The absence of such amphibious works in our present moment may explain why Hiram Junker’s latest effort, 'The Idea That Never Was' (HarperCollins, 2022), feels like such an anomalous and refreshing achievement. (Whether this book is in fact a harbinger of some larger development in the offing, or just adventitiously washed ashore, we need not decide here.) I’ve read the book twice now, and I still don’t know how best to describe it. Provisionally I would characterize it as a kind of science fiction, though I also take seriously Darko Suvin’s proposal that the whole text—all nine-hundred pages of it—ought to be subsumed under the general heading of “a thought experiment.”...
...But let us not delay the obvious any longer, and say clearly what this idea is that Hiram Junker seeks to expunge from his imaginary world. As it happens, the first trace of it appears in the very opening paragraphs. We are at once introduced to Dr. Rubin Thale, arguably the book’s protagonist (and the only character upon whom I’ll touch in this present note), whose story crops up at multiple points throughout the text. It must be acknowledged straightaway, however, that there is nothing much resembling a unified narrative here; 'The Idea That Never Was' contains hundreds of such “characters,” and in hundreds of short, mostly unrelated episodes (Junker calls them “Glimpses” rather than “Chapters”). Some of these episodes run for several pages, others consist of only a sentence or two; some are stories, some are letters or emails, some are diary entries, some are newspaper articles or quotations drawn from longer works, some even are judicial opinions or government records. Often they are excerpts or fragments, all but free-floating. (It is certain that, whatever else one might say about The Idea That Never Was, it can only loosely be described as a novel; if a comparison must be made, the book is far closer in its structure to something like Benjamin’s 'Arcades Project' than to, say, 'War and Peace.') At any rate, it happens that Dr. Thale—the last remaining classics professor to teach at his university, and described as being “tall and stoop-shouldered” and with “a waxy, peach complexion like clay” and “flexed, trembling paws” and “a vanishing way about him—one almost expected him to disappear before one’s eyes”—it happens that Dr. Thale has decided to attend a church service...
Not that we presume upon a greater intimacy than our station in life would permit. One need only recite the old adage: "The Cabots speak only to Lodges, and the Lodges speak only to Fred Bliedeblieck" in order to appreciate the need for discretion in dealing with such a person as yourself. Whether enjoying a quiet supper with Henry Kissenger or a fast-paced power brunch at the behind the dumpster of the Starglo Trailer Park and Ammo Dump on beautiful Rt. 425 at I-75 just south of the airport junction, you eat with a Rabelaisian delicacy. You digest in a stylish and dignified manner. And as a person of discrimination and breeding,
[Lifetime Breeding Totals: Biedeblieck, F. - Attempts: 6,425 / Completed: 23 / Interceptions: 6,402 / % Completed: 3.2]
you insist upon a publication which will cater to the distinctive needs of the Fred Bliedeilblick generation. Bold and sassy. Tart and tangy. Effervescent but not too indulgent. Quintessential? Yes. Deciduous? Definitely. Octagonal? It goes without saying. A magazine whose very nom de plume cries out to the world: "I am special."
Ah! But caveat per emptor, monsieur editore. How can Freds Bedeidlsbleak be assured that he will be reading Special Magazine in the company of a small, well-chosen group of like-minded individuals? Is it simply a matter of genetical engineering, of a statistical crunching of the numbers, of how many steerage passengers one can drive away from the lifeboats with a well-handled croquet mallet?
Ha-ha. Do not make us laugh, Frebble--boy. Let the other so-called "special interest" magazines scrabble around for readers of a Biedelblieck--ian caliber...
...valley has loft itself into the strata of schistose rock—time
in foliated, metamorphic rock, up-ended into its mineral
sheaths, sheared along our escarpment: the grand cuts
of orange sericite, green ottrelite, and the sandstone that
has been veined in quartzite, coming up tight and tipped
to the course of our feet. How the heel lifts and is swung
by the foot, in a pendulum, from the hip, to the plant
of the reciprocal leg’s pendular pivot; it’s like pole-vaulting
off one reiterative stake to the next while the rolling torque
of each hip couples the fall of an arc with the rise of an arc:
how our centre is carried undulately in the constantly, re-
directional, work of our ‘step-to-step transitions.’ How the
lungs fill to the signals of the receptors in our blood, telling us
how deeply we need to breathe with effort, in the swell
of the belly: sensors at the arterial bifurcation of the throat,
and on the heart’s aortic arch, rounding our abdomens out
to the thoracic cavity’s influx of air. Where there’s a view
from the top of our rock-range spur, out over the land’s hook
of the river; its meander that rings us, always, into the setting
of its alluvial settling—our hands out, over the rail,
evidencing the way all the ridges arrow their way into that
boucle and its almost-island of stone-housed tracts of land...
Variation of original published in Shearsman 125 & 126, Winter 2020/2021.
English, unbeknownst hitherto to the entire planet, was owned as it had always been by one British family, the Words. Lord Frisbee Word II, who preferred the title Lord Byword as a sort of elitist play on words, may or may not have had a recent stroke, but most assuredly and recently announced that he was to put his family’s singular, ancient, prized possession and heirloom up for auction, one word at a time. The notion that one of the populace could now collect royalties upon overhearing his or her newly purchased word (or words) bandied about in common street chatter made for a mob mentality the likes of which had never before threatened the staid, secular sanctity of the auction house.
In immiscible human matters of this rare sort, not to be mixed or sifted without singular sensitivity of intellect, Daed Oversoul was often and eagerly sought by police and high-ranking officials of the Anglican sovereignty. Professionally, Daed was a poet, the British Isles having claimed him as their laureled own on one of his coffee-house, pub, and church tours just before the new millennium. Now almost twenty years later, now a full-time poet laureate and part-time crime liaison, Daed Oversoul stood at the lofty Word family’s front door and awaited entrance and further acquaintance with Lord Frisbee Byword’s world-shaking decision to sell off the noble, primogenial English lexicon.
“What gives you the right to question me in my personal or professional comportment, young man?” asked Lord Word II quite civilly over tea.
Daed sipped and nodded respectfully. “I understand your concern over my unofficial position in this investigation, Sir Frisbee, but, as someone of your lexicographical stature can appreciate, the police favor a man or woman of letters over one of facts and figures in matters of this nature.”
“Matters of this nature?” stickled Frisbee the Lord of the Words. “I ask, has there ever been a matter of this nature before?”
Daed puzzled and sipped over the question. “No. I think this rivals the potential sale of an ocean or even a star.”
“A star, you say? Are the stars not for sale?”
That uncomfortable consideration just then entered Daed’s mind. “No. I don’t believe they are. Are they?”
“Of course they’re not for sale, my boy,” averred Sir Frisbee. “You can’t eat a star, can you?” Daed smiled faintly, shook his head obligingly. “No, and you can’t drink a star and, if you can’t eat it or drink it, young man, then why on earth would you dare desire it?”
But because micromorts are a mathematically defined unit, zero does, in fact, exist. The micromorts of any given activity is calculated by taking the number of deaths due to said activity, dividing by the population in question, and multiplying by one million. Therefore, if any one activity has never killed a single member of the population, say, stubbing a toe, the micromorts of that activity is 0.
By that argument then, the risks of taking LSD and dying from a papercut are equivalent. Am I the only one who thinks that is stupid? Even better, they are both equal to zero.
But though the risk of dying for the modern human is remarkably small, death will come for each and every one of us eventually. Will she come as the Morrígan, phantom queen of the Irish Ulster Cycle, covered head to toe in the feathers of a crow? Until then, we entertain ourselves with illusions, foolishly believing that by hurtling through the air or by balancing on metal blades, we can challenge death itself.
Peter held the arrow that felled Wendy in his hand. “She is dead,” he said uncomfortably. “Perhaps she is frightened at being dead.” I’d like to think that, for a moment, Tinker Bell might have felt a twinge of regret. But J.M. Barrie knows best, and according to him, “fairies have to be one thing or the other, because being so small they unfortunately have room for only one feeling at a time.”
Victory, then. Just victory, intertwined with death inside the fairy’s mind.
Furthermore, over the next several weeks the book began to sell (modestly) and was received by reviewers and public alike as entirely the work of Edgar Allan Poe, based on the factual account related to him by me--that is, by Arthur Pym. My dismay at this turn of events, my feelings of betrayal and usurpation, were nothing compared to a far more powerful feeling: that of obliteration. This was my text, this text was my life, and now it was another man's text and life--no, worse, I was now the invention of this other person. I was, in effect, dead. One could say murdered. For I discovered (too late, not having read the final proofs or the finished book with all its emendations) that Poe had added a long note after the narrative's last page, the page on which I describe the "shrouded human figure," enormous and white, that rose up before us as our boat plunged into what seemed to be a giant cataract. The note began thus: "The circumstances connected with the late sudden and distressing death of Mr. Pym was already well known to the public through the medium of the daily press."
Sudden death! Well known! Imagine my horror at reading these fraudulent words. What could have been Poe's motive in writing them? I was (I am) quite alive and well, despite the nervous condition brought on by my terrible ordeals. I immediately sought out Poe and found him in another dreary, dank pub, inebriated but entirely capable of reasoned discourse. He explained--as we shared a drink--that this postscript was another ruse: my putative death would serve to reinforce the truth of my existence. His slight Southern inflections lent an ironic melancholy to his words as he regarded me closely with that intense, haunted yet mischievous gaze. I stared back, suddenly dizzy from the combination of drink and bizarre paradox. I found myself drawn into those bleary-sharp eyes, almost as if I were falling, body and mind, into their depths.
The dogs were muscling their gaunt shapely forms from out of blind snow-bracketed banks, lanes, ditches, Detroit’s steel-girdered interstices — the inglenooks and modesties of Dearborn, slender brown skulk like clats of sinister inchworms on the eye. Their bellies cinched in dry lank starvation. Their ears and snouts and coats kinked wet, glossed, obtaining an august diesel sheen in the glaucous boreal light, blue kidney figments as though migrant dolphins come ashore on roaming silver-haired legs. A thousand thousand hounds surface loping along the grey march. Their tongues pink and exposed and ice-chafed, whiskered muzzles zebraic with facets of cloven white. Their gums scalloped a darker pink, their gums bared and gnarled a traumatic hue, their gums clustered with milky crescent teeth. Pelted and knickerbockered a variation of colour, a mottle of browns, reds, rusts, yellows, silvers, blues. Coats to pillow the eye. Lemons and whiskeys and jets and gold oxides all assembling in unpeopled streets striated fire-pure and barren with snow coral. Old winter-feasted trees, choke cherries and aspens ailing and sharded in the godless thaw, holly and gold hyssop and shimmering sneezeweed felled low before the raptured greening, now trembling to herald the arrival of the dogs.
Snowflakes wheeled loose from snickering branches. Skinny Dinners stood watch, binoculars slack in the curvature of his neck, his hands balled under his singlet, his heart aching with a sweet local thunder.
He was stationed on the arch above Michigan Avenue, the strange primal terrain divested before him, and he could see all the way westward over half-collapsed factory rooftops, past shuttered bodyshop compounds and looted junkyard plots, beyond needle-littered stripmalls and uninviting newspapered Miller bars, all the way to the green pasteurised waters of the lower soak of the River Rouge...
"When the favored horse finally falls,
it suffocates instantly under the weight
of its ridiculous white teeth,
and bauble nails,
while the gelding next door,
four winters starved,
keeps darling Death
a dust cloud always,
one long cough away."
"...This hood that covers, gives the same the trouble, the hood has over,
my nose, neck, and stressed shoulders.
Boulder sized soldier because boldness in my boney bones is bulging,
building compulsion to control composure,
but fuck that, every black boy has his explosions, maybe erosions too.
The Rose that rose from the concrete, not complete. Yet..."
"...Eye-level with the youth I outgrew,
my fingertips pressed against the glass, warm
as a father’s yawning throat, its unconscious grace,
I imagine someone taking my covers and smuggling
them to this hill in East Africa, as the air in my chest
thins, and all my adolescence abruptly erased.
What was I so busied with that incessant April?
How many souls perished each time I blinked?..."
Did you follow Socrates through Athens, learning to unravel
with a question all the reasons that oppress life
When did we try to kill you?
And in killing you, kill ourselves?
At sunrise, you are the giant peach surrounding
the rough ruby pit of you.
At sunset, you are the beating ruby pit, relinquishing
the juicy peach.
You are a paradox.
"...She was with me too, that morning, though she played a different role. For between the beds of rushes, naked and bluish-white, lay the broken body of the stranger from the sea.
"On other days the other girls would talk about the angles of his legs. You could feel the way his very bones seemed to wound him. Sometimes it was the dead-fish colour of his skin that they remembered, the look you see on drowned men when they wash up days after a storm. It was easy to forgive the others for believing he was dead. And for a few, those with good humour, it was his hair that stayed with him.
"What I remember, though, more than his storm-wracked body, was the spirit around him. It called to me. Where the others at once believed him dead, drawing back so as not to contaminate the holy robes, I sensed a will to live. I put aside my bundle, and touching my fingers to my temple, felt an echo of the shudder. Not for nothing had we half-drowned ourselves in search of octopus: I knew at once how to expel the brackish water from his chest, to pump sweet air back into this almost-emptied husk."
"Hollow winds shook town, street sign, broke windows as the denizens scrambled for their cellar doors, storm shelters. Stella hunkered beneath the church, watching the others click rosary beads in time with the clacking shutters. The meadow grew dark and across town the little house wobbled and creaked and Posey watched the sky glow with those supernatural southern lights. The green winds winnowed the grass, sprayed long arcs in the brook, bled through the cracks in the weather-stripping until outside and inside married in the space around her. Posey wrung a threadbare pair of ballet slippers in her hands, the rank, homey smell of feet rising to meet her. Both mother and daughter looked to the sky and Posey came to know her new friend in the dark."
"A turkey vulture drops a rope of intestine and lifts away into a hard blue sky. The dog at the roadside is some kind of mixed breed with a delicate snout and brindled coat. Mel eases the truck to a stop, and I clamp on my hardhat.
Overhead, the big bird carves a dark circle while Mel drags the shovel out of the truck bed. Even though I know the dog is dead, I squat to touch it just in case, but its jaw gapes, its legs are stiff as branches, and its milky eyes are open.
Michelangelo peeled the skins of cadavers. He was searching for a deeper mystery than how muscle attaches to bone. I am searching for something more too; not just a tag to name the owner of a dog. In the dead, Michelangelo found the underpinnings for his art. I haven't yet been able to name what it is I find in these still creatures."
"The longer he lingered in The Brass Tyrant, the less transfixed he was by the women and the more vested he became in verifying the allure of the old liars, in gaining their approval and so inheriting their secrets. They each possessed the whittled oblique face of a church fresco icon, a chalk-white bust like a Hans Holbein cameo clamped in a locket. Yet assembled together, they resembled an Early Flemish panel-portrait executed by the Brothers van Eyk, the Ghent Altarpiece of Time-eaten Gremlins. Their rickety pisshead clan behaved in such a way that Briggs was often privately reminded of the Muppets in the mezzanine, as if Statler and Waldorf had emerged with raspy scorn from the television set to crack wise about the state of his life. He didn’t need anyone to explain to him that these men were gangsters, the fathers of criminal progeny."
Prepare the feast
Ensnare the beast
Return to sender
Fringes to center
The mad monkey enters..."
"The vestigial remnants of a child’s egocentric universe mingled with the naïve hippie spirit of the times—just let it happen, and all will be well. I would return to Clarion in January, and serendipitous circumstance would deliver a wonderful, if momentarily agonizing, opportunity for my nobility to falter."