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Kaze: Having "The Conversation"

Steve Altman reviews Ares Demertzis' short story, "The Conversation," first published in 2006:

Are you up for a 7,500-word short story about the meaninglessness of life?

I guess that would depend.

Well, how about if it had no plot, but consisted only of the bitter, half-dreamt complaints awhirl in the mind of a dying old man? And if it contained no paragraphs or sentences as such, no punctuation, not even capital letters?

Okay, ready?

It’s “The Conversation,” by sculptor, cinematographer, and New English Review contributor Ares Demertzis. No walk in the park, this story of his. If you’re intrigued, click here, although you may first want to put away your belt and shoelaces and lock up any sharp objects.

Lying abed, waiting, the old man wants some answers. What’s it all mean? Where’s God? But he gets no reply. The whole point of the story is that no one’s there to hear him: the title is ironic. I remember one of the characters in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, who says “Give ‘em irony and give ‘em pity.”

But no pity here. To the extent there are two parties to this “conversation,” one is the old man and the other is his own death.  He imagines death as a beautiful whore—unseen, implacably silent, and essentially indifferent to him except that she’s been with him his whole life and will be with him when it ends. He tells her:

i cant stand your insufferable silence   all this waiting without a single word   i have known you all my life yet you have never spoken to me   at least you have never spoken to me whereby i can hear your profound voice your cynical laughter your compassionate tears   oh   you do cry don’t you   you will cry when i leave and you cant follow me around wont you   when im gone will we ever see each other again or is this our one time affair   will you have others after me or will you also cease to exist like the parasite that invades a body only to die after eliminating the host   are you listening to me   stop this ridiculous silence and answer you elusive bitch   time for a cigarette

This is no life-affirming tale, but rather a long howl at the human condition—as perceived, that is, by a man perhaps too smart and certainly too embittered for his own good. Just before he dies, his mind unraveling at last, it may just be that he glimpses “the meaning the rationalization for life.” But when at last he's dead he is so definitively dead—read the unforgettable ending and you will understand—that any consolation is impossible.

“The Conversation,” which I first read in 2006, reveals more to me each time I read it. And yet, I wouldn't blame you for asking:  Why would anybody choose to engage with a story that is so lacking in the standard enticements—plot, characters, a little sunshine, a text one can follow without a lot of extra work—and that is just chock-full of unhappiness?
 
I guess part of it is that it's not my unhappiness. Talk all you want to about experiencing things vicariously, there’s a big difference between reading the thoughts of a fictional character who’s dying and dying yourself. We get to think and feel and mull over the eternal unanswerable riddles of existence, and then go out for drinks. One of the basic pleasures of reading fiction is to be moved by unhappy events that are (a) not real and (b) not ours.
 
But of course, that’s not quite true. They are real and they are ours. We’re human; unhappy events come with the territory. So stories allow us—from a safe remove—to try out our reactions to these events, maybe pick up some pointers from others, or at least feel less alone. 

And when it comes to difficult works like “The Conversation”—which is, in literary terms, what’s called an interior monologue—the very difficulty of the storytelling can make the reader’s experience richer than it might otherwise be. That’s my argument for it—assuming, of course, that the story at its heart has things to say. When we have to engage strenuously with a work of fiction, when we have to virtually dig our way into and through it, sometimes in the end it can feel as if we have reached a vein of feeling in ourselves, some capacity for understanding, that might otherwise have been left undiscovered.

In which case, as with "The Conversation," we feel that we have come to understand not just the meaning of the story, but a new thing or two about ourselves.