Unheimlich children of Virginia Woolf and Oscar Wilde, the Modernist Novel and a decadent despairing of it, Aaron Kunin’s characters are embodied by speech—witty, philosophical, narratological. They speak and they think, occasionally, about problems of the novel, but just as often about slights, real or imagined; originary issues of form and content; things to eat and drink. They are “walking mind-body problems.” The volume of psychological realism and emotional force they acquire as they go along in fraught relation to one another comes therefore as a surprise boon, a delirious trick, a happy byproduct of their unimaginable contextualization in a Minneapolis they do not quite inhabit.
“The many minds of this novel perform thought with the hilarity and impertinence of a b-movie choir: their robes don’t match, they’re too busy talking to sing the songs, and their audience is asleep. However, where in most cases this would be a recipe for disaster, in The Mandarin, it proves the perfect combination for creating a new kind of iteration, one where knowledge is less something individually won than something collectively made. Aaron Kunin’s The Mandarin is a much-needed contribution to the future of fiction, and an absolute delight to read.”
I opened the door.
“Can you see anything?” said Mercy, as though she were far away.
“Toenail clippings in Natasha’s red carpet,” said Hallamore. “Christmas cactus perched on the T.V. set. Dust-ruffle running along the edge of the bed. Chessboard leaning against the window. Arm of the T.V. set rusted pink.”
“Would you like a piece of gum?” said the T.V. set.
“You always offer me gum, but I never see you chewing any,” said the red carpet. “If you don’t like gum, why do you buy it?”
“I like gum,” said the T.V. set. “I just don’t chew it; I swallow it.”
“Cookies are coming,” said the dust-ruffle.
“Bagels are coming,” said the toenail clippings.
“Cookies are kissing,” said the Christmas cactus.
“My hand is colored silver from being put in front of the T.V.,” said Hallamore. “Silver is a quality of light. I have to touch my hand to the screen just to convince myself.”
“Mind if I smoke?” said the T.V. set.
“Go ahead,” said the dust-ruffle.
“Rats! Out of cigarettes,” said the T.V. set. “Cigarettes. Remind me to buy some more.”
“You always run out of cigarettes,” said the red carpet, “but I can never catch you smoking. Where do they go, I wonder?”
“I don’t smoke them; I swallow them,” said the T.V. set. “But wait. Surely I am mistaken. Surely this is not our brother Flavio.”
“Surely not,” said the red carpet. “Hey, ho, Flavio!”
“You must have a wrong person,” said the Christmas cactus. “Flavio! I thought you’d never come.”
“Have you met Aunt Tillie, Flavio?” said the dust-ruffle. “Here, meet Aunt Mildred.”
“Give us a kiss,” said the toenail clippings. “How you’ve grown since you went away.”
“Who’s your little friend?” said the T.V. set. “Surely not Hallamore.”
“His name is Hallamore,” said the dust-ruffle, “and he eats them raw.”
“Oh no, it is Hallamore,” said the red carpet. “Hey, ho, Hallamore. Remember the night Hallamore ate all the salmon patties?”
“He ate everything in sight,” said the toenail clippings. “Ho, hum, Hallamore.”
“Go home, Hallamore!” said the Christmas cactus.
“Hey, watch where you’re going, Hallamore!” said the T.V. set.
“Sorry,” said Hallamore.
“What’s that? What happened?” said Mercy. “Is somebody down there?”
“I just spilled the coffee, that’s all,” said Hallamore. “I didn’t see the desk here.”
“Oh! It’s coffee,” said Mercy. “I thought it was a body!”
“The coffee smells so good,” I said. “But I must not have any.”
“Let us salute our long-lost brother,” said the T.V. set. “Pull up a chair, Flavio, and tell us where you’ve been.”
“I always had a soft spot for you,” said the Christmas cactus. “It’s been lonely for me here since Natasha kicked you out.”
“Sit in a chair,” said the red carpet, “and tell us your adventures.”
“No one tells stories as well as Flavio,” said the dust-ruffle.
“Speak, Flavio,” said the toenail clippings. “We never go anywhere. What is the world like?”
“You are thought not to wear pants, Flavio,” said the Christmas cactus. “Do you wear skirts? You are thought to wear your hair in ringlets; do you?”
“What’s the matter with Flavio?” said the red carpet. “He used to tell much better stories.”
“Cat got your tongue?” said the T.V. set. “What’s with Flavio? Did he lay the egg that Hallamore hatched? Frère Flavio, why don’t you speak?”
“Him?” said Mercy. “He talks worse than anyone I know. He has no gestures; he washes his hands constantly, like a paranoid English teacher. ‘They’re all against me. I didn’t get tenure. Why?!’”
“I am hungry for speech,” said the dust-ruffle. “My hunger for speech is such that you could hold it in your hand. My hunger for speech is such that you could test it for doneness with a toothpick.”
“You are our newspaper, Flavio,” said the toenail clippings. “Please be our newspaper. We stand before you in an attitude of submission that somehow fails to negate your essential passivity.”
“I love to hear Flavio’s voice,” said the T.V. set. “It’s just like Waverly, listening to him.”
“You always talk about literature,” said the red carpet. “But, funny thing, I never see you open a book. How do you manage it?”
“Waverly is actually the only novel I’ve read,” said the T.V. set. “Mostly I don’t read them; I swallow them. Perhaps our brother would like a glass of wine.”
“Pressed by hand, Flavio,” said the red carpet, “between the pages of a book.”
“Great wine, Flavio,” said the Christmas cactus.
“Yeah, not from concentrate,” said the dust-ruffle.
“You keep calling me Flavio,” I said. “But I’m not Flavio. Why do you keep calling me that? My name is William.”
“Look at my face,” said Hallamore, “reflected in this pool of coffee. It’s distorted. It winks at me as it catches the light of the T.V. This is a side of myself I haven’t seen before.”
50. Kitchen sink realism
“In trying to put his hand on something,” said the T.V. set, “he pushes it away. . . .”
“He breaks something,” said the dust-ruffle, “by putting his hand on it. . . .”
“He makes it worse when he writes it down,” said the toenail clippings. “He hunches over when he sits up. . . .”
“His motive in writing about it,” said the Christmas cactus, “was to beautify it.”
“I’m not alone in this room,” I said. “Am I alone in thinking that I’m alone in this room?”
“It gets worse when he writes about it,” said Mercy. “It gets worse, but not because of the writing, not because of the writing but because of him. He was writing about it and therefore failed to prevent it.”
“She says obvious things so slowly that they seem profound,” said the toenail clippings. “She says them so many times that they gradually achieve a certain profundity.”
“I thought it wasn’t worth listening to,” I said, “because she said it only once.”
“Her lack of interest excited him,” said the red carpet. “Her disinterest interested him. It happened on a molecular level.”
“It all happens on a molecular level,” I said. “Everything happens on a molecular level—everything that matters.”
“Can’t we talk about something else instead of molecules?” said Mercy.
“There’s nothing else to talk about,” I said. “Nothing else matters. The rest is just a façade, a crust of stuff.”
“I like him,” said Hallamore, “I just wish he’d talk about something else. He doesn’t know the first thing about brain chemistry, but he insists that everything else is just a façade.”
“Even the kitchen sink is just a lot of molecules,” I said. “To say anything else about it would be absurd.”
“My face appears at the bottom of the sink,” said Hallamore. “It appears to rise to the surface when I stand over it, then to drain out when I step away. The In-Sink-Erator does not retain an image, but the mind does. The thing in your mind is the same every time you open it up.”
“An event,” I said. “A molecular event. One molecule salutes another. The same thing happens in the In-Sink-Erator that happens in your mind.”
“Hallamore doesn’t talk like other people from Minneapolis,” said the dust-ruffle.
“His accent? It is a complete affectation,” said the Christmas cactus. “He’s just a big softie.”
“I think I need another siesta,” I said.
“Your siesta is over,” said Mercy, “when you start to wonder when the word ‘siesta’ entered the language.”
“My body shows no sign of change,” I said.
“His body was changing every day,” said the T.V. set. “The sound of his own voice surprised him. A light installed in his stomach began to flicker.”
“His feet,” said the red carpet, “installed in their clear, high boots . . .”
“Feathers grew out of his arms in tracts,” said the T.V. set, “and fell out, leaving a trail of feathers behind him.”
“I thought that I was past caring about my physical appearance,” I said, “until my physical appearance did something to prove me wrong.”
“He puts his name on everything,” said the T.V. set. “His name makes it worse.”
“It pains him to see his name,” said the red carpet. “It hurts his hand to write it.”
“My dream is generally the same,” I said. “I awaken and believe that someone is in the room with me. Someone is sitting in the chair by the window; I can hear him turning around in my chair, which is too small for him. The blind rattles against the window frame, as it has been doing all night, and he puts out a hand to stop it. What can I do? I must leap out of bed and run away while he is grappling with the blind. But this is almost impossible, because I can already feel his hand resting on my foot: It is going to happen, it is happening, it has happened. Or he is only looking at my foot with a look that I can feel, or he has placed his hand on the bed in a way that picks out my foot through the sheet, the blanket, and the comforter, and pins it down. I still haven’t opened my eyes. I shift slightly, as an experiment, and feel something else shifting above me and locking into place. And I am unable to move because I won’t let myself move and because he won’t let me, because he is holding me down, because he has found a new indentation in my body, a slender inpouching into which you could nail nails or screw screws. I feel his breath in my ear. I yell: ‘St. Peter!’; his tongue licks loose circles in my auricle; ‘It’s you, St. Peter!’ I yell.”
“St. Peter values our foolish way of thinking and talking,” said the toenail clippings.
“St. Peter is made of stone,” said the red carpet, “that moves.”
51. Lucifer/ St. Peter
“Your biology teachers didn’t know about fucking,” said the T.V. set. “They did it in the armpit; that’s why its hair grew.
“Then Jesus Christ looked down from heaven. ‘Why don’t they bear children? You’d better go down and see what’s the matter, Peter,’ he told his servant. Thus St. Peter came to earth and met the biology teachers. ‘What are you doing?’ he said. ‘We’re not doing anything special,’ they said. ‘Okay, just go on doing what you were doing before I got here,’ he told them. They started to do it using the armpit. ‘Not there,’ said St. Peter. ‘Here, down below.’ He showed them. ‘This is it, here,’ he said.
“St. Peter ascended to heaven. But he was not allowed back into heaven then. Jesus Christ got angry. ‘You have to go back down and live in Minneapolis,’ he said. ‘You had better go back down and watch over them.’”
“Brother Flavio, I wonder why you haven’t committed any sins,” said the red carpet. “Is it because you don’t know how? Because St. Peter didn’t demonstrate it for you? He has to live in Minneapolis because of the way he taught your biology teachers. He feels ashamed and disgusted with himself. He thinks it’s an outrage that he has to suffer so that you could have a modern sex education class.”
“If you don’t sin, they punish you anyway,” said the toenail clippings. “If you don’t drink the wine, they punish you for not drinking the wine. If you say you didn’t commit any sins, they make you take part of the punishment for sins committed by someone else.”
“Then it isn’t really punishment, is it?” said the red carpet. “It doesn’t reform, it doesn’t deter . . .”
“Why don’t you sin?” said the Christmas cactus. “Were you careless; did you lose something? Did you cut off your right hand to keep from stealing? Or did you cut off your left hand to keep from masturbating? Why not cut off both your hands (but what will you use to cut off the second hand)?”
“Don’t fight the enemy, Flavio,” said the toenail clippings. “Grab hold of him and change him into something like you.”
“Some of the men in Minneapolis will commit murder,” said the dust-ruffle. “Others will commit rape. Don’t you think you should do your share by having some wine?”
“Drinking the wine will keep the crime rate down,” said the toenail clippings. “Plus, if you don’t drink the wine, they make you drink piss.”
“St. Peter hates excess,” said the Christmas cactus.
“St. Peter hates deficiency,” said the dust-ruffle.
“Are we normal?” said the toenail clippings. “Have we sinned equally?”
“Is it normal to want to be normal?” said the red carpet. “What if I don’t want what I’m supposed to want?”
“They ask if they are normal,” said the T.V. set, “as though the answer could be no. As though they could be abnormal. As though they had done something that no one had tried to do before.”
“Original! Disturbing!” said the red carpet. “Powerful! Oh, thou art the swallower of literature!”
“Come out!” said Mercy. “Come out of the bedroom, Willy.”
“Come away!” said the T.V. set. “Come away, foul, foolish, feathery Flavio. Come down from your high tower and go into the bower. Look down where Natasha lies.”
“Her body lies like a heap of wheat, under the covers of the bed,” said the red carpet. “Her body lies like a stack of pillows in the shape of a sleeping body, there where she lies.”
“Her eyes are stars; the stars are her eyes,” said the toenail clippings. “She peers at you through chinks in her eyelids. You come at her while she pretends to be sleeping.”
“She sleeps with her mouth closed,” said the red carpet. “Her lips are so red, they are the color of blood in snow.”
“Her hair is so yellow, it is the color of urine in snow,” said the dust-ruffle.
“No, no,” said the Christmas cactus. “Her hair is brown, so brown it is the color of tree bark in snow.”
“Her sheets are so white, they are the color of snow,” said “Who’s the most beautiful girl in the world?” said the toenail clippings. “Everyone says: ‘Hey, it’s Natasha!’”
“Drunk, you are unable to pronounce her name,” said the T.V. set. “Nasha. Fisha. Tanaza. Tanasha. Tanasha. Tanasha.”
“She must be a goddess,” said the toenail clippings.
“Oh, most certainly,” said the Christmas cactus.
“A brown pear,” said the dust-ruffle.
“Natasha is oranges,” said the T.V. set, “bananas, sugar cane, mangoes, seedless green grapes ..”
“You always talk about fruits,” said the red carpet. “How come I never see you eating any?”
“I don’t eat them; I smoke them,” said the T.V. set.
“Before the firing squad,” said the red carpet, “he chews and swallows his last cigarette: messieurs-dames, les chapeaux!”
“Why did Natasha kick you out, Flavio?” said the Christmas cactus. “Because you didn’t like her cooking? Because you didn’t like her friends?”
“I didn’t like the cat either,” I said. “Or her furniture.”
“Because she doesn’t love you,” said the red carpet. “Why won’t she talk to you anymore?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Because she read one of my novels.”
“Because she doesn’t love you,” said the Christmas cactus.
“Love brings you down, and it’s sick,” said the dust-ruffle. “This is the way it is everywhere.”
“You are a really fascinating, and really sick, novelist,” said the T.V. set. “You are so fascinating you grew feathers. Hey, you’re a swan.”
“He turned into a swan, because Natasha doesn’t love him,” said the red carpet. “He was sick with love.”
“He wrote her all those beautiful novels,” said the T.V. set, “and she still wouldn’t sleep with him.”
“You must have lived with Natasha at some point in your life,” said the dust-ruffle, “if she really is your sister. You must have spent a lot of time with her then, perhaps even slept in the same room, perhaps, on occasion, in the same bed even . . .”
“Could you have forgotten that she is your sister?” said the red carpet. “Surely it is the idea that she is your sister that is the delusion.”
“Or do you have two sisters?” said the toenail clippings. “Maybe so—you could easily have as many as two, or possibly three, sisters.”
“Back in Cloquet, the town where I grew up,” said Hallamore, “there was only one biology teacher, and we had to use outdated books. And here you have two biology teachers all to yourself.”