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It was not yet this day and age. A writer sent a proposal to his literary agent. The proposal concerned a major trauma. The agent submitted the proposal to a select few editors who made it the subject of a bidding war. At the end of the auction, the proposal sold for seven figures and the announcement received a good deal of attention.

Years later, the editor and then the agent asked to see what the author had produced. The author had produced nothing. He said that to write about the trauma would be to retraumatize himself. Rather than wrangle with the author, the agent and editor hired a ghostwriter to express the author’s trauma.

Even then the author was not forthcoming. The ghostwriter described it as a game of hot and cold. She could rule out one form of trauma, could not rule out another, and in the end, she could not guess which genre of trauma, if any, the author had suffered. They let her go.

It isn’t clear who made the call, but someone made the call — a book was published, with cover and quotes and press release but not a single word within. Every page was blank. What they saved in ink they invested in paper — thick, glossy, and formaldehyde-fragrant.

The initial reviews overflowed with praise bolstered by the blurbs.

Later, a contrarian critic pointed out that the blurbs were the only words there were, but a crowd of anti-contrarian critics (many of whom had already reviewed the blank book, with or without noticing that it was blank) insisted that to mention it was to miss the point, and worse, to risk retraumatizing the author, who was, after all, very important, especially having suffered such a great trauma.

A billionaire media mogul added it to her book club, as did any number of retirement-aged women of comparably lower personal net worth. Award season approached. The author’s editor and agent were giddy. It was almost anticlimactic when the announcement came — the author had won the nation’s highest profile prize for a book. But the Vikings invaded on the night of the ceremony.

The Vikings said they were from somewhere south of here, Scandinavia or something, maybe Canada. They said that viking was a verb. They said that they didn’t find anyone or anything worth viking here, so they moved on to other, more dangerous and joyful frontiers.

In the official version of the story, the author stayed soaking in his hottub, but in another, he went viking too.

Those versions of the story were not good enough for me. In this day and age, you have to know how the story actually ends. You also have to know how the story begins in this day and age. I had to know what the trauma was. It was this day and age. I tracked the author down at his address. Never mind how.

The author buzzed me in without fuss. He was indeed soaking in his hottub. He looked like over-roasted beef, as though he had been in that tub since Viking time. The room — a loft — was large and dimly lit, rendering all color proximal. A mist in the air blurred boundaries between object and object.

—What do you want? said the author, even his voice soaked and steamed.

I could not tell him that I had to know his trauma. That would guarantee he’d never tell.

—I was hoping you’d inscribe my copy of your book, I said, producing my copy of his book and a very fine pen.

He grabbed each with raisined fingers, signed the title page with a splash, and handed the book back to me without looking. Also without the pen.

I glanced at the inscription, an illegible signature smeared beyond legibility as a signature. It seemed appropriate to the pages that followed. I stood there pretending to examine the pages that followed for several minutes — the room was so moist that even leaves he hadn’t touched were beginning to warp — until he looked up, surprised I hadn’t left when I’d gotten what he thought I’d wanted, what I’d pretended to want.

—You’re the only one, he said.

—The only what? I said.

—The only one who’s looked me up, he said.

—Ever? I said.

—Since the Vikings, he said.

—That’s all over, I said. Now it’s this day and age.

—Then I’m ready to tell my story, he said.

I hoped he meant the story of his trauma, but I worried that to ask for confirmation would make him reticent. It wasn’t sweat that dampened my brow, just the air of the room. Fortunately, he led by asking me a question.

—Do you remember the old emperor?

—The last one?


—No, I said. He died years before I was born.

—I was just a boy myself, he said, but I’ll never forget the final parade. The last emperor was a clotheshorse. He changed outfits five or six times a day. He spent so much time changing, they said, ‘He’s in the closet,’ instead of, for example, ‘He’s in a meeting,’ as you’d expect of an emperor, when someone asked after him and no one could be bothered to track him down, or so they said. They also said there were some designers who had designed a cloth more beautiful than you could imagine. Not only were the colors of the cloth so sublime that actual language could not begin to describe them, but the clothes they made from it were so subtle as to be invisible to anyone who was not fit for his job or was particularly stupid. Of course, the emperor wanted to be the first to wear them, and of course that’s the kind of outfit you’d want to show off, so the emperor organized a procession, the greatest of all time. Everyone took to the streets and hung from their windows shouting, ‘Look at the emperor’s new clothes! They’re the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen! Look how well the hat matches the coat! The fit is superb!’ Until one little boy shouted out, ‘Daddy, the emperor has nothing on!’

I thought I understood. I couldn’t help but interrupt him.

—Were you that little boy?

My voice gurgled in the humidity. I cleared my throat and repeated myself. The author seemed to snap out of a sort of trance.

—What? he said. No! The crowd stood that boy in front of a mirror and made him watch as they burnt out his tongue before doing the same to his eyes. Then into the wounds they poured boiling oil, melted lead, hot resin, wax, and sulfur. Finally they had him torn limb from limb by four strong horses.

—That seems excessive, I said. Now I understand your trauma.

—You understand nothing, he said, but yes, it was excessive. The people who’d done it felt that way too. Afterward. They realized it was the boy’s father who’d actually deserved the punishment. A child can see anything you tell him is there and more. His father simply hadn’t told him. In that sense, neither of them was fit for his job, and the father, at least, was particularly stupid. So in their regret, they made up some absurd fairy tale about the ‘voice of innocence’ and pretended what actually happened never happened. But I was there. My parents were fit for their jobs and bright enough. They had told me what to expect, and my expectations were more than fulfilled. The emperor’s clothes were the most beautiful things I had ever seen, sublime beyond description, subtle. Everything else, everything since, has been an immense disappointment, my world since that day drab and hopeless. I would give anything to see the old emperor’s new clothes again, but the fact that I never will has made life unsustainable.

His life seemed perfectly sustainable, but I took his point.

—I wish I could have seen them myself, I said.

He’d entranced himself again, and when he looked up, he seemed to regret having spoken.

—You have the book, he said, and you have the story. Now get out.

On the street, the world looked like it always had, stark contrast with the dreary luxury from which I’d emerged. A dry, cool breeze blew the damp from my skin. I opened the book, certain I’d somehow see what he’d seen, but the pages, though warped now with wet, were as blank as they’d ever been, and the sun glared off their shiny whiteness and burned my eyes. When I looked up, every color was hypervivid and every shape ringed with a throbbing corona. The coronas overlapped and connected one thing with another, blurring the boundaries between thing and thing and fading slowly. When my vision returned to normal, I glanced again at the pages, and again the world was blisteringly bright. I had the book. I had the story. I could do this any time the sun was out. Really I could do it any time. I thought of other ways I could blur the boundaries between here and there, then and now, true and false. Razors, for sure. Powerful adhesives. Needles and thread. Coitus. Soldering irons. Blowtorches. Bandaids and paperclips. High voltage wires. Fiber optic cables. Probably not coitus, actually. Zeroes, ones, and zeroes and ones. The possibilities were not endless — in fact they were extremely limited — and yet they were everywhere I looked. Which brings me to this day and age.