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SunLit Excerpt: In the absurdist novel “The Perfect Stranger,” reason and desire go under the knife

This novel from performance poet Gregory SETH Harris uses every device imaginable -- through language, plot and theme -- to create a narrative that can be consumed in many ways

Setting: Municipal Libary[sic] & Literary Infirmary

Pushing thru a set of double doors, Neimann stepped into the brightly lit INFIRMARY. He was greeted warmly by rows of bedridden patrons, arms andor legs wrapped in gauze, their bandaged bodies propped up by pillows. Reading lamps cast amber halos above each patient’s head. Many balanced books on their laps, most shaking their heads in dismay. Libarians in starched uniforms dashed from patient to patient, taking temperatures, dispensing aspirin, antihistamine, valium & qualuudes in a frantic— Neimann would say ‘Sisyphusian’—attempt to stave off infections precipitated by the cuts, scrapes & bruises the pursuit of knowledge is heir to.

Neimann negotiated the maze of hospital beds, arriving finally @ the opposite end where a swinging door emphatically insisted: KEEP OUT—STAFF ONLY. He snatched a surgical mask hanging from its peg. Nudging the door w/ his shoulder, he stepped into another brightly lit room. An array of medical machinery purred along one corner, panels spewing digital numbers, lights flashing, graphs firing lightning bolts across dim green flickering screens. A series of clicks, beeps, chugging & hiccups were emitted in a random tho soothingly rhythmic sequence. Sprawled on a narrow operating table lay a live mummy, connected to the blinking/hissing/humming machines by a network of clear tubes & interlacing blue, green & red wires. Four men in surgical gowns worked in silence, heads bent as each hunched either over the patient or the purring machines.

First to acknowledge Neimann was a scarecrow w/ a stethoscope, his five o’clock shadow pushing half past eleven. The man nodded before nudging the elder, slightly hunchbacked physician standing next to him. The older man, his face a fishnet of deep-set wrinkles, greeted Neimann w/ a smile, followed by a friendly wink.

UNDERWRITTEN BY

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“Dr Buncle,” Neimann returned the greeting.

Jotting a few notes, dotting his t’s & crossing his eyes, Dr Carl Buncle, DMS, set his medical chart aside. Pushing back his bifocals, he rubbed his prodigious pockmarked nose, then gestured twd the wiry-headed scarecrow whose reddish-yellow thatch of hair jutted out in all directions. “I believe you know Dr Oswald, our literary heart specialist.” 

Dr Oswald extended a hand in mock greeting. His surgical tools arranged in descending alphabetical order, he proudly displayed his accomplishment to an all approving Neimann, himself a devotee of reverse alphabetization.

The libarian further acknowledged Drs Scurvy DVM & Cataract DDT, @ that moment comparing labels on their surgical gowns. Each referenced their various mentors, medical advisors & esteemed mental patients on the importance of the comfort, fit, status & utility of surgical attire.

“One, after all,” Dr Cataract asserted in a deep resonating voice, “one cannot affect the proper surgical cut should the shoulder of one’s arm be restricted by too tight a seam.”

“Or the hem of one’s sleeve flop listlessly about, thus obstructing one’s view of the offending artery,” the younger Dr Scurvy added, stroking the goatee of his otherwise hairless head. 

Nodding his approval, Neimann turned his attention to the gurgling moans of the patient strapped to the surgical table. Said patient had begun to squirm to an alarming degree. When Dr Oswald suggested the gauze around said patient’s mouth might be obstructing the poor chap’s breathing, Dr Buncle came to the patient’s aid. Neimann’s eyes widened as he recognized the scruffy beard, the mole on the left cheek & the jaundiced countenance.

“Well, well, well. If it isn’t Erle Greaves,” Neimann tsk’d tsk’d, shaking his head. “I warned you it would come to this.”

“Water, water,” the patient groaned.

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

The patient struggled, lifting slightly before his head fell back, the heavy clunk sending the surgical tools on the adjoining table rattling. Fear momentarily seized Dr Oswald’s face.

“Yes, water,” Neimann repeated. “The very substance of life. The true nectar of the gods. But the gods can’t help you now. I warned you seminary school would be a despoliation to your immitigable inquisitional endeavors.” Neimann wagged a finger.

“You went too fast,” the libarian continued. “Too much truth…too rapidly consumed…can be almost as detrimental…as blind ig-nor-ance.” Neimann enunciated the last word clearly. All four physicians nodded in agreement.

“Well, gentlemen,” the senior surgeon suggested, “shall we scrub in?”

As the four men headed for the sink, Neimann leaned over the semi-delirious student. “So tell me, Erle…where does it hurt?”

The patient groaned, clutching the edges of the table as spittle spewed from his mouth, running down his cheek. Neimann knitted a brow as Erle emitted a low gurgling sound. The libarian leaned closer, placing his ear as close as he dared for fear of becoming infected. “What was that? Speak slowly.”

The seminary student swallowed saliva, choking, coughing, struggling for breath before murmuring, “Mer-re-ac.”

“Merreac? Merreac?” Neimann’s eyes brightened. “Ah, Meriac! Yes, that forerunner of our own demicratic system. ‘All men six feet tall are created equal,’ they claimed, the proof of which being self-evident in that each person being of six feet in height had exactly seventy-two inches. 

“This is rather serious,” Neimann informed the surgeons, that moment returning to the operating table. Dr Cataract twitched his nose as if detecting an offensive odor. Dr Scurvy gazed @ the libarian thru youthful, questioning eyes.

“Meriac built a great empire on that principle,” Neimann elaborated, “drafted a constitution, got their God to notarize it—all the while enslaving anyone having merely two feet. And they overran any civilization w/ the gall to feel ten feet tall, slicing those who refused to capitulate into two relatively equals halves, making two fives—then, calculating two plus five equals seven (that is, one more than six), they declared this a blatant sign of hubris, if not downright witchcraft. Anyone caught thus, was burned @ their steaks…& all reasoned out w/ perfect mathematical precision.” Neimann glanced @ the patient.

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

“Someone, my dear Erle, should have directed you to al-Ishrag’s Breaking Wind of Reason.

The libarian bent low, his lips nearly brushing Erle’s ears. “You see, my dear Erle, reason is merely a tool human beans use to justify whatever it is they desire. Everything begins w/ DE-ZI-ERR. We want something; we convince ourselves it’s our right—our divine right—to have it. If necessary, we juggle words, alter definitions, reinterpret sacred texts—texts we ourselves write & edit, then attribute to our Gods…&, if anyone dare dispute our alleged logic, we bayonet them into agreement.”

Neimann stepped back to allow Drs Buncle & Oswald room. The four literary surgeons circled the table, each respectively clutching a scalpel, a pair of forceps, a can of soda, or a pick ax.

“And that’s not the worst of it, my friend. Should our infallible reason still fail us, we fall back on anti-reason, on the irrational: faith, passion, God, PUP, majority rule, or that most universal of all lines of reasoning: i’m-bigger-than-you-so-you-better-do-as-i-say—something i’m sure they never bother to elucidate @ Seminary U.”

Neimann signaled the four masked men to begin, looking on as four sets of surgical eyes exchanged questioning glances.

“Where should we operate?” each seemed to ask.

“Obviously he needs to have his head examined,” Dr Cataract suggested, his forehead already sweating profusely. “Shouldn’t we start there?”

“With all due respect,” Dr Oswald proffered, “I suggest we cut away the heart. His heart is obviously the culprit.” Referring to the most recent issue of his favorite medical comic, Dr Oswald proceeded to explain how the heart, thru a complex network of electrical impulses regulated by neurological synaptic connections, was attached to the mouth.

“The heart drives him on, but should he taste whatever it is his heart so desperately desires, he soon tires of it. Then his heart tells him to find something else. As long as the heart is in control, he will never be satisfied. Ergo, removing the heart is the most equitable corrective.”

“Yes, but what about the feet?” Dr Scurvy interjected. “Everything begins w/ the feet. Because we have feet, we have mobility. What is mobility? Freedom! Freedom to go anywhere, even places we don’t belong. Remove the feet, you restrict mobility. Perhaps he’ll stay away from the places that fed him the forbidden fruit which has him so sick to his scrutinizing stomach.”

“Then why not remove the stomach?” Dr Buncle challenged. “Or the ass, for that matter? The patient is obviously an ass. He places his trust in his mind. Using his mind, he convinces his mind that the mind is not to be trusted. Where’s the sense in that? He’s an ass, i tell you—i say remove the ass.”

“Or the fists.” Dr Cataract offered, being the only attending physician w/ a psychiatric degree from the University of Froid. “After all, babies form fists long before they extend handshakes. The clenched fist is the first act of rebellion. Amputate the First Cause & you truncate all that follows.”

Neimann bit his lower lip, exchanging a pensive glance w/ the bloodshot eyes of Dr Buncle. “I think it’s clear, gentlemen,” the head physician concluded. “The only way to be sure we extricate the insidious cancer is to amputate the whole person.” 

“Agreed.”

“I agree.”

“Me, too.”

Reaching for his medical clipboard, the elder surgeon slashed a big X thru the patient’s chart. Extracting a fresh sheet, he doodled a chicken, endowing it w/ well-proportioned ample breasts, followed by a rooster equally well-endowed tho w/ opposing genitalia. After giving the rooster the round bald head of Dr Scurvy, the moustache of Dr Cataract & the long, floppy ears of Neimann, he set the medical chart aside. 

“Gentlemen, shall we get started?”

All heads concurred.

Neimann too donned his surgical mask. Stepping back, he looked on admiringly as four huddled shoulders hunched over the prone figure of a once promising religious scholar. He watched the wizened face of Dr Buncle furrow, knit-one & purl-two his salt & pepper brows. The mottled complexion of Dr Cataract seemed to change color the deeper his scalpel dug. The youthful face of Dr Scurvy looked on w/ wide-eyed wonder, his hands deftly commanding a sponge w/ which he soaked up every spilled drop of blood, sweat, or root beer. The tiny dilated eyes of the literary heart specialist also looked on w/ pleasure as the others called out in reverse alphabetical order, “suture, suction, needle, forceps, clamp, chain saw…”


Gregory SETH Harris, best known as the performance poet SETH, is a fiction writer, poet, actor, musician and producer. He is the author of two books: “A Black Odyssey,” a poetic memoir intertwining his personal experiences as a Black poet in contemporary America with the journey of Homer’s Odysseus; and the novel, “The Perfect Stranger.” He lives in Denver. Learn more at www.wagaingart.com.