There’s a dead mouse in the walls; he’s certain of it. He’s suffered through this before. The stench should have chased him away the moment he got out of bed, given him an excuse to leave the apartment, flee the neighborhood, cross into the Berlin of tourist brochures and feature articles, and get a hotel room for a couple of nights. Instead, he decided to stay in and work through it, in it. Pungent odor as salvational infusion to get something going here, to unclog the well––this is how he’s pitching it to himself. He’s been in Berlin over a week already, exiled to one of its eastern neighborhoods, Schöenwiede, and has gotten little done. He’s at a standstill, putting down a sentence every once in a while but only to run a line over it a few seconds later. A couple of things have survived, but only fragments, disconnected images, clever bits. There’s no indication to suggest how to proceed. At the end of his residency he’s expected to give a public reading of some of the material that he’s been working on. As things stand, it will be a short and embarrassing engagement.
Instead of surrendering to sentences that refuse to come, he is cutting into the wall. He’s been at it for a few hours now. He’s thinking that he can retrieve the carcass, set it on a page, and see what a body sketches as it comes undone in nauseating wafts of rank odor. The free verse of decomposing fibers. He would be more than happy to allow it to usurp the space of the old stories he’s been putting together for so long. What do they matter in the end, anyway? We can test new narrative anatomies here, he encourages himself. Surely, between what I’m hoping to get down on paper and a body breaking down there is some unimagined middle ground, some new thing that can unmoor itself from the elements that combine to spawn it. We all know, even if we recoil from any obligation to admit it, that between any two things there is an opaque terrain overflowing with gangrenous and lively connective tissue, with leaky lines bustling with transactions of corrupted information. This is increasingly what matters to him, he says: the strange metamorphoses that are incubated in these secret lines of exchange between things. Not tenuous composites, not little mixed-up nothings whose weirdness expires after two or three viewings, but what he calls the disobedience of the sedimentary, the waywardness of things that refuse to settle into proper patterns. The desire to chase this misbehavior has swelled, like dead mouse stench, into an obsessive leitmotif of slimy references and rectal mucus in everything he scribbles these days. And it’s exacted a price: no new material of any length or substance; no clues on how to put together the images and bits that surface. He tries to get on with the forms he knows, but stalls out. Nothing as unimaginative as paralysis has taken over him yet, but there is no real movement either. He’s just turning in place, pivoting on a foot that is riveted to old habits.
He has pulled the sheetrock from one side of the living room. An entire wall is gone. He’s been stacking the pieces. The mound is as large as the couch. A white membrane has settled on every surface in the apartment. He’s an angel of gypsum dust. Motes have crept up his nostrils, into his ears. They’ve carved crescent moons under his fingernails; chalked his hair a counterfeit index of wisdom. He licks his lips. They’re parched. His tongue is snakeskin. And he hasn’t found the mouse yet. Its unpleasant odor thickens and radiates. Afraid that the neighbors may come knocking, he stuffs a hand towel drenched in essence of jasmine beneath the door. He’s keeping the windows closed, the blinds half-shut. Light falls obliquely on his empire of powder snow.
No mouse anywhere, but what he did find behind the sheetrock was a beautiful mural of soft geometries––a web of burrows cut into the insulation and the studs. Diagonal and irregular interventions in the orthogonal skeleton of cheap architecture. The whole thing is punctuated by nesting nooks stuffed with hay and dry grasses. He was a bit jostled by the surprise. He eyes, ringed by a thin scab of moistened gypsum powder, have traveled over it innumerable times, studying the details. It must stretch down through the three floors beneath his, all the way to the foyer, and run off into the street or into the tunnels under the city. Its channels are accidental, determined by obstacles, bent and straightened by the dispersed softness of the material that had to be gnawed through. And yet––the arrangement seems so precise and self-assured; impossible to conceive any other way. It’s like an epic painting of our chthonic surgeries, he thinks, of the endless tunnels that we’ve dug to bind our cities. Of our glacial rationality. Of the deep gulf between the neat geometries of our planning and our hysterical retrenchments in walled cities, in fenced-off citadels, in islands surrounded by seas of poisonous and angry terrain.
He thinks that we are all a little bit like mice in a frenzy these days, scurrying underground, coming up for air and food. We attempt to survive on a planet eager to spew us. It fumigates us incessantly with its pesticides; it savagely mortifies its own surface hoping to drive us from it. Like rodents, we get on only by digging away, by hiding under things, by making ourselves smaller and smaller. We excavate, tunnel, blast, remove. Holes to dive into. The surface of the planet, if peeled like a pelt, if pinned and stretched to cure, would be no more than a firmament of rectal apertures, a galaxy of missing bits––mouths of slimy sphincters that we brazenly slide in to and out of and through, lubricated by a stubborn will to survive, to get on as if everything were fine, as if an entire planet hadn’t turned on us.
But as we dig we also exhume possibilities we refuse to acknowledge. All our toil, we like to think, is guided by laws of subtraction. We tell ourselves that all we do is take away. But we know better: strange things are stowed in the all the dirt and rock we move. They slowly swirl into the air and search for bodies to host them. The rank smell of dead mice is a reminder of these secretions. It announces less merciful mephitises. He takes it, following an intricate burrow system of logic, as confirmation that we’ve no longer any obligations to the debts that organize and inhibit our understanding––silly debts to the truth, to being sensible, to empirical observation, to staying on the surface of things. Instead, one should inhale these strange things that come up from the depths, surrender to the magnetic pull of their secret chemistry. The only way that one can write about this world we’ve been sentenced to, this world so eager to be done with us, is by negotiating between the strange things that leak up from the earth and whatever words are willing to do when impregnated by them. Or more insensibly still, looking to establish ludicrous rapport with the ground, fully freed from the shackles of commonsense, one should descend into the maze of tunnels beneath the surface of things, dive into this intestinal bed, melt into the walls of the burrows, attempt epidemiological grafting with the sedimentary strata and the larval slime, force imaginary convergence with the endless pipelines in which incongruous substances exchange fluids and swarms of particles away from the reach of a sunlight that puts everything in display as a way to shame it into simplicity. One––whatever that is in the operation––should be no more than a body riddled with holes through which these burrows can weave. One should just yield, he thinks. It’s the runoff that they leave sedimented that matters.