Research Notes · 12/18/2020

Fathers Of Cambodian Time-Travel Science

Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their process for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Bradley Bazzle writes about Fathers Of Cambodian Time-Travel Science from C&R Press.

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In his book Barley Patch, published in the U.S. by Dalkey Archive, the Australian writer Gerald Murnane gives a long and digressive summary of a novel that he abandoned when he decided to stop writing fiction. He summarizes the novel entirely from memory, without consulting a draft of the novel itself, and as we read we wonder if Murnane is less interested in the abandoned novel than in the content of his own mind during the period in which he wrote it.

To summarize Murnane’s summary, the novel was about a young man who imagines a vast apartment based on an apartment where, many years before, a friend of his lived with his girlfriend, and where the young man and his friends (all male, except the girlfriend) would watch from the bathroom window as a woman across the courtyard changed clothes. How this could comprise an entire novel is impossible to imagine unless you’ve read Murnane, and difficult even if you have. The novel was to be called O Dem Golden Slippers. The unusual title, Murnane recalls in Barley Patch, came from an American song that the young man plays on the record player in a bachelor uncle’s bungalow (what we in the U.S. might call a backyard shed) somewhere in Victoria, Australia. “The sound was what he called scratchy,” Murnane recalls writing,

and many of the words were inaudible, but he heard enough to be able to feel what he hoped to feel whenever he listened to a piece of music: to feel as though a person unknown to him in a desirable place far away from him desired to be in a place still further away. The song that he played most often had the title ‘O, Dem Golden Slippers’ and was sung by three or four male persons.

To feel as though a person unknown to him in a desirable place far away from him desired to be in a place still further away. Murnane’s summary of O Dem Golden Slippers is full of evocative descriptions like that, which encourage us to imagine the world of fiction as extending beyond the words on the page and into a vast and possibly contiguous imaginative zone. His choice to summarize from memory, rather than from a written draft, amplifies the effect, I think, so in this essay I’ll risk doing something similar on the subject of a short story of mine called “The Beard of Human Weakness,” which opens my short story collection, Fathers of Cambodian Time-Travel Science.

“The Beard of Human Weakness,” as it exists in the pages of Fathers of Cambodian Time-Travel Science and on the site Web Conjunctions, where it was posted on January 19th, 2016, is about a young real estate professional named Shawn who must sell a half-finished subdivision built on a parcel of toxic land. Shawn’s only lead is an adult bookstore magnate who hopes to build a theme park, “the Disneyland of jerkoffs,” and who may or may not be the grandson of Jack Ruby. That’s one part of the story. The other part is that Shawn happens to live with a mysterious uncle, Mitch, who claims to come from the future and blogs accordingly. But Uncle Mitch turns out to be Shawn himself, returned from the future to help Shawn “fuck with the future in a good way,” which requires him, at the climax of the story, to attack a building inspector.

I write all that not to whet your appetite for more of the story (or I wouldn’t have given away the ending) but to strike a contrast with the original version of “The Beard of Human Weakness,” which I abandoned eight years ago in order to write the version summarized above. The original was significantly longer and written not in first-person but in third. From memory I can report that its Shawn character, named Randy, inherits the home of his grandparents after their bodies are found side-by-side in bed and drained of blood. Randy reluctantly moves into the house but opts for the second bedroom, where no one died, and in my mind Randy’s bedroom looks like my own childhood bedroom, which had a Sesame Street mural painted by a local teen. And yes, this means that Randy’s grandparents were exsanguinated in my parents’ bedroom, and on the very bed where my parents slept until I was fifteen years old and we moved to a bigger house in a fancier neighborhood. At night, in bed, Randy hears scuttling in the attic that he tries to ignore. I too heard this scuttling, which came from squirrels that got trapped in the attic and would go on to die and release a stench. But the scuttling Randy hears gets so loud, one night, that he creeps around the house until he finds not a squirrel but a small, freakish man kneeling in the master bedroom, beside the bed, the site of Randy’s grandparents’ exsanguination. The man claims to be his uncle, Carl.

Unlike Uncle Mitch, Uncle Carl looks nothing like Randy, who in my mind looks like a decrepit and bearded version of myself. Uncle Carl looks like this (see minute 0:41). When, sixteen years ago, I wrote the script for that video, I based its doctor character on the psychohistorian Hari Seldon in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation. Uncle Carl, however, was based less on the doctor or Hari Seldon than on the performance of the twenty-three-year-old New York City comedian, Jeff Miller, who portrayed the doctor. Miller’s performance, with its bald wig and garbled muttering, made such a strong impression on me that it inspired not one but two short stories. The second, called “The Case Against Dr. Smetana,” also involved a time-traveling scientist, and yet for reasons I no longer remember I did not include that story in a collection with Time-Travel in its title. But I have a fantasy that when I am dead, or at least very old, an expanded version of Fathers of Cambodian Time-Travel Science will be published to include the story “The Case Against Dr. Smetana” as well as the original “Beard of Human Weakness” and perhaps a scholarly introduction by my own daughter, now five-years-old.

Other details I remember from the original “Beard of Human Weakness” include the sucking of egg yolk through a futuristic straw and the storing of extra yolk in large Ball jars for use as fuel in a time machine. I also remember a final scene, rendered from the point-of-view of Randy’s boss, Mr. Hamilton, where Mr. Hamilton, worried about his protege, circles Randy’s house in a rainstorm until he catches a glimpse of the time machine, mid-launch, and basically freaks out. Tangled up in my mind when I recall the scene is a scene in the movie Body Heat where the William Hurt character, heaving with lust for the Kathleen Turner character, pitches a chair through a plate-glass window in order to ravish her. I have never, until now, written or said aloud the word ravish. The only example of ravishment in my mental catalog is the aforementioned scene, which I watched as a child with my father and William-Hurt-loving mother, and which remains so seared in my mind that it operates as a sort of filter through which I interpret all instances of passion and possible ravishment that I come upon in life and in fiction. The original “Beard of Human Weakness” also featured a bathtub filled with a vinegary smelling brew of pickles and pasta sauce and other leftovers from Randy’s grandparents’ fridge, surrounded by flies. There was a flasher who popped out from between cars at the realty office, and an old coot of a policeman with a handlebar mustache. These people said howdy.

I hope it’s clear that the original “Beard of Human Weakness” was in some ways not good. I can imagine a version of this essay wherein I describe how I recognized the story’s shortcomings and then, rather than waste time revising it, repurposed its premise to tell a different story: a story where Uncle Mitch is already in the house, where Shawn (what person my age is named Randy?) must solve a problem with Uncle Mitch’s help, where local color about DFW grounds the fantastical elements, and where no one blasts off in an actual time machine on a rainy night while gazed upon by a man in the throes of _Body-Heat_-like passion. That version of the essay might conclude with something along the lines of a statement that thousands of words and hundreds of hours can be cut without being wasted, and that sometimes the only way is the longest way, or that longer routes must sometimes be taken in order to find our way to the furthest-flung chambers of our own minds.

But when I think about the re-write, whatever conclusions I draw are tinged with sadness. I wonder if, by shedding such elements as the bathtub full of putrid, makeshift time-machine fuel, I also shed something more important. In another section of Barley Patch, Gerald Murnane posits that his published books “may have been written not in order to remove images from his mind but to arrange them more appropriately and to give certain images their rightful prominence.” If that’s the case, wouldn’t it be more useful to allow certain meaningful elements, elements that demand to be brought forward, as Murnane might put it, to take their places within the constellation of a story? Shouldn’t “The Beard of Human Weakness” feature my childhood home? Shouldn’t my former collaborator, Jeff Miller, star opposite an imagined version of myself? And shouldn’t order be restored by the one true man of passion who makes his home in my mind, even if that man happens to be a character from a movie portrayed by the actor William Hurt?

Similar questions may have driven Gerald Murnane to abandon O Dem Golden Slippers in favor of books like Barley Patch. For my own part I can’t yet make that change, so I choose to imagine that the original “Beard of Human Weakness,” by which I mean its truest parts, mined from life, lurks beneath the surface of the published version. I imagine, for instance, that the soaking-wet chicken hawk Mr. Hamilton hides somewhere behind the eyes of the genial Mr. Hamilton who buys Shawn a peach-a-rita, and that, when the latter Mr. Hamilton thanks Shawn for his years of service, he’s also apologizing for the time he nearly threw a chair through a plate glass window in order to ravish him. Perhaps my daughter could address the topic in her introduction to the expanded version of Fathers of Cambodian Time-Travel Science, but until then I’ll take comfort in the words of Murnane, who

supposed further that the lost-seeming ones were not at all lost; that they stood on the outermost border of their native territory and pleaded with the writer of fiction not to try to write about them but to put away his writing and to join up with them: to become an inhabitant of their far-reaching countries or continents.

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Bradley Bazzle is the author of the novel Trash Mountain. His short stories appear in The Missouri Review, The Iowa Review, New England Review, Epoch, Copper Nickel, Beloit Fiction Journal, and elsewhere, and some can be found at bradleybazzle.com. A long time ago he wrote and performed sketch comedy at the UCB Theatre in New York City. Today he lives with his wife and daughter in Athens, Georgia.