Help, I’m A Rock: Reading O. Schrauwen’s graphic novel Arsène Schrauwen

When I get to page 56 in Arsène Schrauwen I stop. The page says: Please wait a week before reading further. Two weeks before this I read O. Schrauwen’s Parallel Lives. I got it from the library and took it up to Breckinridge as reading material for my daughter’s and my trip to visit our friend Joshua. He’s a sculptor and is up in Breckinridge at an art residency. He seems lonely up there. After a year of COVID restrictions he now has two months in a tiny town where he knows no one. Also, it is mud season. This is a thing people who live in ski towns call the time period after winter and before summer. It is also known as spring. Mud season, despite the name, isn’t very fun.

Parallel Lives is weird as fuck. I don’t know how weird it is until I start reading it with my 8-year-old. I forgot to bring a good bedtime book and we love graphic novels, so why not? In one of the stories the main character is abducted by aliens and an iron maiden is placed on his penis in a scientific way. He then experiences quite an orgasm. I don’t think in 45 years I’ve ever had an orgasm like this character has, though I keep at it. I quickly skip over those panels to avoid ruining my child’s future sex life. We talk about aliens. The next day, we go to the local used bookstore, and she picks out a book about Minecraft hacks. I notice the bookstore is for sale. I bet in a year there won’t be one book for sale in Breckinridge.

I don’t want to wait a week before I move onto the next part of Arsène Schrauwen. But I think I should. Afterall, I’m a writer, and while I would never ask my reader to do something like this because I have low self esteem and it is supremely annoying, I feel like I should honor the writer’s request. When I tell my friend Jon-Michael who recommended O. Schrauwen to me that I don’t want to wait, they text back, Lol I def didn’t. Regardless of what I might do, wait a week or not, O. Schrauwen has succeeded in making me uncomfortable, albeit in a totally different way, again.

Sex is so weird.

A few years ago, I noticed that if I have sex with someone four or five times, I fall in love with them. At some point during that fourth or fifth time, I will hold their head in both of my hands, and I will look into their face and that particular tenderness will breach my heart. And from that moment until it ends, I will find their laugh wonderful, and I won’t mind when they complain about their boss.

Until the fourth of fifth time with someone, sex isn’t that powerful though it certainly has other qualities.

There is a lot of O. Schrauwen in O. Schrauwen’s books. I don’t know much about him fact-wise — I know he is my age, Belgian, and my ex-lover R. told me his grandfather is Werner Herzog (he's not) — but boy is his entire psyche on display in his work. In The Man Who Grew His Beard each story is an indulgence — a drawn out (sorry), detailed, beautiful, affirming indulgence — of a private, wild daydream-like thought. You know those thoughts? The ones you won’t say out loud? The ones that barely register but frighten you to pieces? A couple of mine I am willing to admit to having are: My hair is growing in reverse — into my skull. And: the aesthetician is going to wax my clit off.

To recognize your vulnerabilities in someone else’s feels meaningful. It is a little like holding the Grand Canyon in both of your hands and gazing into it. A lot of you wants to jump in and a lot of you feels like you already jumped in. That feeling is longing. How it feels to be in two places at once. On the edge of it and deep inside of it. How it feels to be in two times at once. About to and already done. I wave up at and down to myself.

A week has passed: Thanks for waiting, O writes on the next page. I read another 60 pages or so of Arsène’s dreamy delusion, rhetorical existential questions, ugly, colonial paranoia and then come to another page: Please wait two weeks before reading further.

At this point in the story, Arsène is bored. He is fearful. And probably unrelatedly, I have never felt so old in my life.

I guess I’ll wait. I have already decided this essay you’re reading is pointless — so why not wait. And I have already decided searching for a point is a sure-as-shit way to immobilize yourself. I know I’m feeling what O wants me to feel. It feels like being dominated by a sub.

Back when I was 22 or so, my friend d.c. gave me The Story of O. And O, did I want d.c. to love me so badly! He never did, though it felt awfully close. When I went away to poetry school a few years later, he gave me several poetry books. In Song: I Want a Witness by Michael S. Harper he wrote: Sommer, This book, and the others, for you as you go west — for you all lust and love. As soon as my brain registered the T in lust I was on fire, shot through with fantasies so ferocious my legs buckled. d.c., d-d-does this say all lust and love? All luck and love, Sommer. All luck and love.

I don’t want to wait two weeks. I waited one week, O. Olivier. O. Schrauwen. I waited one week, and I am no good at waiting. I already told you that I feel so old.

I wait maybe four weeks. Not sure if this screwed up O’s plans. But over these four weeks, my father fell gravely ill, I pulled myself out of a life-threatening depression, and Jon-Michael and I met up in Greenpoint. Jon-Michael had heard in an interview with O. why he inserts these waiting directives in Arsène Schrauwen, but Jon-Michael refuses to tell me. Jon-Michael said something like, I don’t want to spoil your process. It wasn’t that snooty, but I can’t remember the exact words. I didn’t press them. Pressing them seemed to require too much of my agency for the sake of this situation.

When I told R., my ex, that defined romantic relationships usually threaten my agency and so I prefer to avoid them, he dismissed my concern, only because the word agency is in vogue it seemed. This is the problem with fucking writers — you can’t tell if you are fucking us or the zeitgeist.

Anyway. Selfhood is always in vogue.

Anyway. Romance is always in vogue.

Anyway. When love goes south it is all my fault, all the other person’s fault, and somehow all entirely random.

I finish Arsène. There are no more requests of the reader to wait. The story is told without dates or place names or historical facts, and in this way follows the illogic of a remembered true story. I get the feeling O. listened to his grandfather tell this story a few times. There are more surreal scenes of sexual pathos and lots more uncomfortableness. There’s a story about a monk who impregnates a leopard while it is mauling him to death, and the leopard gives birth to a litter of leopard men. Arsène impregnates his cousin’s (not sure of the relation) wife. A man drinks rainwater from the leaf of a jungle plant and soon after becomes covered in repulsive blisters. The horrific Belgian colonization of Africa is the main character of Arsène, not Arsène himself. Arsène in fact is one of these inept protagonists (see Eliot Gould’s Marlowe in Altman’s The Long Goodbye, The Dude in The Big Lebowski, The Rock in Zappa’s Help, I’m a Rock) who does virtually nothing beyond being in the right place at the right time, and yet the plot coalesces around them (see Sommer Browning in The Romantic Relationship).

Help I’m a rock, the song goes, Help I’m a rock. Somebody, please, please!

Lately, my daughter has been asking me to tell her real-life stories at bedtime. She means stories that really happened in my life, no more fairy tales. I have always tried to live my life in a way that creates good stories. Usually, these stories involve situations in which I nearly. I nearly fell from a window, I nearly overdosed on LSD, I nearly woke up in an unknown motel room in New Orleans, I nearly won the spelling bee, I nearly married a total stranger. Some of them, of course, go beyond nearly into the realm of actually. Actually getting arrested. Actually being run over by a car — twice. And these are good stories, too. But they aren’t stories, are they? They’re my life?