Structure, Time, Memory, and the Sadness of a Disillusioned Writer [The Invented Part]
On this week’s Two Month Review podcast, we’ll be discussing the fifth part of The Invented Part (“Life After People, or Notes for a Brief History of Progressive Rock and Science Fiction,” pages 361-404). As a bit of preparation, below you’ll find some initial thoughts, observations, and quotes.
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As has been noted on a few occasions, The Invented Part is made up of seven clear sections (one of which has three chapters), which are grouped into three different parts. So far, we’ve read five of them:
“The Real Character”: The Writer as The Boy nearly drowning at the beach.
“The Place Where the Sea Ends So the Forest Can Begin”: Young Man and Young Woman are working on the movie about the absent Writer.
“A Few Things You Happen to Think About When All You Want Is to Think About Nothing”: In which The Writer feels his own encroaching mortality and wants more time to write all the stories that flood his brain.
“Many Fêtes, or Study for a Group Portrait with Broken Decalogues”: Notes about a book The Writer wants to write (which seems to be The Invented Part) and his various inspirations.
“Life After People, or Notes for a Brief History of Progressive Rock and Science Fiction”: Features Tom, a childhood friend of The Writer’s, who gets a call from The Writer right after The Writer breaks into CERN and does what he does to end up “floating through time and space, happily multidimensional.”
Before listing the two sections we haven’t read, I want to take a second to point out a structural pattern that I’m only noticing now, on this re-read. Namely, that this is a symmetrical book with sections 1-7, 2-6, 3-5 reflecting each other, with section 4 being a sort of fulcrum around which the rest balance.
For example, in section 3 we’re in the mind of The Writer, approaching a false death (remember—he thinks it’s the end times, but tests prove that his chest pain was nothing serious at all) while constantly constructing ideas.
In section 5, The Writer has gone beyond, and we’re in the mind of a friend of his—who receives an incredibly powerful story from The Transcended Writer. First approaching death, now on the other side of it. Initially making stories to maybe write, now dropping a story into someone’s mind.
If I’m right about this sort of overarching, almost mathematical, structure, then section 6 (“Meanwhile, Once Again, Beside the Museum Stairway, Under a Big Sky”) should be about the Young Man and Young Woman from section 2, and the last section—the only one of Part III—“The Imaginary Person,” should end back with The Writer, fully grown, no longer The Boy from section 1.
Just something to keep in mind (maybe!) as you contemplate the book as a whole. Fresán may have written all seven sections at the same time, but he’s a genius, and the connections and underlying structures are far from random. Again: genius.
Speaking of structure—and this came up at the very end of the podcast you’ll hear on Thursday—this particular chapter is really interesting in terms of how much time actually elapses during the course of these pages.
Here’s the opening:
“Dun dun dun da-DAdun, da-DAdun . . .” He realizes that he’s in big trouble when, hearing a strange sound in his house and not being able to locate its source, he finally discovers that the sound is springing (springing, ah, such a sonic verb) from his own mouth. Through clenched teeth. And that it’s nothing but his own voice singing low, deep, martial, the ominous and instantly catchy and unforgettable musical theme that marks the entrances and exits of the dark and asthmatic and uniformed and reconstructed Darth Vader in the movies of the Star Wars saga.
So that’s what he’s doing, advancing through a house that’s too big for him now. And he moves through its hallways and bedrooms with the sneaking suspicion that, behind and beneath them, are more hallways and more rooms. [. . .]
“What year is it?” he wonders.
“Does it matter?” he answers.
For a couple months now—since his wife left him, taking their little son with her—he’s been living in the near-suspended animation of the minute-to-minute. It’s harder—but it hurts less.
I never noticed how many references to time are embedded in this opening page until copying this out. References to what he’s doing “now,” questions about the year (and it not mattering), the couple of months since his wife left, living in the “near-suspended animation of the minute-to-minute.” Given the ending twist to this chapter—The Writer living beyond it all, having merged with the god particle or whatever—this focus on time passing feels not at all coincidental.
After a digression about the ex-wife and his relationship with his son, we get a minor meditation on the past:
The past is a telephone that rings like those old telephones never rang, the ones that, in the beginning of their history, only rang to inform you of something decisive, historic. And, yes, with time there will be many people (though not as many as, for example, those who fixed in their memory the precise and private context that surrounded the death of John Fitzgerald Kennedy or the death of John Lennon; those moments in History, with a capital H, that turn into something almost palpable, something that’s almost breathed and enters the lungs and heart and brain) who’ll remember with millimetric precision exactly what they were doing when they found out about the disintegration of that writer.
And then amid those reflections we get the most direct statement about what happens to The Writer and a statement from The Transcended Writer himself, which really drives home this “time” theme:
But yes Tom was wide awake and with fifty years draped over him like a very heavy blanket when the writer, who’d once been his best childhood and adolescent friend, evaporated in a storm of particles and quantum physics and dark matter. And, yes, Tom remembers precisely what he was doing then. Not only when he learned of the “accident”—better and more in-depth, on the news that night—but in the exact instant that it took place. Because he’d just finished not talking to the writer but listening to him * (“I’m calling you after so long because you have to know where I am and what I’m about to do, what I’m doing, what I did; because now all times are one for me. Now I no longer have time, I’m atemporal,” his friend had said from so far away) talk on the telephone; because Tom didn’t dare interrupt him, didn’t dare say a word. Tom just listened to his sharp and clear voice for a long time on the answering machine recording, after his son came to find him in the bathroom and said: “Papi, the phone is making a weird noise.”
Now, I could be wrong—and probably am—but I think this moment of Tom’s son telling him about the phone ringing is the only real “now” of this chapter. The rest of it—memories of meeting The Writer and Penelope, of Tom’s relationship with his son Fin, the bits about Life After People, Pink Floyd, 2001: A Space Odyssey, even the words of The Writer, which are seemingly implanted into Tom’s mind along with Penelope’s story—are all memories filling in around this moment.
(The one exception is the final bit of this chapter which begins, “It’s night now. The dead of night.” A bit of a coda after the storm in which Tom remembers Penelope’s story, forever seared into his mind—“It’s late now, now it’s too late to forget—now he’ll never forget it—what Penelope did or stopped doing with her little son.”—and has the most touching of moments with Fin.)
Similar to the William Burroughs part in Penelope’s Mount Karma section, Fresán incorporates a lot of factual, real-life events and artworks here. Specifically, this is the “Pink Floyd section,” telling of Syd Barrett’s mental breakdown, his random appearance at the recording studio where Pink Floyd II was recording Wish You Were Here, along with descriptions and accounts of a few other Pink Floyd albums.
Similar to how Fitzgerald transformed the real life of the Murphys into Tender Is the Night, Fresán is transforming real-life stories about art into new art. Transforming information about creators into a creation about a creator.
All of these stories are told within Tom’s mind though, which adds an interesting wrinkle or two. It’s a bit of a cliché to say that you are what you read (or watch, or listen to), but like Brian mentions on the podcast, major works of art oftentimes serve as sort of touchstones to determine and shape friendships. (Anyone I meet who mentions The Crying of Lot 49 and Twin Peaks and Dan Deacon will become an insta-friend.)
Interpretation does play a role though, as does one’s memory. The mind isn’t a flawless recording device, but something more mysterious and active, in which things shift and morph and become something else.
For example, there is this:
And his friends are left there to cry. And to record. And, with time, Waters and Gilmour think that that might have been the moment, after wrapping up Wish You Were Here (that in the beginning didn’t entirely win over the critics, that reaches number one in sales on both sides of the Atlantic when it’s released, and that time and perspective and distance elevate as their unanimous and indisputable crowning achievement), the exact and perfect time for the band to break up. The precise instant—from which there was no going back—to conclude their life cycle, with that ode to the omnipresent absent friend. And that way avoid the imminent ex-friendships resulting from the convulsive and revulsive recordings of Animals and The Wall and The Final Cut. To go, to let go, with those airs bottled in the fullest of emptinesses, the absolute and joyously sad emptiness of their lyrics and music. With that magic moment—at the end of “Welcome to the Machine” and the beginning of “Wish You Were Here”—when someone seemed to be trying to tune in a radio, the one in David Gilmour’s car. And you heard voices and a few bars of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4. And suddenly all the sound drops, like a candle blown out for the birthday of an era. A pause that it took Tom many listens (staring intently at the needle above the grooves, trying to see what was happening) to grasp wasn’t a potential defect in his parents’ stereo equipment reacting to some secret frequency so that then, after the entrance of that vintage acoustic guitar solo, everything would climb again, like the highest of rising of tides.
What’s interesting about this is the bridge between the story about Pink Floyd breaking up to Tom’s personal story about internalizing that specific moment in which Tom remembers the album incorrectly. As Rodrigo mentioned to me in an email, “Wish You Were Here” doesn’t come at the end of “Welcome to the Machine,” but at the end of “Have a Cigar.” We are in Tom’s memory here now . . . And, as a tease, I’ll just mention that Rodrigo said that this will be explained in The Remembered Part . . .
Finally, I have a few quick notes about parents and their children. This is something I’ve been honing in on throughout my re-read. From the opening section about The Boy and his parents (who lead a crazy life!) to the proliferation of stories about fathers and sons that The Writer comes up with while at the hospital to Penelope’s story to Tom and his son. Still not 100% sure of what to make of all this, but there’s a theme of disappointment and failure that runs throughout. Along with fears of death and violence.
That really comes home in this episode, in which The Writer “gifts” Tom the full story of Penelope and her son, which isn’t fully explained, but which Tom can’t get out of his mind (“now he’ll never forget it—what Penelope did or stopped doing with her little son”) and leads him to go to Fin’s room and the final, pretty emotional sentence of this section: “Sitting on the edge of the bed, he holds his son to keep from falling.”
One last quote:
Major Tom: until a few minutes ago I was a disillusioned writer. And there’s nothing sadder than a disillusioned writer, Major Tom. A disillusioned writer has that sadness that makes no one sad but himself.