Essays Fiction 2009

Telling Tails

The problem with unsuccessful stories is usually simple: they are boring, a consequence of the failure of imagination. To vividly imagine and to vividly render extraordinary human events, or sequences of events, is the hard-lifting, heavy-duty, day-by-day, unending labor of a fiction writer.

An example of what I’m getting at here can be found in Borges’s wonderful short story “The Aleph.” Early on in the story, we learn that a character bearing Borges’s own name has spent more than a decade mourning the death of a woman called Beatriz Viterbo, who had been his great abiding love. Each year, on Beatriz’s birthday, Borges makes a pilgrimage to her house, honoring her memory, displaying his devotion to a woman who, alas, had plainly never returned his affection. On one such visit, as the story gets under way, Borges encounters Beatriz’s first cousin, a man named Carlos Argentino Daneri. Carlos is portrayed as a vain, pompous, contemptible human being—a poet without talent, a pretender, and a competitor with Borges for literary honor. Not much later in the story, Carlos informs Borges that as a child he had made a remarkable discovery in Beatriz’s house. In the cellar, beneath the dining room, is an Aleph: a point in space that contains all other points. An Aleph is to space what infinity is to time, Carlos explains, and if you properly position yourself on the cellar floor, you will see a tiny sliver of light that contains everything—everything that ever was, everything that will be.

Borges descends into the basement and immediately beholds the Aleph:

On the back part of the step, toward the right, I saw a small iridescent sphere of almost unbearable brilliance. At first I thought it was revolving; then I realized that this movement was an illusion created by the dizzying world it bounded. The Aleph’s diameter was probably little more than an inch, but all space was there, actual and undiminished. Each thing (a mirror’s face, let us say) was infinite things, since I distinctly saw it from every angle of the universe. I saw the teeming sea; I saw daybreak and nightfall; I saw the multitudes of America; I saw a silvery cobweb in the center of a black pyramid; I saw a splintered labyrinth (it was London); I saw, close up, unending eyes watching themselves in me as in a mirror; I saw all the mirrors on earth and none of them reflected me; I saw in a backyard of Soler Street the same tiles that thirty years before I’d seen in the entrance of a house in Fray Bentos; I saw bunches of grapes, snow, tobacco, lodes of metal, steam; I saw convex equatorial deserts and each one of their grains of sand; I saw a woman in Inverness whom I shall never forget; I saw her tangled hair, her tall figure, I saw the cancer in her breast; … I saw the slanting shadows of ferns on a greenhouse floor; I saw tigers, pistons, bison, tides, and armies; I saw all the ants on the planet; I saw a Persian astrolabe; I saw in the drawer of a writing table (and the handwriting made me tremble) unbelievable, obscene, detailed letters, which Beatriz had written to Carlos Argentino; I saw a monument I worshipped in the Chacarita cemetery; I saw the rotted dust and bones that had once deliciously been Beatriz Viterbo; I saw the circulation of my own dark blood; I saw the coupling of love and the modification of death; I saw the Aleph from every point and angle, and in the Aleph I saw the earth and in the earth the Aleph and in the Aleph the earth; I saw my own face and my own bowels; I saw your face; and I felt dizzy and wept, for my eyes had seen that secret and conjectured object whose name is common to all men but which no man has looked upon—the unimaginable universe.

For me, at least, this is a beautifully imagined piece of writing. The Aleph, as raw idea, is certainly extraordinary in its own right. And the Aleph, as rendered by such careful prose, is even more extraordinary—that sense of everythingness that is so vividly suggested by techniques that bounce the general off the specific, the singular off the plural, the abstract off the very personal. But for me what gives the story its ultimate power—its exquisitely imagined beauty—is the moment at which Borges beholds the unbelievable, obscene, detailed letters that the love of his life had written to Carlos Argentino, that pompous ass upstairs. At this point the story moves from the clever to the emotional and takes on its great thematic heft. It soars beyond a “nifty idea.” It lodges itself in our throats. All of us, I suspect, can imagine beholding things we ought not to have beheld. All of us can understand such pain. In the end, this miraculous little story, with its obviously extraordinary events, illuminates an ordinary but fearsome corner of the human soul.

As I wait for my sons to awaken on this Wednesday morning in July of 2008, and as I still tinker with this little essay, I find myself more or less surrendering to tails, at least for the present. As a father, I realize, I have much to learn, or much to relearn, about the power of pretending. A few years back, my own father went away on a long trip—went away for good—and, like Timmy, I occasionally find myself caught up in the world of make-believe. I’ll watch my dad toss a baseball to me, or I’ll hear him singing a few bars of “I’ll Be Seeing You” in his clear, unforced baritone. And in those moments my dad is back home again. Not his body, of course, but whatever it is that abides.

I’m on my second cup of coffee now, a little sad, a little sentimental, quietly watching the first twinklings of dawn spread out across the panes of glass in our kitchen window.

The human race, I realize, may have lost something when we shed our tails all those eons ago. But we gained something, too. We learned to live not just in the unconscious present, but also in the flow of history and in the possibilities of a miraculous future. True, we cannot bound skyward like Tigger with a thrust of our mighty tails. But we can close our eyes and fly into our fathers’ arms. This, I suppose, is why I’ve become a writer.

Beyond anything, though, the events of recent weeks remind me that Timmy and Tad will themselves be in need of good, strong imaginations in the years ahead. After all, biology is implacable. People don’t live forever. It’s not a morbid thought, really—it’s almost joyful—but I’m aware that on some future morning like this one, my sons may awaken before dawn, brew up a pot of coffee, and sit dreaming at a kitchen table. Maybe they’ll imagine me coming home from the airport. Maybe they’ll see me opening up the front door and taking them in my arms and lifting them up high, a Slinky dangling from my faded old blue jeans.

Presented by

Tim O'Brien

Tim O’Brien has written eight books, including The Things They Carried and the National Book Award–winning Going After Cacciato.

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