The Unknown: The Red Line.

During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low, the Unknown had been passing together, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country in Maryland, and at length found themselves, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy house of John Barth. I know not how it was—but with the first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable metafiction pervaded Dirk’s spirit. I say insufferable; for the feeling was unrelieved by any of that half-pleasurable, because poetic, sentiment, with which the mind receives even the sternest natural images of storytelling or the storyteller. We looked upon the scene before us—upon the mere house, with the boathouse and the gray sea behind it—upon the bleak walls—upon the vacant eye-like windows—upon a few rank marijuana plants—and upon a few white trunks of decayed trees—with the utter depression of soul which I can compare to no earthly sensation more properly than to the afterdream of the reveler upon opium—the bitter lapse into everyday life—the hideous dropping of the veil.

Dirk groaned and the horses neighed. We tied them onto the thing onto which you tie horses so that they might lap at the trough of murky gray water, and yet not prance away into the inky day, I forget what such a thing is called—but I remember that Barth had one, most conveniently—the horse-post?

William said, “So, this is Baltimore?” and groaned as well.

Our asses were sore, as we were unaccustomed to riding horses. Scott groaned as well.

What of John Barth?

The spry old man ran up to greet us.

William paused to think—what was it that so unnerved him in the contemplation of John Barth?

John Barth gave all high fives. He was bouncing about, chock full of energy.

It was possible, William reflected, that a mere different arrangement of the particulars of the scene, or the details of the picture, would be sufficient to modify, or perhaps to annihilate its capacity for sorrowful impression.

“Hello, Mr. Barth,” Scott said.

“On with the story,” Barth said, “on with the story.”

He evidently thought we were in Baltimore to play writing games. He’d prepared a list of them, and was quite anxious to play them with us, “Before the end, we must play before the denouement,” he said, referring, as he did so often that quite anxiety-ridden day, to all of experience as if it were a narratological experiment.

He tried to get us to do an exquisite corpse.

We were tired, and had no interest in anything so violent.

He tried to get us to write about the travels of a coin, from the coin’s perspective.

It felt facile and vacuous. William crumpled his page up and soon the other Unknown followed.

He tried to get us to write about the sea. He encouraged us to write from the point of view of a sperm, swimming.

William guffawed, and told Barth he knew nothing of politics.

“A little liqueur, in medias res?” Barth said as he offered us some sickening melon concoction.

In better days, we would have had none of that. We would have smashed the foul-smelling bottle to the floor and demanded Booker’s. But these were not better days, and as far as we could tell, there were no other bottles in that wretched house. It was gut-wrenching, sugary-sweet poison, it was like drinking medicine, suffering the taste of it, knowing full well that it wouldn’t do the job. We passed it around. Scott held his nose.

“I have had that for years,” Barth said, as if it weren’t obvious to us, “that bottle could tell a few stories.”

Dirk tried to politely hint that we were tired, and in need of warm, dry, beds.

To the sea, then, am I right, men, some salty air for what ails you, again we enter the archetypal epic of man and the sea, aye?” Barth said, and squinted his eye like a pirate.

We didn’t want to be impolite. The guy had written like forty books, and we only had one hypertext novel, itself impossible to hold.

William vomited ten yards out from shore, and Barth called him a “scurvy knave” and said something about minding the topmast.

Scott said something about writer’s block, while Dirk tried and failed to write a poem about an albatross.

“Writing is like following a wave,” Barth said, and he looked meaningful, even mournful, “the story is the ripple behind the wave,” and we had no idea what he meant, “and we are the foam on the ripple.” Then he laughed, and said, “Ahoy maties, a squall’s coming in. The sea is all the stories wrapped in one,” and he giggled, “the Chesapeake Bay is an encyclopedia,” he was laughing at his own jokes, if that’s what they were, or perhaps this was the onset of some sudden madness, the three of us trapped on a boat with him, Dirk vomiting now as well, a syrupy green, “and this boat, our little dinghy, this boat is a comma,” and Scott grew ill as well, globs of Midori projecting from his nose out onto the deck, “life is all punctuation,” Barth said, profound now, deeper now, “and every ending is an ellipsis.”


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