Saturday, March 8, 2014

Hell ("The Wherewithal" by Philip Schultz)

There's an old story by Stephen King, I forget its title exactly, in which a woman experiences the same tragic event--the crash of an airplane--over and over again, unable to recognize the eternal hell into which she's fallen. Instead, she thinks of the repeated event as an extreme case of deja vu, rendering her not only damned but oblivious--a small comfort, we tell ourselves, for anyone who is now both ghost and victim. King's story--brief, poorly written, and wholly substandard--has haunted me for years. The idea of being caught in a cycle of which we are unaware and from which we cannot extricate ourselves is a kind of horror that doesn't involve any of the usual tropes or cliches, and taken in tandem with our world's religious and mythological dependency on a cyclical universe--the Hindu belief in samsara, the Mesoamerican ages of creation--it makes for possibilities both rich and unsettling.

For Henryk Wyrzykowski, the narrator of Philip Schultz's new novel-in-verse, the comforts inherent in this cycle, not to mention the cluelessness of King's protagonist, are cold and unseen. The life in which he finds himself now--a basement file clerk in a Kafkaesque welfare agency--is viewed by Henryk himself as a necessary refuge from the world raging outside. It is 1968, Uncle Sam is in need of able young men, and Henryk is dodging. In fact, he has been dodging threats like this much of his life, only now there is little to protect him beyond his self-imposed exile:  the mother who shielded him from the horrors of the Holocaust now sits in a nursing home, her mind pocked by Alzheimer's; his predecessor has disappeared, fed up with the bureaucracy in which he conducted his own lewd business; and his two lovers, a woman who ended her marriage for him and an unstable welfare recipient named Heddi, are both distant, like dreams that blue unbeautifully when seen close-up. He had a friend once, a young boy named Rossy, but memories of their time together reveal a stark crime--a failed game of William Tell--and he is now alone.

Instead, Henryk has records. His mother's diaries from the war--more than twenty volumes--recounts her attempts to hide Jews in a barn pit while neighbors massacred innocents, a harsh reality she faced head-on. He has notebooks left by his predecessor, all of which rage against the other agency employees and the heartless ways in which they strip the needy from their rolls or make them choose between receiving money or keeping their children. His memories--of driving a cab in San Francisco, of teaching Vietnam vets proper grammar, of playing William Tell with his long-gone friend--sit alongside him among the thousands of files in the basement, each relating the story of another case closed, another person in desperate need of help. Eventually, Henryk's present and past begin to seem uncomfortably similar, and as the novel closes, we understand that this is his hell, his deja vu  masquerade, his universal cycle spiraling further and further down into the abyss.

Because, as he sits among his files, Henryk suddenly becomes the archivist of a modern Holocaust.  Each document tells the story of a powerful government looking down on someone deemed unworthy, stripping them of their dignity and humanity, and casting them into a world being torn apart by war. There are no camps here, no trains or commandants, but the mindset is the same, and the eradication is done slowly and methodically, not in the interest of purification but in the pursuit of a balanced budget. This is a pogrom waged with statistics rather than guns, with waiting rooms rather than gas chambers, and Henryk finds himself keeper of the evidence--the list of those who have been cast aside and quickly forgotten. The basement is his own pit, where he shelters himself from the reality of the world above--the very same world in which he plays no part, affects no change, saves no people. And while his mother fades away, her mind shucking memories of her bravery and preserving only the horrors she witnessed, Henryk has saved himself from the same fate by becoming the kind of bystander who made the Holocaust so easy to carry out.

At the same time, he is surrounded by deadly events over which he has no control--the Zodiac Killer terrorizing the Bay Area, his deciphered letter speaking of slavery in the afterlife, and young men being deployed en masse to hunt other young men in the jungle--and this calls forward the memory of Rossy' grieving father, a survivor of the concentration camps, who was devastated by Rossy's death in a way far beyond what the Holocaust ever did to him. At first Henryk wants to believe in the accidental nature of his friend's death, but even as others proclaim his innocence he knows there was more to their game:  a look in Rossy's eyes that spoke of giving in, a warning called to late. These thoughts are inescapable, and they creep into Henryk's everyday life until his world is only these thoughts and nothing  more. This is his hell, true and simple, draped over him like a patchwork of nightmares, and the very people who could easily walk him through this Inferno are unavailable.*

In the final section of the novel, Henryk's narration breaks, and he offers up his thoughts on suffering--its pains but, more importantly, its permanence:

          The unspeakable things we do,
          the vicious lies we tell ourselves and others,
          the innocence we beat to death
          with and without shame, is always there
          in the smallest gestures of our eyes
          and hands and tongues. There
          [is] the only wealth and meaning
          we possess, the fragile filament
          of our humanity, which perhaps
          is what we envy and suspect and fear
          and want to kill in others.
          Without it there is nothing
          but infinite black space,
          ripples on a lake, screams no one hears.
          Is this why we speak and listen,
          suffer grief and fear,
          and seek forgiveness
          even while living in a hole?

In depicting the violence of his life--the Holocaust, the Vietnam war, the death of his friend--Henryk is attempting to make a commentary on what it's like to be a human, always bound by the need to lie and cheat and hurt. What he reveals, however, is how bound we all are to forces beyond even our own control, when even a movement of the eye unveils a history of the wrongs we've committed against one another. We are, in essence, caught in an unending cycle, not just as individuals--a simple clerk reliving the sins of the past, for example--but as a species, forever trapped inside a hell of our own making.

*There is a case to be made that Henryk is, in fact, delusional, or at least lying to himself about his own culpability in the events around him. For a further look at the strange chronology in Schultz's book, see David L. Ulin's review for the Los Angeles Times.