Thought and Memory
Back in 2008, when my first novel, 'A Tree Grows in Baghdad,' came out, my publisher sent me on a West Coast tour. Sometimes folks came out in droves, sometimes they didn’t. It was great to see my public, regardless. I found I liked signing books. I...
Ed Park has quite the résumé. He’s the former editor of the Voice Literary Supplement and one of the founding editors of the Believer. He’s taught creative writing at Columbia University and curates the Invisible Library, an online collection of fictional books that appear in other books. Pretty cool, huh? These days he holds down the literary fort over at Amazon Publishing. His debut novel, Personal Days, was called the “layoff narrative for our times” by the New York Times and was nominated for the PEN Hemingway Award, the John Sargent Sr. First Novel Prize, and the Asian American Literary Award. It was named one of Time’s Top Ten Fiction Books of 2008 and one of the Atlantic’s Top Ten Pop Culture Moments of the decade.
In his increasingly valuable spare time, he makes bootleg covers of 80s new-wave songs and sneaks acrostics and anagrams into his very funny Twitter feed, @thaRealEdPark. (A recent tweet: “I need there to be a store called FOREVER 41.”) Somehow he still manages to knock out essays that examine continuums you didn’t even realize exist, like the connection between the magical logic of children’s books and Borges, plus write great short stories like the one below.
In “Thought and Memory,” the author of a mystery novel sets out on a book tour, and from there, things don’t exactly go as planned. The narrator encounters two talking crows, named for Odin’s information-gathering ravens in Norse mythology, who belong to a mysterious woman with a glass eye and an oddly chosen tattoo, before discovering the bizarre, time-bending novels of a science fiction writer, whose works we hope will get call numbers at the Invisible Library.
We paired Ed’s story with illustrations by San Francisco-based artist Yina Kim. We thought her work evoked the same sense of spectral absurdity, softened by an eerie and familiar pathos.
Illustrations by Yina Kim
Back in 2008, when my first novel, A Tree Grows in Baghdad, came out, my publisher sent me on a West Coast tour. Sometimes folks came out in droves, sometimes they didn’t. It was great to see my public, regardless. The public, I suppose I should say. Most hadn’t read the book. And even though it was fiction, based more on stuff I’d heard about rather than experienced, I might as well have told all present that I’d written a memoir, and that in the pages open before me, every vegetarian pita eaten, and every thought thought, was true. No one cared about the book, really, only about what I’d been through in Iraq, and what my current position on the war was and whether I wanted to go back.
The audience tended to be older. The men were what you’d call barrel chested. The women, too.
I found I liked signing books. I mean, the actual pen-meeting-paper part. I started appending a peace sign to my name. I must have shaken a thousand hands.
By the end of the week, I was going a little crazy. In Seattle, I woke up at 6 AM to do a live interview with a radio station in LA. But why six? The cities were in the same time zone. It must be for a station no one listens to, I thought, and after I hung up the phone, I wasn’t convinced that an interview had in fact taken place. Had she really asked me about my health, my diet, my bad back? Had I perhaps called my mother, out of instinct, or simply dreamt it all? I’ve had dreams like that, where I think I wake up, but I’m still asleep. I’ve had dreams in which I slap the alarm clock, over and over again, until I’m finally sprung from the clutches of sleep, grateful and gasping for air.
In Portland, my handler, Jonas, took me to lunch at a locovore haunt that featured seafood haggis and artisanal fortune cookies. He looked vaguely like me, the same eyebrows and ears, which I found both troubling and comforting. Over lunch he told me how Oregon was originally established as a whites-only state.
“O Negro,” I blurted.
“It’s an anagram for Oregon.”
“That’s wild, man. I’ve lived here 13 years, and I never thought of that one. Guess that’s why you’re the writer.”
We got in the car. Jonas regaled me with tales of other authors he’d escorted around town, dished about which ones were cool, which ones stuck up, which ones smelled. Then he asked if I wanted to play ultimate frisbee in some park with his friends. I was exhausted, paranoid that this was some kind of test. If I said no, he’d tell the next novelist who passed through town what a conceited, smelly douchebag I was.
I pretended I hadn’t heard him. On the radio, they said that a science-fiction author named Vernon Bodily had died. He had written more than a hundred novels.
“Well?” Jonas asked. “What do you say to some ultimate?”
I mentioned my bad back, citing the questionable Los Angeles radio interview as evidence.
Jonas dropped me off at my hotel, where I tried to write a letter to a woman named Mercy Pang on the embossed stationery. The paper was so nice I got writer’s block and took a three-hour nap. When I woke up I stared at the ceiling, wondering where I was. On the ceiling was a bright patch of overlapping circles, the reflection of water somewhere outside. I didn’t recognize the enormous armchair across from me, nor the ice bucket, the carpet, the drapes. There was no noise. It occurred to me that maybe it was 1979 and I was in the house where I grew up, lying on the sofa, imagining where I’d be in ten, then 20, then 30 years. It was a game I used to play. Sometimes I’d think of a word or image and use my brainwaves to send it to my future self. So was this me, sending a message back in time to the boy I used to be? I wasn’t even sure he was there anymore.
In Berkeley, I read at a transgender open-mic night at a bookstore that isn’t one of those legendary Berkeley bookstores. It looked more like a police station with a few shelves on the walls. I wasn’t transgender, sadly, but it was all my publicist could line up. When I walked in I thought maybe everyone in attendance was transgender, or at least that the other readers probably were. I figured all the guys to be girls, the girls guys.
Mimi, the organizer, took the stage and introduced me. My name isn’t hard to pronounce, but she mispronounced it. I instantly thought: Canadian. She looked like the kind of person who speaks English but whose every third thought is French.
I greeted my public in an unnaturally low voice that I thought might make me sound transgendered. It hardly mattered, since the passage I’d selected couldn’t have been less appropriate. It was about a team of art forgers who infiltrate the basement of the Baghdad Museum, intending to surreptitiously replace ancient Mesopotamian artifacts with cunning copies. They have come at a bad time. Fighting breaks out in the streets. Shells rock the building, and by the end, they don’t know which icons and ewers date from two millennia ago and which were browned in a kiln the week before. They wind up leaving everything behind, the real and the false.
Afterward, Mimi bought me a microbrew with runes on the label.
“Are you Canadian?” I asked.
“A lot of people think so,” she said. “I guess it’s because of the tattoo.”
She turned around and lifted her shirt. At first I thought it was a port-wine stain, but then it resolved into a maple leaf.
“I just like maple leaves,” she said.
“Are you transgender?” I asked.
“Would you like me to be?”
“I do have a glass eye,” she said. “I don’t know you well enough, and my hands are dirty. Otherwise I’d take it out.”
“Which one is glass?” We were staring at each other.
“Guess,” she said.
“The left one.”
“My left or your left.”
“Right as in right or right as in correct?”
“Right as in right.”
“Come here,” she said.
That night Mimi drove me to Los Angeles. She had to go anyway, she said. At a rest stop she took out her glass eye and put on a pirate patch. I should have offered to take the wheel, but I’ve never learned stick. In the backseat was a huge birdcage in which her two pet crows, Thought and Memory, kept saying hello to each other. I don’t mean hello in crow-speak chirps and clucks, but hello in English. They said it over and over, “Hello, hello.” They sounded like confused old men, happy to see each other again, even though they had just seen each other a few seconds ago. The idea was that Mimi would drop the birds off with her brother. They’d been his to begin with.
“What does your brother do?” I asked.
“He’s a science-fiction writer,” she said.
“Have I heard of him?”
“Probably not. He’s never published anything. Just some online fan fic.”
“Did you hear that Vernon Bodily died?” I asked. “He wrote more than a hundred books.”
“There are about five that are any good,” she said, but she couldn’t remember which ones. I watched the headlights carve the road out of the night. The radio was off, and in the backseat you could hear Thought and Memory sigh in their sleep, dreaming their way through a backlog of crow frustrations.
My big LA reading got canceled. I arrived at the store, a place called Book Ark, a half hour early and they told me there’d been heavy water damage to the room, and that in any case, the shipment of my books had yet to arrive. One excuse, and I would have believed him; two made it sound like a cover-up. The manager felt bad about the whole thing and said that I could take any book I wanted, as long as it wasn’t an art book.
“No worries,” I said. “I don’t like art.” I’m always saying things I don’t mean, just to fill up the silence. Later I’ll think that maybe I do mean them.
I went straight to science fiction and found the Bs. There was a single thin Vernon Bodily title, with gaps on either side suggesting that his death had driven sales. It was called Handle with Care.
I got a muffin from Book Ark’s café and then walked down to a record store but didn’t buy anything. I called Mimi but she wasn’t picking up. Her outgoing message was Thought and Memory saying “Hello.”
“Hello,” I said, talking to the crows more than to Mimi. “Goodbye.”
The next morning I took some stationery to the hotel pool. For the whole tour I’d been trying to write one lousy letter to Mercy Pang. I had four pages of false starts. She was in the middle of a six-week writers’ retreat in North Dakota. There was no phone service, no internet. The only way to be in touch was by letter, and since I was traveling so much, it was my duty to keep her apprised of my movements. But I couldn’t think of much to say. We’d left things too ambiguous back east. There were no histrionics, just an email from her saying, “I think I like men.”
The sun came out and I could see the wobbly net it made at the bottom of the pool, the light working through the water. I put that in the letter then drew a big x across the paper. My false starts looked like they’d been written by someone else. I thought about just sending these to her, my abandoned epistles. Mercy knew all about giving up, and she was a certified expert in not even starting. She was the smartest person I knew, but she could never get anything done. She always claimed to be tired yet had trouble going to bed. Even sleep was a failure. At night she’d slip on the eye mask, plug her ears with foam bullets, and flip the white-noise machine to the highest setting. Still she’d toss and fidget.
In the pool someone was doing a splashless butterfly, lap after lap, so smoothly she, or possibly he, didn’t seem human, more like part of some giant living clock. I took out a fresh piece of paper and wrote, “Dear Mercy,” and left it at that.
I was booked for a noon lunch interview with a reporter from the LA Times. We were supposed to meet at a noshery called Barney Greengrass, an outpost of the famous Barney Greengrass in New York, which was on the top floor of Barneys, an outpost of the famous Barneys department store in New York. I waited for the reporter to show up. His or her name was Lane. Googling only turned up images of people Lane had profiled.
I sat down, alone at last with my Vernon Bodily book, a trio of novellas. In the first one, a brave space explorer from the Terraplex, a gigantic floating city the size of a planet, is approaching the edge of the known universe. He has been on his journey for 10,000 years but has been frozen for most of it. Everyone he has ever loved has been dead for centuries. Soon he will be crossing into an area completely beyond human and, for that matter, alien comprehension. He braces himself, closes his eyes. There’s a sound, like the bursting of a membrane. Then he looks at his scan-screen. His pyramid-shaped ship floats in brightness. Behind him on the screen is what appears to be a huge, beige package, a parcel of immense dimensions. He can see the star-shaped hole through which his spacecraft has exited. Below it, in letters of the Common Tongue somehow printed a mile high, are the words handle with care.
At three I got into a cab for LAX. My bags weighed a ton. Halfway to the airport, traffic came to a halt, as though a power blender had just been switched off, so I made another go at writing a letter to Mercy. I told her about Seattle and Portland and Berkeley, about the transgender audience and the event organizer with the eye patch, the talking crows with the funny names. I told her about how hard it was not to lie during the Q&A, since everyone assumed I’d fought in Iraq, when actually I was an embedded reporter—not one of those grizzled journalists on a hard-hitting, truth-finding mission, but instead a freelancer for Cigar Aficionado, doing a think piece on the fate of the country’s humidors. I wrote to Mercy about O Negro and the butterfly artist in the pool.
After signing my name, I drew a peace sign. It was my best one yet. I tilted my head back and looked out the window at the clouds. I had another moment when I thought back to being nine years old, sitting in my parents’ station wagon on the way to violin camp, wondering where life would take me. It had taken me here. I was the same person, a body moving through time. Till what point? High above me two birds soared through the air, and though I knew they weren’t Thought and Memory, I added a PS and put it in my letter that they were.
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