: : : JAKOB'S SINUSES FEEL AS THOUGH they have been packed full of heavy wet cereal, and yet the tissues of his nose are paper-dry, desiccated from two days of constant blowing and a season spent in heated buildings. He is in the university library; the decor is cement and salmon tile. He groggily enters terms into a computer, then clicks Submit, to send off his search request: the screen goes blank and hangs there. He tilts his head slightly. He's been tilting his head slightly all day. Each of his ears seems set to a different level of pressurization, leaving him feeling like his head isn't on quite straight. Finally the results come up. He jots down a few book titles and their call numbers onto an index card, and heads off into the stacks, looking first for HT361.W55 1991, his eyes heavy-lidded, his mouth hanging open, as though he has just taken a punch to the face.
The call number would locate the book on the lowest shelf. He crouches down to get it, folds up his body despite the aches that riddle it. The book isn't there. He double-checks and it still isn't there. Fuck, he mutters. He hauls himself back up and his knee pops, loud as a gunshot. This bodily treachery incenses him, makes him feel like he may vomit with rage.
He wanders towards the back of the library. He is not looking for the other books he's written down; he is just moving for the sake of moving, because, you know, animals are essentially motile, so why the fuck not?
Then he passes a study carrel and he wearies of moving and he sits.
There are a thousand messages carved into the wood, including a giant swastika.
Jakob makes a fist and presses it into his forehead and leans his head back on his neck, and, in this position, he embarks upon a session of self-reflection.
In May he will turn in his qualifying paper and, if all goes well, he will receive a Master's degree in American Studies. And then he will need to figure out something to do. He is not certain what that will be. He could go on teaching, probably, although he's going to be relegated to a pretty low rung. The Master's degree isn't really going to impress anyone. There is no Ph.D. program in American Studies, not that he knows of, and he doesn't feel like he has a distinct enough interest in Literature or Sociology or Urban Planning to go on and get his Ph.D. in any of those fields.
He had plans last summer to write some articleswith a few articles published in respectable journals, he might seem more promising. But his interest in writing the articles fizzled as soon as he had the abstracts cobbled together. The closest he came was the short presentation he gave at Michigan State. What Jakob is mainly interested in is the mystery of things he does not know, and this makes him a bad academic. Once he understands the general topography of an area of knowledge, his interest in it begins to wane. He does not have the discipline to stake out an area for five years, ten, twenty, bringing each nuance of its landscape into light. He hardly has the discipline to do it for a week. One week he is interested in alternate systems of mapping, the next he is interested in loop theory.
Thinking of mapping reminds him that he hasn't been in touch with Thomas in months. The two of them had agreed, way back before the holidays, to get together and work on this project, this soundmap thing. Then Jakob got caught up in the madness of shopping, and going back to Ohio for two weeks, and the plan got moved to a back burner, where it's been ever since. Jakob can't fathom why he would let something like that drop. It had seemed promising; he was hoping that it would give him ideas for his novel.
Oh, God. The novel. The poor novel. He keeps telling himself to begin writing it: he's got an entire shoebox full of scribbled-down notes and ideas held in stasis. There just never seems to be a good time to sit down and begin the thing. He tries to envision himself doing it. He sees himself there, in front of the computer, writing. He multiplies this image a hundred times, trying to imagine all the hours it would take to produce an entire book. The picture just seems ludicrous; the self in it seems a pathetic fantasy, so different from the one he actually inhabits.
He has considered going into an MFA program, buying himself the time and space needed to write, but he doesn't want to just go through life accumulating Master's degrees. At some point he is going to need to find a job.
He is thirty years old now. Before he came to Chicago for grad school he was working in Ohio as an assistant to the director of a fundraising organization. He wore a tie and was liked by the other people in the office, enough anyway. He spent his days scanning files and keeping someone else's tasks straight, and he looked forward mostly to the cappuccino that he would pick up at the end of his lunchbreak.
He does not want to go back to that world.
But he does not yet seem poised to succeed in any other.
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