I’m only passingly familiar with the work of Steven Jesse Bernstein. I heard “The Man Upstairs” on this week’s (October 16) episode of Over the Edge from Don Joyce of the band Negativland, and searched to find the piece isolated from the bed of ambient noise and audio collage—the stop, start, rewind, replay nature of Over the Edge.
Here’s a transcription of the piece. It was found on this website:
The man upstairs is playing cards again, shuffling the cards on the carpet. He is alone, drinking grapefruit juice, playing solitaire, and masturbating once or twice a day. “You are my only friend,” he said to me one day while shaving. “Oh, that’s not true!” “Maybe not,” he said, “but it probably is true.” This hand is not going too well. He pounds on the floor and says, “What a shit layout!” I can hear everything he says up there. Almost everything he does, I can hear. When he dies, I will not hear that. I will hear nothing. He picks up the cards off the carpet and reshuffles. Then he goes to the refrigerator for more juice. Click, bang, like a gun – that’s the refrigerator door. Open it, pour the juice, close it. He sits on the carpet and deals the cards, he drinks the juice and studies the layout. I know the man’s habits, I know how he thinks. I’ve been listening to him go about his daily business for a long time. Longer than he realizes. He has been alone up there forever it seems, shuffling the cards, drinking the juice, tickling his own balls. He pretends to talk to people but makes no contact. His eyes are covered by milky cataracts. He talks right through people’s faces and does not stop until he is out of breath. “A big zero,” he says, apparently studying the cards. “A big zero.” He picks them up off the carpet without playing. Now he is drinking juice. He undoes his pants, the buckle, snap the zipper, plays with his dick but nothing happens. He is getting older. Zips, snaps, buckles his pants and goes on drinking the juice. I notice that there is no music in his life, no radio, no nothing. He does not drink, he hardly eats anything. I see him in the cafe fighting with a bowl of soup, a few spoonfuls. He says, “Please, that’s dinner.” My life is more interesting than his. I can hear him but he can’t hear me. Other than that I suppose there isn’t much difference. I sit on the carpet and shuffle the cards, open and close the refrigerator, play with myself, eat dinner at the cafe. He lives on the top floor. There is nothing for him but bird’s feed and rain. He is a bare skull. I am somewhere inside the body. Under me there is a vacancy. There is no one down there listening.
The simplest magic trick—the one I know mainly because two years ago I became an uncle and thought I needed to know it—is the French Drop. You have seen the French Drop. It’s palming a coin in one hand while pretending to grab it with the other. A piece of slight of hand. It works when a person misdirects the viewer (the two-year-old niece, say) but making a big show of looking at the empty hand. And then the palmed coin is pulled from behind the niece’s ear.
Misdirection happens in a piece of writing, too. An unreliable narrator misdirects the reader. The difference being, a good sleight of hand artist doesn’t want the viewer to see that the coin is palmed in his hand. A good writer tries to let the reader see a tiny bit of the coin peak out from under his fingers. A good writer wants to reader to slowly realize that the first person narrator is telling a story about someone else when in fact the story is really about him.
“The Man Upstairs” is a fine little piece of misdirection. There are sneaking view of the coin: can a downstairs neighbor hear the sound of a man tickling his own balls? How thin are the floors in this place? If they are so thin you can hear a man tickle his own balls, how can the floors actually hold up the weight of a man? And the narrator can hear the man upstairs, but can’t be heard?
In the end, the piece abandons misdirection, of course. Bernstein practically throws the coin at us. But I don’t think he fails the piece. Instead, like a good poet, he abandons the coin entirely, has pulled it out from behind our ears, and when we look up, we notice that he has somehow removed us from the room in which we were watching the trick and deposited us in the cold, claustrophobic trunk of a stranger’s car. And we are hurtling toward a cliff.