Fiction Collective Two is an author-run, not-for-profit publisher of artistically adventurous, non-traditional fiction.

The Blond Box



The Blond Box
by Toby Olson

Paperback
2003
Price: $14.95

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The Blond Box uses cultural notions about genre fiction, pornography, and performance art to explore the dynamics of voyeurism and erotic desire as they relate to art's strange and mysterious ability to effectively reverse the course of the gaze, and ogle and penetrate those who would ogle and penetrate it. The novel, set in the town of Courbet, Arizona, initially conforms to the conventions of the mystery novel: that is, it begins with murder. El Malabarista, pianist and juggler for a troupe of sexual performance artists, is found dead in the dusty wilderness, his fingers crushed. From there on, however, Box persistently frustrates reader expectations. The narrative itself juggles the "real" events of 1949 and 1969, and a draft version of a hack sci-fi novel that serves (much like the "novel-within-a-novel" in A.S. Byatt's Babel Tower), as a metafictional commentary on the efforts of retired sex-theater artist, Roberto Mendoza; hairstylist/pulp writer, Dick DeLay; doctoral student, Sandy Redcap; and a host of other characters to, not only solve the murder, but uncover its motivation, which seems to be linked to El Malabarista's knowledge of the whereabouts of a certain unspecified boxed treasure. By turns lyrical and scatological, puerile and cerebral, Box is at once a daring formal experiment and a good yarn, but, ultimately, a beautifully rendered meditation on the weird sexuality of art.


 

"The Blond Box, like all of Toby Olson's novels, proposes a world whose ordinary elements are gradually seen to be messengers of the uncanny and mysterious. By the subtlest of means, we are led to recognize the strangeness that informs both art and life. It is, in all respects, a wondrous book by a superb writer." —Gilbert Sorrentino


"Of all the writers of his postmod generation, Toby Olson is the most forgiving. Even when writing of the most mundane acts-performing in a backwoods porn show, for example, or inaugurating an outhouse-he grants all his characters the full wonder and mystery of their lives, and strokes language as a lover might the flesh of his beloved. The Blond Box, like the most memorable of his work, skirts borders-geographical, artistic, metaphysical-and explores the mysteries found there, especially the unfathomable mysteries of art. Toby Olson is one of America's most important novelists, and The Blond Box is perhaps his best book ever. A rich compelling read.." —Robert Coover


"The Blond Box shimmers in a rich sheen of mystery... At every turn Olson reminds his reader how information inevitably recovers ambiguity, how the tidiest sense of remembered history and constructed plot are more journeys into accident and chance, how everyday lives must play out against and amid the luminous, albeit clumsy, mystery of attraction and want. The language, as always with Olson, is broad, adamant, and stunning, this text a conjured place fit for extended habitation." —Review of Contemporary Fiction


 

Excerpt


DELAY 1969

It was late in the sixth month of the year 2069 when Peter Blue arrived at the ruins of the town of Courbet for the examination and eventual opening of the jeweled box.

Courbet, in its sleepy innocence, had fallen victim to those last desperate skirmishes before annexation, and Blue had slipped into the light [teflon?] cuirass for his protection before leaving the mountain port. There was word of sporadic guerrilla action still at the old border, beyond which Lower Arizona now extended down into the Sonoran desert, and the resident governmental force had been taking occasional light fire at the town's southern perimeter.

Blue sat in the shuttle's bubble, the only passenger this sunny afternoon, and once the silent vehicle had wended its way down into the foothills, passed the newly constructed outpost fashioned for the refugees, and left the healthy trees and other growth behind, he could see those gleaming particles forming the misty cloud cover ahead and through it, though obscurely, the hovering of [a kind of flying suction machine] as it went about its slow vacuuming work. Then he could see the town itself, the rubble of old adobe buildings looking from a distance like some Egyptian ruin, or like those antique photographs he had seen depicting cities on other continents ravaged by war. The rebels had been crushed quickly, but they'd come with old and dirty weapons, and it would be another year at least before the town was cleansed of all corrosive residue and could begin reconstruction.

The jeweled box had been discovered during the initial decontaminations. There had been towns under the town of Courbet, possibly ancient ones, and war had uncovered their arcane structures in various and unexpected place. The box had revealed itself below an old desert storage shed, the floor of which had collapsed as result of shelling vibration. Blue had seen photographs of the rubble before leaving Philadelphia. They showed [blah, blah], but not the box itself. He knew others would be there, more technically versed than he, and he was wondering why they had offered the contract to him, a private detective after all, unless [something].

The driver slowed considerably when they reached the town's northern border, for here the cloud cover's source began, a mist of illuminated detritus that rose up against gravity from the ruins of bombed out buildings they were soon passing among. The machine above blocked out the sun's full force now, and the light of a false evening settled over their slow progress [more of this]. Then the shuttle paused and sank from its low hover.

They were near the edge of a piece of curbing on what had been Courbet's main street, and once Peter Blue had tapped on the glass and motioned for the driver to wait, which was unnecessary since the craft had been sent for him alone, he lowered his [carbon?] filter just as the portal cleared, then stepped out into the dim, particle glutted light and a thick breeze that ruffled the sleeves of his [tyvek?] jacket. A transportable silver module had been inserted between two ruined buildings, a government receiving center sign in clear evidence below a window in its side, and Blue stepped across the erupted pavement and pressed through the gelatinous sheet and into the cleansing chamber. He felt the momentary blandishment, then saw the small green light beside the heavy inner door, which he stepped toward, then through, removing his filter and stuffing it into his pocket as he went.

He was standing in a large, rectangular room, empty of all but a bank of humming computers, a row of lateral files, and a long metal counter on which rested a thick manila envelope, his name in bold lettering on its surface. He had crossed the room and was reaching for it, when he heard the pleasant sound of shifting fabric, then saw the woman rise to her full and elegant stature beyond the counter's surface, just three feet away.

She was as tall as he was, shapely and very fit in her tight military uniform, and quite gorgeous. There was a small mole to the side of her lightly freckled nose, and her hair had been set in stylish, square curl ringlets, a short formal cut, some razor work above the ears, and filaments of red flame dressed her lovely brow. Her smile was immediate, slightly pouting lips and bright, even teeth, and it lingered for a long moment, her hard green eyes widening slightly, before she blinked and glanced down at the counter and the envelope, then back at Blue's face. He was smiling too by then, and he saw a slight flush of recognition rise to the surface in her sculpture cheeks.

"You're Peter Blue," she purred. "I've seen your picture." [Name, age, and origin. Expand upon the details. What's in the box: Infection? Religion? Planetary invasion? Display a little edginess, and then his rival. He's here for what purpose? End this with her words.]

"His name was Ernesto Galloway," Sandy Redcap said. "It's right here."

"What have you got there?" Dick said.

She lifted the book and turned it, then rested it on his pages so he could see the proof. It was some kind of directory, an old and tattered one, both singers and musicians.

"And this other name?" Dick said, his finger near the entry.

"Right. El Malabarista. The juggler. Maybe he did that too."

"Or maybe it was in the music, a quality of his act."

"I don't know that yet."

Sandy didn't wear a cap, nor was her hair red or cut in the shape of one, but twisted into long, black braids that hung behind her pixie ears. She saved the single one, a rope that rode down almost to her hips, for evening time, some ribbon woven in to make it obvious and often a bow at the tip. He'd had an itch to unwind that braid and get his scissors into it, in the way he had with Lisa's locks after he had slept with her. But Lisa was gone away now, into the promise of communal West Coast living, self-discovery and freedom, and Sandy was here and he'd not slept with her at all, nor did he desire that, a kind of incest after all. She might have been the daughter they never had, and the itch was only residual habit percolating up again, most probably because of those recent evenings as consultant at the beauty school on Arch, where he'd found young, yet tough and desperate women whose struggle was of a private kind, not against the war or its attendant political suppression, but grinding poverty.

He'd dressed a few heads there, had taught the geometric cut and how to check it wet for true shape. He'd spoken of running repairs, facial bone structure, and the proper use of a razor. But this was all history to them or useless knowledge. They needed to learn teasing and spraying, nothing much really, for those who wanted that would be their client base, and clients were money and they needed that. They didn't need Sassoon and the ones who had followed in that line, as Dick had, and he could see that in their fading attention, even as they tried hard to stay enthusiastic.

Finally, he had stepped back, had given in to their bouffant monstrosities, and had begun advising them on technical matters only. This was okay. At least it kept him involved. But he missed the crimping, his scissors and the feel of his fingers in hair. Now it was only those few heads he had poached, being out front and direct about it, when he'd quit the salon.

"But you have the name now. Galloway," Dick said.

"That's right. And I'll get right on to it. I have the rest of the day, only a late lecture this evening."

"I have some other things," he said, handing the list across the table to her. "There's no rush. It's scientific material, physics, something I can work beyond."

Sandy read the list, then tucked it into the tattered briefcase resting on the floor. Then she rose up in her peasant blouse and Levi jacket and reached her hand across to him. It was something they always did now, become a formalized and austere comedy after the first few times. He shook it, smiling up at her, and she turned and headed for the door. He was left alone then and could contemplate events in Courbet, both those of twenty years ago and ones in the distant future of The Jeweled Box, A Peter Blue Odyssey, by Dick DeLay.

Sandy Redcap wasn't the first student he'd interviewed, but she'd looked the part of Sakkara, a name he had taken from a list of Egyptian perfumes, and had come at exactly the right time. He'd had a book signing for Abydos at a sci-fi store in lower Manhattan and they wanted a jazzy event. Sakkara was tall and dark and had a braid also, always the hair for him, and Sandy had agreed to the luminescent wash, the black lip gloss and lenses, and the tight costume, not pornographic or kinky --that came later in the book, when the braid was opened, the hair then twisted into a tightly knotted chignon and garnished-- but erotic in the way of those gothic romance novels from which he had appropriated a manner.

She had stood at the table beside him, unsmiling and enigmatic in her black sheath, just right, and opened each book to the title page, handing them down for his note and signature. The line had been a respectably long one, hip students of the underground and many of that new breed of sexually liberated women, some with things on their minds who caught his eyes and held them, and a number of men, not his loyal audience, but interested if only for reasons that were darker even than the books themselves.

Sandy had been a wonder, drawing their looks, then burning them into a kind of submission with her hot red eyes, and he knew right then she'd be the one for him, fifteen hours a week as a research assistant. She was studying and teaching at the university across the river, preparing for the writing of a dissertation on fiction at the fringes of popular culture, fantasy works that appealed to women and why they did.

"They don't appeal to me," she'd said, and they'd laughed about that and he'd hired her, terms renewable after the first year. They were beginning research for "The Jeweled Box" when he quit the salon, taking those few good customers along. He had a room up front on the ground floor, appointment only, just ten or so each week. It had been Lisa's art studio, and he'd tried to sweep her up with the fallen locks, to wash away the scent of paint with Redken chemicals, and had been successful in doing that, but for the wandering of his thoughts from time to time and the discovery that he'd been writing her figure into his books. Then Jane Compton had come along and the women's hair had turned red and fiery.

He'd met her at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, at a members only preview of a Gustave Courbet retrospective, but not among the crowd with their wine and canapes, men and women who had not yet come to expect the political in art though it was all around them now in daily life, chatting and evaluating in borrowed languages, some moving away quickly when they realized they were standing beside The Origin of the World, a work that in its photographic realism seemed almost pornographic: the torso of a woman with legs wide spread. "Eighteen-sixty-six?" he heard someone say. "Can that be possible?" It was. Courbet marks the apotheosis of Realism, a logical exaggeration of what had become possible once the political was introduced, one of the plaques read. Richard DeLay knew little of the visual arts, no more than Lisa had introduced him to with her garish abstractions and equally abstract titles --Spirit Song, he remembered, and Lightning Rod Woman--, and though he liked what he was seeing and had read the words printed on the walls and placards carefully, he found himself wandering off, down into the darker and almost empty halls of the museum, until, at the end of a distant wing, he came upon the Arensberg collection, early Cubism and Surrealism and the beautiful austerity of Brancusi, then entered the ample room that held the works of Marcel Duchamp, where he was completely alone and it was quiet.

Some of the objects were familiar, as they were behind the eyes of most everyone, a bicycle wheel, the Nude Descending a Staircase, the urinal, and what was called The Large Glass, that visually enigmatic structure that he had seen depicted on T-shirts and once reproduced on a shower curtain, but he didn't look closely at any of them.

There was a doorway off to the side of the gallery, vague evidence of a dimly lit room beyond, and Dick saw fresh paint at the frame, a slight modulation in the flat white coloring, and knew this was the place of Duchamp's last work, abbreviated into Given in the mostly derisive newspaper reports of its installation, something that had taken place without fanfare just a few weeks before.

Beyond the doorway, the small room was empty. There was a plaque on the wall to the right, some information, the complete title of the work and its translation into English, and to the left, a few paces away, was only a large wooden door, like a barn door or a door set in a brick wall, the sealed off entrance to some abandoned garden or the ruins of an ancient town. And that was all there was, but as his eyes became accustomed to the dim light, he saw, among the metal bolts and striations on the door's surface, some odd configurations, and when he stepped closer, he saw that they were holes, roughly at eye level, and remembered something from one of the review articles he had only glanced at. Wouldn't they be peep holes, something on the other side? He moved up to the surface of the door then, squatted down a little, and looked through, seeing that strange tableau, a diorama presenting a life size nude woman at its center, blond hair covering her face as she reclined on a bed of sticks. She held up a lantern, beyond which was a lake or pond and a wooded hill in the far distance, mist on the water and in the trees, cottony clouds in the sky, and a small glimmering waterfall. But this was not the focal center, for the woman lay back with her legs spread languidly, in death or sleeping, and her shaved pudenda was where the central distance ended, her cunt like a camera held between her thighs. And looking into it, as was demanded by perspec-tive, and thinking of it that way, he felt himself the discovered voyeur, caught out and registered, permanently, on film. He felt a blush rise in his cheeks, yet couldn't pull back from his gazing, held there by a vague fear of complete disorientation should he do so. Then he heard the whispered words behind him and felt embarrassment from that perspective, that he had been secreted in a closet, watching the illicit. Then the wall of the closet had opened to the view of all concerned, and they had seen his squatting figure there, furtively masturbatory and completely compromised.

"What do you think?" she said. "Are the critics right?"

He pushed back from the wall then, and turned, and even in that dimness he could see her red hair, a flickering of flame like that in the torch the woman held up beyond the wooden door.

"I don't know," he answered. "I can't think."

"I think I know what you mean," she said.

Peter Blue had a way of getting into impossible situations, then extricating himself with considerable skill and cunning, and it was these dramas, together with the women and their hair, demeanor, and clothing, and not DeLay's soft science fiction settings, that accounted for the mild, though substantial, success of his novels.

There were four of them now, each subtitled "A Peter Blue Odyssey," and Dick, with the help of Sandy Redcap, was well into the research and writing of the fifth, "The Jeweled Box," in which there would be stern and erotic women as there had been in each of the others, women for Peter Blue to dominate, thus overcoming their complicity in plots against him, women with various stylish and severe hair cuts and dos that Dick DeLay modeled after photographs in copies of Vogue and Elle and other fashion magazines as well as the cuts and permanents he gave to customers in the salon, before he had quit that work, and those encountered afterward, once he'd entered into his freelance business.

There was no hard-core sex in the books, but a more specialized pornography, one that had to do with titillating cruelty and its erotic power. The women fought to control Peter Blue, only to give in to him eventually, offering up their bodies in angry submission, and Peter Blue was always redeemed, since sexuality was only a necessary test, a barrier to be broken through on the way to extrication and solution.

Richard DeLay had no idea at all just where these books had come from, or why he had started writing them, but he thought Lisa had, and was sure, looking back on it, that the process leading to her leaving had started as he began entrance into the first one, The Passage, five years ago. At first he'd asked her to read what he was writing, but she'd only looked at him as if she didn't know him, and he'd quickly given up on that. Then she was packing, wearing beads and a headband, and he was shocked to recognize that she too had become another.

"Just like that?" Jane Compton said. "And no letters?"

"Nothing," Richard answered, surprised and yet comfortable in the awareness that he'd been speaking of his private past and that emasculation so readily to someone he'd just met.

They sat in the members' dining room until closing time. They were close to the same age, she forty-four, and both had experienced the shock of a failed marriage.

"Well, it really didn't fail," she said. "It was successful for a long time, or at least seemed so."

She'd married her archeology professor at the university where she had been a graduate student and had earned her degree, then had taught for many years on the West Coast. After her marriage ended, she'd applied for jobs in the East and had gotten her current position at a small college beyond the city's limits. She'd been there for five years.

Then they were talking about his current book, and in the course of that conversation he mentioned Sandy Redcap and her research help.

"What I do," he said, "is pick a place on the map. Then I gather information. When I know it, as a mysterious place because I haven't actually been there, I often change the name. Sandy's helping with the research part of it, as well as some other things."

"And what's the current place?"

"It's Courbet, a town in Arizona near the border. That's why I came to see this show. The same name after all."

She was clearly shocked to hear it. A flush rose at her temples and seemed to fire her already hot red hair. But she was not so shocked that she couldn't laugh at the coincidence, and it had been a long time ago for her and as if in another life entirely, a childish one, except for that still vivid thing.

"I shouldn't tell too much," she said. "I could mess up your book."

"No," he said, that's okay. Go ahead."

She told him then about the summer dig, so long ago, the young student who had been after her, and her time listening to the lectures of the professor she'd eventually married. It had been a fake dig or at least an exhausted one, a place for students to learn the basic, hands-on stuff, the digging up of shards, fire pits, and middens. The place had been salted, she now knew. It had never been an important site, but what applied there would apply most anywhere, and the university had used it for many years.

"We counted shards, examined them, and numbered things. That was about it."

"Were you sweet when you were young?"

He didn't know why he'd asked that, just that there was something sour in her now, a quality in the spelling out of her recollections that was completely devoid of nostalgia and that he found attractive. Her hair was hot, but her memories seemed stone cold as far as he could tell.

She ignored the question, or at least her answer was not clearly focused upon it, though the look she gave him, strangely seductive and a little cruel he thought, might have been.

"It's not that," she said, "why I think of the place so often. It was the murders, especially one of them and the mystery of it. That stays."

They were carrying cups of coffee and had made their way beyond a hill of shale eruptions, surprised then to see the narrow highway, and when they looked back the encampment was gone from view and they felt themselves as coming from a long trek through desert to the edge of civilization. The highway was dusted with sand, and she glanced north to where it disappeared in the distance, catching Walter's look at her side where he continued to watch her. She was young and felt some power in his desire for her and knew she was leading him on to expectation. She would thwart it. Their being alone there, drinking their coffee, would amount to nothing.

A culvert ran along the highway's edge. Boulders had slid from the sand into it, and there were places to sit, but she rejected the obvious and heard him slip and stumble behind her as she made her way through ruts and stones, her plastic cup held out at her shoulder, until she decided on their perch, then saw the figure beyond it, at a place where there was sand only and it had drifted in the night and breeze, edging to the sides of his trouser legs and covering his elbows where they rested on the ground at his hips. He was dressed in a dark, shiny suit and wore a gay silk scarf that had been untied and now fell at his shoulders, its tips touching the drifted sand. His hands were folded across his stomach in what was clearly an intentional parody of peacefulness, and she didn't recognize him at first.

"Then, too, his cape was gone, and I didn't see the cane."

They had slit his throat and had tipped his chin up a little so that would be obvious, and though she found it hard to look away from that sight, to his face and the smeared makeup and powder that he, or someone, had applied to his forehead and cheeks, she did so, then saw the remnant of that expression. "Last chance," he'd said, weaving at the bar.

But it was his fingers, the way they had laced them together as if preparing him for a viewing, then as if the mortician had forgotten the final corrections, and the damage that had led to his death, that monstrous history, was there to be seen and evaluated, maybe as some warning to others to be more careful than he had been.

The fingers poked out from the basket his hands made, twisted and crossing each other, pointing in a myriad of directions. Some actually seemed to be pointing. It was here, or it was there, and one stood up as if he had raised it in a gesture of request, just one moment please, pathetic and completely futile, because he could no longer speak and no one was watching his expression. The cane had been driven deep into the sand near his hip and only the curved handle was visible, in easy reach, that too a tortured parody.

Walter threw up in the sand, but she was too intent for such a thing, "though I was sweet and innocent at that time."

There was something so articulate about it all, something cold and mechanical, as if he'd come to a biblical justice, the scales balanced again, as if this were the formal ending to a story, one in which all things are made clear. The mystery was only in that she didn't know the tale that preceded this appalling lesson. There was none in that tableau of delayed burial, the visual memory of which had never left her.