Readings — From the July 2014 issue

As Flies to Wanton Boys

Download Pdf
Read Online

By Benjamin Kunkel, from Buzz: A Play, published in May as part of the n+1 Small Books Series. Kunkel is the author of the novel Indecision and the essay collection Utopia or Bust: A Guide to the Present Crisis.

[tom and college girl together. She wields a digital voice recorder, switched on.]

college girl: Can I say you seem kind of preoccupied?
tom: [After a pause] Would you mind turning that thing off for a second?
college girl: [Doing so] Okay . . .
tom: I haven’t mentioned my wife.
college girl: [Somewhat naughtily] True.
tom: Not that she’s actually my wife, legally . . . Even so, Sasha hired some exterminators to get rid of the . . . [Gestures vaguely at flies] And when she comes back she’s going to see there’s a lot more.
college girl: You say that like it’s your fault.
tom: [Somewhat as if to himself] She also would find you here.
college girl: She doesn’t know I’m here?
tom: Of course she does. We should return to our previously scheduled conversation. I just wanted to explain to you, as a private —
college girl: What’s so shameful about you have a wife? Breaking: noted playwright left by wife! For work!
tom: In fact she’s not my wife. [Swipes at fly] Damn them! Sorry.
college girl: Playwright’s loft home to flies. And live-in girlfriend!
tom: Actually if you wouldn’t mention them either. It’s not usually like this . . . Usually it’s worse.
college girl: Have you been in a college dorm lately?
tom: No one invites me! . . . But you were asking something about [Finger quotes] my work.
college girl: Such a tease. [Turns recorder back on; interviewer’s voice] It seems that repeatedly in your plays something is supposed to happen and then doesn’t. Is that pattern right? [tom nods, shrugs.] Could you respond, like, verbally out loud?
tom: [Following fly with eyes] I’m afraid I don’t make for a very fascinating subject today.
college girl: It’s a ten-minute segment. You have ten minutes of fascinatingness in you! Okay, new question. [Interviewer’s voice] Tell me, what makes theater so paradoxically important today, with attendance rates in decline, an aging audience . . .
tom: Why is it that people will listen to long, boring interviews on the radio but not plays? I mean radio plays. The form is extinct, no? It’s like the more careless and meaningless the speech, the greater the appetite for it.
college girl: Don’t you find it revealing when people are spontaneous, though? Like sometimes in interviews they are? [tom considers question in silence.] Fuck off! You have to talk.
tom: Did you just say “fuck” on the radio?
college girl: We’re going to edit some things out.
tom: [After a pause] But interviews aren’t spontaneous. It’s just careful on-message stuff. You’re not waiting for me to say something terrible, are you? Should I say that I think maybe it’s okay for grown men to sleep with teenage boys, and how, say what you will about Hitler, he got people back to work?
college girl: Do you think it’s okay for grown men —
tom: No no. Just for Hitler . . . In the theater — do you mind if I’m sententious for a second? —
college girl: I’d love it.
tom: In the theater the carefulness and the carelessness of speech are much more interestingly intertwined than in some interview.
college girl: I think people like reality. Maybe you think that’s bad taste. [Interviewer’s voice] Does it disappoint you that today’s prominent young playwrights are not more well known?
tom: It disappoints me that we aren’t more young. [Smashes fly] Got him!
college girl: Could you please say something sort of interesting about the theater?
tom: [Having come up with a theory] It’s interesting — or we’ll see if it is — the relationship between the theater and marriage. Or coupledom. The theater has a very ironic relationship to domestic life, don’t you think? Because what’s been the main preoccupation for more than a hundred years? I’m thinking Ibsen, Strindberg, Shaw, Pinter . . . About the biggest theme is the horror of conventional domestic arrangements. And all these spousal or couply relationships are revealed, in the theater, to consist of sterile dependency, mutual entrapment . . . Maybe some ritualized tragicomic bickering. And yet what is the social role of the theater? It’s a date, a romantic evening! Couples come to the theater where they kind of peek, through the keyhole, into the butcher shop of their domestic lives, and then stand up and clap! If there’s one thing the theater has consistently criticized, it’s conventional domestic arrangements, and if there’s one thing that as a social ritual it’s continually reinforced — conventional domestic arrangements. The whole thing’s like a parable not just of the uselessness but of the counterproductiveness of culture.
college girl: Bravo! [More her own question than an interviewer’s] Did you — be honest — even when you were younger, did you always sense you would be known? In your world? I’m totally editing this out, but — I’ve never really said this before . . .
tom: [Rising reluctantly to bait] Uh huh?
college girl: I think I will be. Known. [Stops recording] I don’t know why I’m saying this — maybe that’s why you’re a playwright? People feel comfortable talking to you, so you’ve learned what people talk like? But I feel like it’s something you know, almost with your body. Like knowing you will or won’t get sick. Seriously [Laughing] you should remember my name.
tom: Do remind me, actually.
college girl: Are you, like, pretending to be stoned?
tom: It’s just middle age. Memory peaks at twenty-eight or something.
college girl: I think we need to focus.
tom: Your focus also slips.
college girl: Wah-wah. Maybe you have erectile dysfunction as well?
tom: How funny that you of all people should think so. [They are both surprised at the remark.] My apologies. I’m glad that’s not on tape. That was pretty careless. But entirely facetious.
college girl: I don’t care if you have a hard-on.
tom: Please, I don’t have an erection.
college girl: I think “hard-on” we could say on the radio, but “cock” probably not. Melanie, by the way. In case you’re not kidding.
[Phone rings just once before machine picks up.]
sasha: [Leaving message] You there? It’s your exterminatrix.
college girl: Wow. You guys have a landline.
tom: She’ll call back.
sasha: I had a small idea . . . Or just call me when you’re done with your scene or whatever. [Hangs up]
college girl: Okay, next question. [Interviewer’s voice] Has the cinematic success of your most recent play altered how you approach your work?
tom: If I actually did any work it might have. Please don’t quote me on that. Are you recording this?
college girl: Yes! When you do resume work on your play —
tom: Never stopped. Never even slowed down [Grabs gut] How I stay fit . . . But would you please get rid of any part where I imply I’m not writing a word? [college girl shakes head: frustration rather than refusal.] Or maybe one word. “Buzz.” All the characters say for ninety minutes . . . “Buzz buzz buzz.” Very avant-garde. Yet touching. Because some of them really mean it.
college girl: There was a lot of buzz about your last play. The movie.
tom: Okay, but first of all, it’s not true that I’m not writing. And second, it’s important that Sasha not know. So if you would erase —
college girl: Only if you say one more thing about the theater, and the work you never for a second stop doing, and then I can go. [Flirtatious] Or I could stay for a drink. I’ll show you my fake I.D. [Interviewer’s voice] So what, again, is the problem with marriage? [tom is perplexed.] Or, like, conventional domestic arrangements? That you said? I guess monogamy for one thing.
tom: I didn’t say that was a problem.
college girl: Maybe you didn’t have to. But what else?
tom: [After a pause; forgetting device is recording; sincere] I think my main problem with love, at the moment, is that it seems to have become an excuse for my attempt to hide the dread and shame — if that’s what they are — with which I am, on a daily basis, more or less consumed. Except I’m not consumed. I’m still here. [To fly] And so are you!
college girl: You’re talking to the fly.
tom: I’m talking to all of them.
college girl: I kind of like you, Tom.
tom: Thank you for saying so. It distracted me from my self-loathing for a second. And that’s the nice thing about seducing people, while you still can —
college girl: Are you seducing me?
tom: No! I mean, am I? Only you could say. I was just thinking that the nice thing about refraining from marriage is that you can serially convince people of your attractiveness without ever giving anybody the chance to know you well enough to . . .
college girl: But wait, so what is the problem with marriage, or with like — ?
tom: I don’t want someone to know who I am! Least of all myself. Or second least. I especially don’t want Sasha finding out. Or actually the person I’d really like to keep in the dark is our child.
college girl: You didn’t mention. Boy or girl?
tom: Neither. We don’t know. But there’s every possibility of our having a nonretarded child who will understand everything perfectly.
college girl: I think it’s sweet how you have a conscience.
tom: It’s like an appendix. [With unhappy awe] You are very beautiful.
college girl: [Grateful, a bit frightened] Thank you.
tom: [Shaking head] Even more than what they do with their hands I hate those digital-looking compound eyes they have instead of proper human eyes.
college girl: You’re kidding about them right?
tom: [Recollecting self] I am kidding. Don’t take me seriously on marriage. I’m a comic playwright. Please do quote that.
college girl: I’m interested in — you said your dread and shame.
tom: I would dread to speak of my dread. I would be ashamed —
college girl: You said yes to this interview! Or should I put in the part about how I’m beautiful and marriage is so bad?
tom: Are you — doesn’t that sound a bit like blackmail? [college girl simply looks at him.] I don’t know, what do I dread? [Having considered it] I guess I’m afraid either that we’ll run out of oil or that we won’t.
college girl: You’re afraid we’ll either run out of oil or we won’t?
tom: Precisely. I’m also afraid that economic growth will continue, or that it will stop.
college girl: Can you maybe relate this to the theater?
tom: I wish!
college girl: So what does this have to do with — ?
tom: And yet all these things are mutually involved, the — [Gestures at flies]
college girl: I never mentioned them!
tom: And what I see when I look out the window, what I see when I close my eyes. The terminal decline of the theater, the imminent birth of this —
college girl: You think the theater is in terminal decline?
tom: Don’t you?
college girl: [Shrugging] I never go.
tom: [Odd rueful cheerfulness] But sometimes I do imagine that in the general ruin of our civilization, very simple sorts of activities, like theater, for example, very technologically primitive things — I can imagine them coming back. Little playhouses among the ruins, maybe not even a roof, just a bare rectangular spot in the grass, some stone benches . . . They’ll put up little playlets, between the famines and the raids. Or long plays, epic, I don’t know. Anyway people will still have their voices and bodies, won’t they? When they need art? And won’t they need art in the future? They won’t have too much of the shit like we do, where none of it counts anymore. Maybe they’ll have forgotten how to mix oil paints, they’ve forgotten musical notation, nobody’s even heard of digital video . . . But maybe it occurs to them you could put a few people — person like you, person like me — in front of a larger group of people, and they could speak, and feel, the actors, and . . . And it wouldn’t all be superfluous and null.
college girl: Great, so when civilization ends, the theater makes a comeback.
tom: [Forgetting self] And in the meantime, precollapse, why should I let Sasha know, by writing some unwatchable play about it, how every day that I live with her in this city seems to me stained through with our extinction? And the more general extinction that we abetted? Even if that’s not unwatchable, it’s definitely unoptionable.
college girl: I’m sure you have other skills.
tom: I very nearly cannot stand it that flies — flies! — get to go strolling around over her belly, and your breasts, and my — my mind.
college girl: There aren’t that many! Seriously!
tom: [After a pause; calmer] Are there really not that many?
college girl: A lot of people have it worse! We could be poor. Or at war!
tom: We are at war.
college girl: Whatever. Yes. They’re annoying. Mostly I listen to music. We only hear them now because we’re trying to talk!
tom: Look at you — you’re quick, you’re young, you’re strong — and everywhere you go and will go —
college girl: [Becoming upset] Of course they are! Why are you saying this?
tom: So what about you? How you feel? Has anyone asked you this?
college girl: Why not ask if I want to be buried alive?
tom: [Quietly] I’m sorry.
college girl: This is our life! I don’t have to hate it! [She smashes fly on coffee table.] I don’t care if I’m young, I’m used to it!
[Phone rings again. Answering machine picks up.]
sasha: [Leaving message] Tom, I know you’re there.
tom: I’m sorry, she must have forgotten —
sasha: What do I need to do for you to pick up? [Unconvincingly] I’m wet, Tom. I’m dripping . . .
college girl: Should I be listening to this?
tom: No.
college girl: Answer it!
tom: I can’t now.
sasha: All right, my pussy is dry and vast as the Gobi Desert, would you pick up the phone?
tom: This is not typical.
sasha: Okay, remember I was going to ask. Bye. [Hangs up]
tom: She’s going to come home and they’re going to be here.
college girl: They’re everywhere. That’s what you were saying!
tom: Wait, were we recording that whole time?
college girl: [Still upset, but now with some bitterness] I remember, maybe I was fifteen, and I had this idea that there were more around me than anyone — my room seemed, like, full of them — and I felt this fear that I was some lesser person. And I was like, No. I am important. I don’t care if Mom shoos them from Rob but not me, I don’t care if she hovers around Dad fanning them off like a servant. I am also . . . And I feel that I am. Not just my . . . [Gestures at body] . . . And when you’re known, people see you are. And I think I will be.
tom: [Sensing an opportunity] You will be widely known. I’m sure of it. You’re remarkable.
college girl: [Suspicious; sullen] Remarkable how?
tom: Ignoring your beauty, you are — you have remarkable poise, you’re manifestly very smart, very . . . A mark of how rare you are is that I would never talk like I did.
college girl: You’re not just suddenly such a fan — ?
tom: I was a fan the moment you walked in.
college girl: But the moment I walked in you didn’t know me!
tom: Probably it was halfway through that I joined the fan club. You asked some very acute —
college girl: You just don’t want me to use the crazy parts . . . What’s my name?
tom: What?
college girl: What is my name? Hint: it’s the same as twenty minutes ago.
tom: I’m sorry, I’m just having one of those lapses where you —
college girl: Like do you even have a guess? Karen maybe? Am I Sarah? Meghan? We sent emails.
tom: That’s why I don’t remember. Because it’s online. Please. We’ll redo the interview. What’s your availability tomorrow? I am bad with names, I’m sorry.
college girl: But you’re good with tits.
tom: Excuse me?
college girl: You’re worried about flies on your mind but only worried about flies on my breasts. Maybe because supposedly you don’t care about me you can be honest? That’s disgusting. You should be exposed. Why do you get special treatment? Just because you’re a sort of famous playwright?
tom: But no one records and exposes normal people.
college girl: Oh, so what’s art supposed to do then?
tom: You have to understand, not everything in somebody’s personality fits together. I said some things. It’s true. But not every lapse unlocks the whole —
college girl: I’ll try and just include the ones that do.
[tom grabs her wrist. college girl shakes arm free. Leaves with digital voice recorder.]

You are currently viewing this article as a guest. If you are a subscriber, please sign in. If you aren't, please subscribe below and get access to the entire Harper's archive for only $45.99/year. Or purchase this issue on your iOS or Android devices for $6.99.

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Download Pdf
Single Page

More from Benjamin Kunkel:

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada


December 2015

Power in Paris

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Bed-Rest Hoax

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Blast from the Past

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Counterparty

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Free but not Redeemed

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

Please enjoy this free article from Harper’s Magazine.