Failure by Alex Williamson

Ever tried.


Often it seemed that, throughout his life, all he had known was failure. Known it intimately. He was harassed by his failings. Haunted by them. Hounded. It nipped and needled at him, like a little yipping dog at his heels, or at other times like a large black beast gnawing upon his bones with slavering jaws. He could smell its breath on the back of his neck, fetid and ravenous.

Like child with a favoured pet, he nurtured it, gave it succour, kept it close. In time, failure became his oldest, most dependable friend. His closest ally. His greatest achievement. It kept him grounded. Gave him something to aim at. If there was one thing he could rely upon, it was failure.

There were any number of categorisations or definitions that he might apply to his condition, though it was less of a condition and more of a mindset, or when push came to shove, less of a mindset and more a form of ontology, or less a form of ontology and more a mode of self-preservation.

Atychiphobia. The irrational and persistent fear of failure.

Kakorrhaphiophobia. The abnormal, persistent, irrational fear of failure.

Kainotophobia. Fear of change, resistance of something due to fear.

Catagelotophobia. Fear of being ridiculed, of being laughed at.

Failure and the fear of failure. Of being made to look or feel like a fool. Fear of being proven inadequate. The unbearable impossibility of being.


In the beginning there were hopes and dreams and possibilities. The possibility that something would happen. When he was very young he had been come to learn certain things through a litany of aphorisms and proverbs associated with Christianity.

If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.

Get up and dust yourself down.

Never look a gift horse in the mouth.

Good things come to those who wait.

Mighty oaks from tiny acorns grow.

Over time, the naive simplicity of these idiomatic observations became tempered and complicated by more ambivalent mantras.

Don’t count all your chickens before they hatch.

Don’t let the bastards grind you down.

The way up and the way down are the same.

Failure is not an option.

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

Don’t try.

Ignorance is bliss.

Nothing will come of nothing.

From a very young age, whenever something good, something exciting, might be about to happen, he soon learned to dispel his optimism, to keep his counsel, knowing that the crushing disappointment might destroy him, that the laughter of others would be too much to bear. As he became older, he sought to keep his life in equilibrium, balanced between these two poles of possibility and impossibility, carefully watching the things that he thought might be possible reveal themselves to not be remotely possible at all, until he found himself being physically constricted, as if in a narrowing tunnel, a tunnel which foretold the story of his life. At the end of the tunnel was daylight, a beacon beckoning him deeper into the darkness. The further he travelled into the tunnel, the greater the distance between his starting position and the finishing line became, so that, in time, he felt as if he was simply walking on the spot, the walls of the tunnel closing in on him, and the light in the distance simply a mirage, a simulation of freedom, which in any case was merely the freedom to fail again, and again.


After using the toilet one morning in reception class, he was told off by the teacher for using too much paper and blocking the system. She took him by the scruff of the neck and showed him what he had done. Her fingernails upon his neck, the heat of her anger. He would never forget the feeling of being demeaned, belittled. After that, he stopped using the toilet at school, and sometimes at home. He regressed to the habits of infancy. His mother didn’t know what to do with him, this strange little boy who refused to use public conveniences, and could not stop soiling himself. She took him to see the doctor, a family friend, who listened with concern as she detailed his indiscretions. But still he could not explain why he did it. For even he did not truly know. It wasn’t that he liked the sensation. It disgusted him. He felt as if there was a fault in him, something broken, and he was punishing himself for being alive. Eventually a solution presented itself. One weekend his mother handed him with a bucket of soapy water, and he was made to scrub the excrement from his underwear. The humiliation was enough. He stopped.


Wherever he went he took himself with him, like a reptile unable to slough off its useless exterior. He was pursued by the ghost of failed selfhood, incapable of being comfortable in his own skin. How its shadow stretched out before him, anticipating his arrival, determined his presence in the eyes of those who knew him. Rendering him invisible. With those he barely knew, conversation drove him to the point of exhaustion. His voice began to fail, grow hoarse, he would lose his train of thought mid-conversation, say the one thing he wasn’t supposed to, recite anecdotes back to front, miss the punchline, stutter. Every time he met someone new or of note, he hesitated over his words, jabbered and stammered an introduction. Fumbled his lines. So many failed encounters and awkward conversations. So many glazed eyes and blank looks. Unanswered questions. On so many occasions left hanging, offering his hand to the empty air. So many times left standing in the corner of a room, staring into space, lost to some private thought or other. Plotting his disappearance.


Among his friends, his closest, oldest friends, some of whom he had known for over thirty years, his friendship felt negligible, as if he was surplus to requirements. The quiet one. The extraneous body. The last one called to the pub, in a loll of sorrow. The first one to go home, in a flit of depression. For all his friends who had married, he had never been called upon to be Best Man. Never had that privilege, that declaration of confidence and kinship placed upon him. There’s always some issue with you, his oldest friend said to him once. And he was right. There was always some issue. Some insecurity or neurosis. Some paranoid delusion or psychological instability. The selective mutism. The inappropriate outburst. From youth to young manhood to middle age. Always coming loose at the seams. Always the need to stand out. Always the desire to be loved.


When he was sixteen years old he asked a girl he knew if she would accompany him to a his school’s Christmas ball. After school one evening, he leafed carefully through his parent’s hefty Yellow Pages, with its mustard-coloured crinoline leaves, to find her telephone number. Having established which one was hers, and after hesitating and dithering before the telephone in his parent's hallway for close to an hour, he finally picked up the receiver and cautiously pressed the buttons, before stopping halfway through and hanging up. This went on for some time before he plucked up enough courage to keep the receiver at his ear, heart thundering against his rib-cage, tongue heavy and thick in his dry mouth. He finished entering the code and waited until the ring tone came through the ear-piece, sounding out its piercing bark in another hallway across town.

The phone rang out for almost a minute before someone picked up. An woman answered, presumably the girl’s mother, sounding flustered. After he asked to speak to her eldest daughter, in the brief pause while her mother put down the handset and called her daughter to the phone, he silently plotted the course of their conversation, and tired to ignore the murmurings as the girl and her mother conferred about who was calling, although it wasn’t late, just after tea-time. 

The girl picked up the phone and said Hello, her voice sounding strangulated over the line. He could hear her breathing gently, and thought of her chest rising and falling as she held the phone to her ear, and he allowing himself to imagine talking intimately with her, placing his hands upon her hips as he kissed her in a darkened corner just off the dance-floor, or perhaps unbuttoning her blouse one night after school, and as he began his preamble by inquiring as to her general well-being and state of mind, his libidinous urges made their conversational awkwardness all the more pronounced.

He worked his way to the inevitable question, in spite of her noncommittal answers, the ill omens, the foreboding, he had come this far, he had to force the moment to its conclusion, and finally he got to the point, stopped beating about the bush, asked Will you come to the ball with me?, and was answered with prolonged silence, an audible pause, as if he had let slip the images in his mind. 

When she didn’t respond immediately in the affirmative, in that silence he could feel his molecular structure begin to disintegrate, as if every cell in his body was denaturing. A sensation of self-evisceration, like he had walked unwittingly into a trap, a terrible self-inflicted personal disaster. Then he heard her voice again as she answered, Oh, I don’t know, and Oh, I’m not sure, and with crushing finality, I’ve been invited by someone else. Then she hung up.


Many years later, after he had all but forgotten the phone call, he came across a quotation by the American psychologist and Harvard professor William James.

With no attempt there can be no failure and with no failure no humiliation. So our self-feeling in this world depends entirely on what we back ourselves to be and do. It is determined by the ratio of our actualities to our supposed potentialities.

James went on: There is a strange lightness of heart when one’s nothingness in a particular area is accepted in good faith...All is not bitterness in the lot of a lover sent away with a final inexorable ‘No’.

Actualities and potentialities. Lightness of heart. All is not bitterness. His sixteen year old self would have thought James was talking out of his arse.

A few weeks later he went to the ball on his own, and she went with that someone else, a taller, darker, more mature boy with a more established moustache and bewildering range of facial tics. From his table, he watched them dancing together, the other boy resting his hands on her wiggling hips, just above her plum-shaped behind, and he could tell that they had already slept together, and he felt an envy so pure coursing through his being that he vowed never again would he ask anyone that question.  


To fail. From the Old French verb, failir. To be lacking, miss, not succeed, run out, come to an end, err, make a mistake, be dying, let down, disappoint, to be unsuccessful in accomplishing a purpose, to cease to exist or to function, to come to an end. From the Latin fallere. To trip, cause to fall.

Failure was a first world construct, a concept born of a culture obsessed with the trappings of success. It could be observed only from a position of privilege, of preordained success. Those who had never known success, never truly knew failure. They saw failure less of a rupture, and more a fact of life.

It was hard to recall a time when failure was less prominent, less culturally resonant. Now failure was everywhere. In internet memes. Twitter feeds. Transport announcements. Political incompetence. Financial impropriety. YouTube compilations.

Epic fail. Leap of Fail. Fails of the Week. Failure as the common argot, the lingua franca of foolishness and ineptitude. A taxonomy of hubris.

A successful novelist publishes a quasi-memoir and self-help book titled, How to Fail. Failure as the blip in a perfect life. Success as the recovery from failure.


On his bookshelves he found an old copy of the Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet, a book he had tried to read once and failed to finish. A dog eared page, page 22, marked the furthest point of his progress. He had bought the book almost as many years ago. Pessoa wrote,

I’m always afraid people will talk about me. I’ve failed in everything. I’ve never even dared thinking of making something of myself; I never even dreamed of thinking of desiring something because in my own dreams, even in my visionary state of mere dreamer, I recognised that I was unsuited for life.

Impossible to write about failure without first acknowledging its antecedents. The weight of literary tradition.

When he posted his thoughts on failure to his Facebook page, someone he knew, a female poet, an acquaintance but not a friend, posted a comment consisting of two unattributed paragraphs from John Williams' 1965 novel Stoner.

A kind of joy came upon him, as if borne in on a summer breeze. He dimly recalled that he had been thinking of failure--as if it mattered. It seemed to him now that such thoughts were mean, unworthy of what his life had been. Dim presences gathered at the edge of his consciousness; he could not see them, but he knew that they were there, gathering their forces toward a kind of palpability he could not see or hear. He was approaching them, he knew; but there was no need to hurry. He could ignore them if he wished; he had all the time there was.

There was a softness around him, and a languor crept upon his limbs. A sense of his own identity came upon him with a sudden force, and he felt the power of it. He was himself, and he knew what he had been.

He had read Stoner several years ago, and found it unmemorable. Much had happened since then and he had forgotten most of what he had read. But he was surprised at the congruence, the equivalent cadences.

He did not see himself as a Stoner, or indeed a Williams, a writer whose work he had next to no familiarity with. He felt closer to Bob Slocum, the narrator of Joseph Heller's 1974 novel, Something Happened, whose paranoid observations chimed with his own.

Something did happen to me somewhere that robbed me of confidence and courage and left me with a fear of discovery and change and a positive dread of everything unknown that may occur.

He had lived much of his life through literature, surrounded himself with the voices of various losers and loners, his extended family of failures, The Failures, that he now wondered which of these drove the inner monologue of his own consciousness. It was no longer possible to identify one singular voice. Perhaps there were a plethora, a heteroglossia, of voices. Every time he spoke, he did so through the language of others. The language of literature.


He knew his life had been a failure. He saw that now. When he was very young he had believed that his existence might transcend its origins, his limited birthright. Nothing had happened.

Even his attempts to apprehend his very personal sense of failure were a sort of failure. There was no press of urgency to his writing, but the brute facts of a partial existence. He was himself, and he knew what he had been. A man without qualities. A man without qualities writing turgid prose in the hope that someone would notice. In this, too, he would fail.

Nevertheless. He would put everything down in words, everything terrible that had ever happened to him, or that he had done to others, and in this way reconcile himself with the past. With history. His story. The story of his solipsistic self. Nothing would be left out. Everything up for grabs.

Scribe, ergo sum.