Let me begin by telling you about three episodes from my childhood and adolescence; episodes, I say, rather than stories, because they occurred so passingly that I don’t truly regard them as stories. Stories do much of their work, and generate much of their meaning, by operating across time. The incidents I’m going to describe generated their meaning without regard to—I would almost say in defiance of—time. They were here and then gone, the kinds of experiences that covered their own tracks, erasing themselves from the past and the future while they took place. In other words, I can’t count them as anecdotes, and I certainly can’t count them as narratives. Nevertheless, I consider them important:
1. I am ten years old and in the fourth grade. I am standing with the rest of my class on the parking stripes beside the stretch of gray asphalt we use as a soccer field during recess, waiting for Miss Phillips to blow the whistle signaling that it’s time for us to march back inside. I feel brightened by the blue sky and cold air, cleansed by it, and along with that feeling comes a wish that I were back home. By “home,” it occurs to me, I do not mean the apartment I share with my mom and brother but someplace else, a secret home, one I am only now half-remembering. The realization that it exists somewhere does not surprise me. For whatever reason, I simply accept it. Far away, I think, in a dwelling I have never visited, there is a room, and it belongs to me.
2. I am in the eighth grade and sitting across from Chad Carger at a table in the school cafeteria; Chad Carger, who not so long ago, before a football game, was tugged behind the field house by a cheerleader from the opposing team and came back chewing the gum that had been in her mouth; Chad Carger, whose favorite recurring bit of mine is when I say “quote/unquote” around randomly chosen phrases in completely mundane statements. Now I tell a joke, and Chad laughs, and all at once I feel something shift around me. It is as if the world has taken our identities and done a cups-and-balls trick with them. I am looking at myself through Chad’s eyes, and I like that guy, Kevin Brockmeier, I do, he’s funny, but I am grateful that I am Chad Carger and not him.
3. I am nineteen years old and working at a children’s daycare for the summer. It is a temperate morning, cool enough that I do not have to compete with the noise of the insects to be heard while I am supervising the four-year-olds on the playground. First, one of the kids spots it, and then all of the kids do: a tropical bird, plumaged in green and violet, high up in the white oak over the picnic tables. I follow their faces and meet the bird’s gaze. It opens its wings and coasts onto my shoulder. I can feel its claws gripping me through my button-up shirt. Very dimly I hear the children saying excited things, but between the bird and me is an air pocket of perfect silence. It is not the incident as I have described it so far that is significant. It is the way I felt as the bird twitched on its branch and I realized I could tell its intentions—as if I had been seen by something with a mind unusually remote from my own; seen by it and selected.
As I said, these episodes aren’t stories, per se. They came and they went without altering the direction of my life. By the usual measures of storytelling, they might just as well never have happened. Yet I’ve remembered them all these years, and I think about them as much as, if not more than, many of the stories I’ve told again and again, in living rooms and at dinner tables, when I’m sharing my repertoire of mishaps and small adventures.
Which is to say that if they did not alter the direction of my life, they altered something: how I interpret or represent that life to myself, or how I calculate its measure of strangeness. They, and experiences like them, have allowed me to feel the way I imagine deep religious believers must feel, as if little pieces of elsewhere were embedded in the here and now. They have been a source of meaning for me. It’s just that the meaning they carry is not specifically narrative, which makes it resistant to anecdote.
I call the kinds of experiences I’m speaking about vertical—as opposed to horizontal—but before I explain where these terms originated, I want to tell you how I became sensitive to the distinction between them. It’s an account that begins, as so many writers’ stories do, with I decided to write a book.
So: Roughly a decade ago, I decided to write a book called Seventh Grade, which, after a series of title convulsions, came to be published as A Few Seconds of Radiant Filmstrip. The book, I had made up my mind, would be a memoir dedicated to a single year of my school life, beginning on the first day of seventh grade and ending on the last. Aside from a few stray essays and short stories that were informed by my autobiography, if not strictly wedded to it, this was my first attempt to tell a true story in print, one that cleaved to the facts of my experience as they actually happened; I approached the project, however, as though I were writing a novel, composing it in the third person and the present tense rather than the first person and the past: “Kevin is, Kevin thinks, Kevin does” as opposed to “I was, I thought, and I did.” In an interview with the filmmaker German Kral, Jorge Luis Borges once said that “the task of art is to transform what is continuously happening to us, to transform all these things into symbols, into music, into something which can last in man’s memory.” That’s what I wanted to do with the book: transform what had happened to me—all of it, whether good, bad, or embarrassing—into something which could last in the memory. The wealth of stories I retained from that particular year gave me a way of organizing the material: Oh yes, this funny thing happened, and then this awful thing happened, and then this. For me, though, the real fulfillments of the book came in other passages, separate from the stories I had told so many times before, textural passages like the one where I imagine traveling into some other realm through the window-shapes the headlights of passing cars send across my ceiling—
Kevin is swooning into a dream of girls and dark rooms when his leg twitches and wakes him back up. A car goes roaring down the street toward the cowboy bar. Its headlights brighten the window. Then the glass seems to hitch in its frame, and the brightness pops loose, curving and flashing across the ceiling before it vanishes behind the dresser. He has missed his chance, his one chance, to dive through it and find out where it would have taken him.
—or meditative passages, like the one where I sink into sleep at a school lock-in convinced that everything in the world can be stacked in a single neat pile—
The weather is so nice that as soon as their voices die out they can hear the insects chirring through the walls, a vast sea of hopeful vibrations. Three hundred pairs of ears, Kevin thinks, and all of them listening to the same song.
He is not yet asleep, but very nearly, when everything suddenly makes perfect sense. He feels himself sailing on some great wind of thought, his mind tacking across the open water, and both of them as silver as aluminum foil, and then, in an instant, he realizes that the planet is made up of squares, blocks, cartons, boxes. He could take every piece of it—all those cereal bowls and phone cords and ballpoint pens, plus the trees and the fields, the rivers and highways, the wrenches and fire hydrants and oranges and skyscrapers, the toy trucks and weather vanes and compasses and swans, the grain silos, the mattresses, the egg crates, the elephants, the binoculars—and stack them one on top of another. They would lock together like bricks in a wall. It is so hard to describe, but important, important, he is sure of it.
The secret neatness of the world.
The plans, the blueprints.
What happened today? someone might ask him.
This, he would say.
Such moments were part of the fabric of my life, maybe even the thickest portion of it, but they have never been part of the fabric of my anecdotes. The thing is, our anecdotes are wrong, incorrect, at best a reduction of the circumstances that gave rise to them, at worst a falsification. Our lives don’t actually come with morals attached to them, or jokes designed to generate sympathy, or quick little scratch-and-reveal meanings. With Seventh Grade, it was my goal to reinhabit my experiences rather than charm anyone with them, offering up a life whose meanings could only be perceived through a close-packed tangle of confusions, fantasies, secrets, embarrassments, preoccupations, tonal details, and sense impressions.
After it was published, someone asked me if writing about what was, on balance, a very difficult year for me had generated a feeling of release, and no, I realized—exactly the opposite. What seems to have happened while I was writing the memoir is that the events of that year, which had hardened over the decades into a dozen or so ready-made stories, were moved out of the realm of anecdote for me and back into the realm of experience.
I came to understand something: that there were two pathways through my life—and I’m speaking here not only about my life as I represented it on the page but my life as it has actually unfolded. The first pathway was made up of stories; the second was made up of weightless little dandelion parachutes of experience, here and then gone, like the ones I’ve just shared with you. The stories of my life were dense with fact and could only have belonged to me. The dandelion seeds, on the other hand, came floating through my life on the breeze and could have belonged to anybody. Yet it was possible to point to either one of them and say, Look right there. Do you see the path those stories are tracing? Do you see those dandelion seeds? That’s where everything important took place. That’s where all the meaning was. I am confident that someday, when my life is finished, if I have the ease of mind to gaze back over it, or any mind at all, I’ll be able to cross it from birth to death along either of those two pathways, and no matter which one I follow, I’ll have the feeling that I’m remembering what it actually felt like to be me. This suggests to me that there’s a sense in which only I could have possessed my life; but there’s another sense, and it’s just as genuine, in which anyone could have.
I’m going to turn away from these two pathways for a while—and from my own work—since they have brought me nicely to my proper subject, which is the difference between what I’m calling the horizontal and the vertical features of experience, along with their application to character and fiction.
I’m borrowing my vocabulary from a paragraph in the French writer Christian Bobin’s wise, slender, provocative novel The Lady in White, a largely interior, basically actionless novel about the creative and meditative life of Emily Dickinson. It’s much more aphoristic than most biographical fiction, but gently aphoristic, the way Dickinson herself is gently aphoristic, because she’s providing you with room to breathe rather than knocking the wind out of you. One of Bobin’s subjects is the schism of personality that separated Emily from her father, Edward, whose mindset was essentially commercial while Emily’s was essentially spiritual. Here’s the passage that resonated with me:
When on the threshold of sleep Edward Dickinson closed his accounting books and opened the spacious register of his soul, all he saw was a blank page: no entries, no withdrawals.
“Father’s real life and mine sometimes come into collision, but as yet, escape unhurt.” What was “real” life? Father and daughter had two very different responses to the question. For the father, real life was horizontal: the train and telegraph were brought to Amherst, contracts were signed, men were connected to one another, and all of that, to the rhythm of their exchanges, caused wealth to grow. For the daughter, real life was vertical: a movement from the soul to the soul’s master—for which there was no need of a railroad. Our only commerce is with the heavens, glowing above our heads and in the depths of our restraint. In such commerce there is nothing to be gained, only a heightened sensitivity to the dried blood of Christ on the breast of a robin, as well as an understanding that grows ever sharper, and therefore ever more painful, of the behavior of other people.
A day comes when no one is a stranger to you anymore. That terrible day marks your entry into real life.
There are certain passages that simmer in the back of your mind long after you’ve finished reading them. For me, this was one of them. “What was ‘real’ life?” is the question Bobin asks, but eventually, as the response he offers did its quiet work on me, it provoked an answer to a different question—namely, why is it that certain books seem so spacious while others seem so narrow? The spaciousness I’m talking about has nothing to do with length, but with a particular attitude toward reality. There are books—there always have been—that allow me to feel that I could walk around inside them, gradually encountering the world. I read them, and my imagination is just as open to the bounties of experience as it is when I am nowhere near words printed on paper, just conducting my days under some roof or some sky. They are the books that make room, in however small a measure, for the kind of real life that Bobin attributes to Emily Dickinson—a weird, arresting, vibrating, vertical thing. My thesis is this: In order for characters to seem fully human, human in a way that reaches beyond the page somehow, and which readers will experience as a reverberation of their own humanity, those characters must possess not only a horizontal life but a vertical life—which is to say not only the social and sensory ties that are the basic plane upon which fiction ordinarily takes place but also some upward connection, however fleeting or momentary, to the profound, the sacred, or the mysterious, in whatever manner it might reveal or suggest itself to them. A lifetime of reading has taught me that even a sentence of such vertical experience can make a tremendous difference in my feeling of connection to a story.
The usual business of fiction is horizontal. The senses registering their surroundings. The self recognizing or misrecognizing its circumstances. Characters making the hundreds of moment-by-moment microadjustments that the accidents of fate or the consequences of their own decisions require. People pursuing money, power, advantage, or love, or defending themselves against the money, power, advantage, or love that threatens them. This is what fiction does; it’s how fiction proceeds. The thing is, however skillfully a piece of writing might conjure up the horizontal world, it can never truly replicate it. The plane is simply too wide. Imagine what it would take to describe, in words, just this one instant of your experience. Start with the exact color, shape, size, and texture of everything that’s currently in your field of vision. That ought to be enough to make my point all by itself, but add to it whatever timbre and pace and intensity you're perceiving in my prose, and the ambient sounds that are presently competing with it, and any suggestions of distance or nearness you can hear in those sounds. Add the temperature of the air and its patterns of stillness and motion, and the way you’re detecting them on your skin, and whatever your clothing might be doing to alter those patterns and change that temperature. Add your posture. The particular jack-like form of your arms and legs around your body. The imbalances of pressure your stance is imposing on your frame. Add any signs of sickness or vigor you happen to be feeling. So far that’s only the senses, and even then only some of them, but when you take into account all the associations your memory is pursuing independently right now, and the various needs and anticipations and worries that are impinging on your thoughts, and the diagnoses of one stray sensation or another—is that an itch or something more alarming?—and your status relations with everyone else who is occupying your perceptions, and your social and political and emotional relations with those same people, along with whatever intuitions you possess about their social and political and emotional and status relations with each other, and I think you’ll see that it would take a lifetime to verbalize even this one moment of your experience with enough grace and precision for a reader to recreate it accurately from your words alone. Even then I’m not sure it would be possible. Good writing can suggest the horizontal life, but it can never equal it. This is why I was so dubious of the argument I once heard a philosophy teacher make that there is no experience without language, a claim that, at the time at least, I thought could be controverted just by saying, “Tell me what this desk looks like.”
Our vertical experiences are of a different nature. Take the three incidents I recounted from my childhood— vertical episodes, each. It’s true that in order to share them with you I couched them in sensory details and fastened them to my own history, but that was a product of this occasion and a matter of technique, really just my effort to be solicitous. What they most had in common as they actually took place was their brevity. They possessed an intensity, yes, but also a narrowness: small-bore punctures from something that pierced my life out of God knows where and then retreated. This is probably, in fact, the most defining feature of the vertical event: it meets the horizontal world at exactly one point.
The curiosity for me—and this might be the essence of the case I’m making—is that vertical episodes as we encounter them off the page are almost identical to vertical episodes as we encounter them on the page. They seize our lives for a moment and then vanish, exactly as they seize the page for a moment and then vanish, yet in both cases, in life and on the page, their effects linger, lending a layer of meaning to the fields they’re interrupting. It is not the only layer of meaning those fields possess, but it is the least orthodox, the most numinous, and the only one I’m not sure they could acquire by more ordinary methods.
One of my favorite adjectives is otherworldly. The word calls attention to itself, so I have to keep a watchful eye on my writing to prevent myself from using it more than once or twice a book, but it does seem appropriate here. Vertical events such as the ones I’m describing have an air of the otherworldly about them. In Christian Bobin’s formulation, they are explicitly religious—“a movement from the soul to the soul’s master”—and it’s tempting to resort to religious language to describe them. But the secular realm makes room for them, too, especially considering how little we know, truly know, about the universe, about consciousness, about life and death, and about our own minds. “There is another world,” as Paul Éluard wrote, “and it is this one.”
Adopting the most secular language I can, then, and ridding it of souls and souls’ masters, let me offer the following few refinements of the concept: (1) Whether in life or in fiction, a vertical experience hints that there are understandings available to people that supersede the concerns of the story in which they’re participating. (2) Such an experience is bound to be ephemeral—instantaneous, I would say, if not for the fact that words require a little time—but its consequences can be enduring; it’s just that those consequences will shape our perception of what’s possible within the reality field of a story rather than altering that story’s sequence of cause and effect. And (3) the vertical experience suggests that operating at a tangent to the world as we ordinarily apprehend it is something stranger—something that, because we’re capable of verbalizing, we’re capable of both imagining and encountering as well.
Novels and stories can benefit in surprising ways from an openness to such vertical experiences. That’s not to say that every novel or story—even every good novel or story—will make room for them. Books can have a hundred different aims, and writers can set out in pursuit of any of them. But every character with whom I’ve ever felt any real kinship seemed at least capable of a flash of vertical understanding, just as every human being does. And there’s a word for the ones who aren’t: monsters.
I don’t think the concepts I’m outlining here are particularly abstruse, but it’s possible they will strike you as novel. If nothing else, the vocabulary I’m applying to them is uncommon. To that end, I’m going to borrow a few passages from a handful of works I admire. Each of these excerpts could be championed for the virtues of its prose alone, but I also hope you’ll be able to see in them what a character’s vertical experience looks like as it briefly appropriates the page.
I’ll start with a short story that was published in the Spring 2020 issue of the journal ZYZZYVA: “Swamp Tyrant” by Santiago José Sánchez. “Swamp Tyrant” is part of a suite of stories about a young Colombian American boy, also named Santiago and almost certainly modeled after the writer himself, coming of age and discovering himself as a sexual, social, and artistic being in Miami, Florida. The story is largely about the horizontal lives of its characters—as nearly every story, by necessity, is—but it does offer a glimpse or two into Santiago’s vertical life. Here’s one such glimpse, from a trip he’s taking with his best friend and his best friend’s parents to a crowded campground near the Everglades:
The campsites branched out from the dirt path like more private rooms. Recessed in the trees were sleek tents catching the sun like tin, camping chairs arranged in circles around ashen pits, and large dogs lapping water from plastic pails. He was reminded of the corridors of the first building in Miami he had lived in, each apartment door jammed open by a chancla or newspaper, each living room bared for him to imagine a life in. With the same dangerous curiosity, he looked into the campsites they passed now. He could have been anyone else, if only the world were different by a degree or an inch, by the distance his brother had caught between his fingers one night not so long ago—if only. He almost forgot what he was doing, when Talia and Jack came into view. The sun laid in a crisp, golden sheet over them and he remembered that he didn’t want another life. Matthew dropped his side of the cooler on the ground; Santiago dragged it by himself the rest of the way. This, the family that took him every other weekend his mother worked back-to-back shifts. The family that took him now that his brother couldn’t be trusted. That loved him like family. This was his.
I want to call your attention to the moment here when Santiago takes a look at his selfhood and intuits how precarious it is, a kind of precariousness that strikes him as not only psychological but metaphysical: “He could have been anyone else, if only the world were different by a degree or an inch.” To me, this observation seems suffused with the transcendent. Santiago senses, and as a reader I sense along with him, that this is what it means, not only for him but for anyone, to be a human being: you are a creature that could have gone tipping over into some other human being altogether. It would take so little. Why didn’t it happen? It’s true that the narrative might have proceeded without this suggestion, and no one would have been any the wiser. If it were a table, “He could have been anyone else, if only the world were different by a degree or an inch” would not be one of its legs. The story can stand with or without it. And yet it matters. It has an effect. It allows the narrative to take a big, strange question of the kind stories almost never ask and embody it in one sentence: What does it feel like to glimpse the anyone-elseness of your life? The fact that it poses this question causes me to ask the same question about my own life, which braces me toward everything else that takes place on the page. Suddenly, as a consequence of a single eighteen-word flicker of vertical revelation, something pulses through the story along its horizontal plane, and the landscape, the characters, even the insects around them that catch the light—they all seem more real to me.
I’m going to slow down for a second and re-describe what I think is happening here between the page and me, since I believe it’s important: the story asks me to interact with it along one thin vertical ray, and I do so. The ray in question passes through Santiago, passes through his little printed symbol-set of a life, but it is not coupled inextricably to him or his biography, which makes it easy to feel as if it’s passing through me and my life instead. In other words, for one brief moment, the story’s material seems to enact itself in two worlds at once—one written and Santiago’s, the other material and mine. And because I have participated in the story along its vertical axis, if only for an instant, as though it were my own, I am suddenly better able to participate in the story along its horizontal axis as though it were my own as well.