Muñoz Molina on the novel

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The novel subjects itself to its own limits and at the same time opens itself up to an exploration of depths that are within and without (the writer) and that only (the writer) was meant to discover. You’re writing even when you don’t write. Narrative imagination does not feed on what is invented; It feeds on the past. Every minor or trivial event that one experiences or discovers in the course of an investigation can be valuable or even decisive for the novel, occupying a minimal but precise place within it, like an uneven cobblestone …

… The novel has developed on its own with the unlimited richness of reality and the blank spaces I haven’t been tempted to fill, spaces in the shadows that cannot be illuminated …

…The novel is what I write and also the room where I work. The novel is the fine-point pen that ran out of ink one day when I wrote for five or six hours without stopping and filled an entire notebook. The novel is made with everything I know and everything I don’t know, and with the sensation of groping my way through this story but never finding a precise narrative outline.

— Antonio Muñoz Molina, Like a Fading Shadow. Translated by Camilo A. Ramirez. Published by Editorial Planeta, S.A., 2014. Translation copyright 2017 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York.

After midnight

The phone vibrated on the sink, startling me. I lay sweating on the bathroom floor in the dark. A faint halo emanated from the device and illuminated the room. I looked up at the walls, the ceiling. Fire razed my guts. It was night, it was night out there in the world. The phone buzzed. What had I done? I tried to push myself up, hands slipping in the contents of my stomach, now cold. A shot of lightning flashed at the window, briefly illuminating the revolting scene. I rose to my knees, then staggered afoot. My shirt was soaked through. Half-digested tablets and capsules cracked beneath my feet. I stripped nude and lay atop the bed, shaking, my hair wet. I struggled beneath the covers. What I remember next was the smell. I hadn’t smelled it before, or I wasn’t paying attention. It was all over me, all over the room. It was the air itself. I rose from the bed as each cell in my body protested. Daylight attacked the bedroom’s only window. A song entered my head — a Mexican folk song my grandmother sang when I was a child. Then it was only the music of her voice, whispering: I’ll be here when you wake.

one in the chamber

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Neither mood nor biology shifts according to a calendar. This body runs on its own time. The mind operates in several time zones at once. Electricity powers the heart. I eat almost nothing, fueled by liquids and books and nerves. Love, too.

I try to read the dictionary every day—at least a page. I wish I had the dedication of Malcolm X, who copied the dictionary repeatedly by hand to teach himself to read. He was in jail at the time, a petty criminal whose initial way to the light was religion. He learned that Allah’s message was a necessary truth that had somehow eluded him, had been stolen from his youth. This knowledge became an impetus to act, requiring more study. He became a teacher. His internal truth continued to evolve, much like the reader and the writer of these words.

*

To go into solitude, a man needs to retire as much from his chamber as from society. — Emerson

*

There’s a case, there’s a man and a case, and that man and his case penetrate time and space. Reader beware, keen reader beware, what you’re reading is rare and took care to prepare.

amateurs

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For several years I kept my eyes open. I moved through the visual realm. Now the light is dim, the will is weak. The cabin freezes, for I don’t hoist myself up for firewood. All the birdsong has gone. The world beyond my door is grand, sublime, but silent—frozen, smothered in snow. At night, the moon and stars provide more light than needed to navigate the empty world, to stomp through drifts of un-shoveled snow to the wood pile. Wolves watch me from afar, their eyes like pointed stars in the shadows. It must be a dream, I think. All of this: the night, the cold, the wolves, this life—

*

A: Your license and registration, please.

B: …

A: Your license and registration, sir.

B: …

A: Can you hear me, sir?

B: …

A: Sir?

B: …

A: (mutters into radio device)

*

You’ll catch me singing in the shower, sad songs. A shower is expiation, catharsis. A shower is amenable to tears.

*

A: Will there be anything else for you, sir? (smiling)

B: No, thank you.

A: Would you like to try any dessert? (smiling, wiping table)

B: No. (smiling, shaking head)

A: How about one of our delicious smoothies? (smiling, wiping table)

B: No.

A: They’re 30% off right n— (smiling)

B: No, thank you. (smiling, forced)

A: Okay, if you need anything else— (smiling)

B: …

A: … (smiling)

*

“The hour of death comes sometimes with agitation and suffering, and sometimes with resignation or even in sleep. Some people report, from near-death experiences, that they see a great light. However, there is no great light, other than in the minds of some of the dying. According to certain conjectures, they perceive such a light because the brain is starved of oxygen, or because there is stimulation, as life wanes, of the temporal lobe, as if the body, on the very verge, were to play a final trick on us.

“Regardless of whether death is resisted or accepted, its aftermath follows a regular course. The body is now a corpse. It becomes first rigid, then bloated. It soon rots, stinks, and begins to be devoured by vermin and bacteria, unless it is promptly burned. From having been revered, the body turns into an object of revulsion.” — Roberto Mangabeira Unger, The Religion of the Future

*

A: What type of writing do you do?

B: All kinds.

A: Do you get paid for it?

B: Some of it.

A: So, would you say you are a professional or an amateur?

B: … Both.

A: I used to write poetry when I was a kid.

B: …

A: And a little in college.

B: … (nodding)

A: … (blushing)

B: What do you like to read?

A: I don’t really read. I wish I did. Don’t have time.

B: … (nodding)

A: Wish I did.

B: … (nodding)

A: Don’t have time.

B: … (nodding)

*

“Amateurs uphold ideas that oppose professional authority. They express concerns professionals don’t consider, don’t care about, often won’t acknowledge. An amateur is more likely to be someone who rocks the boat. He or she isn’t on anybody’s payroll and never will be. To that degree, an intellectual ought to be an amateur.” —  Andy Merrifield, The Amateur

*

Mid-afternoon, when the day is hottest, that’s when I want to burrow deep into the cool earth and wait out the sun. The sun allergy affects both good and bad days, as well as days in-between. The sun is the primary source of life-giving energy on this planet. It is also a menace to all creatures in seasons of extreme heat. For me it is a daily curse, and summers are damnation. I am most free and comfortable once the sun has set. I wave at other night creatures on my crepuscular walks. I sing at the moon. Man and creature both scuttle from my approach.

Characterization

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A: Characterize yourself in two words.

B: Hm. No.

A: Perhaps in three words.

B: I think not.

A: One word?

B: No.

*

I wake at dawn, unable to sleep for the discomfort, the mental fatigue, the sunshine bright at the windows—too bright. Anxiety digs into me, burrows, multiplies, dies again. What’s the point? I wonder. The wife and daughter sleep. I do not speak but move slowly, cautiously, downstairs to the kitchen for water, then onto the couch to read the newspaper. My scent lingers about me like bad perfume. What have I become? I think. Again, I do not speak. The world inside me quakes. I am alone.

*

A: Do you seek to feel normal?

B: No.

A: Do you seek attention?

B: No.

A: What do you seek?

B: Freedom.

*

I write in the notebook by the light of a candle, the flame quaking above and beyond the page. The phone alerts and disturbs my mental trajectory. I have grown to hate the phone, my forced attachment to it, the dull, conformed wretch I become each time I reach to gaze at its screen. The screen glass reflects an external world rather than the authentic, co-opted, internal world.

*

A: Are you prepared to submit?

B: No.

A: Are you prepared to be forced to submit?

B: …

A: Are you prepared to be forced to submit?

B: …

the worm

Open your eyes, says a voice.

Close-up of an insect, dead and brown, appendages curled and blackened.

I can’t, I whisper.

The lens pans slowly from the insect, one object of many in a gutter.

My mouth is full of worms.

The lens slides left to a patch of dead grass, yellowed and dry.

My mouth is full of worms! I say, drooling onto the pillow.

To the left of the grass: an old toy firetruck, broken, faded by the seasons.

A worm says: Follow the dead insect’s trajectory backward in time.

The lens returns to the dead insect, fixates on it.

Zoom in on the insect! says the worm, its voice an expanding drain.

And your ceaseless inquiries will be the end of you.

Fragrant cardboard, rotten food.

Zoom in until we enter the insect! says the worm.

No, I think.

Zoom in until we become the insect! says the worm.

The lens spirals toward, then onto the insect, gaining speed, catapulting into the insect—

Fear arms the heart, engages the lungs—

I wake—

Chills crisscross sweat like dew on my skin.

Your connection to this world will never be severed.

Open your eyes, says a voice.