Death of an Author

 

I killed the author; I can’t be sure, but I think now he’s dead. He’s not moving or going anywhere, and even though there are words all around him, they are old words and can’t do anything for him now, so I think he is dead now.

I didn’t mean him any harm, neither did I hate him. If anything, I cared too much and could not imagine him actually declining, falling, escaping out of my world into a realm of half-hearted mediocrity. My name is Bart, and I think the Author is dead.

That is what I thought at the time. This isn’t the story of how I had come to kill the Author, it’s about what came later. Too many stories get too caught up with the past, thinking that there is where it started, but not realizing that they can choose where they start because they are the ones telling the story. Stories are words, and are unburdened by what we want them to be. The Author hadn’t realized that, so now I think he’s dead.

I went and told all my friends, everyone I knew, that I had killed the Author. For the most part, they thought I was crazy. Some claimed they had seen him earlier that day, buying orange juice and a packet of cigarettes. They wouldn’t say where, so their stories fell apart. My closer friends cheered for me, and swore to take my secret to their graves, saying that if I get caught, they’d testify I was with them at the time. It was an empty promise, everyone knows that the Author had no real friends to take the case to the police.

After the initial shock of having to answer everyone’s questions about it, I was left to my own device. I still heard the people out on the streets talking, figuring out how to live in a world without the Author, but I left them no choice; I had killed him, and I think now he is dead.

To make a show of everything being alright, I went back to my work, feverishly talking and writing about things, but found that I could only ever bring myself to talk about the Author. In my books, I killed him time and time again, in hundreds of little things, and dozens of more extravagant and clever ways, and I was celebrated for it. For a while, I was content with this. With the new world I created, a world without the Author, but then it unraveled.

I can’t say exactly when or where it was, but I distinctly recall having seen him, reading a newspaper on a bench, drinking a coffee from one of those to-go cups. It was just for a moment, a second before I entered a building, and I didn’t want to go out again just for that, and then I lost him again. After that one time, I remember his presence in many places, but never as concrete knowledge, more of a feeling that someone’s near you, a familiar aura in a room.

I wrote more books, thrillers and crimes stories about murder, trying to re-envision how I had killed him, for reassurance and inspiration, but I kept getting these flashes of his impossible presence. They were memories, always like a memory of what had already happened in the now. Overlapping instances of the past with where you are now. He was like a sketch on tracing paper left on a photo of the city where I worked, an outline following me between the buildings and into the metro stations.

I revisited his unmarked grave, to remind him he should be dead and buried. He was supposed to be a relic, but he kept following me. I took out a marker and wrote on the blank tombstone – “Here lies the past and the lie.” I know it was blasphemous, and regardless of how we think of sanctity of the dead, they are dead and can’t mind, and I think the Author is dead.

After the visit to the grave I went back home, trying to shake the feeling of being haunted, so I read one of my favorite books, Walden, but I couldn’t bring myself to enjoy it. The Author had loved that book too, but he was now, I think, dead. I suppose you could assume I was feeling guilty for having killed him, but that wasn’t even half of it. I was frustrated, because I did kill him, but kept seeing him everywhere. I was sure I was right in killing him, I am sure it was for the better good, but he was still there, somehow.

The next evening, after another day of feeling him everywhere, I confided as much in my friends while having drinks with them. They consoled me, but obviously jotted it down to guilt and a slight dementia everyone had always assumed I suffered from, even in my youngest age. I grew tired of their empty, little, fake sympathy and left the bar, and finally, in my well-past-midnight stupor, I had my first palpable recollection of seeing him.

He was in an alley, talking to one of the bums and sharing his whiskey with him. They were laughing, jovial as if I had never killed him, and that infuriated me more than anything on this Earth could have.

I charged over and knocked the bottle of whiskey with its crumpled paper bag cover onto the floor and stared at the Author and the bum with a look that demanded answers. The bum was first to react with anything other than a curse. He must have thought I was police before he heard me slur my speech.

“Sorry, were we bothering anyone?” It didn’t seem right that a bum should talk like this, he was too articulate, too much a person for my taste; it made me even madder.

“Yes! You’re bothering me, you bums, get out of here! Go! Piss off!” I yelled in a slurred speech of an unpracticed drunk, gesticulating in a manner that emphasized my drunkenness and anger.

“We never intended to do that, sir, apologies. We’ll be quiet and let you get on your way. No need to get worked up.” I hadn’t noticed, but the Author was gone; only the bum remained in the alley. I knew what had happened, though, the Author had infected him with his contemptuous bile. This was no longer a bum, he was a Trope, an empty vessel to carry the Author’s twisted view of the world, and it was up to me to destroy it.

Out of fear of the recurring vision of the Author, I had purchased a gun a week earlier, thinking what, I don’t know, but in that alley, I knew I was fortunate to have it. I shot the bum, no, the Trope bum. He was just a shell, another viewpoint for the Author, even though he was dead; now, they were both dead.

I went home, washed my hands from the metallic, tangy smell of gunpowder and then vomited into my sink. I was sick to my stomach with a dizziness that, I thought, could only come from relief. I nipped this one at the bud, the Trope died as it was being born. The Eloquent Bum, The Pauper Savant, he was gone.

I tried to calm myself down by reopening my copy of Walden. All the characters read it in all the stories I had read, and I could not figure out why. He goes on and on, about nature, about the virtues of solitude and labor. He complains about values, he complains about society, but most of all, he complains about Government. I, therefore, took my pen, and crossed out every instance of the word Government in the book, meticulously, almost obsessively looking for it until it no longer appears in the book at all. There you go, Henry, I have set you free of Government, I thought to myself.

He was, then, no longer burdened by his Government. He was free to do as he pleased, but all he did was more of the same. He kept on ranting and haranguing about all the other things rather than enjoying his new, small freedom. I took away his problem and he found it in him to concentrate harder on the others. I gave up on Henry, a lost cause beloved by my favorite characters in fictional versions of New York.

He made me think of isolating myself somewhere. Somewhere the Author’s apparition could not find me. The first image that came to mind was in some cabin, chopping wood for a fire after a day’s hunting. I dismissed it as foolish, lingering effects from one of Henry’s tirades. I needed to find something more than hiding. I needed to kill the Author again, this time for good.

Deciding for the tried and true method of Trial and Error, I got myself as drunk as I could the next night, to see if the same lucidity would take me when it came to finding the Author’s lingering outline on my life. I left the bar at around two AM and walked in the best zig-zag pattern I could. I wanted to prove to myself and the Author’s shadow that I was truly and completely drunk. I had my pistol with me, a semi-automatic carrying nine mm bullet, I felt unbeatable.

He was in a diner, drinking coffee with a woman in a red dress. I saw them through the wall-sized windows. Besides them, there was only one person in the diner, the balding man behind the counter. I walked into the restaurant and sat in front the Author. He pretended not to notice me and kept talking to the woman in the red dress. The man behind the counter said I looked like I needed coffee and before I could refuse there was a cup of hot, aromatic coffee in front of me. I didn’t even have time to take a sip, I looked up, afraid he would be gone, and saw my fear justified. There was no one there next to the woman in the red dress.

I might have been staring at her, because she looked uncomfortable and made signs she was about to leave. It was then that I saw them both for what they were, Tropes, more Tropes. She was the mysterious beauty, come to seduce all and love no one; he was the friendly vendor, always tipping his little paper hat at all the patrons, whether they tipped or not. Everywhere I will see the Author, I will see the Tropes he leaves in his wake, like some monstrosity bleeding fire, and now they were dead.

I fired five shots. One hit the woman in the chest, and she died immediately, two, in quick secession, at the man behind the counter, who was too fast and I missed him with those two, then another two, which hit him, one in the neck and the other in the left eye.

I put my cup in the dishwasher, to avoid leaving evidence, and walked out of the diner. There were already sirens wailing down the street. I went home. I didn’t need to throw up this time, but washing my hands was still a good idea.

I realized what I am doing. I was hunting a monster. I was hunting a vampire feeding on truth. The Author was taking truth, and people, and things, and places, and turning them into Tropes. Soon, if I will not stop him, my city will become one. The buildings, the streets, the alleys, the stray dogs, the crowds milling about their business, all of it, it will all become one endless sea of Tropes. I was right all along as tragically as I was wrong. The Author was dead, but he still lives, so he was Undead.

I called my friend, Stoker, to ask what I should do and how I should kill a vampire, and now he thought me crazy. He said it was all in my head, and I said that everything is in my head, and what isn’t in my head simply Isn’t.

He laughed a bit, and made an excuse to hang up; his child crying, his wife calling, his car-alarm having gone off, all at once, what a sad coincidence, go to dash, bye. I stayed for a while holding the telephone speaker in my hand, between my ear and setting in back down. I wasn’t shocked at Stoker’s cold treatment, I was just tired of being called mad.

I saved so many, I stopped him once. I had killed the Author, and now I will do it again. But will they know? Will they arrest me? Is there a law about killing the already dead? I wanted to call Stoker again and make him take it back, make him show me appreciation for my sacrifice. I had killed the Author and now the Author was fighting back. There was more of him everywhere than ever before. I felt I’ve seen him that morning, buying orange juice and cigarettes. I was certain I had bumped into him on the way to the cinema. I was sure I had spoken to him on the phone the day before. None of it could have been true, but because I felt it was, then it was.

I needed sleep badly.

I slept well into the next day. The phone woke me up, demanding the draft for my next book. I promised I will deliver it soon, I just needed more time, to collect my thoughts. I washed my face, shaved, washed my face again, ate breakfast of orange juice and cigarettes, along with some dry toast, and tried to write a few lines, but found it pointless. How could I work on something as mundane as writing when the Author was out there, converting people into Tropes?

I struggled with myself and my duty before heading out, more or less resolutely, to catch the Author. I didn’t need to go far to start getting that feeling of his presence it was everywhere as soon as I stepped out of my apartment.

He was the man getting out of the elevator, he was the newspaper vendor, he was selling overpriced ‘authentic New York Hotdogs’. He was the one walking that small pack of eight dogs. He was everywhere and nowhere, and I think he should be dead.

My day of searching was a waste of time and I came back home without success or food. I called my friends, one of them claimed to have just had dinner with the Author, but couldn’t recall what he had eaten. I hung up on him and made a note to myself to later check and see if my friend had become a Trope.

I felt I had a duty to the world, but felt immeasurably inadequate for it. I had killed him once and failed, the Author persisted in his ubiquitous presence any which way I did things. I knew that I could chase him forever, cleaning his Tropes from his trail of Untruth and Utopias, but it will never end. I can’t win with the old methods, with old words and old guns. I needed something new, something outside the Authors experience, something he could not in any way anticipate and corrupt.

I picked up a knife and some glue, and approached my bookshelf. It contained hundreds of titles and names, and words and stories. I tore out some pages, others I cut surgically and pasted them together. Some of them I pasted in a different order, from end to beginning. Ab Ovo turned into In Ultima Res and vice versa. Then I started jumbling it all up, removing words, adding characters, I took all the books in the world a turned them into a game of solo-scrabble. I made the Author powerless. I took away his monopoly on synthesized truth. I distilled his synthesis, made it into something new that He had no power over, and that power is all the Author has left now that I think he’s dead.

It must have been this power that sustained him in our world, no other way he could impose himself or his afterimage on my world without his power to synthesize truth, and now I am taking it away from him.

I made myself a sandwich and ate as I looked at my creations. They were still the old books, with the same old worlds in them, but all jumbled up. They made their own kind of sense that was independent of the Author, and I was glad, because I think he was dead anyway.

I was glad he was dead. I had already told everyone he was no longer relevant. I killed him because I saw him as no longer relevant. I saw no more need for him to loom over my own work and thoughts, I just wanted him to be quiet and let me enjoy my way of seeing the world, and for others to be able to see it how I and they want to. So I think now he’s dead. I think so, but somehow he is back.

I left my sandwich and my apartment and resumed my search. I took a flask of cheap rum with me to recreate the same sort of mental state I was in the last two times I remember having seen the Author, i.e. drunk.

I had finished my flask shortly before eleven in the evening, and walked into a cinema. It was old fashioned, the kind that looked like a European opera house where everything is made of plaster. The walls, the columns, the décor, the woman standing with a tray of cheap fizzy wine.

I sat down to watch the trailers and heard the Author’s booming voice coming from the speakers.

“This summer in the cinema near you! The story of a madman chasing his own shadow…” There are images of me on the screen. I am chasing after the Author. Walking past old, broken homes, trying to get drunk enough to see him.

“Will discover a secret that shocks his very core!” More images of me, sometimes I am brazen and handsome, sometimes I am scared and about to cry.

“There is no escape! There is no other way! And if he isn’t careful… there might not be a tomorrow!” The trailer ends with a gunshot, but those are not my fingers on the trigger. There’s a caption in huge red letters ‘Death of an Author!’

I run home, sweating out the rum before I get to the first steps of my building. My door is open and I know it’s the Author waiting for me inside. I had left my gun there, and the trailer warned me that he will be armed, so I enter quietly. The living room is in perfect order, just as I had left it, but my sandwich is gone.

A gun goes off.

I look at where the shot was fired from and He is there. He is sitting in my recliner, eating my sandwich, and smiling at me as he points the gun at me; a bit of plaster falls from a bullet-sized hole in my ceiling. He gestures for me to sit, pointing the gun at another chair, then back to me. I take a seat and stare at the sandwich.

“I hate tuna.” That was the first thing the Author said to me after meeting me for the second time; on our first meeting, I had shot him.

“I love it.”

“I know, you’ve mentioned that.” This isn’t going anywhere.

“Why are you here?”

“You know why. You’ve killed me. I am a vengeful spirit.”

“No, that would be too simple, too straightforward. Things are never so with you. There are always alternative routes with you, some hidden detail that turns out to be important, some major thing made of cardboard and a bit of spray-on paint.”

“Oh, that is such a cliché, you only choose to think that because it makes you feel like you know me, and my little secrets. What I show you is what I want you to see, not my fault you chose to dig far, far deeper into things I never wanted you to see.”

“And why didn’t you? What is it you have to hide?”

“Nothing, I just thought it to be irrelevant.”

“I think you are irrelevant.”

“Yes, you’ve made that abundantly clear.” The Author seems a bit bitter. He sighed very deeply and offered me my sandwich back. There was barely anything of it left, but he handed back two bites of it and I ate them. I asked myself why I didn’t try to disarm him during this exchange, but came to the conclusion that I was just too hungry.

“You’ve done away with me just because you thought me irrelevant… That seems disrespectful. For someone who hates authors so much, you write quite a few books yourself, you know…” The Author wasn’t done with his little game.

“Well, I’m a scholar, that’s my job. I had to deal with you on a daily basis, and there was no more to be gained from you, we needed a new approach.” That was true. All my friends threw parties for me after I had killed him, all my friends from the department.

“That’s not very nice… killing me just to make a name for yourself.” He looked at me with a mocking smile and I knew he was leading me into some verbal trap; I was circling the drain of something dangerous.

“No… It wasn’t.”

“Oh, don’t apologize. You had the right of it. Something new had to come along. I had to die.” I didn’t expect that.

“I needed to die so I could be reborn, be refreshed. I am more than I had been before you killed me. I see quicker, and deeper. Thank you.” He placed the gun on the coffee table right atop the plate from which I had eaten the sandwich, and got up from the recliner and began walking away, daring me to shoot him again.

I was wrong again. I did kill him. He wasn’t a vampire. He was a Phoenix. He rose again, in a form more magnificent than the last. He took my re-distilled books, the cut-and-paste books I had made before leaving, and he swallowed them whole. I felt like he dared me to shoot him in the back, but I couldn’t, I had to let him go, just so I could see what he will do next; I could always find and kill his next Trope.

I ran to the window and watched him leave the building and begin to cross the busy Manhattan Street. It was just after eleven in the evening, time for the M7 bus to go through on its way to Harlem. It didn’t make it to Harlem tonight. It hit the Author halfway through crossing the street, coming at high speed to make up for lost time at another stop, according to the newspaper article from the next day. I don’t know if he’s dead now, the Author, but I slept like a baby that night.

 

This story was inspired by Auster’s New Yourk Trilogy, I hope someone out there enjoys it.