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Dude, what if birdwatching was not about watching lots of different birds, but watching just one. Pick a bird –not a species, but a sole, actual bird –and follow it anywhere,
watch it forever.
Document The Collector byJonathan Lethem
Brooklyn-based author Jonathan Lethem mixes the noir feel of hard-boiled detective fiction with a Philip K Dick-style, sci-fi edge. In the following short story, he traces a man’s increasing obsession with collecting, from pennies through to drugs, music, and taxidermy. It forms part of Lethem’s Promiscuous Materials project, an invitation to film-makers and dramatists to adapt his stories and send him the results.
The collector started with pennies. Or seashells, he could no longer recall. The two were opposites married in his obsessive vision. The seashells, indifferent and precultural, washed out of circulation on the shore, or came to him in tissuepaper-cushioned packages from a warehouse inventory. No two were alike, as with fingerprints or snowflakes, yet they conformed to hierarchies of scarcity and value, made a subject for catalogues and lists. That these were also skulls, an assembly of carapaces, opened a first doorway into the morbidity of his love. Abraham Lincoln was a crazed worthless token, brown and bearded, a filthy tide of un-silver pouring from of his parents’ pockets, but subject to secret reorganization in embossed cardboard folders. A penny was not so much money as the DNA of money. Spotting the year and the mint signatures under Lincoln’s nose was the first act of reading the secret inscriptions that underwrote the universe, a child’s garden of conspiracy. Wheat-backed pennies were the essential evidence that the past was a purer land, that Americans had been expelled from a garden. The wartime aluminum cents were evidence of life on Mars.
Putting Lincoln’s head upright in orderly rows was something, anyway, a sport for bleary afternoons. The staccato profile made a wedge of digits, ones not zeros, accumulating in an arrow moving past-to-future. Though pointing to a time when he’d jar or shelve them with his father’s cavalier disdain, the precision and recursiveness of the pennies riveted him inside his present, the dawdling idle hours spent within the brackets of the blue-embossed cardboard holders. The shells were harder to quantify. The boxes in which they were stored accumulated crumbs in the corners, evidence of dissolution, of the shells’ complicity with stardust, with the anti-human ebb of entropy. One day on a visit to his grandparents’ neighbour he spotted on a coffee table a hideous decorative clock from Florida ornamented with affixed shells, several valuable specimens possibly ruined with clumps of glue and glitter. Shells grew, he understood now. They were clocks themselves. They lurked in fathomless beds of mud, exuded in octopus and shark shit.
These were his first two ruined collections, early maps of shame. The hinges frayed on the gap-haunted blue cardboard penny books. Pennies from a certain mint refuse to migrate to the coast. Perhaps some doppelganger boy elsewhere held the reverse of your collection, hoarded your missing pieces, like a game of Gin Rummy or Go Fish. Speaking of fish, the shells stunk. They delivered up not only sounds but also odours from elsewhere. They refused to be decanted: were just passing through.
He wondered if he was doomed to collect everything before he was done. He fell for the whole baseball card thing for about five minutes, long enough to pass through mannerist, modernist, minimalist, and postmodern periods at the speed of sound. The flashy cards revealed too much, bright emblems, team trademarks smeared everywhere and disguising nothing, the pitiful, needy eyes of dying veterans and no-hope rookies, faked smiles to mortify your glance. Grey cardboard flipsides loaded with inane jokes and statistics, prehistories of minor-league struggle, and dusty with starch. Did anyone collect the gum? The cards were for statistical study – no, for flipping – no, for protecting in laminated folders – no, they were only a product, a scam, the grocery clerk annoyed that you didn’t figure it out sooner and just get your dad to buy the whole carton on one visit instead of slouching around the joint bugging him for weeks.
At the end he wrecked the whole relationship in one resentful, shattering act, a spasm of appropriation and collage involving toy scissors and a bottle of Elmer’s. On the inside of his notebook binder the California Angels fluttered, pinkish baseball putti, over a roaring inferno of flame-licked