…in small ways, too, the end of the world came…
One of the texts I often teach, as a professor of religious studies, is the story of the Akedah, the binding of Isaac, a central narrative in Judaism and a terrifying story, told, in the Hebrew Bible, with slow-building suspense, even a flash of humor: “And Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and put it on his son Isaac, and he himself took the firestone and the knife, and the two walked off together. And then Isaac said to his father Abraham, ‘Father,’ and he answered, ‘Yes, my son,’ and he said, ‘Here are the firestone and the wood, but where is the sheep for the burnt offering?’” This is a moment not unlike that of Red Riding Hood at her grandmother’s bedside, pondering the size of her teeth. There is rope and wood and a sharp blade; the only thing missing is the end of the world.
The Akedah was likely in Norman Lock’s mind a few times as he composed this startling, seductive, book—a book of endings, of tiny narratives of catastrophe, suicide, murder, metamorphosis, nightmare, and writing. There is a whiff of Kafka, also, maybe even a taste of that unparalleled reader of Kafka, Maurice Blanchot. Most centrally there is an attempt to reenter and reinvent the work of the Grimm brothers, to show us something about the logic of fairy tales and why they haunt us so. Here is a mirror that steals a man’s reflection. Here is a field of knives, a thick fog full of ladders. Here is a “hedgehog, dead by the side of the road, [that] was once a man who refused to believe in fairy tales.” And here, too, are pieces of writing that predict death, that stand as literal sentences of death; pieces of writing into which the writers and/or readers literally disappear.
He happened to look down, idly, at a book lying open on the table and read in it his own death, which instantly came to pass.
He read in the morning paper of his own death in a boating accident. That same day he bought a boat and took it out on the river. It capsized and he drowned.
He was turned into a book so that he might disappear inside it.
Now, Death had only to address an envelope and send it to its victim in order to claim him.
This is how the book progresses, an accumulation of endings. For the most part, the characters are anonymous persons, though there is a sense, in this accumulation, of echo, that the “he” who finds his “that his papers had been worked on during the night” might also be the “he” who “was writing a book of tales,” and who “In the middle of his book … left a note in which he confessed to all things—no matter how wicked or shameless—that were set down in the book, like fiction,” even the “he,” who, “when he had shut himself up in his room to write,” is overheard by others to be weeping.
Meanwhile, children turn into furniture or are strangled by furniture, smothered by coats, mauled by kitchen appliances. Horrors are followed by alternative horrors. We are given “another version of the story” followed by yet another. There is a relentlessness to the variety here; consider these pieces, isolated by white space, rendered autonomous and whole:
I loved one man and married another, she confessed to her husband as she watched him close his eyes for the last time—the cord knotted at his neck.
The pit is full, he said. Wiping blood from his hands, the other man answered: Dig another one.
The first of these tiny stories is just that, a narrative, complete, in minimalist fashion; yet the second is so much more, opening to something archetypal. The horror of the pit and the blood is not limited to the literal, not merely a pit and some blood; rather, we have here the structure of nightmare, and, in the context of Grim Tales, it is like standing between two mirrors and experiencing the startling illusion of infinity. This is a book that strikes at the reader’s sense of scale; we are dwarfed, in these pages, by apocalypse. As the Akedah stands as a reminder of the utter incomprehensibility of the divine—a warning against the easy idolatry of assuming we can even speak about that which is God—so Lock’s book exemplifies the very possibilities of tale-telling. We are offered story after story, and we are shown, again and again, how stories work and why they matter.
Freud, for instance, that examiner of the uncanny and the ramifications of narratives on the everyday, gets a hat-tip from Lock. In one fragment—“another story,” as it says—copies of The Interpretation of Dreams are burnt, and, once every word was erased from the world, “the streets ran with beasts and madmen,” sons slaughter their fathers and fuck their mothers. The sentence is carried out, like the obsessive-compulsive hand washing that acts as a harbinger of plague, or the man who dreams that the world ends, finds this to be so, then wills himself to dream again, to make the world whole once more. It works, in its way, “But all those he did not know were no more.” Not that the world ends, but that the world in which we live has limits, and they are our own limits—this is the harsh truth here conveyed. Again, there are echoes of the Akedah: to bind, to prepare to kill, this is more horrific, perhaps, than carrying such killing out; the idea of a “test”—the incomprehensibility or cruelty of such logic, depending on how one reads it—is itself the horror. It’s nice, in short, that Isaac doesn’t die, but the story’s ending doesn’t do anything to salve the discomfort it creates. The discomfort lingers, unfolds throughout history, through Isaac’s life, and Jacob’s, and that of the people Israel. Lock gets this, the dynamic of an unsettling inscription lingering—a sentence than cannot be erased. The end of the world already exists in the mere idea of the end of the world. And this is enough to drive us mad. Lock puts it perfectly, hauntingly:
The end of the world came; and to save his family from the horror which would befall those who must await their own end from storm or famine, fire or pestilence, he poisoned them all. As he was about to hang himself, an angel appeared and said to him that he had dreamed it—dreamt that the end of the world was come. He stared in horror at his wife and children lying dead in the room with him as the angel, with an inscrutable look, withdrew—its wings stiff with insolence.