From the outset, I need to note a significant qualm with the phrasing of this question: the blog, whatever it is, is not an artefact, but a discursive space. I’ll return to this point in a moment, but I would first like to address a related issue, which confuses most cultural commentators who write on the convergence of print media with digital technology.
Digital technology is not replacing print, but, rather, is displacing it. Following the premises of canonical media theory, new forms of media don’t simply replace older forms of media because each form of media has its own symbolic logic, which is intimately connected to the form of media itself (or, to quote Marshall McLuhan’s infamous phrase, “the medium is the message”). So there are at least two issues, here, the first of which is the degree to which new forms of media will make print or bookish culture irrelevant, and the second of which entails the form/content of new media.
The first issue is already settled. Books are no longer central to discourse in the Anglophone world, and have not been for some time. The book industry is still a significant and—if considered over the whole of the last decade—generally successful economic enterprise, but it focuses on selling a variety of kinds of texts into a wide array of niches—all of which is to say that best-selling books in Australia are things like the Twilight series or the CSIRO Total Wellbeing Diet, not books about politics and philosophy, or works of literature. What this means is that important political and cultural discourses now play out in images and audio on television or the internet, not in print (I am speaking in general terms here). In the rare occasions where a book does become “big,” it then graduates to the afterlife of movie or television adaptation; The Slap is only the most recent example of this. But this situation is at least half a century old, so mourning the demise of the book as the locus of important cultural discourse is a very belated grief, indeed, and the wake we are currently holding is for a corpse already in the late stages of putrefaction.
Ebooks (as opposed to books-as-software in the form of apps, which I won’t have space to consider) do replicate the artefact of the book; they are digital artefacts, but, as a medium, they also mark the shift of the book’s cultural significance from being a central discourse to a fragmented and specialized series of niche discourse that are only significant when taken in aggregate. This fact is replicated in the business models of digital asset distributors (i.e. Google, Amazon, Kobo, etc.), who rely on the long-tail theory wherein a large of number of small transactions for a diverse array of products (i.e. books) are aggregated through a network (and, indeed, an entire ‘ecosystem’ of networked services, to use the fashionable term) to produce a profit (for those interested, I’ve written on this in the current issue of Overland).
The blog, as a form, however is a distinct phenomenon from both print and ebook forms, although its trajectory is shaped by the same cultural logic and economic factors. As I noted, the blog is not an artefact, but a discursive space, wherein opinions are advanced, and conversations then often occur within its margins (i.e. in the comments section). Often these discussions are then folded back into the content of the blog itself in the form of future posts—so the content of a blog is inseparable from its form, which is itself that of a dialogue (of sorts) unfolding over time.
At level of typology, however, it is worth noting two further categories amongst blogs, the first of which applies to entities such as Verity La. From my perspective, Verity La is not really a blog qua blog, in that is primarily a communal space that contains bookish discourse, which is quite distinct from the traditional blog produced by an individual. It’s worth noting, though, that fiction tends not to function as well in these spaces as essays or “posts” because fiction is traditionally a form that doesn’t invite direct response—and in this sense is antithetical to the very form of the blog as medium. Following this, I would also suggest that if blogs have displaced an area of print, it would be the critical apparatus of the literary journal—a transformation that has already happened in music, wherein sites like Pitchfork have basically surpassed the old stalwart publications like Rolling Stone (and Pitchfork has also proven that the print mags hadn’t even come close to approaching the limits of the pretentious, self-indulgent and empty-headed prose to which music criticism, from Lester Bangs onwards, has always aspired). A site like HTML Giant is already doing this for the literary more or less, albeit with an MFA-program, hipster-twee aesthetic that ranges from being annoying to being very annoying.
On the other hand, we then have personal blogs, like my own (now largely necrotic) blog Known Unknowns. While these sorts of blogs do engage in communal discourse up to a point, their primary purpose—whatever their creators may believe—is to serve as an advertising or promotional tool for their authors (and often also to serve as an extension of or reflection upon one or more institutions and organisations associated with the author). I do not mean that bloggers are all rapacious entrepreneurs in their intent (this certainly wasn’t mine), but ultimately I think blogging, however well-intentioned, is a form of immaterial labour, which is to say a willing self-exploitation undertaken in the hopes of long-term, if indirect, economic benefit.
Literary and bookish blogs have been both prominent and successful, I think, because activity in these areas is almost wholly comprised of immaterial labour for the simple reason that there is no money in literature (at all), and comparatively little money in bookselling and production, even in its populist manifestations. Indeed, the general insularity and cliquishness of literary culture in Australia and elsewhere stems from the fact that it is an economy based almost entirely on what Peter Sloterdijk would term thymotics (or pride), which is to say that literary economies are based on reputation and symbolic capital (as well as rage and revenge!), rather than hard economics—although this is rarely admitted openly.
Short of a wide-scale social and political revolution (which appears unlikely), it is difficult to see how these conditions will change significantly, but, in my opinion, both writers and readers need to be aware of modern systems of book distribution and to question their validity (as we already do for other industries, such as the music industry and the meat industry, to consider only two that have come under public scrutiny in the last decade). The important questions for lovers of books relate not simply to forms—print, ebook, app, whatever—but rather about how we, as a culture decide what to value and how individuals are then compensated for their labour. Books are ultimately the products of human beings and cannot be abstracted from the larger processes of culture and capital.
I suspect many readers of Verity La, like me, feel that on both fronts, our current situation is woefully inadequate, and, in this sense, I welcome change—even if such change is precarious—because at least it holds the possibility of a better future, however unlikely.
An American living in Australia (for me at least) always provokes the question, why? If I wonder at this question, perhaps it’s because the United States of America projects such an all-pervasive world mythology. Which is to say that the centre of the world is somewhere between Hollywood and Wall Street and everyone is moving, or wants to move, towards that axis mundi. It’s such a powerful projection that Australia’s sense of self is often drawn from American-made myths. We’re usually more familiar with the Boston Tea Party than the Eureka Stockade. What was it like for you as a writer growing up within that mythology and has living in Australia given you a different perspective? I’m also interested in the differences you might have noticed between Australian and American literature.
Well, having grown up in the U.S., I have a very different and fairly complicated set of feelings about the place. On a personal note, I’d also say that the Australian sense of humour and the more relaxed and informal approach to everyday living are both things that make Australia a far better place to be; Australia simply feels like home to me. But as to the question, ‘Why Australia?’, I’d say this: my belief is that the margins are always a lot more interesting than the centre. The U.S. praises its own literature to no end, but most of my favourite authors are from elsewhere, and those living U.S. Authors I do love, like Evan Dara and Sergio De La Pava, are basically unknown. Moreover, U.S. culture is so dominated by wealth and privilege (built on the back of serious exploitation of the lower classes), that it’s pretty hard for me to stomach their elite cultural institutions. Sure, Australia has many of the same problems (though certainly not all of them), but it seems to me that it’s small enough here that there’s more room for movement—for doing something different.
Australian literature, though, is a strange thing—for one, mainstream AusLit, in my opinion, is very conservative (in a formal sense, and very probably in a socio-political sense, as well), but the history of Australian literature isn’t: the best Australian writing—like work by Gerald Murnane, Joseph Furphy (how good is Such Is Life?), Christina Stead (although she can be claimed by the social realist tradition), Patrick White, Ern Malley (a better author than his authors, Stewart and McAuley), Ned Kelly (the ‘Jerilderei Letter’), and even Henry Lawson—are all pretty experimental, but most contemporary Australian authors write as if literature began with Helen Garner. There are great contemporary writers here—Wayne Macauley, Ryan O’Neill, and David Musgrave all spring to mind—but they seem to be on the margins of AusLit, probably because they aren’t as obviously ‘marketable’; in this sense, I guess they are a margin of a margin. My interests are in this ‘other’ Australian literature—the literature of the margins.
I don’t think it matters where your home is. A man living in that archetypal metropolis, New York City, might feel a keener sense of marginalised existence than a bloke on a ranch in the Northern Territory. We might look at a vast cultural centre and catalogue its galleries or publishing houses, but our sense of connection/disconnection depends on our sense of self and society. A schism might open up for political reasons, though there are many others — religion, race, class, sexual preferences or, who knows, not getting picked for the high school football team. Some writers choose to not only investigate that schism, but to magnify it, and make a virtue of it. Experimental fiction is often the result. I was wondering what your thoughts were in this regard. Why do some writers devote themselves to the fringes and to the perspectives found within a social schism? What’s the value of experimental fiction? What are Australia’s conservative publishers and readers missing out on and how vital is it?
Very simply, I think modernism is an incomplete project. By this I mean that, for a very long time now—at least since Jena Romanticism around 1800, and again in Paris in the 1850s, and pretty much all across Europe by the early 20th Century—some writers and artists have had the sense that the world is very different than it used to be. This difference is usually what we call modernity (we could, of course, define modernity along any number of lines: the rise of capital and global exchange, the decreasing relevance of traditional institutions like the church, a disposition towards scepticism or nihilism, the rise of science, the rise of the nation state, etc.). The theory that some Modernists held is that modernity requires a new art adequate to the task of representing this change, this rupture with the past. I prefer the more radical version of the thesis: that representing the world isn’t possible, or at least not along the lines that most people think it is, and therefore standard modes of storytelling in our culture represent little more than received norms about what a story should be. In this sense, most novels are ‘just so’ stories.
I’m not interested in reading books that tell me what I already know. I don’t want to read a novel that makes me ‘care about’ a fictional character; I want to read a novel that teaches me a new way to think or a new way to read, or else intentionally frustrates my desires for those things, or does something else entirely unexpected—frankly, a formula of rising action, climax, falling action and denouement seems to me to be the thing that’s in need of defending. How boring! Why would anyone want to read that?
I’m always mystified by why people like what they like, but I’m never surprised by it. Let’s not forget that Michael Bolton and Kenny G got rich somehow or other. A lot of somebodies bought their records. That being said, I’ve also learned that people can be a lot more open to new experiences than you might think. What puts many people off of experimental literature is that they are confused by it, and they think, therefore, that the book or the author is mocking them—but of course, this isn’t true. Those people who claim they understood every word of Ulysses the first time they read it are lying. Everyone’s confused (at first, at least). That’s the point! I think once you explain that to people, they can relax a little more and give themselves over to the book—and even to the confusion the book might cause. Confusion is good, and one of the best by-products of confusion is that it often makes you think.
This, of course, is anathema if you think that literature is all about ‘feelings’, about identifying with characters or situations or just wanting to be entertained or whatever. I ultimately feel sorry for people who think like this, because those people have never really read a book. I mean, they may have read the words, but . . .
I’m wondering what you think about the idea that Ulysses kills the novel. There’s an interesting comparison to be made between James Joyce and his contemporary Ernest Hemingway, who had the opposite effect on his generation of writers. After Hemingway, there is a sense that prose can be revivified, it can still be vigorous and challenging, even within the traditional forms. I’m not so much interested in reappraising the artefacts of their work but this sense of death and rebirth, of literature imploding and literature exploding.
Well, some people certainly see Joyce’s work as exhausting a certain set of possibilities for literature—that’s why Beckett chose to write in French after all—but it’s a position that’s been used to a variety of ends. Dale Peck—whose criticism I am not fond of—famously blamed the ruin of all contemporary literary on Joyce in an excoriating review of Rick Moody’s The Black Veil, which is an asinine proposition that, if anything, weirdly overvalues Joyce’s importance. Donald Barthelme’s essay ‘After Joyce’ (published in Not-Knowing) is a more interesting variation, which sees Ulysses as the exhaustion of a certain kind of literature on the one hand, but the opening of a new set of possibilities on the other.
For my part, I’d argue that Ulysses and Finnegans Wake marked the exhaustion of a very specific form—the comic, encyclopaedic, Joycean novel—in the same way that Milton’s epics exhausted the encyclopaedic, Miltonic epic poem. There’s no more point in writing a ‘Joycean’ novel than there is in writing a ‘Miltonic’ poem, but that doesn’t mark the end of literature in any broader sense, even if it is a testament to the importance of those writers.
And, in point of fact, even the genre of the encyclopaedic novel has done pretty well after Joyce: in the U.S., William Gaddis’s The Recognitions (1955) and Evan Dara’s The Lost Scrapbook (1996) are both long, encyclopaedic novels that, formally speaking, do something very different to what Joyce did and are as vital and important as any book that’s ever been written. Or consider Roberto Bolaño’s 2666—in my opinion, the best book of the 21st Century so far—which does something that was meant to be impossible: it neatly combines the tradition of the ‘high art’ experimental novel of the 20th Century with the tradition of the 19th Century social novel. 2666 is a great book because it decides to have it both ways, and I think it’s a game-changer because it reminds us that this divide between the ‘experimental novel’ and the ‘realist novel’ is false in an important way.
But the falsity of this distinction is already imminent in Joyce, who is as important to ‘realism’ as he is to experimentalism. Dubliners pretty much invents the modern ‘realist’ short story (and was written before Hemmingway’s stories), and let’s not forget that Joyce created the modern conception of the epiphany, which is now a creative writing workshop cliche. Hemmingway’s minimalism, for that matter, can still be used to experimental ends—Tao Lin’s Richard Yates is a good example of this. All Lin really does is push minimalism to its logical end, but the result is strange and confronting. In Australia, Josephine Rowe has done something similar by compressing the minimalist story into 500 words or less. There’s nothing wrong with minimalism or ‘realism’ as a form necessarily—it is just a form. The problem occurs when writers and readers mis-recognise ‘literary realism’ for reality—when people forget that realism is just one possible form among many with no greater claim to truth, universality, etc. etc.
Many writers find literary theory counterproductive but you don’t. Clearly, it stimulates you both as a reader and as a writer. How do you negotiate the threat of divorce, between this specialised perspective, and a reader who simply wants a good book?
Well, as an academic who researches in literary studies, it’s inevitable that I have a more specialised interest in those things, although I’d also note that I’m not really a ‘theory’ guy; many of my friends are true experts on continental philosophy and theory, whereas my interests are much directed towards issues of how literary cultures are shaped and close-readings of literary texts—i.e. pretty straightforward literary analysis with a dose of cultural studies. A lot of people really hate literary theory—or think they do—and many academics bear a good deal of the blame for this, since we haven’t always done a great job of communicating our ideas to a broader public, or even really been all that interested in doing so (with notable exceptions!). And writers of fiction often see critical and creative work as incompatible, which is absolutely untrue; what’s more accurate is to say that being either a great writer or a great critic is rare, and it’s rarer still to be both, although there are many counterexamples (Coleridge, Dryden, T.S. Eliot, Maurice Blanchot, Susan Sontag, Wyndham Lewis and Virginia Woolf all spring immediately to mind).
As to readers, I think we’re now long past the idea of having an ‘average’ or ‘normal’ reader; reading a lot of books is already not an ‘average’ activity. And literary fiction is an even more specialised area of the market, which accounts for only a tiny fraction of overall sales, and is bordering on being a niche category. So I guess I don’t think in terms of the ‘average’ reader but of those kinds of readers I’d like to have, and my ideal reader needn’t be the kind of person who knows everything about literary history. When I envision ‘ideal’ readers, I think of people who are open to new experiences, who might encounter a bit of prose they find strange or confusing and—instead of putting the book down or getting upset—try to give themselves over to the text, to inhabit an alien space for a little bit of time. Recently, I read a reviewer complaining about being ‘condescended to’ by some books, and this disposition basically represents the kind of close-mindedness that perplexes me; personally, I want to read books that are much smarter than I am, that challenge me, that confuse me, and even that make me feel uncomfortable—all of which, of course, can be quite pleasurable. It’s not that I don’t want to be entertained—I do—but I don’t just want to be entertained, and I’m interested in readers who share these desires (not that I’m saying my work actually does this). The reality is that there probably aren’t too many readers like this, and, for this reason, I’ve always known that my chances of making a living from my fiction were considerably more unlikely than winning the lottery, but I’m certainly not complaining—just knowing those readers are out there is enough.
Delicacy has never been my particular strength, but, for all that, I don’t see how it can be said that the incident at the funeral was entirely my fault. I never knew Aunt May – at least not the living, breathing version of Aunt May – nor was she even my aunt. For that matter, I don’t think she was even really Tracy’s aunt, either, not in any genetic sense. But there’s no way I could be expected to know these kinds of things: Tracy’s family has a labyrinthine quality that would require diagrams, flowcharts and timelines to sufficiently explain. Even she occasionally becomes confused by the intricate chains of interrelation; people of my parents’ generation might say that Tracy came from a broken home, but, as she likes to point out, it’s more that she was raised by committee (although a particularly inept committee). But this only makes untangling her lineage even more difficult, because the various committee members themselves have even more convoluted genealogies: children from multiple partners, manifold iterations of foster and step siblings, parents, aunts and uncles, as well as other entanglements that are (I assume) unsavoury enough for Tracy to avoid elucidating them fully. Which is to say that the only thing I could deduce from Aunt May being labelled an ‘aunt’ was that she possessed materterine qualities. And I deferred any questions on the specificity of the relation.
Tracy simply said she had not seen Aunt May since the age of ten, but had fond memories of her. Tracy had often been left with Aunt May for days at a time (whether due to one of many frequent lapses in parental responsibility or at Aunt May’s request is unknowable), and Aunt May would lavish attention on her. They’d watch videos together, go out for ice-cream – the kinds of activities that for most of us just comprise childhood, but which were, for Tracy, exceptional (a thought I don’t like to dwell upon because it’s too sad). But at some point Tracy had simply lost touch with Aunt May. And now she was dead.
On hearing this news, Tracy didn’t cry, or betray a hint of sadness. (This is typical of her stoic calm. I, on the other hand, weep at the most insignificant of events – one of the many ways in which I reveal myself as a poor specimen of virility), but as we drove out of Melbourne to the funeral, she was unusually quiet. I knew better than to speak; often relationships are spoken of as the development of intimacy and trust, but I suspect that much of what we think of as intimacy is closer to an understanding of when to shut up. I have learned that Tracy will let me know when she wants to be comforted, but that, in the absence of such a request, the best policy is to adopt the emotional equivalent of Swiss neutrality.
So I looked out of the car window and gazed at the landscape. I have lived in Australia long enough now that Melbourne no longer feels alien (minus the accent and driving on the wrong side of the road, it’s often hard to believe that you’ve even left home), but the Australian countryside will always look exotic and strange to me. It’s the trees, gnarled and stunted, which conjure images from the poorly shot nature documentaries (which were probably really filmed in the African veldt) I watched as a child.
The funeral was in one of those tiny towns barely within the orbit of Melbourne, but just far enough away to forestall any possibility of commuting, so it remained uncontaminated by gentrification. The town was small enough, too, not to have a proper mortuary of any kind, so the funeral was held in a community centre that had been built within the shell of a nineteenth-century hotel. Aunt May, apparently, was religious after her own inexplicable manner, and had left specific instructions for a wake with an open-casket viewing. (Tracy, too, is idiosyncratically religious, although it is a point about which we have chosen not to speak, after our one – and only –argument about the existence of God. Not that it was an extended argument, for the reason that Tracy and I never have extended arguments, in the sense that whenever Tracy says something and I disagree with it, her face immediately takes on a cynical, dismissive look that, in turn, makes me defensive and angry, so that I begin attacking her – eg “How can you believe such silly things? You’re too smart to believe in magical things that don’t exist,” etc. And as I say these things, her face stretches into a mask of quiet judgment, and at that point, I will say anything – just anything – to wipe the smug smile off of her face, so I become aggressive and insult her, curse at her. At which point Tracy, her face both stern with anger and yet possessed of the light grace that never leaves her, departs for another room, and refuses to speak any more, becoming dead to me for hours. Then, of course, my anger subsides and is replaced by the most loathsome guilt and pity for myself – Oh, how could I say such things, such horrible, horrible things to the beautiful Tracy, who is so good to me, who puts up with so much from me? The poor woman! etc. I remain in this state of self-loathing for hours until Tracy has decided to forgive me, and returns to wherever I am, saying nothing about what I have said, only patting my hand, which in turns becomes a hug, an embrace, a kiss, and so on. And in this way we can both go on being what we would most like to be: me, guilty and convinced that I am deserving of punishment, and her, possessed of an endless well of forgiveness).
The wake was held in a long room with high ceilings that looked as though it had not been renovated for decades; the people inside were surprisingly boisterous, and had collected near the door by a table (covered by a cloth embroidered with fantails) of tea, biscuits and cakes. Everyone seemed to be speaking to one another intently – a few were even laughing – as if this were a social function or a family reunion. Tracy whisked me through this sea of people; I gladhanded dozens of distant relations (again, the precise degree of distance was beyond my calculation), and I smiled and repeatedly extended my arm to catch the hands of others in a firm, salutary grip, as both men and women many decades older than me said things to Tracy like “You’re all grown up now! Why I remember when you were just a little baby” etc. I tried to be polite and listen to these banal pleasantries, but my attention was constantly diverted by the edges of the coffin that I could see at the very periphery of my vision. Little glimpses of it appeared amongst the comings and goings of the still living, and when I tried to remember each fragment of it and put them all together in my mind, what I saw wasn’t a whole coffin: instead, all of the pieces of it that I had seen at oblique angles were mashed together in my imagination like a disjointed cubist painting. Eventually, I saw that the lid, or rather part of the lid, was tilted open for viewing, and a shudder ran through me.
Suddenly, as though a signal had been given (but perhaps there was some form of tacit communication circulating among the relations at the funeral to which I was not attuned), the mood of the entire congregation changed. Conversations became more restrained, filled with the sombre tones of whispering, and small groups discreetly removed themselves from the larger mass, wandering over toward where the coffin was, to, I presume, pay their respects. There was clearly some implicit order to this, because the crowd did not all go over at once, and only after one group had finished looking at what remained of Aunt May would another politely wander over. I knew that, soon enough, Tracy would want to go over as well, and this, of course, presented an insurmountable problem: there was no way I would be able to look at Aunt May’s corpse.
Although I couldn’t communicate this to Tracy, who, despite her outward appearance, I knew to be grieving intently, the very prospect of looking at a dead body had filled me with an unspeakable anxiety from the moment I had heard about the open casket viewing. I am possessed, moreover, of an unusual neurosis, whereby whenever I am made anxious by something, I investigate it with an almost obsessive tenacity. So, rather than discuss my fears with Tracy, I had spent the last several days reading about mortuaries, and how the dead are prepared for showing, in virtually every second of my spare time, hoping (although even then I knew it was in vain) that this might prepare me for the sight of Aunt May’s dead body (because, of course, the body is no longer her, but rather a thing that once was, or at least belonged to, her). But at this second, I knew that it was simply impossible. I couldn’t do it. So, instead, I told Tracy that I would be back in a minute and she nodded, having, I think, already intuited my weakness, as she always intuits, and ultimately endures, my countless failings.
I went back to the long table, examining the biscuits and tea and cake spread over the embroidered fantail sheet, and placed my hand along the table’s edge (watching it shake with even the slightest weight), trying all the while not to think about the strangeness of having food in the same room as a corpse, wondering if it was even legal or sanitary to do so, deciding that at the very least it was a matter of bad taste – which, of course, immediately made me think of eating corpses, of corpses set to banquet, and then I recalled the only communion wafer I had ever eaten (at the lone Easter Mass I attended with Tracy), and how that, too, is a sort of cannibalism, consuming the body of Christ – when all of my thoughts were interrupted by a small voice saying “Hello, young man?”
I assumed this was not a greeting directed at me since I am no longer a young man, or, at least, no longer feel like one, but the voice spoke again, saying, “Hello, young man?” and I turned to see a woman standing next to me, who looked impossibly old and shrivelled. She barely came up to my shoulders.
“Hello,” I replied.
“I’m Agnes,” she said, “So, how did you know May?” a question, of course, which prompted a great deal of stuttering and sputtering from me, as I attempted to avoid divulging my ignorance on this matter, but after repeating Tracy’s name several times in succession, Agnes showed a glint of recognition, saying “Of course, yes, of course. Tracy. Yes, May spoke of her many times, saying she was just a lovely girl, although I have not met her…Tracy, I mean, of course.”
“Oh,” I said. “Oh.”
“So,” Agnes asked, “have you seen her yet?” and for a second I thought she meant Tracy again, but with a slight nod of her head in the direction of the coffin, I realised that she meant Aunt May. What could I say to this, to Agnes’s question, considering that I knew nothing about this Agnes – not even how she was related to Aunt May (a sister, a friend, an aunt herself, a lover?) – and could not expect her to understand my own reservations about viewing the dead. So I lied.
“Yes,” I said. “Of course, she looked…she looked just…” But here I had to stop because I was not sure how a corpse was meant to look, or how one was meant to describe it (Peaceful? Happy? Dead?). So I stood there, the right word hanging somewhere just beyond my articulation.
“Beautiful, yes,” Agnes said, putting an end to my ellipsis. “She looked just beautiful. I have no idea how they made her look so beautiful. Yes, I have no idea at all.”
“Really?” I asked. “You don’t know?”
“No,” Agnes said, “I don’t.”
“Well,” I said, “mortuary preparation is quite an art – deceptively simple in its execution but so delicately intricate in its craft…” And, based on my reading of the last several days, I began to discuss the disinfection and cleaning of the eyes, the skin, the orifices, and how, after the application of creams to prevent razor burn, the deceased is shaved so that make-up won’t collect on the fine hairs of the face (a process applied even to women and children), and then how the fine tissue below the gums is sutured to the top of the jaw and through the nostril, or else how the thin flesh of the lips is sealed shut with glue (unless, of course, you prefer to use a needle gun) after inserting a mastic compound to create a more pleasing shape, and how the sharp blades of the trocar pierce the belly button to vacuum out the excess fluid from the abdomen and thoracic cavity. Perhaps at this point I also should have been paying more attention to Agnes. Maybe I would have noticed something in her expression, or a slight wavering to her body, but I was too busy discussing the arterial injection of embalming fluids, how the vascular system is used to turn the body into a sort of fleshy pump by pulling out the right common carotid artery and the right internal jugular vein from just below the collarbone through an incision in the skin, and that the vein and artery are then separated with an aneurysm hook, and the artery is raised and two pieces of string placed beneath it creating a ligature to seal the connection between the artery and a cannula tube inserted into it (a process repeated, of course, with the vein as well), and then how a hose is attached to both tubes and then to the embalming machine (and did, at that second, I dimly perceive a change in Agnes’s countenance, her skin becoming more pale?) that pumps the arterial fluid made up of preservatives, germicides, anticoagulants, dyes, and perfume at the rate of 4.5 litres of fluid for every 25 kilograms of body weight, and that the liquid now seeps into the body as the veins bulge to accommodate the pressure, while the blood drains out.
And at the moment that Agnes fainted, I was still thinking of all of the things I had yet to tell her – about how the Ancient Egyptians would sew books of prayer inside the bodies of the dead, so that the word and the flesh were made one and the same, and even as she fell onto the long table, and it turned upward, sending biscuits, tea and embroidered fantails into the air, I was thinking about how mummies were treated with salt to remove moisture from body, and as I saw the mudcake at the far end of the table launch into a perfect arc as if from a catapult, I knew, too, that the mourners would be turning around to see the cause of the commotion, but would not see the cake – that I alone could trace its trajectory forward in space and time across that room into the gaping hole made by the open coffin lid – and, because I did not need to see it to know what would happen next, I looked away, thinking about how morticians used to insert cotton under the eyelids of the dead to shut them up forever.