Cambridge Book Review

[Issue #4, Winter 1999-2000]


Jan Levine Thal

Each day one considers the evidence, laying it out methodically with the carefully honed skills absorbed from Edgar Allen Poe and Arthur Conan Doyle and -- let's be honest -- from Kinsey Millhone and Warshawski. The pieces are right there next to the New York Times crossword puzzle, which one can still complete despite the all-too-routine lapses that lead to hilarious misspellings. The full forensic report lurks menacingly, thumbtacked onto the bulletin board of victim photos, neatly bagged and tagged together with the fingerprints, the ancient Japanese sword, the cigar ash, and the mangled tiara. Roughly stubbing out your hand-rolled cigarette, you lose all reason, dragging your exhausted muscular limbs over the blood-soaked floor, burying your craggy face in the heaving breasts of the princess. A wrong move means certain death.

Forget that silly Mickey Spillane digression. One easily becomes distracted because the inevitable outcome is distasteful and without lasting significance. And yet, tediously, this evidence points to an open-and-shut case.

An overwhelming sense of post sometimes overtakes one-post mortem, post modern, post colonial, post menopausal, post useful, post attractive, post loveable, post office. One is reminded of the letters. Take a break here for a moment and look through the detritus on the desk. Do you like this desk? One sits here day in and day out, often seven days a week at this ugly steel monument to a forgotten purpose. It is too small, fatally smudged and piled with shrouds of paper -- and yet it is often the full extent of one's world, packed with imitations of human contact: a computer, a printer, a telephone, a fax, a scanner, a pencil sharpener and a little island of "free" space for the unruly manuscripts perched precariously upon one another, constructing a house that should be of cards. This little cubbyhole is creepily like the office in Kurosawa's Ikiru -- the one about a civil servant who loses his sense of decorum, defies his assigned place as a faceless sexless middled-aged man, and in defense of the defenseless takes up actions that seem crazy to his colleagues.

One begins to panic in search of the mindless faceless sexless illusive correspondence that helps the company attack the defenseless, its active contributions to the general fund of undesired mail-those rejection letters that arrive at someone's doorstep in fine company with bills and barely personalized invitations to give, give, give, to make up for the mean-spiritedness of the government of, by, and for the people. Takashi Shimura can throw over his job with no thought to the future but he is a prince.

Trust Kurosawa to create an epiphany where most people experience burnout. In Three Bad Men in a Hidden Fortress the beautiful young princess pretends to be mute to escape from her evil enemies. Yes, yes, it's the film that inspired George Lucas' Star Wars; don't get sidetracked. Wordlessness would be a terrible life sentence. Of course, you could still write unless someone broke your fingers or you got crippling arthritis or you were uneducated to begin with. But the princess was mute not because of such misfortunes, but because she had no social skills. The very royal need no social skills. They have their own language: they command. Unfortunately her royal family is overthrown and she has to run away across the war-torn Japanese countryside teeming with Samurai and bandits. Among these ordinary citizens her haughty tones are clear evidence of her identity. The only way the three bad men can rescue her is to convince her to divest herself of designer clothes but this is the movies you know and she can't be naked or ordinary so they cloak her in graceful rags and keep her from communicating with anyone, for her own good. Now, there's a film begging for feminist deconstruction.

Where was I? Oh the letters. Yes, yes, I mailed them. I'm almost positive I mailed them already this morning when I went to get the paper.

What? Oh, right, the evidence. You're impatient, aren't you? If I were Courtney Love you'd think this was all so fascinating, you'd be glued to every little shake of the well-designed messy curls, every tell-tale streak in the imperfect makeup. Courtney's romantic Charles-like royal widowhood, her post-addiction slinky slimness, that wrinkle-free face with those seemingly guileless eyes, her sultry promise of sex to all men and women, would be enough. The words could be meaningless. She could be mute, ripe with promise and meaning and direction.

What? It's not coffee, no. I don't drink coffee anymore or smoke cigarettes or drink bourbon. Those were things I loved but like all of my loves they left me for my own good.

Yes, you're getting warmer. No those aren't antidepressants or cyanide. One may, in fact, be melodramatic without being cruel. Cruelty is the culture of your generation, not mine. Antidepressants don't work for everyone, anyway. That's another little clue, but never mind. Mental illness is boring, mentally ill people are self-centered and repetitive, and most important-they aren't you. You have control. You have discipline. You have no scary surprises lurking in your genetic code. You have no chemistry that could go awry. In your family there is no dysfunction. No one ever left you. Your life makes perfect sense and you are proud of your contributions to humanity. You've experienced no traumas and if you do, you will have the fortitude to respond to them with gracious equanimity. You won't fight the other prisoners for crusts of moldy bread. You will escape into the underground where you will fight valiantly for freedom or at the very worst you will glide into the gas chambers cloaked in dignified prayer. Nothing can faze you.

Congratulations! The other contestants won a trip to see the Crown Jewels in the Tower of London but you now have your very own house of cards in your very own royal language.

The pieces of evidence you want, the end of this scintillating little moment, are just ordinary household items. Any time now, the duck will come down and give you a cigar for figuring it out. You can enjoy cigars, even though they aren't good for you. They are the hip edge of hip, or they were. Maybe they're passé now and we're on to something else. Whatever it is, it isn't food. Don't eat-eating is good for you but you are maybe more phobic about fat than about insanity. You, who embraces bisexuality, celebrates diversity unless someone wants your job, dabbles in hard drugs or at least thinks they're cool, accepts the things you can't change and searches for wisdom, you are a Royal without the bloodline. Your body is your palace. The ordinary are beneath notice and quite frankly dangerous.

The pills? Yes, they are it. Those big ones are psyllium husks to help guard against colon cancer. The humongous one is a multivitamin to fill in the blanks of careless nutrition. The little brown ones are estrogen so one can save one's bones and be lubricated enough for sex. The empty vial is for ginko bilboa. One forgets to get it refilled.

Yes, Dick Tracy, these seemingly innocent items prove that the end is in sight. Unfortunately, thanks to medical science it could be 30 years from now. More years than you have lived. Long enough for one to watch you go through this. Three decades to go, three generations of being invisible and wearing dull, shapeless clothing. One's memories -- so unintriguing -- fail to jibe with the received wisdom, the agreed-upon interpretations. Has one's memory actually failed, or is the History Channel version just wrong? Or have there been so many overlays of right and wrong, of experience and fantasy, of fiction and theory that even scratching off the layers is useless, a haphazard creation of gobbledegook, a raging against the inevitable night, a sound and fury signifying nothing? One's own participation in whatever happened is neither a recipe for success nor even a reliable full-fledged warning against the path to failure. OK, you're right. A few will mouth meaningless pleasantries because their mothers taught them manners, offering overly solicitous inquiries without an ounce of interest fueling them-the emotional equivalent of yelling at a deaf person while waiting for someone to bring you a drink.

Where is the pleasure, you might ask. Where are the rich rewards of wisdom gathered? Shut up. Not one word about that fucking purple poem. And yet one precariously jiggles between memory lost and wisdom gained-a state of tightropeness that is perhaps not evident.

No, don't take the evidence with you now. You will need it soon enough.

When Sean Connery was this age, his career was just getting into full gear. When P.D. James was this age, she hadn't published her first novel. When Mozart and Jane Austen were this age, they were dead, along with Courtney's husband. Princess Leia is no doubt scarfing down estrogen as we speak. So one wonders exactly what the evidence proves.

But, surely, the guilty are still at large.


Jan Levine Thal lives in Madison and New York City, depending on her state of mind. Once married to WORT-FM in Madison, she is happily divorced from radio and pursuing other creative outlets including acting, writing, and reconsidering the Second Manifesto of the Surrealists.

CBR Home | Reviews | Excerpts & Features | Guidelines | CBR Press