Featured Work

Monica's Chronicle
Monicaís Chronicle, endless sketchbook drawn directly from life yet a model of another idea of fiction and the source of much of Ascher/​Strausís work (most obviously ABC Street and Hank Forestís Party), can be read here in installments as itís being edited.

Hank Forest's Party



TRUE OR FALSE


"As if you were trying to catalogue everything that happened to pass across the windowframe of your existence.

"Press with the sharpened point of a well-used No. 2 pencil, or with the duller point of a black ballpoint, into the steamrollered fibers of the seamless space that stretches from one end of life to the other.

"Chronicle in this way for thirty or fifty years, fill up hundreds of notebooks, hundreds of microcassette tapes, uncounted numbers of typed pages, many already lost in old filing cabinets in the back of your damp basement, and still most of it will flow perpetually from the infinite realm of the unobserved to the infinite realm of the forgotten."



*


THE LANGUAGE OF OTHERS (TRUE OR FALSE)


"People we donít know are suddenly next to us talking. Listen with interest to the story that is absolutely defining the person we donít know and at the same time we may be inwardly discarding unwanted language. What is 'unwanted language'?, Monica wonders now or later, long after listening to and discarding unwanted language at Hank Forestís party. How many times do we edit the language of others on the way to making it our own? Edit, in order to remember, while listening. Edit again later, when experience gets scoured as if it were a sticky counter-top. And then again later, and even later still, in the impossible 'now' of twenty-five years later that nevertheless has come to pass.

"With our habit of discarding we discard more than we know and, even more unsettling, canít figure out what it is thatís left behind.

"Forget in order to remember and then forget what weíve remembered.

"Sticks to paper, pen canít scrape it off no matter how the shoulder leans into it. Or: something manages to pry it loose and then weíre surprised to find that the self has flown off elsewhere.

"True or false: 1) the accumulation of events over time has a developmental order and that developmental order is what we think of as time. 2) Events accumulate horizontally. (The horizontal narration of the eye as a car drives down the street past one house then another, past one event then another.)

"Human sense of time may have its eye on its wristwatch as if it were the playing field where the plot of its favorite game were always unfolding, but in the back of its mind itís hearing the ticking meter of the deteriorating human body. All other ideas of time really ideas of space, as if we were always trying to find again some spot weíd hiked away from, leaving behind a folded jacket and the remains of a sandwich in a butter-stained paper bag.

"Trying to remember again what we had to make an effort to remember in the first place is like having an ear pressed to a hotel room wall, hearing voices in the plaster.

"Little spasm, almost nothing.

"Never a complete sentence in the lot.

"Voices travel a bit more distinctly from a distant restaurant table to ours.

"The distance voices travel adds what? By taking away what?

"When others talk to us directly and we can hear every word we miss what isnít missing in their sentences.

"While having an ordinary conversation weíre already not listening but translating. Trying to find in them (in it) our own language and rhythm. Little take-out container of conversation that often spills, leaving a messy pool of sticky liquid in the well under the armrest of the car.

"Through voices sometimes a window opens into a street with its oddly quiet little cataract of traffic.



"Monica is introduced to two people she doesnít know and may never meet again. Unknown before, forgotten later, they make themselves exist by talking.

"Dick says that he met Jane in the Peace Corps twelve years ago.

"Jane says, 'in Liberia'.

"Married, had a baby, left the Peace Corps and returned to the States.

"Returned to the States because of the baby, but it was a mistake. They werenít home five minutes before Dick became restless and miserable.

"Dick says he wouldnít use the word 'miserable'. And 'restless' isnít the right word either. Heís just someone whoís happier abroad. Happier in other cultures, the less like ours the better. Not because of their so-called exoticism. There are people who are drawn to the exotic and maybe those are the same people who are restless and miserable, but thatís not him. That isnít it at all. Harder to define what it is than it is to say what it isnít, of course, but that doesnít mean we have to accept the language other people use to describe us. The language other people use to describe us is always false and stupid. We never recognize ourselves. Why is that? The obvious answer is our own inability to accept the truth, no matter how fair and accurate. Even more so, of course, when the truth is ugly and accurate. The uglier the more accurate? The assumption is that we have no self-knowledge: each one knows the other but no one knows himself: we stumble along self-deluded waiting for someone else to give us a clue. Isnít that what we all think about each other? Or it could also be that others without exception deliberately set out to define us in the stupidest way possible.

"Jane says why make it complicated? Monica can see that Dick has a slight tendency to complicate everything. Why not just say: some people can settle down and some canít.

"Dick says 'settle down' is another expression he hates. What we really mean is make our peace with death. The decision to 'make a home' is the decision to invite death to move into the unused basement apartment. The 'homemaker' is the mortician of lifeís living mess. Life is a mess, therefore, home should be a mess also. When life isnít the mess that comes from living out of a suitcase, he canít breathe.

"Jane says: as if the only place that death attaches itself to us is at home. As if travelling = some sort of endlessly retreating horizon line of mortality. What Dick canít accept is that what feels like death-in-life to him might feel rich and infinite to someone else. And if ordinary day-to-day living is the same as dying then weíre doomed to spend our lives afraid to live. Afraid to live in the everyday because that means death, where is there to live? No choice but to go looking for some far-off hiding place from time.

"Dick says that Jane makes the truth sound like a matter of taste, but it isnít. We make truth a matter of taste to make ourselves comfortable with something small. Itís the smallness of life weíre always trying to give an appearance of transcendent richness instead of seeing it for the smallness that it is. We die of its smallness, but keep talking about its transcendent richness. . . .

"Dick and Jane lose their thread while talking. Or Monica loses the thread while listening, remembering, writing or writing again twenty-five years later. Editing of forgetfulness begins at once and is the second author of everything.

"Monica thinks Jane says that she grew up on the prairie, in Oklahoma, and that the space of her prairie childhood makes her see America differently from Dick. She makes the argument that the space of childhood determines the landscape weíre comfortable in for the rest of our lives and whether we like the space around us to be crowded or empty. For example: being surrounded by so-called Middle Americans doesnít make her anxious. . . .

"Dick says that Jane knows very well that he gave normal life a try. He tried graduate school and other things, but nothing worked. Jane saw how unhappy he was ó how 'restless and miserable' ó and they took the baby and went to Chile. He took a boring government job (a job he knew in advance would be boring) on the assumption that the adventure of being in Chile and not the boring government job would become the foreground of life. We sustain ourselves with the delusion that the background is the real foreground. That the life weíre actually living is not the foreground. That the insipid foreground we actually live in is really the insipid background. Others (who in any case may have helped propel us into our insipid foreground) sustain us in our delusions because theyíre living in exactly the same foreground they donít want to know is a foreground. For us the foreground weíre actually living in is unlivable, so we pretend that weíre living another, mental life in the background. And then imagine that our mental life is the life weíre really living and therefore stronger than any other. But it never works that way. The real foreground (what weíre actually living) injects itself into the mental life we like to think is primary. Real foreground of life eventually forces us to swallow the thick goo of our mental life and weíre poisoned by it. Chile, for example, was no longer Chile. Could not be ó could never be ó Chile for him. A government worker in a boring job, or the wife of a government worker in a boring job, taking care of a baby and only living there because of her husbandís boring job, cannot at the same time be a curious traveller having an adventure in Chile.

"They returned to the States.

"Jane had some friends who needed someone to look after a sixty acre farm near Lexington, New York, and since that seemed like heaven to her and he didnít care anymore where he lived they went up there to house-sit and theyíve been there ever since.

"Dick says sometimes we get what we want and it doesnít work out and that cures us of something or spoils us for something forever. Or, conversely, we do something we never wanted and itís oddly satisfying. Life can have its own other life and that second, unchosen life can be a strangely good one. One foot follows the other and one day you find yourself living in Lexington, New York, instead of in Accra or Cuzco. . . .

"Now itís Janeís turn again and sheís talking, but Dick is drifting away and so is Monica.

"Jane says sheís teaching retarded children and Dick is giving guitar lessons to Spanish and Portuguese children (a surprising number of them in upstate New York) and theyíre putting down roots and beginning to have a satisfying life.

" 'We work all day and see no one at night, but we seem to be enjoying that sort of life right now.'

"Luisa, the bandís beautiful singer from Puerto Rico, passes through the room and Dick breaks off and wanders in her direction.

"Monicaís mind drifts off while listening and thinking. The wash of possibilities is too great: unstable and multiplying toward an impossible, infinite iteration: its infinity impossible only because the mind always seems to need to stop its buzzing and settle down on something."



*


WORLD FLOATS SIDEWAYS


"Rebecca Geiger is miserable.

"Pat Corcoran can always tell.

"a) It isnít unusual for Rebecca Geiger to be miserable. Thereís something (already, at the age of eight) too intense, too eager, too avid about Rebecca Geiger. And this eager, avid intensity of eyes and mouth accelerates whateverís likable about her into something unlikable. Whatís pretty into something feral. Can feel the potential acceleration of this unlikable something gnawing its way forward at all times, first through her own happiness and then through yours.

"b) The voice of a child who cries often and in secret.

"c) Rebecca Geiger has a particular way of carrying her face. Slyness and longing are always present there and a crafty intelligence brims over easily into desperation. Collapse of the face through all its phases, from over-excitement to tearful rejection, cruelty to pathos, is frequent and visible.

"d) Pathos in the eyes at all times, impossible to disguise.

"e) Rebecca Geiger, Daisy Brennan, Johanna Coffin and Johannaís younger sister, fat-faced, melon-dome-headed Rosamond, had been playing together all day and now Johanna, Rosamond and Daisy are passing on the way to supper in Daisyís house and Rebecca Geiger hasnít been invited and is making a mad dash up the steps of the enormous, chalet-style house next door to the Coffinsí house, hoping to find someone (Pat Corcoran, blond-blond Timothy Corcoran or even Monica) on the porch so that, while pretending sheíd rather be visiting than having dinner at Daisyís, she can sit and chatter until she exhausts all sympathy.

"(Pat Corcoranís analysis of Rebecca Geiger on an undated day in the middle of May í77 or Monica later, guessing at Pat Corcoranís analysis of Rebecca Geiger and not coming close.)"



*


THE LANGUAGE OF OTHERS (TRUE OR FALSE)


"Allison Savas canít stop telling her endless, vacant story-of-others, but for whom? Seems to Monica itís meant for Dick, whose obvious restlessness (Allison may think) will make him as envious of Andy and Nadjaís travels as she is. But Dick has no interest in a story-of-others-he-doesnít-know and is already in another room, talking with real animation about Chile to the beautiful singer, Luisa, whoís come straight to New York from Puerto Rico and has no interest in Chile.



"Back from distant, romantic lands.

"Back from Hawaii or from the grape harvest in France.

"Back in the States.

"Back in town.

"Back in Greg-and-Lenaís house: in a small, second floor studio theyíve never seen before, with a run-down porch above the so-called back garden and the overgrown hedges summerís wild imagination will soon turn into noisy jungle-growth.

"When someone from our familiar image world stands before us, telling the usual story-of-others, who is it (who is it exactly) weíre listening to?

"Face of someone we ordinarily see as a distant image is now close, pressing her individuality forward as if it were urgent for us to know it.

"And, now that that individuality has been pressed forward, what Monica knew before with a certain purity feels muddled by another kind of knowledge, one she didnít want but which seems impossible to hold at bay.

"A step on the path of knowing another person is always an insufficient step.

"Others compel us to know what they know of themselves: always too much and not enough.

"Monica finds herself looking at Allison Savasís face attentively. Looks at it from up close, as she never has before. Looks at it even more attentively later, at her typewriter. And possibly again still later, in another 'now'. Wonders what sheís looking at. How much of our history walks around in our face. Image in the image world of others is also the place where a secret lifetime tries to gnaw its way out through the image.

"The face before her has a prominent mouth cut broadly but weakly across the short space between nose and jaw: lips folded out and smiling sadly while telling a story.

"This is odd: the way a personís lips fold or donít fold. Folded from birth or folded-out by events. The perpetual smile of the eager-to-please, for example. Lips extended unnaturally, distended into a sort of wet, unstable dinner plate from having gratefully, smilingly swallowed again and again what-should-never-be-swallowed. The sadness or weakness of another person flows toward us too easily, giving us the illusion of knowing more than we want to in the first seconds of an encounter.

"Shoulders too high and a bit forward hunch the body up slackly behind dark hair clipped off around ears extending into large glasses.

"Sometimes (not always) body and face seem to have a meaning. Everyone possessing such a body and face wishes this meaning would go away, but it doesnít. On the contrary, body and face have a stubborn meaningfulness.

"(At the moment of being disgusted with too much meaning, we occasionally discover more and are reminded that thereís too little.)

"Hidden in whatever space she stands in. Facing you with shoulders raised and trying to wedge in sideways. Sideways through what? into what? Sometimes we feel that life is impeding us. 'We' are one thing, 'life' another. Feel its weight against us and know that our separation from life is real, no matter how absurd the idea. Where does its weight come from, if not from us? But, if 'we' are 'it', how is it we feel its weight as an ocean against us, as if trying to get through unfriendly waves with our little boat sideways.

"Little boat or long surfboard.

"The plunging, falling and leaping struggles of the surfer struggling to get into deep water.

"Shoulders hunched, legs digging forward against the violent side-to-side twisting of the body, wave about to break.

"Body in unbearable torsion stumbles, drowns, is miraculously resurrected, board attached but never under us.

"Drifts away when we need it, shoots straight back at us with a force we didnít know was in it.

"When life escapes outside us it becomes a dangerous impediment. Forgets who it is and becomes our enemy.

"Turn sideways ó turn sideways again ó to avoid it.

"How many times can the self turn sideways to avoid a collision with itself, straighten up and paddle out where the waves arenít breaking? In certain cases the mouth stubbornly remains wider than the self. The wide, weak smile of the mouth. The more smiling, the weaker and sadder. Can only fold out. Folded out, there may be a little downward droop to it. If only it could turn on its axis and point itself toward the horizon, the self could slip by into deep water, begin its easy paddling toward pleasure. But there is no axis and the self feels the waves of the whole life of the world breaking against its drooping edge. Drowns behind the mouth, which uncannily is always able to talk as if it has a life of its own.



"Now Allison is describing a French calendar that used to hang in the office of her fatherís shipping company in Manhattan and which (a gift from Allison to Grete) is now hanging in Grete Forestís kitchen. ZAIRE at the top, AVRIL-MAI at the bottom and also the name of a French cargo vessel that Monica doesnít write down when she gets home from Hank Forestís party. Doesnít write down and therefore doesnít remember. For Monica, not-writing-down is exactly the same as forgetting. The erasure is as complete one way as the other. No memory outside whatís written. And, if writing is memory in advance, then anything added later may have something to do with memory, but not much.

"Allisonís conversation slips from Andy and Nadjaís enviable sojourns to the old French shipping calendar thatís traveled from her fatherís office to Greteís kitchen wall to 'ocean travel' as an ideal. Her secret plan: to have a baby and sail home to Greece with it next summer. Wants to know if 'plan' is the right word for an image thatís always in your mind. Canít get it out of your mind, but must. Must get the image out of your mind so that you can get into the image. Is it true that 'only life is life', all other realities inferior or inauthentic? Or are all realities equal and competing? The image-reality where the mind spends its time equal to the reality of life as itís lived. Or not. And, if not, why not?

"In the image sheís on board ship with her baby. She and her baby are sailing toward Greece. Jacky has never been in this image. The image may even depend on Jacky not being in it. She supposes the baby is hers and Jackyís, but thatís not significant. The ship sails into a harbor in Greece, arrives at the dock: she and her baby are welcomed home by the family. Sheís overwhelmed but canít say what this overwhelming emotion is attached to: idea of being welcomed home by her family? idea of holding her baby? even the idea of arriving by ocean liner at a dock in Greece. At that moment life is complete. If she could live in that image, spend her life travelling toward it and then prolong it forever, nothing would be missing. Itís life outside the image, the life she leads, her stupid life with Jacky whose absence gives the image its coherence, that feels empty. Alive when she closes her eyes, dead when she opens them. . . .

"Monica looks around for Jacky and has no trouble locating his narrow rodentís head, dark fringe of hair, slouching way of walking at odds with the arched tension of the body: bow ready to fire one of the weak but pointy little missiles stockpiled in his silo from birth. Everything Allison says and everything Allison does annoys him and the little missiles often find their mark.

"The inward arch of his chest and the yoke-like curve of her shoulders seem to account for one another.

"When is Jacky happy? Never. Happiest, though still-not-happy, with his buddies: playing softball or on the long drive out to an Islandersí game. After work or in the dull time not with his buddies Jacky has to make do with the oddly irritating pleasure, the happiness-thatís-not-happiness and the excitement that approaches grief, of rooting for his losing teams on tv."



*


TALES FROM THE IMAGE WORLD


"At 9 a.m. an old suitcase is open on Nadja and Andyís rundown little porch. Later, shorts, pants, t-shirts and shirts are draped over railings: blowing lightly in any breeze with no weight of dripping water. Just unpacked and happy to be in air.

"Nadja is at the small, round table, writing a letter.

"The pleasure of doing something in the open air, no matter what. The pleasure of having a task to do that can be done in the open air and the feeling that your time is now arranged to good purpose.

"Little spool-like table.

"Little spool of letter-writing: day winds around it: the purposeful shape that others may call meaning. And the added pleasure of seeing yourself in the image. Begins her letter by describing as carefully as she can to her distant friend where she is and what sheís doing. How it looks exactly to be above the back yard on this day. How it smells exactly on this porch of old boards in the trees. The precise feeling of the day on her skin and so on. . . .

"Morning passes in this way and flows into life. And if life can be built up of many such tasks? The idea of a life in which a spool of pleasurable tasks winds the look, smell, aroma and feeling of the day around it and time along with them.



"Andyís endless tinkering has gotten the ancient green Volvo working again. Nadja hears the unmistakable sound of the Volvo engineís unmuffled growl, goes to the railing and sees Andy in the driveway talking to the bandís beautiful, dark-haired singer, Luisa. In seconds sheís downstairs, telling Andy that when she was outside on the porch this morning writing letters she was hoping Andy would feel like going racing when he got home. Went bicycling earlier, but really in the mood for racing with Andy now. . . .

"Ocean breeze springs up suddenly: smell of oceanís cold saltiness, sudden rattling of everything that had been still, sensation of wind as a force that might sail the body over a roof like a letter written on thin paper and left unweighted on a rusty garden table all arrive with one gust.

"Clothing blows off railings into the tree-like hedges and down to the cracked-and-weedy paving blocks of the backyard ó a pair of Nadjaís lime green rayon track shorts sailing onto the low roof of the run-down garage, a pale blue shirt windmilling over it ó and Andy, Nadja and Luisa laugh in the shaded driveway before anyone thinks to go after them.



"Wind shifts fragments of conversation horizontally: placeless, unanchored in time, audible at unpredictable intervals and eternally dis-assembled unless someone reassembles them by making up whatís missing."



*


WORLD FLOATS SIDEWAYS


"Daisy says: 'do you think that the two of us are enough to make a club?'

"Johanna thinks for a second and says 'why not?'

" 'Well then I found something for our club.'

" 'What is it?'

" 'I donít know what it is, but Iím sure our club can use it.'

" 'It fits or it doesnít. Itís useful or it isnít. I agree.'

" 'And nothing else matters?'

" 'If thatís true then thereís something in Mrs. Corcoranís house our club could use also.'

" 'Our club needs it, but even if itís more important to our club than it is to Mrs. Corcoran can we just take it or do we still have to ask?' "



" 'Ech! mustard!'

" 'Ooh! Look at that!'

" 'A grasshopper?'

" 'Phoo! A squeezed apple!'

" 'Look at that squishing out of it!'

" 'Ugh!'

" 'What is it?'

" 'A dead beetle?' "



"Rebecca Geiger sits down hard on the green bench, pouting. She has a dirty plastic bag filled with dead leaves.

"Monica knows she wants to be asked whatís wrong and takes a break from writing to do it.

" 'Daisy and Johanna told me to get lost!'

" 'How come?'

" 'All I said was: "why can't we play another game?" And Daisy said: "why donít you get lost! Get the hell out of here!" '

" 'Daisy said that? Are you sure?'

" 'She really said "fuck". "Get the fuck out of the yard!" '

" 'And what did you say?'

" 'All I said was "no, why should I?" All I wanted to do was play "Red Light/​Green Light", because the game they were playing was starting to get boring!'

" 'Is it the first time Johanna threw you out of her yard?'

" 'Yes I mean no. They always throw me out! And Johanna said: "this is my yard ó so you have to get out!" '

" 'So they were cruel.'

" 'First they said get lost and then they threw junk all over my head!'

" 'Whatís that on your face?'

" 'Thatís the junk they threw!'

" 'It looks like chocolate.'

" 'They donít know how to make a paper sailboat, but I DO!' "



*


ON THE NATURE OF DAYS (TRUE OR FALSE)


"The porous coherence of the day.



"If Time is not the name we give to our sense that the day is held together despite its randomness then what is?



"a) Whatever falls into it belongs in it.

"b) Arranged disorder can never have the order of disorder.

"c) The sense that the contents of a vacant lot are always ideally distributed and should not be disturbed.

"d) A beautiful view makes looking out the window a waste of time.

"e) The common thread between all these senses of the world has a name but Monica can never think of it."

Selected Works

Fiction
Companion volume to ABC Street, chronicling the events and characters of ABC Street as they amble by, circling around and through Hank Forestís party, while finding ways to suggest the warp of time.
The boundary between novel and journal: the passing world chronicled as fiction.

"ABC Street sends out ripples that change our reading of the other Ascher/Straus books, blurring lines of memory and realism and imagination. . . ."

-- Stephen Beachy, San Francisco Bay Guardian

". . . characters Ė Celeste, the Dane or the Swede, the taxi driver, one or several men named Antonio Ė are . . . obsessed with the future and with the unlimited sense of possibility that only gets horribly reduced anytime a decision is made, meaning created."

-- Stephen Beachy, San Francisco Bay Guardian

"...the best kind of experimental fiction--innovative and entertaining."
--Caryn James, The Village Voice

". . . dialogue at once so real and so unreal that it seems like the way people might talk in dreams. The way people would talk if they were possessed by a rare intelligence. . . ."

-- Stephen Beachy, San Francisco Bay Guardian

A mysterious "novel-in-stories": "Some of the most stylish Ďpost-modern fictioní there is."
--John Strausbaugh, New York Press

". . . Valeria is haunted by the sense that there's a completely different way to live, akin to living on another planet. . . . She journeys. . . through Ascher/Straus-world, a world where film, TV, dreams, and brief conversations collide to create a hyperreal and moody landscape."

-- Stephen Beachy, San Francisco Bay Guardian
ď. . . [an] absorbing, sexy and troubling reflection of these weird times. . . it should be read."
--John Strausbaugh, New York Press