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December 12, 2004


A Whispering Through the Branches
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It may be necessary for me to tell you, since you probably know very little about me, this being my first book and my having done nothing of note but write it, that I realize that it is traditional for a preface to be written after the book is finished so that the writer might have the air of one who has completed a tremendous task and is looking back on what has been learned. And it is true, I'll admit, that I am at the time of writing this preface not even finished with the rough draft of the novel, though nearly. In my defense, however, I'd like to point out that, since you hold the book in your hands, it must now be finished and you would have had no idea that I had not finished the novel before writing its preface had I not been so truthful as to tell you. Even this, however, assumes that you trust me, but being those of a writer, my motives must always be suspect, so both the novel and its preface could have been written at any time and in any order as far as you, as a reader, should be concerned. For myself as a reader, though, I would more readily believe the author who writes his preface on the Eve of the Millennium and confesses that the book itself is not finished than one who claims to have written both book and preface just in time for his celebratory glass of midnight champagne to be of dual import.

Of course, my emphasis on the date of this preface might be considered premature in future days if our progeny take the line of those stodgy academics who continue to insist that tonight is not really the last of the millennium. Being human, we are all self-servingly fickle and may, a year from now, declare that tonight's global celebrations were premature and that we must all drag ourselves out of our homes for yet another millennial hoopla. I, however, will still contend that the previous year (i.e., tonight) was the true and honest night to celebrate because we mark not the completion of a large chunk of time, for that would be a frightening reminder of our brief participation in it, but the passage of time and our experience of it. I, for one, do not care a whit whether I live through some arbitrary measure of time that we, as humans, have decided is large.

I do care, however, that tonight I say goodbye to being able to correctly write the numbers of that arbitrary time to which all of us alive have grown so accustomed (19xx) and look forward to being able to write new ones of the kind that have been impossible (for writers who insisted on being true to their times and places) for just under nine hundred years, in an era when perhaps some lucky ancient logged the time and date as 11:11:11, 11/11/1111. God willing, or medical science permitting, I will one day note the time (and remind you all as I do it) of 22:22:22, 2/22/2222.

This is, to be sure, a silly line of thought, and not one that would instill any faith whatsoever in you that whatever philosophy I prove to have laid out through the following pages is of any significant truth or import. On this count, perhaps putting myself in relation to those who've come before and those who will come after me might help. That is to say that it is not just the fact that I will be writing new numbers (for that would be a terribly self-absorbed excuse for asking the world to have its millennial celebration tonight), but that future generations of our entire species will now be called upon to write different numbers in reference to me!

I realize how this must sound; I really do. How pretentious, how ego-maniacal, of me to attempt to verify my "truth or import" by suggesting that one effect that the change of a millennium, one thousand years, will have is of significance because future generations will have to write these numbers on my account. But, again in my own defense, I can assure you that I am not the slightest bit concerned about future generations or what they may be required to do. What matters to me is that I will now be considered, since I failed to succeed in the twentieth century, to be an author of the twenty-first century. This means that I will be thrown in among who knows what riffraff of writers. We, American authors that is, now face the challenge of defining a new era. We are no longer of the same century as Hemingway or Fitzgerald, not even of Kerouac. What's more, we are two centuries removed from the likes of Hawthorne, Melville, and Twain (and, if I must own him, Emerson).

But back to tonight: I argue that the millennium ends tonight because, if we celebrate at all, we ought to celebrate the fleeting seconds rolling over the momentary minutes, which pass the variable hours into marching days. And on this day, not only are the days inclining the months to turn the year, which is frequent in our lifetimes, not only is this year bringing about a change of decade, which, even at my tender age of twenty-four, I have seen twice over, but the decades have grown so many that they offer us a change in numbers through which many of our grandparents have not lived: a century. Grandest of all, tonight we will be turning over the largest number that we people have had a reason to invent thus far: the millennium!

This all said, I'll admit frankly that all these changes of numbers in and of themselves mean very little to me or any of us as individuals. Tomorrow I will awake to the same problems and pleasures. A new year, by virtue of its being called, arbitrarily, something different, brings no magic change to our lives. I expect to be no less in debt nor any more successful a writer when I awake in the morning. However, I do think that, if we truly believe in it and if we truly want it, things can change as instantly as a clock passing from 11:59:59 12/31/1999 to 12:00:00 1/1/2000. Very much like the loss of virginity (to which we've given a magnitude excessive for a petty biological interaction and a moment of pleasure that many, although likely more boys, have experienced previously), we often feel our worlds to be entirely different for our new experience. So, what I am celebrating, here alone with my new wife, is the opportunity to have an excuse to change my mind.

Point being that I've chosen to break with decorum and write my first book's preface before I've finished writing my first book in order to catch the moment. Tonight, though I sit before a computer at a desk, with a CD of Schubert's Ninth playing a bit too loudly for me to concentrate, I envision myself as standing on a sylvan hill at the beginning of this new millennium, looking into the valley of my future. It is covered with a thick fog, through which I am able to glimpse shadows of the conceivable events of my life — here a church, there a hospital, elsewhere a mansion — floating, much like the fog itself, through the air. An occasional shout reaches my ear, though whether of lament or cheer I cannot tell. I can see less obscure patches that I yearn to find and dark areas that send shudders of terror scattering across my skin at the thought of ending up in their midst. But since I cannot do otherwise than continue on the path as I am able to see it, taking what fork seems most promising at the time, I cannot tell whether the choice of direction can truly be said to be mine. I can only hope that, as I descend into the fog, the path becomes more evident than it is now and that I do not stroll right past life's treasures because, by my own fault or the fog's, I am unable to see them.

Surely, all of us have moments that make us wonder, if we are capable of wonder, whether any of our successes or failures are entirely our own doing. Myself, I look at the society that we've created (assuming that we've created it) and could point out the instances, often seeming to be a majority, where luck and placement have had more to do with success and failure than any degree of devotion or in-born talent. This seems to be increasingly the case. Perhaps the fog is thickening.

Even this book, inasmuch as it is written, would prove me liar if I claimed to have done more than excavate it, and it has yet to lay claim to any greater appellation than a "private success." At best, I discerned a handful of fictional moments and stumbled from one to the next. If it all comes together, it is because the imposed restrictions allowed the raw materials to fit only as they have. Even so, I will not belittle my effort by laying it all off to happenchance. I've made choices, both about the story and about the writing, and pondered various significances and done research, but the actual point at which I made any entirely conscious decisions would be nearly impossible to find.

For example, it was by choice that I've begun my writing career with a complicated novel that is probably doomed to obscurity. But then, I had to write it, this novel, now, for I wanted to capture my own moment as a writer. Even this, though, could be said to be predicated by other circumstances. I've occasionally felt, though it might resonate as an unwise excuse to put it in writing, that should you find my writing to be of a rough and novice nature, if the story itself seems shaky, I may be justified in stating that, having discovered these faults, you have stumbled exactly upon my meaning, because I have chosen to write a novel that is far too complicated for my amateur ability exactly for the statement that that makes, whatever that might be. Thus is my choice of timing really based on a contrivance that makes my weaknesses my strengths.

Without following this trail of casuistry entirely through its course, it is still questionable whether I have been the conscious actor even in my contrivances, because they, in turn, are based upon a perceived reality. I have been told that, historically, one must establish him or her self as, at the very least (and little more), capable before daring to attempt what might be called brilliant. So, the intention to utilize, guerrilla-like, my shortcomings, without which intention my exact creation would have been rendered impossible, boils down to merely a desire to be famous and a reaction to a perennial procedure of gaining renown. In short, if this had been my way of thinking heretofore, a complicated, easily botched project would increase my chances of seeming to have only a promise of brilliance.

Another option in our modern society is, of course, to be brilliant as a will-o'-the-wisp is brilliant — burning by means of an over-anxious imagination in the viewer (the reader) that attributes what little true glow there is to stagnant ideas that, were they unearthed, could be easily, though squeamishly, embraced. Thus has merit become attached to attrition, and success erroneously placed on those who are meretricious. It has seemed to me that, as we've neared our present time, we have become simultaneously too apt to pronounce genius as gibberish and to see nonsense as the purest example, because unattainable, of truth. As a result of our inability to recognize genius unless it bites us on the ear after the death of its author, we pass our judgment on a living person's talents well before we've gathered any evidence but the opinions of others.

Through the door into the living room, I hear that the countdown has begun in Times Square, so I hasten to suggest that, if it is true that men and women will find what merit they originally sought based largely on the claims of third parties, allow me to disassociate myself from myself for long enough to assure you that I am a genius and that this book that you may still be willing to read is the truest gospel that humanity has yet conceived during this new millennium. I have done all that I am able to ensure that this statement rings true, and I am confident that it does... at least at the time of its writing. (This is said, however, with the hopes that it will take no less than a handful of generations of readers to figure out whether I have been telling the truth at all thus far. As for the rest of the book, it cannot help but become better or more honest. I promise.)

Be this all as it may, my first book is nearly finished, and I face the task, over the course of this new year, of disseminating it, which, if the painfully slow circulation of my lesser manuscripts can be taken as evidence, may be nearly impossible. Nonetheless, even as I write this premature preface, I take a naïve, perhaps silly, comfort in the idea that, if these words are being read, if you are reading them, then I have already succeeded to some degree. Thus, as I look into an unsure future, I take solace in the fact that it will not be the present, and I pray that it will prove no worse than the past.

Well... happy New Year, and best of luck. For myself, it is just past midnight, and I've a life to attend to, and a cork to pop.

Justin Katz
Fall River, MA
Friday, December 31, 1999, to Saturday, January 1, 2000

Posted by Justin Katz at December 12, 2004 1:18 AM
A Whispering Through the Branches