Writer’s Block
Betty the Ape

Photo of the Adler typewriter prop from the Kubrick movie “The Shining” Photo: © Flickr User Seth Anderson

Let me set the scene: It’s 1990, and the as-yet completely unknown writer Betty Fiedler is sitting in front of her Olympia typewriter, just as one would imagine. The first page has been fed into the machine, the Wite-Out is on standby, and the curtains are open because it’s daytime. At night, they are closed. Now, they are letting in the sun. It’s spring, chilly in comparison with a March day in the year 2042.

Lucan Friedland

In this combination of 1990s sunshine and shadows cast by passing clouds, Betty looks calm and concentrated. In reality, Betty feels distracted and empty. It’s me, Betty, with thoughts like spaghetti, Betty thinks. She is sitting in front of her Olympia typewriter, which she will replace with her first Network-brand computer in five years’ time. It will be a creaky tower made of plastic. It will have a turquoise button marked “power.” It will look like something made by Fisher-Price and will constantly freeze and crash. Nonetheless, Betty will love it because she loves the screen saver. Betty will spend 93 hours of her life staring at those stars flying towards her, secretly hoping that something will change, that this interstellar journey will turn out to have a destination after all. But nothing changes, the stars remain the same. They remain spaghetti with dissolving edges.

In 1990, Betty checks that the Wite-Out is still fluid. It’s new and runny. Betty could correct her book right away, but Betty’s book doesn’t have any pages yet. Betty is planning to have 800 pages, however. When asked what she actually does at a party, for example, Betty says she is currently writing a novel, one that will be very long. Sometimes, she is surprised by how authentic her sentences sound. Sometimes, she believes that it is not her mouth but her brain that is uttering these words.

Betty has been working on her book since 1988 — it began, like every book, with her reading another book. In 1988, Betty read And the Band Played On by Randy Shilts. Randy writes that the first person to contract HIV, Patient Zero, was French Canadian flight attendant Gaëtan Dugas who ingested the HIV virus when eating chimpanzee kidneys. A year later, this theory was rectified in another book as being complete nonsense. In the official medical files, Gaëtan Dugas was listed not as Patient Zero but as Patient Outsider, Patient O. 

But Betty will never read this other book, Betty will never open the Wikipedia article about Gaëtan Dugas or think about the difference between “0” and “O.” For the rest of her life, Betty will believe that HIV was spread because a flight attendant ate chimpanzee kidneys between two intercontinental flights. The link between air travel, an attractive flight attendant, and the global spread of a sex virus will seem relatively logical to Betty all her life.

In 2020, Betty will read the words “bat soup” for the first time in her life and be reminded of the chimpanzee kidneys again. In 2020, Betty’s book will have zero of 800 pages. In 2020, people will wear masks. Betty will try to remember. Did people wear masks in 1988, 1981, 1347? Who knew when or where something came from, and where it would lead? Was I scared? Betty doesn’t remember anything. She wonders whether everything has been forgotten. She asks herself: What was the flight attendant’s name again?

In 1988, Betty reads the words “Gaëtan Dugas,” “virus,” “chimpanzee kidneys,” and her own book begins. It begins with a picture of twenty chimpanzees in a meadow, their closed eyes turned towards the sun as a rocket or a spaceship or a bomb illuminates the background. The apes appear unbothered, staying just as they are. And Betty feels a great sense of clarity, she wants to write exactly that, and she wants to write it well. She wants to write about movement and stasis and apes.

Betty’s book begins to take shape in Betty’s mind. A story a bit like Buddenbrooks for apes takes shape in Betty’s mind. A grand family saga spanning 800 pages and several decades with an entire catalog of nephews, aunts, cousins of varying degrees, all of whose biographies Betty plans to narrate. She wants to write about the family’s feces-smearing good-for-nothings and about those who become historical figures. About Rita who is already teaching Koko sign language in the jungle. About Ham and his journey into space. About Bubbles and his movie nights at Neverland. About unlucky Bobby and the path that saw him end up on a flight attendant’s plate. And about many more apes who are recalled in new connections, relations, and real historical developments over the decades. Betty’s book grows in her mind, not on the pages.
Created by: Ivan Kander (http://lucky9studios.com) & Ben Watts (http://imdb.com/name/nm3527874)

In 2003, after a decade that Betty mostly spent being a drunk nuisance at parties, Betty’s book has zero of 800 pages. In 2015, after a decade of great psychological uncertainty for Betty, involving constant panic attacks and premonitions of a terrible century that is just beginning and has always begun, Betty’s book has zero of 800 pages. In 2024, after a decade of constantly updated news and three failed relationships with three men who all shared the same first name, Betty’s book has zero of 800 pages.

In 2036, after a decade of indifference and deleted apps, Betty’s book has zero of 800 pages. In 2042, and 134 years before the first chimpanzee carefully places its foot on a foreign planet, Betty’s book has zero of 800 pages. In 2042, Betty will have a glimpse of information that no longer requires pages for the first time. Betty wonders how something that was always there cannot exist. In 2042, Betty will also feel a sharp pain in her breast. On this chilly March day in 2042, chilly in comparison with a March day in the year 2167, Betty will open up a dictionary at “h” for heart attack and will be discovered four days later, a predictor of her own fate.

Only in 2266 when Betty’s premonition finally comes to pass and everything can be read that was ever thought, made, connected, rejected, deleted, made impossible, will Betty Fiedler’s book find a small following. Chimpanzees, in particular, will appreciate her as an author. In 1990, Betty checks that her Wite-Out is still fluid and ponders. Betty thinks about hands, wrinkled chimpanzee hands, waving to her in a gesture that could mean either hello or goodbye. Betty does not yet know what that means. She would like to write her first sentence.

Logo Das Wetter © Das Wetter This article was commissioned by and created in collaboration with Das Wetter – Magazin für Text und Musik.

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