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Mouthing off

The Tantalus Letters: Part III, Chapter 2

Laura Otis 17 March 2007

A lot of times I just write what I think without waiting to hear other people’s theories, pure insanity in academia...

Editor's note: We are pleased to continue the weekly serialization of an original novel by Laura Otis. Set in the mid-1990s when e-mail was just becoming mainstream, The Tantalus Letters is an epistolary tale of four academics – two scientists and two English professors – caught in a virtual net of love, lust, science and literature.

Chapter 2

18:58 - 10 June 1997
From: Lee Ann Downing
To: Marcia Pinto

How is life in the lab? Sorry I’ve been off-line for awhile, but a stack of about fifty papers fell on me that I had to grade, and then came finals. Now the book is coming out of me in a veritable explosion, and I wanted to keep talking to you as a reality check.

My thesis is going to be that female rage and female desire are inseparable because female rage arises when a female is told she can’t have desire. I’m starting with The Bacchae, where Dionysus makes the women run amok and Agave tears her son to pieces with her bare hands. I think that’s what my mother always wanted to do to us, actually. Then I’ll do Liaisons Dangereuses, witches, and finally Fatal Attraction.

And I’ve just had an inspiration! The mouth! The mouth is by far the most dangerous part of a woman, because that’s where desire is expressed. I’ve got to get mouths all over this book. The mouth hungers, eats, speaks, screams, lies, takes in, bites off. Just look how we paint all around it, to suck them in. Then we devour them. They would kill to get in there, and they’re scared to death of it.

Do you have any thoughts about mouths? I hope you’re being good while the boss is away.

12:02 - 11 June 1997
From: Josh Golden
To: Rebecca Fass

I love what you’re telling me. I just need to know whether they knew it in 1872, but I can find out.

George Eliot is always talking about webs, and she’s always telling the same story: some arrogant, clueless young person thinks he’s an independent agent and can act on his own, above all the petty squabbles of society. 800 pages later he learns that everyone’s in the web and everyone’s connected to everyone else. The smallest action by the smallest person can create a wave that washes away the arrogant and clueless young person with all his plans for direct action and reform. You can still act, but you always have to keep in mind that everyone will be responding and influencing your capacity and desire to act. She knew a lot about science. Do you think she could have just figured it all out on her own?

OK, all right. How I look: depends on who you ask. My female relatives are under the impression I’m so skinny that I should be taken to a hospital and fed Kreplach soup intravenously. I’ve always devoured everything in sight, but I stay skinny. Too intense, I guess – if there were a famine I’d be the first to go. I was born with Beethoven hair, and I gave my kids Beethoven hair, and while everyone around me is going bald and having an existential crisis, I still have Beethoven hair. Brown. When the three of us sit at the computer, it looks as though it’s being attacked by tribbles. I am not gorgeous, dar – woops, sorry. When I float on my back, they yell “shark, shark!” Didn’t Lee Ann tell you? She should know.

By the way, long as you’re in Deutschland, maybe you could answer another question I’ve had all my life. What’s the story with that place? I’ve never gone there, and I’m never going there. I guess you understand why. Just the language would stick in my throat.

Somebody once asked me what it’s like to be a Jew, and I couldn’t answer – there is no reference point, because I’ve never not been one, and don’t know what it’s like not to be one. To me it means feeling you’re exactly the same as everyone else, and then learning that people want to exterminate you.

Here in Israel I’m just a normal guy, but in Germany I can’t believe they’ve gotten over wanting to exterminate us. It’s like a gene, maybe not expressed now, maybe skipping a couple generations, but at any moment it could get turned on again. If I were there, I can’t predict what I’d do. Here I’m jokin to you about my shark fin nose and Beethoven hair, but if one German ever said anything about them, I can’t be held responsible. I’d smash his Aryan face in, probably, and then they’d throw me in jail and I couldn’t write any more books.

So tell me the real story on this place – be a good little – oops, sorry, babe – sensory neuron and transmit me the picture.

21:21 - 11 June 1997
From: Marcia Pinto
To: Lee Ann Downing

Define good. OK, yeah, I’m being good. I’m drawing a blank on mouths, though. All I can see are hundreds and hundreds of little kitties, as Becky calls them, with mouths full of sharp little white teeth.

Oh – that song – do you know that song on the radio, “Mouth”? “When I kiss your mouth, I want to taste it, turn you upside down, don’ wanna waste it.” Try scanning teeny-bopper stations, ones that play bouncy, girly music. I bet you could use it for the book. Oh, and of course, there’s the whole vampire deal.

We’re actually getting a lot done here. The results are amazing, but really consistent. Even if you block the eyes at the critical time, you still get some synapses forming. Not all the ones you should get, but some. It’s incredible – sort of a cerebral insurance policy, I guess.

I like the mouth idea. Seriously, try to find that song.

21:58 - 11 June 1997
From: Rebecca Fass
To: Josh Golden

You got me at the right moment, because I’ve been looking for an excuse to think about something other than science and my own Liebeskummer (problems in love – do you speak this language?) and all of this has been very much on my mind.

Germans, let’s see. From the moment you get off the train/plane/whatever, the first thing you notice is how big everything is: the people, the clothes, the food. At first you think maybe you’ve shrunk, but it’s that the world has grown. In San Diego, with all the Latino and Asian people, I’m a giant – I tower over lots of grown men, but in Germany I blend in so well that no one ever gives me a second look. The goal here is to be healthy, not skinny, although there are far fewer fat people than at home. They’re just big – big bones, heavy muscles, strong arms, big feet. They look like me.

It’s this profound sense of belonging that causes the guilt, for exactly the reasons you say. You know when you walk along, how you tune in to one conversation after another, like scanning radio stations when you’re on the road? Well, here I understand every scrap. I know the language – not just that, though – I can feel the thoughts that go with the words. My family left here over a hundred years ago, but I belong here, and it frightens me.

I love this place. It’s so hard to fathom that people with such a genius for making life enjoyable could have committed such outrages against life. If you could see the passion for music here, the love of all art, the mouth-watering lineup of fruity, creamy cakes in the cafés, the loaves of dense brown bread covered with seeds, the glinting towers of chocolate and marzipan in the candy stores, the menagerie of plushy stuffed animals in the toy stores crying out to be loved, the noisy, self-righteous pleas for “environmental friendliness,” the lust for travel, and the insistence on walking and bicycling in all weather – I don’t know how to finish this sentence – if you could see it – -would you change your mind? I doubt it. But you did ask.

I absolutely love it here, and I’ve always worried that it makes me a Nazi. People here like me instinctively, as if they recognized me as a member of a club I never knew I was in, and it worries me because I know what this club has been up to. I also feel guilty when I see how they treat non-members. They’re not nice people unless they know you – won’t form lines, tell you off the minute you do anything wrong. Above all, they love to tell you about the mistakes you’ve made – as far as I can tell, it’s culturally acceptable here to go around telling people what’s wrong with them. And they’re formal – I’m Frau Professorin here, no more “Hey Becky, wassup?” This is a land where the sun rarely shines, where the women go around all year with scarves wrapped around their throats, popping herb bonbons to keep from getting colds. They worship the thought of California and think I’m insane to have come here.

But I love it. I love all the old ladies enjoying their daily slice of cake with whipped cream at 4 PM, and I love the young people bicycling along the red lane made just for bikes, dinging in outrage when you forget and stray into it. I love the way people wear green, and I love the sound of the voices, women’s voices, and I love the way they all have big feet here and I’m the most normal-looking person in the world. Hey, what can I say, we big-foots don’t fall over as easily, superior design – woops, bad word, coming from here. More sturdy, less sexy model, that’s me, a proud bigfoot to the end. Well, enough of this, I should get back to my electrodes now and see if Brigitte, Thomas, and I can finally get a cell. Hope this has been enlightening in a way that’s not too sick.

00:43 - 13 June 1997
From: Josh Golden
To: Rebecca Fass
Subject: Not Satisfied

I’m not satisfied.

I have two boys, know the value of good candy and bears, but it just doesn’t make up for systematically murdering six million Jews. Yeah, I know, the gypsies. Didn’t like them either – what did they, do a few mil of them, too? After the end of a long day’s work of roasting my family, they went home and listened to Mozart and had coffee and cake and played with their teddy bears.

You just can’t imagine – suppose somebody wanted to kill all the Germans, kill YOU, systematically, making lists, hunting you down. Just because you’re you, or maybe because you do things better than they do. Can you imagine how that would feel? And they still want to, too, only now they know they can’t get away with it – probably. Even here they want to blow us up. Imagine people all over the world wanted to kill you, not because of anything you’d ever done, but because of what you are – live with that. Makes you want to have more kids, write more books, live harder, live better, screw ‘em all.

Shouldn’t be writing you this stuff, sorry. Barely ate anything today, then drank way too much tonight – life has been driving me nuts. Can’t sleep. Bomb went off downtown today, right near where my kids were this morning. You seem sane, needed the relief. My wife’s been freaking out.

00:50 - 13 June 1997
From: Josh Golden
To: Lee Ann Downing

Can’t stand it any more, Leo, gotta have it tonight.

Talk dirty to me, darlin, want to live dangerously.

Talk to me ‘bout Tess’s mouth, tell me ‘bout communications.

17:26 - 14 June 1997
From: Lee Ann Downing
To: Josh Golden
Subject: Tess’s Mouth

How nice that you want to hear about my book. It’s coming out of me like a geyser. I read film theory six or eight hours a day, but a lot of times I just write what I think without waiting to hear other people’s theories, pure insanity in academia. I work about fourteen hours a day altogether. The mouth, the nexus of female desire. The mouth is what takes in. Is that what you want?

2:31 - 15 June 1997
From: Josh Golden
To: Lee Ann Downing
Subject: Taken In

God, Leo, you online? What a rush, real time! Do it to me in real time, Leo, you know what I want, taken in, taken on, lips, tongue, langue, lick me with your language, Leo, take me in.

17:37 - 14 June 1997
From: Lee Ann Downing
To: Josh Golden
Subject: In

If this is real time, what time is unreal? What Alec saw: soft, ripe, wet vulnerability, the too-rich earth, begging to be tilled. I always had a thing for Alec D’Urberville, forced that sweet, warm, red berry right into her mouth, not like that prick Angel Clare who fucked her with his Calvinism. Tess is excess, a super-fluous being, soft, full, yielding, surrounding. I am just as ripe on the way in, but I tighten, I clench, I push back. I take in, my wet, excessive lips, and then I wrestle, hard and tight, I muffle your scream in a shower of hair. Scream for me, Josh, in cyberspace.

2:39 - 15 June 1997
From: Josh Golden
To: Lee Ann Downing


17:40 - 14 June 1997
From: Lee Ann Downing
To: Josh Golden
Subject: Communications

Now what did that mean? Agony, ecstasy, catharsis, frustration, too much, not enough, was it good for you?

2:40 - 15 June 1997
From: Josh Golden
To: Lee Ann Downing

Oh no, gotta go Leo ecsta