by Peter Grandbois
The lamp on the hallway armoire is unplugged, so the stairs leading up to the room are in darkness. As a result, we can’t remember the last time we went there. We don’t know why someone doesn’t simply plug in the light. Why we don’t. Perhaps it wouldn’t work. Maybe the bulb is burnt out. Maybe there’s no bulb at all. We don’t know what’s in the room either. Perhaps we did once, when the lamp was plugged in, and when the bulb was working. If it ever worked. Sometimes, after waking or just before sleep, we think we remember what the room was like: the blue shag carpet we’d pretend to swim in as the sun warmed our back through the dormer window, the orange sofa against the far wall in whose cracks and crevices we lost countless soldiers. The room emerges as if from a dream. And we’re sure we’ve been there. We know its significance. But then it’s gone, as if the room never existed at all and those stairs lead nowhere. We don’t even know where the yellow paint came from that splatters the walls of the stairway much less what went on in the room. We’ve thought about plugging in the lamp, but it’s too late now. What if when we did, there was no room at all? What if the stairs end after a few steps and simply drop off into darkness. On days like these, we’d rather not be anywhere near the hallway with the unplugged lamp, the hallway that ends with the stairway leading to who knows what. But then we worry if we don’t enter the hallway, if we don’t come near the lamp, they too will cease to exist, like the room, like the stairs. Then we’ll be trapped down here with no hope of remembering the room. And we don’t want to contemplate that. Not ever.
Peter Grandbois is the author of The Gravedigger, The Arsenic Lobster: A Hybrid Memoir, and the forthcoming novel, Nahoonkara. His short stories have appeared in journals such as: Boulevard, The Mississippi Review, Post Road, New Orleans Review, Smokelong Quarterly, Failbetter, Word Riot, Necessary Fiction, and Gargoyle. He teaches at Denison University in Ohio and can be reached at www.brothersgrandbois.com.
“The Room” is: —Contemplation anxiety? The end of forward progress? A Recession narrative? Groupthink? Hope high-powered? Hope overpowered? An excuse to stay in bed? First of all thanks for this interview and thanks for taking the time to pose such intriguing questions. You ask what the room is, and I love the answers you give, and of course the fact that those “answers” are phrased as further questions: “Contemplation anxiety? The end of forward progress? Recession narrative?,” etc. The room is all those things and more. It is a place for that which we can’t know. In that sense, it is a metaphor for compressed narrative as I see it. Flash fiction, prose poetry, sudden fiction, whatever name you give it, is defined by compression. It’s mattering rises out of imagery compressed to a singularity. And that singularity allows for its capaciousness. Flash is the only form where you can explore the ineffable, those things we can’t explain with mere words. Something about that compressed imagery, that singularity that creates a wormhole to our unconscious, gives us access to a way of talking about what can’t be talked about—the paradoxes that make up the human condition. Identity, for instance. Narrative realism in its traditional longer form seeks rationality, explanation, and closure. Events naturally move from one to another through cause and effect, details pile up to create consistent character. All so that we can know, so that we can better understand. But I question that understanding. The real world is not so rational and linear—at least not in my experience. Time is a singularity that holds me trapped so that I feel as if I’m simultaneously four years old, twenty-four, and forty. Identity is another paradox, another ineffable concept, especially in the postmodern world where it consists of one surface layered upon another, upon another. In the words of the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa: “I know that the world exists, but I don’t know if I do.” —“Leading to who knows what,” you write. Who knows what? Do you know what’s in the room? Can “we” know? I would say that is why we have the room. As an image, a place that gives us a way of shaping the identity that eludes us, even if only in fragmentary form, even if we know that identity is a construct of an unreliable memory or an over-active and ego-ridden imagination. The room is all we have. Fill it with what you will.