Writer in Residence · 07/20/2011

That Which Does Not Require a Queen

“There is no coherent way to tell the necessary story.”
– Daniel Dennett, Consciousness Explained

On May 24th of this year, I received an email from my mother, telling me that my great-aunt would not be able to come to the celebration my fiancée and I were preparing to travel cross-country to attend. When my phone clanged the email’s arrival, I was sitting across the room, reading a book called Consciousness Explained, by the philosopher Daniel Dennett, a book I had already read once, but only half through. The truth is that I had found myself distracted by ideas for as long as I could remember, and could feel my mind wandering as I read any dense, theoretic, or pseudoscientific prose, as though my attention had been set on a table and the text were turning some key at the back of it: once wound, it buzzed and clicked off, like some wind-up toy set going, until reaching the end of the table. There, it plummeted and broke apart into a thousand utterly unique, and thus immeasurable, shores, a Humpty Dumpty Gondwanaland.

I thus sought out books that embodied rather than explained their concepts. I had found that, though enthralled by gimmickry and a false sense of novelty, so-called “genre” novels and stories nevertheless held rather clear expressions of their authors’ conceptions of the world, expressions which I experienced no difficulty in following, precisely because they were so inextricably bound up with the actions of their heroes and heroines. Coming to the halfway point of Consciousness Explained two years prior, I had set the book down in favor of an omnibus edition of the novels of James M. Cain, intending to come back to the “weightier” book when I could bring the proper focus to bear. Never achieving such focus, or else uninterested in turning such focus on Consciousness Explained, I eventually shelved it with the other books I intended to read “next,” and did not return to it. I soon finished the Cain.

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Though my fiancée is a native of the city we live in, I come from a place far away, and my relatives, most of whom still reside there, would not, by and large, be able to attend our nuptials. There was the cost to think of, and, now, the incapacitation of my great-aunt, the matriarch of a large part of my father’s surviving family. Her sudden heart-attack, bizarrely, had been the result of poisoning, or so her children, my second cousins, thought. There could have been little enough reason to suspect that this was the case—she was a woman beloved by all, head of a peaceful household far removed from politics and intrigue. Perhaps it was that her symptoms matched those of a string of such poisonings that had been in the national news recently, though these had taken place in the city where I lived, and thus across the country from my great-aunt and cousins.

Then again, perhaps it was the recent resurfacing in the news of a woman who had poisoned first her husband and then the man she had poisoned her husband to be with. This woman, feeling deserted by both men, had laced their Gatorade with antifreeze. It seems that, under the sickly-sweet tang of the lime-flavored drink, antifreeze is nearly unidentifiable to the unwary tongue. She had remained unsuspected in the death of her husband, but when her then-boyfriend died under similar circumstances, the coroner did some tests and found calcium oxylate crystals in the man’s kidneys, an indication of antifreeze poisoning. The husband’s body was exhumed and tested. The woman was then tried and convicted in her husband’s death, and was serving a life sentence when she was tried and convicted of the murder of the boyfriend and given a second life sentence, neither of which she served, for just a few years later, she died awaiting an appeal of the verdict in the matter of her husband’s murder. She had been complaining that her fellow inmates were poisoning her, and toxicology results bore this out, but when no suspects could be found, her death was ruled a suicide, and all cases were closed. Oddly, this woman shared both first and last names with my first-grade teacher, and I had paid so much attention to the case because I hoped to find out whether it was she.

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Our “engagement party” was to take the place of a scheduled family reunion, an annual event I had not been to since moving to this part of the country five years before. It was thus just a month before the wedding, a date which I had intended, in picking the book up again, as a terminus of some sort, a kind of deadline by which I meant to finish reading Dennett’s book. I did not then foresee any distraction that could cause me to fail to meet this deadline.

And yet the trip arrived and I was still a hundred pages from the end, as a result of the numerous obligations I had apparently been blind to when making this text my project. Anyone else would have seen this as inevitable—I had two paying jobs and several non-paying (but pleasurable) obligations, after all—but I had planned my writing schedule around finishing the book by this date, and resisted the idea of abandoning it a second time. I thus decided to bring it with me on the trip, and, taking into account the fact that I would surely be called away by my family once arrived, planned to get through as much of it on the airplane as possible.

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I boarded the 737 along with perhaps a hundred other passengers. Because the airline we had chosen, the most “cost-effective” for our market, did not assign seats, it was necessary to arrive at the airport early to get acceptable berths, but we had been detained on our train to the airport by a man who suffered some severe intestinal discomfort before making a rather horrible mess and halting the train for nearly a half-hour while authorities cleaned the car and administered to him. We were very near the end of the line to board when we finally arrived at the airport, and were thus separated, in middle seats of distant rows, though mercifully, because we were not the last on the plane, we were relatively comfortable, i.e., not sandwiched between two broad-shouldered or otherwise broad passengers.

To my left sat a pre-teen girl, and to my right, a fortyish man who wore dark sunglasses. The girl had made a slight motion toward the aisle when I excused myself to the man to sit down, and I thought perhaps she meant that the seat was taken, so I asked more formally whether this was the case (I had only nodded on my way down the aisle—the man had gotten up, and I assumed that the seat was unclaimed), but she shook her head no. The man shuffled forward a bit, making the choreography of my seating more awkward than it needed to be, by forcing me to go around him, rather than simply stepping back and allowing me to sit down.

Once we had achieved our cruising altitude, this man, wearing an orangish T-shirt emblazoned with the words “Texas A & M,” turned to tell me that he had read “that book when it first came out.” I was so surprised by this that I thought he could not possibly be speaking to me, but, in order not to be rude, turned a little way in my seat and noticed that he was pointing to my paperback copy of Consciousness Explained. Embarrassed by my unintentional snubbing of him, I said “1991,” which I remembered as the date of first printing, according to the title page of the book. I could remember this with utter clarity, but if he had asked me what Dennett had been talking about on the page open before me, I would have drawn a blank. The man nodded sagely and slipped something from his pocket under the napkin on the table in front of him. This movement brought my eyes to his lap, where he was holding his own paperback, Partner in Crime, by J. A. Jance, a book which features a meeting of the two detectives that Jance has written about separately for almost thirty years now, J. P. Beaumont and Joanna Brady. Though I love and often assign “trashy” novels and stories of previous eras to my students, I warn them away from those authors’ contemporary counterparts; I have no explanation for this. Seeing that my neighbor and I were thus divided in our passions by a matter of some decades, I turned back to Consciousness Explained.

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When my mind finally gave up on the page before me, I found myself thinking of how I had explained the idea of detail in fiction to my students. Though I was now on break for the summer, habits tend to carry over unnoticed, and I had marked several pages as things to mention in class.

I had found that my students treated me like a distracted and very possibly mentally-unsound uncle, politely refraining from correcting my corrupt histories and botched scientific explanations when those narratives occluded their own, more learned studies of the same subjects. Though I suspected that Dennett’s ideas were no longer current enough to pass as hard science twenty years on, they held up as interesting metaphors, and besides, I spent a great deal of time convincing my students that science, too, was fiction, right along with history, philosophy, religion, and all other man-made systems. Fiction was an apparatus one could use to explore the world and oneself, no different qualitatively than any of those other methods of inquiry. What better way to illustrate this than with discredited science, appearing, as it must at this remove, fictive? I used Ptolemy and Galileo as examples, but there was always room for more narrative, more metaphor.

“It is a fiction,” I would explain to the class. “No one is right and everyone is.” Detail, in this constellation of lies, was a strategy, a rhetorical device. There was no fact. Too much detail did not so much convince as confuse the reader. Too much—as in the example I cited, the scene in “The Eye of Argon” in which the hero, Grignr, awakes to find himself imprisoned—was simply too much, could not and would not be comprehensible, and meant more opportunities for the reader to see through the fiction. I told them to pay particular attention to the villains and antagonists in the stories we read, to note how obscured and vague they came across in comparison to the protagonists. By way of practicum, I encouraged them to lie to me, to invent plausible and comprehensive excuses as to why they couldn’t turn in assignments on time. They obliged.

As all thoughts of class were eventually soporific, I dozed. The girl to my left was kind enough to elbow me when the steward came by to take drink orders, and I requested an apple juice and immediately fell back asleep, as one tends to do in the middle seat, as it isn’t comfortable enough to do much else. When I woke again, the juice had been placed on the table in front of me and was sweating into its napkin. For some unfathomable reason, the steward had iced it, and I briefly wondered whether he put ice in beer and wine, too. Undoubtedly, this was juice not from an apple, but from a box, perhaps even a can, and its taste was suitably synthetic. I drained the cup of all but the ice, and, ever-so-slightly focused by the sugar, returned to the Dennett.

But, although I thought that I was now paying attention to the book, I slowly found that I was instead recalling an episode of “NOVA scienceNOW” that I had seen just the week before and trying to find it in the words that I was reading. Using magicians Penn and Teller, this show had looked at how we process or fail to process what we experience, how we might be induced by the way our brains work to look for things that simply aren’t there, or, conversely, might completely avoid looking at things that plainly are there. I should have been finding that the ideas being presented in this episode, or rather, the metaphors being used—that of magic tricks—were much too simplistic and possibly misleading, relying, at least to some extent, on precisely the type of “filling-in” that Dennett was railing against in the section of Consciousness Explained I was now reading. Still, the show’s conceit seemed to work well with Dennett’s discussion of qualia and color, of the threat and reward inherent in our chromatic system, and I had been tempted to interpret Dennett’s more complex and nuanced thoughts in light of the caricature of them I had seen on TV.

While I was thus lost in reflection, the man beside me or else the steward had come through and cleared my cup without my noticing it. In fact, looking down and with these sorts of questions on my mind, I found I could not now recall anything at all to do with the apple juice I had drunk perhaps twenty or thirty minutes earlier, except that it had been apple juice. I could recall no flavor, mouthfeel, or appearance to which to correlate this idea. This failure of memory naturally made me question what little memory remained. Had it been apple juice? I was not in the habit of drinking apple juice, not even when on the ground, when I had some control over whether the juice was “natural,” “freshly squeezed,” or “organic,” and much less then on an airplane, when I knew with some certainty that it was none of those things, and very possibly adulterated with bacteria, as had been often rumored when airplanes and ice were mentioned in the same breath; apples, too, if one recalled the “windfall” apples and the outbreak of some sort of disease that had happened a few years before. And if I thought about it, I realized, I could not recall just what bacteria the ice or the apples were supposed to be laced with. I had thought it was some exotic disease-causing microbe, but I did not think that it was salmonella, and as that was the only food-borne bacteria I could then think of, I was at a loss as to what it could possibly be, and what symptoms I should be on the lookout for.

It was then that I noticed that the squirming pre-teen next to me had stopped squirming, in fact, some time before, though I had taken no register of the calm, merely taking advantage of it to return to my book and stretch my left arm. Her plastic cup, drained even of the ice, remained on the tray-table in front of her. Perhaps it had been too far away for either the steward or the man next to me (her father? I wondered) to reach. Her face was slack. I reached up to turn on the call button, and the man next to me, who I had thought was asleep, shifted his head to face me, but because he hadn’t removed his sunglasses, I could not tell whether he was actually awake and looking at me, or merely shifting in his sleep.

The muffled sound of the call button turning on rang out, sounding as though several rows ahead of me, and I was somehow glad of that. Still, I hoped the steward would know it was me. I hoped that he would not pay attention to the sound, but to the light that had gone on at the end of the row, a red carbuncle just above the man next to me’s right shoulder. Red, as I knew from Consciousness Explained, was a color that signified both reward and threat, the ripeness of an apple and the spilling of blood. I hoped that the steward could discern its meaning in this particular case. I dearly hoped I would not have to explain. I wasn’t sure that I could, but could see a time in the future when I would have to, and in doing so, felt the first sweat of panic break out across my hairline.

Gabriel Blackwell is the author of NEVERLAND (Uncanny Valley Press). His short fiction has appeared in Conjunctions, Puerto del Sol, DIAGRAM, Super Arrow, and elsewhere. More: gabrielblackwell.com.

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posted by Tim Horvath