This excerpt from my new book FISH OUT OF WATER: A Search for the Meaning of Life is from the chapter “Onion Skin and Nothingness.” Here is an image so you too can see where it happened!
Falling in Space
One weekend John Tomanio—still at Wesleyan, having taken a year off—told me that Annie Dillard had read my “Impala George” story and loved it. I didn’t know who she was but soon gathered she was a famous writer, and that I should be very flattered. I eventually even got to speak with her on the phone. She generously listened to me and then recommended some books I might read, but when I got off the phone I realized I was still as lost as ever. What had I been looking for from her? A promise to try to place the story in an important magazine?
Around Thanksgiving I drove to Wesleyan to see John and he and I went with some friends to O’Rourke’s Diner, a fixture on Middletown’s Main Street. But after we paid our bill and walked out, something unutterably odd happened. I should first point out that this street is literally the widest Main Street in America, as John had often told me. In any case, as we were walking toward my car, gabbling about something inane, like whether the Monkees’ Mike Nesmith’s mother had invented Wite-Out or Liquid Paper, it happened. What I mean to say is that the bottom dropped out from under me. The sensation was a piercing distillation of confusion and horror. For what seemed like several seconds, but what certainly must have been the tiniest fraction of a second, I was suddenly falling, plummeting, as though I had stepped off a cliff. And then, after that long instant’s disorientation and terror, my accelerating downward flight instantly and awkwardly and harshly was arrested as my armpits—happily swathed in a vintage thrift-store overcoat—caught the edges of the open manhole into which I had suddenly, perfectly, stepped.
But how had this happened? One moment I was deep in meaningless conversation and the next I was up to my armpits in sidewalk. How was it possible to be talking one moment with the certainty of pavement under foot, and the next to be dangling over a bottomless hole as you gasped to make sense of the universe? Was this some grand cosmic joke? My friends suddenly looked down at me, aghast, nearly as baffled as I. There was a construction site nearby with a hose running into the open manhole, but none of us had seen it; we had simply been walking along in our careless reverie until I was sucked away toward the center of the earth. I had been striding along happily, unselfconsciously, and suddenly I was sixteen inches tall, a sawed-off buffoon addressing my friends from ankle height. It would have been perfectly fitting if my voice just then sounded as though I’d inhaled helium.
So I clambered out, dusted myself off, and realized that if I had fallen ever so slightly differently I would almost certainly have cracked my head on the sharp metal lip of the hole and been knocked unconscious, would have fallen to the mucky bottom, a long ten feet down. It was seriously frightening. But what to do? I tried to shrug it off and drove home. My overcoat was torn, a war wound with which to impress my friends. Of course my mother had another view. How could someone have left a manhole open in the middle of a sidewalk? She insisted we sue them—for the cost of the coat, and whatever else. The cost of the coat? Still, she was right. It was outrageous. If an older person had fallen it might have been fatal. There hadn’t even been an orange cone. So my mother made me call a lawyer friend from the Greek church, who did his best to help me. But my heart wasn’t in it. Why couldn’t we just forget it? The lawyer friend wasn’t terribly encouraging about my “case,” but my mother wouldn’t hear of letting it go.
I went back to Manhattan to pursue my “writing career,” but now every time I spoke to my mother she hounded me about this. Had I filled out the small claims court form she sent me? But what I did do in the next weeks, alone in the apartment while Tom and Bill were off at real jobs, was sit in front of my humming Selectric and think about the larger meaning of it all. But I didn’t write anything. I was not self-motivated in that way and I didn’t know how to be. So I stared at the ingenious silver ball inside the typewriter and now and again made it jump here and there, forming sentences and ideas, but no more.
But I was thinking, trying for the life of me to figure out the meaning of life, the way out of my dilemma. I knew that writers mostly had to chart their own courses, while doctors and businessmen—even the driven ones—had grooves into which they could pour their energies, had assignments and offices and titles and deadlines and concrete expectations. The writer had none of these. He was a kind of fish out of water, existing within society, but strangely separated from it. While the world hustled and bustled in its well-worn rhythms, while commuters swarmed in droves—bringing to my mind Koyaanisqatsi with the Philip Glass score—I, the artist, lived outside those rhythms, observing them. What to do?
I kept returning to the vomit of the manhole. Did it mean anything—and if so, what? Did anything mean anything? Perhaps I could write an essay about it and sell it and make some money. That would mean something! And it would stop my mother from bugging me about it. So I tried to write something, but it never went anywhere. Whenever I tried writing on the subject, it was as though I were going through the motions of making the carcass of an uncooked chicken “walk” across the table. It would never come to life and walk of its own accord, much less fly. Still, I continued to brood upon the whole thing. Was the larger message that there was no foundation in the world, that even the sidewalk was a phantasm, that there was no bottom to things, no Ground of All Being. Were we really adrift in infinity with no bearings except the ones we invented? This idea floated in and out of my mind, but I was too dumb to grasp the full horror of its implications.
I was also in fits and starts—how else?—fiddling with a novel about Cephalonia and my family. But to call the paragraphs with no semblance of a plot or structure part of a novel was to kid oneself. Nonetheless I thought about Cephalonia and about the seismic event that in 1953 had propelled my father across the ocean, and thought about how it had made beaches and whole villages disappear forever, how it had uncovered ancient statuary and opened graves, how roads had vanished and cliffs had fallen into the sea. All of this made me wonder whether I really was on to a larger idea with my manhole thesis, that perhaps everything was transient and reality itself was protean and therefore “unreal.” I thought of the image of an onion, which one peeled and peeled to get to the center, but there was no center, just onion skin and more onion skin and then nothingness, eternal nothingness at the heart of the universe, nothingness without beginning or end.
I even thought of the manhole semiotically and hermeneutically, and then even typographically, the manhole somehow being a period on life’s page into which I had fallen, the idea being that one couldn’t even take the letters and words on the page for granted. They gave the illusion of certainty—of meaning and order—but were phantoms. You could walk upon them and feel sure of your footing and then slip between the sentences, knocking letters as you went. You might even fall through a period as I had, into the endless blank abyss of the thinness of the page itself, into the infinite whiteness beyond the ink, the fathomless mystery of the White Whale of nothingness and everythingness, because even that blankness that seemed like nothingness and whiteness was neither nothing nor white. John Hollander once said that etymologically black and blank and the French blanc and therefore white were all mixed. It was where the abyss of unformed chaos uncreated everything back into itself. It was not a pure nothing of black or white but an erasure of something . . . a meaningful something smudged into meaningless nothingness. So we were on a rickety catwalk above that abyss and I, in falling through the manhole, had only immanentized that inevitable and bleak eschaton because we were each Ralph Waldo Emerson’s all-seeing eye, alienated in our prisons of total subjectivity. God help us! Oh yes, and then more bad news: God didn’t exist.
To read the rest of the story, order Fish Out of Water: A Search for the Meaning of Life.