A long list of little catastrophes. Myriad fuck ups, silly mistakes and grievous errors. The nipping of small hounds at his heels.
His entire life had been coloured by failure. Failure and the fear of failure. There was even a medical term for it. Atychiphobia. It arrived in his childhood and never went away. He carried it around with him like a heavy coat, slung over his shoulders. It became his oldest friend, his greatest foe. It kept him grounded. Gave him something to aim at. If there was one thing he could depend on, it was failure.
From a very young age, whenever something good, something exciting, might be about to happen, he taught himself not be too hopeful, not too optimistic, knowing that the crushing disappointment would be too much to bear. Though there was once a period of his life when all was possibility, when anything and everything might one day be successfully achieved, over time certain things happened that ingrained within him the dread of failure, so that, little by little, he became a hostage to fortune.
Instead, he divided his existence between the possible and the impossible, the feasible and unfeasible, the certain and the uncertain, always favouring the latter over the former, to establish a finely-balanced equilibrium, before watching all 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, the greater the distance between his starting position and the end of the tunnel became, so that after a time he felt as if he was simply walking on the spot, with the walls of the tunnel enclosing him, and the light in the distance merely a mirage, a simulation of freedom.
At other moments he likened his life to treading water in the centre of some vast, undulating ocean, or diligently digging a hole only to find that the sides were too high to climb out, before realising he had effectively dug his own tomb.
He took from his bookshelf 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.
Flicking through the pages, he came upon the following paragraph:
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.
He was simply incapable of being comfortable in his own skin, for wherever he went he took himself with him, like a reptile that couldn’t slough off its useless exterior. He was pursued by the spectre of failed selfhood. How its spectre almost anticipated his arrival, determined his presence in the eyes of others. Rendered him invisible.
Often, when speaking with those he barely knew, he found himself driven 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.
Alpha, beta, gamma. He was no leader of men. He was a follower. And after that, a loser. Born to lose.
Among his friends, his closest, oldest friends, some of whom he had known for over thirty years, his friendship felt negligible. He always seemed to be 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, or curse, placed upon him.
There’s always some issue with you, his friend had said. 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 desire to be loved.
He could not write about being a failure without first acknowledging the weight of literary tradition.
After 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 fellow 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. It was as if every time he spoke, he did so through the language of fiction.
Even his attempts to apprehend his very personal sense of failure were a sort of failure. He knew his life had been a failure. He saw that now. When he was very young he had been led to believe that his life would transcend the sum of his humble origins, his limited existence. Nothing had happened.
He deleted the Facebook post without comment.
Online, he saw a call for new work from a creative non-fiction magazine.
We’re looking stories that are honest, accurate, informative, intimate, and—most importantly—true. Whether your story is revelatory or painful, hilarious or tragic, if it’s about you and your life, we want to read it.
Submissions must be vivid and dramatic; they should combine a strong and compelling narrative with an informative or reflective element, and reach beyond a strictly personal experience for some universal or deeper meaning.
What is the measure of a life lived in solitude, without revelation or pain or hilarity or tragedy? Where the live is no more strong or compelling that it is informative or reflective?
A life without the pressures of perpetual crisis, without cathartic expression or empathic transference? What of those who have sought nothing and done nothing and been nowhere and saved no one - least of all themselves?
What if there was no tragedy? What if there was no great trauma? No universal or deeper meaning, other than being a failure?
Always outside of the circle. Up lit. Redemptive narratives. Empathic poetics. Identity politics. He had no identity to speak of. On any subject, he had very little to say.
There was no metaphysical or metafictional weight 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 failure. He wrote in the hope that someone might take notice. In this, too, he would fail.