Malice and Desperation in the Grand Canyon
by Kristopher Jansma, recommended by Electric Literature
EDITOR’S NOTE by Benjamin Samuel
Kristopher Jansma’s debut novel The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards doesn’t come out until March, but reading it I felt as though I’d known it for years. With nostalgia for the bygone days of literary glamour, unashamed sentimentality (a brave disposition in these cynical times), and a celebration of the young writer, Kris has manufactured a wonderful sensation of déjà vu, as though the book was already a classic, just waiting to be captured by the correct writer. We’re honored to excerpt one of the novel’s most extravagant chapters, “Malice and Desperation in the Grand Canyon,” here in Recommended Reading.
I first met Kris when he pitched an idea for The Outlet, the blog of Electric Literature. The idea became a column called Literary Artifacts, in which Kris explores, mourns, and documents literature’s physical presence in an increasingly ephemeral era. With every “literary artifact” he uncovers — whether it’s Oscar Wilde’s grave, Charles Dickens memorabilia, or the Gutenberg Bible — Kris upholds a romantic mysticism of the writer, and his novel is more evidence of same.
Documenting the development of two young writers, whose equally supportive and competitive dynamic recalls Franzen and DFW’s, The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards rejuvenates the idea of writer as celebrity. At a time when so many writers are born in the classrooms of private colleges, only to return to the womb as professors once they’ve published, Leopards lets its writerly characters run rampant in the world.
Here, on the edge of the Grand Canyon, the trio who form the novel’s fractured love triangle are reunited for a wedding. With so much longstanding tension between the three friends, the marriage — and the subsequent introduction of a fourth party — has the potential to dissolve the bonds between them. Beyond the spectacle and sky blue pills, the scene is rendered through thoughtful prose and careful research. Kris is able to capture the riot of the circus by wielding the spotlight with precision.
“Malice and Desperation in the Grand Canyon” evokes Hunter S. Thompson with its title, location, and substance abuse. Elsewhere, we hear echoes of Salinger, Fitzgerald, and Kerouac (also known as the young English major’s holy trinity). I cannot help myself from comparing Kris to these old legends; he’s a writer of extreme promise, who seems to belong to an older generation.
The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards is a story of how we view ourselves, how we intend for ourselves to be seen, and how invisible we may very well be. And as the book itself is transformed into an actual artifact from the narrative, it is clear that Kris sees the power of the novel’s form in a masterful and very literal way.
Read this excerpt, and then read the rest. The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards is a story you will soon love, and the book itself an object you will cherish.
Co-Editor, Electric Literature
Malice and Desperation in the Grand Canyon
“By God, if I ever cracked, I’d try to make the world crack with me. Listen! The world only exists through your apprehension of it, and so it’s much better to say that it’s not you that’s cracked — it’s the Grand Canyon.”
– F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Crack Up
AS SOON AS I FINALLY DECIDED TO BREAK UP THE WEDDING, I felt much better. Julian was absolutely right — I’d been down and out the whole trip, and what for? I’d known I was going to do it — all along — and I was feeling lousy only because I thought feeling lousy was the right thing to do. I’d groused through the interminable cab ride to JFK and I’d sulked during the five-hour flight to Vegas — the first flight I’d ever been on in my life, and I had complained all through it, even after Julian so kindly ordered up the second bottle of Clicquot. I was still bitching as I — for the first time in my life — twisted the knob on the side of my gold watch and observed the hours breeze backward. I whined while I rented the car — even after Julian paid to upgrade us to the AC Shelby Cobra — and when we finally checked in to our suite at the Bellagio, I’d been so sullen that Julian had hardly any choice but to leave me behind for the night. He had much to celebrate, what with the sale of his first novel in what all the publishing- industry magazines had called “a major deal.” I was proud of him, and at the same time so jealous I could have killed him — so it was for the best that Julian popped a few sky- blue pills and traipsed off to watch the fountains firing off in their mechanized ballet and the roulette wheels clicking and spinning and the contortionists at Cirque du Soleil twisting inside one another. If the past could be counted on to repeat, I expected to hear Julian returning to his room in under four hours, with some wan, waxed bartender in tow. I’d hear the shaking of more pills out of more bottles, followed by animalistic engagements, which I’d drown out with something on Turner Classic Movies. But until then, I stood out on our balcony, staring down thirty stories into a neon abyss. I wanted very badly to do something I knew was terrible, and only once I’d settled upon simply, really doing it did I feel a great weight lifting off me at last.
Just one thing still bothered me. I’d been asked to write this article about the wedding for Esquire, seeing as Evelyn had starred in yet another Broadway hit this season and … well, all right, truth: technically, Julian had been asked to write this article and he said he couldn’t possibly, what with the final edits for his novel due just after the wedding, so he’d handed the assignment off to me.
Regardless, now that I’d decided to ruin everything, I wondered if they’d actually want that money back. Unless, I decided, why not write about the ruining of it? Why not become part of the story? Why not go full gonzo? “Malice and Desperation in the Grand Canyon.” What a title! They’d love it — surely. Celebrating in advance, I ordered a room service filet mignon and raided the minibar.
Surely my new story would be more interesting than one about how the Aphrodite- esque Evelyn Lynn Madison Demont, beloved star of Mourning Becomes Electra, wedded the utterly uninteresting Dr. Avinash Singh. The good Dr. Singh was a geologist at UC San Diego, whose life’s single act of spinal fortitude had been to insist to his parents — Indian royalty of one of the former princely states — that his wedding be held at the Grand Canyon, here in America, and not in India as they demanded. Not for its immense grandeur or romantic color upon sunset — but so that he would not have to pause long from his study of the mile- deep chasm and its forty- million- year- old rocks.
Avinash and Evelyn planned all the usual trappings of an Indian wedding: the groom would ride an elephant along the rim of the canyon and they would exchange vows before the Agni, the Sacred Fire. I’d packed three of the New York Public Library’s finest books on the subject of the traditional Hindu wedding, or Vivaah, and two more on the mighty Grand Canyon itself — all for research purposes. Whether or not I ruined the wedding, I had always fully intended to write the hell out of the event.
Giving Evelyn away would be Mr. Demont (accompanied by his fourth and third wives) and Evelyn’s mother, the first former Mrs. Demont. Also in attendance: the bride’s childhood friend, Julian McGann, presumed heir to McGann International Trading, whose as yet untitled but already acclaimed novel would be out next summer; joined by his roommate, Some Nobody, the writer of this article, who slept with the bride-to-be on six of the seven nights prior to the wedding. (It would have been seven of seven, too, if Julian hadn’t dragged me out to Vegas early, in a clumsy attempt to put some distance between me and Evelyn.) The bride, incidentally, couldn’t have given two shits about rocks, however old they might well be, and suff ered from bouts of intense vertigo that once kept her from climbing the stairs at Lincoln Center, and, so, naturally she had privately expressed some reservations about being married on the edge of the deepest chasm in the country. I considered all this as I ate my steak — every bloody bit of it — and concluded that it seemed barely avoidable that I should stop the wedding. Satisfied, I settled in to sleep.
I’d heard that the Grand Canyon is the only thing in the world that lives up to the hype when you finally see it. While I can’t speak to the hype of everything else in this world, I can confirm that the Grand Canyon does, indeed, live up to its own. Sheer walls fell down and down for miles, changing from blood- dusty reds to golden sandstone and back again. At the very bottom was an acid snake of green and black, river water running lazily in places, as still as glass, and in others it roared and rampaged in frothy rapids. For the first time I half understood Avinash’s hesitance to stray very far from it. No one inch of it was like the inch above it, or below, and there were more inches of it than any of us could ever see in ten lifetimes.
The wedding ceremony was to take place on Grandview Point, on the traditional mandap, a prominent raised stage covered in flowers, which contains the Agni — the Sacred Fire. Around this dais, to allow guests some shelter from the heat, were two rows of white tents, the dry wind blowing them all a little westerly. Here the aristocracies of both Manhattan and Mumbai were gathered, the women in gowns that could walk a red carpet and saris and veils woven of gold and the threads of Bombay’s finest silkworms; the men wore Armani tuxedos and sherwanisand ornate, flower- covered turbans. The air surrounding the bar was thick with jasmine and Chanel No. 5. Our landing party quickly appropriated glasses of Scotch and moved over to dutifully admire the chasm. Far off from the proceedings was an incongruous elephant, finished with its journey and resting happily under a shade. And even the elephant looked pathetically small, with the canyon behind it.
“Oh, I do not like this one bit,” said Julian loudly, of the canyon. He had been successfully cleaned up and re-dressed at eighty-five miles per hour by the industrious Bethany.
“Makes one feel rather small, eh?” chuckled a bald- headed guest with the distinctive look of a doctor.
“Yes, it does make one,” Julian agreed. “And when one doesn’t prefer to feel as small as one does, it is certainly time one does something about it.”
He raised a pill bottle directly to his lips and tossed back an unknown quantity of its contents into his mouth. The balding doctor looked somewhat alarmed as Julian passed the orange plastic cylinder to Bethany, who daintily tapped two out into her palm.
“Vertigo,” I explained to the bald man. “Crippling cases. The both of them.”
The man rejoined the crowd, mumbling something about being off duty. Soon people were giving the three of us a bit of a wider berth. I knew Julian well enough to know that he did this, at least somewhat, by design. He seemed at peace, however, there beside the empty chasm.
Not only was the canyon more beautiful than anything I could ever hope to produce — and so big that it defied comprehension — but it was also literally as old as the very life on Earth. The rocks at the top were an unimaginable 230 million years old, and the ones at the bottom were more than 2 billion years old. And it had endured. It had endured because it was nothing. Because it was only an abscess. An absence. A void that patiently expanded and that nothing could ever fill.
I watched Julian watching the canyon. I wondered what he was thinking about it. What else did he see that I could not see? What more did it mean to him that I would never understand?
“Julian McGann!” called someone from the crowd. “Didn’t think I’d see you here!” A trim boy with owlish glasses emerged, and I was sure he was a classmate from the prep school where Julian and Evelyn had done their time together.
“Charles!” Julian said in the high pitch I knew he used when he was, in fact, cursing the very gods for this surprise. “May I introduce my wife, Bethany?
” Charles nearly fell over at this announcement, which I imagined was just the sort of reaction that Julian had been hoping for, especially with so many old schoolmates bound to be there — and with so many, like Charles, I imagined, who had been with Julian in many a darkened broom closet. Was this why he’d planned the whole Bethany deception?
In that moment, I felt a rare kind of pity: the sort that comes only when you feel it for the person of whom you are the most envious.
While Julian was distracted, I tailed a bridesmaid in an ornate mulberry sari back to a wide white tent, where I’d hoped to find Evelyn. I didn’t know just what I’d say to her, but I had decided not to overthink it. For years now we’d danced in circles. She’d let me lead for a while and then I’d let her. But now we were at the end of it. She didn’t love this geologist. I’d seen it in her eyes on six of the seven preceding nights. Probably she was expecting me to stand up during the ceremony and object in some dramatic fashion — and I would — if she wanted that particular drama to unfold. But wouldn’t it be kinder, and ultimately less tiring for each of us, just to slip away before things got going? If we did it now, the assembled Singhs could all be back in Vegas in time for dinner and a Tom Jones show.
There were far too many mothers and bridesmaids and junior wedding planners circling the main entrance to the tent, so I worked my way around to the back, where I gently untied a flap in the tent fabric and peered inside.
Evelyn sat alone on a white- padded stool, staring into a mirror, putting makeup on with a gentle touch. She was more stunning than I’d ever seen her before — more radiant than the desert sunlight, more magnificent than the canyon beneath it. Every few seconds, she looked down at a photograph in her left hand — a picture of an Indian woman in traditional bridal makeup. I’d been to many of her shows but I’d never gone backstage to her tiny dressing rooms. I’d never seen her do this before.
She touched a brush to a rouge in a small plum- colored container and painted it onto her lips with careful strokes. I’d seen her wear the same color on stage. It made her lips catch the light, she always said, so every seat in the house could make out each quiver and curl. Some acted with their hands; others, their eyes; but as I watched her, for the first time I realized that Evelyn acted with her lips. She studied them in the mirror, trying out the various possibilities. She pursed; she pouted. She bit the lower one, then the upper. She let them twitch a little. I caught a rare glimpse of tongue, running across them. Then an even rarer smile — the corners drawing back like the panels on a pair of velvet curtains.
She looked away, once, toward the door to the tent. Was she looking for me? Was she wondering if I would come? If I would stop her? Was she wondering if she would stop, if I did come? She lifted another brush to her eyelids and shadowed them over. There was no spark behind them now. And if I did nothing? Would she and Avinash settle down here, in the desert, while he chipped away at pebbles? Would his parents buy them a Frank Lloyd Wright manse in Los Angeles, where she and I would pass the time as always, no change but for a ring she’d remove beforehand? What if he finished his work and they returned to India? How far would I follow?
She set down the eye shadow and lifted another brush to her lashes. They were long and dark, and her hands were now sienna with the dye. Only that single circle was still exposed. I wanted to press my thumbs to it and push, down and outward. Wipe away the mehndi in all directions. Perhaps tonight — if we took the Shelby Cobra we would be at the coast in five hours — we could wade into the salted waters of the Pacific and let the colors wash away. We could head south into Mexico, where no one would ever find us. We could return east, and hope the scandal blew over with the seasons. In the vineyards in the north we could drink until we forgot who we’d ever been. West seemed the only proper way to go, and yet there was only a little more west left. On the other side of the ocean was just the world again, and eventually we’d come back to where we’d begun, and still nothing would have changed.
Evelyn turned away from the mirror and bent down to lift something from her bag, a small painting in a golden frame. I wanted to see it more closely, but suddenly a car horn honked, somewhere off on the side of the canyon. I lifted my head from the flap and looked out at the chasm. There was a faint echo as the blaring sound kissed the edge and bounced back. And then nothing. The noise was swallowed up and gone. The source of the noise was a silver Bentley that had nearly rearended a Rolls- Royce. The Rolls honked back, and this time the sound was like a whisper, as it journeyed the other way, into miles of desert. The two cars stayed, squared off there, in the middle of the small sea of limousines and Town Cars. Each refused to let the other by, and the Beamers and Benzes began to pile up behind them, all honking their horns in time, like seconds ticking in a snarled clock, and vanishing into the empty canyon. Red- vested valets started scrambling over, their hands clamped to their ears protectively. There, in the heart of the lot, the sound of all those pricey cars making their urgent demands must have been deafening, but it was barely audible from where I stood, just a hundred yards away.
All around me, the wedding preparations spun on, last- minute aff airs being quickly settled. Florists hung heart- shaped slipper orchids from the tent poles; caterers sailed about with silver trays of curried prawns. A harpist and three accompanying sitar players argued over some detail in the sheet music. Two of the bridesmaids rushed by, carrying an industrial sewing machine. Looks of desperation were written on their faces. Something had to be hemmed, or mended. Everything had to be perfect.
How many millions had it all cost? The white silk tents? The singlemalt Scotch and the imported flowers and the jet fuel and the fucking elephant?
It was at this moment that Julian’s fist suddenly connected with my jaw. The entire Grand Canyon at once swerved upward into a right angle as my body crumpled to the ground.
Julian’s other fist connected with my neck, and the first again with my shoulder blade. What he lacked in aim he more than made up for in enthusiasm.
“What the fuck are you doing?” he seethed.
“What the fuck are you doing?” I managed to gasp. Julian’s eyes were as dark and impenetrable as ever. Was he seriously trying to stop me?
“You slept with my wife!” He began dragging me away from the tent so that Evelyn would not hear.
“ Your — . She’s a fucking escort, Julian!”
But he didn’t seem to hear me. Was this it? Had his nominal ties to reality finally been severed? Had the pharmaceuticals chewed through? Or was it whatever else was wrong — whatever had always been wrong — in the wormy folds of his brain? I managed to shove him off me. I tasted blood in my mouth.
“No, I’m saying you just slept with her. An hour ago. And now you’re going to go in there and ask Evelyn to run off with you?”
Suddenly I felt deeply ashamed. I had hardly thought about the escort. She’d barely seemed real. Regardless, I charged at Julian and threw a punch that connected up around his eye and sent him staggering backward.
“You’re out of your mind!” I spat, releasing a thin stream of blood that disappeared into the dry earth. “You’re completely insane! You know that, right?”
He flinched but agreed. “Definitely,” he said, brushing himself off . “Definitely I am. But at least I try to make a point of only ruining my own life.”
His eye was swelling, and I imagined that by morning it would be a lovely shade of eggplant. I didn’t even want to think about what my own face would look like.
“You really think you love her,” he said, surprised.
“Of course I love her, you idiot. I’ve loved her since the moment we met. Since the moment you sent her off to roam the college with me because you were too caught up in your damn story to spend any time with her.”
“God,” he said, rolling his eyes in desperation.
“What, you think she doesn’t love me?” I challenged, ready to remind him about six of the past seven nights.
“I don’t know if she loves you or not, you solipsistic son of a bitch, but I hope to hell she doesn’t! Because what I do know is that you don’t love her at all.” Julian shook his head. “You’ve gotten just good enough to fool yourself, haven’t you?
” “You don’t know what you’re talking about,” I snapped.
“It’s fiction!” he shouted. “She’s just this character to you. Both of us are! And we always have been. You don’t know what goes on in our heads. You don’t know where we come from or who we are … Can you even tell the diff erence anymore between what you’ve written about her and who she really, truly is?”
I didn’t understand what he was talking about. Clearly he was losing it.
“But how could you?” he continued. “You’ve made everything up — even yourself, for God’s sake. Well, here’s the truth. Let me remind you — The Biography of You: Son of a man who had a layover in Newark and the flight attendant who brought him peanuts with a smile that afternoon. Recipient of a Vacheron Constantin watch that your mother found wedged between two first- class seats and stole for you, so you’d be able to count the hours she’d abandoned you. One- time escort — paid escort — to a debutante ball and introduced to high society as a character from a Wilkie Collins novel. You project these fantasies onto us. It’s fun playing the people you think we are, but this is where it stops. This isn’t some story anymore; this is her life. And you don’t get to do this. Youdon’t get to.”
And for once I thought I knew exactly what was running through Julian’s mind. He was out of his mind, of course. But underneath that was something else. Something I’d never seen before, but that had always been there, whenever he’d looked at me, from the very first day: he pitied me. Not in the same snobby way that he pitied everyone and everything, but because I had no idea who I really was. He’d seen me all along, like a moth fluttering repeatedly against a windowpane. He’d grown attached to me, gotten to know the pattern of my wings against the glass. I’d always been on the other side of it, though. I’d been circling out there for so long that I’d forgotten.
I thought he would hit me again, or drag me away, but instead he let me go. He just began walking off the other way, toward the blazing, open sands and the red distant hills. Perhaps he wanted some space, or just to lick his wounds. Perhaps something had finally snapped inside him that would not be mended. I didn’t understand exactly. And I didn’t know then that I wouldn’t see or speak to Julian again for ten long years.
I hurried back to Evelyn’s wedding tent.
When I slipped my head back through the rear flap, I saw that she was not alone anymore. Avinash stood a few feet from her, dressed in magenta silks that leant him no aura of impressiveness at all. A shirtless man, whom I took to be the priest, was chanting and pressing a golden coin onto the untattooed void on Evelyn’s hand. There were no other people in the tent — no relatives or bridesmaids or elephants of any kind. This was the real wedding ceremony; everything that would happen out on the mandap in front of the others was technically just for show.
Evelyn could not see me. The little picture frame that she had taken from her bag earlier lay beside her makeup tray. I watched as the priest clasped her hand to Avinash’s and began to bind them together, with the gold coin pressed between them. I opened my mouth to speak, but only dry desert air came out.
There she stood, only a few feet away from me, but she looked like she looked on stage — completely real and yet entirely someone else. I’d never been so close to her while she was in character. When Julian or Avinash or any of the other men — and there had been many — came to see her, they sat in the front row, center. Only my eyes had the capacity to unravel her.
She gazed into Avinash’s heavily lashed eyes with a serene confi- dence. It was a gaze of expectations being firmly met. Of plans having at last come to fruition.
The priest’s voice reached a higher pitch as he knotted their hands together and reached for the fringe of her sari. I watched as he wove these tiny threads to Avinash’s dhoti. She breathed a little deeper, but she wasn’t really nervous. She was only playing the part.
I said nothing. I did nothing.
When the priest’s fingers parted from the knot, he concluded his prayer and it was done. Evelyn and Avinash were wed.
She never saw me. And when she moved away from Avinash, her face did not change at all. This character was permanent now. Evelyn had become someone new. In a few minutes they would go out to the mandap and revolve around the Agni, and they would make their traditional promises to each other in full view of their families and assembled international guests, but it was already done, so I took off to find the car. I couldn’t stand to stay and watch the rest. I knew how it all would go down.
Up on the mandap, Evelyn and Avinash would place strings of flowers around each other’s necks. They would circle the holy fire seven times and make their seven vows to each other. And as they stared into each other’s eyes, they would come to what was really my favorite part of the whole ceremony, when it came right down to it.
We are word and meaning, united.
You are thought and I am sound.
May the night be honey-sweet for us.
May the morning be honey-sweet for us.
May the earth be honey-sweet for us.
May the heavens be honey-sweet for us.
May the plants be honey-sweet for us.
May the sun be all honey for us.
May the cows yield us honey-sweet milk.
As the heavens are stable,
as the earth is stable,
as the mountains are stable,
as the whole universe is stable,
so may our union be permanently settled.
Whenever I made it back to the hotel, I would throw these details together and finish this article and get very drunk and catch the first flight out in the morning. Most of these holes could be patched together. Everything else was just the Grand Canyon.
As I drove off along the rim in the Shelby Cobra, I found it easier and easier to remind myself of how incredibly small I was, and how incredibly small everything about me, and my life, and my love, and my world, was, too.