February 15, 2018
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Caroline walked in first and then Paul and that one's.... Turner looked at the attendance sheet. Ah, yes, Bart. They slept through this class and he did as well. He remembered to avoid to read the book in front of him—the usual indifference. No need to spook anyone.
Sterile light from the winter morning sun shone in through the ground floor windows that, in this sunken lecture hall, were located near the ceiling.
Turner could not focus. He kept peeking over the book to spot him, the student over whom he had worried for the past several months. Then Elijah walked in followed by Sarah and Bethany. That’s everyone, well, everyone except Victor. Eight o'clock. Time to start.
Turner began to walk to the front of the room, and hope began to build up in his chest. Maybe he wouldn’t have to confront him today. That hope was slashed as Victor walked into class and took his seat in the corner. He was always a thinner kid, but now it was more pronounced. Turner let his eyes linger on Victor a second longer—the hooked nose, the hair disheveled by a long night of running his hands through it, and the narrowed eyes. He was pale.
Turner forced himself to start the lecture, but he kept thinking about Victor. With his appearance and mental state aside, he did not belong. 'Modernist Prosody 300.' Ha, this was an intro course. Turner would drone on to the comatose students and cold call one every once in a while only to receive an absolutely dull response. If you want to learn something, you had to learn it yourself. And that's all Victor had done since arriving on campus four years ago. Turner remembered meeting him for the first time in the corner of Annie's bookstore, surrounded by a mountainous nest of books.
'Sir, you teach at the college, don’t you? Would you mind recommending a book to me?'
It took Turner a couple minutes to read all the titles this young man had gathered. 'Hmmm. Ovid and Shelley—interesting picks.’ He took another look at the fellow. ‘Do you go to the college?'
'Yes, sir. Arrived last week.'
'Take one of my classes in the spring.’ He motioned to all the books around Victor. ‘Not many have this type of interest in literature. I would go with Shelley by the way.'
That's how Victor excelled—he was always working on something, trying to expand and perfect his writing. At this point any course he took only served as tangible achievement for his parents. But Victor had come back for a fifth year, only to lock himself in his room and sit in on classes to which he paid no attention, like he was doing now. Turner stole a glimpse at Victor who was bent down, nose nearly touching the yellow legal pad.
'So yes, Crane does revert back to iambic with enough regularity that it cannot be coincidental.' Turner looked at the clock. 9:59. 'And we'll explore that further on Monday. Have a good weekend.’ They filed out, happier than they had been filing in, but probably disappointed, like Turner, that they had wasted two hours of their lives.
'Victor,' he called out. ‘Would you mind meeting me in my office?'
They made eye contact for the first time today, for the first time in months. His eyes were wide, with an energy.
The office was located behind the lecture hall—more like an oversized closet really. But Turner had tried to make the space warmer over the years. He added maple bookshelves to walls, an old beat up desk that he'd owned since high school, and soft, incandescent lamps. He liked to think of his additions having an early twentieth century English character. Two chairs, upholstered with maroon, stood on either side of the desk.
Victor closed the door behind him and took a seat, with his head pointed down to his knees.
His left hand was shaking. Was it a spasm? A nervous twitch? 'So Victor, uhh. Have you read any books lately?' Academics: a nice, safe place to start, something in his wheelhouse.
'By Lerner?'
A curt nod.
'Fascinating pick. What did you think of it?'
'And how so, Victor?'
After a long silence with his head still look down, he responded. 'The thematic structure is largely cyclic and so is the theme itself.' He flipped pages in the legal pad and read. ‘”Everything will be as it is now, just a little different.” Page 34.’
His eyes locked with Turner’s. 'That is the theme, the intermingling of realities, the cyclic nature of existence.'
'And how is the thematic structure cyclic?' asked Turner. This was proceeding more sanely than the Victor's body language had suggested.
Victor stayed staring at him, straight in the eye and said ‘ “It was as if the gas lamp he paused before were burning at once in the present and in various pasts, in 2012 but also in 1912 or 1883, as if it were one flame flickering simultaneously.” That is from another part of the book. Basically the same theme, with a different wording and context. The theme never develops; it just cycles back, repeating itself through the whole book. Lerner is trying to make you feel his message through the structure in addition to the actual content.'
Turner broke the eye contact. It wasn’t just an energy. The brilliant blue of Victor’s eyes had retreated for the darkness of the pupils. And he wasn't sure how to feel the new turn of conversation. On one hand, Victor had just made valid and insightful points about the book, but had recited that multi-line quote from memory and maintained that drilling eye contact throughout.
Victor continued. 'Professor, you have read Conrad, Poe, and Shelley, correct?'
'And Joyce, Shakespeare, Fitzgerald?'
'And did they transport you?'
'Did their writing transport you into the setting? Did they bring their characters into reality?’
Some of them did, some of them didn't, but Turner responded with a tentative, 'Yes.'
'Professor, you’re lying.'
Lying? Turner had read all of these authors. Heck, he even taught a lot of them. Did they transport you? That was personal opinion. Who was this kid?
'Professor, you have never truly been transported. You have remained in the subway car, at this desk, or wherever you read, as you try to picture the writer's setting. You can't see yourself in one of the characters or actually experience the plot. Take Ovid. You can have as much empathy for Daedalus losing his son as you like, but the story remains only a shadow, a fragment. To this point literature has failed to create anything beyond mere representations. Language has failed, man has failed.’
'Victor, they're only words.'
Victor lowered his eyes, unwilling to respond. There was a long silence and Turner pondered what he could have meant. He understood Victor—sometimes he would have the same thoughts, the same doubts about the medium to which he had devoted his life—but what ideal alternative could there be? Long ago Turner thought of life as holding a purely aesthetical purpose. In the course of things, of climaxes and depressions, of life, that view had diminished. Still, he tried to teach with enthusiasm. Did some of that idealism bleed into his teaching? Was it now in Victor?
After long the silence grew oppressive. 'Victor, how're your folks?’
'They're fine. How's Ms. Turner?'
'She's doing fine, thank you. We just had our 30th anniversary. She’s on a trip to Minneapolis right now.'
'Cool, should be cold this time of year.'
'For sure.'
Soon enough the left hand again began to shake and pen strokes sounded from the right.
? ? ?
Yellow barely shined through the web of notes. The handwriting: miniscule. The line spacing: smaller. But the orientation: varied. Sometimes it was normal, or sideways, or slanted and once in a while, spiraled. Victor wasted nothing.
Neurology notes headlined the page, notes from yesterday's class. Below that he quoted patient and psychiatrist testimonies from the 1950's, on the medical use of psychedelics. On the left he recorded his experiments with meter—thumb down for a stress and thumb up for an unstressed syllable—he wrote down the good ones. Below all that, Victor was trying to sketch a character.
‘What have you been doing lately, Victor?' asked the professor. Ah yes, the professor. A spider crawled between the microscope and the slide. Victor could leave and find a solitary place or delay. As the prudent as the first option was, the next note could not wait.
'Writing, reading, classes.' he responded.
'Any sleep? Anything to eat?'
So this wasn't Turner wanting to have a friendly talk. This man had a purpose. Victor could fix this, turn the path away from himself. He could say that he'd been eating less than the professor. But no. 'I've been to the cafe a lot.'
'On second street?'
That was the one.
'Well, I haven't seen you there.'
'I have my own spot.’
‘It’s not what you would call a palace, Victor. When do you go?'
'I live there. Two flights up.'
'Oh, ok. And I suppose you live on coffee? On other...supplements?’ That was true and Victor continued to write. He finished the appearance of the character, but was unable to get the mood. He felt the humor of Turner's last question shift to something frigid and raised his head, looking his teacher straight in the eye. This was the only way to do it, something he had learned in the last year. People had always liked his eyes; Victor used theirs. He found in Turner's a concerned dread and jotted it down on the pad. That's what the character needed.
'Victor.' said the professor and Victor looked up. It was one of those annunciations that informed you of its gravity. Victor knew where this was going. ‘I’ve been meaning to tell you this for a while. I notice that you’ve been a little down the last couple months. I think you need some help.'
Victor let out a small sigh. The only fan at his game had started to root for the rival. 'What makes you say that?'
‘Well, you look worn out. You—'
‘How so?’
‘Sleep. How much per night?'
'I don't know. I’m too busy.'
‘There are more important things,’ Victor trailed off.
‘In obsession there are things more important than sleep.’
The professor shook his head in bewilderment. 'Victor, you're barely taking care of yourself and...and I don’t know. You used to be my best student—curious, engaging, optimistic. You used to tell me that you had a great work inside you, something you were destined to create. Now you barely seem to care. You hardly come to class. You live with your head down. You've locked yourself away. What happened?'
This man—he did not understand. ‘You think all of this' Victor motioned around, 'has no point? I go to the classes I need to. I take notes on what's relevant. If it’s not, I write my stories, draw my characters. That's why my head's down. That's why I am always taking notes, pushing the boundaries, experimenting. No second can be wasted. And at home I read, I read the others who’ve attempted what I'm attempting. I see where they came close, see where they failed. There's no time, no space for anything else. That is what I do, professor, and I assure you it all has a point.’
'But these "experiments," whatever they are, are they worth shedding twenty pounds, not sleeping, and losing your mind?'
‘They are. Remember what I said about Poe, Joyce, and Fitzgerald, these giants of literature? They have failed and it is time for something new. I’m telling you professor, I see it all differently now—the way I perceive, the connections I make writing, the ability to read multiple things at once. My writing surpasses everything. And you know when I used to say I had some great work in me? I’m nearing this next step, this ability to transport.’
Turner’s eyes transformed from widened shock to flared anger. But he was not angry. The eyebrows furrowed in a caricature of rage. The professor was only pretending to be firm.
‘Victor, I cannot process most of what you are saying. I appreciate your...enthusiasm. However, I believe the stress is getting to you.’ He looked away from Victor. ‘Have you thought about talking to someone, you know just as a release?’
‘Like a shrink.’
‘Well, I mean, maybe that would be—'
‘And I suppose you scheduled the first sessions for me already.’ The professor’s eyes did not interest him anymore. He looked at the ground.
‘Victor. Victor. I’m just saying— ‘
‘You were the best, professor.' His voice broke. 'You saw the world in the same way I did, filtered in the same colors. You were different than my other teachers. Some of them didn't care, others tried to “prepare us” for the future. You loved storytelling for what it is and would urge us to propel the art forward. Do you remember when we spent the whole afternoon reading Xu? I ran into this office with her latest collection. You were probably grading or something, but you stopped and for three hours we took turns reading the poems, reveling in their greatness. And do you remember what you said that night?'
Turner’s eyes were downcast. After a second he looked up. The man was crying. 'Yes,' in a whisper.
‘ “A man is nothing without his work. Nothing without his magnum opus.”’
Victor made sure to look at his mentor in the midst of what had transformed into a crucial conversation. At last Turner spoke.
'I did believe that, Victor, and I still might. The work of an artist is what he leaves to the world, what he tries to communicate.' He dropped his voice and softly, with the tenderness of a parent, spoke, 'I'm worried about, Victor. You are the most extraordinary student, no, most extraordinary person that I've ever met. The world deserves to hear you and it will better because of it. I’m just worried they will not be able to hear it.’
‘I would accept that, professor, but I’m beyond that logic. There is a certain spirituality to obsession. It’s a submersion of the self, a kind of baptism, a transportation. Don’t you think, professor?’ Turner did not respond. ‘I measure my life with this goal. I’d rather die with progress made toward the unattainable than to live in the mediocrity of survival. The renewal of literature, the ability to transport, that is all that matters.’
Turner tried to speak, but Victor cut him off.
‘I’m on to something big.’ he said and left the office, never to see Turner again
? ? ?
Amid all the talk of Sikkim’s rise and of the author’s disappearance, sits the brilliance of the story itself. In his first and possibly last novel, Victor Evans combines a depth of theme with an incredibly raw manner of storytelling. Evans’ greatest strength, however, is his descriptive power. So powerful that I can clearly see the setting as he imagined and so subtle that I cannot pinpoint his technique, his prose possesses the singular ability to transport the reader into his story, following in the footsteps of Fitzgerald and Joyce. –New York Times

Initially, I was skeptical of the reports that claimed Sikkim was ‘the next great American novel,’ especially from a source so obscure. Sikkim’s reputation built over three years, with word traveling bookstore to bookstore, all tracing back to a single staple-bound manuscript. The author, Victor Evans, has remained quiet and this is not a case of declining interviews—no one has been able to be contact him for one. –Wall Street Journal

As the praise for Victor mounts while his whereabouts remain hidden, countless people have asked me questions about this former student of mine. I cannot answer most of them. While he was the most brilliant person I have ever had the privilege of teaching, he was a stranger even to me. What I do know is that he would view this novel as a failure and probably already did before he sent it in. And that, that act, is progress. –Claude Turner

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