A Novel Idea: A Pioneering Writer Feature with Charlie Jane Anders
Words By Charlie Jane Anders, Art By Ejiwa Ebenebe
Charlie Jane Anders’ latest novel is The City in the Middle of the Night. She’s also the author of All the Birds in the Sky, which won the Nebula, Crawford, and Locus awards, and Choir Boy, which won a Lambda Literary Award. She’s also the author of a novella called Rock Manning Goes For Broke and a short-story collection called Six Months, Three Days, Five Others. Her story “Six Months, Three Days” won a Hugo Award and “Don’t Press Charges And I Won’t Sue” won a Theodore Sturgeon Award. Charlie Jane also organizes the Writers With Drinks reading series, and co-hosts the podcast Our Opinions Are Correct with Annalee Newitz.
An Interview with Charlie Jane Anders
By Dani Hedlund
You’ve published well over 100 short stories. How do you keep your writing so fresh at that kind of output?
I hope I keep it fresh! I try to not repeat myself, and I think that short fiction is a good place to try different things and keep exploring different subgenres and kinds of story ideas. I’m actually putting together a short story collection right now that’s going to be bigger than the one I published before. It’s at Tor Publishing—which is really exciting. I didn’t know that they would be up for that. I’m trying to make the collection as varied as possible, in that some stories are super comedic and full of weird humor and anarchy, and some stories are more dark or thoughtful or sad and introspective. I’m trying to make it as varied as possible so that it shows a range. Something I’ve worked on over the course of the last however-many years writing short fiction is trying to keep it from being one kind of thing.
What do you think are the commonalities between all the things you write?
I feel like I like writing about weird stuff that’s absurd and bizarre and off-kilter. When I first started getting into fiction writing, I definitely had the idea that I couldn’t get interested in the story unless there’s something strange about it. Something kind of unreal. And I feel like that’s still pretty true for me. I like stories that are odd or surreal or jarring.
I also like to write short fiction where there are one or two characters we really follow. A lot of my stories end up being about a relationship or an interaction between two people or a few people. I think one of the things I’ve evolved in my short fiction, particularly, is showing how a relationship or dynamic changes over the course of a story while also exploring some big plot or theme as a counterpoint to that.
All the Birds in the Sky is doing something that comes out of my short fiction—especially “Six Months, Three Days,” but also a bunch of my other stories. It showcases the small and personal stuff against a big backdrop. What I was trying to do really carefully in that book is start with small contained stakes, and then over the course of the book the stakes get bigger, but we still keep in touch with the small and the personal.
What is it like to transition from shorter-form into novel-length writing?
I wrote my first novel back in the early 2000s. That was Choir Boy, which came out in 2005, and I think sold maybe a thousand copies. I love writing short stories, and I remember feeling like if I could make a living as a short story writer, that’s what I would do.
Writing short stories is so satisfying, and you can tell so many interesting stories in a few thousand words. It’s too bad that we have this system where short stories generally don’t make much money or get that much attention. There have been a handful of people who have made a career out of short stories, like George Saunders for a long time, Ted Chiang, on the science-fiction side, and Kelly Link, who straddles that divide. But for most of us, it’s hard to get anywhere like that.
With a novel, you have to go a lot deeper, spin out all these sub-plots, and explore a lot more territory. You’re committing to a world, a group of characters, and a concept for the long haul. The challenge for me in writing a novel was getting curious enough about a character and a situation and a world so that I wanted to follow them for a long time. There was a lot of writing and writing and trying to find the thing that would carry me through such a long work. I had to find a concept that had the legs to go that distance. I wrote a bunch of novels between Choir Boy and All the Birds in the Sky. I think there were four other novels—one of which you’re publishing an excerpt from. One I turned into a novella, and that was published a year or so ago.
I’ve thought a lot about what makes something a novel idea versus a short story idea, and usually what makes it a novel idea is that it has legs—it has characters you want to follow for a length of time and a sense that there’s a world to explore that we want to spend a lot of time in. With a short story, you can have one interesting idea that you can explore and then get out.
You have written in so many genres. How do you see all these different genres interacting, and how do you know where on the spectrum your genre will land when you sit down to write a story or novel?
Different genres often come with different tones and styles and expectations about the kind of storytelling you’re going to do. There’s something artificial about a lot of these genres. A lot of genres come out of the fact that there was one book that everyone really liked, like Lord of the Rings. And so it became, “Can we find and publish more books that are like Lord of the Rings?” Then a bunch of people set out to write books that were similar in some way during the 70s and 80s. So you have this genre of epic fantasy that grows up around people kind of wanting to copy Lord of the Rings. The same thing happened with Harry Potter and The Hunger Games.
So I think that genre lines are kind of artificial and often based on trying to give you more of the thing that you liked before, but I also think they do offer an opportunity to experiment. For example, I love noir fiction, and I love that pulpy noir voice that Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald did so well. In The City in the Middle of the Night, I very consciously added a second POV, a second main character almost. I wrote that second main character in a noir, almost Western style voice, counterpoint to a voice that was more personal and intimate and emotional for the other main character. I think it’s fun to experiment with that. I think genre plays into that, because of the expectation that if you’re going to read a noir, urban detective, or urban fantasy novel it’s going to have a certain bluntness and starkness to the tone.
You’ve been hosting a reading series, Writers with Drinks, since 2001. What have you learned from your multitude of guests?
Writers with Drinks has been a really fun experience. It’s amazing that it’s still going. It started out as me wanting to do a literary or reading event that wasn’t pigeonholing or focused on one genre. I developed this hosting style that was anti-stuffy, anarchic, and weird. I think I’ve learned a lot about different ways to showcase authors. I used to be much more into my silly, chaotic hosting style, and I wouldn’t be as careful to make sure I was foregrounding what was cool about an author. I’d just be riffing and saying weird shit. I’ve gotten much more focused on consciously honoring the author and pushing their books sales more while also not allowing there to be any pomposity or stuffiness around it. I’m also thinking more carefully about how to structure a show so that you’ve got a variety of voices and themes and styles and it’s not jarring. Just trying to be more careful in general and more intentional about it.
You also founded and ran the influential science fiction/fantasy blog io9 for a number of years. How does that time affect your writing?
Annalee originally founded io9, and I came onboard early in that process and helped her run it. It was a huge learning experience. It was like being paid to go to grad school and geek out about writing and think about storytelling and interview lots of creators and do criticism. The longer I did that, the more I was thinking about ways to talk about how stories work or don’t work, what a story is trying to do and how it is succeeding or failing. I learned so much about storytelling just from working on that website and all these conversations I had with the people we were interviewing, our commenters, readers, and other writers on the site. Just from geeking out about the nature of speculative fiction storytelling and what makes a good story. That helped me take my creative writing to the next level.
Apparently there is a fictional Star Trek character based on you. How did that happen?
David Mack wrote a bunch of Star Trek novels, and in one of them he put me and Cyriaque Lamar in. Ensign Cyriaque Lamar and Lieutenant Anders. It’s just this tuckerization that happens a lot in Star Trek novels. It was just a cool thing to get this Star Trek novel and have my name in there. Me and Cyriaque, who were both at io9 at the time, were officers onboard this starship!
And then, you know, Armistead Maupin came and read at Writers With Drinks, which I had been bugging him to do for years. He and I had met a few times at other literary events and occasionally on the street when he was still living in San Francisco, and he was super nice. He obviously loves trans people and was excited to be meeting more trans authors in general, and he really likes Writers With Drinks. So in one of the Tales of the City novels—I think it’s called Michael Tolliver Lives—he stuck in this random thing about a character running late. She had to go to her friend Charlie’s event Writers With Drinks. I was like, “Holy shit! I’m a character in the Tales of the City universe now, and Writers With Drinks is a thing in that universe!” At least, it was in the hardcover. I hope it’s in the paperback as well.
What do you think about the state of the literary community right now?
One thing I want to see more of in general—and that I want authors to be more conscious of—is support for events in bookstores. Not just showing up and reading or doing a bookstore event and then leaving, but finding ways to encourage people to go to bookstores. Give your time and energy and whatever platform you have to make sure that people are going to independent bookstores, supporting them, and spending a lot of money in them. Especially in major cities where rents are outrageous. Independent bookstores are facing a lot of challenges right now, and if we lose them then we lose the heart of the literary world.
How do you balance all the social and political commentary in your stories with the actual storytelling?
I was at a convention in Canada this weekend, and we actually had a couple of panels where we were talking about the balance of storytelling versus politics. I feel like what we all said to some degree is that politics are going to be part of the story no matter what you do. All writing is political, and you’re going to be talking about politics no matter what. For me, the key is when the politics and big ideas come out of the characters and the world and aren’t something that I’m imposing top-down.
Obviously, there are exceptions. I wrote this one story in January 2017 that was a dystopian piece about a trans person being captured by this evil organization that’s doing horrible stuff to her. That came out of a political issue that I wanted to talk about. I was trying to channel all this anxiety I had into a story.
But I feel like a lot of the time, I’m happiest when the characters and their struggles and the world and everything they’re dealing with organically gives rise to stuff that’s political. Like in All the Birds in the Sky. The ideas about science and magic naturally, inevitably, became linked to this issue of nature and technology and whether they can coexist. You’re led to thinking about climate change and environmentalism by virtue of what the characters are dealing with and what’s going on in the world. The politics are baked into the things the characters are interested in and worried about. That’s what’s most satisfying to me—when it bubbles up from the story.
We have heard rumors about a YA trilogy. Can you tell us a little about that?
Yeah! The first book is basically done. I’m doing a final batch of edits on it. I’m in the middle of writing the second book of the trilogy. That will hopefully be done by the spring, and then the third one will be done a year later. It’s a space opera, and it’s about this teenage girl on Earth who realizes she’s connected to this war that’s going on in space. She and a bunch of kids from all over Earth join the crew of this starship and go off to have this amazing adventure. It’s got a lot of Star Trek, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Star Wars in it. A bunch of different space opera things.
But it’s also about growing up, letting go of your illusions, and realizing who you really are versus who you thought you were or wanted to be. It’s about defining yourself. And there’s a lot of romance and relationships. It’s fun to have really raw relationships and emotion in the middle of space battles and things blowing up around you. It’s like what we were talking about before—we have the personal in the foreground and then there’s this huge plot stuff in the background. I think way more than City in the Middle of the Night, it’s tonally similar to All the Birds in the Sky, even though it’s in first person.
How did you know that you loved these characters enough to follow them through three books?
In this case it was a little bit of the tail wagging the dog. When I went, “I want to do YA,” it was like, oh, well, it’s going to be a trilogy. Because that’s what’s happening in YA right now! Although I think duologies are becoming bigger?
Anyway, we decided it was going to be a trilogy. I was talking to Miriam Weinberg, one of my editors at Tor, who is a frickin’ genius. The first book of the trilogy has one narrator. It’s all from the point of view of this one teenage girl. And I said, “Do I have to stick with that in book two or can I shake it up?” And Miriam said, well, why not go further? Does the person who has a point of view in the first book need to be represented as a point of view in the second book, or can we just get away from her for one book? I was like, “Am I allowed to do that?” And she said yeah, in fact, it’s way better if the second book feels drastically different from the first book. Because people will be bored otherwise.
So the second book has multiple POVs and doesn’t really center on this character who was a POV in the first book. She’s there, she’s a character. But we’re not really seeing through her eyes as much. I get to explore a different set of characters. I’m learning a lot more about the characters who I explored in the first book, but not in the same way as I am now. They were supporting characters and they didn’t get to have the same agency.
Can you tell us about the amazing chapter we’re publishing in this issue, “Science is a Dog with Many Tails?”
This was a novel that I wrote back in the mid-2000s. I had an agent who was shopping it around in 2007. It was a novel about the first two years of the Clinton administration, 1993-1994. It was a coming of age story about these characters who really want to be wonks in Bill Clinton’s Washington.
The idea of the novel was that these characters are wide-eyed idealists who believed, like we all did in 1993, that Bill Clinton was going to fix everything. That it was the start of an amazing new era. Then the novel becomes about the disillusionment of Clinton’s first two years in office and the slow realization that no, it wasn’t going to be alright. That parallels these characters having their own personal awakening and loss of illusion. That realization that the world is not what they thought it was and they are not who they thought they were. It was a fun thing to explore, and again it’s got that personal story against this huge backdrop.
When I was working on it, I read not only books for research, but also a ton of newspapers and magazines from that era. If you read the Washington Post in January 1993, there’s all this stuff like “Will the Republicans ever recover? Is this the end of the Republican Party?” They were trounced so horribly in the 1992 election, they wondered if there was going to be any way back for them.
There was also this manufactured effect in the spring of 1993 where all these articles were being written about angry white men. These angry white men need to be listened to, they’re everywhere, and they feel like they’re victims now. It parallels a lot of stuff we saw in the Obama era and going into the Trump era. It seemed like the media as whole decided that the angry white men were the story. This Michael Douglas movie, Falling Down, came out right at the moment where angry white men was becoming a meme, and John Bobbitt got his penis cut off around that time. There was this frenzy of handwringing. What are we going to do about these poor angry white men? What are we going to do to help these angry white men? You see this slow build that leads to Newt Gingrich becoming speaker of the house.
The novel ends with Newt Gingrich winning and the Republicans winning this landslide 1994 election. The last few chapters of the book are about that happening and the characters realizing, “Oh my god.” So throughout the book you see the cracks appearing more and more just as the characters are realizing on a personal level that the world isn’t what they thought it was.
Of all of the stories and books you’ve written, what are you the proudest of?
In terms of short fiction, my favorite short story of mine is probably still “Love Might Be Too Strong a Word.” You can read it online at Lightspeed Magazine, and it’s going to be in my upcoming short story collection. It’s about a spaceship travelling to another planet, and there are six different genders on the ship, and each of the genders has a different social class that has a different role on the ship. The main character is someone who rejects all of that and refuses to conform to their assigned gender role. It came out of a lot of conversations I was having at this feminist science-fiction convention that I love. It was me trying to grapple with a lot of stuff around gender-based oppression and gender identity.
I’ve written a lot of stories about gender, most of which are unfortunately impossible to find now. But I wrote a ton of them. Finding something new to say about gender is something that doesn’t happen to me as often as I wish it would. I feel like I’ve written so much already. And there are so many other people writing interesting things about gender now that I’m really proud of writing something like “Love Might Be Too Strong a Word,” where I managed to say something that I hadn’t been seeing about gender.
In terms of novels, I’m still super happy about both All the Birds in the Sky and City in the Middle of the Night. But the fact that All the Birds in the Sky seems to have meant something to a lot of people—that’s what you live for. That’s the dream.
Excerpted from an unpublished manuscript titled Clintonistas.
Bing Johannson could still remember when he had thought of himself as an overachiever. A bright young man, with both quips and statistics on his lips at a moment’s notice—like George Stephanopoulos. Or Gene Sperling. Bing had sat on the sodden grass at Bill Clinton’s inauguration, with the sound system on the fritz, and he had totally understood what “Force the Spring” meant: it meant that he, Bing, should move here, to Washington, D.C., to become a policy wonk. To use facts and empiricism and sheer cleverness—not stale ideology—to reinvent absolutely everything. A small army of whiz kids was converging on the nation’s capital, and Bing was going to be one of them. When the triumphant history of the Clinton Administration was written, Bing’s name would occupy at least a few sentences. Maybe a whole paragraph.
Now Bing was living in a dingy little walk-up apartment on U Street, which everyone called the U-Boat, with seven roommates, and he was an unpaid intern at the National Bristle Council (which lobbied for preferential treatment for brushes made with natural fibers, rather than acrylic ones.) Bing had already drafted a thousand indignant press releases about the proven benefits of pig whiskers. He spent the rest of his time working in a bookstore to pay his rent, and slouching in that one dive bar near Foggy Bottom where all the unpaid interns commiserated together around a single pitcher of Coors.
Somehow, the flurry of resumes that Bing had flung into the universe had gone unnoticed. The Clinton Administration’s health care reform effort was faltering, and Bing was certain he could sort everything out if they just returned his calls.
So Bing spent every spare moment bobbing for invites to the elite parties where everybody had an opinion about Gramm-Hollings-Rudman. At last, he found his way to one of Robin Dodd’s legendary soirees, and…it was an obstacle course. Over here, the white guy who has just discovered In Living Color and wants to do his Homey the Clown, over there the pencil-legged cashmere girl who thinks it’s still cool to tell Amy Fisher jokes. Half these people went to Andover and Yale and practically wore the school ties around their Neanderthal craniums.
Robin Dodd was having some ongoing psychodrama with his father, who was the Dodd in Schwartz Dodd Duncan, the securities firm immortalized in the bestseller Air Hockey in Hell. You heard the usual stories—the son dragged at age thirteen to see a chip-toothed backroads sex worker (not a high-class escort, for some reason), dad beating and humiliating young Robin until he learned to fight back, enforced backgammon championships and polo lessons, nicknames, ski vacations with the members of daddy’s lodge, tubs of alcohol and piles of cocaine, string-pulling alongside savage competitiveness, 3 a.m. fistfights, death threats, temporary disownings, bearhugs, cigars, shared lap dances, hunting trips and knife-throwings. Robin claimed he was so fucked up that therapy could never accomplish a damn thing except fray his insulation. This total lack of self-awareness left him relaxed and cheerful—jovial, even—but everybody knew never to stay at one of his parties past two in the morning.
Bing met tons of people at Robin’s parties, but half of them were Republicans and the other half seemed to be lobbyists for causes more disreputable than hog bristles. But the third time he went to Robin’s house, he met the girl of his dreams: Mea Goldberg, an aspiring political satirist who wore Lisa Loeb glasses and tried to be the loudest person in the room. She was declaiming about her cramps and calling Newt Gingrich’s bowl haircut a follicular PMS generator. She told Bing later that he looked the sort of preppy boy who was always drawn to her. (“WASPs to the flame,” as she put it.) Up close she seemed barbarously elegant. She had a Sandra Bernhard sensibility, with a hefty dose of Andrew Dice Clay and Howard Stern. She would have stood out anywhere, but in this crowd she practically had a halo, and Bing couldn’t help following her around. She wasn’t a Mark Russell-style political humorist, she was more into doing an impersonation of Rostenkowski’s orgasm, or Rangel as a fashion photographer.
Bing still thought of himself as a reasonably smart guy, but he couldn’t keep up with Mea. Soon enough she’d get bored with him and move on to the next conch-eared boy in J. Crew. Bing could already see her eyeing Marlon Rodnick, the chocolate soda heir who was working on agriculture issues with Max Baucus. She’d love Marlon, who was a great source of comedy and had a base shrewdness inherited from generations of Yoo-Hoo merchants. Bing had to act now. Since Bing couldn’t be truly clever, the best he could manage was cryptic.
“Everybody says the law-making process is like a sausage factory, but it’s more like the running of the bulls on the Autobahn.” That sounded wise and sort of humorous, and Mea wouldn’t know what it meant since Bing didn’t know himself.
Mea laughed, and said she hadn’t thought of it that way. She had some thoughts about law-making and yak-herding, and then Bing said something about regulatory jerky. After an hour of this, Bing was getting a headache, but it worked—she had decided he was a sage, or at least not boring. She gave Bing her number and when he called, they agreed to meet up on Saturday night.
This gave Bing a couple of days to panic. He couldn’t ask Robin or most of his other friends for advice, because they would only have sapped the dregs of his confidence. So he wound up calling his friend Mike from college, who was trying to be a zinester and bring back synthpop.
“Hey,” Bing said. “I have a question for you first. Guy stuff.”
“Okay.” Pause. “Well, I would get a doctor to look at it. I can’t diagnose over the phone, and even if you showed it to me in person, I’m not sure—”
“No, not that kind of—”
“And don’t rule out that on underwear-free days, your zipper can chafe and you won’t realize how badly until later.”
“Mike, it’s not a symptom! I’ve got a date. She thinks I’m smart.”
“You are smart. You probably wear underpants way more often than I do.”
“No, I mean really smart. Mega-genius smart.” Bing explained what had happened.
“Ah. Well, you know it’s easier for a civilized man to feign barbarity than for a barbarian to masquerade as a civilized man. But it was a good plan to go with the laconic and enigmatic. I would talk about Heisenberg and Foucault. You’ll sound like a genius. If that fails, try pig Latin.”
“That’s not really a great help, I’m afraid.”
“Okay, okay. Well, you already scored with aphorisms, so just say lots of aphorisms and you’ll sound really wise. I know this guy who can help you get in touch with the aphoristic spirit of the cosmos.” Mike gave Bing a name and address in Southwest.
The address Mike had given Bing led to the bottom of a winding staircase a half-mile from the Library of Congress. The staircase ran into a dusty alley that looked gloomy even in the mid-afternoon, and Bing searched for half an hour before he found a rusty metal door behind a pile of garbage bags. Bing knocked and a hairy man in a bathrobe pulled the door open so quickly Bing overbalanced. Bing caught himself against the doorframe before he fell on the man’s unhygienic looking robe. He didn’t invite Bing in, he just glared and said he had what Bing needed. He handed Bing a twisty-furry root and told him to chew on it while reading the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations. Not Bartlett’s—that was very important. Then Bing gave him twenty bucks.
Bing almost threw the root away. But then he heard his roommates Monique and Rick having a screaming fight about the Maastricht Treaty in the next room, and he felt swept up in a hot wave of determination not to be a dateless loser who sits and listens to his roommates fight all the time. Bing popped the root in his mouth and almost swallowed it whole before he remembered he was supposed to chew. So Bing chewed and read from the Oxford Dictionary, which luckily Rick had on his reference shelf. Bing got through about five pages of Pope, Johnson, Churchill, Thurber, and Holmes. Then he must have fallen over, since he woke up the next morning sprawled at the foot of his bed, drooling into Ogden Nash. Bing put a paper towel under that page and laid the book out to dry before he gave it back to Rick.
The next day or so, Bing carried a little notebook around and scribbled aphorisms in it. Every now and then, he’d look back and despair at the drivel he’d written down. But slowly he began to think in saws.
Of course, Bing knew some women must resign themselves to dating less intelligent men—once a woman’s brain reached a certain critical mass, she would have only the tiniest group of megacephalic men to choose from, their craniums so engorged they could barely walk upright. Perhaps somewhere there was a super-genius Renaissance polymath guy with a harem of accomplished women gazing adoringly at him, in between writing their own prize-winning novels or discovering new mathematical theorems while their shared boyfriend invented cold fusion.
Then again, if Bing succeeded in tricking Mea into thinking he was smart, maybe that’d prove she wasn’t really that smart herself?
Mea and Bing met at the Addis Ababa OK Lounge, the karaoke bar/Ethiopian restaurant just south of Adams Morgan. People claimed top record companies sent scouts to AAOK, but they were probably the same people who insisted that crappy internships inexorably led to high-powered D.C. jobs. The AAOK’s décor included paintings of beautiful women in the desert, but also random Christmas-light strings. They scooped delicious food with spongy injera and listened to a squat man in a corduroy jacket and plaid shorts whinny his way through the Roy Orbison songbook.
Mea wore a shiny white blouse and knee-length black skirt, and she talked loud enough for everyone in the restaurant to hear over the music. She had a whole improvised comedy routine about a karaoke contest between Ethiopia and Eritrea, and she was starting to get sidelong glances from every direction.
“Political correctness is going to ruin everything,” Mea grumbled to Bing once their food was reduced to a few scraps of bread and a few green islands. “You can’t even make a joke anymore without offending the Cult of Multiculturalism.”
When Bing heard stuff like this, he couldn’t help thinking about his friend Rae, who was both African American and queer, and all the garbage she had to deal with. But all he said to Mea was, “Political correctness is like breakdancing with a neck brace.”
Thank God she laughed—and then she launched into the tragedy that P.J. O’Rourke was the only funny political humorist. Even if the Democrats couldn’t govern, they ought to be able to field a few comedians.
“Politics is a French farce dubbed in English entirely by Orson Welles,” Bing said.
By the time they moved on to Madam’s Organ for beer and blues, Bing’s aphoristic studliness had fully won over Mea and her riffing excited him. They ended up making out while young poets screamed abuse at them, which only made it more romantic.
The next day, Bing woke up with a problem. He hauled his droopy ass out of bed and staggered to the bathroom to prepare for his Sunday shift at Kyrios Books, and Rick asked how he’d slept. Bing said sleep was a house with many windows but no doors. At first, Bing didn’t realize he was still speaking in aphorisms, but it became an issue as the day went on. He barely managed to order lunch. By afternoon, he started to freak out.
Bing called Mike. “I’m reading cyberpunk,” Mike said. “And steampunk. I’m all ready to download my brain into a train engine now. So how’d the date go?”
“Communication is an orphan with a hundred wicked uncles,” Bing said.
“Okay, fine, preserve the mystery.”
Bing had to make him understand. “Take the marbles out of a logic diagram, and they’re just marbles.”
“You’re very pithy today.”
“Yes! Yes! It is the pith of a man whose dog only barks at his friends.”
“Oh, you’re only talking in aphorisms.” Bing grunted in agreement. “That’s a problem, I guess. Luckily, there’s an easy remedy. All you gotta do is watch an hour of Teletubbies. No bathroom breaks. Either that or buy that Ray Stevens CD they advertise on late-night TV and memorize the lyrics to ‘They Call It The Streak.’”
“Aaaaa! Redemption is a spiky road!”
“Ya gotta do it, pal. It’s the only way.”
“There are two kinds of politicians: the unelectable and the ineluctable.”
“What does that mean?”
Bing wasn’t sure himself. He only sounded profound if you didn’t delve.
In the end, Bing tried both of Mike’s cures, even though it gave him temporomandibular joint pain to listen to Ray Stevens for the tenth time. Still, he was only partially cured. At the bookstore, he was able to answer yes-or-no questions and give directions without launching any allegedly homespun wisdom as long as he concentrated. His pronouncements were a big hit with the bookstore crowd, but he sensed they could easily get old, or as he put it at the time, “understanding is a sweet draught that bitters with the drinking.” Monqiue came into the store and asked if Bing knew what had happened with the Most Favored Nation Vote on China because she had a bet going. Bing was only able to shake his head and mutter about the limits of fulfillment being the outskirts of logic, or how romance devours the bread of diligence.
“How are you not gay?” Monique demanded. “How is it possible you are straight?”
“Sexuality is a fortune cookie turned inside-out.”
Bing’s second date with Mea went as well as the first. Once again, they met up in Adams Morgan, this time in a couscous restaurant. All of the best restaurants in D.C. were either some African/Middle-Eastern cuisine or way outside Bing’s price range. This time, Mea had a whole running comedy routine about Hosni Mubarak and Yitzhak Rabin, and musical-theater peace talks, and her idea for turning the whole of the Middle East into a gigantic theme park, with the Dead Sea as a waterslide. Mea called herself a Zironist, or an ironic Zionist. She believed the absurdity of the Jewish state surrounded by Arab nations would eventually be solved by campiness.
Bing wondered if he should try to tell Mea about his ailment. He’d read in one of Bella’s relationship books that it’s important to be honest with dates early on, but when he tried, it only came out as more quips.
What if Mea finally met the real Bing, and didn’t like him? This relationship was probably doomed, and not in the fun weekend-fling way.
Wisdom isn’t hiccups. This was obviously psychological, psychosomatic, or just psycho. And yet, therapy would be useless. That made Bing think of Robin Dodd, the only other person he knew whom therapy couldn’t help. Bing managed to wangle an invite to Robin’s next party and caught him alone by volunteering to watch him pee. (He always needed a pee watcher. Nobody knew why.)
“Anarchy dreams more than it sleeps,” Bing said. Robin’s toilet was a fancy Japanese one, with about a dozen buttons on each arm, including temperature controls, bidet, and probably torpedo launch. He had a framed Hubert Humphrey campaign poster facing the toilet.
“You said a bellyful,” Robin replied. “Hey, look at that. Does it look dark to you? Kind of yellowy, huh? Almost dayglo. Makes me wonder if I need more vitamins.”
“Nah,” Bing said. “Man’s fruits show in his migrations.”
“You’re talking kinda funny. Are you okay?” He jiggled and flushed.
“No. Happy is he whose mind seeks certitudes over platitudes.”
“Oh!” Robin zipped. “I see what’s going on here.” He didn’t bother to wash his hands before he clapped them on Bing’s shoulders. “I’ve seen a case like this before. Guy got so carried away he could only talk in slogans. Poor guy took a vow of silence for ten years, then finally broke his silence denouncing Alan Simpson as a Trotskyite. Rare form of logorrhea. Only known cure is snorting large quantities of horse tranquilizers. Either that or telling nothin’ but lies for twenty-four hours.”
It all sounded complicated, but at least Bing seemed to have impressed Robin, who said he could tell he and Bing suffered from the same kind of semi-Oedipus complex—neither of them particularly wanted to bone their mommas, but they’d have quite liked to kill their dads. Bing only harbored a maiming rage towards his father, but couldn’t communicate that fact. Robin said he’d hook Bing up with horse powder, but first Bing needed to rewrite a speech that Robin’s daddy’s friend, a Democratic congressman from a marginal Ohio district, was due to deliver in a few days. It was a meandering exercise in clichés and promises, bookended with bad jokes. Bing started jotting and soon the speech was full of wise sayings.
Once Bing had revised the speech, he returned to the party. A fresh-faced young woman asked about Glass-Steagel banking reform, and Bing started to answer then bit his tongue. He felt helpless, and maybe helplessness was a function of anger. He’d planned to wait until he got home to snort the contents of Robin’s vial, but now it seemed urgent. He went back into the bathroom and leaned over the sink with the open tube at his nostril, then tilted and inhaled. The powder burned on its way in and through and down. He felt nauseous and green smoke billowed inches in front of him. He flailed. He missed the toilet and landed on the crocheted bathmat. He breathed. He couldn’t see his hands, but his feet were close to his face. He nearly knocked over a woman in a metal bib discussing Blue Velvet as a metaphor for the Alternative Minimum Tax. Robin’s sofa warped into a grotesque puppet that winked at him. Everything smelled like dog. Bing had to sweep his hands in front of his eyes. He kicked at a tumbleweed that rolled in his path.
“Aw crap,” said Robin. “I was hoping he’d take the stuff when he got home. Get him on the couch, in here, in the side room. Bing, you’re a freaking idiot.”
They laid Bing out on the couch, on his back. After a while, somebody came back and looked down into his eyes, which were still open. “Isn’t he likely to choke on his puke this way?” Someone else glanced Bing’s way. “Well, maybe. If he pukes. But that way, he’s less likely to get it on the couch. It’s cream-fed yak hide.”
“What we need is a harm-reduction strategy,” the first person said.
“Well, I suppose a dead body on the sofa would inconvenience Robin as well. There ought to be a way to safeguard against both outcomes. If we can only consider…”
Bing woke up on his side with a bag duct-taped to his mouth. His head felt feral, but at least he was more or less lucid. He opened one eye a bit—it was light but not daylight. There was motion outside his tiny field of vision. The more he opened one eye, the worse the light stabbed his brain. He peeled the bag off and groaned. “I feel like shit. My head is a lump of flaming shit. Hey—it worked! I can talk again! Robin, you’re a genius! Oh fuck, my head!”
“Glad I could help,” said a voice, awfully nearby.
Bing looked up through pain curtains to see Robin standing with a strange look in his eye. Bing was startled enough to wriggle around and sit up. The clock read 2:39 a.m. Bing swung his legs onto the floor. “Wow, it’s late. Gotta be at the Bristle Council early tomorrow for my internship. Don’t want them to dock my non-existent pay, right?”
“Hey, stay awhile,” Robin said. “It’s so late, you might as well crash here anyway.” For a moment he looked pitiful, pleading almost, in a gigantic quilted bathrobe that swallowed his neck and wrists.
“Uh…nah thanks. I sleep better in my own bed.”
Bing found his shoes with intense gratitude to whoever had thrown them under the sofa. “Thanks a zillion for your help.”
“Sleep, huh? I never sleep. Haven’t slept in years. A nod now and then, a flicker. The wee hours are always the longest. Like right now.”
“Wow, that’s rough, I know sleep deprivation can…Ah shit, I better get going.”
“Cookies? Canapes? Brandy? Coffee?”
Bing was already opening the apartment door. “Thanks a ton, Robin. I really appreciate everything. I owe you one.” Then he closed the door behind him and staggered for the elevator. Inside the apartment, he could hear what sounded like weeping, or something being ground up into dust.