All his life he had been dogged by failure. A litany of catastrophes, myriad fuck ups, silly mistakes and grievous errors. The nipping of yapping hounds at his heels.
Though there was once a time in his life when all was possibility, when anything and everything might be achieved, every now and then something would happen to him that would crystallize a feeling of failure within his self so that, little by little, he became a hostage to fortune.
When he was sixteen years old, he decided to ask a girl if she would accompany him to the sixth form ball. He believed that she liked him and would almost certainly say yes. One evening after school he leafed through the Yellow Pages, with its mustard-coloured crinoline leaves, to find her number. Having established which was hers, and after hesitating and dithering before the telephone in his parent's hallway, he picked up the receiver and cautiously pressed the buttons, before stopping halfway through and hanging up. This went on for some time before he finally 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 as the ring tone came through the ear-piece, ringing out in another hallway across town.
The phone rang out for several seconds before someone eventually picked up. It was her snippy-sounding mother who answered, and, after he asked to speak to her eldest daughter, in the brief pause while her mother put down the handset and loudly, sharply, called her daughter to the phone, he silently plotted the course of their conversation, then murmurings as they 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 strange and unfamiliar 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 breasts as he kissed her in a darkened corner just off the dance-floor at the ball, and as he began his preamble by inquiring as to her general well-being and state of mind, he could sense a awkwardness over the line in her measured and reserved responses to his enquiries.
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 silence.
When she didn’t respond immediately in the affirmative, in that silence he could feel his molecular structure begin to disintegrate, every cell in his body felt like it was denaturing, a sensation of self-evisceration, like he had walked unwittingly into a trap, a terrible self-inflicted personal disaster, as she said, oh, I don’t know, and Oh, I’m not sure, and, with finality, I’ve been invited by someone else. And hung up.
He want to the ball on his own, and she went with that someone else, a taller, darker, more mature boy with a bewildering range of facial tics, and he watched them dancing together, him resting his hands on her wiggling hips, just above her plum-shaped behind, knowing then that they had already slept together, and he felt an envy so pure coursing through his being that he vowed he would never again ask that question of anyone.
Failure, and the fear of failure. They even had a name for it. Atichyphobia. It stayed with him and never went away.
He took a screengrab of the first two paragraphs above and posted it to his Facebook profile. Someone he knew, a poet acquaintance, posted a comment. Two paragraphs from John Williams' rediscovered 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. He did not see himself as a Stoner, or indeed a Williams, whose work he had almost 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 atichyphobia
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.
Having lived much of his life through literature, he frequently wondered whose voice guided the interior monologue of his consciousness. Perhaps there were a plethora of heteroglossic voices. At was as if even his attempts to apprehend his very personal sense of failure were a sort of failure. This was the last thing he had wanted to do: to write a novel about being a failed writer failing to write a novel. There was no metafictional weight to his writing, but the brute facts of a partial existence.
He deleted the Facebook post without comment.