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by Alex Epstein

On the Brilliant Author
His last book, Static Electricity, also failed miserably. But then he received a six-figure advance from the tobacco companies to travel and write a guide to all the bars and cafes in the United States where smoking is still permitted. Of course, he himself smoked no more than two or three cigarettes a week, had no intention of leaving the town where he lived with his wife and two children, and from time to time, when family life allowed, he hid in his study and tried, so far with little success, to compose a short essay on the light in the stories of Anton Chekhov.


On How the iPad Saved the Short Story
The truth of the matter is that the iPad did not save the short story, and in any case this was not the reason that one man, fed up with his life, jumped from the window of his apartment on a high enough floor. And then, in the middle of the journey to the sidewalk, he suddenly discovered he could actually fly. He began to hover above the city streets, and flew up and down and forgot that he had just jumped from the window to die, and even cautiously approached the utility lines (without which the world is demilitarized from sadness). After a few minutes, when he turned in the general direction of his window, he could no longer fly. He started to fall, managed only to think he should ascend one last time, but it was no use, he spun through the air, plummeting and crashing on the road just a few minutes’ walk from his home. What a brief and bizarre kind of grace this was. But grace nonetheless.


The last man in the world is also writing a novel.


Super Zen
Like many superheroes, in her everyday life she works at a dreary job: as a clerk at the post office. But from time to time she has to use her special powers even from behind the counter. Once a thief entered her post office and pointed the gun in his trembling hand at her. She said, The Buddha’s heart was also not on the right side. Enlightenment was within reach.


Three Pieces of Time
1. A year ago, in a small town in the United States, I saw a beggar sitting beside a cardboard sign that read: “Help: my time machine is out of order. I need money for replacement parts, so I can go home to the year 2118.”

2. To accept the assumption that God created the world less than six thousand years ago, one must accept the claim that He also created signs and traces of everything we assume happened before that: dinosaur skeletons, continental drift, cave paintings and so on. In one of his essays, Borges quotes Russell, who writes that one can argue in the same vein that the world, with its entire glorious past, was created a few minutes ago. A more radical idea is found in a Zen parable from which I copied the next lines: A teacher was asked by one of his students when the world was created. He answered, “Now.”

3.The legend goes that Virgil wrote the Aeneid for ten years, no more than three lines each day. And at the end of his days he began subtracting from his poem: Among the lines he was satisfied to leave out was one of the tales of Aeneas, who wanders and wanders the streets of Carthage, until he comes to a square bustling with people. He pushes his way into the crowd and listens to a blind storyteller, who tells of the journeys and hardships of a man who cannot find the way home—Odysseus is his name. “But not even a single road leads out of Troy!” cries Aeneas, perhaps to the gods, perhaps to the storyteller, “We are doomed to march them all.”


The Book of Sleep
This story is somewhat familiar: On the seam of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Orientalist Antoine Galland translated The Thousand and One Nights into French, and wove in legends and tales of Scheherazade that he invented himself, or that he’d just heard during his travels in the East (like the one, for example, about Aladdin and the magic lamp). In Galland’s journals, by contrast, in an adaptation by the Argentine writer Bioy Casares, we encounter another story, which Galland actually neglected to include in his translation of The Thousand and One Nights: He states that at a market in Toulouse he obtains a tattered book said to have been written by a Gypsy. Whoever reads from this book from dawn until dusk, the bookseller instructs Galland, will fall asleep and awaken after one hundred years. Only then will he continue to read the book at the exact place he’d stopped, without knowing that the world outside is unrecognizably changed (again). Galland returns home and one morning begins to read the book as instructed. At night he falls asleep and awakens the next day: a lazy autumn in the south of France. The only thing that happened, he recalls through the curtain of waking, was that also in his dream he’d slept and awakened from another dream, and it isn’t clear to him which of the two dreams is real. Galland copies into his journal one of the opening lines from the book, “The god prayed. But to which god? Thus is the universe made,” and then places the fraudulent book in his library, and returns to the labors of translating The Thousand and One Nights. Elsewhere in his journal he remarks that perhaps it isn’t the man who sleeps for one hundred years, but the book.


The privilege between therapist and patient is not the same, of course, as the clear one-way relationship (outwardly) between an author and a character. But I must honor the profession of A., and keep the name he gave her, Hannah. Even when he begins to describe their first meeting, he admits that he himself entertains the idea of adding some small, harmless inventions to these events. Smoking, for example: she was pleased when he told her it wouldn’t bother him if she lit a cigarette. “If time travel is possible,” he said, “we’d always be meeting time travelers.”

“You’re quoting Stephen Hawking,” she said, “I know who that is.” She asked in embarrassment if she should lie on the couch. “So there are still movies in the distant future,” he remarked with a smile, and said that it didn’t matter to him. Hannah remained seated. Her face was pleasant, a bit long; her brown hair was pulled back with a barrette.

“Everyone is hiding something,” she said quietly, “I could have escaped to any time I wanted. But I chose to come here, to this time. To you.” She had a slight accent, he wasn’t able to identify its origin.

“Let’s say that I accept what you are claiming,” A. countered. “But why me?”

“Because I read about my test case in your book,” she replied and rested her gaze on the books to the right of the door—from one of the shelves jutted a stack of record albums he’d found a few years ago, when he was cleaning out his parents’ house—“a book you haven’t written yet.”

“When will I write it?” He rose from his chair and walked to the curtained window. He remembered that when he went out to meet her in the waiting room she’d quickly removed her sunglasses. He noticed a thin scar above her right eyebrow.

“In four years,” she answered. “You will treat me for two years and then I’ll return home.”

“If you’ve already read all of this,” he said, returning to his desk, ”If you know how I’ll treat you…” He inserted a cassette into a tape recorder and pushed the record button, “then tell me how I shall begin.”

She puffed on her cigarette and was quiet for a moment, and then said, “From the beginning. I was born in 2303. My parents had a house outside the city. At the age of eight…” Hannah came back every week, exactly at the agreed-upon hour, for two years. In the winter of 2004 she called him the day before her appointment and said that she was going away for a few months.

These days A. is writing a book on his treatment method. He tells me that the writing is progressing nicely, but he’s gotten to the chapter about the case of the woman who claimed that her grief was from the future, and now he has total writer’s block. He even blames his writing problems on his insufficient knowledge of modern physics.

“Did you know that this isn’t such an outlandish idea, time travel,” he points out, “Even according to Einstein, if we travel close to the speed of light it’s possible to get to the future. And there are other serious physicists who have proposed models for time machines with which it would be possible to reach the past.” On the Internet he read about a machine proposed by the mathematician Kurt Gödel: Its unique quality is that it can indeed allow returning to the past, but only to a time later than the moment when it is assembled.

“I didn’t understand the equations,” he says, “but it’s clear that because the window of time you can travel to is limited here, Hannah must have used a different method. Unless someone already built this time machine several years ago, but hasn’t told us.” All of this has made him think about theory in a field a bit closer to his own. Even if time travel were possible, he claims, travelers from the future would dream here only dreams that they already dreamed in the original time from which they came. Perhaps the soul cannot travel so far. Of course, he admits that this is not truly connected to his treatment of Hannah.

I suggest that he simply set aside this chapter for the time being and in the meantime continue writing the rest of the book. But A. says that he promised his publisher he’d turn in the manuscript at the end of November; it’s September already, and the holidays are coming—the time of year when patients from the past tend to come back. So he is flooded with work. It seems he’ll have to give up on her story.


The last man in the world wrote the last haiku in the world.