“In the early ’60s a Yoyodyne executive living near LA and located somewhere in the corporate root-system above supervisor but below vice-president, having found himself, at age 39, automated out of a job. Having been since age 7 rigidly instructed in an eschatology that pointed nowhere but to a presidency and death, trained to do absolutely nothing except sign his name to specialized memoranda he could not begin to understand and to take blame for the running-amok of specialized programmes that failed for specialized reasons he had to have explained to him, the executive’s thoughts were naturally of suicide. But previous training got the better of him: he could not make a decision without first hearing the ideas of a committee. He placed an ad in the personal columns of The LA Times, asking whether anyone who had been in the same fix had ever found any good reasons for committing suicide. His shrewd assumption being that no suicide would reply, leaving him automatically with no valid inputs.
The assumption was false. After a week of anxiously watching the mailbox through the little Japanese binoculars his wife had given him for a going away present (she’d left him the day after he was pink-slipped) and getting nothing but sucker-list stuff through the regular delivers that came each noon, he was jolted out of a boozy, black and white dream of jumping off the stack into rush-hour traffic, by an insistent knocking on the front-door. It was late on Sunday afternoon. He opened the door and found an aged bum with a knitted watch-cap on his head and a hook for a hand, who presented him with a bundle of letters and loped away without a word. Most of the letters were from suicides who failed, either through clumsiness or last-minute cowardice. None of them, however, could offer any compelling reasons for staying alive. Still the executive dithered: spent another week with pieces of paper on which he would list, in columns headed ‘pro’ and ‘con’, reasons for and against taking his Brody. He found it impossible, in the absence of some trigger, to come to any clear decision. Finally one day he noticed a front page story in The Times, complete with AP wire photo, about a Buddhism monk in Viet Nam who set himself on fire to protest government policies. ‘Groovy!’ cried the executive.
He went to the garage, siphoned all the gasoline from his Buick’s tank, put on his green Zachary All suit with the vest, stuffed all his letters from unsuccessful suicides into a coat pocket, went to the kitchen, sat on the floor, proceeded to douse himself good with the gasoline. He was about to make the farewell flick of the wheel with his faithful zippo, which had seen him through the Normandy hedgerows, the Ardennes, Germany, and postwar America, when he heard a key in the front door, and voices.
It was his wife and some man, whom he soon recognised as the very efficiency expert at Yoyodyne who had caused him to be replaced by an IBM 7094. Intrigued by the irony of it, he sat in the kitchen and listened, leaving his necktie dipped in the gasoline as a sort of wick.
From what he could gather, the efficiency expert wished to have sexual intercourse with his wife on the Moroccan rug in the living-room. The wife was not unwilling. The executive heard lewd laughter, zippers, the thump of shoes, heavy-breathing, moans. He took his tie out of the gasoline and started to snigger. ‘I hear laughing,’ his wife said presently, ‘I smell gasoline,’ said the efficiency expert. Hand in hand, naked, the two proceeded into the kitchen. ‘I was about to do the Buddhist monk thing,’ explained the executive. ‘Nearly three weeks it takes him,’ marvelled the efficiency expert, ‘to decide. You know how long it would have taken an IBM 7094? Twelve microseconds. No wonder you were replaced.’
The executive threw back his head and laughed for a solid ten minutes, along towards the middle of which his wife and her friend, alarmed, retired, got dressed and went out looking for the police. the executive undressed, showered and hung his suit out on the line to dry. Then he noticed a curious thing. The stamps on some of the letters in his suit pockets had almost turned white. He realized that the gasoline must have dissolved the printing ink. Idly, he peeled off the stamp and saw suddenly the image of a muted postal horn, the skin of his hand showing clearly through the watermark. ‘A sign,’ he whispered, ‘is what it is.’
If he’d been a religious man he would have fallen to his knees. As it was, he only declared, with great solemnity: ‘My big mistake was love. From this day forth I swear to stay off love : hetero, homo, bi, dog or cat, car, every kind there is. I will found a society of isolates, dedicated to this purpose, and this sign, revealed by the same gasoline that almost destroyed me, will be its emblem.”
— by Thomas Pynchon, CoL49: 79-80.
This gallery contains 2 photos.
bustakay: ‘Normalising John Ashbery’, Marjorie Perloff.