Sunday, January 20, 2008

Cylinder (part 2)

(con't from the post of January 15, 2008)

2. Two men in lab coats and ties sat across from each other in an immaculate office, one situated at the far left side of the frame, the other at the far right. Their manner was familiar, easy, as if they were discussing a tennis match they had seen the previous night. The man on the left, slim with whitening hair and wrinkles encroaching on his brow, sat drumming his spidery fingers together behind a large gray desk. His cohort was twenty years younger, well-built, shaved head; reading, with an arctic calm, a draft of the write-up for a drug trial unknown to the vast majority of the medical community:

“MRSA has made clear the need, not just to generate ever stronger antibiotics, but to do so at a rate an order of power above the rate at which resistant strains of microorganisms develop in response to these drugs. It is our misfortune that the only sound method of accomplishing this goal is the following: 1) to infect a human population with a resistant strain of MRSA 2) to develop a new antibiotic to treat it 3)to re-infect a similar population until a new resistant strain emerges, and 4)to repeat the entire process ad infinitum. Of course, this sort of continuous drug trial could not be undertaken publicly in a democracy such as ours–the media would portray it as an abominable deprivation of individual rights, an abuse of scientific power sufficiently grotesque to re-invoke, in public discourse, the cautionary horror stories of the Nazis and their eugenics experiments.

“Yet the present study differs from the experiments of the Third Reich in one crucial respect: the discoveries that it has yielded so far, and that further studies will yield in the future, shall be used for the benefit of everyone—not for the awful purpose of perfecting a race of supermen—,”

“I would suggest ‘grotesque purpose,’ rather than ‘awful purpose,’” interrupted the man on the left.

“Yes, but I already used ‘grotesque’ in the preceding paragraph—‘an abuse of scientific power sufficiently grotesque,’ and so on, if you’ll recall.”

“Then perhaps ‘hateful’…‘awful’ has the lingering sense of ‘awe-inspiring,’ I’m afraid. We can’t allow any phrasing that smacks of admiration for the Nazis.”

“Fair enough. ‘Hateful’ it is.” He made a note in the margin of the page.

This mundane editorial back-and-forth continued for some minutes as the younger man read the rest of the study’s introduction to his elder; who, as it became clear from a subtle undercurrent in the two doctors’ otherwise arid exchange, was his mentor. Amid the deliberations over diction and syntax, a picture emerged of a scientific plot that included, in its operational costs, the all-but-certain deaths of dozens of the homeless, kinless and destitute living on Chicago’s South Side. The logistical details of how the men had procured their equipment and participants were still obscure, but they had already conducted their first round of trials—a fact that shined through with staggering, painful clarity.

Jorge Conosado stopped the tape with a grimace. ‘Participants’—the wrong word, he thought. More like the old, inhuman ‘subjects’ that any scientist with an ounce of ethics had long discarded, along with its connotation of human beings as spiritless systems that experimenters could take apart and manipulate at will. He took the tape out of the VCR and slid it into a manila envelope, along with another tape he had made the day before.

His one-year-old son, Miguel, snored in the crib beside the bed he shared with his wife, Veronica. As he stood up to leave he kissed his forefinger and touched it gently to Miguel’s head. At the door he paused and surveyed his nascent family’s dim, decrepit basement apartment. Then he left for the hospital.

Before he began his shift he let himself into the office of Dr. Madeleine Howe and placed the envelope on her chair.

Over the eight hours he worked cleaning the hospital’s Infectious Diseases wing, dread spread from his heart through his body like a network of tributaries branching off from a river. There was no way he could have recorded that video with no consequences. He knew from experience that conspirators could be sloppy, but never sloppy enough to let you get away untouched.

Dawn broke through the gaps between the callous high rises along the shore. As he fumbled for the key to his battered ‘96 Ford Escort, Jorge heard steady footsteps approaching from behind. A flesh-colored smear appeared in the driver’s side window above the image of his shoulder. Jorge spoke without turning around.

“No tengo dinero.”

“Please. You know why I’m here.”

Jorge shrugged and inserted the key in the door.

“Surely you must have been aware, sir, that we have surveillance cameras of our own.”

“The thought had crossed my—,” began Jorge, but the bullet didn’t let him finish.

That evening, Madeleine Howe arrived at her condo, put down her purse, shed her coat, and sat down to watch the first of two anonymous VHS tapes that had been left on her chair that morning. The screen showed:

Tuesday, January 15, 2008


A cylinder is a text in which the author arranges linguistic units so that the reader can begin at any of several different points in the text, read to the end, and come back around to where she started without any lapse into incoherence. This example from the Oulipo Compendium works at the level of letters:

Emit, mite, item, emit.

Below find the first part of a cylinder composed of three micro-narratives (the second and third parts will follow shortly):

1. It was a film of a fluffy Maine Coon cat approaching a human hand. Autumn leaves scuttling downwind over the gnarled roots of an oak tree. As the cat sniffed at the can of tuna in the upturned palm, another hand appeared suddenly with a box cutter and slit its throat, blood gurgling out of the wound and spreading in an ellipse over the withered grass. An impassive voice off screen: "Consider this a warning." Then the DVD stopped.

Standing in front of the TV in his bedroom, Dr. Charles Silvering sighed the sigh of a man too exhausted to feel fear. He could only think that it was disgusting and unfair of them to kill poor Clive, and even counterproductive, since Charles had long ago come to terms with the prospect of personal injury or death. They had misread him and completely botched the threat. All parties (and Clive most of all) would have been better served if they had sent him a film of his cat being held in captivity; then he would have felt compelled to meet their demands in a bid to save the one creature in the world he still loved. As it stood, they had recklessly cast their only bargaining chip to the wind.

He walked to the bay windows opening out on the overcast January afternoon, gray as Athena’s eyes, and dialed a number on his cell phone. Now the truth had to come out, if only to spite them for killing Clive.

“Yes,” said a female voice on the other end of the line. The greeting was more a statement than a question.

“Madeleine. I’m coming over.”

“Charles? Are you sure that’s a good idea?”

“I’ll see you in ten.”

It was a short drive along the lake from Charles’s suburban stronghold to Madeleine’s building on the far north side of the city. She had left instructions with the doorman to show her guest to the elevators, and soon Charles was standing in the living room of her 30th floor condo, unsettled as always by the ivory-white carpeting and crystalline furniture. She was reclining on a sofa and, in her husky British drawl, offering him a drink.

“Not now, thanks,” he said, wearily unwinding the black scarf from his neck. “Tell me you still have the records.”

“From the hospital? Of course, but–,”

“We’re going public,” he said, turning on her television and DVD player and inserting the disc he had been clutching in his right hand.

“Going public! Why, Charles,” she said, eyebrows raised nearly off her forehead, “this sudden change of heart–it’s baffling. I think you owe me an explanation.”

“You’ll see.” He crumpled down beside her on the sofa and pressed ‘play’ on the remote control. “Just look what they did to poor Clive.”

“Clive? Who’s Clive?” said Madeleine.

But Charles must have taken the wrong DVD from his player at home, because when the screen came to life, it showed an image that the two of them had seen, and despaired over, many times: