"Scribble Mind" by Jeffrey Ford: An Appreciation by Jeremy Tolbert
One aspect of "Scribble Mind" uses artists as a lens for the examination of obsession. The narrator's friend and eventual romantic interest, Esme, has become obsessed with a child's scribble she has seen many times since in unexpected places, even in the art of a popular avant garde artist. The story is set in the mid-80s, and Esme is doing pioneering work in computer generated artwork, but her real motivation is using computers to attempt to understand this seemingly child-like scribble pattern. And she has made a startling discovery about its mathematics.
It isn't long before Esme's obsession with the scribble and its possibilities infect the narrator. To discuss the story much further, I'm going to need to spoil one crucial element:
Esme's theory is that the scribble is a kind of secret handshake among a cabal of individuals who can remember life inside their mother's womb. They decide that they will use the pattern to draw out one of those who can "remember" by Esme pretending to be able to remember herself, in order to confirm Esme's theory and to learn what other secrets the scribble contains. Unfortunately, there are others trying to find the rememberers too--but for nefarious, even commercial reasons.
Woven into this tale are the growing feelings that the narrator has for Esme. Anyone who has ever had a friendship that they wished would evolve into something more will sympathize with the narrator here. The story captures that mixture of confusion and desire excellently, and it brings him to life for me. This is important, because the story is told in a kind of wistful, nostalgic tone, by a character wiser in years looking back on a particularly exciting part of his life. Nothing so exciting has happened to him since.
If this was all there was to "Scribble Mind," it would be a good story. It is the ending of the story which elevates this story from good to excellent. It's untidy, and ties together the nostalgic tone with the overarching theme of obsession. So often, obsession can turn inward on itself and become delusion. I left the story with an ache no doubt shared by the narrator.
The themes are broad and easily accessible, and the idea of a secret society living out in the open is a powerful one that many writers have utilized. Also powerful: the central MacGuffin of being able to remember what it was like inside the womb, and the idea that the scribble could some how evoke that feeling. Not only is this a society that hides itself, it is a society that hides a secret of the human experience that we are all born knowing, but for some reason, most of us forget. One might hypothesize that mankind's deep yearning for cosmic knowledge stems from this lost secret of life within our mothers, in that tiny space of time when we are alive. Birth is that other great shared experience. Much has been written on our obsessions with death, but I have read very little about that time before. Here, Ford is mining priceless material.
Perhaps the masterstroke is that Ford's story evokes a pervading sense of loss. It allows us to sympathize that much more deeply with Esme's obsession to remember herself. Perhaps, most of all, the story lets us feel what it is like to learn that we have forgotten something without even knowing it. The final twist of Ford's emotional knife is that we'll probably never remember.
We can only fool ourselves.
Link to story.