Book Hangovers


By Zach Schepis

Photo courtesy of Tessriel.

There’s a thin boundary, somewhere out there, responsible for tethering our projected world to so many little ones. These personal spheres of experience orbit together and apart. They eclipse one another through influence and dissolve into prolonged meditation.

A certain stitching allows for both these individual truths, along with those of the group, to occur simultaneously. The great mediator, it turns out, isn’t even rooted in reality. We made it up.

I’m talking about fiction.

I once had a literature professor who would become overwhelmed with explosive emotion at the drop of a hat. Or a turn of the page. One second, Professor Leo would be walking us through a Faulknarian passage with his cool and collected ramble–and in the next instant he’d be cracking at the seams; raving, mad, and infectious, his eyes alight with a supernatural fire that threatened to topple walls and sear our brains forever.

But when the smoke cleared he’d return to normal. He’d wipe away the tears, or clear his throat to rid the phlegmy aftermath of shouting, and begin anew.

For the longest time I struggled to wrap my head around it. How did he do it? The exhausting vacillation between passionate extremes, starting at zero and throttling the gas until the man was working all his gears, I mean until he was really cookin’–blind to any opposing forces, roadblocks that crumbled into sand and tumbled helplessly into the chiaroscuro of his unrelenting imagination.

How did he do it?

The question irked me more and more as I, too, soon found myself confronted with a similar sensation. It’s one that I’ve been familiar with since as long as I can remember, since I was a little boy wandering the halls of Tecumseh Elementary School, carrying a hardcover book much too large for me. It’s a feeling that you, reader, also experience time and time again.

You’re reading a story, a collection of poetry, an ambitious tome, or perhaps a trim novella. To tell the truth it really doesn’t matter which of these it is.

What matters is how deeply invested you are in this piece of writing. You’ve let yourself go, sinking further and further into the text, swimming in the endless inky sea of hieroglyphs and hovering suspended in the spaces between words. At some point you feel as though those pages become a part of you. They tell you something only you can hear, and for the moment your fate is hinged upon every last word.

The more you read the quicker the pages turn. You plunge deeper into the labyrinth, until the sheer physicality kicks in, until you can count the pages waiting to be turned.

Then the moment occurs. The climax, then the mute crescendo when the last page is turned and the final sentence rings out like a thousand gunshots in your head. The book that you’ve been cradling along for days, for weeks, for months, drops helplessly into your lap and once more becomes an object, awaiting its dusty sentencing to the bookshelf. Your mind becomes numb. You can’t even move.

For all intents and purposes, let’s call this the literary hangover.

Everyone deals with hangovers differently. Maybe a cup of black coffee in the shower will do the trick. Perhaps some herbal tea, a little “hair of the dog,” or a stroll around the neighborhood will help.

But a literary hangover is an entirely different beast. Slug back a handle of Jack Daniels, gallivant like a reckless warrior from bar to bar under the moonlight, wake up with that hollow ringing between your ears and a sea-sick stomach. Aside from patches of fuzz growing like wild fungi on your memory, after a few hours you can shrug it off and carry on.

Let’s say you’ve been having sex all night. Maybe it’s your eternal lover, or a tramp you met only hours before. Either way, when that white-hot explosion washes over both of your bodies, penetrating through the sweat and bone and eradicating all traces of ego, of judgment and pride, you sink back into the covers and on into silence. Both body and mind went from a furious and intense Jackson Pollock whiplash of paint to nothing more than a blank canvas. But even this feeling, too, passes quicker than expectations might believe.

Literary hangovers are not a temporal phenomenon. They linger with us, long after the last page turns. They creep like specters into a land of dreams where we surrender all control. They surface again and again, in the face of a friend or a turn of phrase. They take hold of us like a ghost that won’t let go.

I spent the last three months of my life reading Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. It seems funny to equate such an extended period of time to little more than a literary feat, but that tome devoured me more than anything else. Forget the fact that my apartment was undergoing a ceaseless metamorphosis at the time, as my roommates started taking in wandering runway models and musicians as house guests, or that constant travel to visit a sick relative threatened to tip the scales of balance dangerously.

No–those three months were spent in a barren Russian wilderness. Soldiers dragged their brothers through a frost that threatened to devour all spirit of humanity. The constant threat of Napoleon rippled fury and pride in every instinctual maneuver. I wandered through the golden halls of the bourgeoisie, danced the ballrooms with princesses, and entered the affairs of royal estates. War ravaged the land around me and brought my friends and lovers to their knees.

I watched Moscow burn.

When the ashes finally cleared I found myself lost. Completely and utterly lost. The jarring bridge between reality and the story was too much to handle. The book institutionalized me, and without warning released me back to a world that I was not prepared to meet. The feeling you get when your eyes adjust to the dark, and are nearly shocked to blindness by the new light of dawn beaming outside the window.

It’s a different kind of hangover, because when you invest yourself so fully into something it will take a part of you along with it. There is a wry, smirking troll waiting for you at the gates of reality. No matter how much you want to remember, no matter what parts of that world you want to hide in your pockets as you return, the troll will inevitably take it from you. You can’t bring it all back.

So you move forward. You keep moving forward no matter what, and when you look back the stories begin to meld together. You realize that these stories become a part of you.

The shellshock still lingers after you close the covers, but it becomes a joyful confusion. The story imbibes itself into who you are. Suddenly the friends in your life are the main characters in a mystery, keeping the plot flowing towards an ending just out of sight. Your house, your neighborhood, your country, and your city transform into the perfect setting for a writer to accomplish anything.

The Native Americans used stories to explain the natural world. Mythology binds together the forces of nations, throughout time, to a central plotline. Ancient Middle Eastern storytellers, known as hakawatis, told stories that lasted for days–their audiences enraptured and burying the realization that one day the story would end.

The story never ends. I think of Professor Leo, carefully sauntering along the borders of the classroom, stroking his pointed gray mustache. I think of him hopping up and down on both feet, face red and veined with consternation, spittle flying on the heels of words that try their very hardest to control the volcanic eruption of passion, of dedication, of love, as he tries to explain why Melville can show us the face of God in the smallest fluke on a whale’s tail.

I see him again and again, ushered into that eternal dance, and know that he is both blessed and cursed. That he wouldn’t have it any other way.

One day, following one of his vitriolic outpourings, a freshman had the gall to raise his hand and tell the old man something dangerous.

“But professor,” he said with a grin, “it’s only a story.”

Leo looked at the young man, a boy cowering in a giant’s gaze, a pupil boastful before the grand wizard. He calmly walked forward, and in one fell swoop flipped the table out from under then student. It crashed to the ground. The ringing steel reverberating into the room that then filled with utter silence. We all held our breath.

The professor brought himself down to eye level, hovering just inches away from the kid’s pale face. It was only a whisper, but it was louder than anything I’ve ever heard him say.

“It’s never, never, just a fucking story.”