< Read >

Screenshot 2024-05-20 at 4.24.54 PM

Authorial Intent

Shya Scanlon


aul’s young writer friend took the call. “Hi Mom. No I haven’t. Sorry but I mean I’m not going to lie or circumvent the protocol or whatever. Yes I realize this affects your plans to come visit but what do you want me to do? Okay, okay, yes, I do know what you want me to do but like I said I—Look Mom I’m—I hope you see the irony in accusing me of being selfish. No I’m actually upstate having a socially distanced drink in the real physical world with Paul. He’s that. Yes, he taught at—Yes we’re—It’s ridonkulous. I saw a—” Here he gave Paul a look Paul could only describe as astonished. “I’m spazzing out. What’s the singular of deer.”

“Deer,” said Paul.

“Doesn’t sound right.”

“Think doe, a deer.”

“Mom I saw uh deer. Yes I’m wearing one. I don’t know I’ll ask. Paul have you . . .”

Paul raised his index finger.

“So I guess he had the first one but he’s fat. Mom I’m being rude. Okay I’ll tell him. I love you too. Yes of course. You’ll be the first to know I promise. Yes. No. Bye. Jesus. My mom says Hi. Where was I?”

“Domestic abuse.”

“Right, right. You’re not fat by the way, don’t get a complex. What’s your fauxmorbidity anyway?”

“I legitimately have high blood pressure.”

“How high? Kidding. So I’m flipping through this issue of Harper’s and there’s a short story called ‘Domestic Abuse’ written by, do you know ______ at _____ University? And of course because of the title and because he’s written autofiction since before it was a thing and I’m like this should be interesting, and it turns out that it’s about, wait, you said you have or haven’t read it?”

“Have not.”

“It’s about this guy who lands a massive, open-handed slap on his wife’s face after she accuses him of fucking his student, who’s staying with them at the time and so she sees this whole thing and freaks out and it’s partly about does the student report him even though the wife begs her not to. Sort of a spin on Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? I mean I haven’t seen it but anyway so I call the author who’s an old friend of mine and I just say, Whoa, and he knows of course what I’m talking about. He says I wasn’t the first person to call. But the point is, do you want another round? The point is that he goes on to talk about the genesis of the story.”

“Is he married?”

“Yes. Gorgeous woman—can I say Black?—who does some kind of computer thing. He tells me that he’d had this idea that he wanted to write about a man slapping his wife but he didn’t think he could do it because everyone knew his fiction was his life, as in if something occurred in his stories you could pretty much bet it actually happened, or something like it happened, and so everyone would automatically assume that he’d hit his wife.”

“Which he hadn’t.”

“Well that’s where it gets interesting, because I guess over the span of a month or so he begins to obsess about the idea that he isn’t able to write this thing he wants to write, and though part of him knows that he put himself in this position by mining his private life for material he still feels hemmed in, he feels like constricted, and ultimately though this is a guy who writes every day, who puts in the work, the ten thousand hours or whatever, and obviously I mean this is someone who publishes in Harper’s so it’s working for him, but the point is that because of this weird conflict he was experiencing writer’s block for the first time in his life, and maybe you can see where this is going but—”

“I really hope not.”

“Right? But so this grudge begins to build, this really unfair but nonetheless very real grudge against his wife about her, you know, about not letting him quote unquote write about this taboo subject matter, or about her somehow making it taboo. And meanwhile it seems like she isn’t exactly loving life either, because her computer job—I feel like it’s something about augmented reality but I could be wrong—her job is on pause because a round of investment has fallen through and the point is they’re circling one another like caged animals, which who isn’t, and eventually he gets the idea into his head that, wait for it.”

“Oh god.”

“Yup. So of course soon enough they’re having another big fight and she says something really mean and he just, you know, whap, and after that the story just flowed out of him.”

“What about her?”

“I guess they just haven’t talked about it, but he says it cleared the air and things were basically back to normal the next day.”

“Back to normal-terrible, or pre-terrible normal?”

“He didn’t say. I guess I assumed the latter.”

They both sipped their drinks in silence, a bit buzzed, Paul thinking how odd it was to spend time with someone so young, and then Paul got a text from his friend Martha that said, “Have you talked to Sasha yet?”

“Going to try tomorrow,” he wrote back.


he next day, Paul found “Domestic Abuse” online free for all to read, and one of the things he found remarkable was that the author had adopted the wife’s perspective. This was an odd move considering the reputation the author apparently had. It seemed to Paul either a kind of moral insulation for people who understood the dynamic and could take it as a tacit sign of awareness and approval on the part of the author’s wife, or a particularly sly appropriation, so bold as to welcome the kind of criticism it would surely receive and thus perform a neat sleight-of-hand by suggesting a preemptive, self-aware comment on said critique built directly into the text.

If so, what would that comment be, exactly? Likely that they’re coming to the text with the kind of petty moral outrage that squeezes any and all potential life force from art, whose purpose is and has always been to shake us free of our bullshit systems of bourgeois taboo. Paul emailed another writer friend of his with a link to the story, a brief overview of what he’d been told about its origin, and that bit about taboo, which he found clever. Then he scanned the headlines. This was the week that an enormous container ship had been lodged in the large intestine of the Suez Canal and was disrupting global trade, and Paul had become kind of obsessed with the aerial views of ships stranded in the Red Sea, waiting to pass through. Without context, it might look like a fleet of warships assembling off the shore of an enemy state, waiting orders to launch an attack. He’d taken to daydreaming about such a provocation, who might be behind it, what it might mean. Maybe Biden had leaned on Sisi to stop buying arms from Russia, and Putin had stepped in to force a negotiation. Maybe it was a show of force by a Somali pirate anarcho-syndicalist collective. Were Somali pirates even still a thing? Sometimes Paul felt like his perspective on global politics was stuck like a container ship in the Suez Canal of the 90s. All that sudden trade. The heady optimism of it. The neoliberal turpitude. The blowjobs and public shaming. Come to think of it, though, had anyone really moved on? Within five minutes of having emailed, his friend texted him and suggested they FaceTime.

“Yeah,” Sebastian said, “I read that story a couple days ago. That guy’s notorious for airing his dirty laundry.”

Though they were in pretty close contact, Paul hadn’t actually seen Sebastian’s face in maybe six months. It looked weird. Swollen. It looked like he hadn’t put on weight so much as filled with air.

“You get your first shot yet?” Paul asked. This was how conversations had begun to begin.

“I don’t qualify, which is fucking stupid I mean look at me. You?”

“Yeah. Second one in like ten days.”


“I hear they’re going to open it up for everyone soon.”



“So anyway your take on that story made me think of, have you read The Golden Bough?”

“I think I’ve heard of it maybe.”

“It’s this book by a guy named James Frazer. Late Victorian era. Basically comparative religion. The British Empire had grown enormous and I think society was flooded with all this information about how everyone else was living, which was of course way worse than the British, everyone’s a savage worshipping false gods, yadda yadda, but so Frazer basically blows the lid off that assumption by tracing all these similarities between what people believe in different countries, and how they act and how they worship and how all this has changed over time, and the big ah-ha moment was basically that Christianity is rooted in pagan ideas about magic and, you know, how we’re fundamentally no different, we being white Christian Europeans, than all those brown savages running around with spears. It caused a stir.”

“I can imagine.”

“And of course it’s trickled down into various other things like maybe most famously ‘The Wasteland,’ which used a lot of the ritual imagery, but also The Heart of Darkness, where Kurtz is—have you read Conrad?”

“In college, I think?”

“But you remember Kurtz.”

“The horror, the horror.”

“Exactly. That guy is right out of Frazer, the horror being the realization that he’s the savage and that by extension we’re all savages. There’s actually a copy of The Golden Bough visible on a shelf in Kurtz’s, like, lair there at the end of the movie.”

“I’ve been meaning to re-watch that actually.”

“But I got kind of sidetracked. What I wanted to say was that this taboo idea you brought up, it’s, well so Frazer basically divided magic into good and bad, light and dark, with the good being sorcery and the bad being taboo. Magicians used sorcery to make good things happen and they used taboo to prevent bad things from happening.”

“Are we talking about step on a crack break your mother’s back?”

“Exactly! I mean, there are tons of examples. I feel like a lot of them had to do with hunting. You ever smudge your house? Or like a new apartment?”

“Claire used to do that. My ex.”

“Burning sage and walking around.”

“Yeah, we moved three times and she did it the first two times, and then I think she said something about sage becoming, not extinct but.”

“Scarce. There’s probably all kinds of stuff. Sometimes we call it superstition. The point I’m making is that this slap we’re talking about seems less about taboo and more about positive magic. I mean, not positive as in, that felt great! But it’s less about preventing something bad than about producing something good. Because is there a taboo against hitting people? I feel like it’s more just, you know, illegal. Because it’s mean.”

“It doesn’t break your mother’s back.”

“But in terms of the story, the guy is ritualizing the event in what do you call it, an exorcism almost. Either way, though, according to Frazer this was all just a misunderstanding of natural laws. It’s interesting because he saw magic and science as being kindred in a way, in that they both take natural laws to be set in stone and they have their own technologies for triggering outcomes that obey those laws. Cause and effect. It’s just that magic gets it all wrong. It’s like magicians are seeing the—you know the parable of the cave? Magic is seeing the shadows and thinking you know what’s going on but you’re still in the cave. Science is you’ve left the cave.”

“Elvis has left the building.”

There was a lull.

“Does it change anything,” Paul said, “that he’s white and she’s Black?”

“I don’t remember the story mentioning race.”

“Well but the author’s actual wife is Black, so.”

“That’s kind of a leap.”

“But it’s autofiction.”

“Yeah, fiction. Not biography.”

“But the guy actually hit is wife!”

“Well, that’s a different question. There’s no metaphorical load there. If that actually happened it’s just literally a crime.”

“But I mean.”

“Anyway, how are you doing?”

Paul could hear sirens outside Sebastian’s apartment and felt a pang of something.

“I’m supposed to call the daughter of a friend of mine. You know Martha?”

“I think I did molly at a party with her once.”

“Her daughter’s couch surfing on the Lower East Side with some unsavories. I’m trying to figure out my approach.”

“You’re, what, supposed to make her come home?”

“Not exactly. I mean, she’s eighteen, so it’s more like a fact-finding mission because she’s stopped calling her mom. I’ve known this kid since she was born.”

“You’ve known her her whole life? How old is her mother?”

“My age. He just had Sasha when she was really young, still in college. It was actually a professor she slept with. Long story. Anyway, I think Martha thinks I’m like the cool uncle because I live in the city. Lived.”

“Speaking of, how’s the sale going? Got a closing date?”

“Not yet. Hopefully in June.”

“Wow. The end of an era.”

After they hung up Paul skimmed an article about a poor Egyptian village located on the west bank of the Suez Canal right where the container ship had run aground. In order to help people grok the scale of this massive ship, diagrams had been published that showed it standing on end beside other wonders like the Eiffel Tower, which it was much taller than, and the Empire State Building, which it was slightly smaller than, but even without standing on end it towered over anything in this little village with a ringside seat. Villagers had begun setting up chairs on their flat roofs to watch the spectacle, which was especially beautiful at night, and gossip about what the containers might contain. Televisions? Air conditioners? Definitely nothing that anyone in town possessed. This inverse relationship between proximity and access seemed to Paul both diabolical and emblematic of the basic globalist irony that the smaller the world became, quote unquote, the further sources of goods receded from the point of consumption. The more powerful you were, the more remote you could afford to be. The center had definitely not fucking held.

A text came through from Martha, a link to a story about a DYI newspaper of some kind called The Wasted Alley that chronicled the opinions and goings-on of a smart, connected set of college grads in and around an area below Canal Street.

“I think Sash is in with this bunch,” Martha wrote.

As he read the article Paul got a feeling he’d had countless times before: that the left was cannibalizing itself, splintering and in-fighting and everyone trying to build a career out of destroying the careers of those who’d come before. In bemused, vaguely condescending terms it described an entitled set of bratty trustafarians who got by on their good looks and nose for bleeding-edge trends. They reported on small parties thrown by close friends as if everyone had wanted to go, wore their inexperience like badges of honor, and tracked cancel culture with the giddy erudition usually reserved for sports. Paul could see why Martha, a classicist with a deep skepticism of pop culture, would be concerned. She’d practically panicked when Sasha had decided to take a gap year. Now this.

Paul texted Martha back. “Going to call her soon.”

“Bless you Paul,” she replied.

The truth was, he hadn’t spoken with Sasha for over a year, and their last interaction had been brief and awkward thanks to a passing remark by Martha about how Sasha used to have a crush on Paul. He was sure Martha wouldn’t remember, the comment had been delivered quickly and without much thought to how it might affect her daughter, which was often Martha’s way. But it had been true, which was the problem, and so not something most people would want to bring up, especially to a self-conscious seventeen-year-old. At the time, Sasha was begging her mom to let her stay at Paul’s place in the city for a week—Martha lived upstate close to the college where she’d taught for a decade, close to where Paul himself now lived full time—and though Paul had felt vaguely uncomfortable with the idea he’d gone along with it. Martha too had seemed open to it, and when she’d tossed off the quip about Sasha’s crush, it had been in the midst of finally declaring her support. It was summer, after all, and she hoped her daughter might take in some culture. As soon as the crush comment had aired, however, the mood had shifted slightly, almost imperceptibly, and all the times he’d noticed Sasha’s burgeoning sexuality came rushing back to him in a flush of guilt. Sasha had clearly been weirded out too because within a day she’d made plans to stay with her father in D.C. instead.

It went without saying that none of this would be mentioned when they spoke, but it would be there, lingering under the surface, both of them aware . . . of what? Of nothing really, nothing had ever happened—not really—but the force of that nothing was potent, which is why it was taking Paul a long time to summon the courage to call.


aul’s call went to voicemail, but as he was leaving a message he got a text from the same number: “Who is this?”

“Uncle Paul,” he wrote.


“Hoping you have time for a chat.”

“Uh . . . sure?”

He called. Sasha’s voice sounded hoarse, foreign. “I’m sorry,” he said, “did I wake you up?”

“No, it’s fine. I’m just, you know, there’s a lot going on.”

“Oh really? Like what?”

“I mean, you know, the usual stuff.”

Realizing that on the other side of the phone was the same person he’d read Harry Potter to over a decade ago gave Paul a feeling of disembodiment.

“Like The Wasted Alley?”

“Ha! Oh my god.”

“Oh, you’re not involved with that?”

“No, I mean, sort of, not really. It’s just funny hearing you say it. How do you even know about that?”

“I read an article about it and I think maybe your mom said you were—”

“Did Mom make you call me?”

Make me? Of course not. But she is a little worried.”

Sasha snorted.

“Anyway, this article made The Wasted Alley sound kinda cool.”

“Please, it was a hit piece.”

“Was it? C’mon Sash, I didn’t even tell you which article I read.”

“There are like three and I’ve read them. They’re all deliberately obtuse at best. It’s basically aging hipsters who’ve gone corporate trying to understand what the kids are up to these days.”

“Deliberately obtuse,” Paul repeated. “Sounds like you are involved then?”

“They’re friends. I mean, I know them.”

“Are they who you’re staying with?”

“Not really, everyone’s just . . . Paul, no offense but this kinda feels like an interrogation. I’m fine, okay? I’m actually great and you can tell Mom that I’ll call when I call.”

“Okay, okay, I’m sorry. Really. Change subject?”

“I mean, there’s stuff I gotta do.”

She was so silent Paul thought she’d dropped the call. He looked at his phone. Sometimes, he thought, there was no way but through.

“When did we stop talking? I miss you, Sash. I wish we could just get over whatever this is with us and—”

This? Ew. I didn’t realize there was something with us.”

“I’m sorry, I just thought.”

“Whatever. Hey, is your apartment, you know, vacant?”

“Well, it’s in contract.”

“Yeah but you still own it, right?”

“Sasha if you mean can you stay there, I don’t think that’s a very good idea.”

“So it’s just going to sit there empty while I’m couch surfing?”

Paul considered this. “If I could be sure it would just be you, then maybe, but it honestly sounds like there’s a lot partying going on in that scene you’re part of, and—”

“See? Hit job.”

“So you’re not partying?”

“Paul, look, what those articles fail to mention is that everyone basically came downtown over the summer to protest for BLM. Unlike some people who bailed, we were right in the middle of things, every day, doing the work. I encourage you not to conflate civic involvement with just, you know, hanging out. Partying quote unquote. I mean do you think I’m in some kind of sorority? Playing beer pong?”

“No, I—”

“But you wouldn’t know, Paul, because you’re in your upstate second home like a bourgeois parody, reading fake news written by drama queens.”

Paul was admittedly taken aback by Sasha’s tone. Even just hearing her use his name was strange, pointedly, he felt, not preceded by “Uncle” the way she’d always said it. It sounded naked in her mouth, unprotected. It felt like an accusation. He couldn’t tell whether it would be worse to argue or admit fault—both seemed like minefields—but he had to choose.

“Look,” he said, “I donate until it hurts, okay? Not everyone can be on the front lines, as you call it. It’s much more useful for someone like me to give money where it can be put into action most effectively.”

“Uh huh, keep telling yourself that.”

“Anyway Sash I think you’re deflecting. This isn’t about Black Lives Matter, it’s about you.”

“No it’s not! It’s exactly not about me. It’s not about my mother and it’s certainly not about you. That is literally the entire point.”

“But I—”

“Do you know what I’m doing right now?”


“I’m at viewing party for George Floyd’s trial. A party I helped organize. This is history, Paul. People are going to ask you where you were and I’m not going to say that I was upstate living with my mom while she taught classes about Thucydides and the Peloponnesian War.”

Paul decided against pointing out the aptness of using the father of objective history in this particular argument, because part of him thought she’d done it on purpose.

“Okay,” he said instead, “I hear you.”

“Do you, Paul? Have you been watching the trial?”

“Yes,” he lied. Paul knew it was happening, of course, but he hadn’t been able to bring himself to watch. It just seemed too depressing.

“Well, okay then.”

“Okay then. I understand that there are big things happening. Historical things. But you can’t blame your mother for worrying, can you? It’s just that with covid and everything  . . .”

“Basically a socio-economic disease.”

“I think it’s fair to say that everyone is at risk.”

“I think it’s fair to say that some people are at greater risk than others and by the way have less access to healthcare.”

“Also fair.”

“Hey so I should really get back to the event.”

“Yeah, okay.”

“Sorry I got all whatever.”

“Not, it’s fine. I think it’s great, really, that you’re involved. That you care.”


“Of course. I’ll tell your mother the same thing.”

“Cool. Think about the apartment though, okay? I could use a little privacy now and then.”

“I’ll think about it.”

“Thanks. Oh and Paul? You’ve gotta let yourself off the hook about that kiss.”

Paul flushed. “The what?”

“I know it wasn’t you. I totally took you off guard. You were, like, not reciprocal in any way and I realize that. I was just pushing boundaries. Okay? That’s why I’ve never brought it up with anyone.”

And there it was. She couldn’t have been more than thirteen. He’d had dinner with her and Martha one night and on his way out Sasha had caught him at the door. She’d leaned in for a hug and when he’d bent down she’d reached up and kissed him full on the mouth. The memory of that moment still lived in his body like a stillness, a long stretch not unlike a blackout, maybe, though he remembered it entirely. Sasha was right that he had not reciprocated the kiss, but he also hadn’t pushed her away until she’d pulled back, curving like a comma, until she’d decided it was over. Paul’s guilt had never been so much about that moment as about a different question: What would have happened if Sasha had come to stay with him that summer? Even just asking the question made him fidget. And because history had gone in a different direction the question would never not be able to be asked. In a way, Martha’s offhand commend had both prevented potential crisis and condemned Paul to a lifetime of what-if.

After hanging up, Paul refreshed the news and saw that the container ship had finally been freed. In the coming days he’d read more about how it was able to happen—something to do with the supermoon—but at that moment all he felt was an acute sense of deflation. For that small handful of days it had seemed like maybe this stuck thing would continue to be stuck, would disrupt everything in the world. Now with it back on its way, Paul knew that the world would return to normal.

Just as Paul was thinking of what to say to Martha, a text came in from Sebastian reading, “What if he hadn’t actually slapped his real wife and was just spreading that rumor out of some sick need to keep his reputation for writing autofiction?”

“At the risk of being cancelled?”

“Why not?”

Why not indeed. Something outside caught Paul’s attention. It was a deer, actually two, actually three. A doe and two fawns crossing his yard from a wooded lot. When he’d bought the place many years before he’d been told to put up deer fencing to keep the tick population in check, but when it was just a weekend place he hadn’t seen the need. If it was a matter of ticks or getting to see the occasional deer right out the window, the decision was simple. Now that he lived there full time though the math had changed. What if he got a dog? Or even married and had kids? That was still possible. A fence was probably in order. Paul thought about “Domestic Abuse” in light of Sebastian’s theory. The whole matter suddenly struck him as kind of  . . . distant? Irrelevant? At the very least opaque. It could all be cleared up of course by reaching out to the author’s wife, and maybe that would happen at some point, but it seemed like such a thorny proposition, reputations- and intra-familial dynamics- and whatever else-wise, that it would take someone close to the matter at hand or perhaps just nosier. Maybe someone with an axe to grind. Paul, at any rate, would not be the one to do it, which left him with the words on the page. Paul was what might be described as an avid reader, but despite some early and definitely never-to-see-the-light-of-day fictional messings-around in his college years he’d never considered himself a writer, so unlike Sebastian, who was one, though failed, and his young friend who was one too and also friends with the pretty big deal author of the story in Harper’s, he didn’t feel fully comfortable assigning authorial intent.


Shya Scanlon