“thinking / thought” —Lindsay Stern, from Town of Shadows
Imagine, as writer Lindsay Stern has, a schoolchild approaching the blackboard to answer word equations such as:
“today / day =”
“thinking / thought”.
In her exquisite debut novella Town of Shadows, Stern gives sensible answers to the first two: sound plus sound equals sound and today divided by day equals now, not zero as a hapless student in the story would have it. But what is thinking divided by thought?
In the story, Alice, a rebellious student, has thrown this last equation up on the board along with her own answer: “I”. Here Stern presents the perennial theme of dystopic literature: the bold assertion of one’s individuality against a hostile, monolithic authority.
Alice is liberated through creation, through writing and answering her own word equation. The teacher disapproves: “Alice’s terms are invalid. Intelligent children do not think. They solve.”
Stern’s writing is meticulous, studied, and inward-facing: the prose of a young writer constructing her own private, fiercely imagined world, complete with a bureaucracy against which many of her characters — the dollmaker, the cellist, the horologist, etc. — struggle to assert and express themselves.
The dystopia here is fully and delightfully realized: vowels have been outlawed, artists have been “deleted,” mathematics has replaced speech as the “national dialect,” and in one of my favorite moments, the mayor arrives announcing “war season.” But the real battleground for Stern is language itself, in other words, “Alice’s terms.”
Stern’s clever word equations operate as Zen koans (e.g. What’s the sound of one hand clapping?). Indeed, “thinking / thought” is a perplexing, paradoxical riddle. Alice says the answer is “I”, but there is no “I” in her world. Stern both dramatizes the absolute assertion of the individual and shows how this same “I” dissipates into a private, imagined space that simply vanishes. For even as Alice revolts, Pierre, the novella’s protagonist, looks in the mirror and sees only the daffodil wallpaper behind him.
Alice makes sense of the equation. Thinking, that vast Big Mind, that cloud of all human mental activity, divided by thought, that singular instance of a thought in time, that Cartesian proof of the individual, equals I. But Pierre is just another shadow in the Town of Shadows. As Suzuki Roshi might say, “It is very paradoxical, but actually it is so.” Contemplating a koan is supposed to provoke enlightenment by demonstrating the inadequacies of logical reasoning. And, for me, this one seems to be working.
Throughout this slim volume, Stern plays with and reconfigures language in arresting and satisfying ways, in ways that make you not only stop and think, but stop and think differently. Her work gives off these flashes of insight by its relentless digging under the surface of language.
In addition to word equations, we see Pierre devising his own lexicon with entries such as “Happiness, n. selective sight” and “Icicle, n. a brief spear.” Stern also presents ten nifty “experiments,” such as “How to Swim” or “How to See,” complete with numbered lines as in a recipe:
Experiment 4: HOW TO FORGET
Light bulb, magnet, drill.
- Drill hole in bulb.
- Locate memory.
- With magnet, extract memory from eyes.
- Trap memory in hands.
- Notice the melody of wings on skin.
- Lift memory to bulb.
- Open hands.
- Watch memory flutter through hole, to filament.
- Turn bulb on.
- Notice the flames.
Stern’s aim, it seems to me, is to upend the mind’s business-as-usual approach.
In this pursuit, she follows in the lineage of Borges, of Wittgenstein, and most of all, of Beckett, my favorite abstract novelist. In Beckett’s letters, he wrote, “My language appears to me like a veil which one has to tear apart in order to get to those things (or the nothingness) lying behind it.” He sought to “drill one hole after another after another into [language] until that which lurks behind it, be it something or nothing, starts seeping though.”
Each of the stories in Stern’s Town of Shadows is a beautifully drilled hole into language. Take a peek and see what lurks beneath.
Paul Griffin writes fiction, personal essays, and literary criticism. His work has appeared in Tin House, Virginia Quarterly Review, NY Press, The Brooklyn Rail, The Common Review, and Shambhala Publications. He lives with his wife and daughter in Brooklyn.