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The Muse Asylumby David Czuchlewski
I have no memory of the days I first learned about music, language or the sea. But I remember discovering Horace Jacob Little.
A stray paperback, overstocked or misordered, fell into the possession of my high school English teacher. Recognizing nothing of what would come of it, she gave me this copy of The Unreal City, Horace Jacob Little's early masterpiece of love and betrayal. It did not look promising to me. Of the book's six hundred pages, the first twenty provided a detailed history and geography of its fictional setting. At the time I was a fan of books in which vampires have killed several people by page twenty. Worst of all, the cover was blank except for the title and the author's name. It looked unfinished-something long and tedious that the publisher simply gave up on and sent out without bothering to commission artwork.
I let the book sit around before boredom drove me to pick it up on an idle weekend. I read it straight through, over the course of twenty-three exhausting hours. Never before had a novel burdened me with the anxiety of participating in a tragedy. The death scene in the final chapter struck me with the force of revelation. As I read the last paragraph, I cried silently-whether from sadness or exhilaration, I did not know. I had stumbled unprepared into a more troubling understanding of the world. The pain and doubt that ran throughout The Unreal City were promises of what I would find in my own future, but the prose was so beautiful and the story so fascinating that I was grateful for the appalling knowledge. Horace Jacob Little's book was an incantation that dispelled the calm certainties of my childhood.
I soon made my way through every Horace Jacob Little book. His work staked out for itself a corner in my consciousness. I inscribed my name carefully on the inside of the covers: JAKE BURNETT. My world took on shades of Horace Jacob Little's fictions. I adored him with the reverence for a writer that only a high school senior could muster.
My own enthusiasm aside, Horace Jacob Little was more talked about than read. He was most famous for the strange circumstances of his personality, for his seclusion, his solitude. He was not much more than a fiction himself. His true identity was a mystery. Legend had it that not even his agent had met him, that they communicated via post office box. Horace Jacob Little had insisted on blank covers for all his books. No illustrations, no capsule biographies, no author photographs, no laudatory blurbs. He had never granted an interview. No one knew what he looked like or where he lived. He was less a person than an anonymous evangelist, holed up somewhere, writing words as a greater spirit moved him. I used to imagine him: a death-row inmate, a mild-mannered accountant, a disfigured cripple. . .
He was none of these, as it turned out, nothing my imagination could conjure.
In contrast to his first books, Horace Jacob Little's later work was experimental and difficult, filled with allusions and bursts of madcap, sometimes barely intelligible prose. Many people preferred the later books, such as Strange Meeting, which were certainly more celebrated. To me, however, his best work was his earliest. Take, for instance, the title story from his 1974 collection, The Length of New Jersey.
A man on a train is startled from a daydream by a pat on the head. A mother and her young child are sitting behind him, and the man has been listening to her narrate the journey to the child: "Look at the river and all the ice." "Look at the girl playing basketball-do you see the girl?" To all these questions the child responds with preverbal noise, seemingly just on the verge of recognizable words. The pat on the man's head draws a gentle rebuke from the mother: "Don't hit the man on the head, that's not nice." The man half turns and smiles at the mother to let her know he is not offended.
As the trip goes on, the mother continues to point out the world to her child. The man becomes enraptured by the mother's loving tone and the squeals of delight from the boy. Eventually the man asks the age of the child, hoping to make conversation on what would be an agreeable topic. The mother smiles broadly and says, "Five. He hasn't learned to talk yet, but he's trying." The man turns fully around to observe the child for the first time and realizes that the boy is not as young as he thought. He is developmentally disabled. The man sinks into a silent depression, and as the train rolls into the dusky industrial landscape around Hoboken, the world seems to him a blighted place, where beauty gives way to deformity.
When the train reaches the Hoboken terminus, the man rises and removes his suitcase from the overhead rack. The mother says to her child, "Look at the man's great big suitcase. He must have been traveling for real, not just for fun." The man takes this to mean that the trip has been entertainment for the boy. When he looks again at the pair he understands that the mother would do anything for her child, even take him on a two hour train ride for fun. The grimy factory landscape is beautiful and endlessly engrossing to the child. The disease the man had callously considered a catastrophe is immaterial to the radiant mother.
The last paragraph:
"He lost them in the crowd, mother and child. With a surge of anxiety and disappointment he realized that the journey was indeed over. As he passed from the brightness of the station into the shadows, he wished the train could have continued all night and forever, down the entire length of New Jersey."
Whenever I finished a story or a novel by Horace Jacob Little, regardless of its vintage, I felt my horizons expanding, his words allowing me to live in newly liberated territory. I even suspected that his stories were answers to questions just beyond formulation, clues to why I was alive in the first place.
No matter what I thought of Horace Jacob Little's fiction, it was an incident during a morning lecture at Princeton that cemented his hold on my imagination. The lecture hall was full of students drinking coffee, whispering to one another the happenings of the night before. Professor Mullin, with his owl glasses and rumpled hair, his chalk-stained tweed blazer and wool tie, blew into his clip-on microphone to quiet the crowd.
"We consider today one of the most fascinating enigmas of twentieth-century literature," he said, pacing the stage. He often spoke in qualified superlatives. "A man with no history, a text with no source. The almost perfect corollary, if you will, of an age of absurdity and dislocation."
He reviewed what little was known of the historical Horace Jacob Little. He had grown up on Long Island, the son of a machinist and a homemaker. He published his first novel at twenty-five, soon after graduating from Brown. He lived for a time in Mexico, then Vienna. He underwent a literary transformation in mid-career, from realistic novels like The Unreal City to metaphysical stories like those in Strange Meeting. Mullin discussed several aspects of individual stories in Strange Meeting: the title story, in which a mysterious doppelganger abducts a scholar obsessed with Dante's Inferno; "The Lord of Close Vicinity," a meditation on the return of Columbus to the Old World; "The History of London," in which someone tries to record everything that happened in a single day in that city.
"I personally prefer his later work," Mullin said, pacing faster, the movement of his legs seeming to propel his thoughts. "The early novels are overwrought and to my ears pretentious. Many would disagree and call his later work contrived and soulless. With Horace Jacob Little, the main point is that we are limited to what we can glean from these works alone. We cannot ask him for help or guidance."
I noticed a man inching up the side aisle, hunched over and grasping at the wall. He was dressed in a heavy overcoat and a winter hat, even though it was a spring day. His face was grizzled and dirty. I could hear him mumbling to himself as he passed me. Mullin saw the man but continued to lecture.
Once the man had made his way up the aisle, he climbed onto the stage. All eyes in the lecture hall were on him. Mullin, taken aback, asked if he needed help.
"I'd like to say a few words to the class if it's okay with you, man."
He put his right hand in his coat pocket and pointed it at Mullin, as if holding a weapon. Mullin moved away from the lectern.
The man cleared his throat and began to speak. He announced that the government was after him. He said the United Nations had implanted sensors in his brain. He told us he had been visited by space aliens.
He also identified himself as Horace Jacob Little.
After a few minutes campus police flooded the room and tackled the man. They removed him, screaming and cursing, from the lecture hall.
Mullin returned to the lectern and spoke over the excited buzzing of the students.
"The amazing thing is that no one can prove that was not Horace Jacob Little," he said. "Maybe that was some wacko. Maybe it was the author himself, acting crazy for reasons known only to him. Or maybe it was an actor I hired to illustrate a point about anonymity and its consequences. In the end, we'll never know."
I did not see him at the time, but I have often imagined my classmate Andrew Wallace sitting in the back of the lecture hall, watching this spectacle. Andrew's life would never be the same. Something inside his mind struck a note and completed a harmony he had been composing over several confused months. In that moment a new world took shape in his mind. His thoughts accelerated to an unprecedented and dangerous speed. He was startled and hyperalert, as when we see an unexpected movement in the dark. If this isn't Horace Jacob Little, he thought, then who is? Who is?
But I did not see him. I missed the moment when the general terrain of his life, and mine, was established. I would later read Andrew's account of all this in his Confessions, the document he wrote at Overlook Psychiatric Institute in which he purports to reveal the secret of Horace Jacob Little's identity.
It was during freshman year that I made my first abortive attempt to locate Horace Jacob Little. I had just finished rereading Strange Meeting, and I found my roommate, George Faber, sitting at his computer playing Martian Slaughter.
The computer had always been the most important thing in George's life. He would play gory death games like Martian Slaughter for hours and hours, finally yelling at four in the morning that he had won-he had beaten back the starcruiser of the Galactic Empire and saved a grateful humankind. In his serious moments he wrote computer programs with what I was told was the genius of an artist. His expensive machine, which he designed and assembled himself from an assortment of green circuit boards, stayed on continuously, whirring and chirping. He believed it was too damaging to turn it on and off.
"Check it out," he said. "I'm in level seven, the subterranean headquarters of the Galactic Overlords."
I watched him maneuver through the two-dimensional world, the mouse moving fitfully. Misshapen aliens came from the shadows, foaming at the mouth. George peppered them with orange rays. The speakers screeched with their death cries. Two aliens managed to gang up on him, and he could kill only one before the other closed in, chomping away with its razor-studded mouth.
"Shit," George said, slapping the computer monitor on its side. Blood flowed down the screen.
"Let me ask you something," I said. "If I wanted to use your computer to find someone who doesn't want to be found, what would I do?"
"Who are you looking for?"
"Horace Jacob Little."
George pitched his chair back and put his feet on the desk next to the computer.
"It would take some effort. You would have to hack into something like the Department of Motor Vehicles or the IRS."
"You could do that, right?"
He shrugged, too modest or careful to admit the extent of his talents. "You don't even know if that's his real name, do you?"
"No. I guess it could be a pseudonym."
"Are you sure he's in this country?"
"Are you even sure he exists?"
"What do you mean?"
"Maybe if you hired a person full-time to search all the databases of the world, you might find something. But probably not. Anyway, even if you found Horace Jacob Little, what would you do about it?"
I was considering my answer when Lara Knowles entered our room without knocking. She lived down the hall in our dorm, which was informally known as the Monastery. Even after the arrival of coeducation, those dozen rooms in Blair East-a modest extension off the more majestic Blair Hall-had remained open only to men. This was the Monastery, and there was an analogous Nunnery across the quad. Before I showed up they repealed the rules. Nuns moved in with monks and vice-versa.
"Let's get dinner," she said to me. We ate together almost every night. At that point in the year I spent much of my time plotting strategies to move our relationship beyond this state of friendship. George usually joined us at dinner, along with a bunch of other monks and nuns, but I paid almost all my attention to Lara. I was thrilled when she reciprocated.
I grabbed a coat. George said, "Is it stuffed shells tonight?" I walked in the cool night next to Lara, weighing the consequences of putting my hand on her back.
All thoughts of Horace Jacob Little were forgotten.
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