Originally published in Willow Springs 63
From the author
Notes on “Reduction”
The story “Reduction” began for me one difficult day when I realized my body was aging. I mean, I knew I was aging in general. I’ve had birthdays and such. But, somehow, I had caught a glimpse of my physical self in some reflected surface somewhere and saw in that reflection an old man. Not yet forty years old, I felt disturbed by this. I mean, I’ve had disturbing moments before. I’ve lost loved ones and hair and such. But this was especially disturbing for me because the usual ways I might search out to quell some of this disturbance were bound up in what was causing the disturbance. That is to say, I had recently broken up with my partner of seven years and was living with my 82 year old mother in Boston and was alone most of the day working on a book that was not coming together and all my friends were in New York and had books coming together, and, in short, I was scared. Fear had become my daily default mode. And so, being somewhat more alone than I was either used to or felt I could bear, I thought about how I might find someone new with whom to begin the work of quelling this fear. And it was then I realized that old bodies don’t attract bodies that quell. And so I was now stuck feeling a fear of my body and a fear of never quelling this fear and a larger fear of the universal joke of aging and death and oblivion and then started to realize that I might be over-thinking things. That surely there would be someone who would want to help quell with me. I mean, there are people who help quell incarcerated people whom they’ve never known prior to incarceration but whom they want to help quell nonetheless. They write letters and visit them and touch their palms against two sides of a glass partition. I’ve seen people pushing what appears to be lovers or spouses in wheelchairs and have known people I could never help quell who have nonetheless a lovely help-quell-meet by their side. This is all I thought about while I was alone, and as I mentioned I was alone a lot, so I was thinking a lot about this, and so one day when I could not endure my not-coming-together-book a minute longer, I opened a new screen on my laptop and started a voyeuristic relationship with this couple who had some complicated body issues of their own. I liked them. They felt like my friends. I began visiting them daily. I forgot about the fear a little. And so I created them purely out of a keening desire to see what it would be like to be with someone who harbored secret feelings about his or her own body and the body of his or her own quell-meet. I wanted to push these characters in every possible direction that my own Yeah-but-what-if-this-other-bad-thing-were-to-happen,-then-what?-gland twitched toward.
When I thought it was done, I sent the story to Willow Springs (which I’ve admired for years) and that was when “Reduction” was birthed out of my horrible, secret, gland-fluid-drenched world to the clear-eyed world of the reader. The editor Sam Ligon helped me to understand the dictates of that world. He understands that world like no one I’ve ever met before and will not likely ever meet. Sam Ligon is this story’s midwife, or maybe its doula. He said he could see the story but that like a baby crowning, there were some aspects of it he could not see. And so with his help and encouragement, I pushed and he pulled, and we made a giant squoogey explosion of gallons of gland fluid. And once cleaned off, there was “Reduction,” lying on my stomach, free of my body’s incubation, pinkly glistening under the fluorescent light.
Notes on Reading
Any list I would make of books that have stood out to me in the last five years would have to have to start with the debut novel by Robert Lopez, Part of the World (Calamari Press, 2007). Certainly, it’s not difficult to identify some of Lopez’s influences; there’s some Beckett there, of course, and some Robbe-Grillet, but, ultimately, all that stuff becomes mere surface observation. The real achievement in this dazzling and compelling novel is the way Lopez helps us to understand a character by understanding the world of the story exactly as the character understand that world. That is to say, Lopez has worked with certain narrative styles not so much to take merely another step in formal innovation, but, at least to my way of thinking, he’s using these techniques as a step toward truer story telling. I challenge anyone to read this novel and not feel one’s self vibrating for a few hours afterward. It’s vertiginous in the way that getting news from a doctor can be vertiginous, leaving you blinking at a world you barely recognize. It’s easily one of the most important novels written in the last five years. Another book I’d mention would be Tom McCarty’s Remainder (Vintage, 2007). Here too you have a world rendered in a certain way that only the character really understands. We experience that world not through his eyes and ears so much, as through his ways of processing that sensory information. The narrative techniques McCarthy uses are that experience. Finally, I’d name A Short Rhetoric for Leaving the Family (Dalkey Archive Press, 1998), by Peter Dimock. I consider it one of the most subtle evocations of the way the personal and the political come together to affect our lives. And as with the Lopez and the McCarthy, Dimock has used the formal technique of a rhetorical analysis to dramatize the way language can contain and yet obfuscate agency in even the worst crimes. During the past eight years, I’ve returned to this book again and again as a way of staying sane when we’d hear how the previous administration used language to rationalize the ways of war that, though not beyond rhetoric, were nonetheless beyond certain human logic.
Books that I reread are books that not only renew my sense of the wonder of the world; they also inform the choices I make as a write. My former teacher Francine Prose used to say to our class that we should keep all of our books and think of them as tools that we use when we don’t know how to create something on the page. I tell me own students the same thing now. Just file that advice under the “good writers borrow, great writers steal” heading. A short list of some of the books I revisit often are The Great Gatsby, Dubliners, Jesus’ Son, Lolita, Beloved, Break it Down, and The Corrections. For way too many reasons than I can describe here these books continually renew my capacity for wonder.
About Joseph Salvatore
Joseph Salvatore teaches writing and literature at The New School for Social Research in New York City. His work has been published, or is forthcoming, in Atelier Abroad, The Brooklyn Rail, Dossier Journal, Free Associations, Omnivore, Open City, Pleiades Arts North, Post Road, Red Skies, Routledge’s Encyclopedia of Queer Culture (Routledge, 2003), Sleeping Fish, Soundings East, and 110 Stories: New York Writes After September 11th (NYU Press, 2001). He lives in Queens, New York.