Daniel Galef was born and raised in Oxford, Mississippi, but slowly, involuntarily drifted northward until he found himself in Montreal, where he is currently reading Classics at McGill. On the way, he scribbled things on pieces of paper and mailed them to people he’d never met, and in that way somehow got his name put in magazines. He is a professional writer of sixty-five-word biographies.
Erratic Literature: A Squibbler’s Progress & Descent
Mr. Winthorpe Squibbler, an obscure novelist who lived in Birmingham, was a quiet man with a subdued personality and a knack for last-minute twists, for the time being, one of his only private vices in which he indulged as a narrative voice. During the day, he slept and wrote at his leisure, and nights he drove the local to Wheeling. While hardly eminent, he did occasionally get invited to large conferences or conventions as an afterthought in order to pad numbers and endure to publishers’ pitches, and, at these affairs, he would come into contact with fellow practitioners of his trade, the only times he did so.
At a literary dinner in Hartford, he met the esteemed, if slightly shady Dr. Hennings, a retired essayist who had specialized in reinterpreting out-of-print Westerns as deeply allegorical. Dr. Hennings, who at first appeared salubrious, lugubrious, and no small measure lucrative, was in fact none of the above, Squibbler having never properly worked out the words’ meanings. But, Hennings acted pleasantly enough, inviting Squibbler to a small charity affair the next week in Harlsbury. Squibbler accepted, nervously brushing the man’s hand off of his shoulder, and self-consciously took his leave.
At the affair, which turned out to be much smaller than Squibbler had expected and took place in Dr. Hennings’s parlour, the good Dr. absently let slip that he had been a practicing plagiarist, at which admission Mr Squibbler audibly gasped. This drew the attention of several other members of the small chatting circle, who laughed heartily at the novelist’s innocence. “Why, a little honest plagiarism,” chortled one stout professor to Hennings’ immediate right, “never hurt a bleeding soul, and eases one’s own mightily.”
Mr. Squibbler chuckled in a sort of apprehensive way, and hastily made excuse to slip out.
He was stopped by the squat little professor, who ran one hand through his thick beard and said: “Why, who can afford such prudish Victorian morality as Mr. Squibbler here without some hidden perversion of fiction in his own closet?”
Here Mr. Squibbler became indignant and lowered his voice to what he thought must be a menacing whisper: “I’ll have you know,” he replied, “that, while I consider myself of relatively modernist persuasions, I personally dabble in no more unsavory tropes or devices than occasional stiff dialogue.”
There was more than one titter from the back of the cramped room, every occupant of which had now turned to listen to the quiet man’s defense.
Perceiving his humiliation, Mr. Squibbler blushed a bright shade of crimson and timidly appended: “and if I on occasion leave this dialogue, as it were, untagged, which I may or may not, then I would, ehrm, hypothetically do so entirely in the spirit of honest and victimless thrill-seeking.” The cackles were louder now, and Mr. Squibbler sensed that some point of his had gone astray.
“Evidently,” interrupted the beaming Dr. Hennings, instantly silencing the spreading laughter, “you are far more of a strict-metered classicist than you are even aware. While your . . . stiff dialogue is a commendable start, you simply must learn how to loosen up and utilize and enjoy the myriad pleasures of your trade.”
At this, Mr. Squibbler opened his mouth to deliver another doomed rebuke, when he was whirled about and whisked down dimly-lit halls to a curious little room in the rear of the Dr.’s manse, where there socialized a rather seedier set of literary figures. Here, he was introduced to three young women, sisters whose names sounded vaguely familiar and whose short stories were known for their gaping plot holes. They spoke with him at length on the porch, and, as the evening progressed and Mr. Squibbler grew increasingly anxious to depart, showed him the forbidden pleasures of incomplete characterization, forced exposition, and even early climax.
Early in the cold light of the following dawn, Mr. Squibbler returned to Birmingham a more knowledgeable, if less innocent, writer. Fearing he had become irrevocably tainted, a fallen author, he reassured himself hourly until he found himself idly fantasizing about the wonderfully uninhibited and unrestrained lives and writings of his fellow authors, with whom he’d whiled away midnight hours sinning in the Dr.’s sprawling manse.
He was strongly tempted to experiment, mostly with such wildly radical and wicked pastimes as streams of consciousness and free verse, temptations which Mr. Squibbler was ill-equipped to resist. He felt his narrative shackles drifting away, switching chaotically from character to character and time-line to time-line in viewpoint. Soon, he barely acknowledged the necessity for narrative coherence or causality at all, and his plots subsequently atrophied, he hardly noticing in his newfound glee. In only a few months, his dangerous attitude had extended beyond his writing, and he became an amateur enthusiast of self-publishing.
Eventually, however, even this proved too tame for his recently-liberated hunger, and he returned to mainstream print, recalling one long-ago lesson from a poetess at Dr. Hennings’s affair in the joys of simultaneous submission. All of this he was free to enjoy without fear of criticism, as he was being lauded in the papers as “a latter-day Yarbury” (Oxfram Herald), and applauded in myriad journals for his “refreshingly unique approach to meaning” (Wild Mongoose). Hailed as the fresh voice of a brand-new literary age, Squibbler went on tour around the county, signing shining editions of A Grapefruit, Too? and voicing cryptic snippets of advice and wisdom to reporters and fans who worshiped him as a sage.
On Monday the third, as the leaves shifted in untended bales on the lawn of his new house, he finished a quick edit on the fourth chapter of his novel, The Bungalow and stepped into the spotless, unused kitchen to sully the kettle with water and read the paper. To his dismay and ire, he discovered on the front page a young bestseller being commended for his progressive and postmodern voice in an epic poem entitled “(However,”. Apparently, he had done away with letters entirely, and expressed his “rich and layered meaning interspersed with subtle humor” (South Birmingham Times) via a combination of punctuation, numbers, and untranslated hieroglyphics in varying colors and sizes. The book was in the shape of a fish and titled in invisible ink.
Thrusting down the offending newsprint and leaping to his feet, Mr. Squibbler hurriedly donned his jacket of herringbone tweed with brown elbow patches, and sped to the abode of his despised and feared mentor, Dr. Hennings, who was reading the paper in his parlor and looked entirely unsurprised at the sight of his newly-famous guest.
“Why, Mr. Squibbler,” he said, “I expected I’d be seeing you soon. This “(However,” to-do bespeaks the end, doesn’t it?”
Mr. Squibbler was aghast, more horrified that the Dr. had seen this laughable excuse for an epic as an actual threat than he was that he was so calm about the matter. “But, but you can’t be taking this joke seriously?” gasped the incredulous novelist. “I mean, it’s not even a proper story!”
Now, to Mr. Squibbler’s increasing consternation, Dr. Hennings laughed. “Everything comes to an end, my dear squibbler. You may have occupied some misguided limelight for a time, exploiting your tricks and literary hedonisms, but the public will always be prepared to devour some new and even more ridic— I of course mean, modern, writer. This,” the essayist intoned with the hint of a grin, “is your denouement.”
Mr. Squibbler stomped in anger, causing him and the Dr. to notice that he was still wearing a pair of soft slippers. “No!” he shouted, startling even the Dr., “I shall not let this stand! I will come up with something more modern, more scandalous. I won’t use symbols at all! Symbols as representative of meaning will be old hat! I shall compose a symphony in colored lights, I shall sell a three-volume bound set with only blank pages and the blowing sands of lost narrative tucked into the unmarked leaves! I’ll shit on a parchment and sell it to my fans, my loving, adoring, my worshiping fans! I am a latter-day Yarbury, don’t you know? No! Scurrilous lies! Yarbury is, was me! Scratch it, a pale imitation, a wan shadow, a hollow echo of the greatness that was to be Winthorpe Squibbler, sage, bard, genius! I shall not be exceeded!”
And Mr. Squibble collapsed, sobbing, on the carpet. Dr. Hennings, shaken but relatively unfazed, tutted and put one hand on the weeping novelist’s shoulder.
“Yes,” he said quietly, “that would be one way to proceed. And, what’s more, I don’t doubt for a second that whatever you came up with would be a success. However,” and here he raised Mr. Squibbler’s head and looked into his eyes, “this course of action would be temporary at best and result only in a prolonging and intensification of your eventual humiliation. The best thing to do is to accept this gracefully and pass on the torch to another, who, perhaps, can better handle the power of unorthodoxy, as orthodox as it is. As is, you at least have a reasonable chance of returning to a viable career penning sensible, sober prose.”
Mr. Squibbler, after a moment’s hesitation, picked himself up, apologized formally, and showed himself out, the slap of his slippers slowly fading until all that remained of his presence in the house was a mild ringing in Dr. Hennings’ ears and a small stain on the carpet.
In a week, Mr. Squibbler began to drive the bus again. In a month, he had moved back into his old flat, having had a severe drop in sales to the novels critics were now decrying as “rubbish” and “gibberish” (Oxfram Herald & Evansby Lit. Quarterly, respectively). In six months, he was out of therapy, and, in a year, his newest book had come out. Entitled “Bright Pieces of Tin,” its release was overshadowed by a book about itself in the form of an invisible cloud of poisonous gas from the author of “(However.” All the major journals were praising it as a life-changing experience and an absorbing read for those who could survive close contact and penetrate the dense, yet revolutionary, philosophizing.