Paul Kimm

Paul Kimm writes short stories. He has had publications in Literally StoriesNorthern GravyFictive Dream, and Fiction on the Web, with further upcoming publications in Mono and Potato Soup Journal.

Birthday books

I can’t name the writer because of what happened later. Not to say the writer’s name can’t be worked out from what I’m about to tell you. If this writer is one of your favourites, you’ll cotton on quite quickly who he is. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be hard to work out anyway. Other writers will be named in the telling of the events resulting from the books my wife bought me for my birthday, but not the one I emailed, the living one. Him, I won’t name.

This writer writes about coincidence a great deal. It’s a feature in his books. Some critics have picked him up on his use of chance as a plot device, but he defends this position as chance is a part of life. I agree with him. Life doesn’t flow in smooth, rounded plotlines that wrap everything up for us. Most of the time we’re waking up, drinking a coffee, brushing teeth, doing a day’s work, reading a book, watching some sport, cooking something and eating it, and feeling whatever range of emotions the day gives us. There are key moments in life for sure, but these give us no more of a plot in life than a louse or a lion has. We’re plotless, but sometimes a sense of destiny intervenes and gives our lives the possible option of a plot, or even a portion of one, at least the semblance of one. That’s what the books my wife bought for my birthday gave me – the chance at a plot.

My birthday is on the 24th May and usually I get five or six books. Mostly fiction, some biography, letters. I try to mix up my reading. I’ll read something in translation followed by something written in English. Or read a British writer then an American one. I’m not overly devout about it, but I make patterns in my reading habits to have some variety. So, the first book I read from my birthday haul was a volume of letters between the writer in question and a fellow writer. There are around one hundred letters in this collection, so the probability that one was written on one of my birthdays, 24th May, wasn’t much of a stretch, but as it was the first one from my gifts, I mentioned it to my wife. In response she did one of those higher pitch, half second, hums that intonate upwards to show mild interest. In other words, no great shakes. It is a book of letters after all, it has dates in it.

The next book I read from my birthday batch was The Zone by Sergei Dovlatov. This book, whilst fictionally based on the writer’s life working in a Soviet prison camp, also contained letters to his editor. One of them was also sent on the 24th May. I pointed this out to my wife. We agreed it was an interesting coincidence that the first two books from the birthday stash both had my birthdate in them. The Zone is a fairly short book, so next, it being a longer read, I moved on to Roberto Bolano’s The Savage Detectives. I hadn’t opened the book until this point, but from the offset the novel is written in the style of diary entries and recorded personal accounts. More dates I thought. I also thought what are the chances that the first three books I read after my birthday, that were all birthday gifts, contain my birthdate within them. Pretty slim I figured. In turn, my own birthdate became part of the reason to read the book. With each turn of a page, with each inclusion of a date I anticipated my own birthdate appearing on the page. It didn’t come in the first hundred pages, or the next hundred, but the deeper I went into the book, which I was enjoying immensely, the more I wanted it to come up. As I said, the book is superb, but wanting to know what happened to its protagonists, became as much as a source of intrigue as whether the 24th May would show itself again.

I got to thinking more about the odds of it coming up. Most books I read don’t seem to have many, if any dates, so the fortuity of reading three in a row, which I’d received for my fifty-fifth birthday, seemed to me to be on a lottery winning scale of unlikelihood. I began to crave the date’s appearance. As I worked through the 577 pages, I skimmed forward to see if it was there, then flipped back to read the actual chapter or section. And, as I went on, I decided that should it appear, it would be, a sign, well, not a sign, but a trigger, definitely a trigger, to take action.

Both Dovlatov and Bolano are dead. Both died young, younger than me, but that’s an aside. However, the first writer, the one who writes a lot about serendipity, and has protagonists whose stories turn on a happenstance, is still alive and a couple of decades older than me. I decided, if Bolano gave me my third 24th May, I’d get in touch with this writer. I’d tell him what I’d found, that it made me think of his books, and just see if I got a reply. I didn’t figure I would hear back from the writer, but three 24th Mays in a row, from a stack of birthday books, the first one of which was written by a living writer who writes about this precise kind of thing, well, it felt like a good enough reason to do it.

I continued on with The Savage Detectives. I read it like I’ve read no other book, again, skipping through the upcoming pages to scan for the date, not find it, then go back to continue the story. The book now had not just its own plot; a far superior one, but also my own. The book, the dates in the book, stood between me writing or not writing to one of my favourite writers, to share my coincidence and see where it might go. I finished page 577 within a couple of days and, whilst May as a month is mentioned a lot, whilst there are some other 24ths of other months, the book didn’t offer up the third 24th May. I didn’t have my hattrick. I couldn’t justify the email. I tried again, flicked through just to see if I’d possibly skipped one. I scoured the afterword, again containing numerous dates, but not the one I needed. I checked the blurb, the author bio, I went finely through the copyright page, but no 24th May. I went back and did a rough count of all the dates in the book and got to over 150, which should have given the 24th May a close to 50/50 chance, which it didn’t deliver on. I went online and searched about Bolano, trying to find a relevance to my birthdate that would give me enough rationale to write to the writer, but nothing. I Googled ‘Roberto Bolano + 24th May’. Nothing.

I moved on to another book. A refreshingly dateless read, but the absence of 24th May trio stayed on my mind. I wanted there to be a significance to writing to him. I searched the writer’s name typing his name and Roberto Bolano straight after it. I scrolled through a dozen pages, but beyond discovering that the living writer had once been at the same convention as a Bolano specialist, there was nothing else connecting them. There are blog posts suggesting that they have similar approaches to their prose, numerous references to both of them in terms of their general themes, but no overall evidence that he’d read a lot of Bolano himself. So, it occurred to me to make my own chance, to write the email anyway. The likelihood that the email would even get seen by the writer seemed ultra slim, the possibility that he would then check the voracity of my claim that I read three unrelated books in a row, starting with one of his, that each contained the 24th May, my own birthday, seemed an incredibly distant and unlikely reality. So, I lied. The inclusion of a claim that The Savage Detectives was the third book in a row to contain my birthdate took nothing away from the plot of Bolano’s great book, it was still true of the first two books I’d read. He wouldn’t get or read my email anyway, which I had to send through the publisher, and as already said, of course he wouldn’t check. So, I wrote my email. I invented a 24th May for Bolano. I had my triple run of 24th Mays. I would never get a reply anyway.

The reply came from the publisher a week later. The writer had read the email. All three sources, the first being his own, had been checked. There was his own 24th May. There was Dovlatov’s 24th May. There was no Bolano 24th May. The reply didn’t say it this way, but I’m not in a position to really be able to share the email here. I wouldn’t want it to lead to further trouble. In basic terms, the publisher requested I cease and desist, that I must not contact the publisher or the writer again, that any further harassment could feasibly result in legal action. As I read the email for the first time, I couldn’t fathom it. Not only that I’d been caught in a lie, an innocent one in itself, but that the publisher, some assistant presumably, had gone to the trouble to check, to report back to the publisher and perhaps the writer, and then send me a severe warning back. It wasn’t until the last, single sentence paragraph in their reply that the reasoning started to appear to me. As I say, I can’t copy and paste any of the actual email I received, but, in essence, the message said that given the particular date that I’d highlighted and the age I claimed to be, and therefore the malicious intent of my contact, was the reason for, what I saw at that point, an unnecessary admonishment from them. It was a threat, at that point in time, I couldn’t make sense of, but would minutes later and then understand my unintentional malevolence.

I’d searched pages and pages of possible links to the living writer and Bolano. I’d tried to find significance between Bolano and the 24th May. I’d Googled all kinds of permutations to make my email truthful, factual, to avoid using a false date for the third of the birthday books I’d read. I must have spent close to ten hours trying to find something that removed the need to lie. It was only the second book I’ve read of Bolano’s, the third I’d read of Dovlatov, but the living writer I’ve read more than a dozen. I’m also the kind of reader who takes an interest in the lives of writers I like. I’ll watch YouTube interviews, read articles, biographies, books of letters, and such like. So, I don’t know how I missed it. I don’t know why I didn’t Google this writer’s name plus my birthdate. If I had, even if Bolano had mentioned the 24th May twenty times, I would not have sent the damn, stupid email in the first place.

I knew there’d been tragedy in his life, that he’d been younger when his parents were killed. He’d referenced it in some of his novels, used similar tragedies as a plot device, not exactly the same, but twists like a father dying on a protagonist’s graduation day, or a character finding out his mother wasn’t his real mother on his birthday. As said, coincidences are something he uses, why I’d ultimately invented one, so I could send my senseless email in the first place. Anyway, there it was, in the second paragraph of the Wikipedia entry in the section on his personal life. Both parents killed in a car crash, going to meet him from the airport on his return from a year living in Spain. The date of the tragic accident was, of course, the 24th May. His father’s age, fifty-five.

Naturally, I left it there. I’d been told to, and equally there was no way, and no necessity for a way to redeem myself. I’d come across as some strange vindictive psycho, a nasty piece of work, looking, for whatever unknown reason, to upset an elderly, well-renowned writer. I thought about it constantly. He’s one of my favourite writers, but there wasn’t a feasible way to seek redemption for my stupidity, for my ego-driven need to connect with him, for my ill-researched mistake. I could send a scan of my passport proving my age and birthdate, I could admit guilt on creating a date Bolano didn’t use, but as someone who’d been just out of millions of readers until causing the offence, then there was no option, but to leave it, to deserve my regret. The better thing was to keep my own private hope that I hadn’t produced anything more than a temporary anger and affront by my email.

When it came round to the approach to my fifty-sixth birthday, I started building the wish list on my preferred bookseller’s website. I share access to the online list with my wife, so she can choose a batch of birthday books that has enough in the wish list to make sure all her choices remain surprises. By the time she wanted to make the order there were well over thirty books on the list, but unlike previous years, I took time to learn a little more about the content of each one than I normally would, read a few more reviews, read the book details on the seller’s webpage, read more customer thoughts than usual. What I was doing was making sure that even the bulked-up list didn’t really have any books that had letters, diary entries, was more fiction heavy than biographic. Looking at the finished list I realised there were way more books of short stories, poetry, speculative fiction than usual. In fact, one of the last few I added, was the just released collection of short stories from the writer I’d offended so badly the previous birthday. I’d wronged him, not him me, I’d deserved the rebuke and had followed up not one bit since, and, ultimately, I really loved his work, so wanted to still read his writing.

The selection of books my wife buys me each year is always the heaviest out of the gifts I receive. She wraps them all in one block together, which, depending on what’s been bought can make for either a solid building block of books or a more knobbled, haphazard shape. This birthday’s was the latter, showing perhaps poetry, short stories, science fiction, doesn’t just differ in content, but in physical shape of packaging as well perhaps. In the bundle of five there was the hefty John Cheever stories, a stocky hardbacked Murakami, Zamyatin’s We in paperback, a skinny book of Tomas Tranströmer’s poetry, and finally, at the bottom of the pile, being the tallest of those in the wrapping, the new collection of short stories by the writer I’d written to. I won’t give the name of it, or him, but as I’ve said, you’ll likely know who it is by now. It’s a volume of short stories whose title is kind of synonymous with ‘coincidences’. I decided that would be my first read.

I didn’t read the foreword, or the contents, didn’t bother with the blurb, or author bio, but went straight to the first story. It’s a twelve page, approximately 3,000-word story, which, like all the other stories in the book, I imagine, focus on how coincidence has entered someone’s life. In this story a well-known American writer receives a letter in the post from a fan. The letter tells the author how the fan felt compelled to write to the author after reading three books in a row, the first being his, that he’d received for his birthday, which had all mentioned his date of birth in them. The fan had figured this kind of coincidence was worthy of contacting the author about. This letter the author had received in the story was written out in the short story but stopped short of the birthdate. At that point in the story the author drops the letter. The date of birth the fan has written about happens to be the same date as the date that the author’s newborn son died at just a week old. In the story, after some moments of inner anguish, the fictional writer retrieves the dropped letter from the floor and checks the date again. Checks to see if this so-called fan has genuinely used the death date of his fictional son. The date is 24th May 1967. My birthday. My real date of birth. The son’s fictional date of death.

The short story describes how the author quickly checks if the date the letter sender has used is in the books mentioned, and it’s only in the first two. There’s a quick scene where he requests his publisher to push as legally far as possible, without scandal, a reply to the offending letter writer. Then, the story ends with a longer couple of paragraphs, one in which the writer devises a short story of his own, as a kind of response to the fan’s letter, which turns out to be this actual story so far. The final part cuts to a third person view where the fan is opening the volume of short stories on their birthday, and reading the first story, which is clearly about themselves, about the moronic error they made in sending the letter in the first place. As the story closes, it describes the horror of the letter writer seeing the story, how this story impacts on the letter sender, how over time it changes his view on reading, his desire to read declines, his love of literature wanes, becomes a distasteful pastime to him, how he pretty much gives up reading altogether, how books leave his list of wanted birthday gifts. It goes on, in some detail, to describe, over years, how each subsequent birthday is a memory of something wrong, how he ceases to enjoy celebrating it, no longer looks forward to it, but dreads it, that gifts are no longer required at all. The letter sender slides into depression, his wellbeing decays, he becomes insular, develops high blood pressure, eats poorer than he used to, exercises less, over years collects a suite of standard, but potentially life-threatening heath issues. The very end of the book has the fan, on his birthday, some unspecified number of years later, picking up a book by the author he upset, the first time he’s looked at a book in a long time, and how he takes the paperback to an armchair, sits down slowly with the requisite grunts his age and physical condition seem to now require. He opens the book, it’s his birthday, it’s the 24th May, and at that moment a heart attack descends and before he’s read a single word he’s dead. The book sits with its spine splayed and open on which page we are not told, but the name of the collection of these short stories is synonymous with the word ‘coincidences’. That’s the end of the story.

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