CONJUNCTIONS:58, Riveted (Spring 2012)

That Obscure Object of Desire
Ryan Ruby




Time had long since left me in the lurch, stood me up, hung me out to dry. So all I can say for certain is that, by the time I found myself in the subway station at DeKalb Avenue, I was neck-deep in the nth hour of an obsessive mania. Already there had been a sleepless night, a foodless day, innumerable cigarettes, half a dozen cups of coffee. The telltale symptoms of incipient madness—anxiety, delusion, suspicion, and yes, a voice—were staring me down, hands raised. Schoolman that I am, I dutifully marked each one “present” on an imaginary roster with quick synaptic flicks of the wrist.
     A homuncular percussionist, you see, had installed himself in my chest, where he was playing my pulse in odd time signatures. Instead of a motley assortment of paint cans and plastic tubs, he was using my heart for a snare, my stomach for a ride, and the two hemispheres of my brain for his toms. I paced the platform, from one end to the other, incapable of standing still. I watched familiar objects like trash cans, signboards, staircases, backpacks, and human faces dissolve into hideous shapes and colors. No joke was necessary to elicit from my lips a dry cackling. Unidentified vermin flew across my path and disappeared. Was it that they were moving too fast? Or that they were not there at all?
     When it finally came, the Union Square–bound Q wore an inviting expression, lascivious and merciful as a nun’s. Through the vivid neon whiteness of the car’s interior, I stared far longer than is considered polite at my fellow passengers, swearing in each instance that somewhere, sometime I’d met this or that unfortunate victim of my unbreakable gaze.
     Meanwhile, my autonarrator was on autopilot, slurring his words, having selected as his imperative speed rather than sense. How had I contracted this lunatic! I wondered, crumpled-up, dirty fingernails to throbbing temples. Of our cannonball journey across the Manhattan Bridge, he pontificated: Ligature is a training pants of moolvee like a stringency of beadledom; and as we pass through them they prove to be many-colored lentigos which paint the world federalism their own huff and each shows only what lies in its own foetation. Which observation was punctuated by a series of tourettic ejaculations, a half a dozen plips, knuffles, and screes that hardly deserve, even by the low standards of this crushing avalanche of logorrhea, to be called speech. This, I thought, this must be rock bottom.
     To every obsession, its object. In my case, it was a book: Inferno, by August Strindberg.

Why this particular object and not some other?
     That it should have been a book doesn’t surprise me in the least. Bibliomania is as congenital as suicide and schizophrenia: My father has it and so does his father, as do a number of my aunts, uncles, and cousins. Some men measure their lives in coffee spoons; mine is measured in page counts. If, however, you were to mean by the question: why Strindberg’s Inferno rather than some other book, the answer, I’m sorry to say, isn’t entirely clear. Probably Patrick Harrison is to blame. In all likelihood, the precipitating cause for my Inferno crisis was his offhand remark about the novel during a monologue about his plans to stage The Ghost Sonata in a run-down hotel in Prague, over our dinner of pancakes, eggs, and bacon at a diner in Williamsburg. At least, it was upon coming home that night that I began searching for and failing to find Inferno online.
     Still I wonder: Would my desire have mushroomed into such a cloud of fixation had I not discovered that Strindberg died on May 14, 1912—exactly seventy-one years before I was born? Without having received the day before a letter from Olivia Olsen postmarked Tegnérgatan 55, Stockholm, exactly seven hundred and ten meters from the Blue Tower, the house in which Strindberg spent his last four years? Would the desire have gone viral in my nerves if the posters advertising Alan Rickman’s staging of Creditors at BAM were not still hanging in the bus stops in my neighborhood? Or had I not come across the correspondence between Strindberg and Nietzsche in the book I was then reading? Or had I not, along with Olivia’s letter, found in my mailbox a red envelope with my roommate’s name on it containing a biopic she had ordered about Strindberg’s sometime comrade, the painter Edvard Munch? Or had I not overheard, on the subway ride to Kellogg’s, an allusion to Miss Julie in a debate between a pomaded mustache and a pair of yoga pants about the persistence of misogyny in contemporary dating culture?
     It is impossible to tell. The truth is that the reasons hardly matter: The initial choice of an obsessive object is always, in a certain sense, perfectly arbitrary. The only necessary criterion is that it should prove difficult to obtain, for, to an obsessive, the pleasures of frustration are always far greater than those of satisfaction. Which is no doubt why the loci classici of monomania are beautiful women, white whales, and utopian political orders.
     Justifications come, but only later. When they do, they pile up high and deep and with incredible speed. The resulting mental state is not irrational, but what amounts to the same thing: a hypertrophy of reason: a pole vault over the bland bar of the real into an empyrean vision of order, purpose, meaning, and design where at best there is only suggestive chaos. All of the above coincidences are easily interpreted by susceptible minds like mine as coded imperatives from the universe. Find buy read! the universe was commanding. Find! Buy! Read! Findbuyread!

Online, I was able to locate a Penguin Classics paperback first published on April 26, 1979. Twenty-one copies were available on Amazon, none of them in particularly good condition, the cheapest of which went for a criminally high $24.33 plus shipping, more than double the list price, a number that represented, at the time, fifteen percent of my total worth. AbeBooks, Alibris, and Powell’s were no better in terms of cost or selection. The library at the college where I work didn’t have a copy; the New York Public Library, the largest public library system in the world, and to which I owe quite a bit in late fees, only had two—and these could only be read on-site. Needless to say, none were available at Barnes & Noble or at Borders, and none among those independent bookstores who have managed to catalogue their inventory online. Neither Labyrinth—I simply refuse to call it Book Culture—nor the Community Bookstore in Park Slope, nor the 18 Miles of Books better known as the Strand even had an entry for Inferno on their websites (in the end, this didn’t prevent me from visiting these stores anyway, either out of an obdurate refusal to accept the evidence of my senses, or out of futile protest against same).
     Google Books had an old 1913 Knickerbocker Press edition that could be read in limited preview, but limited was not enough for me. By the time I’d clicked on that link, the mania that would soon overtake me had already been kindled in my brain. It would prove to be a mania for ownership rather than for information, a mania for something I could hold in my hands and not just for something my eyes could pass over, a mania that the vanguards of progress embodied in the latest technological developments would prove incapable of satisfying.

That night, after I’d closed my laptop, my eyes exhausted by the singeing light of the screen, I lay in bed, neither awake nor asleep, my limbs pinned to the mattress, staring out the window at the starless sky. A lit cigarette dangled dangerously from my apathetic lips. Over the cluster of rooftops, an oblong tuft of fog was floating toward my window. “What the hell is that,’ I mumbled, dislodging an inch of ash from my cigarette, which formed a small pile on my chest.
     Icicles began to form along the window frame as the freezing fog placed its palms against the glass and peered inside. Though I could now see that it was dressed in a pinafore, I couldn’t tell at first whether the figure floating in the fog was male or female, so deeply was its face distorted by putrefaction. Clumps of black flesh were all that remained of its cheeks and brow; sporadic shocks of gray hair rose like smoke from a peeling scalp; tears of iodine flowed from the empty sockets. Only the mustache and soul patch that bookended its wrinkled purple lips led me to conclude that it had once been a man.
     The figure passed through the window, but terror didn’t manage to rouse me from catalepsy. Hovering a foot above my bed, where I was now shivering violently, it introduced itself to me in herring-scented English. Hommelette I am your friar’s skillet! I could see its orange tongue, the only thing about the figure that suggested health, warmth, and vigor, glowing through the windy caverns between the rail-thin points of its decayed teeth.
     Here then is what my ligature adds up to, it told me, though I hadn’t asked. A signalment, an excardination destined for the impudicity of others: a launderette set up to demonstrate the vaporescence of celestiality and the family circle; a launderette to teach the younkers what waylands of ligature they should avoid; a launderette that believed itself a propinquity and found itself unmasked as an impresario. …
     Hours later, when the figure came to the conclusion of its mad monologue, it removed the cigarette from my lips and, without warning, buried its tongue deep into my astonished mouth.
     Burning. Unspeakable burning. As if I had swallowed dry ice. Or a blade that had just been lifted from the forge. My eyes flew open. It was ten o’clock. My alarm was going off. All across the city, bookstores were opening.

In the bathroom, I nicked a jowl trying to liberate an august Strindbergstache from the brown block of my beard; in the closet, I got on my hands and knees to find the wing-collar shirt and waistcoat that had fallen from the crossbeam shortly after Halloween, the last time I’d worn them; before the small mirror on my dresser, I noosed up a patterned tie.
     Brimming with purpose, I walked out into the world, ready to violate the one rule known to every book buyer: Never go to a used bookstore in search of a specific title, especially if it’s extremely rare. Used bookstores are for aimless browsing, or for finding cheap copies of widely available works. Anything else is needle-in-haystackery, a quixotic quest at the end of which lies only disappointment and delirium.
     My method was simple. First, I’d check the Fiction section, where Inferno ought to be shelved; then Drama, in case the bookseller found it more profitable to group an author’s lesser-known writings in one genre with his better-known works in another, as when, for example, Baudelaire’s Artificial Paradises is shelved in Poetry, though it is technically a collection of essays; after that, in Memoir, Biography, or Belles Lettres, on the off chance that the bookseller was even less rigorous in his distinction between fact and fiction than Strindberg himself was.
     How my heart leapt every time I saw the letters “ST—” on the spine of a book! How it sank again when I saw them followed by the letters “—EIN,” “—EINBECK,” “—ENDHAL,” “—ERNE,” “—EVENSON,” “—OKER,” “—OPPARD,” “—OWE,” “—RACHEY,” “—RAUSS,” “—ROUT,” or “—YRON.” Confronted by their names in store after store, on shelf after shelf, I came to loathe these authors, some of whose books I’d enjoyed in the past, but which now existed only to taunt and torture me with the brute fact of their not-being-by-Strindberg. For all I cared, Tristram Shandy could fail to get born, Julien Sorel could be granted an eleventh-hour pardon, and Dracula could suck Transylvania dry. For all I cared, Queen Victoria could be deposed, every last Joad could starve to death, and Sophie Zawistowski could give up both of her brats to the Nazis.
     Fiat Inferno pereat mundi for all I cared.
     As a last resort, I checked with the bookseller. Stumbling and mumbling my way to the counter, I’d begin, “You wouldn’t happen to have Inferno . . .” At which point I was invariably interrupted by such looks of contempt, superior sneers that said, Of course we do, Ignoramus! Any bookstore worth its salt carries at least half a dozen translations of it! With a simple knowledge of the alphabet you could even find it at one of the chains! “. . . by Strindberg?” At which point, the bookseller’s aspect changed to one of two new expressions. Either blankness followed by total befuddlement: You mean Strindberg the playwright? Or, among the true aficionados: Ah, yes, we sometimes get that book in, but rarely, since no one who’d had the good fortune to own such a book would ever think of selling it back. These latter looks, though misty, inflamed rather than dampened my desire.
     Empty-handed I entered the doors of the Community Bookstore, Unnameable Books, Atlantic Books, PS Books, Spoonbill & Sugartown, Book Thug Nation, Housing Works, Mercer Street Books, the Strand, Alabaster Books, East Village Books, Left Bank Books, Westsider Used and Rare, Brazenhead, and Labyrinth; empty-handed I exited them again. I gave all of these booksellers my name and phone number with instructions that, should the book wash up on their shores, I was to be called immediately. Some refused, until I insisted, and then obliged me, perhaps to get me out of their stores. Others took my information so willingly that I began to suspect it was out of pity. Finally, behind the counter at Mercer Street Books, the barrel-chested bald man with a thick Brooklyn brogue told me that it was totally useless to take names. Booksellers, it seems, have better things to do than compare their recent arrivals with a list of requests, which would only net them between five and ten dollars for their efforts.
     After these first fifteen failures, I lost control of my method, simple though it was, and delivered myself over to momentary whims. I paid visits to Bluestockings, McNally Jackson, Unoppressive Non-Imperialist Bargain Books, Biography Bookshop, BookCourt, and Greenlight—with full knowledge that they wouldn’t have what I was looking for—just because I happened to be in the areas. I revisited certain stores several times a day, because, to paraphrase Kafka, hope springs eternal. When homeless men asked me for change, I asked them for Inferno.
     From a café in Fort Greene, I sent two incoherent emails. (At least I assume they are; I haven’t yet mustered the courage to click on “Sent Mail” and reread them.) The first was to Olivia in Sweden, proposing that, as soon as possible, which is to say at this very moment, she should find and translate Inferno—from the French or the Swedish, for she knew both languages—and overnight me a nicely bound, private edition. The second was to an editor at Penguin Classics, demanding that he expedite the long-overdue reprint of Strindberg’s novel. I threatened and cajoled; I begged and pleaded. My sanity—no, literary culture itself—depended on it, I probably said. Both literary culture and my sanity depended on quite a bit more than that, he doubtlessly surmised, as he pressed “Delete.”
     Brain boiling, I slammed my laptop shut, and walked to the Q at DeKalb Avenue, to once again prostrate myself before the remainders in the carts outside the Strand.

The next day I was scheduled to help a friend, Ana Fitzner—“Fitz,” as I call her—with the art direction for a short film. The film tells the story of a young British woman, L, who is spending the summer interning at a fashion company in New York. L rents a set of rooms from an elegant American woman of a certain age, who invites L to join the weekly dinner parties she throws for her three girlfriends. Work goes well for L, but not romance. Though she has an attractive face, a sweet disposition, and a charming English accent, none of the men she goes out with ask her out for second dates. Viewers are led to assume that male callowness and fecklessness are responsible for L’s dating woes, until the final scene, in which it is revealed that her landlady has been killing, cooking, and serving her suitors at the dinner parties. (Were he alive today, it occurs to me, Strindberg would read the script as a barely allegorical portrait of the war between the sexes.)
     The film was being shot in a beautiful three-story mansion on the Upper West Side, a block from the park. My primary job was to help move valuable pieces of art and furniture into a storage room, wrap the banisters in blankets, tape cardboard along the floorboards and corners, and cover the glass windows in the doors, so that the house would be protected from any scuffs and scratches that might result from the moving of the camera, lighting, and sound equipment. It was rumored that the owner, who paid for his vacations by renting out the house to film crews like ours, did research for a best-selling author of historical novels. Whether this generated sufficient income to afford such an enviable piece of real estate, or whether the owner had purchased the mansion with alternate funds, through inheritance, say, or through the income of a wealthy spouse, was something the crew speculated about over lunch.
     The work was physical, repetitive, simple, and even relaxing. It required no thought whatsoever: If someone told me to move something, I moved it; if someone needed fabric cut, I got out a pair of scissors; if someone asked for the roll of blue tape, I passed it along. After more than two dozen hours of sustained mania, I was grateful for it.
     I was scissoring the fringe off a roll of brocade that was being used to replace the wallpaper in the room where the dinner scenes were to be shot when Fitz asked me to come upstairs to help her move a television, mammoth as it was ancient, down a steep flight of stairs. The television was located in the library, on the top story, opposite a large leather couch, behind which loomed wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. Entirely out of habit, like an old cat burglar who can’t enter a house without casing it, I scanned the shelves in search of the box of jewels.
     It wasn’t a promising collection. The mansion’s owner had organized his books more or less by genre, but not alphabetically, with the first editions of the novels he’d done research for prominently displayed on a shelf in the center, next to pictures of his family and other personal trinkets. Beneath these were biographies, mostly of writers, but also of various English and French monarchs, American presidents, and Robert Moses.
     On the shelf nearest the wall were tall monographs on art and architecture and interior design, no doubt overflow from the coffee table, spiral-bound books that I assumed were screenplays, reference works, books by now marginal political figures on issues whose expiration dates had long passed, and cookbooks representing every culinary fad since Joy of Cooking. On the shelf nearest the entranceway lived what I’ll call works of the imagination, since fiction, poetry, and drama had all been mixed together. It was a strange quartier in this disorderly borough of books, where scrappy paperback grisettes and best-selling demimondaines indiscriminately rubbed covers with the morocco doyennes bearing the gilt seals of Harvard or the University of Chicago.
     Then, just as I was about to turn my mind to the task at hand, I saw it.
     O, Ryan! O ye of little faith! On the bottom shelf, sardined between a dog-eared movie tie-in edition of The Lord of the Rings and an untouched, ornately bound gift edition of The Complete Stories of Edgar Allan Poe, there appeared—lo and behold!—set upon a black spine—wonder of wonders!—above the colophon of the Knickerbocker Press—miracle of miracles!—seven letters—burning unconsumed!—in luminous halo, in gold leaf shining:

I-N-F-E-R-N-O
“Watch out, Ryan!” Fitz yelled. It seems I’d nearly dropped the television.
     Three excruciating hours later, after the director, the DP, and the principal actors had arrived, while everyone was crowded in the dining room to watch a run-through of the film’s final scene, I snuck back upstairs, tote bag over my shoulder. But standing again before the book, I hesitated to pluck it off the shelf. Though I was a prentice purloiner, my sudden irresolution had nothing to do with the morality of theft or with the fear of getting caught. I had come to the end of my search. What I had wanted I was about to possess. Like an Israelite about to enter the Promised Land, like a career cadre on the eve of the revolution, like a persistent suitor being led at long last to the room where the stuffed animals and laced pillows are hidden, I wondered whether the consummation of my desire was worth the price of its disappearance. True, this obsession of mine had brought me to the border of mental instability; nonetheless, I had come, perversely perhaps, to cherish it. Surely, there must have been one or two Israelites who declined to follow Joshua across the border into Canaan, preferring the flat bread of a nomad’s life to the milk and honey of nation building. Perhaps I also wasn’t quite ready to stop wandering in the desert.
      “Can I help you?” someone asked. The mansion’s owner had appeared in the entranceway to the library. He was eyeing me suspiciously.
     As if to explain away the look on my face, which any anthropologist will tell you is, from the remotest jungles of Malaysia to the highest skyscrapers of Manhattan, universally interpreted to mean you’ve-caught-me-doing-something-I-shouldn’t-be-doing, I put a hand to my chest and exclaimed, “You startled me!”
      “What are you doing here?”
     His contemptuous tone proved decisive. What was I doing? How could I begin to explain? For starters, jackass, I’m stealing your book. No, liberating it—from the philistine company with which you’ve had the nerve to surround it! I’m busting it from the prison of your awful taste! Giving it the home it deserves, where it will be appreciated: by someone who knows its value! Maybe the wood on the shelf won’t be as expensive as yours, but at least it will be on the top shelf, where it belongs! Hell, I’ll give it its own god-damned shelf! At least there it will get looked at, not to mention read from time to time! What actually came out of my mouth was:
      “I left my … totem pole here … when we were moving the telium.”
      “Excuse me?”
      “I said, ‘I left my tote bag here when we were moving the television.’ ”
      “Well, I see you have it now. The rest of your crew is leaving.”
      “I’m aware,” I said impudently, although, of course, I wasn’t.
     As soon as his back was turned, I dropped to a crouch, allowing the bag to open as it slid down my arm. Passing a finger along the sensual lip where the pages meet the binding at the top of an old hard-back, I stealthily slipped Inferno off the shelf, stuffed it into my bag, readjusted the bag’s straplike handles around my shoulder, and followed the owner down his cardboard-protected staircase.
     To my horror, the stolen book was glowing through the tote’s thin black canvas. I tried my best to hide that rectangular-shaped admission of guilt beneath my arm. (This must have been successful, since no one commented on the strange orange light that was clearly emanating from my armpit.) Outside, I stammered quick thanks and goodbyes to Fitz and the rest of the crew, and walked as nonchalantly as I could to the corner. Turning it, I ran until I reached the subway station, flew down the steps, through the turnstile, and onto the train that fate had so thoughtfully furnished for my glorious getaway, just as its doors were closing. I slid regally into an empty bank of seats, breathing heavily, smiling crookedly, my foot tap-tap-tapping to the horn-heavy Sinatra song that, were my life a film, would then be playing for everyone, and not just me, to hear. Ultimately, I think it was the giddy flush of my triumph that caused my scruples about satisfying my desire to disappear. At that moment, the book appeared to me less as the holy grail of a frantic, desperate quest than as the radiant trophy of my first theft.
     Without giving it a second glance, I pulled the book out of my bag and opened to the first page.
     You can imagine, no doubt, the looks of disgust, pity, and alarm on the other passengers’ faces when they witnessed my howling reaction to what I read there: “Midway on our life’s journey, I went astray from the straight road and woke to find myself alone in a dark wood.”


Ryan Ruby teaches philosophy at York College in Queens. His writing has appeared in The Baffler, More Intelligent Life, n+1, and elsewhere.