"P.E." by Victor Lodato Originally published in the April 2, 2012 issue of The New Yorker.
I don’t believe I’d ever heard of Victor Lodato before, but he’s a Guggenheim Fellow, a poet, an author of thirteen plays (by my count), and his first novel was published by FSG in 2009, so he comes to the pages of The New Yorker quite accomplished. I hope to see more, as “P.E.” went down very smoothly indeed.
Lodato’s skills as a playwright are definitely on display as he captures the voice of his narrator perfectly and uses that voice not simply to show some pizzaz but also, importantly, to lend texture and shadow to an already interesting story. Our narrator is a large man in his late twenties, a man who became very large, suddenly, in his late twenties (“There are miracles in this world — I absolutely believe this. But I also believe that they’re not always progressive. Some miracles, sadly, are destructive.”).
When we first meet him, he is waiting at the Tucson airport for his father. The first few paragraphs really pulled me in:
The night my father came in from New Jersey, or wherever the hell he was living, his plane was two hours and twenty-seven minutes late. I hadn’t called to check on the flight, and so I ended up waiting at an airport coffee kiosk, absorbing greasy pumpkin loaf and chasing it down with a triple-shot white-chocolate latte. When I went up to the counter to order a second slice of bread, the girl didn’t bat an eye. But three pieces was clearly too much for her. At that point, she hesitated, like she wasn’t sure if she should give it to me. I mean, what did she think I was doing — making a bomb out of the stuff? To look at me is to know that, obviously, I was eating it. I’m a large man, as my G.P. likes to say. But people at airports are all about suspicion.
“Don’t call security,” I said. But smiling, you know, with good cheer.
“Why would I call security?” she said. Now she looked even more nervous.
“I don’t know. All the bread.” And then I sort of laughed.
We sense from the narrator’s first sentence that he may not be particularly fond of his father, but when his father arrives it’s obvious there has been a major rift. It can be chalked up to the weight gain, but his father doesn’t even recognize him and they don’t touch until a bit later when the narrator touches him “lightly” on the arm. His father is ragged, an ex-junky (probably ex-), and the narrator doesn’t even know if he lives in New Jersey or just had a flight from Newark. They stand around the luggage carousel, and a nice bag comes by. The narrator wishes the bag were his fathers, “[j]ust like in an alternate reality I’m thin and wear a wedding ring.” However, the narrator actually believes in these alternate realities — he’s a member of “Parallel Energetics.”
Using P.E. techniques, you learn how to initiate a dialogue with your other selves and then ultimately you can draw aspects of their energy matrix into your own life. Of course, you’d only bring in the energy matrix of an alternate self that is better (“more evolved”) than your current reality. Because some of your other selves are actually worse off than you, and that can be pretty depressing, especially if you meet like three of them in a row.
It’s easy to see why an alternate self with a worse life would be pretty depressing for our narrator — his life has never been and isn’t now going all that well. P.E. is the only thing that’s kept him from buying a gun and committing suicide. Our narrator genuinely believes in P.E., and it’s led to some interesting side-steps from reality:
I know now, for example, that the childhood I remember is not the only version that exists, and so this allows me to be more accepting and forgiving or whatever. Salvatore, my mentor, always says, “Choose your past, choose your path.” [. . .] He means be careful how you remember stuff, because it influences the shape of your future. So I’m trying to be open-minded about what I remember.
There are many great works that examine memory and its faults, but I find it interesting here to find Lodato examining a character accepting that his memory is only one version — there are better versions out there, so why not take those? As the narrative progresses, we develop a distinct sense of our narrator’s tenuous hold on reality — he even has a hard time controlling the story:
I need to stop here.
This isn’t right. This is, wow, this is practically backwards.
This is not about food, and the fact that it keeps going there makes me want to vomit. Literally. This story isn’t really even about my father. The thing is, though, you put him in something like this and he just takes over. He’s like a narrative virus.
There’s one moment, though, when we see precisely why our narrator accepts that he has alternate selves and why he tries to flee his memories (which, on this occasion, despite the playful revision of memory, is clear and tender):
He loved women, all makes, all models. Let’s just say, my mother became depressed. I didn’t know that word then. Then I would have just said she was quiet. Actually, I probably wouldn’t have said anything. I would have just done what I always did: tug at her hand, like at the string of a talking doll that had ceased to function.
It’s a sad story and, as the story continues to develop the threads above, quite virtuosic in its conclusion.