A Broken Literacy Narrative:
Involving Crime, Lust, World Travel, Fear, and a Fictional Axe
It began with Raskalnikov entering my life. No, that can’t be. Because if I told you that I chose Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment (1956) on a whim you would believe there is an exceptional person writing this narrative, but I didn’t, and I’m not…
So let me go back to a watershed moment in my life that changed my conception of reading and writing forever. Lest this moment be qualified by a courteous acknowledgement of the struggles of other cultures—thus deafening my moment’s personal merit—I’ll go ahead with the banal truth: my ‘watershed moment’ took place after completing my undergraduate work at a local state college in 2002. A very important point of independence for a young, American, white, male, Lutheran, of rural working-class origins, who is attempting a sustained penetration into the middle-class in all its glory.
But the devil is in the details, as is said, so instead of continually approaching the scene from an impressionistic perspective—fuzzy and abstract even at close range—this moment would be better illustrated with poignant details: My car had crank windows, no air conditioning, and due to a theft, no radio. The evening rush-hour commute from work to my home was some forty-five minutes; longer if there was traffic, and there most certainly was loads of traffic. So I spent my early evening hours avoiding traffic in relaxation: reading and examining the shelves of Borders bookstore.
As it so happens, there was no less coincidence in my choice of Borders than the vast influence this retail bibliotheca had upon my life: for this Borders would later be the scene of my break from standard cubical employment, and it also served as the place where I met the mother of my child. But for now it served as respite from the world at large; a place to collect a pile of books, a journal, a coffee, and a space of my own. I read Kesey, Kerouac, Burroughs, Chomsky, Salinger, Kafka, Hemingway, Dostoevsky, Sartre, Marx, and perused much more.
I often joked that my idea for traveling to different countries was spurred on by the particular letter with which the country began: “I chose ‘I’ at random, thus resulting in Italy, maybe India was next!” I asserted one night over dinner. Hindsight provides the distance to expose that this joke was taken seriously by my mother, or her shock may have had more to do with my wayward respect towards life and superficial carefree attitude. Nonetheless, disregarding all concern for a ‘career,’ I quit my office job, bought a plane ticket, and on November 6, 2003 flew alone to Rome, Italy.
Amidst clothing and toiletries, I packed Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1781)[Abridged], my Oxford English Dictionary, a small collection of poems by Walt Whitman, a borrowed copy of Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael (1992), and Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. There was a plan; well, a formula for a plan, as I later learned my plan was backward: I would get a job at Yellow Hostel in Rome (who I had been having communications with before my departure), see the sights, and then travel a bit before wandering home. The average traveler would exhaust all his or her moneys and then find a job; my approach was more apropos the “prodigal son” tale, but with a hint of underlying fear to temper my mettle. The worst part is: this was my second time living the prodigal tale. My first trip was to Rouen, France in March 2003 to visit my then girlfriend and spend four weeks traveling, only to return home broke and jobless.
It wouldn’t be fair to leave my writing unexamined at this point, since my travels were as equally driven by my journal, as my journal by my travels. I can’t remember my first journal, nor can I remember what purpose I set forth in writing my thoughts down on paper, but I found a voice I did not know existed which took almost 23 years of life to find its specific articulation. It seems as though I should not proceed without a list of activities found in my journal that advanced my self-imposed educational standards—I’m confident the list will be revealing—so I’ll proceed despite my better judgment towards a “narrative structure”.
Found in my journal between undergraduate work, and my developed study of English as Literature at a local community college and then the University where I attained my MA in English Literature: the recording of dreams, alliteration exercises, quotes collected along the way, beginning and end dates of books I read and why I read them, a list of the countries I’ve been to and dates, bad short stories, letters to person’s far away, poor grammar, poems asserting personal definition, novice critique of political texts, musings on ideology and Existentialism, song lyrics, and the occasional sketch. For the first page of each journal I began discussing the challenge of writing that ominous first page of a journal: the empty page of possibilities, the impetus to create a witty remark that will be instantly recognized later in life when the time for journal entries is gone.
I had made the mistake of reading the first part of Crime and Punishment and then going directly to bed. Dostoevsky’s prose weighed heavy upon my head. When I quit the evening to my four-bedded room at a hostel in Krakow, Poland, there was another traveler. He had arrived late and his friends were sleeping in another room. He took the lower bunk adjacent to me, and I the upper. We said “goodnight” after exchanging formal “hello’s” and polite inquiries to each others comings and goings.
(Dear Reader, are you familiar with Crime and Punishment? Rather than assume you are I’ll briefly summarize so as to lend a hand to my ensuing narrative: the first part out of six of Dostoevsky’s mystery, told from the point of the criminal, involves the crime: murder; only it’s not that simple. Rodion Romanovich Raskalnikov is a student who has as of late been reading about Nihilism. In order for Raskalnikov to take control of his life he convinces himself that he should murder a person of little concern with an axe, a pawnbroker for example. The philosophical concept inspiring Raskalnikov is the Nietzsche-ian Superman: the idea that foregoing good and evil, man can do anything with a clear conscience. Even murder.)
I awoke in the middle of the night to screams of frustration below me. My roommate was cursing me for snoring! I thought little of it and, helplessly, returned to sleep. Suddenly he continued his yelling, “Hey you! You are too loud!” What could I do? I was over-tired from traveling, and unable to control my snoring. I drifted back to sleep. As soon as slept consumed me I awoke again to the sounds of my roommate’s metal bed frame rattling violently against the opposite brick wall. He tossed and turned muttering loud complaints and venting his frustration upon himself as he shook with impotent rage. I tried turning on my other side, facing away from the wall in order to maybe ease my companion’s sleep. And once again I hesitantly drifted off to sleep.
I frantically awoke. My bed was now shaking! The metal frame of my bed pounded against the wall causing me to wake with adrenaline and fear only to find my companion shaking my bed to gain my attention. Anxiously my mind assessed the situation, “How can I stop snoring? Should I turn to my other side?” Then in an instant the image of an axe popped into my imagination. The pawn-broker, murdered. If a man as Raskalnikov is capable of cold-blooded murder, then what would this ordinary traveler do to me? I trembled with fear and loneliness. I didn’t know whether I could stop snoring, or whether he would stop shaking my bed. I lay with my eyes open and the covers pulled up to my eyes, fearing the least inclination of sleep.
At last he fell asleep before me. I woke the next morning to find the room empty, and my former roommate complaining about my cacophonous snoring to the hostel’s receptionist. I waited for my light-sleeping cohort to leave, eaves-dropping on his rant. I later spoke with the receptionist and offered to exchange my room with another. He would return later that day to a peaceful room of his own, as would I.
That day (February 9, 2004), I wrote in my journal: “Dostoevsky has left me insane. His writing is so engaging, so frightening. I didn’t want to put Crime and Punishment down, but I was frightened to turn the page. I could see everything in my mind. Every action, every squeaking door, every drop of blood, every home, every street. It was amazing.”