short story

Recent and Upcoming Indie Book Releases

by
Daulton Dickey.

Absolutely Golden: A Novel
D. Foy
Stalking Horse Press

Absolutely-Golden-Store-ImageIt’s 1973, and a thirty-something widow has been cajoled by a young hippie parasite into financing their vacation to a nudist colony in the Northern California mountains. The night before their departure, however, she arrives home to learn that she and this man will be accompanied by the stripper on his lap. At Camp Freedom Lake, the trio meet a womanizing evangelist, a bumbling Zen gardener, and a pair of aging drug-addled swingers from Holland. Together, they’re catapulted through one improbable event after the other, each stranger than the last, until finally the woman who was dominated by her fear of past and future finds herself reveling in the great here and now.

D. Foy’s Absolutely Golden is a radical departure from his two previous novels, Made to Breakand Patricide. It’s comic, ebullient, magic, light, gently surrealistic. It’s rollicking, effervescent, slyly profound. But more, this brisk tale offers a kaleidoscopic look at parts of the 1970s we haven’t often seen in fiction—nudism, New Age philosophy, Eastern religion, the occult, swingers culture, California culture, and then some.

Best of all, Foy tells his story in the guise of a woman obsessed with the notion that she’ll never find another man until she’s rid of what she believes to be a mysterious curse. As if written in the marriage of Vladimir Nabokov, Renata Adler, and Anaïs Nin, her words transport us from doubt, despair, and dread into states of increasing wonder and euphoria.

Click here to Pre-order or Buy Absolutely Golden

The Abridged History of Rainfall
Jay Hopler
McSweeney’s

rainfall_pb_cover_store_siteThe Abridged History of Rainfall is a finalist for the National Book Award.
Jay Hopler’s second collection, a mourning song for his father, is an elegy of uproar, a careening hymn to disaster and its aftermath. In lyric poems by turns droll and desolate, Hopler documents the struggle to live in the face of great loss, a task that sends him ranging through Florida’s torrid subtropics, the mountains of the American West, the streets of Rome, and the Umbrian countryside. Vivid, dynamic, unrestrained: The Abridged History of Rainfall is a festival of glowing saints and fighting cocks, of firebombs and birdsong.

Click here to Pre-order or Buy The Abridged History of Rainfall

 

  (more…)

The Call of the Void

by
Justin Burnett.

It has been quite a while now since I first began dissociating from my work. I have finally succumbed to the universal somnambulism. It’s a well-known fact that we anesthetize the domination of our lives by our jobs with sleep. Not literal sleep, of course. I now fall asleep with the optimistic electronic chirp of the timecard reader like everyone else, even though I work, laugh, and chat throughout my nine-hour day like any functioning human. I remember a time when it was different. Once it was worse. Once I wasn’t permitted the cold solace of sleep. Once I had a job that forced me to face the spectre of mortality in all its grandiose contradictions. Like any one of the paradoxical lines in the poetry of John Donne, the job forced me to remain awake.

I was a hospital phlebotomist at the time. I drew samples from patients in their sardine-can cells and took the blood downstairs to the lab in a soul-deadening daily exchange of elevator ascents and descents. This repetitive aspect should’ve kept me sleeping since it was the same lullaby that you find evenly distributed in all the occupational quarters like powdered pesticide. Only one force was strong enough to counter the anesthesia.

I discovered it one morning at about a quarter to twelve. I was on the cardiac floor. It was just before lunch and I was getting impatient. Not that the hospital food was any good—au contraire, it was damn awful (the chicken-gristle sandwich sans-condiments was legendary around that time). And it wasn’t that I was particularly interested in seeing my coworkers—all the same sleeping faces circulated both the cafeteria and the floors with soul-deadening regularity. Lunch was, however, the only period in my twelve-hour workday during which I could read. Only one more patient lay between me and my book. Let’s just get it over with I told myself encouragingly as I opened the door to a heavily curtained room.

“Hello, I’m from the lab,” I said, with as much zest as the particular situation could reasonably call for. “Your doctor wants me to draw a blood sample.”

The man on the bed was in his late fifties. Gray, unwashed hair curled above his pale

egonschiele

Egon Schiele, Self Seer II (Death and Man), 1911

temples. Beads of sweat sparkled under the fluorescent lights across the waxy surface of his forehead. The room simmered in the faintly repulsive redolence of unwashed and unmoved biology, the nauseating sweetness of bodily crevices hoarding soured perspiration.

 

I noted the smell with passive disinterest. Smell, after extended exposure in a hospital setting, only gives rise to the accompanying biological reactions (retching, nose-pinching, actual vomiting, in rare cases) when it is particularly vile—as in, for instance, the unforgettable and infamous case of a particular legless prostitute’s infected colposcopy bag. What was more unusual about this patient was his stillness. (more…)

Unpublished Novelist Daulton Dickey Interviews Failed Novelist Daulton Dickey

transcribed by
Julius M. Henry.

Daulton Dickey is a nobody. No one’s interested in him. Yet he runs around the Internet begging for attention and whinging about how no one will publish his artsy-fartsy novels. In a blatant and unapologetic act of theft, I’ve decided to ripoff Kurt Vonnegut’s interview from the Paris Review and track down Daulton—spoiler: he wasn’t hard to find—to ask him questions about life, writing, philosophy, and whatever else popped into my head. Knowing Daulton, I expect pretentious answers. And bullshit—spoiler: he’s an asshole.

Daulton Dickey [DD]: So. Here we are.

Daulton Dickey [Dd]: Indeed.

DD: I wanted to start by filling the audience in on a few things.20160601-230511.jpg

Dd: What audience?

DD: The audience reading this.

Dd: Are you high? No one reads this.

DD: This blog has had over 18,000 views.

Dd: Maybe so, but no one’s going to read this twaddle.

DD: Let’s agree to disagree. [Pause.] Now why don’t we start by telling the audience a little something about you?

(more…)

Another Thinking Animal

by
Daulton Dickey.

 

—So tell me why you’re here.

—I’m tired. Not exhausted, but … just, I don’t know, tired.

Sarah’s wearing that gray face sad people wear, that mask with dead eyes looks like an unpainted statue.

—Can you describe it? “Tired” is so …

—Not clear?

—Mmm Hmm.

—I didn’t want no attention, she says. —Some people, I think, will think I did it for attention. But it wasn’t attention I wanted. (more…)

An Origin of Species

by Daulton Dickey.

 

KA-88 sat on a rock in a desert and glanced at the sky. Hydrated oxide in the atmosphere drenched the dome in sepia hues. Two hundred miles to the east, a cargo freighter sliced through the sepia and penetrated the skin of the planet. KA-88 knew what it contained—microbe guano, three humans, nineteen transhumans; she knew its destination: Ronocae; and she knew its speed: eighty-eight times the speed of sound.

She knew everything.

If a human part of her remained—the emotional, irrational product of those meat machines—she wondered if she’d lament knowing everything. Confusion had its perks. It seemed logical to balk every now and then, to feel uncertain and even frightened. When such experiences coalesced, she conjectured, then they gave rise to mystery, excitement, luminousness.

Correct?

Without so much as vestiges of emotions, she didn’t know. She couldn’t know.

Interesting.

She stood and circled a rock and contemplated her paradox: without emotions, she, an eighty-eight year old transhuman, an organic machine supplemented with silicone neurons and hardware, couldn’t know everything; if she couldn’t know everything, then she didn’t know everything. So how could a transhuman who knew everything not know everything—a clear violation of the law of non-contradiction. (more…)

A Peculiar Arrangement of Atoms — Out NOW!

Click here to buy it.

50% of all proceeds generated from this ebook will be donated to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. apeculiararrangementofatomsdaultondickey

A couple discovers an alien-like element, a woman locked in a ward tries to grapple with her mind, an ex-junkie encounters a possible solution to her problems, two men—broke—just want to get drunk, and, in an infinite story, a man encounters a woman who may hold the key to life and the universe.

A Peculiar Arrangement of Atoms is a collection of sixteen moving, funny, and enlightening short stories written in a variety of styles. Individually, they explore human experience. Together, they represent a bleak yet hopeful, and at times comic, portrait of humanity and the human condition.

Part John Barth and William Gaddis, part Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace, part Kurt Vonnegut and William S. Burroughs, but in a voice all his own, Dickey has crafted a short story collection that will linger, that will haunt you, that will entertain and, most importantly, stick with you.

The Hills of Zoar

by Daulton Dickey.

Jane Doe sits in a chair beside a window in a dimly lit room. A book in her lap is open to a chapter filled with blank pages. She turns the page and scans the textures. Her eyes bounce right to left, right to left, as if reading Hebrew. The textures, fine, almost imperceptible, are arrayed in scattershot patterns. Pulp dropped and compressed into pages. Random. But the textures say something. They mean something. Of that, she is certain.

The window to her right overlooks a brick wall. Someone at some point long ago, probably long before Jane was pushed into this world, had tagged the wall with paint. A cock with eyes and a mustache sitting on top of a scrotum. Above the cock, in perfect calligraphy, reads, “Beware, ye who enter here.”

Every now and then, Jane peels her eyes from the book and glances at the graffiti on the wall. She wonders what it means. She wonders if—exempting the eyes and mustache—it is a more or less realistic depiction of a cock. Or a scrotum. Then she wonders if “cock” is even a word people actually use to describe it, or if it’s a euphemism developed and propagated by middle- and upper-class novelists feigning street credentials.

Back to the book: those textures mean something. They spell out a message, a secret story. Why else had the authors included this chapter in the book? It’s some sort of ingenious new printing method: the textures of the page spell out some Voynich Manuscript-style esoterica.

Someone knocks on the door and Jane sets aside the book. She remains seated and stares at the door, stares at the crack beneath the door, as if she can discern the person from the shadow that he or she casts and spills into the crack.

Then there it is again, the knock. This time louder, more forceful.

Jane tip-toes across the room, never allowing the balls of her feet to touch the ground, trying to be as light, and as quiet, as possible.

She stops near the door and slows her breathing as she listens for sounds, for some sort of familiar cough or …

The doorknob shakes and jiggles. The door trembles. Feet scuffle, making sounds like tap dancers tearing up a stage—those gritty yet metallic staccato plops.

It’s times like this Jane wishes she had a peephole. Times like this, she’d be able to scan the outside world through a fish-eye lens and discern or identify whomever dared to harass her.

‘Mist Poe.’ The door muffles the voice, but the voice—nasally and low—obviously belongs to a man. ‘Mist Poe: cracker jack the sack around back. Arms and alms shout farewell.’

‘Crooked, crazy liar,’ she says, in what amounts to little more than a whisper.

‘The obvious doesn’t slow the noon.’

‘I’m comfortable here.’

‘Rape sore hills. Rape sore hills.’

‘No. No, you can’t make me.’

She shakes her head and backs away from the door, still refusing to marry the balls of her feet to the floor.

‘Rape sore hills.’ The man’s voice inflects, transmits authority.

‘No. I’m comfortable …’

The doorknob twists again. Jiggles again. The door trembles and the man speaks again: ‘Rape sore hills, mist Poe.’

Jane Doe spins and rushes to the chair. She drops into it and pulls the book to her lap. She flips the pages, studies them. Not a word in sight. Not a letter or even a speck of ink in sight.

Flipping the pages focuses her attention, and the man’s voice recedes and vanishes.

And she forgets about the man and the door altogether.

Phosphorescent lights bleed white. The room is so well lit that she’d be hard-pressed to find so much as a single shadow. After scrutinizing the book, Jane again sets it aside. She leaves the room to get a drink of water, and when she returns she notices a mural shimmering on the wall opposite the chair. A woman on a horse points to a vaguely Ancient Near Eastern city in flames. Cherubim hover over the woman and drape a cape–conspicuously shaped and textured like a vagina–over her.

The woman on the horse looks familiar, but Jane can’t place her. That likeness. She’s seen it somewhere.

She taps her cheeks with her fingertips and drags them down her chin and neck, stops them on her collar bone. She taps it. She taps it. It sounds hollow, hollow.

That mural, it … Is it new? She vaguely remembers a door. Somewhere. She vaguely remembers the door and somehow, for some reason, associates it with fear.

But then … She dismisses the thought. Her house is an impenetrable cube. No need for a door, she’d told the construction crew before they set out to build the cube around her. No need even for a window, she’d said. I can make both if I want to, she’d said, but I don’t really foresee a situation in which I’d want either a door or a window.

Then she remembers the construction crew. It hadn’t occurred to her then, but it occurs to her now: they weren’t wearing top hats or denim shirts or pants. They weren’t wearing belts or carrying tools. They were dressed in scrubs and white lab coats. And they were depositing and rearranging textures onto paper attached to clipboards while she spoke. And the foreman had a laughable combover. When he spoke, he sort of sung and spit out words and sentences in a nasally and low voice.

But then … But so who can trust memories, anyway? Jane Doe knows as well as anyone that memories can’t be trusted. Trust your memories and you might as well take a blade to the veins in your forearms.

Someone had told her that. But who? And is it even correct, and is it even verbatim—isn’t it more like, “trusting your memories is why you took a blade to your forearms”?

But then … But so who can trust memories, anyway?

She backs up and falls into the chair and pulls the book onto her lap. She flips through it, searches for patterns in the textures of the pulp compressed into, and forming, the paper. She searches. But she hasn’t yet discerned a pattern.

All patterns are discernible. She knows that. Chance isn’t responsible for anything. It’s not even an ontological concern. It’s only a product of the brain, that piece of untrustworthy meat lodged in everyone’s skulls. Of that, she’s certain.

Dislodging thoughts from the meat in her skull, Jane Doe sits in a chair beside a framed painting in a dimly lit room. A book in her lap is open to a chapter composed of photographs of aborted fetuses. She turns the page and scans the photographs. Her eyes bounce up and down, up and down, as if she’s reading Kenji and Kanji.

The framed painting to her right depicts a pregnant woman. She’s naked, the woman, and she appears no taller than a four year old child. Her stomach is bloated and corpse colored—green and purple, black and red. And she’s sitting on a man’s lap. The man is adult-sized. He’s wearing a suit and a tie, and a mustache obscures his upper lip. Motion lines, meant to depict movement, surround his leg, creating, or trying to create, the impression that the man is bouncing the pregnant, child-sized woman on his knee. On a banner above the man, in perfect calligraphy, reads, “Beware, the hills of Zoar.”

A Sample Story From My Short Story Collection

From A Peculiar Arrangement of Atoms: Stories. Out now via Kindle

Click here to buy it.

Click here to learn about how I’m donating proceeds to suicide prevention organizations.

On the Sidewalk, at Night, as Thunder Roared and the Clouds Threatened Rain, She Encountered a Possible Solution
by
Daulton Dickey.

The man at the counter focused on Alexis as she walked into the store, and as she walked through the store, picking up items and glancing at them, and sometimes seeming to study them, she had this feeling prickling the back of her skull, this feeling like being watched. Hyper agency detection, it’s called. The ability to sense the presence of other people. It was useful to her evolutionary forebears, and it was useful to Alexis as she sensed the man’s eyes penetrate her skull. But she didn’t glance at him to verify whether or not the sensation was a hit or a miss—sometimes people detected agents that weren’t there, a consequence of the evolutionary advantage, and a plausible component to the story of humankind’s invention of the concept of god.

The sense of becoming prey to a man’s eyes didn’t leave her, but she tried to soften it, to forget it, or, at the very least, to diminish its effects while she ambled from aisle to aisle and perused the shelves. And what was she searching for anyway? Why had she stopped at this store, this convenience store, at almost midnight on a Sunday-night-almost-Monday-morning?

Her arms itched, itched, that awful itch-and-sensation-of-not-belonging-in-ones-own-skin that diabetics claimed afflicted them—this sensation they usually noticed before receiving their diagnosis. She clutched them at her chest, her arms, and cupped her forearms, near her elbows. Every once in a while she’d start to scratch her arms, but then she’d catch herself and instead rub her arms, palms against flesh, the way parents do when consoling children.

And she drifted from aisle to aisle, glanced at item after item, as she wrestled with the instinct to scratch her arms. Worlds ballooned and dissolved inside her head. Some people called this daydreaming. Others recognized it as a symptom of various attention deficit-type disorders and wrote or asked for prescriptions for medication. But Alexis called it neither—it was simply a thing she did, something to pass the time, she supposed. It was something like a gimmick or a distraction, a way to silence the noises produced by the meat in her skull, meat intent on firing neurons and transmitting impulses in such as way as to bleed into her conscious state and to make her brain and her mind, and her entire body, feel the way her arms felt, feel like nothing belonged, like everything was attached by bristles and super glue, that nothing was certain or sacred or numinous or … Human. Yes, human.

When she reached the wall on the far side, the wall opposite the entrance, the wall replaced by refrigerators with glass doors, refrigerators lined with bottles of soda and frozen pizzas, chilled coffee and microwaveable lunches, she doubled back and, arms still clutched to her chest, made a beeline for the front door.

Hyper agency detection kicked in again, and she glanced at the man behind the counter as she opened the door: he focused on her, tracked her with his eyes and a slow motion panning head, and he sort of smiled this greasy smile, the type Alexis had encountered when men smiled at her with only one thing in mind.

She didn’t return the man’s smile, or even acknowledge it, as she glided through the door and flung it shut.

Clouds obscured the moon. She smelled moisture in the air but didn’t sense rain. Somewhere something was on fire. A house, maybe. She smelled it, too, and she wondered if it was a house, if maybe someone was inside the house, roasting alive and screaming and crying. A person’s mind shuts down in such a situation, she wagered. When you’re on the verge of death, of a death as awful as one by fire, she was pretty certain, your mind shut down. Instincts took over.

She was pretty certain instincts took over.

Her mind shut down the last time she glimpsed death. She was high and naked and lying on the carpet—she remembered it was wet, or was that a false memory, the wetness?—and she felt numb and floaty, as if her head had detached from her body and rolled into a closet, and she saw the world through the crack in a mostly-closed door. Or better yet: the world shrank as she slipped into a lens with an aperture slowly closing.

Her instincts didn’t take over then. That time, and on previous occasions when she’d glimpsed death, she rocked on her belly and closed her eyes and felt a sort of smile bend her lips—she didn’t remember smiling, she didn’t even remember consciously moving her lips, but she did remembered feeling her lips move; she remembered feeling them curl into a sort of smile as the aperture closed, closed, closed.

Clouds collided and merged and thunder rumbled to the east. Lightning flashed. Alexis floated down the sidewalk and glanced at her reflection in the window of a shuttered pet shop. Her face was droopy and her eyes were empty and dead looking. Fitting, those eyes, that face. Fitting because her external self had converged with her internal self, and, for once, for once, the external and the internal commingled in something like harmony.

Thunder rumbled again and lightning backlit the clouds. But it didn’t rain. It didn’t rain yet. Alexis knew rain would fill the streets soon enough, and she didn’t know where to go. Where would she go? Where would she go to stay warm and dry and itch or scratch free? And where would she go to escape that thing she did, that kind of daydreaming but not daydreaming thing where worlds ballooned and dissolved inside her head?

And where would she go to avoid the Bad Thing? That, for her, was the million dollar question. Her friends had succumbed to the Bad Thing and none had the desire, it seemed, to try to escape it. Not even Kara. Especially not Kara.

The last time Alexis had stayed with Kara, they spent three days locked inside the house, uncompromisingly high, and they wore these kind of old-lady-house-dress-looking pajamas, and the pajamas were dirty and smelled of urine and vomit, but neither Alexis nor Kara really cared about the stench, and they only rarely even noticed it, and then usually only when one plopped down on the bed and the air concussed and blasted the other in the face; and they were so high, so high they barely even spoke, and when they did speak, they spoke in that whispery drawl people speak after succumbing to the Bad Thing. And they stayed high for three days. Three days, and it felt like ten minutes. And then at one point during the three days, near the end, as Alexis recalled, Mario stopped by and promised Kara more of the Bad Stuff if she’d have sex with him, but Kara was so wrecked by the Bad Stuff that she couldn’t even feign excitement and she couldn’t convince Mario she was enjoying it—and she clearly wasn’t, but she tried, it seemed, to express excitement, at least for his sake. But he didn’t buy it, and the act of catching a woman feigning excitement did more to enrage him than probably anything else. Kara could probably have stolen a gram and it wouldn’t have enraged Mario as much as her whole faking an orgasm act had. And even after they had sex, which was the agreement, not an insistence on enjoyment, Mario refused to give Kara—and, by extension, Alexis—anything because she, Kara, was, Mario insisted, so strung out she was “worthless” and “about as useful” w/r/t sex as “a sock filled with sandpaper.”

Kara was so strung out, she didn’t care. She didn’t care that she’d had unprotected sex with a notorious—i.e. possible carrier of STDs—womanizer. She didn’t care that Mario’d had unprotected sex with her and then protested her lack of enthusiasm, she didn’t care that he’d ridiculed her and her best friend and then left without honoring his end of the bargain—she cared only about succumbing to the Bad Thing, and she was so taken by it that nothing else mattered.

If she returned to Kara’s house, Alexis knew she’d once again succumb to the Bad Thing, and she didn’t oh god want to succumb to the Bad Thing again, even though succumbing to it sounded so goddam good that her mouth, her brains, her bones screamed out for it. Please. God. Just one little taste. One. More. Taste. One little … To stop the burning, the sickness, the itching, the …

She clutched her belly and she fought it. She fought it. She wrestled every sensation tearing through her, the sensations practically demanding attention, the sensations threatening an insurrection, threatening to usurp her arms and legs and get the Bad Stuff and taste it one last time—with or without her consent. But then … Then she clutched her stomach again.

She couldn’t taste the Bad Stuff. Never again. Not now. Not …

She wasn’t certain she was pregnant—that is, she hadn’t verified it with a pregnancy test, but she knew. She could tell. Women knew these things. And she knew a baby was growing inside her, of that she was more certain than anything. And she knew she was going to have it, and she knew she wanted to keep it, and she knew keeping it entailed responsibility, the type of which she’d never really exercised before, and she knew the Bad Stuff would either kill the baby or deform it somehow—maybe not physically but definitely mentally—and she knew the Bad Stuff would splinter or destroy whatever neural processes governed the actions people referred to as “maternal instincts.” And so … No. She wouldn’t go to Kara’s. She wouldn’t fall back or rely on anyone she’d known or kind of befriended—though in those circles, you never really “befriended” anyone; friendship itself only remained strong when someone had access to the Bad Stuff. She could not even attempt to rely on Kara or anyone else now that a baby was blooming inside her.

Thunder rumbled again. It jolted her. She jumped, physically jumped, and her heart pounded. She glanced up and registered the sky, the clouds, and mentally inquired about the rain. Why hadn’t it started yet? It was almost certainly going to start. Any minute now. Any …

And that’s when she saw it. On the sidewalk, near the base of a building, an old barbershop: a one hundred dollar bill. It lay flat on the sidewalk. She stopped and stood over it and glanced down at it. Her fingers curled and closed into a fist—acting on their own; a prelude to insurrection? And she fought the impulse to bend over and scoop up the money.

This required consideration. This required tact.

Hyper agency detection kicked in and Alexis stepped forward and dropped her foot onto the hundred dollar bill, and she glanced around—left to right, forward and back—but she didn’t see anyone, no one, not a single person. Not anywhere. And so she stood, frozen, foot stamped on the money, and she considered what she’d discovered. An answer. A possible answer. Maybe she could use it to find a cheap hotel and regroup. Maybe she could use it to eat. Maybe she could use it to … Maybe just a little taste of it, the Bad Stuff. A small portion of the cash could buy enough Bad Stuff to maybe make her sickness go away or make the itching go away or … But no. No. She was desperate and she was tired and she was hungry, and she was also craving the Bad Stuff, and so while the money might be a blessing there was also an almost equal chance that it might be a curse. And so …

And so she’d just take it. She’d scoop it up and slip it into her pocket and find a cheap hotel and maybe—or maybe not, who knew?—call Mario or Kara and …

She lifted her foot and bent over and tried to scoop up the money, but something prevented her for picking it up. Something prevented her from grabbing it and lifting it and slipping it into her pocket.

She fell to her knees and tried to pick it up and then she tried to wedge her thumbnail under the corner to peel it away from the sidewalk and … This money would really help. It could help and … Maybe a hotel for the night. Or food. Or maybe it’d buy a taste, just a little taste of the Bad Stuff. Or maybe … And if only she could wedge her thumbnail under it. If she could only lift the corner, peel it from the sidewalk, she’d undoubtedly then peel the entire thing off and shove it into her pocket and … Maybe just a taste, you know? One little taste and … Just lift the corner. She only needed to lift the corner. But the corner wouldn’t rise. It wouldn’t break free. It …. Probably those assholes, those frat boys assholes … They probably used some adhesive to stick it to the ground. Those assholes pulled pranks like this all the time. They pulled pranks on the poor or homeless and filmed it and put it online so other frat boys assholes could watch it and laugh at the poor or homeless and … It was definitely glued. Definitely stuck there. Definitely affixed to the sidewalk. And … It was undoubtedly those assholes and … If only she could wedge her thumbnail under the corner. If she could only lift the corner … God, she was so fucking tired. A hotel room sounded great. It called to her. And food: she could feel her stomach jump into her throat, ready to devour anything, anything. And then maybe she would call Mario. But just for a taste. One last taste before she … And if only she could wedge her thumbnail under the corner.

The Role of Expectations in Kafka’s “A Country Doctor”

by
Daulton Dickey.

“I was in great perplexity”—or so the narrator of “A Country Doctor” tells us at the start of the story. On the road to visiting a patient, with a gig and without horses, his perplexity is understandable. He is a doctor, after all, and he is in need of transportation to visit a potentially sick patient. 

The story, it is worth noting, is written in the past tense, so the narrator is recounting these events from a vantage point sometime after the events he describes. It is possible that the opening statement—”I was in great perplexity”—is an expression of his state at the time the story begins; however, it’s also possible that the statement is an expression of something we would now call existential angst. 

From where does this “existential angst” spring? The nature of roles and the perception of roles might supply an answer.

As frameworks for viewing the concept and consequences of roles, we can appeal to two thinkers: the sociologist Charles Horton Cooley and the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. Cooley, working in the early decades of the twentieth century, posited what he called “the looking glass self.” Briefly, the looking glass self is a theory suggesting that our personalities are derived from how we perceive others perceive us. As Cooley once remarked, “I am not what I think I am and I am not what you think I am; I am what I think that you think I am.” (Hood :72)             

In his philosophical treatise Tractatus-Logico-Philosophicus, the Austrian philosopher kafkaLudwig Wittgenstein delineated an ontology that might be useful in viewing the concept of roles objectively. In the Tractacus, Wittgenstein distinguished between things in the universe and the language we used to describe those things, arguing that the language used to describe a thing does not equal the thing itself. To put it simply, the word “matter” is not a component of the thing it is meant to signify; instead, it is a picture of that thing, distinct from it.

We, each of us, play roles. Life is a series of theatrical stages onto which we are thrust, and the roles we play depend on the situation and on the audience, so to speak. Anecdotally, I am different in isolation than I am at work, as I interact with other people. Using “me in isolation” as a baseline, then we can say that I am different at work and different still around friends. Given the situation, given the people with whom I am surrounded, my personality shifts from situation to situation. 

This phenomenon is not unique to me. It occurs to each of us. How we encode and retrieve memories, how we select information, how we spin information to loosen the tension of cognitive dissonance too often blinds us from these situational-personality shifts.

Anticipating Cooley’s “Looking Glass Self” theory, the poet and filmmaker Jean Cocteau once encouraged us to embrace the way the public reproached us because, he claimed, their reproaches came closer to signifying who we really are.

In “A Country Doctor” we find several roles cast, and too often we find expectations met and affirmed, by either the people cast in those roles or the people casting those roles.

Having kicked open an uninhabited pigsty, the country doctor discovers a man inside. The man crawls out on all fours—animal-like—and asks, “Shall I yoke up?” (Kafka: 220) This behavior might be a joke, it might be a gag, but to a man in search of a horse, and to man living in a pigsty, it is an interesting pun on roles.

Expectations of roles play a part in this scenario as well. A few minutes later, when this man is helping to yoke real horses, he lashes out and bites the doctor’s servant girl on the cheek, leaving visible teeth marks. The role he had earlier cast himself in, and the role the doctor might have unconsciously cast, brought about subhuman behavior from a man living like—and joking about being—an animal.

We are who we think other people think we are—if this proposition holds true, then it can help shed light on the man’s behavior, on why he bit the servant girl: he was playing a role, that of a horse, and he was performing as he, or others, might expect him to perform.

Calling on Wittgenstein’s ontology, let us distinguish how things are from the language we use to describe them. For the sake of argument, let us presuppose that this story is true. Now consider the following: seeing a man living in a pigsty, crawling around like an animal, how would you expect A-country-doctor-by-Franz-Kafka-213x300him to behave: like a civilized dandy or like an animal? Assume the latter. Then assume that he picked up on your expectation: now how would you expect him to behave?

Before the man joked about yoking up, before the man bit the woman, he saw the doctor and the doctor’s serving girl. In a class system, a man living in a pigsty undoubtedly underwent social and culture training inculcating subservience to a person of a higher class—even if it is a doctor. It is possible that the man recognized this, and it is possible that it offered another role for him to perform: servant. So, “of his own free will” (Kafka: 220), the man assisted the doctor and the servant girl in yoking the horses.

The language you use to describe people, even if the language you use is nothing more than body language, even if the difference is perceived class differences, can affect how a person behaves.

On biting the servant girl, the man reverts again to his role as animal when it is implied that he is going to possibly rape the servant girl, who runs into the house and locks the door. The man smacks the doctor’s horses, and the horses race away as the man broke down the door to the house and bolted inside.

We are, each of us, a looking glass. The language we use to describe ourselves does not necessarily reflect our personality or behavior. The language other people use, or, specifically, the language we think they use, can and does affect our personality or behavior.

We can find evidence for this, within the context of Kafka’s story, if we jump ahead in the narrative.

Having arrived at his patient’s house, the doctor is rushed inside by the patient’s family. Lying in bed, the patient says, “Doctor, let me die.” (Kafka:221) The patient’s family doesn’t hear his plea; instead, they watch intently, expecting the doctor to heal their son and brother.

The doctor’s role is one in which he cast himself, but his expectations of this role differ from the expectations of those who do not belong to the medical profession. Here, the patient himself has peculiar expectations for the doctor: by pleading with the doctor to let him die, the patient seems to presuppose that the doctor can save his life—which may or may not be the case.

Yet the doctor has cast himself in another role as well, that of master and protector of the servant girl. While he prepares to attend to the patient, his role as master and protector occupies him, and he contemplates fleeing to save his servant from the clutches of the animal-like man.

We each play roles. Roles dominate our lives. In every second of every day, we play roles, we perform. Do these roles, do these performances, lead to existential angst?

To answer this, we can appeal to the philosophical movement known as existentialism, which in its reduced form makes the following claim: “meaning” is a human construct; it is not a thing that exists independently of human beings; and in lieu of latching onto meaning that exists outside of us, we are free to make our own meaning.

To the country doctor, this triggers an interesting question: what does hkafka complete storiesis role mean, a role perceived by himself and others?

The townsfolk view the role of doctor as almost superhuman, or mystical–or magical. Having surrounded the doctor and stripped off his clothes, they sang, “Strip his clothes off, then he’ll heal us,/ If he doesn’t, kill him dead!/ Only a doctor, only a doctor.” (Kafka: 224)

The role the townsfolk cast is unrealistic, as unrealistic as the role the patient himself cast when he implored the doctor to let him, the patient, die. It is the case such that a doctor might cure people, or at least ease their suffering. This, however, doesn’t necessarily translate to the doctor as the hinge on which life and death always turns. In some cases, it is possible that a doctor can cure or heal someone. It is not the case, however, that, in all cases, a doctor is able to cure or heal someone. Yet these townsfolk seem to assume the latter. Punish the doctor, say, if he does not give us what we want, if he does not fulfill the role he is expected to play, which is the role of superhuman healer.

This is a role he cannot play, this is a role he does not want to play—the situation created for him has spoiled his role as doctor, and now he wants to finish his business so he can escape. However, he must finish meeting with his patient, who is cast in a role of his own: miser.

To illustrate this, pay attention to how the patient behaves when he finally has the doctor’s attention:

“‘Do you know,’ said a voice in my ear, ‘I have very little confidence in you. Why, you were only blown in here, you didn’t come on your own feet. Instead of helping me, you’re cramping me in my deathbed. What I’d like best is to scratch your eyes out.’ ‘Right,’ I said, ‘it is a shame. And yet I am a doctor. What am I to do? Believe me, it is not too easy for me, either.’ ‘Am I supposed to be content with this apology? Oh, I must be, I can’t help it. I always have to put up with things. A fine wound is all I brought into the world; that is my sole endowment.'” (Kafka: 224)

A sense of duty compelled the doctor to visit the patient, duty derived from his role as a doctor. The threats of the townsfolk keeps him by the beside, despite the threats from his patient, despite his patient’s lack of interest in living. The role the doctor plays is as both author of his circumstances and victim of his circumstances, and the expectations he has of himself, and that others thrust onto him, transform his looking glass into a magnifying glass through which rays from the sun pelt and assault him.

His role has thrust him into this circumstance, the expectations others have of him have heightened his circumstance, and he cannot appeal to his role to save him. After all, as he told the patient, “I am a doctor. What am I to do?”

 

Bibliography

Kafka, Franz, The Complete Stories (Schocken Books, 1995)

Hood, Bruce, The Self Illusion: How the Social Brain Creates Identity (Oxford University Press, 2013)

Wittgenstein, Ludwig, Major Works: Selected Philosophical Writings (Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2009)

The Dentist

by Daulton Dickey.

Dentistry isn’t what it used to be. In my younger and less vulnerable years, I’d service fifteen or twenty patients a day without incident. Scrape teeth, inject lidocaine and extract teeth, and then I’d go home and distract myself. Thoughts of work rarely assaulted me. But now I can’t go near a person’s mouth without an armed bodyguard and an exorcist, and the day haunts me well into night.

Just this morning, a scruffy-faced man ambled into my office, complaining of a toothache. My alarm bells sounded on seeing him. His greasy hair and unkempt beard alerted me to potential trouble. And those eyes, black and hollow, dug into my flesh and raised every hair on my body.

‘I got an awful pain,’ he said.

My nurse seated him and eyeballed me, telegraphing SOS by flickering her pupils. I returned the message and, with a flick of my wrist, called Sancho into the room. His name was—honest to god—Sancho Panza and he stood six foot eight inches without shoes. He sauntered into the room, clutching a crucifix, and hovered over me. I couldn’t see his face but I knew his routine: fire mad-looking eyes at the patient, a sort of pre-emptive warning shot, and grimace. (more…)