“Times Square and Other Stories” by William Baer, a man and writer who is truly alive in the presence of the past, is storytelling at its best, both compelling and contemplative. Those who take up this volume will be changed for the better by the reading of it.
Times Square and Other Stories, by William Baer (218 pages, Able Muse Press, 2015)
Most of my time is spent living in the past. I’ve been teaching Homer, Virgil, Dante and Chaucer in recent weeks, and I’m currently immersed in the teaching of two separate Shakespeare courses. Last night, we were grappling with Iago in Othello; tomorrow it will be Verona’s star-crossed lovers. Living in the past allows one to be so much more alive. It proves the maxim that life is short, but art is long (vita brevis, ars longa).
Living in the present is, by contrast, stifling.
Life is far too short to confine oneself to the claustrophobic present. Far too short. Why would we want to waste our lives in the wasteland, allowing the soft-sift in our hourglass to slip away in the deadening presence of the up-to-date? The present is tense and intense but is also largely a pretense; it is ultimately a tragedy of errors and a masque of terrors playing itself out in a grimly humourous and providentially divine comedy. The present, as T.S. Eliot mused, is subsumed within the omnipresent which contains all that we call past and future. Living in this omnipresence is the key to living well and happily. And paradoxically it is only by living in the past that we can live in this ever-presence.
Homer doesn’t show us who we were except in the superficial sense. He shows us who we are. Odysseus is one of us. He shares our humanity. He is not our ancestor except in the superficial sense; he is our brother.
Gaining such a living presence from the past, I am wary of spending too much time in the reading of contemporary literature. Insofar as I do read contemporary writers, they are those who are truly alive in the presence of the past.
It was in this spirit of discovery and expectation that I picked up Times Square and Other Stories by William Baer, the author being a man and a writer who is truly alive in the sense in which we’ve been speaking.
The opening story, “Times Square,” is too elaborately crafted and convoluted to summarize. It is best described as a mystery story in which two strangers discover each other through their reading of literature and then discover the secret of the two authors, also lovers, who had woven the literary threads that brought the new lovers together. It is romance in the best and non-schmaltzy sense, literary in the non-pretentious sense, a mystery story in the most quirkily imaginative sense.
The next story, “Disumbrationism,” also set in New York, is an invigorating satire on the absurdities of modern art, exposing the vacuous reality beneath the veneer of ideological idiocy with which the emperors of ism believe that they have clothed themselves. It’s about fraud and the defrauding of the fraudsters, and ultimately about the futility of even caring about exposing the facile emptiness of it all. Which of the pictures on the art museum wall “were merely frauds, and which ones were frauds of frauds”? More to the point, did it really matter?
I had little option but to skip the next story, “Screwball,” which being about baseball is beyond my British ken. My eyes glaze over when my American friends begin to explain the intricacies of the national game, as theirs glaze over when I endeavor to reveal the fathomless mysteries of cricket.
Flicking through the pages, I came to the next tale, “Pure Cinema,” a mystery evoking the mystique of the era of the silent film, and the confrontation between ego and art, as well as the tension between the permanence of beauty and the “ruins of time.” Vita brevis, ars longe versus sic transit gloria mundi.
The scene switches from New York City and its environs, which had formed the backdrop to the previous stories, to the beaches of California, the setting for “Outline.” One scarcely knows how to give an outline of this most complex of plotlines, which coils and recoils in serpentine twists and turns, struggling with the neurotic pangs of writer’s block and almost strangling itself with the erotic psychosis of the deranged former lover, portending suicide or homicide.
Returning to New York, “The Plagiarist” continues with the theme of the writer and the crises caused by creative neurosis. How do writers borrow from their peers? When does such borrowing become theft? Is such theft legitimate or inevitable? When does theft become plagiarism? This is literary criticism served up in the form of fiction, reminiscent of the grotesqueries of Edgar Allan Poe.
My personal favourite is “Diploma Mill,” the ante-penultimate offering in this thoroughly engaging collection of yarns. There is, of course, a difference between “favourite,” which is a subjective predilection, and “best” which is a judgement based on objective criteria. “Diploma Mill” might not be the best but it’s my favourite because it exposes the ideological dogmatism of the modern academy and its knowledge-inhibiting bureaucracies and mechanisms and, more to the point, shines forth the glories of an authentic liberal arts education, rooted in the Great Books. The “awakening” of the story’s protagonist, Shannon Moore, from the straitjacketed constraints of bureaucratic academe to the flights of freedom commensurate with the study of the liberal arts, reminded me of the “awakening” of the protagonist in Natalia Sanmartin Fenollera’s charmingly refreshing novel, The Awakening of Miss Prim. In this story, as in several of the others, Mr. Baer handles the romantic elements with a delicate and decorous dexterity.
The penultimate story, “Shroud,” centres on the famous Shroud of Turin, interweaving facts about the history of the Shroud and the scientific evidence for its authenticity, with a murderous plot to “protect” it from atheist debunkers. Can faith justify murder or is such thinking the abandonment of the true meaning of faith itself?
The final story, appropriately called “Endgame,” will delight chess aficionados as, no doubt, “Screwball” will delight devotees of baseball. The story is set in Prague in 1968, after Soviet troops have invaded the country. The protagonist, a priest, is constrained to play a series of chess games with a Soviet officer, his life being dependent upon his victory. As with so many of the other stories in this mind-invigorating and spirit-lifting volume, there are enough plot-twists to keep the reader turning the pages in expectation of the unexpected and also, as in keeping with the cerebral level on which these stories are told, there are even intriguing and incisive perceptions of the morality of the game of chess itself. Is it good for us? Does it exercise the mind at the expense of exorcising virtue? Or does it, perhaps, require the exercising of the mind through the exorcising of pride?
As these final questions imply, Times Square and Other Stories is storytelling at its best, both compelling and contemplative. Those who take up this volume will be changed for the better by the reading of it. Is there a better reason for reading anything?
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