“Stories have a tendency to begin,” I said, “then they continue along a pre-set path, more often than not strewn with obstacles which an omniscient force has the gall to drop at regular intervals, and, after avoiding the noiseless fall of printed matter throughout its course, the same (or, occasionally a new version of said) story comes to a natural sense of resolution.” I could hear my tone rise and fall as the words I spoke re-echoed the mental images of countless other, albeit typographed, words which I had once read. An opening to one novel here, the slow and difficult progression of another forming and re-forming there to create a middle phrase, and the conclusion of yet another informing and reworking the final words of my sentence. “Balance,” I continued, simply. “Balance and form are the writer’s primary tools to lure his reader in.”
“What about the excitement? Of a new beginning?” some kid called out, somewhat timidly, from the back of the bunch. Little bastard was right. I’ll have to rework the speech, I thought to myself, hoping that I wasn’t as visibly irritated with this voice as I was mentally. Then I remembered that I always seemed slightly visibly irritated, even when in a perfectly adequate mood. It was a voice I recognised, this earthy, guttural, yet to mature rumble. But from where, I couldn’t quite place.
The all-too-clever poster did nothing for the carriage’s interior décor. We live in a post-satire world, someone once said. I forget who. Research is not my strong suit. But whoever he (or she – but we almost live in a post-politically correct world where a simple general ‘he’ suffices) – was, they (which is as intimate as the impersonal gets) were right. Everything is post something, and we’ve come so far along a timeline which cannot be altered, erased, reordered or accurately described, that we can only define ourselves by that which we succeed. Time pushes on against us, anticipating both physical and cultural decay to such an extent, that the modern has been twisted into an absurd, caricature-like, defiantly meaningless post-modern, leaving its descendants to bask in the globally warming glow of whatever is supposed to succeed the post-everything, no matter that defining one’s cultural existence as ‘meaningless’ is a paradox as big as they come.
‘How does it feel…to be out on your own…with no direction home,’ the voice growls – earthy, guttural and familiar. How apposite. The little voice which had so accurately and so irritatingly interrupted my perfect introductory speech was following me. The usual hum of distant traffic mixed with train track shunt-shunt-ing now mingled with the tinny rumble of earphones spouting snare-drum snatches and spare, sparsely screamed words of youthful indignation, all beginning with those four special words which start so many of our favourite timelines, since they inform us that nothing which begins with such innocuous and hazy scene-setting could possibly suggest the potentiality of irresolution. Once upon a time.
“It’s a small step from ‘in the beginning’ to ‘once upon a time’, but it’s an important one,” I announce all-too-cleverly. Thankfully the voice doesn’t question this one. Not yet, anyway. I’ve been here long enough to even fool myself into believing I’m an authority on the subject. In the beginning, I just faked it – faked everything – then once upon a time I realised that the lie and the truth were so unclear, so lacking resolution in our post-modern age, that the difference between the two was negligible enough that no one even noticed unless you pointed it out. And that’s when I stopped pointing it out. All truth is post-apocryphal.
“Stories have a tendency to begin,” I say. When had mine begun? Once upon a time? Or in the beginning? Both, I suppose; but the beginning of my story is only the once-upon-a-time of another’s, as stories unfold, resolve, then fold in on both themselves and the summation of all previous tales, and they are left to weave themselves into an intangible fabric of stories both told and untold. This woven network of lines and circles of continuity then form the most unstable foundation one could imagine for the once-upon-a-time of all that follows. “But we live in a post-linear world where everything has already been told, regardless of whether it has been told or not,” I say.
This was getting none of us anywhere at all, but few of them seemed to notice. Some stared thoughtlessly at the bookshelf to my right. Others, no doubt wishing to convey a more thoughtful impression, stared just as avidly at the bookshelf to my left. A self-plagiarised start is rarely noticed if you spread yourself – like a shameless veneer of credibility – just thinly enough around a room of half-baked writers. I scanned and digested the back of the room, settling on what seemed little more than a waif hidden beneath a small, dark brown shrubbery of hair. “What about the excitement? Of a new beginning?” cried the shrubbery. No more misplaced timidity.
I shuffled and sifted through my notes – now nothing but a series of laminated antiques – keeping rhythm with the train’s snare drum gear-shifts. I found the papers he’d given me and glanced over the beginning.
What now? he asked himself. Well, he didn’t know. That was the problem. Or else he would be doing it, not wondering exactly what it is that he should be doing. Hmm… it was a question of self-interest, he decided. The only way to get through was to find a distraction – a safe, distant, distracted method of existence outside of time. A modern myth reconstructed out of the past, brought back to life with a glint of gothic hedonism. That was what he should be doing, not sitting here idly flipping through pages as the light was fading then re-gleaming over the horizon. Then why am I not doing that? he asked himself. Shit, this was harder than he thought.
The question imprinted lightly onto his mind in previous weeks lit up again like a sparkler which he thought he had already put out. The parentheses currently around his life were slowly growing, so that one day, possibly in the not-too-distant future, he would find himself surrounded by them, and they would become a typeset prison, a place where old ideas shrivel up and die, impoverished and malnourished beyond repair. He had to get out of this goddamned story, he thought. But every time that particular thought occurred to him, he could feel the pangs of linearity, and the story slowly developing along predetermined routes, and he knew that what he was thinking was just an elaborate ruse imprinted onto his mind, much like the question in question, by whoever was in charge of this whole show. [ends]