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Jonathan Josephson

The Pain Critic

 

Though it may not be apparent in his reviews, Norton Sandlebee believed in Makers, more so than anyone he knew, certainly more than any critic he knew. Deep in his bones, he wanted creators to succeed, especially young ones, and the so-called “emerging” Makers, those whose point on their career trajectory placed them somewhere between “actually finished something” and “could be something someday.”

Sandlebee stood on the superway platform, checked his watch - a 2020s antique that had been passed down from his great-grandfather. His more-salt-than-pepper coif and sly mustachio gave him a dignified air that was offset by his signature accessory – green plastic glasses. The critic wore his midweek suit: charcoal gray with lavender pinstripes, Oxford wingtips, and a magenta bow tie from a rising fashion designer from one of the provinces.

He boarded the superway car at 7:14pm, perfectly timed. He’d arrive at the venue precisely at 7:45pm, exactly 15 minutes prior to curtain. He’d been looking forward to this performance for quite some time. The Maker, Marlena Lee Willem, was a complete unknown to any creative circle. Even her genre was unknown, other than being some undefined subsect of performance art. Tonight’s performance was only announced a week ago, but it promised to be unlike anything any audience had ever seen. Most important to Sandlebee, he would be the first critic to witness and assess her work, a role he relished above all else.

Sandlebee loved a good superway ride. The thrill of sailing over the city on near-invisible kinetic tracks, zipping through clouds and smog and dust-storms like airplanes of old. It was a small pleasure for him to savor in solitude: a private thrill to sail above it all for a little while.

The critic flipped through listings on his holotablet, skimming descriptions of the latest films, museum exhibits, theatre openings, and orchestral performances. How dull. At this point in his career, Sandlebee was all but over such mundane things as “stories and “points of view.” After attending the most highly regarded, most popular, most widely awarded, and most heavily sought-after examples of human creativity for the past three dozen years, Sandlebee found himself unimpressed by any of it; he could no longer stomach the indignation, the preciousness, the self-importance of the artist. 

“When you’ve seen all that I’ve seen,” he often said, “Even the best that a discipline has to offer is merely derivative. There is no more new.”

Sandlebee’s last ten years’ worth of criticisms were by far his most popular as well as his most controversial. He not only called out Makers but his brother and sister critics for their ineptitude in not seeing the obvious “copycatting” that he was duty-bound to expose at every turn. At first, Sandlebee thought his newfound awakening would cost him his job, but his articles had precisely the opposite effect on his career. His column was more widely and more closely read and watched than ever before.

Best of all, he was credited with the one thing every critic throughout history has wanted but almost none had achieved - direct acknowledgement in the founding of a new creative movement; that is, being told, by artists, many artists if trends could be believed, “You know what, you’re right. Let’s try things your way.”

“Just don’t be boring,” was Norton Sandlebee’s snide but honest response to those who were aghast at the critic who seemed to loathe most every creative work made by anyone. “Be unique to you. Leave nothing unrevealed.” And it was that sentiment that gave birth to this wholly new practice of Making - something truly dangerous. And Sandlebee loved it.

#

The critic disembarked from the superway at 7:39pm - precisely on time. As he walked past street vendors hawking air purifiers and reconstituted foodstuffs that they claimed, “contained actual fruit!” he began to hear the all-too-familiar sound that preceded him to most any venue he visited - protesters. His march down from the superway platform to street level was its own kind of aural experience; the descent of a truth teller into the den of those unable to stomach his noble calling.

“Murderer!” called a woman from within a crowd of demonstrators. Per his requirement, Sandlebee’s walk had been specifically marked out and defined by police barricades and sworn officers to protect him from potentially aggressive naysayers. It was in the critic’s nature to be exacting in most every aspect of his life, and when it came to matters of self-preservation, he took no chances whatsoever.

“You killed my son!” shouted a man holding a sign with a picture of a beaming young man in his mid-20s. The caption read Frank Morales, Artist.

Sandlebee couldn’t help but pause when he saw that face - Morales, he thought to himself, I know that name. As if psychically connected, the aggrieved father flipped the sign around showing the same young man, dead on the floor, having bled out from the stumps at the end of his arms. The young man's hands lay nearby, crumpled and bloody. Oh right, thought Sandlebee, he had something there. The critic kept walking.

The crowds that anticipated Sandlebee’s arrival got progressively more intense as he approached the venue. He heard everything from vague obscenities to claims that he had “Ruined the world!”

Norton Sandlebee had ruined the world? Unlikely. 

In his mind, all Sandlebee did was declare the obvious - that there is no such thing as true artistic achievement without pain.

Every one of the greatest works of literature, when such things were in vogue, were born out of pain: humiliation, grief, rejection, obsession, oppression, hatred, regret, fear. These are the specters that have haunted every artist from Rumi to Shakespeare to Jay-Z to Nolan the Sculptor. Besides, it's not that Sandlebee could change anything on his own - the people, most people, lots and lots of people loved this new era of Making. If some people get hurt, such is the price of a creative life and creative progress.

#

Sandlebee’s ticket was scanned at 7:45pm. Perfect. 

Even though it had been many decades since paper tickets were fashionable, let alone practical, the critic insisted that he receive some material remnant from the events he reviewed. Sandlebee was in such high demand that he could freely decide which Maker he would grace with his presence, and he almost always chose events that would, and could, be presented only once. So, producers would make him a ticket, even if he were the only one to receive such a thing.

Sandlebee slid into his fifth-row-aisle seat, the auditorium abuzz with anticipation. Sandlebee never had to pay for his tickets, but he gleaned that admission for tonight’s Maker presentation cost upwards of one-tenth his ample annual salary. He couldn’t help but look around at the elites in the seats around him, judging these men and women, knowing that every single one of them was only in this room, spending an offensive amount of their money, because of him. He was the brand, not whatever or whoever appeared on that stage. He was the face of the New.

“Ahhhhhh!” 

A woman screamed from the stage, probably no more than 30 feet from where Sandlebee sat.  A dusky red curtain shielded the contents of the stage from the audience's view. This was another artifact that the critic simply adored - the stage curtain.

Archival photos and drawings suggested that curtains had once been a mainstay in venues around the world, now seeing one was nearly as rare as that elusive “real fruit” that street vendors claimed to sell.

“We will begin in five minutes,” said an amplified voice. In the background, more anguished sounds could be heard from a woman in distress as well as more muffled sounds of men and women in masks.

#

Nolan the Sculptor. Now there was a Maker who was worth his salt. The Argentina-born artist was renowned for his elaborate installations in remote locations. His signature process entailed living with host communities for 50 days and then working for 50 days on a new piece in complete isolation. At the end of the 100 days, he would unveil an immersive work of sculpture that was unique to the location in which it was constructed - huge collections of shapes and structures that reflected the people with whom he had lived – their ethics, their joys, their daily lives, their fears. His art was an act of service that would live in the hearts, and on the grounds, of those who had cared for him and for whom he had come to care for quite deeply. 

Then came Namibia. 

Nolan had been in residence with a family in Windhoek for 50 days, and a few weeks into his construction, the artist was injured - though no one knew at the time. Nolan’s process was extremely rigid and required that he be left in complete solitude for the entire 50 days of his build. So it was not until the completion of the project that his shattered right foot could receive the medical attention that it so desperately required. 

Over the course of his work, the sculptor had knocked a large cube of soapstone onto his foot, leaving him pinned in place for several days. The only way Nolan survived was by carving himself out of the stone with his delicate artist's tools. While the installation was “unfinished” per the original plan - the spot where Nolan had been pinned, and the stone that had served as his unfeeling captor, proved most enthralling to the art world, and especially Norton Sandlebee. 

“This is the true calling of the artist,” the critic declared, “and such is the bar for all future acts of expression should be held. Enough with wrapping pain in metaphor and representation; here is an artist who demonstrates the soul vividly and without fear.” 

Sandlebee was initially mocked for his take on the Namibia exhibition, but then… his sentiment ignited a Maker revolution. In the coming weeks and months, Makers became dedicated to live viewings of the artist in pain - exploring pain, inviting pain, inflicting pain, Making pain themselves and themselves their art. 

“Pain is art - now it can be experienced without the clutter,” Sandlebee declared.

#

“AAAAAAHHHHHH!” howled another scream from behind the red curtain, unamplified, unrehearsed - this was living, writhing anguish.

Eight-o-clock struck, and without warning, the house lights blinked out. The curtain rose, and a hush fell over the crowd. No one, not even the critic, knew what the content of this event was going to be. His ticket contained only the Maker’s name and a one-word title, and that one word could have a multitude of meanings. Though, as the stage lights rose, the meaning of the title came clearer into focus - and it made Norton revoltingly uncomfortable in the best possible way.

On stage was a makeshift hospital room. Masked and gloved medical personnel busied about, checking machines, conferring with charts, and tending to a sweating, heaving woman lying in an adjustable bed that faced the audience.

“AHHHHHH!” the woman shrieked. Presumably, this was Marlena Lee Willem, the Maker. She pulled at her stomach, gripping herself tighter and tighter through shivers and tears. Her movements and words were completely unrehearsed and rarely intelligible. There was no staging to speak of, though, the medical personnel did seem to intentionally not stand between the Maker and her audience - for she, and her pain, were the stars of the show.

“Ahhhhhh, uuuhhhhhhh, AHHHHHHH!”

Sandlebee recalled that the invite for the event listed the run time as anywhere from 1 to 48 hours, so this event could be a long night. Regardless, the critic was on the edge of his velveteen seat, gripped with anticipation, already seeing the shape his article would take - he’d start with the red drape, foreshadowing the imminent bloodshed and despair that was to follow.

“AHHHHH! AHHHHH!” screamed Marlena Lee Willem, gripping her stomach, alone on stage despite the medical professionals, despite the audience, despite the city outside the venue, despite the world outside the city. Pain, pain, pain and shame is all she had, exactly what Norton Sandlebee longed to see. He patted the ticket in his coat pocket, thinking through the brilliance of the event’s title, a title that worked perfectly in both literal and literary terms: Miscarriage.



 

Jonathan Josephson’s theatrical adaptations of classic gothic literature have been performed all around the world and are published by Steele Spring Stage Rights. This is his first horror short story. Bienvenue au Danse, Jonathan.