Read Part One here.
8. Whatever underlay our parents’ faith had disappeared for us, so that we moved on, looking for faith in something else. We tried to conjure another enchanted world as the frame of our possibilities, something to displace our parents’ world, its Las Vegas, its Valparaíso and its Malmö, its Zurich, its Agra. I wondered: if our frame of possibility was not this world but another one (not an outer-space otherworld, some other otherworld), what would our children’s frame of possibility be? A frame yet one level further removed from ours, already distant? One step more speculative? I could not even give ours a name.
9. The older man enters the room, wearing an indigo kimono with a pattern of white squares. However embarrassed by it he may be, Stephen tries to let his face soften. To dismiss this man for his carefree clothing would only reveal his own failing composure. There is a resemblance to his father, which comes from the man’s tall, wide forehead, spotted with age. Though superficial, the spots undoubtedly speak to Stephen’s sensitivities. Stephen is all sensitivities, a bundle of nerves, as his father would say. Now he sits in the Marcel Breuer chair, surrounded by all the bestselling thoughts of another generation. The man calls Stephen “Stanley,” listing what he’s heard about him from the relative. When given the space Stephen corrects him (“Ah, Stephen, not Stanley ... ”), expands on some of what the man has said (“That’s right, I did go to school in Montreal, but also ... ”), and lets other misinformation pass.
“What is most important is that you have the time, and the willingness, and that you have capabilities as a writer.”
“I see,” says Stephen.
Stephen shakes the offered hand of Aurel Fields. In agreement or in welcome he’s uncertain.
“I would like to write a book that encompasses everything I know.” Although he has been a philanthropist for many years now, although he has given thousands of dollars over the years to UNICEF, Amnesty, Habitat and select hospitals, Aurel says this book will be his greatest act of philanthropy. “There is nothing someone of my years, with a child grown up and, hopefully, a generation of grandchildren being born, would like more than to give back to the world. Philanthropy is giving, and giving is feeling good, and who doesn’t want to feel good? There is nothing wrong with that.”
Stephen wonders, now—as his eyes move to the brow that mimics his father’s and then drift along the shelves of Dells and Signets and Bantams, down to the vine-and-fish tracery of the Persian carpet, over to the sliding-glass door overgrown with jungle broadleaves—what he is doing there. Even in his own apartment he feels unsettled, like a foreign body. But here in this comfortable, terribly familiar chamber, the feeling envelops him.
“And how big is this project?”
“As I say, everything I know. And I know a lot! It will take years. It may take us to my death,” he says and laughs. “It may last beyond my death, like an unwelcome guest. I mean, it’s likely you will be working on it for years after I have died. Don’t worry! The money will last until it is done.
“One other thing: It will be a science fiction novel. I’m not quite sure how yet, but it will be one. I’ve long been in the mood for speculation.”
10. Given that I don’t want to jump to false and probably accusatory conclusions, I’d like to revise what I said before: when it came to economics, to downturns and upturns, to recessions and crises, I knew next to nothing. I felt the downturn but had no understanding of it. I felt its effects but was oblivious to its real causes, despite the podcasts and journalism and documentary films. I looked up at something the way a child does a towering, ever-present parent. I looked up at that thing that no one can see. I could never understand how it had come to determine my desires, and how it had come to be so untouchable.
And then the downturn became old news, like the class that we’d grown up in. Everything became old news, except for the insatiable urges of the present, which themselves ceaselessly folded back into the past.
11. As Stephen sits in that room, listening to Aurel’s meditations, drifting amid the scattered puzzle pieces of his worldview, digesting the browned paperbacks that posit theories about how our brains work and what drives us sexually, emotionally, from birth, and that warn of the coming planetary collapse, he constructs the Phenomenon of Aurel Fields. The first few weeks are difficult, but as the months move on Stephen’s misgivings fall away, they stale, maybe becoming the facts of his existence that replace previous ones. A man in his late thirties is more easily tamed than a romantic young man, than a Tolstoyan Stepan who flees the enraging reality of his elders. Stephen, Stanley, softens into this new world.
One afternoon five years into the project, as Stephen types out notes on a recurring erotic dream that Aurel finds so much satisfaction in pondering, the old man sticks a Post-it note to Stephen’s screen, excitedly, expectant. A Medium, a Message: The Wealth of a Single Life, it says.
“Now we can refer to it as something other than ‘it.’”
“What is that from?”
“Just from somewhere inside. Like all of this. Each of the words just popped into place like a poem. It just feels so right,” he says. “There is so much wonder in our process. What would we do without each other?”
12. Another afternoon, another Post-it note: Tuesday, December 26, 2056. Face plain this time, Aurel awaits Stephen’s reaction. When there is none, he tells him he has calculated the day by taking into account everything he knows about his Anglo-Saxon genes, about projected advancements in cell manipulation and DNA therapy, rises in rare cancers, new paradigms in bacteriology, every known and foreseeable factor. “It is the day,” he says. “It is the most likely day of Rachel’s death.”
When Aurel had previously spoken of her, tears sometimes came to his eyes, though not because of anything tragic, not because he didn’t see her—he often went out to lunch with her. Simply out of pure, fatherly love, it had seemed to Stephen.
There is more to it. Aurel seems to know, or at least intuit, that in his science fiction novel there must be something that, unlike the rest of the project, he doesn’t know with certainty. This may be it. Though he calculates the day with a strange degree of precision, he understands the outer limit of his own knowledge to be embodied in this imagined death of his daughter, and hopes to locate that death as the centre of gravity for the massive undertaking, as if all the meaning of everything he knew related to this single preoccupation.
Emboldened by this first prediction, he begins making several more, and though most were impersonal, one hit closer to home: that Stephen would find great wealth after the publication of this book.
13. Young people used to leave for the south and the east in order to find themselves, even in our generation, but by our forties we were too skeptical for pursuits of the self. Still, we did leave the country, only seeking a city that would do nothing for us spiritually, a task which was easy. It was easy to find places with altogether failing zeitgeists, which is exactly what we were looking for.
And I realized that that otherworld I had wondered about, which we might have put our faith into, was either not anywhere at all, or was simply our world: but a version of our world divested of its charms, one with sheering edges, clamouring with titles like Outliers: The Story of Success, like The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America, like Boom, Bust & Echo: How to Profit from the Coming Demographic Shift.
Fifteen or twenty years later we came back to Canada.
14. And then we met Stephen by pure accident on a canvas for Another Life, our non-profit organization, in a garden-city neighbourhood north of the city. At his door, he glanced past us to our parked car on the street, then to the clipboard Jenn held, plainly irritated with our crowding him on his front step—and perhaps for this reason I immediately moved away from our script. I asked him something about the place he was living in, an odd child of Frank Lloyd Wright. He explained that he didn’t own the house, that the owner had died. “I’m just living here,” he said. “Anyway, I don’t think I can help you.” But we hovered over him until he asked us in, which he did with tremendous strain. I must have felt something for him that I didn’t feel with most people. And he must have recognized something in us. The mutual recognition of shared age. As he shuffled between the kitchen and the room where he left us, preparing tea for me and Jenn, he said that he’d been living in the house for years, many years, since he was in his late thirties. Like us, he must have now been in his mid-fifties. It seemed as though he’d been storing his thoughts in a pressurized container, but the floodgates would not be released. He stumbled through his sentences as though his mouth muscles were too weak or clumsy for speech.
We learned that he’d lived in this suburban hermitage for fifteen years. “Transposing another man,” he said. “Becoming an interface for his thoughts. I don’t know. Filtering his illuminated journey, the journey to his lava core and his, his journey to his what horizon? His spoiled horizon? I don’t know. He has become my India,” he said, which made him chuckle.
As our conversation waned I asked, because it seemed to make sense, if Stephen would join our non-profit. I couldn’t help myself, and Jenn was with me, nodding as I spoke. He said, “But I’m already non-profit,” and made to leave the room.
15. Even as we visited Stephen, Aurel’s daughter was likely ill, and died a few years later, on July 2, 2036. Twenty years before the calculated date. Complications from myelodysplastic syndrome, an uncommon blood disease.
16. Stephen finishes his work and has a feeling of relief unlike any before, like virginal copulation. Six hundred thousand words he uploads to the ether, as though uploading his very own being. But of course it isn’t him any more than it is the ghost of Aurel that he puts online. But it is so many years of his life.
17. The man in Bangalore, who might be another-world Stephen, continues his job faithfully and faultlessly transcribing North American patient reports, as he has done since 2011. He records names, birth dates, procedures, symptoms and diagnoses, dozens a day. Even he is surprised that by 2036 the process hasn’t been fully automated. Perhaps it has been, and he is living in a dream of his youth, when stable work had carried him along for a few years.
Into those short patient narratives he reads very little of what it is like in North America, just symptoms of illness, false positives and true positives. Not uplifting work, for one can’t go through life seeing people only for their symptoms without being affected by it. And yet, this was the best, most satisfying, longest-lasting job that he’d ever know.