Excerpt from Oscar of Between, Part 6A
Iowa. The Des Moines River. River of Oscar’s youth. One big rock in it, on which some anonymous person repainted in large, white block letters: “JESUS SAVES.” Every summer.
The farming community’s way of measuring accumulation of precipitation: “The river’s above JESUS SAVES this morning!”
2008. Floods now of Biblical proportions in Iowa. Scorching temperatures in Toronto. Vancouver’s “June-uary” the coldest in 53 years. Nature turning its back on our calculated bottom line.
Vancouver. Writers’ event. Elee (an emerging writer) asks: “How was your trip to London? Did you do any writing?” What to say – Oscar quickly assesses – decides to take a risk. Abridges: Time Out “Museums” listing jumping out at her; sense of a nascent narrative circling her; immediate revelation upon entering camouflage exhibit; lifelong inexplicable bewilderment exiting her body. Oscar notices Elee’s deep attention; softening of body; paling as though something is reorienting within her; then flush of face as Elee responds. “That’s amazing. I really felt that.” Then. Their mutual recovery. Oscar quietly stunned.
Camouflage: “the art of survival.” Not born into it. No fur no shell nor feathers nor scales to protect from predators. Must be taught. Oscar & her mother: failure to imprint.
Vancouver. Fall of 2008. After fourteen years of a long string of rentals and sublets, Oscar has a home again – a small condo apartment with private patio on Charles Street.
As she stands at the sink, doing the dishes, Oscar wonders about it, yet again: how is it that she was never taught the basic survival skill of camouflage? Then, a surge through her body: might her mother have unconsciously believed that Oscar would be safer without it? Thwart abuse (sans female camo)?
Just what is the difference between
camouflage and an imposter?
2013. Charles Street, Vancouver. Oscar selecting and revising excerpts for posting on upcoming July Oscar’s Salon. Noting, now, that she never responded to this previous question she posed to herself five years ago. Oscar goes to dictionary given to her by her parents in 1982. Re-reads her mother’s inscription: “We hope this will be helpful in your future writings.” Writings (and subsequent books) that Oscar never mentioned to her parents; nor did they ever inquire about after. After Oscar gave them a copy of A Gathering Instinct. Her first book. Oscar’s brother visited shortly after. After that. Was privy to their mother’s plan to take a razor blade. To Oscar’s book. Cut out the first 20 pages. Pages about the demise of Oscar’s marriage. Before. Before her mother would show the book to her sisters. On the strict. On the strict condition that they never. Never. Never mention it to their husbands. Nor, for that matter, anyone.
It becomes clearer. Clearer, as Oscar considers the etymologies and definitions of camouflage and imposter.
Camouflage, camoufler, to disguise from, camouflet … smoke blown into one’s nose, hence “disguise” … “hot face” … 1) … concealing people or things from the enemy, 2) … conceal by altering the appearance …
Imposter, imponere, to put on … A person who deceives under an assumed identity …
Yes, Oscar had. Had recognized camouflage as a strategy and signaling of membership – even a duck hunter alone still uses the same camo gear, blinds, decoys that other duck hunters use.
Camouflage = collective & sanctioned
Whereas, an imposter not only puts on (here’s the rub) but assumes another’s identity.
Imposter = individual & unauthorized
In the absence of camouflage – the underlying suspicion then –an imposter?
Oscar “… not really a … ”
Not really a normal girl nor suitable daughter not a welcomed member of the literary community not a proper wife nor without question woman, not a normal employee nor the real mother not a loyal American nor true-born Canadian not a conventional administrator nor an easily qualified pay-cheque mortgagee not lesbian-read lesbian writer nor automatically included en famille not housed in an acceptable body nor ______________: membership questioned at every turn.
Glare, stare, panicked admonishment:
“You’re in the wrong washroom!”
Excerpt from Oscar of Between, Part 9
October 2008. A Canadian Prairie city. Oscar becomes Charlie on Halloween. At her son’s request – he is dressing up as Chaplin and wants her to too. This surprises Oscar but she agrees. At the school Halloween party, then the next night Trick or Treating, some respond to Charlie Senior and Charlie Junior with delight. Most do not. Only focus on Junior. More say. Say nothing at all. Are uneasy. Coolly stare.
Sr. & Jr. enjoying themselves despite the conundrum.
Three weeks later Oscar considers Charlie Sr. & Charlie Jr. connotations. What was her son’s longing? For a brother? A dad? Or simply someone else who was the same as him for a change? One thing is clear: for the first time, they shared the same markings. Signaled family. Undeniably.
The difference between costume and camouflage? Oscar’s son was in costume, but Oscar? Oscar now thinking she was in camouflage. Not intentionally but at the invitation of; then default of. Disruption of others’ expectations. Charlie Senior’s gender not automatically evident. Vexation. Who, exactly, was pulling what over whom?
Oscar considers another possibility: suspicion.
Suspicion that Oscar was. Was. An. Imposter.
Excerpt from “The Last Murder: The Journals of Allen Quincy“, Claudia Casper’s latest finished manuscript.
April 8, 2047
My story becomes a betrayal in the writing down of it. It’s a sordid little deal: in exchange for exposing the suffering and death of other people to any Tom, Dick or Harry who might happen to read my words, I, their murderer, get my life back.
Not doing it.
Grandparents, godparents, aunts, uncles or cousins: I could whisper the description of the victims’ last minutes to them, but not to a stranger who never loved them. (That word victim, how I loathe it. The people trying to cross the border were people. People dying of thirst and hunger. They should not be portioned off. They should not be defined by the genocide in any way. Only we genociders should be defined.) I don’t even know if this journal will be read and, if so, whether my theoretical reader will indulge in the schadenfreude that they at least are still alive or, worse, get a manic jolt and a whiff of omnipotence, or whether the pleasure of power over others might get ignited in their sympathetic nervous system.
Writing is pornographic. It is like forcing prisoners to perform a striptease of their suffering in front of an anonymous crowd — the exposing, a final sadistic posthumous indignity.
I grasp my head between my hands and squeeze.
They’re dead, I whisper. What expense to them if I pinch their pockets? What skin off their backs, so to speak, their souls already long released, if I tell their story to save my soul?
I get up to pour myself another depth charge. My hand is shaking. I’ve lost count, but I see that I’ve just wrung dry another bottle of R&R that hours ago was full. There’s still one more full bottle waiting under the kitchen sink. I haven’t been outside in three days. I haven’t returned the boss’s text messages. I’m not sure I’ll ever go back to work. I haven’t slept and I’m down to a jar of pickles and a box of stale crackers.
When I told Ruby about the genocide on the border, the words were warm from my breath, but when I wrote them down they turned hard and armored and this disgusts me. Of course writing doesn’t destroy memory, as Plato claimed so many years ago. I’ve known that since just after I started writing this journal, yet it does alter memory and it destroys living memory. I thought that might be enough. Who can shoot the written word? Who can punish it or kill it? Does it die from lack of oxygen? From a broken heart? From shame? Can it lose its soul? But writing also turns private memory out onto the street like an underage runaway and leaves me feeling like both a pimp and a john, as well as a murderer.
Just as well.
Instead I’ll keep guard over the only thing left to the dead: their place in my living memory. Without memory the dead don’t exist. I’ll keep them nestled in the warmth of the pinky gray plushy folds of my brain, singing their requiem with electric pings leaping from neuron to neuron, spreading out in myriad branches behind the armor of my skull, their existence only as immortal as myself, tender and private as long as we both shall live. I will heave my shoulder to the door and use my mind as a weapon to keep the swarms of oblivion and indifference away.
I have arrived at the exact opposite result of what I intended. The memories I sought to destroy I’m protecting. I’m so tired. I’ll pour one more R&R so I can slip back into the black velvet arms of sleep.
naked with Oscar….. steeped in my own camos distinct
only now knowing
there are unafraid revealers of
and secrets porn No graphic writing… stripping the already nude figure
of this secret revealing some terror
I feel held and suspended in this non-All form s of writing
engaged in uncomfortable but compelling suspension
what comes next?
or is just living enough?
I am just now trying to articulate the links between Betsy’s piece and mine. Betsy’s explores the tension between the collective and the individual, a tension which embodies the life-threatening question of membership in the group. Life-threatening because for our thin-skinned, small-toothed, unclawed species, survival depends on membership in the group. We die if we are alone. Betsy’s exploration of the in-locus in-body experience of camouflage, the fluidity of being, infiltration and uncertain membership amid deeper kinships evoked deep fellow feeling in me. The excerpt I chose shows my protagonist Allen Quincy wrestling with the defenselessness of the dead, and his deep discomfort with his ability to further assault the memory of their deaths by writing about them. This is the passage where he converts his intention to expose the memories publicly in order to release himself from their painful hold over him into protecting and guarding them in the intimate, private space of his brain. A conversion to love over survival. Both are about power and the psychological tension it elicits, about strategies to engage and subvert that power and about the human feeling of the individual butting up against it.
It is scary to own a list of differences that is that long, yes, because survival fears come up right away. Then one confronts the question: am I in a place where others will want me to survive or not. maybe the process of coming out with all these differences, when one has so many, is the process of finding out for sure whether one is safe or not.
There’s so much to talk about in this section.
Claudia, you say that you are just now trying to articulate the links between your piece and Betsy’s. I wonder then, if you allowed your subconscious to make those connections for you, since these links are very clear in the reading. I feel like your protagonist is both striving for and denying himself an emotional connection. Generating reasons why his attempts to tell the stories of the dead must be ill-advised and improperly motivated. Reasons to remain solitary. Indeed, can we find anyone more difficult to connect with than the dead? This character has his work cut out for him!
In this excerpt, and previous excerpts, I see Oscar searching for connection, but seemingly convinced that this level of intimacy can’t possibly be achieved. It’s frustrating for me, probably because I identify with this mindset.
I also identified (somewhat painfully) with this moment:
“Vancouver. Writers’ event. Elee (an emerging writer) asks: “How was your trip to London? Did you do any writing?” What to say – Oscar quickly assesses – decides to take a risk. Abridges: Time Out “Museums” listing jumping out at her; sense of a nascent narrative circling her; immediate revelation upon entering camouflage exhibit; lifelong inexplicable bewilderment exiting her body. Oscar notices Elee’s deep attention; softening of body; paling as though something is reorienting within her; then flush of face as Elee responds. “That’s amazing. I really felt that.” Then. Their mutual recovery. Oscar quietly stunned.”
What an incredibly intimate moment, one that perhaps not everyone may understand the significance of (there I go looking for differences again!) when Oscar ventures into a vulnerable space and meets an open and receptive audience in Elee.
How often I am told to be protective of my writing, and I do think it’s good advice. But Oscar took a risk here.
Years ago, a very dear friend in his first year of creative writing at UVIC showed my his first poem of the semester, slated for workshop that day. He knew I “did some writing” and wanted to know what I thought.
How did I respond to this opportunity for connection?
I read the poem and offered one choppy, unsatisfying thought on one image. And stuttered to a standstill.
His offer of emotional connection was as frightening as the concept of critique. Maybe more so.
How I marveled at this scene with Elee, who responded to Oscar’s intimacy simply by remaining open to it. There was no rush to make some clever observation, some witty remark. And it was this openness, this complete acceptance of the moment, that stunned Oscar. And me as well.
Of course, I don’t know if Elee saw it that way. I’ll make sure to let her know we’re talking about her over here! As for me, I’m going to re-evaluate how I listen to people.
A wonderful juxtaposition of very strong work. I am especially interested in the idea of the theoretical reader – implicit or implied in both pieces – a sort of meta-acknowledgement of the act of the shaping of a literary work but also a nod to the fact of not only a work’s reception, but the reception of any idea, of Being. This dual theoretical reader gives us whole colonies of implied readers: the fictional ones (as AQ in Claudia’s book might find them) and the real ones i.e. us. Even the Elee figure is a recipient of a ‘text’, idealized (or celebrated) by the depth of her engagement, by getting the reading more or less ‘right’.
A lovely short essay on reading is Georges Poulet’s ‘Phenomenology of Reading’. In it he considers the connection between reader and writer, the bond that happens when two minds hover over the same ideas, words, or images, the same terrain.
Lots to think about in both these pieces. A nice tension.
Hello dear commenters,
Each & all of your comments excite me with the risks and observations you are taking and making.
Oscar is questing to connect the dots of narrative in ways which seem to have become implausible in the face of the accepted and over-riding, authorized versions. The whole notion of un-garded listening and how that can ignite the loop between writer/writer’s text & the reader is wonderful to hear your thoughts on. When John Cage was asked in an interview did he really consider himself to be a composer (which often was contested) he replied that he was really more of a listener. Oscar is inclined to be too.
In a reading at recently gave at the 23rd Virginia Woolf Conference, I interwove quotes from Virginia Woolf’s Orlando and excerpts from Oscar of Between and ended with this Orlando quote which Orlando says after her manuscript she’s been working on for 300 years is published. It astonished me the first time I read it and it still does:
“What has seven editions … got to do with the value of it? So that all this chatter and praise and blame and meeting people who admired one and meeting people who did not admire one was ill suited as could be to the thing itself – a voice answering a voice.” Orlando, by V. Woolf
i’m struck by the resonance between the two excerpts from two individual writers of apparently different forms and what is in my own heart at the moment. the invitation extended to us in this virtual salon conversation to break out of that exquisite intimate space of reader and text, text and writer and respond intimately. a deep compassion for our predicament as human beings. courage as heartfulness.
no coincidence perhaps that margarethe von trotta chose to centre the film of hannah arendt around the controversy of her report on eichmann’s trial, ‘the banality of evil’. for me the issue is our choice to tell our truth in spite of/because of the resistance to hearing it. arendt was deeply influenced by heidegger’s analysis of thinking-that we do not engage real thinking but rationalising.
these two writers betsy and claudia are inviting us to think–again.
I was left feeling a little undone by Oscar’s willingness to be vulnerable, truthful about the list of places where their belonging has been questioned. In part because I could so relate. I have my list… places where as a thinker, an observer and feeler I could not bring myself to wear the acceptable “camouflage”. I have always had questions and feel a kinship with Oscar’s gentle inquiry. I really listen to Oscar. It is rare that text gets my attention this way. I go along, suspend judgement or thought about where this is all going and have no idea why I am so very willing to do this. I think it is because I trust someone who would reveal so much, so freely and a part of me wants to stripe down and join Oscar. But mine would be a premature telling. Oscar’s telling is sensuous, soft. A more unrefined version would be difficult to hear, its harshness would be its undoing. I know that I am not ready yet but remain hopeful that I will one day be able to invite someone into my world, not just for the brief visits my poems offer but for the extended, almost painfully drawn out way in which this narrative is going. When I say painful, what I mean is we are simply not accustomed to this level of intimacy. In it I feel raw and yet oddly I do not feel a need to be protective of Oscar. I would usually be concerned for someone unveiling themselves in this way but again and again I trust Oscar. I want to know more about Oscar. I love Oscar.
Claudia’s character has a certain vulnerability as well. He seems unable to live with his memories and yet like so many of us writers drawn to write about them. Again I relate to this. Why do we need to do this? To show ourselves or parts of ourselves through our writing. Carleigh mentioned connection. I do believe we are seeking connection, both reader and writer. We meet in the text as if in air, together we can float or crash to the earth. Whatever happens we are both changed. The writer first by the act of writing. The reader through the reading. And then the writer again by the readers reaction. It is an odd dance with no one leading. And like sex when it is bad, it is really bad but when it is good it is really, really good….
~ All my relations ~ Jonina