I arrived at UC Berkeley in August, 1987 with a strange sense of calm. Though school was starting in a week, I felt no need to participate in any of the orientation activities. Instead, I drove around with my new housemates Henry and Roy -- we had all attended the same small Maryland high school -- purchasing the goods necessary to survive. Free time was spent driving around with no real purpose, getting to know the Bay Area.
My lack of anxiety was largely the result of my having just returned from a year in Germany a month before: I was happy to be speaking English and even happier that my ability to speak it well -- I had become quite native tongue-tied in Germany -- was returning rapidly. The prospect of attending classes in English seemed less than daunting after having had to sit through classes in a German school the previous August.
I wasn't really homesick, either, since I had never felt completely at home in the month since I'd come back from Germany. On the contrary, I was as open to new experiences as I'd ever been.
I did spend some time on the Berkeley campus during that week before school, getting used to sitting in the library. I read a Franz Kafka story one day, tried writing one of my own the next. I have very distinct memories of the experience. I was using the portable typewriter I'd purchased in Germany with money sent by my Aunt Louise. It was a quiet machine with an inexplicably blue ribbon. I've always been able to picture myself sitting there in Moffitt, taking my first stab at fiction, rapidly growing frustrated with my inability to get into a groove.
No matter how hard I pressed, however, I was never able to conjure up a memory of what I'd written during this abortive experiment in literary exertion. But yesterday, while sorting through a strange stack consisting of A) assorted bookmarks; B) business cards I collected around the time that I left UC Berkeley for the U of A; C) versions of my most important graduate-school papers, including the job talk I gave here in Tucson; and D) embarrassing forays with the calligraphy pen from my first year at Cal, I came across that long-lost document of the week before starting college:
Should I use "I"? I mean, would it be better to describe it all from afar? If I use the third person where the first belongs I run the risk of being boring.Reading this over again as I typed it in, I can't believe that I'd completely forgotten the content. All my literary fixations are prefigured, from the power of a first-person narrative to the conviction that lies make better fiction than truth.
The road climbed its way seaward. The high beams were rarely on the road, choosing instead to highlight the cliff face as the road curved left. That was the pattern: it seemed they were making an endless series of 90 degree turns, weaving a classical cornice, like the one in the Senate building where they held that Stanford reception. He thought, "I should have sent the application in sooner." He had to catch himself, as he had begun to wonder whether he had in fact sent it in later. He had been telling people that he might have been rejected because his application was late for so long that the story was acquiring the color characteristic of his lies: he told them far more often than the truth and with greater assurance. After thinking back for a moment, he realized that he had sent the application in late. Had he done it intentionally? It certainly made it a lot easier to deal with the rejection. The car was still winding its way along the canyon edge. At least it appeared to be a canyon, being darker than the trees and deep. Now they were descending. Every once in a while the road would bend unexpectedly right, as if in an attempt to keep his interest up.
He looked at the driver and wondered if he should change his name when he wrote the story. And what would he call a protagonist who could only be an "I"? They approached a sign.
"Muir Beach. Turn left here, Dave."
He smiled. He would call his friend Dave. He wouldn't be sued that way. They reached the parking lot. Dave did not immediately realize this, however, and was driving aimlessly about. At least that's how it seemed to him. He was impatient for some reason. They parked and got out. He wondered how much dialogue he should include.
"Beautiful night." Dave's voice brought him back into reality's fold.
The strangest thing about this short experiment is that it demonstrates a self-reflexivity that I hadn't really encountered in my high school reading. While my friend Dave Kramer talked about contemporary fiction that played games with perspective, I was never sure what he meant. What's more, the only fiction I'd read during the previous year consisted of the few English-language books I could get my hands on: The Lord of the Rings, Brideshead Revisited, and George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion. That's not a list likely to inspire the torus knot-like move when I write, "'Turn left here, Dave.' He smiled. He would call his friend Dave." I mean, where did the inclination to do such a thing come from?
I'm not saying this piece is good writing or anything, because it isn't, but the ideas animating it are ones I wouldn't consciously "own" for several years of college.
BTW, in case you're wondering, A) "Dave" is based on Roy; B) the road is Highway 1 on the windy stretch between the turn off for Mount Tam and Muir Beach; C) I got a rejection letter from Stanford; but D) I don't recall telling anybody that I'd been rejected; E) I was roughly one week from losing my innocence when I wrote this.
So I suppose that means that I can look forward to some sin next week. . .