What we’re after here is something with a postmodern edge – or, rather, a post-postmodern edge, which is to say, evolving naturally from postmodernism, but not in reaction to postmodernism. Of course, all art is reaction to something. But what I want to avoid is the appearance of responding to postmodernism, of taking it on, confronting it. No. Not to redefine it, not to confront it (which leads to redefining it, really) … simply to move beyond it. To take the next natural literary step.

What am I talking about?

Take your best guess, write it on a postcard, and send it to Jules Ingstrom, c/o The Tiger Lily Cafe. The winning entry gets an all expenses paid vacation to Puerto Vallarta, wherever that is.

God, I make myself sick.

I sip my tea, I regroup. Okay. The Novel. I am working on the Novel. I am working working working on the Novel Novel Novel. How’s it going so far?

Maybe I should adopt a pen name. Something a bit less Nordic. Morganstern. Jules Morganstern.

Joshua Morganstem. I like that. Has a solemn, Hasidic feel.

Wait. Wasn’t Morganstem Rhoda’s last name? On the TV show of the same name, and also the Mary Tyler Moore Show? Christ! Why don’t I just call myself Bobby Brady at that point? I really do make myself sick.

Happy Birthday to me.

See, the plan was, on my twenty-ninth birthday, I would celebrate by ensconcing myself in the window seat of this cafe with a pot of Earl Grey tea and a brand spanking new notebook, and a brand spanking new pen, and I would commence the writing of my Very First Novel.

‘Ah!’ wouldst my fellow cafe squatters think, ‘observe the grey-eyed young man, holding his clove cigarette politely out the window with one hand, whilst the other scribbles furiously away. Why, this must be a Young Novelist, the cranium behind his furrowed brow crowded with the thoughts and observations which will comprise the book which will define his generation.’ And they wouldst raise their cappuccinos to me. ‘Hail! Young wordsmith, we honour you.’

Not so young, actually.

Jules Wordsmith? Nah. Too obvious.

Jules Scribbler? Babbler? Head-up-his-arse?

So I get here, and no less than three of my fellow cafe squatters appear to be working on their own Novels That Will Define Their Generation.

Okay Jules, take a pill. It’s not as though writing in a cafe is an original idea. Still, I hadn’t expected to feel like one of a crowd.

And the worst part is, the other three scribblers aren’t scribbling, they’re typing. They all have teeny tiny laptops and as they each type away the keys of their machines say Click Click Clickety. Click Click Clickety. We are writing, we are writing, we are writing, ha ha ha. God, how I hate them. I hope they spill espresso on their precious little keyboards.
F. Scott! J .D.! Help me out here, fellas. Because if I’m not a writer I’m just a bookstore clerk, a mediocre bookstore clerk, with NOTHING whatsoever to say.
… F. Scott Salinger?
GOD. I make myself sick.

 

The Novel – Day II

Characters:

Michael, a successful novelist in his early thirties. Well read, articulate to a fault.
Noah, his lover. He does something blue-collarish. A plumber. No, a carpenter. Perfect. Work in some Christ imagery.
Michael’s eyes are like rain clouds – full of murky promise (work on that). Noah has a fabulously developed upper body (put that more poetically), and short golden brown hair. Michael smokes cloves. Noah is trying to get him to quit. But ever since his first novel became a best-seller, Michael has been unbearably tense.
Why? Because he senses that, while everyone who is anyone is reading his book, no one is really understanding his point.
Which is… what?
Well, we’ll get back to that.

Meanwhile, Noah is torn. He is in love with Michael, but hates feeling like a kept man. Besides, Michael’s moodiness is making life unbearable for both of them.

The theme of the novel is the essential barrenness of a materially successful life.

No – the theme is how, in the final analysis, we are all alone-isolated by our ponderous self-absorption.

No – the theme is the pain and isolation inherent in the lifestyle of an artist.

Finally – the waitress has brought me lemon for my tea.

Of course, now the tea is too cold. Goddamn it! My concentration is shot now. I’m just going to go home. I am wretched and pathetic. Tonight I will force myself to read Dickens as a penance. David Copperfield, the whole thing, cover to cover. I deserve nothing less.

Maybe Russell Crowe will play Michael in the movie.

This is not my book.
This is the Earl’s book, but he left it on the table. I found it, and I showed it to Kate. She says the Earl comes in every day, so she will keep his book behind the counter for him. I said, why does he need a book? Kate said he writes things in it. I asked Kate, what does he write? She said, his life story, I guess. She was kind of laughing when she said it.
One time my brother Ed gave me money for groceries, but I wasn’t hungry, so I spent it on tuna fish and a can opener. And I opened all the windows and I opened all the cans of tuna and there were so many cats! A roomful of cats. First time I ever saw that. And Ed said, Mary, I’m not going to give you any more money. He said, twenty-six cans of tuna is crazy if you don’t like tuna in the first place, but I said, the cats loved it. And besidese, I wasn’t hungry. But now Ed and his wife buy groceries for me.
That looks pretty nice, I think! The nuns always said I had lovely penmanship. So now I’ve written a life story! And people can read it if they want to. Maybe if there’s nothing nice in the paper, they can read me instead. If they like it I have lots more life stories I could do.

 

What was that? What was that doing in my notebook?

I retrieved it when I ordered my tea, opened it and discovered these primitive jottings about a simple creature named Mary and her shelter for distressed felines.

What was that? Written in perfect, loopy script (pun on loopy is intentional, thank you). Remember how your writing looked when you were eight and just learning script, and you called it cursive? Like that.

My inner sanctum has been invaded!

ls she real? Can she be real? Or is she a fictional character, belonging in the work of one of my fellow cafe scribblers? One of these writers who thinks that the speech patterns of the backward and unwashed will hold the reader enthralled? Puh-leeze.
ls someone playing a joke on me?
I’m going to find out what’s happening …

I don’t like bats.
I like dogs. Gina brought Clarence today. I sat outside for a long time and petted hime. Sometimes his tongue is green, but not today. Today it is pink. I like pink best.
Andrew was mad at me. I stepped on his foot. He said, ‘Get out of my way, you old bat!’ His face was red. I don’t like bats. Bats are blind, aren’t they? I wouldn’t like that. I told Kate I would rather be a dog than a bat. Kate said that Andrew is an asshole. She brought me my tea but I can’t drink it. My hands are shaking. I done’t know why. But they are shaking and when I close my eyes I just see bats. I will have to go home. I can’t write a life story today, I’m very sorry.
I told Kate, he left his book again. She said, who? I said the Earl of Grey. She thought that was very funny.

I love it! Naming me after my tea. Very whimsical. Very A.A. Milne. Or perhaps Lewis Carroll is closer to the mark.
Anyway, isn’t it sort of. .. fun?
The bat, of course, provides pathos. It’s really very rich, very rounded.
Of course, I set the whole thing up. I left my notebook behind on purpose. I wanted to hear more about Mary. I’m starting to form a picture of her now. She is old, a doddering old dear it sounds like. This makes me think she can’t be real, since this cafe caters to nubile young coffee achievers. Some crafty writer’s invention, then. What now?

 

Dear ‘Mary,’
Greetings! Jules lngstrom here – the Earl of Grey to you. Novelist, retail slave and afficionado of postmodernism at your service. Excuse the impertinence of this question, but – who the hell are you? Why do you persist in writing in my book? Perhaps your teeny, tiny computer has a short? I’d never trust one of those duplicitous blinking bastards with my innermost creative thoughts. No sir. Give me a notebook and pen any day. You know where you stand with a leaky ball point.
But I digress (often, and interminably). What you have written intrigues me. The simplistic syntax grates, but one can identify with the yin-yang, the dog-versus-bat of ‘your’ existence. You’re growing on me, Mary.
But how did I come to inhabit your fictional world? That is me, right? Earl Grey, forgotten notebook–of course it’s me.
Are you watching me now? Coveting my notebook? Noting my personal habits? Am I a major character in your work, or a supporting player? How do you see me?
I eagerly await your response.
– The Earl

 

Did I do something wrong? Mary didn’t respond.

This situation is making me gaga. I watch my hands lifting the teacup to my mouth. How would Mary characterise that gesture? Does she notice the way I am fidgeting in my chair? Is she aware of the way my skin is prickling at the thought of being watched? God, this is strange. How did I go from author to character?

Unless ‘Mary’ has lost interest in me. And no one is watching me at all.

I have such a headache.

 

Dear ‘Mary,’
Hello. This is the Earl of Grey. How are you? You say you find my handwriting indecipherable, so that is why this careful printing. Who are you, and what are you doing here? You are indecipherable to me too (although your penmanship is exemplary).
What does it mean that Clarence’s tongue is sometimes green? Is he ill? Or is this a suggestion that your narrator is delusional? Maybe Clarence isn’t even a real dog, perhaps he is a symbol, like the black dogs in Ian McEwan’s book Black Dogs? Have you read it? Not as polished as his later works, but quite readable, I found. ‘Mary’ comments that she prefers pink over green-meaning that she prefers normalcy, robustness? Obviously I’m zeroing in on one of your more potent images as a way of understanding the whole text-am I getting warm?
Sincerely,
The Earl

 

Dear Earl,
Clarence has a green tongue when he has been eating grass.
– Mary

 

Gaga. Absolutely gaga. This is what I get for trying to start a literary discussion with some poseur who’s read too much Faulkner. What was I thinking? Enough. I must seal myself away from petty distractions and focus on my work. My God, Enya, are they kidding with this? And so loud. I should complain, I really should. The work, the work. Nothing matters but the work.

 

Dear ‘Mary’,
Kudos to you, for keeping in character. For not letting the mask drop. Obviously you’re one of these ‘method’ types who immerses himself completely in his fictional creations, and naturally I’m impressed. Mon chapeau is off to you.

I’m wondering though, have you thought at all about demographics? I know, I know. Heresy to bring market considerations into a discussion of art. I hate myself, I really do. However. You must see that the 22-45 age group is out the window? Seriously. Who’s gonna be interested in this toothless, downtrodden old hag of yours? Not the New Yorker crowd, I can tell you. Not Gen-Xers, or whatever the media is calling us this week. Not even, God help us, soccer morns in Albuquerque who flash their charge cards at the Barnes & Noble mall outlet once a month.

I’m telling you this for your own good. Unless Mary turns out to be a serial killer, no one will care. Happy Writing!
-The Earl

 

Dear Earl,
Your printing is nice, but I still don’t understand what you write about. The thing I hate most is waking up at night and it’s dark, and I don’t feel I am where I am because I can’t see the friendly faces of my dressing table and the little round rug Millie brought me, and the curtains with the blue flowers and the little silver bells by the window that are just waiting for a breeze so they can speak. I can’t see them so they might as well not be there, and it is the same with what you write. You talk about a market, but there are no wooden barrels of bobbing green olives. You say art, but there is no one like Paul, in his striped trousers with the paintbrush in his teeth while he plans his next street scene. Do you know he’s done 27 already? The one he’s painting now is of this cafe, so there will be a little you and a little Gina and a dear little barking Clarence! And a little Kate and a little Doc and a little me. Doc said, can Paul paint him in a tuxedo, just for a change, instead of the same old green scrubs. And Gina said could he paint her with red hair, as she has always wanted red hair. But Paul said he only paints what he sees. He is a very nice man but very stern about his painting. But none of that is in what you write. You say soccer but there’s no ball in the grass, mom but there is no one playing peek-a-boo which all mothers do, mine did, didn’t yours? Reading what you write is like waking up in the dark, I can’t see what is there so it might as well not be there. It makes me lonely. Maybe you should try again. Practice makes perfect, the nuns always said that.
– Mary

 

Oh, I’m on to you now.

‘Show don’t tell,’ is that the best you can do? The tiredest old cliche of them all, the type of thing freshman English teachers scribble in margins with their shrill red pens. Now I have your number. You’re an academic, a tired old professor type who wants to chuck the chalkdust and concentrate on his master work. Am I getting warm? Your kind wouldn’t know creative spark if it burned a hole in your tweedy little blazer. ‘Practice makes perfect.’ Bug off!

I really think you’ve distracted me long enough with your facile, Sesame Street world. See, I write for the real world – the real, messy, post-postmodern world of today. I know what I’m doing.

Granted, you may have a slight edge over me at this point, with a somewhat more realised main character… but I have the real advantage, in that I have my finger on the proverbial pulse. I am in the know. My book will be the book the public craved without knowing that it craved it.

I’m all set – all I have to do is write the thing.