“Do you want to know the truth?” Louis said, suddenly despondent. “I don’t sense the presence of any great mystery. The only reason I’ve blundered into being a painter is that I don’t know what else to do with myself. I’m not religious. I’m not interested in getting married or starting a family. Good God! a family,” he added in horror. “I can just imagine me as a father. And I don’t want to be a criminal—or at least I don’t want to hurt anybody—and I’m simply too lazy to care about a real career—”
“Lazy? What are you talking about?” Desnos admonished him, stroking the cats. “What kind of laziness creates a society such as ours, where people invent ‘careers’ to avoid the real work?”
“But what is the real work, Rob?”
“Living your life. Exploring your life, exploring love,” he replied. “Exploring your dreams. Letting people be themselves. Confronting your fears. Adventure. Chaos.”
Louis smiled. “What about the enlightenment of mankind?”
Desnos gagged. “I’d never kid myself that anything I do will enlighten anyone. Probably the opposite. I’m pretty depraved. Besides, what’s your definition of knowledge? Attila the Hun—”
I cut in, “Desnos, you wish you were depraved!”
“—Did more for humanity than Louis Pasteur. If you were to become a criminal, Louis, then at least you would remind people that they’re alive, that they’ve no right to take life for granted.”
“I’d rather do that without violence,” Louis said.
“Well, there you are, then! So you paint. You just answered your own question. What are you agonizing over this for?”
I cut in again. “But the audience can always say, ‘I don’t care’ in response to one’s work. Can’t it?”
“And if the audience says ‘So what,’ so what?” Desnos replied.
“Well…” I spread my hands. “But what if—all right, let’s be honest. Let’s drop the pretense for once. After all, we’re in a book,” I said, “a novel. And who ever really stops to consider that? We are in a novel right now, and—”
Roger knocked on the floor to get my attention. “Wait just one minute, Geoffrey!” he hissed this to me as if, after all, our reader was not hearing everything we said anyway.
“Let him finish,” Desnos barked at Roger.
“But he’s about to ruin—we’re not supposed to—!”
“‘We’re not supposed to—!’” Desnos mocked Roger. “It might interrupt the story! It might confuse the reader! Because audiences have become used to phony realism instead of real realism, which is to say, Surrealism!” He gestured for me to continue. Louis and Justine leaned forward, smiling in anticipation.
“This is a novel,” I said, “right? Dropping the façade for a moment, we all agree that we are characters in a novel. And someone—a lover of literature, an editor, maybe even a book critic—” Desnos smiled at me. “—Is reading this, right now. This very minute. We take our lives for granted, but if the person reading this book puts it down, or closes it and throws it into the fireplace, where are we?”
“We are screwed,” Desnos answered lightly.
Louis laughed. “That’s deep, Geoff, very inspiring. The next time I feel depressed, I’ll remember to avoid you!”
“Yes, as deep as the bottle one drinks from to become plastered enough to say a thing like that,” Roger declared. “Geoff, have you lost your mind? The minute that you start talking about our being in a novel, it ceases to be a novel.”
“And what’s wrong with that?” Desnos prodded him.
“That would be my particular fate.” Artaud’s voice snarled out from beneath his arm. “To be reincarnated onto someone’s page, as a literary mechanism in some tidy little story.” He stretched and blinked groggily. “Of course the reader can say he doesn’t care. And why shouldn’t he say it? It’s better that way. Literary theory is emotional blackmail to convince the reader that he ‘must’ care. Stack up the masterpieces, contemplate them, and rot!”
We ventured out into the night and decided to go to the cinema. We chose a film that advertised itself as an expressionist horror story in the manner of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. However, this one turned out to be a disappointment, another hastily-produced melodrama full of grimacing ghouls and cheap frights. The audience sagged with boredom until Desnos began to speak for the characters, making up dialogue that matched his own weird story line. At his prodding we each chose a different character from the film. “Thurmon’s the hero and Justine, the heroine of course,” he dictated, “and I’m the priest, Landis is the detective and Weidmann’s the ghost, and that leaves Artaud to be Dr. Montague.” Following his lead, we improvised feverishly until the sparse crowd in the theatre was laughing along with us.
Artaud’s effort received the most appreciation, though not the kind that he wanted, because he refused to try to make his words match either his character or the situation on the screen. It was so absurd, he babbling on and on, even over scene changes, even over other characters’ dialogue, stopping only when he had finished what he had to say. This amused everyone but Roger, who was bound and determined to have his own dialogue heard, and the two men, talking over each other, raised their voices louder and louder until they were both trying to shout each other down while on the screen the hero languished alone in a sunny field. “Dammit! It’s my turn!” Roger finally exploded while Desnos and I doubled over, laughing helplessly. The hero on the screen lay on his back in the grass, slipped his hands behind his head and gazed with moronic bliss at the sky, and the argument continued. “Dr. Montague, are you hiding in the bushes? Let the hero get a word in.”
“Oh! So it has to be realistic!” Artaud returned indignantly, because he wasn’t trying to be funny; he was taking it all very seriously, as usual. Desnos reached out to give his shoulder a fond shove. “None of us knows that he’s in a theatre? Yes, but we must pretend that we do not disbelieve!”
“Just like in church,” Desnos quipped approvingly. “Or in this novel, Thurmon!”
The film’s heroine popped out from behind a tree and approached the hero to exchange more puerile cooing with him, interrupting the plot again. Justine rose to the occasion. “I hate this stupid role! I want out of this blasted film!” she screeched, somehow managing to match the words to the actress’s lips, and the effect was even better than Artaud’s. The whole audience shrieked with laughter. “If it’s Mary Pickford you want, pay her the pittance I’m getting paid to be groped by the script-boy between takes.” The heroine bobbed her head and battered her lashes in what was supposed to be a seductive manner and Justine’s growl pierced the air: “All I get to do is scream, and faint, and nuzzle this ham-handed dolt like a ten-year-old nun!” She placed her hand affectionately on Roger’s shoulder and concluded, “I want to take part in a good fight and I want a proper love scene, or I quit. Hm!” As she said this the heroine, for no apparent reason, flounced away from the hero with her nose in the air, and everyone applauded this unexpected coincidence of realism.
As we left the theatre, still chuckling to ourselves, Roger posed this question: “Why do human beings find humor in incongruity?”
“Because we know that it’s really only apparent,” I answered before I thought.
“Ah—!” Desnos turned to me in delight and winked as if he and I shared a secret.
Roger shook his head. “On that uninformative note, I’m afraid I have to leave all of you,” he said, giving Justine’s waist a squeeze. “I don’t want to, but—”
“You’re boring, Thurmon!” Desnos yelled. Roger embraced Justine and smiled over her shoulder at him. “Go practice your goddamned violin, then. Play in the orchestra. I hope you become famous, make lots of money, lose it all at the gaming tables, and throw yourself into the Seine while simultaneously stabbing yourself, and get a brilliant idea for a concerto in the second just before you croak.” Everyone chuckled except Artaud, who was leaning against a wall with a particularly wretched look on his face, as if he suddenly didn’t know where he was. Sometimes when he looked like that he made me think of a phoenix, doused with water at the moment of its rising, its alert eyes showing pride and despair from bedraggled, broken feathers.
He fell listlessly into step with us as we continued down the sidewalk so Roger could have privacy to kiss Justine goodnight. “Monogamy is good for Roger,” commented Louis as Justine ran to catch up with us. “Where to now, Justine?”
“Everyone returns to my place and takes a kitty-brat for his very own!” Justine declared. “They’re destroying my apartment. And when Roger and I are otherwise occupied on our mattress, they climb all over us and wail and knead us with their claws. If I don’t get rid of them soon they’re going to end up with names longer than their lives.”
“Wait, I know what we can do,” Louis said, brightening. “Follow me. We don’t want to go home yet—and yes, you’re coming with us, Artaud!” he added when Artaud opened his mouth to decline. “You’ll like this. It’s better than the houseboat.”
Justine laughed. “You must admit, thanks to me your good-bye party to the houseboat was a splash!”
Louis took off down the street, outpacing the rest of us, and only Justine was able to catch him, despite the fact that she was wearing another pair of those absurd high heels. Desnos raced to catch up with Louis and Justine, then looked back at Artaud, who followed listlessly, and at me. “Eeahh! When you two scowl,” Desnos cried out as he pointed both index fingers, gunslinger-like, at Artaud and me, “your faces both look the same—like the parish nuns at my school. Stop it!”
Artaud’s mouth lifted into a small smile. “I didn’t realize I was scowling,” I said.
Nodding triumphantly, Desnos hooked an arm around my neck. “I know!” He leaned his face toward mine with one fanatical eyeball squinting into me until all I saw was the luminous blue iris. “You’re really upset about what you were talking about earlier, us being in a novel and all that, aren’t you.”
“I am not ‘upset!’” I flared.
“I am,” Artaud declared. “It’s a repulsive idea. It bothers me. It’s bothered me ever since he said it.”
Still attached to me, Desnos slowed his buoyant stride to match Artaud’s, causing me to backpedal. He wrapped his other arm about Artaud’s neck and pulled us forward again, jauntily refusing to match his stride to ours. We staggered along in his grip. Walking now far ahead with Justine, Louis turned around and gestured impatiently for us to hurry. Justine smiled back at us and took Louis’s arm, likewise slowing him down to a stroll. “But we believe you, Geoff,” Desnos said. “Of course we’re in a novel. In fact, we’re in just the kind of ‘realistic’ novel that I can’t stand. The real question is—”
“Well, I don’t believe him!” Artaud cut in. “I refuse to believe it. I wish he had not mentioned the idea at all. A novel!” He turned and spat tidily into the darkness.
“The question is, what do you intend to do about it? What form of resistance—”
I twisted my head around in his grip to look at Desnos. “Do about it?”
“Yes, do. You know?” Desnos goaded me. “As in taking over this novel.” That arm released my neck, and his hand pushed me in the middle of my back. I stumbled over a protruding cobblestone, and Desnos laughed in pleasure. I whirled to shove him back as he marched along with poor Artaud in tow. “Geoffrey Weidmann, just shut up about your worries and take charge, or the reader really will throw us into the fireplace! Hey—” he yelled ahead, and Louis waved a hand back at us in disgust. “Wait up, you two.”