A Passage from Luminous Airplanes, or Things As They Were: A Hyperromance

One good thing that happened in the fall of 2001 was that I became friends again with my college friend David Rice. We’d hardly spoken since he threw me out of his Brooklyn brownstone the winter before (I told that story elsewhere), but when he heard that Celeste was dead he wouldn’t let me be alone. David called every day to invite me to lunch, to drinks, to a dinner party—nothing big, he said, just a few really kind people. I was already beginning to suffer from agoraphobia again and it was hard for me to leave the apartment, so I refused these invitations, but we still had long phone conversations, which consisted almost completely of David explaining to me how things were going to go: first we’d invade Afghanistan, from Uzbekistan, in the north, he predicted, correctly, then we’d go on to Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Libya, cutting a swath of destruction through those rogue states which would make the jagged rubble at Ground Zero look like a kid’s sandbox. He’d read in Jane’s Defense Weekly about our bunker busters, our daisy cutters, our carbon-fiber bombs, and he described with relish the harm we could expect to do to the people who had hurt us. His ghoulish patter was irritating and comforting at the same time. If nothing else he made it seem like the destruction of the Twin Towers was a comprehensible event which would have repercussions measured in tons of ordinance and divisions deployed: he brought the attacks back into the safe world of numbers.

Finally one night in the middle of October I went out with David to hear a woman sing in Williamsburg. It was two weeks after Celeste’s memorial service, and my mother seemed like she was capable of getting through an evening without me—she had, in fact, taken to spending her evenings at the gym, running for hours on the elliptical trainer while listening to Cat Stevens, a combination which at any other time would have convinced me that she’d gone mad, but which, under the circumstances, made me think (incorrectly, as it turned out) that she was beginning to heal. I was tired of bouncing back and forth between her apartment and my room on West 54th, tired of drinking myself to sleep and waking up at 3 a.m. with the taste of fire and feces in the back of my throat, and a mind falling freely through the blue sky of panic. I thought it might be a good idea to be around people who weren’t as deep in grief as Marie and I were, and besides, David had talked this singer up: she played the best music David had heard in his life, he said. She was French-Canadian, and innocent like a visitor from another world. So I took two Xanax and got on the train, which, after an unscheduled delay which bit deeply into my medicated calm, let me off on Bedford Street, in the heart of a neighborhood I didn’t know very well but which more or less everyone else who lived in New York City had already discovered.

I met David at a nightclub only a block from the East River, a grim space called FINNS, which, I would learn later, had been an Irish bar called Finn’s until the hipsters moved in. They upgraded the jukebox, hung a sheet of polished steel behind the bar, and taped over the apostrophe in the bar’s neon sign, and poof! by means of their low-budget magic a nightclub was born. By the time I got there David had found us a table in the back of the club, which was amazingly full—it hadn’t occurred to me that people still went to clubs after 9/11, and seeing them all there made me feel askew, as if I knew something they didn’t. But then David Rice knew a lot of things I didn’t, he made me aware of them in bulk every time we talked, and he was here so perhaps something was all right. Maybe we were partaking of the resilient American spirit which, along with our daisy cutters, would guarantee our eventual victory over whoever it was we were supposed to be about to start fighting. I got us a couple of whiskies and we sat in silence for a while. I had the feeling that David wanted to talk, but this was the first time he’d seen me since what he called my loss, and he seemed to think that silence was called for. Then finally he couldn’t take it any more, and he was just beginning to say, “You know, I read in Foreign Policy…,” when the lights at the front of the club came up and the singer appeared.

Her body was odd, skinny, stooped. She had short dark hair cut in bangs which brushed the top of her beak of a nose, making her look like an angular, diffident Muppet. She sat on a stool and said in an almost inaudible voice, “Hello.” Then she lifted her guitar into her lap and began to play. David was right: she was the best singer I’d ever heard, the best musician I’d ever heard, Pearl Fabula not excepted. In fact she was sort of the antithesis of Pearl: his music was big and fast, a kaleidoscope of samples which wheeled around the spiky center of Pearl’s little person; listening to Pearl was—in retrospect, anyway—like watching someone throw darts at a spinning globe. Whereas Suzanne’s music (her name was, is, Suzanne Paget) was a thread of sad sound that seemed to be coming from the bottom of a well. The words to her songs made so little sense that I wondered if I was hearing them right: was she really singing about birds in her shower? What did out of which the silent dactylology mean? Trying to follow her lyrics in any ordinary way was like listening to an aphasic, but it very quickly didn’t matter: beneath the debris of her English syntax there was, I felt, another pattern, a configuration of sound and image which only rose up as far as the ankles of the human world, but reached deep down into the animal, the vegetable, the mineral, the vibration of empty space. Suzanne was aware of something to which human beings were only tangent, and which it was thus utterly beyond the power of human beings to alter, or to destroy. By the time she finished her second song my face was wet with tears and I wasn’t the only one, all around me people were hugging themselves, rocking in their chairs, dabbing at their eyes with crumpled cocktail napkins.

“Good god,” I said, “where is she from?”

“Montreal.” Even David was having trouble talking.

We sat through Suzanne’s set like it was spring: like the set was spring, I mean, like a season was happening in Finns. The last song she played was Jacques Brel’s “Vesoul,” which I knew from the longago time when Celeste had undertaken, unsuccessfully, to move our family to Paris. Brel sings it so fast you’d have to be a record player to follow him, but Suzanne slowed it down, so that the song, which is about a man following his lover against his will from city to city, felt like a carrousel ride that was coming to a stop, or, visually isomorphic to that, but semantically different, like a phenakistoscope, one of those early-cinema devices which consist of a lot of pictures on a spinning drum, which give up the appearance of motion as they slow down, and become distinct pictures. I felt like I was feeling life in its grains, its emotional indivisibles. Fear; grief; love; joy; silence. Then Suzanne whispered “Thank you” and left the stage and it was probably twenty seconds before the shocked audience thought to clap.

I wasn’t the only one who loved Suzanne’s singing, obviously. Even that first night, the club was full, and as word of her talent spread through the densely interconnected networks of Williamsburg and the Lower East Side, more and more people came to hear her. She played at Finns every Wednesday, which made the growth of her popularity easy to chart. I heard her for the first time in the middle of October; by Halloween her shows were already so full that you had to come two hours early to get a seat. She was written up in Time Out, in the Village Voice, in New York magazine, which asked, archly, “Is the Voice of Post-9/11 New York… Canadian?” But by that point Suzanne had stopped playing at Finn’s. She had a show at Northsix, and then, on Christmas Day, 2001, a show at the Knitting Factory, in Manhattan, which was supposed to project her on to still greater fame. But the Williamsburg audience didn’t come, and the Manhattan audience hadn’t caught on yet, and the result was that the Knitting Factory show came off like a publicity stunt. It reduced Suzanne to a mere meme, one of countless sensations which bubbled up through the city before they burst on the surface and blew away. She returned to Williamsburg but the fiasco had cost her something in terms of local support. Suzanne opened for Shannon Wright at Southpaw; she accompanied some poets at Arlene’s Grocery, and then, in the spring of 2002, she went back to Canada, leaving behind at least one heartbroken fan who played Suzanne’s first and only CD until its glossy medium had degenerated to the point of total uselessness.

Long before that I met Suzanne herself. This too was David Rice’s doing. He charmed Suzanne to our table one night at Finns, this was something David was good at, he was forever getting beautiful and notable people to pay attention to him. It might have been his banker’s swagger, the self-possession of someone who, at thirty, already owned a million-dollar house and knew too much about the criminal complexities of finance to take money seriously. Or it might have been the fact that he looked like a beefy catalog model, who alcohol had roughened and reddened just enough that he didn’t seem clean-cut. Anyway: I was sitting there, twisting my fingers, and then suddenly David appeared with Suzanne.

“Hi,” she said. Her voice was oddly larger now that she wasn’t performing.

“Hi,” I said, paralyzed with admiration.

“I was just asking Suzanne how she writes her songs,” David said.

“I use a dictionary,” Suzanne said. “I also throw the I Ching a lot.”

“Oh,” I said. “And you’re from Montreal?”

It wasn’t the question I wanted to ask, but it was the story we got. Yes, from Montreal; her father was French Canadian and her mother Jewish Greek. She was Montreal in microcosm, she said. She had come to New York in July, looking for a larger world, and she got it. “Too much larger,” she said. She had a little accent although she claimed that English was her first language. “And so sad!”

David and I looked at each other, said nothing.

Suzanne told us that she had not planned at all to be a singer in New York, she came to work in an office that imported copies of large marble sculptures from Greece and sold them to people in California. She had sung a little in Montreal, and she had a notebook of what she had been thinking of as poems although she’d already set them to music. It was her boyfriend who booked her at Finns—he knew the event manager and they needed someone to fill a dead Wednesday. “But then, so many people!” She shook her head so that her hair covered her eyes again. “Is this always what it’s like in New York? You play a song, and…?”

“No,” David and I said together.

Suzanne laughed. “Then I’m lucky! In Montreal,” she said in a lower voice, “people thought I was… strange. Because I don’t sing, you know, about love.”

“But you do!” I blurted out.

“Oh?” Suzanne said.

“Just not about love between people, necessarily,” I said.


“But certainly about love. About Eros, the love that holds, you know, plants and birds and things together. About the love in the ground.”

David made a face but Suzanne was looking at me, her eyebrows raised. She did actually have a strange face, like a bird’s. Her eyes were close-set, which was a characteristic of predatory birds, I thought, it gave them better stereoscopic vision. Could that be right?

“Thank you,” Suzanne said. “That’s a lovely thing to say.”

“You’re welcome.”

We sat for a moment without talking, then Suzanne excused herself.

“Nice work,” David Rice said.

“What do you mean?”

David looked as if he was about to say something cruel, but stopped himself. “You were flirting,” he said.

“She has a boyfriend,” I said.


“Anyway, it’s not her,” I said. “It’s the music.”

David snorted.

“True,” I said. “The music makes her beautiful.”

“Whatever,” David said. “You want another drink?”

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