Tales in Four Fragments:
Or, In Flaundres, al biyonde the see, etc
If life were like fiction, Canterbury would be the end of the line. My (life) story would only make it (just-less-than) halfway there before I petered out in a fit of exhaustion or resignation or some combination of both (that is, before I packed up my quills and inkwells and died of old age). I’d leave you with a fistful of questions that, if too long considered, would wax into a hundred thousand more. And all along, you’d fight against the inevitable conclusion—which is the truth—namely, that I wrote this little trinket in four hours, while sitting on a train. You'd keep looking for the punchline forever.
Take a deep breath and stop looking, dear, because there’s nothing there.
This is not literature, and life, in reality, rarely imitates art.
So on March 21, two-thousand-and-something, I find myself having just closed a thoroughly-digested copy of the Economist (at the cost of 3£), having just leaned back in my seat on a mostly-empty GNER express, a half an hour out of King’s Cross, heading north. Outside, it’s raining (of course), and the countryside is green and wet. I figure I’m about three hours out of Durham, counting the inevitable signal failures and the sheep on the tracks. White Teeth has long been devoured, and the next book in my backpack (which will remain nameless to protect the innocent) is, all things considered, a bit of a bore. So that’s why my pen is scraping away at my Moleskine, right this instant, crossing this very “t.” I figure I might as well pass the time until I get where I’m going by telling you how I got where I am. Kind of an obvious trope, I know, coming from an amateur Chaucerian—but hey, I’m pretty jet-lagged, so it’s the best I can do. (For the record: if you get your hands on this, flash freeze it, plastic-wrap it, and throw it in a trunk. This is the kind of document a good scholar can live off of for years.) *Wait a second: I need a sip of my tea.* Where to start? The textbooks can tell you (and probably already have) that it was late October 2008 when I finally gave up on Topaz the novel and began working on Topaz the play. But what they may not know (without this journal) is that Topaz began as a throwaway short-story (can’t remember the title) written for an undergrad lecture. I was a senior, thoroughly sick of the academy, and looking for a way to escape my last term without having to write another English paper (believe me, I had written enough). Luckily, the professor actually encouraged us to forego the usual and attempt some more-creative work; it was only a matter of figuring out how I could combine the subject matter (Chaucer) with the only creative genre I knew how to write (hack literary fiction, with copious postmodern twists). I came up with some crackpot scheme to write a story about writing a story about Chaucer writing one of the Tales. I thought I could dash off the assignment in an hour or two, forget about it, and go on with my life after Yale. Of course, this wouldn’t be much of a story if everything had gone according to plan, and before long, the raging sycophant within me reawakened, and, eager as ever to please my academic masters, I threw myself into the work. I remember clearly the moment when I realized that I wasn’t just writing an assignment--that I was embarking on an experiment that could shape my fiction for the rest of my life (provided, of course, I didn’t fade into corporate stoogedom or indenture myself to the academic order, both of which seemed very likely outcomes at the time). It was a warm April evening, clouds were gathering outside; I was listening to Van Morrison and trying to get myself to read the Tale of Sir Thopas, but as Astral Weeks cohabitated with Chaucer in my head, I drifted off to sleep. When I woke, it was dark, and a little spot of drool had formed on the Prioress-Sir Thopas Link, towards the end of Chaucer’s introduction by the Host. I blinked and squinted, and read the tale in a flash. There was a joke there—yes, where was the joke? For one brief moment, Chaucer the author, Chaucer the narrator, Chaucer the character all shimmer through, Father-Son-Holy-Spirit, a glittering epiphany, like an Einstein-Rosenfeld bridge, piercing the fabric of space and time. Chaucer’s voice multiplies into millions—he is there, speaking over the Host’s shoulder, ringing in his namesake-character’s head. Was this the lynchpin holding everything together? He semeth elvissh by his contenaunce, / For unto no wight dooth he daliaunce (703-4). And at this, the omnipotent author descends into a character incarnate, to sacrifice himself, through a really boring story, to the raging demons of bad taste. Never mind that He is the source of all good in the Tales—let’s look at his mistakes, at the message of his worldly sacrifice, at his otherworldly plan. This was it! This was the key to everything, wasn’t it? God! Let me tell you what, it’s
[The next portion of the manuscript has been damaged by a stain. The available text indicates that the missing portion is a passage concerned with the frustrations of interpreting chaotic and/or postmodern works.]
am frustrated, to say the least. You have to understand what a huge departure this was for me! (With any luck, I’m famous by the time you’re reading this, and you’ll have read all my stories and plays.) Previously, I had always allowed some degree of earnestness to seep into my work. Granted, there was always the requisite postmodern flair—little intrusions and in-jokes from my own autobiography, unnecessarily complicated (and numerous) perspectives, important details intentionally left off the page. And, of course, the requisite chuckles at the reader’s expense (“You mean you don’t get what I’m doing?”). Just because I was earnest doesn't mean I wasn't also abusive. But this was all good—Chaucer must have felt the same, you know? I mean, the Squire’s Tale is a sure indication that Chaucer wanted a horrible fate to befall his audience; the Knight’s Tale, maybe, too. And the greatest irony? Topaz was, and always will be, nothing more than a joke—but the public lapped it up. (And by “the public” I mean “the academy,” of course.) I had danced like their monkey. I had jumped through their hoops. And the joke was on them for loving something I’d written out of the side of my mouth. But you can’t argue with success[.]
“Bottom line? Greg was making it all up. It would have been easy to pretend that some obscure scholar, his life work ensconced in the thick dust of Sterling’s infamous stacks, had uncovered some byzantine (and possibly scurrilous (spurious? spurious.) evidence that some obscure scholar, his life work that Chaucer had, indeed, first heard the Squire’s Tale while traveling through France in the company of some aristocrats etc.
“Evidence exists in the literature (see Pickerington, 234-7; Hollister, 176-98) that the Squire’s Tale was first told by Chaucer to a group of fellow aristocrats on pilgrimage to the shrine of St. Denis in France (for this journey’s potential significance in the composition of the Shipman’s Tale—Wife of Bath’s Tale?—see Danielson, 13-24). etc.”
How do I begin this? With a preface by the editor? (Does it have an editor?) I think it ends with an editor’s note about the story’s incompletion.
What are my frames?
->Me, author, writing this for a class.
-->Narrator, writing his story for a class?
--->Character, who wrote the play in question, en route to Durham with a girl he picked up in York the night before; he’s going to see the first performance of his play in the UK.
---->Chaucer, character in the play, telling the story of the Squire’s Tale.
----->The Squire’s Tale itself.
“It should have been Canterbury, I know. Aesthetic harmony: a young playwright-cum-amateur-Chaucerian goes on a pilgrimage to Canterbury for a performance of his most (to date, only) successful play, a postmodern romp through the spotty history of Chaucer’s composition of the Tales. When there, he learns something, changes somehow, and wraps up a nice little moral in the end about history or perserverance or life. Et cetera. Drinks beer. Et cetera. Probably finds out that he has been wrong: that he had, I don’t know, grossly underestimated the complexity of the Tales, or overestimated it maybe. Something like that.
“Instead, it was Durham, because Clement had been there only last week, because it was a beautiful little town with some very very very good beer, and because it was beer, more than Chaucer, that was on his mind.”
<OR SHOULD I WRITE THIS FROM THE INSIDE OUT? STARTING WITH THE PLAY ITSELF?>
Realization: will not be able to avoid writing this play. First, no way the thing will make it to fourteen pages. Second, no way without it, it’ll make any sense.
1. Part of a written semi-fictional, semi-autobiographical (artificial) story about an author-playwright (me) going to a performance of his play (about Chaucer and the Tale of Sir Thopas) at Canterbury (too much? Northumberland?). Flashes back to the origins of the play in an undergraduate assignment for a class on Chaucer.
-> Questions Chaucer’s potential postmodernism. Is postmodernism only the result of trying to make (cohesive) sense out of something not cohesive, something chaotic, something incomplete? Is it what you get when there’s nothing to get?
->Intimation of the play as a kind of joke: something hackneyed, thrown together (at the last minute?) as a play on the critics’ tendencies to make something out of nothing (or to make nothing out of something, as the case may be).
->Author is dissatisfied and bitter; he has written work he considers better, more realistic, more human, more real, but this—his throwaway joke at the audience’s expense—is what his audiences like the best. (Should I mention my thoughts about Titus Andronicus? Or is that too much? Too much.) He makes money; the audiences fail to see the irony. Fame.
-->So he built a story that (post-modern-ly) mocked previous readers (previous critics) for failing to see Sir Thopas as a joke and for criticizing the Host’s interruption of a supposedly-excellent tale; at the same time, the audience is complicit in that same kind of hubris for failing to consider the play in context of the author’s other thoughts and other works etc etc . . . but I’m running on . . .
2. The author-playwright’s notes about the play (but NOT the play itself), describing potential characterizations, staging arrangements. The ideas should be over-the-top, but not overtly satirical. Or should this part be in earnest? Should we question narrator 1’s assertion that the whole thing was a joke?
3. A rewritten project proposal, in the form of an email, outlining the purpose of this story itself (but with a focus on the Squire’s Tale, instead?).
4. A cryptic fragment of . . . the play? Of story dialogue? A key moment from the Tales?
5. Editorial note on the text’s incompletion (perhaps)?
[God, are we at fourteen pages yet? Better add another break.]
Note on the Construction of the Stage:
Topaz requires a stage built in four successive levels, as its action takes place on four successive planes. The highest plane, and the plane furthest back, stages the action involving the child and the bully, which is entirely in pantomime, and should be performed by the smallest responsible actors available, but preferably not children. The next-highest plane, and the next-furthest back, contains Chaucer-the-character’s telling of the Tale of Sir Thopas to the pilgrims, as in the Canterbury Tales. The plane immediately below and in front of that contains the action pertaining to Chaucer the author. The fourth and lowest plane should be populated by selected members of the audience, perhaps those who have paid for premium seats.
One might imagine that the fifth plane is the general audience, seated (for the most part) below the level of the stage.
[The curtain goes up on a dark stage. A voice begins reciting the Tale of Sir Thopas—it is the character of Chaucer, on the second plane of the stage. But at first this character-Chaucer is indistinguishable from, or hidden behind, the figure of the author-Chaucer, who is, for the moment, standing on the second tier. Note: this author-Chaucer is the only figure in the play capable of moving between planes. Under no circumstances should any of the other players cross into other planes.]
[The recital of the opening of the Tale of Sir Thopas continues just long enough for the audience to be lulled by the language which most of them only half-understand. Then, Chaucer-the-author steps down into the next-lowest plane, his plane, while the Chaucer-the-character continues delivering his tale. The recitation will continue throughout the play; the play should last exactly as long as Sir Thopas and the Tale of Melibee combined, plus the various retractions/repetitions that happen according to Chaucer-the-author’s command; see below. The pilgrims’ parts will be spoken according to the text of the Canterbury Tales; see below.]
[After stepping down, for a long while Chaucer-the-author stares at his counterpart on the second-highest tier of the stage. He looks over Chaucer-the-character’s audience, then over Chaucer-the-character, and shakes his head. He breaks the fourth wall and shrugs to the audience on the lowest part of the stage before he speaks. Then he breaks the fourth-wall-prime, and shrugs towards the audience out in the dark. He can’t see this second audience, but on faith he knows they are there.]
AUTHOR [while CHARACTER continues with the tale]: Dull little shit, isn’t he? [taken aback that the audience is taken aback] What? Didn’t think I’d speak your tongue?
About the author
Until last week, Mr. Goff and his wife spent their days teaching Korean high schoolers to disagree with their parents and their nights teaching a deaf and toothless Yorkshire terrier to do his thing. This summer they're leaving Seoul for Edinburgh. His story "National Road" recently appeared in Opium Magazine Online. I’ve never heard of it.