31 March 2015

My Life with Stuart Dybek (A Song of Fire and Ice)


I have problems listening to podcasts. I have problems finding times when I’m just listening—I don’t drive and I don’t exercise much. I have problems taking on too many arts-related projects at once and not finishing any of them. I have bookmarks in too many books, months-deep stacks of magazines and too too too many open tabs.  

My friend F.C.L.P. recommended a podcast of the Stuart Dybek story “Paper Lantern” and, after two reminders, I decided one night to listen to it so I would not be a disappointment to her and so I could click the X and expand each tab in my browser to greater than half-inch width. 

I hesitated in part because it was a New Yorker podcast. And I’m the worst kind of “I don’t read New Yorker fiction” snob (e.g. I’m delighted that Alice Munro finally decided to give it a rest). This is a criticism of Deborah Treisman, the magazine’s fiction editor and the first voice you hear on the podcast in question. I did not know who the reader was—ZZ Packer—but pictured a flowing beard and rock star voice. The evening I finally decided to listen I felt dour, that F.C.L.P. had given me a homework assignment.

(For those who share my podcast aversion, please read the story I’m going to talk about. You can tell this link is legit because of the handwritten bibliographic citation at the bottom.)

I pressed play and stood in my kitchen putting together a plate of cheese bread and hummus, chopping a carrot and thinking that, as an adult, there ought to be something more. At first “Paper Lantern” seemed sophomoric, a George Saunders-lite story about some lab coat-wearing science bros working almost ironically on a time machine.

But then, as the men walk through the frosty fog and enter a restaurant called Chinese Laundry (and I sat down for dinner myself), I started to listen at greater attention. The menu is so vast that it can never be fully explored, an infinity of characters written by an unknown poet. Swallows nests from the South China Sea, five fragrance grouper cheeks. It’s chinoiserie so well done I had to smile.

Still, Dybek uses clanking dialogue for the first big moment of change in the story: “Say, did anyone turn off the Bunsen burner…” The men pile back into the snow to see if they’ve set their laboratory ablaze and then the story starts behaving like a speeding car on a long patch of ice—moving forward but all over the road, with the constant threat of the back end getting ahead of the front. I started to nibble my carrots more carefully, to reduce the crunching in my ears. After discovering the lab is indeed aflame, the narrator locks us into the story for the duration: “I remember how, later, in another time, if not another life, I snapped a photograph of a woman I was with as she watched a fire blaze out of control along a river in Chicago.”

This picture is the backdraft into the narrator’s memorable trip from Chicago to Iowa with the woman in the photo. With her, he experiences an indelible night, one of the few in our lives we get to keep, one of the stars that makes up the constellation of our lives. Dybek writes, “Maybe that’s what falling in love means—the power to create for each other the moments by which we define ourselves.” I muttered, “fuck off Stuart, that’s too good.”

ZZ Packer’s voice, which is much better than the voice of anyone in ZZ Top, mirrors Dybek’s line about the woman riding in the car and “the intimate, almost compulsive way she seems to be speaking.” The mood turns erotic. I was fairly vibrating by the time I heard “the elastic sound of her panties rolled past her hips, the faintly wet, possibly imaginary tock her fingertips are making. ‘Oh, baby,’ she sighs.” I dropped the cheese bread. And then: “‘Baby, take it out,’ she says.” My guy Dybek got them to put “Baby, take it out,” in the New Yorker! I lowered my head until it was a centimeter off the desk, close to the computer speakers.

And then, as we’re all right on the edge, Dybek drops a wonderful, teasing digression on the syncopated licks of Bix Beiderbecke (one advantage of the podcast is that someone has to pronounce Beiderbecke for you). It’s a portal deeper in time to a way back sound, where the patchy radio reception is not the only thing causing static.

The couple is further interrupted by a semi-truck swerving past the car, overexposing her in its high beams—“her hair flares like a halo about to burst into flame.” The trucker is our voyeur—in the pre-Internet-porn-era, this was something indelible in the night, burned into his brain. The man and woman escape long enough to fuck on a checkered tablecloth he kept in the trunk (a pattern sexualized from my childhood reading of All the King’s Men, Jack Burden tearing strips of dishcloth to hold together Anne Stanton’s pigtails).

The flashback ends with the scientists back at the office, now lurid with flames. “‘Look at that seedy old mother go up,’ a white kid in dreadlocks says to his girlfriend.” “‘Fires get me horny,’” is her gauche reply. The language itself is super-heated, “gorgeous transvestites of Wharf Street,” “open hydrants gush into the gutters, the street is seamed with deflated hoses.” As he works a funnel of sparks into a whirl of snow, I realized Dybek had given us a prose poem capped with a show-stopping final image: “a paper lantern that once seemed fragile, almost delicate, but now obliterates the very time and space it once illuminated.” The fire of memory is raging but, like cold hobos in the snow, we come toward it, edging closer to the Dybek.


After texting a series of satisfying but insufficient emoticons to F.C.L.P. (exploding volcanoes, open flames, devil faces) regarding “Paper Lantern,” I remembered how Dybek came into view at another time, if not another life. “If I Vanished” was an obsession of mine in the summer of 2007. Like “Paper Lantern,” it is a story about an almost bewildering number of things—it’s the projection into the night made by your headlights, forming an ever-receding gate you’ll never reach. 

With Gmail’s excellent search functionality, I can start from the beginning of my relationship to “If I Vanished.” On July 20, I chatted my friend K.:

and it occurs to him that sometimes one stops listening to a beloved masterpiece in order to continue to love it.

I read Dybek this weekend -- loved the imagined conversations, and it’s madding to imagine watching a whole boring movie for another person, for one line that isn't even there.

And my favorite bits: “The yellow Blockbuster sign subtracts itself from the night”
“the gate of snow that retreats before his headlights”

The next result in my archives reveals that the story was recommended to me by my friend A., who worked at the university library and used to walk copies of literary magazines out to me, where I sat at the front desk of the Literature department. I wrote him:

Kick ass piece.  Your recommendations have been gold so far. That whole going to Blockbuster sequence was some of the most beautiful stuff I've ever read. The Blockbuster sign subtracting itself from the night is great -- no fear of the name brand age in which we live.  Then he caps it with the flake and music note “gossamer arch” across the avenue.  On fire Stuart!  And I love this, “and it occurs to him that sometimes one stops listening to a beloved masterpiece in order to continue to love it.” So fucking true of any masterpiece, written, musical, human...

Telling biographical details emerge—I used to put two periods between sentences. I used to be quicker to anoint things the greatest. I channeled Hardy and said “madding” for “maddening.” I did not properly hyphenate or em dash. My first fixation was on the “beloved masterpiece,” though I did not bother to listen to the one Dybek references in the story, Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” (back then I was too busy with the similarly-titled song by Death Cab for Cutie). What I was missing then was a woman I thought of as a performance artist constructing the troubled masterpiece of her life. This woman who had vanished, who has gone on vanishing, who reemerged after I read “If I Vanished” the first time only to vanish again, who is a shadow across the passenger seat in my waking late night dreams.

Where “Paper Lantern” might give you a hankering for Chinese food or automotive autoeroticism, “If I Vanished” is likelier to have you up to the wee hours going down various. Dybek presents Jack: “Tonight, his missing her has assumed the guise of curiosity, and curiosity is preferable to feeling her absence.” The woman—Ciel—is another one of these people, stellar, between which we draw the lines for the constellation of our life.

At many author events, I’ve mocked people who ask the writer some variation of the “how did you write it” question—but I admit this is my main concern about “If I Vanished.” In what order did the strands of the story occur to Dybek? I guess it was about vanishing at first, the idea that someone could vanish from your life in an instant, blow out like a paper lantern, gone in 30 seconds flat.

But what about the idea of a line of dialogue from Open Range? Did the film matter at all to Dybek or was it always a ruse? Did he have a fascination with Kevin Costner, the neo-Western, with the mixed bag of reviews, the venom and the admiration for this deliberately old-fashioned picture? And then the nude images possessed by Ciel’s ex, the hidden sub-folders of them. Was the genesis a fascination with homemade porn? Or did the story start from the piece of music by Mussorgsky? And I think the doppelganger Dunkin’ Donuts vignette must have come at the end, the image Dybek knew could draw all the pieces together. But what if that was actually the beginning of the whole story, the doughnut girl and the cab driver and their last meeting in the middle of the night?  

An interesting time capsule aspect of the story is that back in the mid-aughts Blockbusters were a) open and b) open till midnight. By the time I read “If I Vanished,” I was already on Netflix, adding films that still languish in the lifelong middle of the queue. The kid manning the Blockbuster in Dybek’s Chicago shoots Jack a dirty look from behind the counter—he is a familiar figure from “Paper Lantern,” the white dude with rusty dreadlocks, probably wishing his pyrophiliac girlfriend would stop by to while away the closing shift.

I wish I had visited a Blockbuster store in 2007, so perhaps I would have that memory to tether to Open Range, which I rated on Netflix but could not recollect as I reread the story. Did I see the film and rate it or give it two stars so the site’s algorithm would stop presenting me with Kevin Costner’s face? Did it vanish from my mind or was it never there? I felt like Jack—overwhelmed by “an impulse to replay the whole dull film.” So I did.

The key to Dybek’s story, or perhaps its MacGuffin, is a question supposedly posed by Annette Bening to Costner, “what would you do if I vanished?” Ciel asks Jack the same question and it never leaves him.  The author gives himself completely to the delirium of connections made when you sink deeper into the past, replaying old times over and over.

Open Range is at best an amiable background piece to flit in and out of while searching the internet in other open windows. It’s a film to which I can never pay full attention. I will cycle through it again the next time the story comes into my life, listening for that word, “vanished,” making a winter night of it. Dybek is right—at 2 or 3 AM there are self-luminous electronics still flickering on the miniblinds of my apartment building, the one next door, “lit not by the halo of a candle but by a bluish glow.” All of our eyes squinting, burning—the internet is but a literalization of the infinite gateways of art. Is this man, Jack, a writer? He has a schedule like a writer—blue nights, blue lights. 

But before he can start there’s the Dunkin’ Donuts, another illuminated sign subtracting itself from the night. “The trays of frosted doughnuts look like replicas” is Dybek’s perfect description of the flawless sugared jewels, the lines of color and shape so gorgeous Andreas Gursky should do a print of it. Inside the shop, Jack feels “as if he’d stepped into a scene of infinitely repeated takes,” a sequence in which a cab driver who resembles Jack orders a Bavarian Crème and chats with the woman who works at the shop before disintegrating back into the streets. 

Then there are the copies of a nude Ciel stored in her ex’s hard drive. Jack found that he could only take her nakedness in glances—he doesn’t have a photo of her but the ex has many. These pictures appear in flashback within a flashback, her trip through a door she did not expect to find. When she asks the ex to delete the photos he protests, “You think erasing a replica will erase reality?” She tells him to empty the trash too.

For Jack the imagined conversations between Ciel and her ex are secondary to the imagined conversations he has with her directly. “These conversations with her have continued since she vanished. He wishes he could make them stop, but they’re growing more frequent, as if the lengthening of her absence had made the phantom dialogue between them more compulsive.” This is what I’m talking to myself about when I’m walking down the street or standing in the shower at the end of a long evening.

Jack is sucked back to first question, the homepage of the story: “What would you do if I vanished?” He riffs some shitty, cowboy-Costner answers but then, “On a night in winter, I’d pass through the arch of a Great Gate of Snow and on the other side I’d be back in time in the city when it was ours.” Later, he gives what I would guess is the real answer to her question, to Dybek’s question: “After a while, I’d do nothing but go day by day without you. Sometimes I’d remember something you said, and have another one-way conversation. I’d walk around secretly talking to you, wondering where you were and what you were doing. I’d tell myself that wherever you’d gone I wanted you to be happy.”

Ciel says, “You need to work on a better answer.” But that is such a good answer, that answer makes me want to be a better man! For a long time it troubled me that she would not accept any of his replies but, then, how can mere words conjure a person who has already vanished?


My friend F.C.L.P. is interested in portals—she is one of the few people I know who could perhaps make it to the other side of the Great Gate of Snow. She’s told me a little about how Dybek’s writing can be related to Lacan’s Objet petit a, the untranslatable object cause of desire (at least according to the Wiki page I’ve consulted). It’s infuriating, the way she has patience for podcasts and reading Lacan. She even told me something about Derrida as it relates to the stories but I don’t think even Wikipedia can break him down simply enough for me.

It’s also upsetting that in 2015 no one has the decency to properly vanish. You think they’re gone forever and then, one email match later, Instagram or LinkedIn suggests that you reconnect with your old friend. Sure, it’s still him or her but the pictures are always wrong, never the ones from back then, the ones you took.

“I burned them,” says the man says of the photographs in “Paper Lantern.” And this is the amazing thing about living 20 years ago—in 1995 you probably only had hard copies of photos and they could be lost irretrievably if you kept them in a file cabinet at work and then left the Bunsen burner on while you ate fish-fragrance-sauced pigeon from the Chinese Laundry.

You will never have the luck to let go of the photographs you have now—in 2007 you might have not backed them up but today it’s all in the cloud. We do not have to create the Time Machine because Apple has done it for us. Nothing is deleted, just buried slightly deeper. At any rate, you can’t erase what actually happened, as Ciel’s ex said.

As I consider the time spent on this essay, the time spent remembering this man’s remembering, the money spent on this computer, for what is, essentially, memory, I remember how Lydia Davis breaks it down: “You can’t measure it, because the pain comes after and it lasts longer.”

Sometimes on a hike I haven’t taken before, or can’t remember having taken, I step under a familiar arrangement of trees, three on left side and four on the right, with their branches meeting over my head. This sets my mind working and after I cross underneath the boughs I come out somewhere else entirely.


I’m a savorer. As a kid I portioned out my Halloween candy into the new year and often threw half of it away because it was stale. I’ve only read the two Dybek stories discussed in this piece. I am like Proust and his madeleine, afraid that the effect is dissipating with each bite. But my friend J.R. tells me I must read “We Didn’t” next. Let’s read it now and see where it takes us. 

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