Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Exit Strategy

Timofey Pnin's Isometric Head (Source: ccassidy)

February, 1957. A wintry day at fictional Waindell College, somewhere in the fictional Northeastern United States. The world is at its greyest. Bare-armed campus elms, no longer adorned by leafy crenellations, offer no resistance to the freezing air. The sun carves a shallow transit against the cirrus formations: silvery, aeriform scars illuminated by a hovering pale orb in the withering light. The previous year is only recently dead, and the new year, fraught with growing pains, is just coming to terms with its own anxieties. The future, unclear, is inevitable, looming.

Atoms have just been spilt, their energy uncontrolled and dangerous. Boundaries, thought and drawn, calcify East and West. Sputnik is yet to become a wandering star. Yet even within the secluded groves of this Waindelled world, the faintest flickering of distant events prime the murmuring heart. All is not well in the world that is the University.

An imaginary professor of Russian literature has just found out, to crushing disappointment, that he has been assigned to teach a theater course in the French department. His name is Timofey Pnin. Son of an ophthamologist, survivor of "The Hitler War," sifting through the flotsam and jetsam of a failed marriage, Pnin mulls over his latest failure. Tenure was not guaranteed, but in the fantastic, cobweb-ridden corners of Pnin's mind, it was a possibility as distant, tangible, and impossible as a nebula.

Witness the exit strategy, the transition, the turning-over. Lists are made, appointments canceled or confirmed. Our elderly professor, defeated, collects his meager belongings in a small valise: tortoise-shell glasses too narrow for his crown, an omnibus volume of Sherlock Holmes stories, a fob of linen, a brilliant set of false teeth. Everything else seems like a film played backwards. Dishes are emptied of food and leap into the covert in neat, ceramic ziggurats. The sink fills and empties repeatedly, trash disappearing into the whorls and eddies of an infinite drain. Table and bed linens crumple into orthogonal forms and fly into closet drawers in spectral choreographies. These are the last days. Pnin writes to his landlord: "Dear Mr.___ : Behold the instructions for closing a bank account."

Our esteemed professor enters a small, four-door blue sedan, and takes the driveway out from his rented house through the tall trees onto a busy street. A sure, if not steady driver, he leans into the gas pedal to avoid a swerving truck. Waindellians remembered a bluish blur leaving acrid smoke and petrol in its wake. "Did I just see Pnin?" they ask, commenting on an image-like composition of bald pate, glasses, and brilliant teeth accompanied by guttural threnodies of vrooms and even more vrooms. Pnin sightings increase in frequency as the car speeds away to some unknown terminus. And he is gone.

In the wake of this noisy, smoky departure, there’s nothing. But wait: Is that a rustle of leaves? A cool breeze stirs the budding boughs. An icicle falls from a tree and shatters on the soft earth with a plink. Spring is not as far off as it seems.

(Note: A version of this article appeared in Fulcrum, the Architectural Association's student broadsheet, in May 2011)

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