By: Ethan Goffman
A Novel So Great It Cannot Be Named
Well over a century ago, a great novel was born. It had a powerful title, too powerful, at this point in history, to name. The title had been ordinary when the novel first came out, but over the decades acquired exponentially more weight, as it was read and revered by millions. At one point, it was adapted as one of those black and white movies, perhaps silent, that people would watch on their TV with a hangar for an antenna. For a long time, there had been an actual novel attached to the title, but as the title acquired the status of legend the story itself slipped away. It hung on in Cliffs Notes and other paraphernalia for a few decades, but as of this writing even a plot summary cannot be found. Many believe that the title was attached to an actual author, that the author had, and perhaps still has, a momentous status. But this cannot be proved, no more than the existence of God.
An Alternative to the Big Bang Theory
One fine spring day I realized that this house I’ve lived in for 20 years, that seems so solid and real, so defining of the essence of ME, is a virtual background.
Our picture window revealed the truth. At dawn, it becomes an enormous mirror and, if I step back from it even a little, my edges fade away. Step back a bit more and I completely disappear, leaving an empty living room dappled with sun through skylights, walls a dignified beige, couches and chairs in shades of orange slightly faded with use, an embroidered pillow with bright parrots cavorting beneath a yellow sun, shelves jammed with books — Kafka, Borges, Toni Morrison, Ralph Ellison, Grace Paley, Kafka again — all coated with a thin layer of dust that was there the day the books were printed and will doubtless survive my death.
I disappear into the background, beyond nothingness. The house remains. Perhaps it’s me that’s always been virtual? Does the house think, therefore it is? Does it dream me into existence out of the lonely void?
Whose Aim Is True?
My old friend Johnny was singing out of tune. He would sing out of the blue incessantly, and it greatly annoyed his long-time live-in girlfriend who refused to ever marry him. She will likely be plagued by his singing the rest of her life anyway, so she might as well tie the knot.
Today, Johnny was singing Elvis Costello songs. “That’s from his first album, ‘My Aim Is True,’” I said. Then a little later, “That’s from ‘Armed Forces.’ What, was that his third album?” We had been friends in middle school after which Johnny moved away, and we’d lost track of each other for several decades.
There’s nothing that bonds you more than the realization that you love the same musician slash singer slash pop slash rock star. Back in the day, that singer slash star bound your group of friends tighter than any marriage, or so we felt at the moment. We thought we were the hippest people in the world. Of course, now we are all dispersed to the corners of the U.S. or even further, dandelion seeds lost in the wind, still humming “My Aim Is True” as we take our vastly separate showers.
That musical and poetic giant, Elvis Costello, whom the vast majority of the world’s people are ignorant of, immersed as they are in their own cultures, their own stars, their own musical giants, bhangra or salsa or calypso or gamelan or Cumbia or Jibaro or any of a thousand other traditions that bind them, that make a group special, make them the most important people in the world.
Elvis Costello, that musical oddball misunderstood even by most fans of western pop. That nerd. That scoundrel. That hero.
Elvis is getting up there. Who knows when we will be reading his obituary? Even Queen Elizabeth is dead. Who thought that could ever possibly happen?
Will any of us outlast Elvis? Maybe he will linger on, become a centenarian. Maybe he will die tomorrow. Who knows if Johnny will stay together with his girlfriend. He had one divorce and Elvis had several.
Most of us fade slowly. I hear that Elvis survived a cancer scare. Johnny is getting checked out for neurological problems, maybe Multiple Sclerosis. I, myself, was briefly hospitalized for indeterminate chest pains.
For now, we sing on.
Ethan Goffman is the author of the short story collection Realities and Alternatives (Cyberwit, 2023), the poetry collections I Garden Weeds (Cyberwit, 2021) and Words for Things Left Unsaid (Kelsay Books, 2020) and the flash fiction collection Dreamscapes (UnCollected Press, 2021). Ethan is co-founder of It Takes a Community, which brings poetry to Montgomery College students and nearby residents, and is founder and producer of the Poetry & Planet podcast on EarthTalk.org. Ethan also writes nonfiction on transportation alternatives for Greater Greater Washington and other publications.
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