[A story whose attempted publication would take up too much of the writer’s precious reading time].
The 1985 hardback edition of Gilbert Sorrentino’s Odd Number wiggled into the library, sweat dripping down his pages, dampness on his spine. He’d shimmied up nine whole stairs to the first level, to the children’s section, and was tuckered. Before him sat row upon row of beautiful children—some worn and battered down the ages, others barely glimpsed at all. He stretched his jacket, ruffled his opening chapters, and proceeded to the first shelf: orphans. His thesis was on the role of the orphan in contemporary humanity, or something like that, he’d still to finalise the focus. Orphans had always fascinated him, especially the rickety, squat urchins of Victorian London.
Wiggling past the modern orphans with their fat cheeks, Burberry caps and mean mouths, and the pre-war tykes with their grubby faces and cute Cockney tongues, he soon arrived at orphans of the 1800s—a surprisingly poor selection for his needs. He inspected several intriguing specimens: one toothless girl with bloody elbows and a torn rag skirt who said “maw, maw” over and over, and a naked boy with lashes down his back whose eyes rolled up into his skull in haunting intimations of death.
But the 1985 hardback edition of Gilbert Sorrentino’s Odd Number was delighted when his front cover alighted on a proud-looking child in a top hat, braces and dirt-free trousers. His shiny skin, manicured nails and polished brogues seemed an unusual fit for an orphan. “My parents were kidnapped and executed by defectors to Queen Victoria,” he said. “I was held hostage in our estate and taunted by the cowardly killers. They dressed me like a Lord and named me Little Coffin Boy. They forced me to construct my own coffin by cannibalising my father’s precious Edwardian dining table, then lie down inside while they drove a sword through my heart.”
The hardback ruffled its final chapters ferociously, shocked. “I closed my eyes, awaiting my excruciating death. Then a fortuitous occurrence saved me from this cruel fate. Our maid Helena discovered the bodies of my poor mother and father hanging from the chandelier, and gave a bloodcurdling shriek. ‘Murderers!’ she screamed. I tried to save her by sitting up in my coffin and shouting ‘Run!’ but I could no longer move. The executors chased Helena into the bedroom and I chose that moment to make my escape. Helena pled for her life, then screamed as the bastards drove their swords through her flesh. My heart was burning. I felt as though Hell had opened up around me, and the devil himself was waiting behind the front door. I escaped.
“My legs took me into town where I hid for three days behind bordellos and public houses. I shed copious tears for my parents, and came close to taking my own life. I decided, on the fourth day, to sneak into the National Library and install myself as an orphan in their archives. I wanted the world to know my story, and for the memory of my parents, and the shame of these cowardly murderers to be remembered forever.”
A shudder ran down the hardback’s spine. His preface fluttered. He could base his entire thesis around this remarkable orphan, it was quite a story. He closed his pages around the orphan’s foot and led him to the checkout, where the cute 1981 paperback edition of Joyce Carol Oates’s Bellefleur curled her fortieth page at him by way of flirting. The afternoon was looking up! Perhaps he’d have her barcode by the end of the week?
I climbed down off the shelf and followed the 1985 hardback Odd Number to the checkout, his car, then back to his depressing study with its one anglepoise lamp and series of sharpened pencils lined up along a ring-stained desk. Third sucker this week. What makes these old hardbacks so gullible? I mean, there’s no adventure anymore, no risk. You sit there with all those whining orphan saps for hours on end, then some dapper dust jacket runs his deckle edges along your thigh, looking for some titillation, or some PhD student, groping for originality, listens to a purple sob story. Then boom! In two hours, I have them on the floor, devouring their contents from cover to cover.
A new challenge is what I need. So that’s why I’m playing it cool for now. See, when the book brings his friends around for a glass of toner or whatever these brainiacs drink, I can make my move and take down three or four at a time. An orgy of dusty hardbacks! I wait on his desk as he clamps me for further information. I find it hard to suppress a smile. “I miss my mother most of all, she gave me her warm milk every night.” He curls his 110th page in confusion. I love fooling these fools with my sincerity.
Time passes. I grow restless feeding him this bullshit when I can pin him down and read him at any second. It occurs to me that this hardback probably doesn’t have friends. The moment comes at last—it happens after I spin an exhausting historical yarn about my father’s lineage. As he’s scribbling some notes, I leap off the desk and pin him to the floor, forcing open his cover. Usually the hardbacks protest at this point, forcing their cardboard covers shut, but I’m strong. This one doesn’t move at all. Doesn’t twitch. “Read me,” he says. “I don’t mind, read me if you like.”
I loosen my grip. “You aren’t smart enough to fool me. No one wants to be read by force.” He winks his tenth. “I’m different. No one reads me. No one wants me. I don’t mind being read like this. Please read me.” I back off completely—never like this, never. This is too strange. “No, you’re warped. There’s something wrong with you.” He claps his pages together in protest. “No, honestly. I want to be read. Please read me.” I leap off the table, nab a few pencils, and ditch the old pervert. “No way. I’m out of here. Creep.” And I leave, ignoring the light flapping of his pages as I go.
He lay there, rocking on his spine, the wan lamplight vulgar on his cover. For hours he abused his pages—scrunching and unscrunching and tearing out the last blank page. It hurt. Little Coffin Boy had reduced him, a twenty-six-year-old hardback, to pulp with his deceit and refusal to read his pages. What good was his thesis now? When more popular hardbacks, like the 1973 edition of Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions were producing papers on German soldiers, or door-to-door salesmen, or Nobel prize winners—in vogue humans. He might as well forget the whole thing. Give up.
A dark night lay ahead. He wiggled to the bestseller neighbourhood, gazing with envy at the Dan Browns and Jeffrey Archers in their mansions, living the good life and getting read day in, day out by adoring humans, while complex souls like him festered in hovels. For an hour, he considered hurling himself into the Discount Bin River, where tired old books go to end their print run before their time. He pictured all the humans who recoil from his covers. Who demand being returned to their libraries rather than glance upon his unpopular words. He dangled over the river’s edge. It was over.
There was something about the way that hardback pleaded with me. It was eerie. I felt some connection between us . . . something beneath the pages. You don’t bullshit books for ten years without picking up some understanding of a novel’s secret rifflings. I don’t know, it was like I passed up the chance for a new sensation. I’ve never read a book who’s wanted to be read by force before. Wouldn’t that be a change from the same-old same-old—I might discover a ‘forced’ consensual reading makes me feel new things.
I double-back to the hardback’s place. He’s not there. Perhaps this is a trap, and he’s seeking a Police Procedural Manual to ensnare me? I like the danger. Coming close to capture. It’s exciting for sure. Ambling through the streets, past the paperback mansions, I spot him dangling over the Discount Bin River’s edge. Am I too late? I call his name. “1985 hardback edition of Gilbert Sorrentino’s Odd Number! Wait!”
The 1985 hardback edition of Gilbert Sorrentino’s Odd Number leapt up onto its corners in surprise—so the Coffin Boy had returned to humiliate him further? “No use,” he said. “I’m obsolete.” The Coffin Boy held onto the bridge’s ledge, panting. “Wait . . . I want to read you.” A little curl from the hardback. “No use. I won’t be fooled.” He shakes his head. “I mean it. Spread your covers. Let me read you, I want to.”
And so the hardback opened up, letting Little Coffin Boy devour his dusty contents. A long evening began. At first the reader’s eyes glazed over, struggling to follow the unusual formatting. Then the first titter came with a look of perplexity and amusement. He hastily turned the pages, with even more bemused expressions as he progressed. Soon he reached the end. “That was one of the most strange and unique reading experiences I’ve ever had,” Little Coffin Boy said. “Thank you for reading me,” the 1985 hardback edition of Gilbert Sorrentino’s Odd Number said. “I wish more people would.”
And the Coffin Boy toddled off back to his library, buzzed at the new sensation. The hardback closed his covers and was never read again. His thesis in orphans was published in April 2012, two weeks before he went out of print.