Late night attempts at reading Attempts at a Life
whilst being pestered by apartment-dwelling life forms
Note: As with any 5¢ense article, please note the disclaimer. This is not a review of the book so much as my own whimsical deficiencies in comprehending it or communicating how much I really liked it. Mostly it's my personal experience with apartment-life in New York City, a lame dog-ate-my-homework excuse for why I didn't give my full book report.
I'll admit, when I first started to read Danielle Dutton's Attempts at a Life, I felt detached. Not in a bad way, but the sheer admiration for the words and sentences she was stringing together made me feel like I was staring unfocused at an abstract collage in a museum. Then, somewhere about halfway into the book, the stories really started to click and I was realizing there was a calculated method to what otherwise might be perceived as random madness.
I'm not sure if all this has to do with what's going on around me though. One can never be sure. One cannot deny that environmental factors play a direct role in a life form's morphology, or for that matter the reading of a book. See, they are remodeling the apartment above the one we live in. During the day all this crap sifts down through the cracks into our apartment--one day in fact, I came home and water was leaking through the ceiling and also filling our light fixture so when I turned it on it was a dirty orange orb that barely shed light on anything. Water-filled light sockets are unnerving to say the least. This is not the first time we've had light fixtures full of water in this apartment. It happened every time it rained last summer, but then it was the light fixture in the bathroom.
The few days we have been home during this recent deconstruction it's been unbearable--the noise, the sheer amount of debris, detrius, sheetrock and mice droppings that is cascading down into the spaces between the walls. I never realized so much could fit in the spaces between walls, sometimes it sounds like they are dropping couches down there. Through all this, though, we are somewhat grateful, as the neighbors above us used to make noise at all hours of the night, and now it is relatively quiet. They weren't as bad as the neighbors that played volleyball or breakdanced in the middle of the night, but still, that was another building, another story. Now it is so quiet at night, the small things stand out.
When I first started reading Attempts at a Life, it was a mouse we heard in the wall. Well, to be sure, we didn't know it was a mouse at first, but it was a fluffering noise, over and over, in the same spot, almost like a dislocated bird wing flapping against tin. And it was magnified so it sounded as large as a rat or a pigeon. This was after some 36 hours of no sleep being on an international flight. Every time I would try to read, or fall asleep, to Dutton's book, the noise would start up, in the same spot, in the space above the bedroom door, whatever you call that space. Sleeping in the living room didn't help with our apartment, being in New York City and all, the distance to any wall is the same--its like living inside a guitar amp, there's no escaping the resonance. Not that it was necessarily a loud noise, but it was the idea of it. It was something alive, stuck in our wall. I'd heard that shrews are so small that they can only live a few hours without food, and will get so hungry they will start to eat their own tails. This thought is what kept me from sleeping, or concentrating on reading the book.
After a night of this, and the failure to solicit our super's help, I took matters into my own hands. I gouged a small hole in the wall with a screwdriver. Our suspicions were confirmed. A cute brown mouse poked his head out of the hole and looked around. I had an empty plastic garbage can in one hand, and a glove on my other, and a petzl headlamp on my head, standing on a stool, and was hoping to knock the unsuspecting mouse into the garbage can and shut the lid... if he came out far enough. But the mouse wouldn't have it and retracted his head after evaluating the situation and deeming it unsafe--worse even, than starvation.
Here's some lines towards the beginning of Attempts at a Life that stood out for me:
"She was prettier than I to be sure, but I know who I am."
"They make me wear a W on my chest because they assume I'm working on a plan to make everything beautiful or watery or dark or light, but I don't even need to work at it."
But I wasn't prepared to accept these lines, this early in the game without evidence to back it up. I had patience with the mouse, but the mouse had more patience than me. Finally, I made the hole bigger and duct-taped a piece of plastic where the hole was, baggy and wide enough that the mouse could come out of the hole and walk along the doorframe. Then I laid on the couch in the dark with my eye on the hole, listening for the rumple of plastic. I fell asleep actually. Until the sound of the mouse rifling in the plastic woke me up. I ran over and palmed the mouse in the plastic, pinning it to the wall. This is not my first experience with this, the other time I had pinned a mouse inside the vinyl upholstery in the roof of my 67' Mustang, my first car. Then, I could do nothing but feel the mouse squirm and let it go, and was happy just to confirm that I wasn't crazy, that there was indeed a mouse in the roof of my car. This time though, I peeled back the duct tape and somehow managed to get the mouse into the lidded garbage can. He sure could jump! Over and over, even after all that starvation. He wasn't exactly grateful, though.
Before catching him, I wondered if he would make a good pet, but it was unnerving how much he couldn't sit still. I put some tortilla chips and water in there with him. Jessica was asleep and I wanted to show her the mouse before letting him go (partly to prove it wasn't a rat like she had suspected). So I went back to sleep too, putting the mouse in the lidded garbage can in the bathroom with the door shut so we wouldn't hear it. By the next morning he had eaten the tortilla chip and pooped all over and it smelled awful. After showing Jess, I took the mouse across the street to this little park/compost garden where sometimes they have impromptu concerts in the summer (7th between B and C for anyone in NYC that wants a visual of where this mouse now lives). I felt bad because it was cold out, but I think this was better than what the super would have done if he caught him.
Anyway, I'm not sure why I'm telling this story except that this is what happened when I started to read Attempts at a Life. Is this a review? I don't know, I hadn't even gotten that far into the book to be honest, and actually, I don't think the book is even available yet to the general public. Maybe that's why I had troubles getting into it at first as I'd like to consider myself general public.
A few nights ago was when the book really started to click and I was believing every word. Somewhere around Two Strange Stories, and How I Met Mikhail. The latter felt oddly familiar, like I'd either read it before, or had heard Dutton read it. But I don't think I've ever heard her read. Then, by the time I hit the Dream Stories (Starring Michael Peirson), it was like, if you have ever worked in construction, that satisfaction of driving in a line of nails, each with one solid hit, none bending, none resisting.
But then another distracting mouse came around. This is a common thing I guess when they are doing construction, or deconstruction. At my place of work, at One Penn Plaza, when they were remodeling our floor, the number of mice was comical, all scurrying around, displaced, trying to find somewhere to go. And rumor has it that Martha Stewart is also in our building, haha. Anyway, this particular mouse, displaced from the deconstruction in the apartment above us, sounded like he was in the light fixture over our bed. Or worse, like he was trying to unscrew the light fixture. I'd turn on the light or tap on the glass and he'd stop. But after a few minutes in the quiet darkness, he'd start back up, like he was chewing on the metal threaded bolt that held it all together. I'm pretty sure it wasn't the same mouse as before, but I do have another story about that happening to me--where I caught a mouse in one of those humane traps, let it go like a half a mile in the woods, only to find it back in the camper I was living in at the time. One day I need to write a book about mouse stories.
Eventually this light-fixture mouse become unfixated and gave up on his own accord. But last night at three A.M. someone rang our buzzer, which is also not uncommon in our building. It's really loud when this happens! I was in delirium so I didn't bother to answer it, but then I was so annoyed that I was wide awake so figured I would attempt to read more of Attempts at a Life to get my mind off the goings on in my immediate surroundings. As I was reading, I could hear people above me, in the apartment that is completely gutted and no one's supposed to be living in. Whoever was ringing our buzzer found their way in. Its not hard, all you have to do is remove the glass panel and reach your hand in. Or go through the alley running beneath the sake bar. People squatting in our building is not uncommon either, they have found all these ways in. In the summer they all squat on the roof, one in particular--a junky named poppy, the ex-girlfriend of a Peruvian punker bike messenger named Edgar that lives two stories below (hi Edgar!). Sometimes Edgar rings our bell at 3 a.m., blind drunk or whatever, but I usually just let him in because it's easier then trying to reason with him. And when he's sober he's usually nice. Whatever, squatting on the roof or in vacant apartments is all fine and dandy, especially when it's this cold, until they start stealing your shit or getting pushed down the stairwell and landing unconscious at your doorstep (both of which have happened). But this time, whoever it was in the apartment above was at least attempting to be quiet, presumably because they didn't want to be caught.
It still made it hard to read as I was wondering what they were doing, in a vacant apartment that as far as I could tell by the progression of noise over the past few weeks and the amount of debris in the dumpster I can see into out our window, was completely gutted. But I did manage to finish the book through it all and the first thing I did when I finished it was turn back to the beginning to read it again, and now it's really making sense to me, speaking to me as they say. As the title implies, these are indeed collagic bursts of creative acts.
In closing, if you have mice in your attic, then Attempts at a Life is the perfect thing to bait them out. Better yet, it itself is the pleasant surprise of discovering that whatever is making that mysterious noise in the floorboards above your bedroom while you are sleeping is actually cute and furry and still alive, and deserving of a life of its own. Therefore, Dutton's attempt at one was a success, as applied to my own situation anyway, which is all I am justified in speaking about.
Attempts at a Life will be available March 15 from Tarpaulin Sky Press.
The lease is up on our apartment May 15, at which point we will make an attempt at a life somewhere else.