Though a serialized novel, a work delivered in short chapters over a long time, might seem like an unusual publishing model, it actually harkens back to something very traditional.
Much of what we think of today as ‘classic’ literature (including works by Melville, Dostoevsky, and Sōseki, to name a few) was originally conceived of and published in a serial format.
The popularity of TV shows, podcasts, and substack dispatches are proof of a contemporary appetite for serialized narratives. For me, the appeal of the form lies in becoming attached and reacting to the gradual deepening of a world at the same time as it is being constructed. Author and audience discover the story together.
Over the next several months, my novella A Silver Wall will be published in incremental chapters, the first two of which appear below. It’s my pleasure and honor to embark on this experiment together— thank you for reading.
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A Silver Wall
Punctual Iris, predicting Evelyn would be late, arrived fifteen minutes past the agreed time. “Not enough,” she sighed after entering the basement level venue and finding her friend absent. Tonight was their fourth meeting in as many months, drinks at a place that Evelyn recommended and Iris had never heard of.
Iris sat at the bar and read the menu, relying on her phone’s blue glow in dim lighting. Listed were a variety of cocktails with strange ingredients at high prices. Of course Evelyn picked somewhere expensive— she knew that Iris, the only one with steady income, would pay. The two women met during a month when Evelyn worked in Iris’ office in a position she found through a temp agency. Since then, their friendship developed its own routine. Iris ordered the first drink on the list, not bothering to read further, and drafted a text to Evelyn: “here”. It didn’t send. No service underground.
Around her, pockets of well dressed students gathered in booths and talked about pop culture and politics with an eerie restraint, as though nothing was real, and everything they mentioned or referenced was an idea they invented that night that would dissolve at daybreak. Two seats over from her a man, also alone, turned in her direction. Instead of turning back toward him, her eyes rested on the gentle hum of red lanterns on the black marble behind the bar that made the walls look flushed like human cheeks.
Evelyn had no problem interacting with strangers. She could talk to anyone, face anything. Evelyn was friends with all sorts of people and knew how to engage each with an expansive, infinitely malleable personality. Iris experienced her existence, the fact of herself, as a weight. Evelyn experienced hers as a wing. She arrived.
“Sorry I’m late.”
“I only waited half an hour tonight. This might be a new record.”
“You don’t mind, do you?” It wasn’t like Iris had anywhere else to be. This was the first time she’d gone out anywhere after work since they last met. Without delay, Evelyn insisted on telling Iris about the most recent date she’d been on: A stranger she had met at a party two weeks ago suggested they see something at his favorite movie theater, a small repertory with only two screens on the second floor above a dance school.
“What movie?” she had asked.
“It’s a surprise,” he said.
When the day came, Evelyn and her date were the only ones inside the screening. The lights went down and the trailers ended, but the screen remained blank, an unchanging silver wall. Evelyn asked if they should go tell an usher, but her date insisted she keep watching. Nothing happened. She called out to the projectionist in half-feigned exasperation. Again, her date chided her for interrupting. Evelyn continued to watch, meditative, alert, until, roughly ninety minutes later, the lights in the theater turned back on. He rose to leave and she followed. He asked how she liked the movie and she said great and that was that.
Iris couldn’t react. She didn’t know how to express the feeling that hearing this story provoked in her.
Inside of Iris there was a part so light and empty it was almost like it didn’t exist. She only knew it was there because it was just as capable of feeling pain as any other part of the body yet the pain was never where she found it. If she felt discomfort in her stomach, as soon as she observed the ache it fled into her chest. If she then tried to focus on the pain in her chest, it returned to the stomach. She deduced the pain must travel through the empty parts of her body, the gaps between skin, blood, muscle, bone, and fat, space where there was nothing. The pain was like a cavity in a tooth, sensitive to heat and cold. Also like a cavity in a tooth, the pain resembled a hole, a gap, erosion where there wasn’t supposed to be erosion. But how could there be a gap inside of a gap, emptiness pouring out of emptiness? She could not say when or why the pain emerged, but as Evelyn described her experience at the movie that was not a movie, Iris felt it in her thigh, nestled in a pocket between fat and bone, emptiness pouring out of emptiness, first subtle, then throbbing, then, as the story ended, gone.
“Yes,” she said. “Very weird.”
Evelyn’s life was full of strange and unusual experiences. Part of it was chance, part of it fate, and another part temperament. Iris pictured herself in the same scenario. If someone made her pretend to watch a movie like that, she’d think she was the victim of an elaborate prank and either flee or throw a fit, humiliated. For Evelyn, it was one of many similar but distinct episodes, semiregular excursions into an eccentric parallel reality that Iris couldn’t fathom.
Iris could think of nothing to share from her life. She went to the same job every day in the same office, sparsely populated, where everyone regarded each other with suspicion that bordered on contempt. A typical government job, most of her coworkers were single-minded careerists who kept their true thoughts hidden from one another. Iris accepted the position because it was convenient and paid well. Bureaucratic procedures filed online, she rarely had to interact with anyone face to face. Her job involved the logistics of importing and distributing various raw materials used in construction and scientific research, yet she barely understood what the materials she facilitated the transfer of were being used for, or how they were extracted at their places of origin.
Iris was still on her first drink by the time Evelyn ordered a second.
“What are you having?”
“The first thing on the menu. I don’t even remember what’s in it… Something weird…”
Evelyn used her phone to look up one of the ingredients, something called eloin that neither of them had ever heard of.
“You get service down here?”
“I’m connected to the wifi. I used to come here all the time.” (Under what circumstances? Iris was left to wonder) “A reddish exudate derived from coral. Prized in fine dining for its unusual flavor… I wonder what it tastes like.”
“There’s some kind of pepper in it, too. It’s not even that red, I bet they didn’t add much. I wonder how expensive it is…”
At the mention of expense, Evelyn changed the topic.
“Do you think he’s waiting for someone?” She nodded toward the man sitting alone.
“He was here when I arrived.”
“He’s been looking at you.”
Iris hesitated to say what she felt was obvious— that he must have been looking at Evelyn, not her. Iris’ mind began to organize itself in intricately braided patterns of self-deprecation. Now it was her turn to abruptly change the subject, but less than an hour in she struggled to invent conversation. Fortunately, Evelyn mentioned that she had to go soon. She recently started a new job working front desk night shifts at a hotel and had to clock in. Iris asked for the check and left her card behind while she used the bathroom. When she returned, Evelyn was waving her fingers with something small and white between them.
“That man left this here.” Evelyn handed Iris a scrap of paper torn off from a larger sheet with a phone number written on it but no name. The man who had been sitting next to them was gone. Iris stared at the number like a child at an aquarium. Evelyn unfolded Iris’ hand and placed the paper in her palm, then wrapped her friend’s fingers back around it in a loose fist.
“Are you sure?”
“Am I sure?”
“I mean, are you sure he didn’t leave this for you.”
“You’ll call, won’t you?”
They exited the bar and began to walk along a promenade overlooking the river. Scaffolding bracketed a cloudy sky, metal skeletons of future buildings that, illuminated by work lights, shimmered in the black water underneath like molten silver running down the edges of an iron crucible.
“So, will you call him?”
“Call him– and then what?”
Evelyn rolled her eyes. “Call him and find out. Maybe he’ll take you to a movie.”
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Suppose the man had left his number for Evelyn, not Iris, and Iris called. Iris and him would meet. He would be surprised. Or not. Maybe by then he would have forgotten what Evelyn looked like. Maybe he, drunk, would have forgotten there were two women there that night. No matter what he remembered or expected, Iris would come back with a story, and Evelyn would be entertained.
“She really is,” thought Evelyn, walking along the midnight water, “my most boring friend.” But that was her very charm. Everyone else Evelyn knew lived in varying degrees of imbalance. Iris was a counterpoise. And now, Evelyn believed she had done her friend a favor. The idea that she might be leading Iris toward embarrassment or worse had not occurred to her. It was only when she arrived at the hotel and changed into her uniform of one and a half inch heels, a knee length black skirt, and a dark purple blouse of imitation silk that, seeing herself in a bathroom mirror, she imagined what Iris must have seen when she had handed her the paper, and was then attacked by guilt. By the time she made it to the front desk and relieved her coworker, she was determined to prevent Iris from dialing the number. Since her phone was in her bag in a back room, she wasn’t able to retrieve it until her break in several hours. If Evelyn correctly estimated her friend, however, there was almost no chance of Iris dialing the number that night, if at all, and no harm would come from waiting.
Over the next hour she nodded at a few guests returning to their rooms from a night out and helped one other reserve a car to take him to the airport in the morning. A little past twelve, a man holding a white handkerchief over his forehead entered. When he removed the cloth from his face, Evelyn recognized him as the man from the bar, except now he had a minor cut above his right brow. A small blot of red swelled upon the white handkerchief, like a continent on a map, surrounded by a representation of water.
“I’m checking in.” He spelled his last name.
“Do you need anything? For your eye…”
“It’s nothing.” She checked him in and handed over a white plastic card key. “Thanks.” The elevator descended. Floor four. Floor three. Floor two. Floor—
“Excuse me—” He turned his neck but not his body. “I think I saw you earlier…”
“I don’t think so. This is my first time here.”
“No, at a bar earlier. You left a number…” The elevator door opened but the man ignored it and returned to the front desk.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t recognize you in the uniform.”
“No, why would you?”
Evelyn explained how she had given the number to Iris, supposing it was meant for one of them.
“It wasn’t. It has nothing to do with you. You shouldn’t assume those things. It’s dangerous, for one.”
“It’s not that serious…”
“She shouldn’t call it.”
“I’ll tell her not to.”
“No, she really shouldn’t. You should tell her right away.”
“If I call and tell her right now, she’ll think I was making fun of her. She’s very fragile.”
“That’s not my problem.”
“No, but will it be a problem if she calls the number? Who is it? Do you have a girlfriend?”
“Do you want to lose your job?”
“I can find another.”
The man’s small injury started to bleed again, and he was sweating. Evelyn brought him some cool water and a rag and sat him down in the lobby under a flowering bird of paradise plant while piano music drifted from a hidden speaker.
“I need you to call your friend now and tell her to destroy the number.”
“Ok, but you have to do something for me too.”
“You need to ask her out.”
“I don’t have time for this.”
“Please, she’s very pretty. You’ll like her.” He asked to see a photo, to remember her appearance. Evelyn retrieved her phone. Iris didn’t post photos of herself on Instagram, but she was tagged in one. In the photo, she was standing in a group of six. It was Summer, and the background was entirely water and sky. Iris wore white with her hair back. Evelyn couldn’t tell what Omar was thinking while he looked at it. He asked Evelyn to call her.
“Hello? Did I wake you up? Sorry… I’ll be quick. Do you remember the man from earlier? From the bar. I ran into him again and, well, it’s probably easier if he explains…”
Omar told Iris how he left that number behind by accident, and instructed her to rip it up or burn it. He apologized at length for the misunderstanding, then lied by saying he had been thinking about her all evening, ever since he first saw her. He mentioned luck and fate and coincidence. Evelyn was impressed by his approximation of sincerity to the point where she became confused as to what his real intentions were.
“Here, she wants to talk to you.”
“Hello? No, I swear. We didn’t know each other, we didn’t even talk until he came to the hotel tonight. No, really.” The conversation ended within a minute of her handing the phone back to Omar.
“She said she isn’t interested.” He returned Evelyn’s phone and boarded the elevator.
To pass time until the end of her shift, Evelyn drew concentric circles on a notepad, beginning with a tiny dot in the center and adding rings around it until the pattern reached off the edge of the paper. Then she flipped to a clean sheet and started over. No other guests passed through the lobby until breakfast, when another concierge came and relieved her. Exiting, she found the morning light thick and difficult to see through. There was too much of it. Gray wraiths of clouds overhead reminded her of her strange date and how, maybe forty minutes in, she thought she saw figures moving on the screen, streaks of dust forming and dissolving and reforming in the outlines of well lit human beings.
Her phone vibrated.
It was Iris. She wanted to speak to Omar.