So this is a weird little chestnut. It continues a theme that I kind of began with Shell and that I’ve also explored in some other non-erotic writing.
This is a brief history of the man who came to be known as the Singer of Sin and his Song. There have been accounts before, of what transpired and who was to blame. None of those accounts, to my knowledge, were written from a position of any real intimacy. There have been suppositions and assumptions, texts written with the posturing of academics and the lowly exaggerations of gossips. This is my account. I was the Song and I was, in part, to blame.
The Singer of Sin has not always been a nameless exemplar of failure. His name was Gregor and he was a powerful man in body and in mind. He was already in his late thirties when he was chosen as Singer. His was a reluctant path to the position: he refused it at first, went into seclusion, and only after emerging from the wilderness with an aura of defeat did he accept. No one knows what doubts assailed him in those dark, quiet days.
Gregor approached the crafting of the Song in the same rough-hewn fashion with which he lived his life. His Song would serve a single purpose, it would eschew the grandiose delicacy of Songs written in antiquity. It would be modern and functional. Still, he was not without his clever flourishes. He consulted the texts of his predecessors at length in order to give me a form that anyone who gazed upon would find pleasing. This, he argued, would make me more useful politically. I don’t think he considered how dangerous a thing like pleasure can be.
Songs are sung to change or to remember. Those are the options our history has left us. I was sung for neither. Perhaps that was the first mistake. Gregor thought that there was too much pain in the world for remembrance and too much empty idealism for change. He wanted to give the world something to revel in. Something to move beyond the scars of what came before without rushing headlong into a worse future. An opiate of sorts.
I was Sung in the third month of the seventieth year post-crisis at dusk. Gregor was present along with a belabored apprentice with sandy blond hair who poured over a dozen texts, checking and rechecking every fact and figure. I never learned the young man’s name, but I hope that his master’s shame has not eclipsed his brilliance.
In the end I was perfect. Despite Gregor’s impatience and his apprentice’s exhaustion, I was everything they needed me to be.
What you must understand — what is rarely understood — is that a Song is a matrix of desires. The desire of the Singer to create a thing with purpose. The desires of those depending on the Singer to create something with utility. And, though there are scholars who will refute this claim to their dying days, the desires of the Song itself. In antiquity, before the crisis changed the fabric of thinking on the subject, it was posited that the Song was a thing fully-formed and called from some other place. It was said that there was an ideal Song and that the Singer was merely a vessel with which to transfer that ideal into flesh. It was thought that any failure of the Song was due to the imperfection of the vessel. I neither agree with nor dispute this idea, I merely suggest it for context.
Whether I existed prior to that moment or I was created exactly then, I emerged with a sense of myself, but without memory. I was, and perhaps continue to be, a creature of pure desire.Both men were standing side by side, but seeing vastly different beings before them. To the apprentice I was a woman, sumptuous and lascivious in form and posture. To Gregor I was a young man, hungry-eyed and slender with dark straight hair on my head, under my arms, and…elsewhere. A Song, unless Sung with a contradiction at its core, is free of them so there was no conflict in appearing to them simultaneously, yet utterly differently. They saw what they wanted to see.
In the ensuing days I was introduced to the councils that advise the Singers and approve their creations. Their public commentary was nearly uniformly derisive. They saw me as a diversion and little else, even as they tried to disguise the lust creeping behind their eyes. Gregor was undeterred. He merely beseeched them to take some time to investigate me. To see what I was capable of. It is not a coincidence that the first word ever used to describe me was ‘whore’.
I learned to lay with men, men who held power and to twist them to the Singer’s ends. I would whisper to them and make promises while they were inside me. I would stroke their hair afterward and speak in voices that reminded them of others whom they desired: sisters, brothers, fathers, mothers, friends, cousins, sons, neighbors. I could read their desires so easily that it took very little of me to do it. Though Songs are not thought to be capable of boredom, I began to wonder if this was the extent of my purpose. Could I have been Sung for so little?
Eventually it was decided that I would not be destroyed. I would be allowed. Yet the manner of my contribution to the public good was not yet decided. For the space of several months I did nothing except spend time in Gregor’s company.
More than any other man I found his desires to be the most elusive. He had a prodigious set of carnal hungers with wild variances and little compunction against seeing them filled, yet he demanded little of me. Though I was willing and eager to satisfy the breadth of his fantasies, he persisted in acting out some of them with other partners and strangers and prostitutes. Yet he was open about this and often allowed me to witness his other dalliances to satisfy my curiosities.
I watched him fuck a slew of men. He had a preference for dark haired young men who were clever. He once seduced the son of a famous craftsman with my aid and sent the boy, freshly fucked and still dripping, to a dinner with his father and other highly influential guests. The Singer was in attendance as well and delighted from the fact that the boy could barely sit still from the pulsating soreness between his legs.
I saw him equip a man with a device that could bring one to orgasm on command and then trigger that device days later while the man was at market. We both watched from some distance as the unfortunate soul lost control of himself and we savored the hot fluctuations between ecstasy and embarrassment on his face.
If his tastes ran toward the voyeuristic, the implementation of these fantasies were as diverse and perverse as anyone’s. And he was my Singer. His wants were linked to mine inexorably and so I took pleasure from his pleasure.
Eventually it was decided what my purpose was to be. How I would contribute to social progress. I was to take a kind of pilgrimage to the most depressed cities and towns, places where pleasure and excitement was in short supply. A kind of traveling fair was established to lift the spirits of all who were exposed.
It worked well and the councils found that their nation was far hungrier than they had imagined.
I dunno, Ben…maybe you and I just can’t agree on this. But in my old-fashioned way I insist that a tale-teller’s most important goal is CLARITY. You’ve got talent for days, but you also like to keep your readers from understanding just what in hell you’re talking about. That kind of storytelling is masturbation; no one gets off but you.
Ask yourself: why are you withholding your intent from your readers? Do we not deserve to receive it? Are you afraid we will reject it? Do you just REEEEALLY like mindfucking us? In any case, if you don’t want to communicate, please stop asking us to watch you going through the motions with great flair. We just end up cheated.
I can’t be a fan if you keep pulling away the football, Ben.
I think we disagree a little bit on what a writer is supposed to do, but I completely respect where you’re coming from and what you’re saying. My first introduction to elliptical storytelling was probably the story “Hills Like White Elephants” by Ernest Hemingway and I’m not saying I’m anywhere near his level of talent and craft, but a part of what I do or at least what I think I do is try new ways to tell a story.
To answer your question: I don’t explicitly write with the idea of mindfucking my readers and I hope that not everything I’ve written here is a mindfuck. There are a lot of different styles of story here in the Ledger and some of them are incredibly direct and others perhaps take a little more work to (if you’ll excuse me for using an academic term) ‘unpack.’
I’m sorry that we have such a difference of opinion on this subject, but a way to think of it is that I’m not pulling away the football (nice Charlie Brown reference, btw) I’m just replacing it with a soccer ball.
Still, maybe we can meet in the middle. I’ll start aggressively tagging the more abstract pieces and you can avoid those if you like and just read the ones that are a little more clear in their intent and purpose.
Right. I guess you can tell that Joyce is not one of my faves. But I confess I was feeling cranky when I read your story. So, I looked up “elliptical storytelling” to make sure I knew what your intent was. The best definition I could find is that the writer gives all the pieces to the reader but makes the reader put them together. Fair enough. I don’t need to be spoon-fed. My feeling of being mindfucked comes from the sense that you leave out crucial pieces from your packing list, most notably just what a “Song” IS in your fictional universe. Here the Song is sentient, self-aware, in fact it’s the narrator. It can be seen as well as heard and can also see others – which makes me wonder about the choice of “song” for your main metaphor. I am a musician and composer, you see, and this is bringing on a major case of cognitive dissonance for me. I think that if you clear this up before the story’s done I will feel satisfied.
No need to devise a rating system for your works, Ben. You know that I’m just giving you feedback because you ask for it – and because, damn you, you keep me coming back for more! But I’ll bet I’m not your only reader who feels you are often telling us, “Ha! I know something you don’t and I’m not telling, sucker!” If you didn’t intend that, maybe this is useful feedback. I get that you are experimenting with your writing tools, which is great. I know that you know you haven’t succeeded if you seem to purposely confuse your readers without intending to do so.
BTW, I love having stories told to me in new ways. Dave Eggers’ A HEARTBREAKING WORK OF STAGGERING GENIUS blew off the top of my head in the best possible way. So did THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME by Mark Haddon. Just two examples…