virgin? I’ve heard so many times that if you ride bicycles or horses, all the pounding and friction between your legs will make you not a virgin by the time you’re 10 or 11. So I figured my hymen was ancient history. But I took my dad’s shaving mirror and laid it down on the floor and crouched over it, and I can see that my vaginal opening is literally like a coin slot! And I’m thinking, oh my god, if I can’t even put in a tampon, how am I ever going to have sex? But I’m not stupid. Everybody has sex sooner or later, and I’m not the only virgin that ever lived. Some girls bleed the first time, because of their hymen before it stretches. I was thinking maybe I could ask someone to have sex with me to stretch my hymen so I can use tampons. Except I don’t know anybody I’d want to have sex with. Isn’t that sad? The boys I know are such douches. So I try to stretch my hymen myself. I poke my finger up inside myself and wiggle it around, even though it’s almost impossible to do. I know all about my clitoris, I’m not a baby, but I’ve never had my finger inside. It’s such a weird angle! Maybe my arms are too short to use tampons or even masturbate? Maybe I need the old lady kind of tampon with applicators, that’s like six inches long and pink and looks like a dildo, and dildos and lubricant to masturbate? I don’t think so! I’m going to be a natural pioneer woman! So I get down over the mirror again and try with my finger, and then all of a sudden I notice something. My finger’s getting wet and it’s not just blood. I can get myself just barely wide enough to get the tip of the tampon inside me. And what’s weird is, I start thinking, I want this tampon inside me. I want this tampon all the way up inside myself as far as it will go! And that’s what I do! I try again, I center that tampon on my coin slot and use my thumb instead of my finger, and it goes whoosh and it’s all up in there. And I can definitely feel it, like this presence in my vagina. I can pull on the string and make it wiggle. It’s totally neat. So everybody reading this who’s still afraid to use tampons, don’t be afraid. They won’t make you not a virgin, because you can’t use them unless you aren’t one already anyway. They just make you crazy for real sex, the way I feel right now, wanting penetration by a penis. Except not with these douches at my school. Sorry, though, when you take them out, they’re every bit as disgusting as pads. Next year I’m going to a different school for high school. Everybody says the guys there are good in bed.

Applause.

The next essay I’d like to read is “The Repression of Thomas Bernhard.” A specter haunts Thomas Bernhard’s novel Wittgenstein’s Nephew. The specter of Ludwig Wittgenstein. Scion of one of Austria’s most wealthy and prominent families, the renowned philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein avoided the public eye. Little is known about him. He published mystical tractates which just about no one understands. His notebooks are filled with snippets of contemporary gestalt psychology and psychoanalytic theory, but couched in metamathematical terms that make the most ambitious undergraduates turn pale with fear of writing term papers about him. Wittgenstein is a monumental figure, looming over the mostly empty landscape of Austrian philosophy, which could have done fine without him, insofar as it exists. Nobody paid any attention to Wittgenstein in his lifetime. He was an idealist in the tradition of Berkeley or Gödel, arguably even a Neoplatonist, not far removed from Plotinus in his reactionary longing to festoon arbitrary meaning with unchanging divinity. On all this, Thomas Bernhard rightly turns an indifferent eye. His novel tells instead the story of Wittgenstein’s mopey, dopey nephew, who is about as interesting as gum on the sidewalk. I remember when I first heard of Thomas Bernhard. I was fucking my symbolic logic TA at IU. He lived in Ellettsville and was in a band called Art Ensemble of Ellettsville, if you can believe it. Their practice space was in the basement of a Masonic Lodge, and he used to take me upstairs while the other guys were jamming — I should explain that it was a twelve-member improvising combo, so during practice band members could basically come and go at will — to have sex in the Lodge. There were two women in the band, the drummer and the bassist, but it was like most bands, in that these women were the girlfriends of established band members, and whenever a couple broke up, rather than recruit a male bassist or drummer, they would train a girlfriend. I was always afraid I was next in line. My symbolic logic TA would drag me upstairs and bend me over the throne, right under the G that rises in the east. We could hear the music coming up from downstairs. He’d fuck me to the beat, as well as he could. Unfortunately, his instrument was talk radio. He just held a little rattling box of John Tesh up to the mic. Rhythm was not his strong point. God save us all from John Tesh. But the irregular thrusting of his cock, the musty smell of the throne’s tattered leather, the lights flashing around the illuminated G, rising in the east — it’s all been very hard to forget, though the Lord knows I’ve tried. He must have taken a course in neurolinguistic programming, because as he was fucking me he would say, Thomas Bernhard. Thomas Bernhard. Thomas Bernhard. Over and over and over. He never said anything else. The end result was that while under normal circumstances I would have forgotten this guy long ago, now I can’t get him out of my head. I walk into any bookstore with any pretensions to loftiness, or any new guy’s apartment, take one look at the bookshelves, and there he is, grunting in my ear. Stay away from bookstores and men who patronize them, you might advise me. Or read more Thomas Bernhard, until the experience becomes a palimpsest, illegible under layers of candle wax and dryer lint. The latter is the solution I attempted. I thought, if Thomas Bernhard makes you think of a cock ramming your vagina until it explodes in a cataclysm of spurting ooze, the thing to do is read more Thomas Bernhard until he makes you think of something else. So that’s what I did. A Child is the first volume of his autobiographical writings. A compact, tightly narrated story of a childhood spent in grinding poverty and degradation, it shows us the sufferings of a chronic bed-wetter in never-before-seen clarity. Equally luminous is its portrayal of the author’s saintly grandfather, a flawless and radiant rural anarchist whose wit and wisdom still shine despite his untimely death at age 200. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get through any of his other books. There was just no way. But I had a similar experience with Pierre Bourdieu. The French sociologist is best known for his book Distinction, which pairs utterly opaque prose with extremely mystifying diagrams. Some people have read the whole thing, but those people never leave France. One bite of American food would kill them. While their blood sugar spiked, their blood hemoglobin would dwindle to nothing, and that would be that. What I know about Bourdieu, I learned from my MFA adviser, who carries the unique distinction of having given me trichomoniasis and genital warts without once bringing me to orgasm. That moron even managed to infect the mucous membranes of both my eyes with gonorrhea. I looked, to put it succinctly, like I had eye gonorrhea. It was a bad time. But it wasn’t the worst thing about Syracuse by a long shot. The Mohawk Nation — um, I’m going to cut it off there and move on to another essay.

Applause.

The last thing I’d like to read before we move on to the discussion is a very personal essay, and very recent. The title is “Family Life Made Simple.” Before I start, I’d like to ask if there’s anybody here who’s pregnant and struggling with depression. This essay contains elements that might trigger thoughts of suicide, if you’re pregnant with a history of not being pregnant.

APRIL Why don’t you read the essay about your mother’s abortions instead? I love that one.

MAY You think so? OK, then I’ll change my plan here and read “Only the Strong Survive.” When I was 7 or 8, I asked my mother whether she had wanted me. I had a friend who was adopted, and another friend whose mother had told her she was an accident. A happy accident, but unplanned nonetheless. You could only figure it out if you did the math. Married in February, baby in September. I wanted to know. Was I an accident, or adopted, or somewhere in between? An adopted child can always be sure she’s wanted. Her parents saw her first, checked her over, paid a lot of money, and even had the chance to give her back. If you don’t like an adopted child, you can return it to the state. It grows up in a home and even gets free college tuition! The motivation to give adopted children back must be very strong, but almost nobody does it. Because adopted children are truly loved. Even at age 7 or 8, I suspected this strongly, so I confronted my mother, and she told me a story I’ll never forget. Sometimes I wish she hadn’t told me. She said, I am younger than the other mothers. Think about it. Do the math, she said. I’m 32. I was stumped. I said, Mom, you do the math! She said, I was 24 when I met your father. I had my whole life ahead of me. I was not some kind of idiot. I took the Pill. That’s a pill that makes it so that when a daddy and a mommy love each other, the baby doesn’t come until five years later. Not right away. And I loved your daddy so much. But four months after I started loving him, bingo, I look down and see my stomach and think, whoa, who’s that in there? I was still getting my period. A period is what they call how a baby lets you know she’s still waiting. Once a month she sends you a sign, saying, hey Mom, I’m still in here waiting! Only five years to go! And you, my little darling, you kept sending me your sign. But my stomach was getting really big, like you wanted to come right away. And I went to the doctor. And he said, 99 percent effective birth control means 99 percent effective birth control. This baby is on her way. There’s not a thing we can do about it. And I said, I’m terribly happy to know about my baby now, but she’s supposed to come after I’m 35 and we have a nice apartment. So I went to a different doctor, and he said, are you kidding me? We can’t send this baby back where she came from! She’s too big already! He made me look at you on a special TV, and there you were. You had long, curly hair and a pink dress, and you were baking me some cookies. I could even see you getting married! You had a beautiful white dress and a wreath of flowers. And I went to your daddy and said, We’re going to have a princess! And he said, I’m glad you terminated your other pregnancies, because a princess is truly special. I never wanted a normal little girl. I always wanted a princess! And that’s why you are more special than all the other kids. All of them. You were the strong one with the will to survive, and the reason is that you’re a princess. Princesses are dynastic heiresses to enormous wealth and power. They excite paroxysms of envy and jealousy in everyone they meet. Yet they are weak and helpless, and any man who succeeds in using a princess sexually with her father’s permission can have all her wealth and power right away. It’s a horrible, horrible thing to be. But you’re doing fine, which says to me that you’re one tough cookie and will always make it on your own. And I said, Mom, that’s such a disturbing story. It makes me want to play with dolls and mud pies, as though I were 4 again. By midafternoon I was acting 6, ordering my cat to sit still on a swing set, and by nightfall I was 7 or 8 again, reading a book and suspecting that all was not right with the world. The book was Hawthorne’s The House of Seven Gables, and I hardly understood a word, but I felt a palpable attraction in a house with seven gables, which I assumed were attics hidden away in corners of the crawl space under the roof. Any of them would have been large enough to hide me. I recall only one character in the entire novel, an elderly woman whose scowl was owed to her need of glasses. Children thought she was a witch because she stared at them with knit eyebrows, but she simply needed glasses. This being old Salem, I assume she was burned at the stake. I don’t remember. People like to claim witches were wise women, pagan community leaders, midwives, whatever demographic they’re cozying up to this minute, but probably it was just women lacking access to appropriate eye care. Not unlike myself in fucking Syracuse — um, I think I’ll cut this one off and go to the conversation with April. You can buy the book if you want to know how it ends!

Applause.

APRIL That was great! Thank you! Thank you so much! Do you want to take a short break?

MAY (drinks water) No, I’m good.

APRIL Well, I have so many questions. And I guess I should start with, Where do you get your ideas?

MAY In the bathtub.

APRIL
You have a bathtub? God, I am so jealous. I have one of those flimsy plastic shower stalls. Or were you kidding?

MAY
Yeah. Maybe after they film Notes from Nowhere, I’ll be able to afford a place with a bathtub, but for now, I’m a shower-stall-in-the-kitchen kind of writer.

APRIL
I hear you. So where do you get your ideas?

MAY
Just from life. Everyday occurrences. When you’re a writer, a lot of everyday life is devoted to trying to come up with ideas, so obviously you’re going to come up with ideas sometimes. It doesn’t matter what your life is like. You could be working at a copy shop or traveling the world with your beautiful lover. If you don’t get ideas, you’re not going to be a writer. So in essence you get them from being a writer. I think everyone does. If you stop getting them, wham-o. Your career could be over pretty fast. At least as a writer.

APRIL
Well, I get ideas all the time, but I still ended up as an editor.

MAY
Maybe your ideas suck, and because you’re a good editor, you can tell they suck? I’m bad at editing, so it’s up to editors to tell me my ideas suck. Maybe you’re aborting your ideas too early, while they still have flippers and gills, and not waiting for them to grow pink dresses and halos, so to speak. My ideas always come to me with unicorn wings.

APRIL
Do unicorns have wings?

MAY
See what I mean? Why are you editing out my unicorns with wings? They’re standard fare. Nobody has batted an eyelash at a winged unicorn in five thousand years.

APRIL
So your creativity is a matter of not paying attention to what you say. Or, not caring about reality?

MAY
Paying attention, maybe, but not critical attention. More like patting the heads of the things I say, and saying, There, there. It’s all right. You don’t have to be real. Nobody else is.

APRIL
Who is your most important influence as a writer?

MAY Definitely Thomas Bernhard. You should never read good writers. They’ll just discourage you. You read them and think, I could never do that. But a crappy writer, you think, Hey, I could do that in my sleep. I could alternate between lunatic ravings and copping a sane persona that grovels for sympathy and grovels and grovels with this majestic solipsism that’s hard to describe. Other writers make you feel sympathy for characters. Like, they depict some damsel in distress and you’re actually worried. But Bernhard, I think like a lot of postmodernists, makes you not give a shit. And that’s very liberating. Because you may not give a shit about the stuff you write — I mean, if you truly cared, could you even write it down? — but somebody else might. They don’t share your experiences. I write about something that means nothing to me, and it turns out for other people it’s this secret trauma that was slowly consuming their hearts and souls and I become their voice. That’s called getting lucky. You write a book that’s superficial bullshit, and readers are moved. The reason I could afford to take this job at Fordham was the book I did before Drink Me, Curious George. It’s about a writer who initiates George Clooney into the ways of love. In the novel, he has no previous sexual experience until he goes to Iowa to become a short-story writer.

APRIL No way! I read that, but I didn’t know it was you! What was your pseudonym again?

MAY Niamh Clooney.

APRIL That book made all the guilty pleasure lists for 2011!

MAY The market wasn’t huge because, you know, Iowa —

APRIL George Clooney would sort of stick out there like a sore thumb.

MAY But writers liked it, because it was their Michael Jordan moment. You know when Michael Jordan took up baseball and was like this strong, talented player, but he couldn’t hit the ball? That’s what writing short stories is like. I can’t do it. You have to have that instinct that tells you where the ball is coming before the pitcher actually touches it. And Clooney, well, he can look cute in the right light, but short stories? Guess again, sucker.

APRIL Maupassant he ain’t. (Both women laugh.) That was such a good line.

MAY Thank you.

APRIL Well, maybe I could open the floor to questions. In the blue shirt?

JUNE I really enjoyed Curious George and I was wondering if you also wrote the one where Justin Bieber interns at Akashic.

MAY I read it. But it didn’t really work for me. I don’t think Beyoncé is all that good-looking, and Bieber was too submissive. Interns don’t act like that anymore. They’re all up in your face saying, Go ahead, just try and make me work, exploiter. I’ll pass.

AUGUST (raises hand and waves it around) Excuse me, excuse me. I have a question. I recently had a masculectomy, and my uterine transplant is scheduled for next month.

MAY Wow, that’s awesome! Congratulations!

AUGUST Well, I don’t think my children are going to have any doubts that they were wanted. But I was interested in your views on tampon choice. A lot of people have been recommending plastic applicators to me, especially online.

MAY Oh, no. Oh no! That’s a classic social-advertising trap. Those people are sponsored. No matter who it is, your own mother, whoever. Sponsored. Obviously guys are a tremendous potential market for tampons. It’s a gadget that becomes part of your body, like bionics. And they think they’re going to get your market share with iridescent metallic applicators. But as a matter of fact, the long tampons aren’t as effective. They’re thinner. And the applicator always goes straight in the trash! Never neglect the environmental aspect if you want to have kids. You don’t want your kids getting drummed out of day care for littering. Or is reusing applicators a thing now?

APRIL I don’t know. Knut?

KNUT May, the word global suggests economic issues. Global capital, global markets, globalization. I’m getting a sense that there’s not much of that in your contributions to Notes from Nowhere and I’m wondering if you meant to address it indirectly.

MAY Not really. That stuff has been done to death. It’s not real. It’s theories. Economic theories, theories about what people on other continents are feeling. Nobody knows whether Chinese migrant laborers prefer factories to rice paddies. Nobody knows! You have to wait until they find their voice. No one can speak for them. You have to respect their right to remain silent. Not everybody’s the writer type.

JON I have a related question. I very much enjoyed your reading tonight, May, and hearing you characterize “Tampon Number One” as your most successful work, I was reminded that there is a way of personalizing political issues that is in a disputed sense classically feminine. There’s a meaningful analogy to operant conditioning I’d like to explore —

APRIL Oh, give me a break! Would you just go home?

AUGUST Yeah, go back to Manhattan, male chauvinist pig!

JON — an operant conditioning that reinforces your loyalty to the established boundaries of women’s literature. For hundreds of years, female writers were confined to a ghetto they called in German the five Ks, Kinder, Küche, Kultur, Krankheit

AUGUST Get the fuck out!

JON — children, cooking, illness and death, the arts, literature, the theater, I’m trying to remember the fifth K

APRIL You have a home, unlike some of us! Go there and leave us alone!

JON
From Chaucer through Freud to myself, if you’ll bear with me here, men have been asking, What do women want? And I feel that while there’s a potential concern here that your candidness in addressing your desires, which conveys to you a sense of freedom, of liberation, is, perhaps ironically, at least in part, because your more exhibitionist impulses are arguably given the strongest reinforcement, a product of the caution and circumspection that a sexist society imposes on women as young and attractive as yourself —

AUGUST launches himself at JON. A melee ensues. KNUT tries to tug AUGUST off JON and is easily thrown backward. AUGUST mercilessly pulls JON’S hair. JON remains seated and does not resist. The women form a circle.

JON
Ow! Ow!

KNUT
Stop hurting him. Stop it now!

AUGUST
Somebody has to do it.

APRIL
Let me at him. I could take this asshole with one hand tied behind my back. This has been building up inside me for a long time. I want to strike a blow for all women. May, hold his arms!

KNUT
For God’s sake, leave him alone! He’s seven feet tall when he stands up straight! I saw him punch out a bear at the zoo!

APRIL
So? Are men stronger than women now? Come on, people! The people! United! Will never be defeated!

APRIL, MAY, JUNE
The people! United! Will never be defeated! The people! United! Will never be defeated!

MAY and JUNE hold JON’s arms while APRIL circles, almost dancing, in front of him, unsure of what to do, apparently torn between slapping him and stepping on his toes, repeatedly almost doing both. She appears increasingly furious with herself for failing to strike him.

JON
If I could finish what I was saying, I would like to suggest that all writers, including myself, obviously, tentatively consider reconsidering —

AUGUST
(wails loudly) Aagh!

JON
What’s wrong? Are you OK?

AUGUST
Franzen, you’re giving me phantom pains in my masculectomy!

KNUT
Oh, God. Now I have them, too.

JON
Me, too. A little bit.

KNUT
Please, just slap him! Slap the man already!

MAY and JUNE let him go. APRIL backs away.

MAY
I don’t feel anything at all. What’s it like?

AUGUST
It’s like having your dick and balls cut off with a hacksaw. (Moans.)

KNUT
Stop it, whoever you are!

JON
Please stop.

MAY
Hacksaw? Don’t surgeons have bone saws? Wait. There’s something about the anatomy of this.

AUGUST
It was a mistake. I heard about this bondage website that was offering $1,500 for somebody willing to do the scene, and I’m a temp with no paid sick leave. Enough said. Draw your own conclusions. But I’m telling you, trust me on this, go to Planned Parenthood and pay the $300. Do not get an emasculation from a porn performer under any circumstances, no matter what they’re paying you. I don’t even know if it was a hacksaw. It could have been a pruning saw.

AUGUST, KNUT, and JON sit looking mournful.

MAY
Now I feel sorry for you.

AUGUST
It’s worse than that. I don’t have a donor match. My place on the waiting list will probably come up next month, but I might actually be waiting on a uterus for years.

JON
Jesus Christ, Mary, and Joseph.

KNUT
If you don’t mind my asking, how are you going to pay for it, if you had to appear in a porno movie just to get emasculated? Are you going on Kickstarter?

AUGUST
I’m going to work as a surrogate mother. After four kids, I’ll be out of the hole. And until then, I’m a eunuch. I can get work as a harem guard down in Saudi. It’s rare nowadays, eunuchs.

APRIL
Personally I think it would make a great essay.

MAY
Could you guys maybe use some beers?

APRIL
Yeah! Let us get you beers!

Cheerily, April and May go to the buffet table and fill their arms with beers.

JON
God, yes. You girls are saints.

KNUT
You know, I like May’s writing a lot, but I wish she’d stop abasing herself for laughs and start hitting the heavy bag. There are so many things out there that need to be attacked more than young women and writers do. As annoying as they are sometimes, especially to themselves, I kind of like them. Young women and writers. Plus young women writers. Why is their self-esteem always so bad?

JON
Oil sands. Fascism. Wetland melioration.

KNUT
Putin. Medvedev.

The women return and distribute beers.

JON
(raising his bottle) Down with Putin and the other guy!

All drink.

AUGUST
You have very lush, strong hair.

JON
Thank you. Your hair is wonderful, too. What products do you use?

KNUT
Isn’t this a dangerous topic?

JON
We could talk about birds if you prefer.

AUGUST
I’ve been thinking about getting extensions after my transplant.

KNUT
Head and Shoulders.

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They looked like some army of the damned, out to fight zombies—but in fact they were facing down their own police.

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What offended her here was the flicker of pride in his supposed giving-up.

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AOL didn’t talk to Yahoo, which didn’t talk to ICQ, and none of them, of course, would talk to Messenger.

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What is a slum anyway? He has a concise answer: “House owned by people, land owned by government.”

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What is the way of life implied by our contemporary standing revolution?

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Broadband providers have an incentive to use their control of the network to disadvantage their competition.

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The other Sophie and I were an embattled minority in the mid-’90s, when the landscape was littered with Jennifers and Jessicas.

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The machine we live in is not a rage machine, but an affect machine.

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