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The Black Kitten, Part 2

Blah, blah, blah.  Same disclaimer as last time.  This is going to get ugly the deeper you get in the story, so if ugly bothers you, don’t even think about reading this.

I had no trouble waking up in time to call Mr. Rich the next morning.  What I did have trouble with was actually falling aslepp that night.  All I could think about was how he had knoecked me on my ass.  I didn’t even see the punch coming, so how had he done it?  The idea that this rich bastard, thin and weak as he looked, could knock me flat pissed me off.  Strangley, though, I didn’t have the urge to take him on again.  The guy was scary fast.

Partly because I thought he might get mad enough to track me down and punch me in the face again, and partly out of curiosity, I decided to call him.  If I have to tell the truth, though, the curiosity was the biggest part of it.  What the hell reason did he have to pick me?  And what kind of a job was he offering?

I dialed the number on the card he had thrown at me the night before.  “Calvin,” he said when he answered.  Not a question–he just knew it was me, which worried me a little, I have to admit.

“Yeah, it’s Calvin,” I said, “I’m calling like you asked me to.”

“And you’re punctual.  That’s a good thing.  I require my employees to be punctual.”

“I didn’t know I was your employee,” I said.  “There wasn’t any interview or anything else like that.”

“On the contrary,” he said.  Somehow he managed to make a prissy line like “on the contrary” sound less prissy and more…I don’t know.  Tough?  Mean?  Bad ass?  Whatever, he sounded like a guy who could say “on the contrary,” drink some fruity drink with an umbrella in it, and then shoot you in the teeth.  And then laugh about it.

“We interviewed last night.  I’d like you to come down to the White Lily, where I will fill you in on your new job duties.”

“I sure as hell don’t remember the interview.  All I remember is you sucker-punching me and knocking me on my ass.”

“Precisely,” he said, again in that not-prissy tone.  “That was the interview.  I’ll expect you here in twenty minutes.”  There was a click and the phone went dead.

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The Black Kitten, Part 1

But first, a warning.  Last night at my mystery book club, we discussed Cornell Woolrich’s novel The Black Angel, and we started riffing on the title and the noir genre.  We came up with a lot of goofy titles for noir novels, including, the horribly un-noir “The Black Kitten.”  I kept thinking about this, and by the time we had arrived home late last night, I had more or less written the first chapter in my head.  So, what follows is some trashy neo-noir.  Though the title is silly, I am taking the genre seriously, and it will be sordid, disgusting, and offensive.  If that sort of thing makes you feel uncomfortable, move your cursor up to the browser and click to go to another page.  If, on the other hand, you like noir, feel comfortable with its conventions, and don’t mind a story filled with characters you would not invite home, then read on.

I knew he was a gold-plated bastard even before he offered me the job, although it’s closer to the truth to say he just flat-out told me I was working for him.  Up here in northern Connecticut we see his type often enough, and you might say I’m just writing down a bunch of cliches right now, but even cliches have some truth.  This is the land of the second home, the big horse ranch for some financial type who wants to pretend to be a lord of the manor or play farmer for a weekend and then go back to doing whatever these rich assholes do during the work week.  The guy usually shows up in his big Mercedes, with his shellacked silver hair and a much younger trophy wife, a slim blonde bitch goddess with designer tits.

The only damned thing I remember my high school history teacher telling us as we sat in his overheated classroom, bored out of our skulls, was that the named of our town was the same name given to the promised land in the Bible.  I don’t know why god promised our town to these rich guys from New York City, but he apparently did, leaving us locals to wade knee-deep in horse shit, mucking out the fancy stalls–nicer places than some of us lived, actually–or plant a huge crop of blisters on our hands, heaving rocks to make sure the stone walls around the Lord’s Manor had the right ye olde New England look to it.  I’ve done all that and more.  I’ll plow your goddamn driveway, trim your goddamn trees, or fish a ton of soggy maple leaves out of your goddamn swimming pool.  Lately, though, I’ve had indoor work, courtesy–I guess that’s the right word–courtesy of this gold-plated bastard to beat all gold-plated bastards.

But Mr. Rich–yes, that’s his name, Mr. Paul Rich, and god have mercy on your soul if you ever forget that “Mr.”  Mr. Rich didn’t show up the usual way, or with the usual female company.  Instead, one day in the middle of the week he just appeared at The White Lily, the hoity-toity inn in front of the green in the center of town, with a pile of expensive luggage and his little wisp of a daughter in tow.  She was about thirteen, looked eight, and had a shy quiet smile that made you wonder just what kind of woman her mother was, because she sure as hell didn’t get that from her bastard of a father.  My own daughter would have been her age, so I took a liking to this little one despite, or probably because her old man was such a louse.  And her name?  I remember reading in my ex-wife’s People magazine some of the ridiculous names celebrities and other rich assholes load on their poor kids, things like Apple.  Seriously, Apple.  What kind of parent names her kid Apple?  Anyway, Mr. Rich’s little wisp of a daughter was called Tempest, and if ever a name didn’t fit a kid, this was the time.  When I heard her name, I went home and looked it up.  Turns out a tempest is a storm, and this little girl was definitely not a storm, unless..but I’m getting ahead of my story here.

A couple days after Mr. Rich showed up in our fair town, I was in Will’s Tavern, out on Route 42 south of the green.  It’s definitely a locals kind of place, a big red barn with a wide gravel parking lot and neon beer signs in the windows.  The rich bastards don’t much like the place because it spoils their lord of the manor fantasies, but as far as the locals are concerned, these guys can just pound sand.  It must have been about 7 o’clock or so when Mr. Rich walked in to the bar.  The place didn’t go quiet like in the movies, but you could feel a little shiver go through the room when people looked up and noticed him standing there.  He looked like he didn’t belong, and I got the feeling that Mr. Rich doesn’t like to look that way.  he belongs wherever he is, and that’s that.

Mr. Rich is a tall man, with short-cropped silver hair and a short, neat beared.  He is very slim, with sharp, jutting cheekbones and eyebrows and thin lip.  He was wearing a suit that night, which may have been part of the reason he looked like he didn’t belong, but there was more to it than that.  The suit was neatly tailored–even I could tell that–with sharp creases that hung gracefully on his frame.  The man looked like a walking knife–all silver and sharp.

He walked up to the bar and took the stool next to me.  The bartender, a good guy named Marlowe, was there immediately and asked him what he wanted.  Marlowe looked nervous, though, and you could tell he was wondering what the hell this guy wanted in his bar.  He was worried that this obviously rich guy would want something he didn’t have, some fancy brand of scotch or something like that.  Mr. Rich didn’t, though.  He ordered a Sam Adams on tap and drank down half of it right away before setting the glass down on the bar.  He turned around on his stool so he could look out at the crowd, which was a little thin for a Friday night.

He turned to me and looked me up and down.  It was a creepy look that made me feel like he had undressed me, looked me over, and found me wanting.  It wasn’t a sexual thing, though.  It felt more like a butcher looking over a hog he’s about to bleed out.

Now, I’m not your shrinking violet type.  My ex used to call me her tough little caveman back when she still had some nice things to say to me.  I’m not tall, but I’m broad and muscular.  Not muscular in the pansy body builder way, but filled out with honest muscle from hauling rocks and digging ditches and doing real work. Still, having this guy look me over like that made me nervous, and I must have sat up a little straighter on the stool and puffed myself out to make my muscles look bigger.

“You’re a tough, hairy little fuck, aren’t you?”  Mr. Rich said in my general direction.

It wasn’t quite clear that he was talking to me, so I thought about letting it slide.  SInce I was really the only tough, hairy little guy there, though, I figured it wouldn’t do to let it slide, so I said, “What’s it to you?”  Not the most clever line in the woerld, I’ll admit, but those guys in movies with the snappy comebacks all have some asshole write out their lines for them in advance.

“I’m looking for a tough customer,” Mr. Rich went on.

“Sorry, guy.  I don’t swing that way.”  I knew he wasn’t coming on to me, and I also knew that making such an accusation could get me a punch in the face, but I was frankly looking for some sort of dust-up.  It had been a bad week.

He didn’t get mad, though.  He laughed and said, “You always talk to strangers that way?”

“You always call strangers hairy little fucks?” I shot back.  I thought that was pretty clever, considering.

He turned and looked me right in the eye for the first time, and I got my first glimpse of what kind of guy I was dealing with.  Not just a gold-plated bastard, but solid, all the way through.  I felt a little uneasy, and my gut started to churn.

“I call it as I see it.”  He leaned in closer and spoke in a low, menacing voice.  “You need to learn your place, Mr. Little Hairy Fuck.  You need to know when you’re talking to someone who can make a difference in that miserable pile of shit you call your life.”

I had had enough of this rich bastard coming into my bar, my place, the place where all of us locals go to get away from teh rich bastards, and calling me names.  “All right,” I said, “let’s take this outside.”  I got up and walked to the door, not even looking back to see if he was following.  I pushed the door open, hard, and stomped out into the dusty parking lot.

When I turned around, he was right there, which I have to admit did surprise me a little.  Not that much, though, because I had started to see that this guy was someone used to kicking people around.

I took one step closer to him, my hands balled into fists.  For the past two months, I had been rebuilding a stone wall along one of the estates, so my hands were as strong and tough as they could get, with calluses on top of calluses.  I knew that all I need to do was connect once, and this guy, tough or not, was going to wake up in the emergency room.

The next thing I knew, I was staring at the sky, which was spinning around in a crazy way, making me feel sick to my stomach.  I could feel something trickling down my face, and I guessed it was probably blood.  I closed my eyes and when I opened them that bastard was standing over me, smiling.  It was not a friendly smile, but it was not really menacing, either.  It seemed to say, “All right, then.  I’ve put you in your place, so now let’s talk.”

“You’re working for me now,” he said.  He reached into his pocket and pulled out a small card, which he dropped on my chest.  “This is my cell phone number.  Call me tomorrow morning at eight.”  He leaned closer and looked into my eyes.  “Better make that eight-thirty.  Don’t make me wait.”  He turned and walked away.

And that is how I became employed by Mr. Paul Rich, solid gold bastard.

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I have never really taken to the Hartford Crit.  It is not a horrible course, though the road is rough, especially on the back stretch, and the corners can be a little tricky (more on this in a bit).  However, it never felt like a fun race.  The first time I did it, I struggled to hang on to the back of the pack, and that set the tone for all subsequent performances.  It felt too hard for what it was.  One year was marred by one horrible crash and one smaller crash; I got caught behind the second crash two laps to go and decided to pull myself out of the race.

This year was my first time to race with the Cat 3 group in Hartford, and I found it to be a much better experience.  Largely because of my less than happy memories of the crit, my goals were modest.  Goal #1 was to keep from crashing.  Goal #2 was to finish with the pack.  Goal #3 was to learn about racing techniques in the higher categories.  Happily, I achieved each of these goals, although they may have kept me from placing any higher than I finally did.

This year also saw a lot of crashes in the earlier races, and one racer, a teammate of SOC, went down hard and broke his femur.  Because of this, the whole race scene felt somewhat skittish as the 50-something riders lined up at the start of my race.  Nevertheless, I went to the line with a strange sort of confidence in myself, knowing that I would either not crash, or that I would try my hardest to crash well.  (Crashing well, by the way, means trying to take the fall in such a way to minimize injury.)  As I already said, I achieved that goal and finished unscathed.  In fact, there were no crashes in the race despite some close calls.

In the days leading up to the race, I kept envisioning the course and thinking about where I should be placed and what lines would be the safest to take through the corners.  With this pre-race mental preparation in mind, I lined up closer to the outside (left) edge of the course, with the idea that I couldn’t get squeezed against the curb as easily that way.  When the whistle started the race, I tucked in behind SDC for the first lap before moving up a little.  I wanted to stay with the pack and not get lost off the back.  One problem I have always had at Hartford is cornering well.  For many reasons, I always got pushed to the curb or let myself get pinched in an uncomfortable way, causing me to slwo down and back off in the corners, forcing me to accelerate hard to catch back up with the pack.  This time, though, with my mental imaging helping out, I took pretty good lines through the corners and managed to keep my speed fairly well.  As a result, I achieved Goal #2 and finished withe the pack, somewhere near the middle.

Goal #3 was more amorphous.  I wanted to get a better feel for the race and not just pedal fast around the course.  To this end, I relaxed at times, and did not worry too much when I found myself at the very back of the pack.  I used these times to practice moving through the riders to get closer to the front, and on a couple of laps I crossed the start/finish line in the top five or ten.  I did not aggressively defend a top spot, though.  This may not have been the best strategy for winning the race, however.  When I moved up in the back stretch, I hit a very hard and blustery headwind at corner 3, which ended up taking a lot out of my legs.  As it gave me practice finding a good spot to line up for corner #4, I’m satisfied.

Looking back on this race, I see many places where I could have raced more conservatively or more aggressively and done better.  I could have timed my moves through the pack better and been in a better place to launch a sprint; as it was, I was sitting too far back at the end of the bell lap to contest the final sprint.  However, by treating this almost like a training race or even a series of drills, I think I have made myself a stronger racer.  I am getting a better feel for how the race can and should play out, and, more to the point, I have more confidence in my own pack riding and racing skills.  Here is one example of what I mean.  Somewhere about the middle of the race, we were approaching the start/finish line when the pack squeezed together for some reason.  A guy coming up behind me got pinched so much that he came up inside my elbow, his handlebars brushing my hip and pushing against my right hand.  Instead of swerving or overreacting in any way, I simply held my handlebars tightly and worked to maintain my poise.  If either of us had had any weaker bike handling skills, there would have been a dozen bikes scraping the pavement at 25 mph.

In the end, it was a decent race.  It certainly will not rate terribly high on my favorite races list, but it was not as bad as the anxiety in the days leading up to the event might have foretold.  We were fast, with an average speed of almost 27 mph, and a last lap speed of almost 29 mph.  Despite the higher speed (the Cat 4 races I’ve done here in the past were a couple of miles an hour slower), this Cat 3 race seemed easier and smoother.

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Absolutely Mental

I ride a lot.  Like any racer hoping to stay in a race and not get spit out the back of the peloton, I train at varying intensities, throw in a lot of hills, do some speed work.  My physical stats are not bad, except for being about 10 pounds overweight, with a resting pulse and blood pressure that always makes doctors and nurses stare (40, 100/60).  Last year, in the weekly training series B races, I was top dog.  This year, racing with the fast guys–category 1 beasts–I’m mostly pack fodder, sweating, drooling, crying in agony pack fodder.  However, in the transition from fast guy in a fast race to fast guy in a blindingly fast race, I have noticed that the physical aspect is a relatively small part of racing.

So far, I’ve raced in three of the A races.  In the first, I got gapped and finished 20 or 30 seconds behind the leaders.  In the second, I hung on for dear life as the leaders sprinted for points.  Last night, I tried to stay in the middle of the peloton, missed the 6 man breakaway, but managed to take second in the main field sprint, good enough for 8th overall.  My physical conditioning in each race allowed me to stay more or less with the pack (I never had to drop out, and I never got lapped), but by far the hardest part of racing turned out to be the intense mental strain.  My body hurt–in one race, my heart rate stayed in zone 5 (the highest zone of exertion) for the entire 44 minutes of the race–and my legs burned and ached all of the following day.  The real fatigue, though, came from the concentration necessary to ride at that level.

At one point in last week’s race, I was riding as hard as I could go when I realized the bike in front of me was pulling away.  If I lost that wheel, if that guy got too far in front of me, I would not longer have the benefit of the draft, and I would have to work harder, and I would probably end up out of the race.  Instead, I concentrated every particle of my focus on that wheel and more or less willed myself to stay in the draft.  Everything else ceased to exist for me except for that wheel.  My awareness narrowed so much that it was very much like tunnel vision: looking back, it was almost like I was staring at that wheel through a cardboard tube, with everything outside of that small circle of light at the end just a dark blur.

Last night’s race hurt in a different way.  I had eaten my lunch a couple of hours later than I usually do–2:30 instead of noon–so I felt a little sick during the race.  The other physical pains were not so prominent; my heart rate, for example, was slightly lower than the previous week, and my legs hurt a little less.  I kept thinking about dropping out of the race, though, as my stomach cramped and my late lunch considered making an unwelcome reappearance.  A big part of me did not want to end the race prematurely, and I kept reminding myself that racing with the fast guys was a great way to get faster myself.  Most of all, I just did not want to give up and then stand around after my race, watching Dorothy’s race, knowing I had quit.

Somehow, then, I managed to stay with the group, sometimes hanging off the very back of the peloton, forcing myself to work just a little harder, pedal just a little faster, climb that hill just a touch more aggressively.  When the bell rang for the last lap, I felt as if I had already won something: I was going to make it to the end!  The pack stretched out the way it does when someone is really pushing at the front, and small gaps appeared bewteen the bikes as racers started to crack.  I slipped in behind Pat, and thought I should have a good chance in the sprint.  Then, right before the last curve, I noticed that Pat had cracked and a large gap between him and the lead group was growing larger.  Without hesitation, I went around him and did a short sprint to catch them.

Just as I latched onto the group the final sprint began.  I shifted into my highest gear (a 53×11) and stood on the pedals with all my force.  As I started to pass people, I concentrated on keeping my form solid and my sprint perfect.  Nearing the top of the hill, I did not let up or fade as many racers seem to do.  Instead, I looked into myself and found a little more to pour into my legs.  I knew I would have the room to pass all but one of the guys ahead of me, and I caught the last guy two feet before the finish, taking second in the field sprint, which was good enough for 8th overall.

In the sprint, I did not feel my body at all.  This is probably a very good thing, because my heart rate in the sprint hit 183.  My maximum heart rate is 185.

It is far too easy to say something like “90% of any sport is mental.”  It has, after all, become a well-worn sports cliche to talk about the “mental game.”  The truth is that it is always mental.  We have nothing else.  I also don’t mean to suggest that anything we can think of we can accomplish, or any other stupid and cheesy motivational poster piety.  Like many, I still tend to think in that Cartesian mind/body split, where my body takes care of all the physical, while my mind deals with the more important matters.  But there really isn’t a ghost in the machine.  The ghost is the machine.

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Teaching Abroad

I’m currently buried in papers and exams to grade. but I am so excited by the latest news that I decided to jump back to my sadly neglected blog and talk about it a little.  A couple of months ago I ran into one of my friends from another department on campus and he was bubbling over with his latest plan to teach a course on Irish film next year at our school’s study abroad program.  He suggested that I look into the possibility of teaching a course myself.  Naturally, I loved the idea, so I contacted the campus coordinator for the program.

Every year we offer short term study in January and May as well as full semester programs in Dingle, Ireland.  I met with the coordinator today, and I will be teaching a course in Old Irish literature next May.  It’s a two week program, with many opportunities for field trips and visits with guest scholars and speakers.  We will be able to see archaeological sites and get a very real taste of the scenes I’ll be teaching.  We will be reading, for example, Brendan’s Navigatio, and Brendan was born just a little east of there in Tralee, so we will have some geographical points of reference for the story.

It gets even better, though.  The faculty stay in small cottages separate from the school, both so we don’t infringe on the fun of the students’ pub crawls and so their pub crawling doesn’t infringe on our sleep.  I can have guests stay with me, so Dorothy will fly out and stay during the second week of class, and then we will go off to see more of Europe after the class is over.  Right now we’re thinking about going to London for a few days and then hopping over to Paris for a few more.  If I can teach the class again in a couple of years, we’ll go visit other places, like Edinburgh, Vienna, and Rome.   I can’t wait–this is going to be so much fun.

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Scenes from Campus

Setting:  An annual campus social event.

Dramatis Personae:  Hobgoblin, Biology Friend (who also went up for tenure this year)

BIO FRIEND:  Hey!  How are you?

HOB:  Good!  How about you?  [Shaking hands.]

BF:  Good.

There is a short silence as the two look at each other carefully.

HOB:  So you’re good?

BF:  Yes.  And you?

HOB:  Good.

BF [looking out of the corner of his eyes]:  Hmmm…how good?

HOB [Grinning]:  Really good.  You?

BF [Grinning back]:  Yeah, really good.

They shake again and laugh the laugh of the recently tenured.

Cut to another part of the same event.  HOBGOBLIN is standing next to the hors d’oeuvres table.  The university VICE PRESIDENT approaches.

VP [Extending his hand]: I want to offer my congratulations.

HOB:  Thank you.  I’m very happy and very relieved.

VP: I have a very funny and touching story about one of your students.

HOB:  Oh, really?

VP:  I teach a class on Mondays, and one of your students, a girl named Brittany, is in it.  She came up to me Monday, very timidly, and said that she and many of her friends were very concerned about you.  She said, “You aren’t going to be the one to call him, are you?”

HOB [Laughing]:  Oh no! [He blushes, remembering he told his students that the VP calls with bad news but the President with good news.]

VP:  I said to her, “Well, I can’t really divulge any information, but I can tell you this: I don’t know if he’s received his call yet.”  That satisfied her.  [He laughs again and shakes his head.]  So you should know, your students really do care about you.

HOB:  Thank you.  They are a good group.

Exeunt.

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Some Dark Wanderings

I wrote a post about our new president’s inauguration speech, where I analyzed it and made some facile comparisons to John Winthrop’s “A Model of Christian Charity,” but I decided not to publish it because it was turning into a mess.  Let me say this, though: unlike a few of the early reviewers I have read, I felt this was an amazing speech, though perhaps in a darker tone and in a more minor key than some of the critics may have wanted.  The speech seemed to be written for adults, grown-ups who could handle hearing real things without fainting away.  The rhetoric was, for the most part, tight and controlled, with some sharp lines.  It did not soar, but it was focused and direct, more like the flight of an arrow than that of an eagle.

But what I wanted to talk about today was Alan Lightman’s short novel Ghost, before I forget the points I want to make about it.  It is a quick read, and not nearly as frightening as the title might lead you to believe, but it left me feeling deeply uneasy.  The action has a distant feel to it, as if we were watching the events take place on a small television screen all the way on the other side of the room, and someone has draped a thin veil over the screen.  There are some moments that call to mind Kazuo Ishiguro’s difficult novel The UnconsoledGhost does not have the same complicated plot or maddeningly opaque dreamlike sequences, but it did have a similar sense that things might not be happening as they appear to be.

The novel begins with a short introductory chapter where a demented-seeming narrator rambles almost incoherently about the thing he saw.  He voice becomes frantic as the panic threatens to overcome him and he sees his reason wavering precariously.  Like an obsessive lunatic, he keeps circling back to the thing he did or did not see.  Was it real?  Was it a trick of the light?  Was it his imagination?  Ultimately, he begins to ask a much more fundamental and even more terrifying question:  What do any of these things mean?  He convinces himself that the best solution is to do what “she” told him to do and write his story down.

The narration then shifts to a very tight third-person.  The prose is stark and austere, but in that austerity it conceals as much as it reveals.  We are introduced to Davide Kurzweil, a man who does not seem to have left a huge impression on the world so far.  He had been a competent, but ultimately redundant figure at his bank, and he was fired.  Desperate for a job, he becomes an apprentice at a mortuary.  There, in the “slumber room,” he sees something.  What he sees is never clearly revealed, and we do not even have David’s description of his vision until two-thirds of the way through the book.  Our belief or disbelief in his vision thus hinges not on what he tells us but on what we already believe.

David tells a couple of acquaintances what he saw, and the story eventually finds its way out into the world, where it stirs up interest among the tabloids, those desperate to speak to their dead relatives, and a group of quasi-scientists calling themselves the Second World Society.  He eventually agrees to submit to some tests to determine if he is directing energy, a so-called “intentionality force,” that can be measured by a computer.  One of the tests suggests that he can creates a strong force, and his story becomes even larger and louder.

The controversy over his “powers” reaches a critical point when scientists at the local university feel that his notoriety is threatening rational scientific discourse.  They argue for another series of tests, and David again agrees.  The results are cloudy and show a distinct pattern when you tilt your head just so; in other words, both sides of the debate feel vindicated.

While all this is going on, David is haunted by memories of his ex-wife, Bethany, an ethereal presence who seems just as disconnected and vague as David himself.  She longed for passion but settled into a boring, joyless second marriage for no discernable reason.  David’s obsession with her parallels his obsession with his ghostly vision.  Both the ghost and Bethany are pale apparitions who perhaps represent some unfulfilled desire but might also be nothing more than damaged old memories.  David’s most vivid memory of Bethany is the time the two of them stumbled across an abandoned boxcar in the middle of a field.  Inside the boxcar were huge bags of flour.  Inspired by some inchoate desire, Bethany strips and rubs the flour all over her body until she is all a ghostly white except for the pink of her mouth and her nipples.  The story is so remarkable, so unlikely, that, as David remembers it again and again, it begins to seem less and less like something that really happened and more and more like a dream.

As all of this is happening, we are encouraged to think about the nature of belief and our trust in our own perceptions.  How do we know that what we see is real?  How do we separate possible phenomena from impossible?  When David talks to an old friend who is a chemistry professor at the local university, he tries to get the professor to admit that it is possible that David saw a ghost.  The professor adamantly refuses to give any ground to such a belief, and we come away with the sense that the scientific rational mind may be just as trapped by its own belief systems as the superstitious, irrational mind.  If it does not fit his understanding of the possible, the professor tells him, he will not believe it, even if he were to see it with his own eyes.

It is easy to categorize this novel as one that frames the debate between science and belief, but it is more complicated than that.  It is also about the complexity of our perceptions and how they are both influenced by our surroundings and influence them in turn.  Even more, it is about the singularity of our experience, the utter impossiblity of escaping our subjective positions and the miraculous nature of that web of imperfect perceptions.  “The seconds and years stretch into infinity,” he writes in the last paragraph, “but a thing might be felt only at one moment.  It might be there, the world underneath and the miracle, but felt only in brief, fleeting stabs.”  The final lines take this further, and end with this haunting image: “This instant, this light falling, this table, this chair, it is all more than it seems.  But how can he put the thing into words.”

This novel ultimately offers a fascinating secular and even scientific (Lightman teaches theoretical physics at MIT) interpretation of the line from Corinthians, “through a glass darkly.”  Or, to paraphrase Emily Dickinson, we cannot see to see.

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