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Alfred de Grazia: Ronald's Norm


In the evening, Merck found a note from Ronald folded into the crack of his twin doors. "Dear Merck," it read, "I didn't have a chance to tell you what the book is all about. Before you start reading, you should know. Man is the same everywhere, but writers are vain and particular. That's why so few great books are written. Why do we write -- in order to communicate. To whom should we speak -- to everybody, to the ages. How should we speak -- in the most lasting language possible. What is that language -- common words, old words, words that will last forever. What is a plot (should be what is THE plot) -- it is the history of mankind's deepest wishes, spelled out in a single case. What are they, these needs -- what men love most, fear most, hate most -- love, movement, achievement. That's what it's all about. Thank you. Very truly. Ron, 'your student'." And then, "P.S. I'll come by during your regular office hours on Tuesday between five and six o'clock."

"That's what it's all about." That simple. He'll find out. Merck thought for a moment where he had left Ron's manuscript. He went into his study and confronted the solid rank of filing cabinets that stood there, blank-faced. The study looked neat: A strong wooden desk, uncluttered, a comfortable swivel chair, easy chairs, reading lamps coming from all directions, a rack of neatly stacked late magazines, a wall of bookshelves quite full -- although not choked with books, one might wonder where the inevitable next book would be stored.

But the order of things was superficial. Inside the file cabinets, chaos raged. Twenty years of note-taking, lectures, letters, student papers, news items, fugitive publications, and contemporary incunabula were jammed and squashed. Incomplete systems of classification -- by personal names, by dates, by projects, by courses, by subjects, by degrees of urgency, by logical processes long abandoned -- held the mass in an order so complex as to constitute mere propinquitous dissolution. To find his own Letter of Tenured Appointment herein would be like stumbling through the obscurity of a baroque Neapolitan cathedral following a Baedecker to locate a portrait of St. Anthony, which was in a niche, which, when discovered, was full of debris and scaffolded, and from which St. Anthony had fled.

Luckily, however, Ron's piece had entered the system only a day earlier and was accorded the accolade of self-deception, termed "for filing," and stood at the head of a yard of papers there squeezed together. Merck gave a perfunctory glance at the other files and went directly, efficiently, to the correct drawer. The critique could begin.

The first page carried the title emblazoned by hand "The Ten Messages of Life and Love, by Ronald Reggio O'Malley." The text was typed, Merck noted with relief, and the spelling was unexceptionable. Ronald climbed two steps in Merck's estimation, which typically rose by trifles and ultimately, though rarely, ended in the flurry of a critique of ideas. As for Ronald's style, which might seem pedantic and elaborate to some, Merck, trammeled by the execrable prose of psychologists, thought it to be lively and clear.

The Ten Messages of Life and Love

San Francisco ain't what it used to be. If you heard that in 1962, you can imagine that by 1982 the inhabitants of the city were tired of saying so, as they were, and indeed by then what the city had been was nearly forgotten. It was now a city of skyscrapers and slums. The Realtors and builders were in touch with the banks and drew copiously from them to build the skyscrapers, while they looked indulgently upon the slums, which, after all, required no capital investment except what a hard-pressed government in Washington dribbled in and what the State of California, constructing rapidly a string of power plants along the coastline, could ill afford, and illy provided.

The city was divided into two factions. With typical American frankness, these were not baptized a fancy "Guelph and Ghibelline" or the euphemistic Blacks and Reds, or the anachronistic Left and Right. The city they said, was divided into the squares and the queers, each a hateful name to one-half the voters.

Yes, San Francisco was a city of doom in 1982. But ordinary people are marvelously adept at living in the interstices of doom. And our hero was born in 1966 on the edge of Chinatown, which had always

been a plain and humanized slum, happy in its way, and, fittingly, he was half of Chinese origin, the other half, his mother's, being Caucasian. His father, who ran a laundry, was an enlightened man who let his wife work at a telephone switchboard downtown rather then sorting laundry, and he could read well in Chinese as well as in English and was so full of Chinese lore that he named his son, his only son as it turned out, Panku, who was the first great God of Creation and who cracked with his chisel the adamantine shell of heaven that enclosed the world so that the principle of Yin and Yang was established, light streamed in and alternated with darkness, and with this the human race was born.

It was fitting that this only son, Panku, would learn to work with his hands. Not only that, but that he would make people. For he was of an artistic bent and by the time he was sixteen, that is, by 1982,was a professional fashioner of puppets, whose likenesses were scarifying and for which there was a continuous small, but satisfying, demand. Considering that Panku, whatever his wishes, could not yet quit school, where the State of California held him in bondage, he had not much time to spend at puppetry.

Let me tell you about these puppets that Panku made. They were no more cut-outs in three dimensions. No pattern-stamped images. All were different, individual. Panku's mind was overflowing with creativity. Unlike Elohim, he made no Adam and Eve. Nor the stereotyped Cuban troubadour, nor Charlemagne, no Punch and Judy, nor of course Mickey Mouse or Donald Duck, who were closely guarded patents anyway. His puppets were infinite manifestation of good and bad, each unique but understandable, each with an intrinsic force that displayed itself in action.

Thus he would fashion a mechanic who, when placed alongside a small car, would execute the fundamental routine of testing and repairing the car. And to go with this one, a stupid, if not downright mischievous puppet, who would exhibit the failures in maintaining and driving the vehicle. That such subtle and contrasting behaviors could be readily suggested by his bits of paper, wood rags, and wire, geared to be manipulated from behind a cape or screen, indicated awful powers of perception and abstraction in the boy.

His art was unfortunately beyond the comprehension and capacity of its market, if human qualities were rightly to be governed by that invisible hand which determined his pay and the uses of his product. Most of his creations bided their time in his atelier, a little wooden shed behind and connected with his father's laundry. Practically all that he sold was taken by a Mr. Havok, owner of a large home-furnishings store, who comprehended all too well what Panku was representing in his art, but who continually harped upon two themes: that the invisible hand of the market, whose only revealed Law was Supply and Demand, should order Panku what to make and how much, with Mr. Havok of course as the High Priest Aaron to speak the Torah; and, secondly, that puppets nowadays were made to be exhibited rather than to behave like creatures of will, like some Pinocchio or robot. For every Tom di Palermo who bought and played happily with the good and bad mechanics in his luxurious Buick-Cadillac Emporium, there were six ladies who bought a Panku Puppet to stand in their game rooms and sun-parlors. This he pointed out when summing up the quarterly sales record for Panku.

"Now look here, young fellow," said Mr. Havok, sweeping his arms broadly to embrace the indescribable collection that filled his temple, "Your production has to have a purpose. That's what the law of supply and demand does for you. But you're young. You'll learn . . . Here's the twenty bucks for the Nagasaki Survivor. I told her it was Robinson Crusoe, shipwrecked."

Panku lifted his almond eyes to the face of Mr. Havok, a monstrous figure in his life, a Moloch of commerce, commanding a horde of objects and seeing in them an obscure principle of law and order, seeing it so clearly that he would convert Panku, and everyone else, to the principle: never mind what the eye sees and the finger touches compassionately, never mind the functions and results of the fascinating processes of manufacture and consumption, just believe and obey: make what sells, buy what is in the stores, carry in inventory what people buy, and so on with circles unending. Yes, each party knows his duty.

Mr. Havok -- what spectacular High Priest of the cult. His features went every which way. With three long inches to go, his nose repeatedly changed its slope, width, density and porosity, and flared at its end to blow fire brimstone. His eyes shifted, glared, watered and froze. His hair scattered like woolly sheep before the rampaging wolf. His chins disappeared and reappeared in the course of the day. His costly suits hung upon him ineffectually like a scarecrow. Many an objet d'art had his large shoes kicked into smithereens in passing.

"Why don't you set up a puppet theater, Mr. Havok?" asked Panku.

"Ha, ha! Ha, ha, ha!" Mr. Havok slapped him on the shoulder (Panku gracefully avoided collision with a macabre serving table), gargled phlegm, farted, and headed toward a lady whose long feathered cap had just led her through the front door. What could Panku do? He was only sixteen. Mr. Havok was his Lucky Dragon. Chinese tradition worshiped and celebrated the Dragon and its mad fireworks. Panku knew that it was the principle of destruction that we foolishly pretend to be tamed and friendly. . .

Merck had long since begun to twitch and scowl, as befitted one who would not slap his forehead like some low comedian. What a string of words to be chopped, minced to bits; everything was wrong. He grinned ferociously like a dog loosed in a slaughterhouse. He couldn't contain himself. "Muriel," he called, "would you like to read a universal novel?"

"What?" she replied from the bathroom.

Merck took up his fat pencil, the soft black-pointed one that he used on his students' papers. "Title: banal, no one can remember it. Why not, for instance, the Rush to Die Slowly, everybody interested in speed and death. . .Why divide into chapters, why not paragraphs? Why a novel for that matter, why not an epic poem, the form of art voiced by primordial peoples everywhere?"

He was suddenly struck by the complex style that he had not noted earlier. He began to count unusual words and noted 25 in two pages; this can't be; hadn't Ronald himself said that the words must be carefully chosen to be common, old, perennial? What a task the youth had set for himself. Merck considered rewriting a few lines in Basic English, or what he imagined would be contained in Basic English. "I must have something on my shelves dealing with how many words an idiot commands." He would enjoy a little research on the question. There must be some connection between the psychology of the Elizabethan Age and the verbosity of Shakespeare. Was Shakespeare universal? Not at all, when you think of it. Much sound and fury over him, signifying nothing, ha. Ron's original idea right, must note it: "Modern man rapidly retreating to basic vocabulary of stone age; spent a million years in stone age (Two million, three?? Look up.), long enough to be the most universal age of mankind. Oh, what's the use. . . Look at that beginning, why not bring in the hero immediately. "Squares and queers" -- Merck poised his black pencil, no, I'll talk to him about this sometime. He pictured Ronald's large green eyes and curly white hair -- strange he was not a hippie or beatnik -- was the great youth revolt done with? Was there a universal theme there? Who took over from the wastrel youth in Plato's cycle of regimes? -- the tyrant, naturally. And Merck began to sketch in his mind a true novel of the present, the beatnik story, but then no sooner did he have Ronald dressed in shiny leather, riding a motorcycle, his blond hair blowing from below his helmet like a Valkyrie than he realized that there was the ugly parochialism of Kerouac, Salinger in it, so he dropped his universal candidate promptly.

He lit a cigar, relaxed in his chair, and wrote on for a while. "What makes you feel so satisfied?" Muriel appears, shaking her mass of black hair and straightening it with a giant white comb.

"There it is, if you'd like to read it."

"What is it?"

"It's the beginning of the universal novel," he replies complacently.


"Of course not," he says irritably. "It belongs to the young fellow I've been arguing with. Read it."

"Why should I read it? It's probably very dull."

"Oh, come on, read it. It only takes a little while, and I'll finish these notes." He hands her the pages, which she begins to read sitting on the arm of a soft couch, lifting her knee to hold the paper when she occasionally delivered a stroke of her comb to her hair.

"Oh, it's about puppets! Puppets fascinate me."

He snorts with disgust. "That's not what it's all about." (He realizes that he is using Ronald's phrase.)

"Well, what is it all about then?"

"Look here, these are some notes I made on the piece. Doubtless they will help you understand."

She reads them: he sits and waits, smugly, but warily, too.

She reports then: "Well, I don't see what difference it makes. There is a universal spirit within it."

"What the hell is a universal spirit?"

"Then, if you think it's so bad, why are you wasting your time with it?"

"Not a genius of a writer, I grant you. No Joyce, no Dylan Thomas. But a certain owlish quality in him got to me."

"That doesn't sound like Merck the Curmudgeon, the Champion of Academic Standards and Prosecutor of Drop-Outs."

"Oh he's no ordinary drop-out, actually quite intelligent. Has a job. He also made some interesting observation about cats."

"Maybe he really is an owl."

"Well, he's about 5 foot 5, I'd guess, in his early twenties, probably, though it's hard to say. He's got thick blond curls, like Harpo Marx, also a rather sweet smile. A bit serious -- cherubic, I guess you'd call him."

She looks at him a bit sharply and curiously. "My, he has made quite an impression on you. How did he manage to flatter you so?"

"Come off it -- not at all . . . He admitted he'd been watching me from time to time. He was just so persistent. He followed me all the way home. I couldn't shake him off."

"I wish a cherub would follow me home, instead of the usual mashers. Or even such a nice furry owl."

"He mentioned recognizing you as well."

"He did?"

"Nothing complimentary, just that."

"In the shadow of the master, huh?"

"Yes, I suppose so."

"You'd better shave off that blue beard if you expect to take me to dinner."

Merck strokes his chin, invariably abrasive to the touch by early evening. He has heavy body hair except on his head where the brown hair is relentlessly removing itself from back to front. He recalls Ronald's fine curls. "I wish I had his head of hair."

"Me, too."

"You have an excellent black mop, my dear, why complain?"

"No, I meant for you to have such hair," and she giggles.

"You are very critical."

"I'm sorry, Merck. I realize that strong men lose their hair early."

"That's nonsense. It's just some random genetic factor that accounts for it."

"Have it your way."

Merck goes off to the bathroom and cuts his chin shaving too closely.

That evening, when they returned, he did not open and read the Times that he had bought or watch the eleven o'clock news on television. Rather, he sat down at his desk again and in a manner that had been lost to him for eight years, began to write with great intensity an article that he labeled, "The Place of the Norm in Literature." He bid a mere "Good Night" to Muriel when she went to bed at midnight. By three o'clock in the morning he had drafted the piece, indicated in it where the footnotes were to go, and reread it, with bated breath. He was exhausted and slept the sleep of the virtuous, as Ron might say.

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