A Brief History of Books That Do Not Exist
Of Ghosts and the Great Invisible Library
The Three Main Sections of the Invisible Library
I love books that exist almost as much as I love books that don’t exist. So I have written some books, The Seas, The Invention of Everything Else and Mr. Splitfoot, but more importantly I have not written many, many more books. Ed Park, co-founder and co-librarian of the Invisible Library tells us that:
In Raymond Chandler’s posthumously published notebooks, we find 36 unused titles, from The Man With the Shredded Ear to The Black-Eyed Blonde, as well as reference to Aaron Klopstein, author of such books as Cat Hairs in the Custard and Twenty Inches of Monkey.
Imagine the potential, the possible! Clearly the list of books that don’t exist like the Invisible Library itself, is without border or end.
Everything would be in its blind volumes. Everything: the detailed history of the future, Aeschylus’s The Egyptians, the exact number of times that the waters of the Ganges have reflected the flight of a falcon, the secret and true nature of Rome, the encyclopedia Novalis would have constructed, my dreams and half-dreams at dawn on August 14, 1934.
We could write an entire wing of this library here tonight but to name just a few for flavor: The Father by Benno von Archimboldi (from Bolano’s 2666), all the books reviewed in Stanislaw Lem’s A Perfect Vacuum; Miriam: The Disappearance of a New England Girl by Karl E. Hammer (from Heidi Julavits); the Necronomicon by Abdul Alhazred (from H.P. Lovecraft), anything written by Kilgore Trout; and all the broken volumes in Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveller. (Though technically Calvino’s are ghost books of the second degree as their immateriality is only partial like the unfinished Canterbury Tales, like Sappho’s texts undone by worms and time.)
I have spent many pleasant nights imagining ghost books, those phantom texts of possibility and wonder. Their unprintable Dewey Decimal classifications divide them into (at the very least) three basic categories: books that can only be read once, books that cannot be read in one life time and the largest, aforementioned group, books that don’t exist.
Of the first type of ghost book, books that can be read only once, there is one that Alaska McFadden, master bookmaker, gave me years ago. It was a vampire story. At its end the book required me to stab it with a provided wooden stake. It hurt me to do it—flashes of the fascists who destroy books. But there in my living room a war waged: curiosity vs. preservation. Curiosity won the day. I raised the stake and stabbed. A pile of ashes was instantly deposited in my lap as a vampire burnt by the sun’s light. I had killed the book in following the author’s instructions. I was alone in my apartment and felt terrified, not of vampires but of a land populated with infinities, impossibilities and dead unreadable books. I enjoy that kind of terror. All these years later I remain that book’s only and ever complete reader. An honor and a burden. Appropriately, neither McFadden nor I can remember that now-dead book’s title.
Among the books that cannot be read in one lifetime there is Raymond Queneau’s Cent Mille Milliard des Poemes. It is a thin volume—no thicker than the Saver booklets once made for holding S&H Green Stamps (speaking of ghosts) Queneau’s text is ingeniously constructed. It is the poetic response to the mathematical function 1014. Ten sonnets of 14 lines each, only each line is printed on its own strip of paper, allowing for an interchangeability of lines. By Queneau’s calculations if a person were to read all his book’s possible combinatory permutations at a rate of one sonnet per minute, eight hours a day, two hundred days a year (roughly the hours of a full-time job) it would take more than a million centuries to finish reading this thin, thin book of poems. This ghost book has our own mortality stitched into its very pages. You will not live long enough to read this book.
Finally, of the last sort, books that don’t exist, I could dedicate the remainder of my life and no doubt will. A week after my father died I found a book he’d written. Or part of a book. It was 30-odd pages of a manuscript. The text begins, “It is not my custom to keep a journal but something astonishing has happened.” Yes, indeed, I thought. You died. Nothing has astonished me more. For 29 years, the impossibility of death and then it just happened and suddenly it was not impossible anymore.
My father’s manuscript is not really a journal; it’s a work of fiction—if only just barely. During the day, the male narrator is quiet, distracted by melancholy thoughts like my father often was. Then at night, he dreams he can fly, also like my father. The narrator is named Sam. That’s my name. In the manuscript Sam is visited by a stranger who knows of the flying dreams but just as suspense ratchets up to an aching point and I’m desperate to hear what will happen to me and to him, the manuscript ends. The last half-sentence reads, “But it” and the page drops off into a white ravine. But it what? But it what?
In Search of Wanda LaFontaine, Ghost/Writer
After bath time when we were kids, we draped our washcloths over the old iron radiator to dry so that eventually all of our washcloths were covered with rust stains. When we saw these stains in the tub, my brother, sister and I would cry out, “Franka-ki-ee’s blood! Franka-ki-ee’s blood!” I don’t know who Franka-ki-ee was. We made him up so that he could hold all the frightening unknown things. Franka-ki-ee was the essence of dark mystery. And I often felt him just behind me, in hot pursuit as they say, when I ran screaming at night through the backyard, when I woke before the sun. The scream, the run, the darkness and the fact that I always managed to escape Franka-ki-ee, reset the balance between good things and bad things in the universe. Franka-ki-ee is a fulcrum between life and death.
I wrote my undergraduate college essay about bath time with my brother and sister. I didn’t get into my first choice, Brown University. I went to an excellent state school instead. Then years and years later, when I was super-pregnant with twins, Brown University asked me to come read to their students from my novel The Invention of Everything Else. That felt really good, felt like they knew they’d been wrong about the importance of bath time, the mystery of Franka-ki-ee and all these years later they’d just been waiting to tell me, We’re sorry. You were right.
A few weeks after the reading at Brown I received an email from Brian Evenson, the magnificent writer who had organized my visit. The note from Brian contained a mysterious post script. He wrote:
P.S. (And I wanted to ask you about Wanda LaFontaine, the author you mention on page 27. I’m assuming she’s made up? I haven’t in any case been able to find her easily in the usual places. But, at the same time, I knew I’d heard her name somewhere before, and then realized after wracking my brains and paging through together too many books, that Lucius Shepard had mentioned her in The Jaguar Hunter. Is your Wanda LaFontaine happy coincidence, deliberate allusion to Lucius’s or is she actually real?)
My Wanda was pure fabrication. I have never written a book that doesn’t contain mention of at least one book that doesn’t exist. Evenson had detected my ghost book and was caught in limbo between the real and the not real by his fantastic memory and this strange coincidence.
I checked on my Wanda. Here she is on page 27, The Invention of Everything Else:
On the Aft Deck by Wanda LaFontaine is a ladies novel that was left behind at the hotel and stuffed into Louisa’s purse before she realized just how silly it was.
I’d never heard of The Jaguar Hunter or Lucius Shepard so I assumed Evenson was returning my volley, that he had fabricated both author and text. Then a few days later my twins were born and I became very disinterested in things that were not one of my three daughters. Even Evenson’s correspondence.
But while ghosts are good at being quiet, they don’t stay silent forever. In the middle of February 2014, four and a half years after my Brown reading, I finished writing a new novel, Mr. Splitfoot and inside its pages I placed another book that doesn’t exist. This one is called The Book of Ether. It is a religious text breasted inside Mr. Splitfoot. The Book of Ether consists of lines recycled from The Book of Mormon, the Bible, Carl’s Sagan’s Cosmos and some scattered lyrics from Cher, David Bowie, Queen, the Constitution.
As Mr. Splitfoot was prepared for printing, Wanda LaFontaine returned to me. It was so simple. I re-read Evenson’s long-ago email and one Internet search later, I found Lucius Shepard, a real person, not a fiction at all. Google Books instantly provided me with his Wanda passage:
The publishers would keep the title; they would change it to The Keening or The Huffing and Puffing, package it with a garish cover, and stick it next to Love’s Tormenting Itch by Wanda LaFontaine on the grocery store racks. But none of that mattered as long as the words were good, and they were.
Lucius Shepard was not only real, it was clear that his Wanda and my Wanda were quite certainly the same author, a woman deeply doused in cheap perfume to disguise the scent of her own decay.
Not only had Lucius and I imagined the same non-existent author, Google told me that this excerpt was from his short story called, “How the Wind Spoke at Madaket.” That brought on a case of the goose bumps because Madaket is a pin prick village at the far away forgotten end of the postage stamp island way out to sea where two of my sisters have lived for the last twenty years.
Who was Lucius Shepard? What did he have to do with me? Clearly, many things. Again I began to doubt his reality because it was all so strange. Plus I suspected Brian Evenson had an interest in authors who hid their identities inside created authors, Pessoa-ites. I again found myself checking the Internet in order to confirm that Lucius Shepherd was in fact a real man, with a real photo and a real Facebook account. He was.
I must have said his name a hundred or more times. I told so many people the story of Wanda, Lucius and me in Madaket. Even my very young children, hiding under dinner tables, listening through vents half asleep, knew the man’s name. They understood some disrupted, child version of the story of Lucius Shepard.
On February 27th, 2014, I sent a fast message off to Lucius, attempting to explain this unexplainable thing that had happened—that from separate lives (but not that separate) we had stumbled upon the same ghost author.
I waited for his reply.
Lucius remained silent.
I waited some more. Then on March 18th, while parked in line at a drive-thru coffee shop outside Jackson, Mississippi, I received word from Ed Park that Lucius Shepard, 70 years old, had been found dead in his Oregon home.
I’m embarrassed to say it now but with all the selfish egocentricities of the living, in that moment I thought, My God, I’ve killed the man. I killed him by noticing that, like me, he dealt in ghosts.
Recycling: Franka-ki-ee, Wanda, and Lucius
So that’s where Wanda LaFontaine ends. Or almost. One tiny further addendum.
A few nights after Lucius’s death I was sitting outside my house alone, in the cool spring air. Through an open window I heard my daughters whispering in a strange patois, taking on roles and voices in a shadowy, imaginary game of good and bad. I heard them repeat an incantation, a recycling of something they thought they’d heard. “Loooocius. Loooocius and Wanda.” Like the word, Boo! These were characters they’d created in the same shapelessness as Franka-ki-ee and equally magical.
This is how we get haunted and this is why haunted can be very, very good, connecting me to a man I never knew, a man I might have killed, a man I now love and read regularly. In a Mississippi drive-thru another branch of the Invisible Library begins construction. There I get back to work numbering, filing, shelving the books Lucius will not now write, will never now read. I lovingly put these books in a special place, on a shelf beside the never completed works of Wanda LaFontaine and the eternally unwritten books I will, for one reason or another, luckily forget to ever write.
Feature image, “Athenaeum,” by Brad W. Foster.