I labor under a kind of benign (and culturally rewarding) compulsion to hoard books. I buy way too many of them, in part because I live near a “Serendipity”—one of those community thrift shops that collect people’s old junk, and sell it back at very low prices. Of course, I buy a lot of the junk too: a butterfly net, a female mannequin I call “Judy” (torso and head only), a military helmet (for the mannequin), a chipped plaster garden gnome whose homely gaiters seem to bulge with a cheeky erection, a baby’s rattle in the form of a scepter, a wooden toy elephant, a nicotine-yellowed laminated reproduction of “La Danse à Bougival”: that charming Renoir painting of a young working class couple dancing at a day fair, in which the red-bearded man’s gaze is hidden by his straw hat, and the woman’s delicate, pale, prepossessing face remains hard to read, hovering between dreamy pleasure and diffidence maybe—holding her partner close, but perhaps only politely, conventionally, and not because of the flushed, grasping urge born of erotic infatuation… What is he thinking? What is she thinking? That’s what I keep asking myself as I stare at their arrested movement above the tiled bathroom counter, brushing my teeth in the evening. But my branch of the thrift shop is the one specialized in books, which is rather lucky since I don’t have that much room to spare: books are more convenient to keep than the other tantalizing miscellany that strangers jettison—all of this orphaned cargo I can’t help “rescuing” from the haphazard oblivion of unloved, forgotten things. In my neighborhood there seems to be a concentration of overeducated academic types who regularly feel the urge to shed some of their unwieldy surplus. So, for a couple of florins, I buy books I sometimes would never otherwise have dreamt of reading. And to be honest, mostly, that’s still what happens: I don’t read them. They just sit there, piling up against the wall, next to my bed, or on the radiator, or wherever, hopeful or sullen, as I like to imagine, waiting for me to pick them up, each a testament to my rashness in a moment of curiosity or fleeting engagement. Sometimes they do wait a long time, the poor dears! And, not only that, but such is my capriciousness, that often brand new acquisitions cut in line, to the prosopopeic displeasure of less favored, long-biding petitioners for my attention.
The last time I went browsing, I stumbled onto a well-thumbed paperback version of my father’s famous metaphysical space opera thing, The Accidental Babylon. I guess I was looking for it, unconsciously. I mean, I never check out the science fiction section. But this time, I did. And it would have been some crazy fluke indeed if I hadn’t found at least one copy of it, sitting there, waiting for me. I’m sure it hasn’t escaped your attention that this, daddy’s magnum opus, has been a “cult international sensation” since its publication in the early 80’s—and that furthermore, a bit later, they made this almost comically terrible movie based on it (the implausibly busty girl with the knee-high boots and the saucer eyes, who is supposed to be a mind-reader; the ferocious dimwit with the muscles and the accent, who keeps scowling throughout because, presumably, this was his idea of “method acting”…) My friends from school and I used to recite the stupidest lines to each other, for laughs.
So yeah, the film was shit, and it bombed catastrophically in theaters, but I’ve seen it innumerable times. It was criticized when it came out for “being only loosely based on the original” and “not simply an unfaithful adaptation, but an outright betrayal…” I don’t know: I kind of like it. It’s super pretentious, and lavishly kitsch, and often unintentionally hilarious—but whatever. It paid for the lakeside dacha my dad still lives in today with his “new” girlfriend, Alexandra. And I was always grateful to have a sufficiently innocuous approximation of my dad’s work for my own use, because I could just never get through any of his actual books. There’s something unsettlingly intimate about reading your own father’s fantasies. It’s almost painfully embarrassing. When I was a teenager, I started reading Babylon several times, because I thought it would please him to know that I had, but, a few pages in, I would inevitably start to drift: as if a haze of restlessness settled over me and dispersed my attention, despite my best efforts. It’s not that the story itself was boring. Rather, the trouble was that my father’s flustering presence hovered over it all: the words, the characters, the scenes… As I read, something of him, something that was familiar, but also somehow perplexingly alien, seemed to reveal itself, to my mortification. His invisible, suffocating propinquity compromised the story; it ruined the spell, the engrossing suspension of disbelief, and more, it made me want to just flee, to escape this unsolicited “testimony” to his inner life. Now, I do love my father—very much!—and, if our encounters stay infrequent enough, I even get along with him. But, to me, being immersed in his inventions has always been a vaguely unnerving experience.
When I was younger, on the rare occasion he wasn’t holed up in his office in the evening, daddy sometimes used to wander into my room and look over my shoulder while I did my homework at the computer. I know he meant well: he was trying to connect, I guess. But it was always paralyzing. I just froze: I couldn’t move—couldn’t keep typing, couldn’t turn around to face him—couldn’t do anything until he quietly left again, and I had felt his presence recede, along with my mysterious neurotic inhibition. Whenever I try to read his stuff, I don’t know why, but it’s like he’s standing over me again. It feels the same. This time though, I’ve decided that chancing across his book now must be some sort of (portentous? propitious?) sign, so, for both our sakes, I’ll try again, with a resolve born of rising panic and creeping desperation:
Maybe this time, like Commander Yarik Tobok, I’ll make it all the way.
Yesterday, Alexandra called to tell me daddy was sick again. He didn’t want me to know because blah blah—but now it looks like it’s getting worse. And he doesn’t want to do the treatment another time. That’s what she said.
He didn’t know she called, so I never talked to him.
I’ll have to go up there.
(But not today. Not today.)
(Just, you know, please, okay.)