Friday, October 17, 2008

Fiction Excerpt, from A Stranger on Earth ("Histories")

This is an excerpt from a work-in-progress, a small part of a chapter, "Histories," in a novel A Stranger on Earth:

Timothy, before lunch, met with a student, Carl, who had questions about how to do research for one of his papers. Carl had begun reading about George Washington Carver, the scientist who had done so much to find uses for the peanut. Carl wanted to treat Carver as a philosophical figure— someone with ideas and a provocative social role, someone who had nurtured and questioned others.

“He was a very creative and influential figure for his time—from the second half of the nineteen century through the first half of the twentieth,” agreed Timothy. “He had a lot of freedom and success. It’s impressive even now,” said Timothy, who looked at Carl, waiting to hear what more Carl had to say, waiting to hear what in his concept of Carver would make Carl’s paper distinct.

“He had a lot of initiative,” said Carl. “He taught himself to read and write. No one encouraged him to be interested in nature—it was his own curiosity that led him there.”

Timothy waited.

“Booker T. Washington could be very controlling but Carver developed his own projects at Tuskegee,” said Carl.

“Are there any good biographies or studies of his work already done, things that you think you can use as a jumping off point?” asked Timothy.

Carl looked at Timothy, uncertain.

“I know there are a lot of children’s books, and Carver appears on calendars and things, and there are summaries of his life, but I don’t recall reading or even seeing any rigorous essays by him or about him,” said Timothy.

“You know what interests me?” asked Carl.

Timothy smiled, and said, “Not yet.”

“His letters,” said Carl.

“Letters to his colleagues, to collaborators?” asked Timothy.

“Some of them were people—young men—he worked with,” said Carl.

“And?” asked Timothy.

“They’re very affectionate,” said Carl.

Timothy laughed. “That’s usually a good thing, affection between colleagues, between friends,” said Timothy.

Timothy’s phone rang, and he said excuse me to Carl, picked the receiver up, listened and answered, “There are a couple of things I’ve wanted to see—Reds, Possession, Love Song for Bobby Long, Painted Veil, Science of Sleep.” Timothy smiled at Carl, reassuring, and into the phone speaker he said, “No, I haven’t heard about that. Why would virtual furniture cost real money, and how can someone be arrested for stealing virtual furniture?” Timothy laughed. “Okay, you pick the films up and I’ll get the wine and cheese.” Timothy put the phone down, and asked Carl, “What about the letters?”

“I thought he might have been especially attracted to those young men,” said Carl.

Timothy looked surprised, then doubtful, and then he smiled and asked, “How is that philosophical? Are you going to draw some connection between that and the ancient Greeks, maybe talk about Plato, Socrates, and the Symposium?”

“You sound skeptical,” said Carl, accusing.

“Do you really think that’s an interesting subject? You have a man who discovered a couple of hundred uses for the peanut, a man who was celebrated while others of his tribe were little better than slaves, and all you can think about is whether he liked his male friends a little too much?” asked Timothy.

“Too much?” asked Carl.

“Too much, too little, just enough—how is that relevant to his work?” asked Timothy.

“Why are you being hostile?” asked Carl.

“I’m not hostile, but I find the possibility of his being attracted to males uninteresting, very uninteresting. That’s one fact—or one possibility—and his life is about so much more than that, as you said: his initiative, his self-education, his love of nature, his independence, his success. If Carver had been married, I wouldn’t find that interesting either—unless his wife had either been particularly helpful or harmful to his work. If he had a wife and we found out she was the one who came up with a bunch of peanut recipes and he took the credit, then that would be interesting. We could talk about women as victims in history and the lack of scientific ethics. Just having a wife wouldn’t be interesting—and just being infatuated with a boy is not interesting” said Timothy.

There was silence between them.

“How are you going to make the subject philosophical?” asked Timothy. “How are you going to approach Carver so that what you see in him, and say about him, has something to do with the questions that concern us in the course?”

“Are you always this tough?” asked Carl.

“No—only with students who have trouble with comprehension,” said Timothy. “If the professor got a bunch of papers that were flawed from conception and the students said they had talked to me about them, Dr. Bernstein wouldn’t be feeling much affection for me—and I wouldn’t be very fond of the students who had embarrassed me with their failing grades.”

Timothy bent nearer to Carl, and softening his voice said, “Think about what I asked about the ancient Greeks and Carver. How a teacher relates to a student—the nurturing aspects, the aesthetic appreciation of an older man for a younger, even the possibility of seduction—could be the basis for a significant investigation. How the atmosphere of learning aids in learning could be a topic. Fellowship as inspiration for knowledge production could be a topic. That’s more interesting than just going on and on about the possibility of Carver’s queer sexual orientation. The revelation of a fact or of a potential fact is less important than the philosophical dimension. How does your interest in Carver relate to the mind, to being, to perception, to knowledge, to values?” Timothy stopped talking and looked at his watch.

“I’m really boring you?” asked Carl.

“I’m starved,” said Timothy. “I did not have much of a breakfast.”

“Could I treat you to lunch?” asked Carl, nervously.

Timothy looked hard at Carl. “Why?” asked Timothy.

“I’d like to talk to you a little more,” said Carl, before quickly explaining, “I know I don’t have much yet, but I feel as if you’re helping me get to something that will add to my paper—and I’d feel better if I gave you something for taking your time, since you don’t seem interested in the topic.”

Timothy looked away from Carl. He looked at the papers on his desk, papers he had thought he might read while at lunch. He thought about wanting to have lunch with Sarah. He wondered if any of the internet sites he liked had been given updates.

“We could go to the Indian brunch place,” said Carl.

Timothy laughed: all you could eat, for a few dollars. “Well, I do like that place, but you don’t have to do that. You could just make another appointment with me for later in the week, and between then and now do some more research and thinking about your project,” said Timothy.

“Please,” said Carl.

Timothy stood up. “This is just lunch and talk about a philosophical paper, okay Carl?”

“Yes, yes, of course,” said Carl, waiting for Timothy to walk toward him.

Making their way through the hall, they passed the marble busts of different philosophers, and stood in front of the elevator. Timothy looked away from Carl, thinking about the work he would be returning from lunch later to complete, while Carl observed him. The elevator arrived, was nearly full, but the two young men got on, taking it down.

(c) DG