Negative Capability by Josh Russell
After her wife dies (cancer, brain, sudden), she watches lectures her wife recorded for her students, videos she’d never seen while Pam was alive. They’re about Romantic poetry—Coleridge, Shelley, et al.—and the university at which her wife had been an associate professor is still using them to teach undergraduates, which at first makes her furious, but the university’s shamelessness means Pam’s immortal online, so whenever she worries she’s forgotten her wife’s voice, she can watch a lecture about George Gordon Lord Byron and hear Pam’s voice, or at least hear a version of it, a version a little more formal and careful than the voice her wife used for calls to say she was on her way home from campus and for questions regarding when the dog had last been out to pee and for arguments about spending ten dollars a day on oat milk lattes. She recognizes there’s a danger she’ll forget that voice, her wife’s true voice, if she listens too often to Pam’s associate professor voice, but she can’t help herself. In one video Pam stutters while lecturing on De Quincey, and she’s sure that inside the stammer she can hear her wife’s true voice. Then she wonders if the tumor caused the stutter, and for a few days she can’t watch that video, but then she has to hear again her wife say Duh-duh De Quincey. The dog paces, disturbed, looks for Pam in the kitchen, the bathroom, so she plugs in earphones and listens to her wife’s voice, close in her ears, close as it’d been when they lay side by side in the bed they bought with the money from the teaching award Pam won just six months before she died. After the De Quincey video she listens to her talk about Keats and feels guilty for not caring about De Quincey, about Romantic poetry, about so many of the things Pam cared about. She wants to write a paper about Negative Capability, to get it all wrong, to receive a pity C−. She wants to go to Pam’s office at the university and watch her write helpful hints in the margins in a hand elegant and lovely as her true voice. She wants to listen to her wife explain her failures, tell her how to fix her mistakes.
The NFFR and Josh Russell Interview
It’s obviously been an insanely rough year. what’s been your favorite artistic escape either book, music, or tv?
I’ve been reading nonfiction—returning to Sontag’s On Photography and Bashō’s Narrow Road to the Interior, enjoying for the first time Brian Dillon’s Essayism, Moyra Davies’ Index Cards, and Georg Christoph Lichtenberg’s The Waste Books—and nonfiction passing itself off as fiction: Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights. On TV, I loved Deutschland 83 & 86. Premier League, Bundesliga, and UEFA Champions League football have helped a lot, as did two weeks of the Tour de France.
We’ve been thinking about the elusive definition of Creative Non-Fiction. What’s your working definition of it?
Maybe it’s about telling true stories while foregrounding form and language, either overtly, like Claudia Rankine does in Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, Anne Boyer does in Garments Against Women, and Amarnath Ravva does in American Canyon, or more subtly, like Luc Sante and Eliot Weinberger do in almost all of their work?
What was the inspiration for your story?
My wife has for several years been teaching online, and it’s always amazed me that no one’s willing to give a definitive answer to the question of who owns the video lectures and other class materials she creates. She’s a Romanticist, and smarter than me. Once I won an award from my university and we bought a bed with the prize money. I worry about death because I had cancer. Onward!
Josh Russell’s King of the Animals: Stories is forthcoming from Louisiana State University Press in March, 2021. His work has appeared most recently in Epoch, One Story, and Subtropics, and in the anthologies New Micro and Best Small Fictions 2020.