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The Algebra of Fiction

For Douglas Glover

“Every story is an algebraic equation,” said the professor in turtleneck and tweed sport coat. “A wants B but can’t get it because of C.” I know he’s right, of course. It doesn’t much matter who or what B is. Or how C has inhibited A’s ability to get B. Suffice it to say that for every A, it follows that a B will come along sooner or later and capture A’s attention, thus driving A’s desire. And for every B, there will always be a C that wiggles in between A and his B. Once A understands and accepts that the only route to B is through or over C, he will begin to devise a plan, perhaps enlisting or employing D to help him overcome C in his effort to attain B. A and D will then conduct themselves according to the laws of E in the place known as F, whose climate is usually G, but on this particular day, it happens that the atmospheric conditions, and indeed the pervasive mood of F are surprisingly H, which will cause A to remark, “I,” leaving D feeling unappreciated, at which point D will abandon A, saying, “You’re on your own, buddy.” Still determined, A will set forth on this H day in F-land on his own, vowing to attain B, with or without D’s help. Naturally, A will stumble upon J at this point and believe that maybe this is it; maybe B is finally within reach now that J is in A’s life. But J has a little K, a complication for which A had not bargained. A red flag, A wonders momentarily, but little K is adorable, calls A “Uncle A,” so ever the optimist, A talks himself out of his fear. That is, until it becomes clear that J’s K is more than a bit L and requires a great deal of M, not to mention the fact that J’s N is also a factor—a variable A had not even considered a potential red flag initially, but now that A sees how J’s N leads her to behave rather O-ly, A feels decidedly P and Q. At this point, A begins to wonder if B was just a pipe dream all along, if maybe he’s been deluding himself all this time. Still determined to stick it out, A refuses to leave J and K simply because he is feeling so full of R. But then one night, when A, J, and K are vacationing together down in S, J slips out of their motel room when she thinks A is sleeping. A lies awake for hours, watching the clock, listening to little K breathe innocently, and counting the waves that slap the shore outside his motel window. A is certain J is downstairs at the Tikki Bar, flirting with every T, U, and V who finds her ravishing, buys her a Piña Colada, and makes her laugh. By the time J returns to the room, K is crying. And so is A. J’s hair is tussled, her shirt untucked, and she reeks of another man’s W. A flies into a rage. Or maybe he doesn’t. Almost certainly, though, before A walks out the door, he says emphatically, “X!” Then A probably kisses little K goodbye and tries to reassure her, wiping away her Y’s, though he knows he cannot really comfort her because there will most likely be an endless parade of “Uncle A’s” in K’s life, all of whom will be unsuccessfully seeking B inside her mother’s panties. As the action of our story collapses, A will finally accept that even if B does exist, it simply ain’t worth dealing with all the C’s obstructing it. Rather than feeling devastated by this realization, however, our hero feels surprisingly light after having finally surrendered the search for the unattainable B. This discovery, of course, is his Z—the only thing A really needed in the first place. Naturally, A would never have discovered this had he not followed the labyrinth of variables that led him here. Having finally found Z, A feels as weightless as a Bodhisattva levitating over his own body.

As for me, now that I’ve dropped my motel key into a beachside trash can, I have nothing left in my pockets, and I am wearing no shirt, no shoes, no anything except the baggy shorts covering my hairy, pimpled ass, and I have nowhere to go, so I’m walking south on the boardwalk, alongside the eternal sea. The sun is rising, and I’ve decided I’m going to walk until I reach the end of the earth. Then I’m going to dive off the pier and swim to the Keys, where all I’ll need to keep my dreams of B at bay is the sighing of the sea, offering me its stern reminder that every chase intended to yield B will only lead me back to what I already know, to what I have known a long time, to what I should have always known—that the only variable that solves every equation is Z. Thank you, Professor Turtleneck and Tweed for teaching me exactly what I did not want to know. You bastard.


Mark Maxwell

MARK MAXWELL'S first novel Nixoncarver was published by St. Martin's Press in 1998.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2008

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