What Can Be Known?

Mysteries and misunderstandings.


November 25, 2014

In Form and Theory of Fiction we just read Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station, continuing our discussion this semester of “stories about nothing” that included Chekhov’s “Lady with the Dog,” Jean-Philippe Toussant’s novel Running Away, and Stanley Crawford’s novella Log of the SS The Mrs. Unguentine. As William Gass says, summing up the feelings of many contemporary writers, “There’s bird drop, horse plop, and novel plot.”

What those works are “about,” of course, in the absence of traditional plot, is the perceiving consciousness, the difficulties of communicating by fraught language, and the problems of understanding any event with certainty. Knowing, in these books, is often by ineffable, intuitive means, and the emotions of characters soar and crash as a result, leading only to more uncertainty and loneliness. It’s the modern condition, amplified by technology. (Cell phones, eg, play a major role in the confusion of Running Away; in Atocha cable news adds to the dissociation; in Unguentine an Edenic biome is torn down and puzzlingly replaced with metal trees.) The basis for much literature: Life is weird, but here I am; no solace but small ones; no way out of these strange rooms but the final mysterious door.

Once you start looking for something you see it everywhere, of course, and lately all I’ve seen are stories of mistakenness, opacity, not-knowing, and fragmentation. A few days ago I was tagged on Facebook in a photo of four young soldiers in the Republic of Panama who were wearing field gear, brandishing M-16s, and trying to look piratical. The poster was the daughter of a former roommate—he and I were pictured—who wrote that the photo was taken in 1987 during Operation Just Cause. An interesting dialogue between my old friend and his daughter developed publicly in the comments. He corrected her gently and said the photo was taken in 1986, and it wasn’t during Just Cause. (Just Cause, when Noriega was deposed, was ’89.) She begged to differ, since he’d written on the back of the photo that it was Operation Just Cause. He explained that after Just Cause soldiers often referred to an eventless, boring, uncomfortable field exercise as “Operation Just Because.” That is: Why have we lived in this dripping jungle until the soles of our feet look like soft white cheeses ribboned with blood jelly, and our clothing is rotting off our stinking bodies? Just because. He’d written on the back of the photo years after it was snapped, and his daughter had reconstructed the story, transporting entire divisions in the process.

This simple misunderstanding is instantly recognizable to me. When I was trying to find my estranged father, years ago, I cold-called a man with my father’s first and last names who’d worked where my father had, and who’d retired in the same state. I was convinced the wrong middle initial in the phone book was a typo or a dodge, and the fact that his dates of employment seemed off didn’t matter much in the great mystery of paternity. Even his voice sounded right, though I’d never heard my father speak. It took the poor man’s innocent, earnest confusion to defuse the tension. When I finally did find my father, his voice sounded like that other man’s. It’s sobering to think how often our sense of history must ride on mistakes and weird coincidences.


Strangeness wrapped in mystery, the dissociation of our time.

When my friend Frenchy and I leave Chekhov’s estate, we’re put on a bus to Moscow, and there allowed to buy only specific seats on the high-speed train to St. Petersburg. They cost more than we want to spend, are in the dining car, and come with more food and drink than we can consume, but we sit pleasurably watching the Russian countryside, drinking wine, and talking politics and the state of the Russian infrastructure. We don’t mention where we’ve been. Across from us at the same table sit two Russian businessmen. One talks in Russian on his phone, and the other reads a paperback novel the whole trip. They never speak to each other until, as we pull into St. Petersburg, the heavy, older man with the phone turns to his seat mate and says several sentences in Russian and the name “Anton Pavlovich” more than once.


I’m getting a parking tag in our university’s police department. A man rushes in, panting, limping heavily, as if shot. He collapses in a chair to wait his turn, patiently. Outside, five large dogs in his truck wait, patiently.


A bride arrives alone—gown, train, and veil—at the soup kitchen in town. She's just been married. She’s served, moves on.


My sons and I were watching Jeopardy, and the question was, “What hairy cud-chewer served [as a mascot at some event in Vermont]?” Both boys are verbal and smart, and when Starbuck didn’t hear the whole question, his imagination filled in the blanks. “What is a sandwich?” he blurted.

Wolfie and I looked at him blankly. “What?” I said. 

“Hairy cud-chewer,” Starbuck said. “It was a sandwich during the Civil War.”

We stared.

You know,” he said impatiently. “You’d go in some nasty restaurant down on the waterfront, and they’d serve you a po’ boy, some étouffée, or a hairy cud-chewer.” 

He’s 12 and still calls me Daddy but is starting to hesitate over it. When he hugs me goodnight he leans over in a bow so only his forehead touches my chest. I anticipate needing to release him soon by saying he can call me Dad if he wants. Wolfie announced the change a year ago, at age eight. I don’t care. I’ll be their Daddy until the stars burn out in the sky. 

You’re a hairy cud-chewer,” I said. A few things are still possible to know.


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