The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2012

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MAR 2012 Issue

OEDIPAL CONTEXT A fragment from Isolate Flecks: An Anatomy

Second in a series:
Part 1 published in the Brooklyn Rail, February 2012

Too many choices, literary and otherwise.

Too much freedom, too many liberties.

The premise of Dermot Trellis’s latest offering.

Preposterous, of course.

Before getting to Carm, though, I should introduce my mother. The obvious question being why would I fall for someone who can become someone else.

And: “Where is his mother in all this?”

You’ll meet Liz forthwith.

My dad’s dead, and she divorced him anyway, so let’s leave him out of it.

Despite what everyone says, I could have done better than Carm, who’s got “provincial middle class” branded in her alma. And as noted, she’s Colombian, a curse if there ever was one.

She looks even better since Omar was born than when she did all that hiking and camping in her country.

Must be the art.

Carm couldn’t have done better than me unless she married one of the delinquent sons of Antioquia, which is a more far-fetched scenario than this one because of her checkered past, her rural roots—none of those guys would want her except as a servant or prostitute. Maybe a mistress.

Her looks are a dime a dozen down there.

So I was the ticket.

Be that as it may, we’re stuck with each other.

What Malachi Moore told me: What you wish for. Beware in youth. You’ll get it in middle life.

More and more I think in formal terms: this book should incorporate everything: the book of the world, the map as the territory. Joyce, Borges.

Hard to make money laundering and real estate deals an axis of dramatic action, unless I lose the money or go to jail, which would be untrue, as well as undesirable.

But even Carm’s art world has limits. Therein lays the challenge. Lies the challenge?

I’ll contain multitudes, or this book will. Another Mulligan Stew, which everyone’s read. Everyone who’s anyone, anyway.

Mulligan’s Stew.

Finnegan’s Wake.

E-mail traffic, lyrics from popular music, book reviews, movie titles, celebrity gossip; all of it fits. Lists of books I like (or hate). Or not.

Long passages copied out by hand.

Lists of TV shows I watch in order of insignificance. Or not.

Follow Fresán’s footsteps.

I’ll spare you the text messages and the Facebook idiocy, but there’s bound to be much detritus nonetheless. Jetsam and flotsam. But also, say, lyrics from Tech and Steel, juxtaposed with passages from “The Bridge,” Lenape myths, Kenny Dorham solos.

Shit like that.

Should create a polyphonic, contrapuntal effect.

The novel as aural collage.

Vila-Matas did it ages ago, but nobody reads him here, so I can have part of the book be like the one Walter Benjamin wanted to write, consisting solely of quotations from others. Then claim the idea as mine.

Steal stuff from the Arcades Project. Call it pastiche.

Content to go to posterity as a scissors and paste man.

I’ll pay someone to transcribe a Randy Weston solo and put that in alongside some passages from his book. Maybe hire a youngster in Carm’s stable to do some cryptic drawings, end it like Los detectives salvajes.

Beyond the limits of narrative and so forth.

Or an encyclopedia of Brooklyniana. Has to be a public for that. Nationwide, not just regionally. Market i/t right could be lucrative deals in translation, in Europe, where people read no matter what: war, genocide, austerity.


Although I could turn those down. Or accept the money and write essays about how I despise prizes. Sell them separately, then make a book of them.

A feature film for which I write the screenplay.

Like Paul Auster or Dermot Trellis, whose face is now on billboards and subways and buses. A new TV series, apparently. I saw him talking about something the other night on the Jimmy Bimbo Show. Utterly forgettable.

Literary Brooklyn.

Truth is I don’t need to keep up with Carm—as if that were possible—my money’s safely invested. So I can write without the pressure of success. Take my time. Let creative juices flow, or maybe just marinate.

But back to Liz, Carm, and the winners who lose. I need to focus on them if this is going to get off the ground. I’ll let you hear their voices, but only as I want them to sound; you can’t hear them directly. This isn’t oral history. If they talked to you through me, they’d be running this, and that’s not going to happen. I’m in charge, not them. They’ll tell you what I let them.

What can I say about my baby? All grown up. Almost. Still thinks the world owes him something. Like an explanation. Like things didn’t live up to his expectations. Well guess what, kiddo? Life’s rough, and getting rougher. I never led him to believe otherwise. I could see where things were headed in this country. No bowl of cherries. But I tried to shield him.

I’m just glad my career went so well and that I’m comfortably retired; he should be, too. I’d like to see him try to take care of me! That would be a hoot! But with five wonderful grandchildren, I can’t complain … though of course wish I saw them more often. But you know how parents are nowadays. We’d let them go with their grandparents, their babysitters, pick them up, drop them off, no questions asked. Now it’s always chaperoning and checking in, so much stress over this and that. The kid will be a nervous wreck if they keep it up, it’s hysteria, their whole generation...must be the economy…Richard says he doesn’t trust me to feed Omar the organic stuff he’s used to, like it would kill the kid to have a hot dog in the park. Organic? Try telling it to the guy from India or Bangladesh or Pakistan or wherever those poor little brown vendors come from!

I take the train in to see Omar as often as I can, about once a week, except in the winter, when I go to Ft. Lauderdale to get out of the cold. My joints. And lately this lump on my neck. But you don’t want to hear about that.

Such a funny kid. Cross-country skiing around the backyard, then up and down the street before he could navigate the hills and woods of Dearborn. Going out, coming back. Those red snow pants, that royal blue down jacket, his hats and mittens with the dangling poles, tracking slush in and out. Marjorie and Randall in high school, already half-gone. Me studying for the bar. Just Richard left.

I worried about him, especially after college. So vague about his plans once those grants ran out. I told him, I said, you can only drink your mother’s milk for so long, honey. Write your dissertation and get a job like your father did when he was your age. Grow up! And if you’re not going to finish, do something else for God’s sake, you went to the right schools … although with the economy now … anyway, I worried: No house, no career, just bumbling through his 30s like that.

I knew he’d never cut it in grad school. Not in today’s world. Too much like his father, may he rest in peace, not enough like his older brother, who went right from M.I.T. to the big leagues in Silicon Valley.

I still don’t understand how Richard managed to make all that money, but I guess he was in the right place at the right time. That’s what he tells me, anyway. Now he’s better off than Marjorie or Randall even if he doesn’t have their degrees, or even a real job. And only Omar to take care of. I had three to look after, practically on my own. Lawrence was busy with his illustrious career in the humanities.

I may have been wrong about anthropology, though. Maybe it gives you some insight into how to get ahead in today’s world, I mean Richard’s done well for himself. I’m just glad he doesn’t have to worry about mortgage debt or finding a job or medical bills, because there isn’t much I could do to help him there. He’d be on his own with that.

Once I finally met her, I was so relieved that he had married Carmen. Oh I had my doubts, almost from day one. You better believe it. I always thought she was using him … never sure for what. To get to the U.S., I guess. One of those Latina gold diggers. Shows what I know, but he was so vague with the details, never answered my e-mails, never called. And Bolivia? Lord knows what that was about, but I suspect it had to do with her. She turned out to be his saving grace, though. The brains of their operation. She’s worked so hard to get where she is. And Omar is just adorable, with his little brown skin and his slanted eyes, speaking all that Spanish.

Plus I love art. Especially painting.

I tear up whenever I think about how much we’ve grown as a family, and especially how I’ve grown as a person. For all they criticize me, for this and that, what I did do, what I didn’t do, I tell myself, I say, Liz, you can’t win, it will never be enough, they’ll take it all if you let them, my kids know our family grew thanks to me. Hard work and sacrifice. Lawrence, rest in peace, had it easy. Not me. Oh no. My generation of women married and had kids just before feminism changed everything. That was no easy road, I tell you.

I did well for myself, though. I’m proud of my accomplishments. Was a partner of my firm when there weren’t many women partners around, I can tell you. Now even Richard’s settled down. Welcome to middle age, kiddo, I tell him. Almost there, I say. Be glad you married a knockout. So exotic: those Latin features! I’d kill for her lips and teeth. The whole package. All natural, too. That’s what I admire. He won the lottery. But I resigned myself to the laws of gravity long ago.

I wonder if she’ll start in with the Botox. They all seem to do that now, although I read where Nicole Kidman said she wished she hadn’t. And the Brazilian waxing. I can’t imagine, although some of my friends … I was watching this show on Lifestyle the other day, actually a mini-series called “Making the Most of Menopause.” Halle Berry was great as Michelle Obama. She really had to act. Anyway, I thought she did a great job. She looked a little bit Latina, maybe Cuban or Puerto Rican, kind of like Jennifer Lopez. She was also in it, playing Halle Berry’s maid and best friend. I could really relate to both of them.

From: Mom []
To: richard melville []
Sent: Sunday, January 15, 2010 11:14:47 AM
Subject: Swann’s Way

Hi Honey,

Hope you’re well. I’ve been reading this amazing book, though it’s getting kind of dark as it shifts back and forth between points of view, written by Marguerite Garza, this woman who’s about five years older than you who went to Berkeley, too, and who grew up on a farm with hippie parents from Harvard who remind me of some of your father’s students from those days before you were born. Rebels without a cause, you know? You think we didn’t do such a good job? You should see these people. They really made a mess of it with all the sex and drugs. Seems like she turned out O.K., though. I might write a short review for Amazon before the next book club meeting. Have to finish reading it first, though! Anyway, I want to go keyacking (spell?) before Weds. Plus I have my doctor’s appt. on Tues. morning. Don’t worry, it’s nothing serious, just the lump on my neck. I think that could be the cause of the night sweats I’m having lately, but anyway, I know how much you like fine writing after all those years among anthropologists, so I’m copying my favorite passage for you (thanks for the Kindle—love it!):

They can roam where they like when they like, and roam they do through the land that dips slowly away from the hill near their house before dropping to a rocky path leading to a prickled dirt road, a pasture where the steers are kept, swamps and gullies amidst groves of fruit trees, the creek from the banks of which rises a mountain of majestic sweep—they climb it. At the top they dance in spangles of light in leaves, coins of some realm beckoning them unto an unknown abundance. The mountain yields itself to fields unto the unknown horizon: corn, wheat, rye, barley, hops. Airs romping around, nipping and eager airs. They are coming, waves.

No one knows where their land stops and the neighbor’s begins, but it doesn’t matter, they’re told. It doesn’t matter! Go where you want! Be what you want to be! The whitemained seahorses, champing, bright windbridled, the steeds of Mananaan. They languish limply in trees, young peach trees and old beeches, apples and red oaks, walnuts that flower with the dogwoods and the cherry trees in May. Alders and poplars and firs and pines. They peer through leaves at the azure sky as cloudships pass in formation, row after row of them like soldiers or planes or tanks; all bad, they are told: War is all bad! They close their eyes in piles of leaves, waiting for that feeling of darkness to come and make their bodies alive with pleasure and dread, the awakening of hidden desires. Puberty almost upon them. They discover locust shells, tree frogs, gypsy moth cocoons, dead ducks. They dismember the frogs, collect bones of bobcats, grizzly bears from the killing fields. They make funeral pyres and burn roots and branches. And the bees buzz and the flowers open; they long to become plants, to sleep under stars and awaken with cool dewsilky cattle licking them; silky dewspittle. They wish they could be Indians and kill the cowboys. Or Robin Hood and kill the rich people. But killing is bad, they’re told, yes I said yes I will Yes.

In the summer they sit out in the sun rubbing mud on their bodies like the people in National Geographic. Then watch it dry. They rise like senior citizens in their wrinkled skins, only to shed them like snakes in the creek by the trees as they swim like guppies and minnows in pools.

They streak naked across the lawn during thunderstorms with old TV antennas, pretending to be Ben Franklin. They do whatever they want, the luckiest kids on earth! Their parents don’t care what they do. They’re free.

Isn’t that great, honey? Right from the get-go she lets you know that there are some serious drawbacks to that hippie approach. That’s what I always said to your father, not that he disagreed. We could see it even then. Not that we ever had to discipline you. You were always so good. Well … almost always!

Hope you liked it!

Love to Omar and Carmen,


Sent from my iPhone

I know I said I’m in control here, that I want to write about my family. Easier said than done. No end to that crap. Never get where you’re going, perennially bogging down in sidestreams. Lies, recriminations, anger. Repeat.
She lies about my father and my son.

Omar’s almost five now, starting kindergarten in September. Besides his mother—who, like most adults, works most of the time that she’s awake—the kid has no idea what he wants, except for brief, confused flashes of hallucinatory intensity. My mother comes down for the day, or the weekend, loads him up with ice cream, popcorn, and soda, and drops him off at home for  a meltdown—crying, hyperventilating, screaming—then catches her train back to Connecticut. The other grandkids live in the Bay Area, which she visits at Thanksgiving and Christmas, but she says she could never live there, so far from Omar. Before Omar was born, it was because if she lived in California, she wouldn’t have anywhere to go on vacation, since she winters in Ft. Lauderdale. Her condo.

She likes the grandkids just out of reach. Otherwise she might visit Omar more than once a month. What else does she have to do? Talk about grandkids with the other ladies at the club or the coffee shop or the spa or the bookstore or wherever it is they go?

More fun than actually being with Omar. Less work.

I’m stuck with her, too.

Her hard work and sacrifice. Practically on her own.

My father paid for law school—not that it cost anything—paid for our education at “the right schools”—as if that’s how things worked—gave her a generous divorce settlement after I graduated from college, then left a little for me, Marjorie, and Randall. Ultimately, it was Richard Hart’s money, of course, but still … he could have been cheap or greedy and was neither.

Studied Broch, Musil, Walser. Stuff that mattered.

That matters.

Anyway, let me try third-person to finish with Liz for now. See if it helps.

Liz Melville hops in her cream-colored mini-Cooper, wheels left out of the driveway past the large park with the tennis courts and the trees. Leafy trees.

Could be headed to the Apple Store at the mall to get something for her iPad or her iPhone or her iTunes. Could be headed to the wine shop, though probably not if it’s still morning. Maybe the Italian bakery and pasta shop. Yoga. Meet up with the ladies from the book club later to talk about something they saw on the Opera Channel. The latest by Dermot Trellis.

Liz and the ladies love Trellis. And Paul Auster. The writer as celebrity. Always wants to tell me what she’s reading. Or writes to me about what she’s reading.

As if he hadn’t taught me how to read.

This isn’t working. Not with her. Too much anger, I guess. I should have better luck with the others.

Now you know Liz, though: best taken in small doses.


Forrest Hylton

FORREST HYLTON is an Associate Professor of History at the Universidad de los Andes, and the author of a bi-lingual novel, Vanishing Acts: A Tragedy, along with several books on Latin American history and politics. Beginning in September 2012, he will be a post-doctoral fellow at NYU's Tamiment Library, where he will be completing research for a book entitled 'Doing the Right Thing': Labor, Democracy, and Organized Crime on the Brooklyn Waterfront During the Cold War.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2012

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